Date: November 4, 1996
From: Lori Ross, Palmer Station
(Lori Ross is one of Carol Vleck's research team, studying the reproductive success of Adelie penguins on Torgersen and other nearby islands. These Journal entries come from a series of letters home to family and friends.)
Since it is blowing 60 knots outside, I have time to write letters today. Last week was strange, weather wise. We went out on 2 days where the winds were marginal. We made it to the island with no problems, but working in the high winds was quite difficult. Next time we get out to the island I am going to wear knee pads. A lot of the snow has melted and it is very painful to kneel on the rocks all day. It felt so good to get out in the field. My mood changes at once when I see the penguins and their funny behaviors. They look like little black and white trolls. I know I am being anthropomorphic, but they are so intent in their activities.
Sometimes when we let a penguin back into a colony, it does not head in the right direction and it wanders around looking a little lost. Then it will hear its mate call and will rush over. They do this by a vocal greeting where both birds stretch their neck up and wag their heads back and forth in sync. while calling like crazy.
When a bird tries to get in and out from the middle of a colony without getting bitten, it does what we call a "skinny walk", where it stretches its body up, puts its flippers back and makes a dash for it. Of course it always gets pecked at. On occasion, there are some pretty nasty fights; one bird will be trying to steal a mate or a rock from a nest and will be attacked. When it gets pushed into another pair's territory, they will then attack it. You always know where a fight is by all of the noise that is going on. Pairs that are near the fight do the vocal greeting to each other to make sure that their mate is not going anywhere. It can get very noisy on the island with all of this going on.
The rock collection is another fascinating behavior. The rocks help to keep the eggs dry from snow melt. A penguin will go 25 yards or more away to collect a rock, pick it up in with its beak, run back to the colony (or waddle fast anyway), and drop it on its mates back or by the nest. Then the bird will turn around and do the same thing. All this activity and their are perfectly good rocks closer to it; but what do I know, I am not a penguin?!? Some birds are rock stealers and will wait until a bird is not looking and will steal a rock from a nearby nest. Sometimes they get away with it, but other times a fight will ensue.
The island can be so beautiful, even when the weather is harsh. Last Friday, Dave and I were working on the windy side of the island and everything kept blowing away. Then it started to rain. Talk about a mess; the samples we were trying to take were getting wet; our waterproof paper was smearing, and the bird was not too happy either. Despite all this, I was in awe of the wonders of nature. Because it was sunny and raining , there was this incredible rainbow right over the island. Too bad my camera was on the other side of the island. I am sure the picture would have been suitable for National Geographic; a rainbow over a penguin colony with the ocean and the mountains in the background. It is one of the many moments that I will just have to capture in my memory.
On Sunday we finally had an incredible field day. It was sunny and perfectly calm. This made it much easier to work. We got a lot of samples, banded some birds and censused all of our colonies. I even had time to take some pictures. I felt like a true nature photographer as I was laying down in the snow to captures some penguins on film. I even got a few pictures of Blondie. She is a partial albino penguin; she has light brown feathers instead of black feathers, but her eyes are normal. She really stands out in the crowd! I have been told that she has been coming here ever since 1986 and has had chicks every year; so much for natural selection against this trait. I would think that she would stick out more to a leopard seal also, but obviously not.
We had a Blues Brothers party last Saturday. I am constantly amazed at how creative people can be when they don't have the local mall to go to to pick up a costume. Everyone wore dark glasses and some people made hats out of cardboard and painted them black. They used strips of fabric fastened on with paper clips as ties and everyone wore black. We listened to the sound track and watched the movie. It was a calm party compared to the last one, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. I still miss Asrun.
There are a lot of great people here, but no one that I feel like I can talk to. Carol will be here next week and I am sure that will help.