Wrapping Up

Our season is coming to a close. After I wrote about the last storm we had a week of gorgeous weather – blue sky, the ocean so flat you could see whales breaking its silvery surface 3 miles offshore.

After several days in the hut we had a lot to catch up on, and very little time for anything but field work, food, and the usual sound sleep (thus the paucity of journal entires). We retrieved the last of our transmitters, found two more GLS tags, searched for the few banded birds remaining in the colony, determined nest fates, counted and measured chicks, and the final big two: sledge-hauling and chick banding.

The hauling involves packing about 350 lbs of weighbridge gear onto a banana sled, tying sled ropes to the backs of our packs, pulling on our crampons, and slowly working our way up the icy, sastrugi-ridden snow slope to the hut, which sits at 870 feet above sea level at the foot of Mt. Terror. This year it was just me, Grant, and Kirsten, my first time in six seasons doing this with just three humans. Packing up the weighbridge gear takes a few hours. The hauling is a 45-minute ordeal that always reminds me of how easy we have it compared to Antarctica’s early explorers, who did this every day up and down glaciers and across ice shelves in the most formidable weather. Fortunately for us the weather was calm and overcast, which saved us from overheating.

The next day we headed back to the colony with the chick corral and banded 1,000 penguin chicks – the newest cohort of known-age birds to join the study. We found the largest chicks and fitted them with metal bands around the left flipper. The banding took about six hours and gave us sore thumbs for two days. If the chicks make it past the leopard seals just off the beach and survive the vagaries of their first years at sea they will come back in 4-5 years to learn the social skills necessary for life in the colony: how to build a nest, defend a territory, distinguish between a potential mate and an intruder, copulate, hatch an egg, feed a chick. The trials are multiple, and some penguins never get it right – they are too aggressive and chase away anything that moves (including young flirts), or too meek and have trouble defending a territory against the more assertive birds. Other birds start breeding at a young age and always have a nice nest, big chicks, and a seasoned mate. Yet others seem to prefer endless copulation over the responsibilities of parenthood. We’ve seen perpetual loners, lasting couples, serial monogamists, and threesomes, and considering how similar males and females look it’s impossible to rule out other combinations.

The following day we packed up and cleaned the hut in preparation for leaving. But on packing day it began snowing, and the snow always bodes a storm. It snowed into the next day so our helicopter to McMurdo was canceled. That was yesterday. This morning it was calm here but apparently not at McMurdo, so still no helicopter. In the afternoon the much-awaited wind arrived and is now at a galloping 60-70 mph. The pallid sky has disappeared behind a thick curtain of blowing snow, which fills every gap, chokes every orifice, and saturates the air with moisture. Our work is done, our tents are packed, and half our gear is on the helicopter pad, so all we can do is wait. We’re down to canned food (no more pork tenderloin!), though fortunately we still have a good supply of dark chocolate, which is the most important food item in Antarctica.

But enough about the weather, which is stealing all the attention this season. Here are some recent favorite photos of Adelie penguins, (arguably) the most amazing birds in Antarctica.

In the colony:

Bird with a satellite tag on its back, back at his nest after a trip at sea. I watched him feed fish to his chicks for a while before retrieving the tag.

A very tired penguin.

Punk looks, dorky attitude. A molting chick sees its first human.

Two Adelies settle a dispute.

Adelies come and go along the Penguin Superhighway.

At the water’s edge:

Adelies waiting at the water’s edge. There was a leopard seal near the beach that day, so no one was volunteering to be first.

Diving in.

When there is no leopard seal everyone jumps in at once.

Jumping over a crack.

Standing on a floe.

Adelies in the water.

Porpoising, a penguin’s fastest mode of travel.

Penguins and mountains:

A lone penguin on the snow slope above the colony.

Two exploring Adelies climb the cornice while a skua flies overhead.