Date: December 29, 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.)
OK, I must aplogize for not writing. There really is no excuse, except for the fact that I have been working 16 hour days. The chicks started to hatch in the middle of December and it has been a scramble to get all of the work we need to get done finished. Thankfully, things should start to slow down sometime next week. Both Terry and Dave Vleck left on the Duke the day after Christmas. We have DB (another grad student from ISU) to help us out now, but he still has to learn the protocols and our methods, so things take a little longer to do. There are 3 of us doing the work of 4 people. It is not so bad in the field, but the work in the lab seems to pile up quicker. I have been a little lax on entering my data and I will pay for it one of these nights. My project seems to be going well, but I am losing a lot of nests before I can get all of the samples I need. It is because the mates are not coming back from their feeding boughts so the chicks starve. It is a very sad process to watch. We do not know why the mates are not coming back. It may be due to leopard seal predation, but more likely it is due to lack of food out there.
Speaking of leopard seals, I saw one taking apart a penguin the other day. We were driving back from Torgy and I saw all of these birds hovering over the water. I asked Terry to stop the boat so we could see what was happening. It was slightly gruesome, but not as bad as it could have been. The seal was thrashing the penguin around trying to skin it and the skuas and gulls were trying to pick up scraps. I say it was not that gruesome because I was too far away to see any real gore. The entire process took less than 5 minutes.
Now on to the real gore; skua eating chicks. The past couple of days have been really bad for this. Yesterday a chick somehow wandered out of one of the colonies. I picked it up hoping to find where it went, but could not. Thus, I had to put it back where I found it. About 30 minutes later, right in the middle of lunch, a skua finally found it. This time I was close enough to see the guts and gore. Skuas are not very efficient predators. This chick was a good sized chick (I would say at least 600g) and the skua could hardly drag it. It took it about 5 minutes to kill the chick by pecking at its head and body. The chick could not fight back, but was trying to crawl away. I guess this is a common sight out on the island now. I have seen skuas flying by with half-eaten chicks hanging out of their mouths. Maybe I will get used to it, but right now it gives me shivers to see this. The island has really suffered this year...
A lot of people have been asking me about the weather. Well, it is probably warmer down here than where you are. It got up to about 55 on the 26th of December. It was extremely sunny and there was no wind. These are great days for us, but not for the penguins. They sprawl out on their nests with their flippers and feet out and pant. The chicks do not like this weather either. They have all of this warm down on them to keep them warm and it just boils them on days like these. I am sure that these birds are under severe water stress on these days. In fact, Carol and I tried to give one of our birds some ice, but it did not work to well. I felt like grabbing a bucket of salt water and dumping on the poor hot birds, but I must let nature take its course. It could be days like these that make a bird finally give up on its mate and abandon its starving chicks. So it was 55 three days ago, and yesterday it was snowing and cold. It is still not as cold as it was in the beginning of the season. It truly is summer down here.