Robert Carlson - December, 1996

    From: Robert Carlson, Palmer Station

This entry is from "Gumby", aka Robert Carlson, the maintenance specialist here at Palmer. Gumby is his "ice name"; most people down here wouldn't know him by his real one! (Mare/Mary is Mary Lenox, who has also contributed some Journals.)

***

"A Feather in his Cap"
Of Penguins and Petrels, or "A Cheep off the Old Block"

Two Adelie parents with chick.

Mare and I had a most singular opportunity last Wednesday. I was talking to Pete after work and he told of a new visitor that had come to Torgersen Island. So Mare and I got decked out in appropriate apparel on the double and lit out for Torgy straightaway. We both had brought binoculars and in addition Mare had her camera under her coat. We kind of split up and started to look through different colonies of the Adelies. Just between you and me, I really think Mare got a little side tracked taking pictures of the little Adelie chicks. I must admit, they are terribly cute at this stage. Their bodies are about as big around as a croquet ball and they stand feebly six or seven inches tall or so. They're covered with a light grey fuzzy down with black fuzz on their heads. Their feet and beaks are also the color of lignite. But, I was not distracted (much) and kept a vigilant watch for our intended reason for this quest. It took a little looking before we espied the odd-looking penguin in colony sixteen. It was kind of like looking for a four leaf clover in a good sized patch of clover. Finally we found it.

It was roughly the same height as all the Adelies that it was standing among. It seemed maybe just a bit stockier, but the general white and black markings were nearly identical to the Adelies. But wait a moment, take another look at that head and face. The bill is much heavier and a dark orange in color. If you look close, you can see how the bill is made up of three distinct plates of bony matter. (Right away, I was reminded of the way the bill of a Giant Petrel has the appearance of three or four separate bony plates fused together to form a very formidable set of mandibles.)

Now look to the crest of this bird's head, what a delightfully elegant headdress. Bright yellow amber shocks erupt two or three inches from the high forehead. They give the distinct impression of wild eyebrows that have run amok. They are mindful for me of that unruly cowlick of Buckwheat's which insisted upon marching to it's very own comb harp band, but would stay nearly in place (for a few moments) with a liberal application of an appropriate adhesive. I guess the shocks this bird was sporting are not much more well behaved, as they very definitely stand out. They almost make the creature seem as though it were peering out from beneath a split visor. I got to wondering if this little bird spends much time spelunking where those cranial curb feelers would come in handy.

To conclude a cursory examination of this wonderful creature, take a little closer look at that eye. That's it, take a good close look. Wait for the light to catch it. Have you ever seen such a deep and jewel like eye? It is only when the sun catches the ocular and reveals the treasure of the color within that its magic is unfolded. It seems a very rich ruby carbuncle, set as it is in that coal black backdrop of luxuriant feathers.

Adelie penguins on Torgersen Island.

And now it is time to back away and leave this magnificent creature to itself. The poor devil has enough problems of all its own without us crowding it. It's the only Macaroni Penguin in the area, as far as we know. That has to be a bit disconcerting for the poor little thing. Here it sits in the midst of a breeding colony of over a thousand Adelie Penguins. They are all in the throes of brooding eggs and very young chicks and yet among all those penguins there is not a single partner for our little Macaroni friend. Although to be fair I should point out that there are several Gentoo and many Chinstrap penguins in this area and none of them have taken up nest building and chick raising. Likely this is beyond the southern limit of their breeding range. So fear not for the future of other Macaronis. There are many thousands of them breeding a solid future for their species farther north from this location.

Wednesday was a day of firsts in another way too. The winds were slight and the seas were calmer than usual. So on our way home Mare and I decided to detour our course over to have a look at Eichorst Island. Sure enough, when we arrived there, the ocean swell was about as reasonable as it gets there. So we made landfall and walked about this wee island. It is barely more than a big pile of rock rubble with a few boulders thrown in for good measure. We saw a few penguins (both Adelies and Chinstraps) and a couple of gulls and couple of skuas and a tern or two. This was the first time Mare had been ashore on Eichorst and so it was only appropriate to top off a day highlighted by a magnificent first (the Macaroni one) with a second first.

***

We have been admiring a very large iceberg this past week. It actually showed up just over a week ago. We can see it out past Cape Monico, over there to the west of us. On clear days it is plainly visible to the naked eye. From our vantage, it appears as one of those big tabular shaped icebergs that break off and drift northward from time to time. There is no doubt that it has already traveled a good many miles from whence it first was separated from the permanent ice shelf. There is no place anywhere in our vicinity that boasts an ice shelf so large. Everyone here was speculating about just how large that iceberg was. We were all curious about whether it was discernible on the Terrascan image. Terrascan is the satellite imaging program that we have access to here. We are able to regularly view satellite images of our general area. The berg is in fact, barely visible on Terrascan. Johan was more than just a little curious about its size, so he got out our transit and set about measuring it.

To the best of his reckoning, the tab is about thirteen miles away. It is at least 2,000 feet wide and about two hundred feet tall. At least we can see about two hundred feet of it above the water's surface... so it is assuredly taller than that, provided you take into consideration the amount of ice that must be concealed below the water's surface. It has moved only a little in the past week, so there has been plenty of time to speculate about its presence, size and origin.

Adelie penguins on Torgersen Island with Palmer Station and Polar Duke in background.

The Duke left for her extended cruise on Saturday morning. Her parting was an event of mixed emotions. We were sad to see many of our friends leave us and yet relieved to have the Duke depart, as she is such a disruptive influence when she is here. Next week will be a busy one for tourist visits. Three ships are scheduled to visit us. I have volunteered to lead a tour of the station on one of those days. That ought to be educational. After all, there's no better way to find out what you know about something than by having to try to explain it to someone else.

The Adelie penguin chicks are getting huge. The most developed ones are over three quarters the size of their parents now. I wonder if their growth rate will be less discernible now. Perhaps it slows as the parents have to really work hard to keep enough food available for the growing demands of a their young charges. Or perhaps the growth rate becomes less obvious as the chicks use more energy to build muscle tissue and produce a full coat of feathers and less for growth in stature. There are many ideas which have occurred to me and i must find time to quiz the birders about what is happening just now.

Giant Petrel "pipped" egg, chick is nibbling its way out.

Last Tuesday Mare and I had the thrill of our week. Good to her word, Donna (Donna Patterson, who works with Bill Fraser, both of whom we'll meet during LFA 2 program 3: ed. note.) took us out to see the brand new Giant Petrel chicks on Humble Island. There were many expectant parents that were still sitting on eggs and some of those eggs were starred. That is to say that the eggs were showing the very first signs of emerging life. The shells were ever so slightly cracked from the forces within them. There were also a few parents to be that were sitting atop eggs that were either newly pipped (the shells were broken, but the chick had not yet emerged), or else had been pipped for a day or two already. And the very best part (!) was finding five of those nest sitters that were in fact brand new parents. They were sitting on brand, spanking new chicks. One of the chicks was so new, that it was still wet from the egg. We decided not to disturb that chick for measurements. The evening air was rather chill and we didn't want to expose the chick in its most delicate state to the inclement world prematurely.

All too soon, both parents will leave the lone chick to its own devices while both parents hunt and scavenge for the next meal to feed that constantly growing appetite. While the parents are gone, the chicks will endure all kinds of weather. They will enjoy relatively warm calm days and nights that have nearly cloudless sunny skies. Just as likely, the conditions may not be so fine, the sky is more often grey and any state of precipitation can fall upon the chicks while still in their downy states of dress. They will hunker down in that shallow nest made of mud, stones, and an occasional bit of moss, to wait patiently as Antarctic winds may reach 60, 70, or even 80 knots that may drive the snow, sleet, and rain into the most watertight of rainwear. There is no escaping the winds. Their nests are purposely situated to take full advantage of any winds. These are very large birds that spend a great deal of time on the wing soaring, plying the winds with their wingspan of nearly two metres. They need a great deal of air speed to become airborne. Without a fresh breeze to help them aloft, they must run down considerable real estate to work up the speed required for lift off.

This is not to say that a grounded bird is without defences. Although they have no large land predator to worry them, the Giant Petrels are equipped with the ability to forcibly eject an oily mass of partially digested liquid material that is vile and can foul the feathers of an unfortunate recipient of such an ejection. This could render another bird incapable of flight, a very serious and often terminal condition. An organic mace like this, deters skuas and other opportunistic feeders from bothering Petrel chicks and adults alike.

Back to the day at hand: we were able to see other chicks that ranged in age to three days old. These were considerably larger and stronger than the newly hatched one, although no less dear. Their first downy coat is a buff white and as soft and cuddly as any you can imagine. The brand new chicks have already webbed feet complete with tiny toenails that generally give the chick something to grow for. Those big paddlers are more than just a little outsized for the wee chicks. The first chick we saw was barely out from under his father. It was softly begging and its parent was ever so gently croaking his sweet reply. Soon he came up with a meal for his little "cheep off the old block". The chick hungrily snarfed down the meal of partially digested who-knows-what from his father's tongue. After a quick meal, Papa petrel decided it was nap time. With incredible tenderness and care, he used that same culmen that can rip open the flesh of an expired whale or seal, to ever so gently tuck junior under his wing and body and into his warm and safe brood patch. It was time for junior to have a much needed warm up and rest period.

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