Letter from Lockroy - 4th December 2008

Letter from Lockroy - (Wildlife) 4 December 2008
So here is our next installment from down at Port Lockroy. We have had a very busy few weeks since we last wrote, and we're all fully into the swing of life down at Lockroy. As wildlife monitor, I thought I would explain a bit about what can be seen here on our little island. Quite often something completely unexpected happens regarding wildlife sightings and this was the case on the 30th November.

The expedition ship Molchanov had been visiting in the morning. It was a short but sweet visit. Just as everybody was leaving, people kept asking if we had seen the seal outside. There had been a Weddell seal on an ice floe fairly near our island and also a leopard seal further out on another another ice floe that had just broken off the fast ice in the back of the bay. We assumed the passengers were referring to these seals and didn't think anything of it. We were outside waving the passengers goodbye when Jude exclaimed that the seal the passengers were probably more likely to be talking about was the one only a few feet from us. It was lying in front of the boatshed and right in the middle of all the gentoo nests! It was a female elephant seal, and she was massive. The elephant seals we have had in the past have been few and far between and generally come only as far as the beach next to the shoreline. It has to be said however, with her grunting and burping and dribbly nose she didn't seem very feminine! It was typical, as today was the day we had decided to make room in the boatshed for all that extra stock the Fram would deliver in a couple of days and now the door to the boat shed was blocked by a huge lump of snorting blubber! We went closer to investigate and just could not work out how she had managed to get from the water to the boatshed without trampling all the penguin nests in her way. There were many nests in here path and some were no more than a foot apart and she was three or four times this wide! Somehow she had made it all the way to her resting place without disturbing a single nest. She was obviously intent on staying put in front of the boatshed, sleeping and burping as she wallowed in the most disgusting sloppy soup of penguin guano you can imagine. We left her to it while we went and had some lunch. Eventually, some time later in the afternoon, she had obviously had enough of her noisy, smelly surroundings and decided to return to the water – although it took her a couple of hours to make the twenty metre journey back down to the sea . The gentoos were very brave, and defended their nests at all costs, staying firmly put on top of their eggs and pecking if they felt that the seal was getting too close. She could have given them quite a nasty bite if she had chosen to, although as a general rule gentoo is not on the menu for an elephant seal.

We were amazed that instead of hauling herself straight into the water via the shortest path, which would mean trampling nests, she actually took the scenic route. She appeared to be deliberately weaving amongst the nests so as not to flatten them, somehow managing to heave her enormous bulk into extraordinary contortions as she she picked her way amongst them and squeezing through the smallest of gaps. Happily, she finally made it onto the rocks close to the water's edge by the time of National Geographic Endeavour's visit in the late afternoon, and by the time the tide had come in, she was gone.

The wildlife aspect of Port Lockroy is something all three girls were very excited about before heading South, and we have not yet been let down, all expectations already being exceeded! Rick is very knowledgeable about the various species, and even knows which gentoos will end up nesting where. Because the gentoos return to the site year after year, they often have their own favourite place that they intend to return to, and so it was difficult watching them when we first arrived, waiting for the snow to melt so that they could get back to their usual spot!

The snowfall over this past winter at Lockroy has been particularly heavy, and as Nikki noted last time, when we arrived there were gentoos on the roof of Bransfield House, our main building, as the snow had piled up so high. Luckily none of them had attempted to start nests up there, and once we began digging the snow away from the windows, they seemed to get the hint and meandered on down to find more suitable abodes.

                          Gentoos with their backs to wind and snow

Already we have lots of nests and lots of eggs, the majority of the nests have one or two eggs, as is the norm, but one just outside our front door has three, so we are waiting to see if any, or how many of those will hatch. It is quite stressful for a gentoo with three eggs as they are only able to incubate two at a time and with three to look after they constantly seem to be agitated by the dilemma of which eggs they should keep warm. We are expecting our first fluffy chicks in a couple of weeks, and have just completed our first nest count, at 643 we are up from last year, and we will do another count before the first chicks arrive, as not all the gentoos have finished mating. We are all very excited about the new arrivals, although this will add to the noise and the smell, no doubt, and counting them every few days will presumably be even more difficult than counting the nests and eggs, a daunting prospect! They should then be heading off to sea for the first time just before we leave for home in early March, so we are very lucky to see the whole process! They apparently have quite a fondness for the colour orange (could this be as it is the same colour as their parent's beak – from which they receive their all-important regurgitated food?!); we have a brilliant photo of a young chick investigating our boot brush in our 2009 calender. This knowledge has therefore got us all seeking out anything orange we can wear, in the hopes we can spend some quality time with the littl'uns, and get a bit closer too!

It appears this breeding season is going to be a tough one for our gentoos. Some of the penguins have had to abandon their original nests altogether, the stones with which they use to build their nests have either slowly slid down slopes, or have been buried by snow. Thankfully these have been few and far between. The weather for the most part since the breading season started has been unusually wet and windy.

This combined with more snow on the island than usual has left the nesting areas in a sorry state. The reason the gentoos make nests out of stones is to lift the eggs out of the dampness of their surroundings. With all the rain and snow melt this season it has been difficult for the penguins to establish a dry nest.

Sharing a small snow covered island with 1,500 or so gentoo penguins, where penguins have the right of way can be interesting. The penguins create little highways to walk along (toddling is a more apt description); these are their path of choice between specific spots on the island and can be easily recognised by their pink staining, and the number of penguins using them! We'd even made an effort to create a specifically allocated “human highway” leading from the main building to our boatshed to stay out of their way, but they rudely decided to claim it as their own, and once again we are trudging around in deep snow and falling in up to our knees in an attempt to get out of the way of the penguin using OUR path! Visitors coming to our island are always briefed on how to behave around the penguins before they come ashore, but sometimes it's impossible to avoid them. We also have a limit on the number of people we allow to land at any one time on the island, and so far this season, passengers from ships and yachts alike have been very respectful towards our penguin neighbours, and the penguins seem to remain indifferent to human activity.

Gentoo with egg   Blue eyed shag at Jougla Point 

Port Lockroy is expecting to receive in the region of 18,000 visitors this year, and it is for this very reason that we are an ideal location for the penguin study that we carry out. The study to monitor the impact of tourism on a penguin colony began in 1996, the year that the base was restored, and essentially involves counting the penguin nests, eggs and chicks. We have half the island cordoned off as a control area, where we ask that people do not enter in order that a comparison of the breeding success of the two halves of the island can be made. Consistently over the years we have found there is little difference between the two halves of the island and in fact there appears to be a marginally better breeding success on the half of the island where visitors are allowed to go. We put this down to visitors being a deterrent against skua predation.

One of the main threats to the gentoo eggs and chicks are the skuas that hang around the colonies. These are large brown, evil looking birds, who lie in wait for an unsuspecting mother gentoo to become distracted from her offspring, and then they will swoop in to attack. Of course this is not pleasant for us to watch, but we cannot intervene with mother nature and if the skuas did not have their own chicks to feed then I am sure they would leave the gentoos well alone! It really is awful though as they are menacing birds, and when they get too close to the gentoos the penguins make a terrible crying noise.

Blue eyed shags  Snowy Port Lockroy 

Another bird to prey on the gentoo eggs are the snowy sheathbills. These are the white, plump birds that seem to enjoy running over the bunkroom roof all night long, and who will also nest on Goudier Island, timing the arrival of their chicks to coincide with the availability of copious quantities of krill that the adult penguins are regurgitating for their chicks. They are inquisitive little things, and will come right up to you if you are at rest outside, and perhaps have a peck at your boot for good measure. They also have a fun game of knocking on the windows of our Museum lounge, which usually results in one of us running to the door thinking that people from a passing yacht have stopped by to surprise us!

The birdlife at Lockroy so far this year has been quite spectacular, we have seen skuas and sheathbills increase in their numbers as the season continues, and several kelp gulls have also been seen hanging around Bill's Island. Blue eyed Shags are once again nesting at Jougla Point, just behind Bransfield House. Several times a day they can be seen flying overhead back to their nests with seaweed in their beaks that they have been diving for throughout the day. They use this to construct their towering guano and seaweed nests. The odd Antarctic Tern and Snow Petrel has also flown by, but they never seem to stay for very long.

One of our favourite pastimes at Lockroy at the moment is watching the gentoos as they go about their every day business. Their mornings usually commence with some preening, and then much of the day for the nesting penguins seems to involve increasing the size of their nests, defending it against fellow gentoos, and fishing. The mating pairs take it in turns to sit on the nest and incubate the eggs whilst the other either feeds, or searches for stones which they carry in their beaks and drop onto the nest to reinforce it (ending with a loving kiss with their partner). Once the foundation stones have been laid (some of them surprisingly large!) they tend to spend more time attempting to steal stones from their neighbours, than search for their own, and this seems to provide much of their daily activity!

The younger gentoos who are not yet at the mating stage tend to spend much of their time strolling around the island checking out the action (at a distance as they are more nervous than the older birds), eating, or washing themselves in the water (who would have thought they could be so vain?!), which in itself is a frenzied and fascinating activity. Indeed, on a calm day when the water is still, it is so clear underwater at Lockroy you can see the gentoos diving and gliding at bullet speed beneath the surface searching for food, they then come to the surface rolling around, frolicking with bottoms and toes wriggling in the air before diving once again.

We've also discovered a lighter side to the penguins; on a couple of occasions we have watched them jumping on and off of ice floes in the distance, waiting for it to tumble over, and starting again, apparently just to amuse themselves. They really are hardy little things; during bad weather they usually hunker down, occasionally getting up and shaking themselves free of snow, or simply tuck their beaks under their wings and go to sleep, hoping that tomorrow will be a better day! The boatshed colony in particular this year has become rather waterlogged and the poor old penguins down there are having a terrible time, as they constantly have to battle with the increasing water levels as we have been having such a wet beginning to the summer. We, too, have been having a rather terrible time, as we have been squelching through the “pink mud” as Nikki so politely labels the guano, and every time we go down to get something from our boatshed, our hearts are racing with the fear we may slip over in the dreaded stuff (it smells REALLY bad): with no showers and no clothes-washing facilities, this would be, quite simply, a disaster!

Do not think it is only gentoos we see here, however. We welcome all penguins who wish to visit us; already this year we have had a couple of solitary adelies come to visit, coming ashore at the landing site most of our visitors use, and visitors also reported seeing a chinstrap wandering around by the landing, although as soon as they strayed too close to the nesting gentoos, they were soon chased back to the water.

So now you know what we spend some of our time doing when we've no ships visiting; we hope you are enjoying the Port Lockroy diaries, and can come and visit us soon! Please keep reading, and we promise to send another update in the future as soon as our busy schedule allows!
From Laura