Every austral summer, the US AMLR Program conducts seabird studies at the Copacabana field station in Admiralty Bay, King George Island.  Each week during the short season, the field research team sends updates on their work.  In case you missed it, the field station is now closed but their reports are available below.

Sit Rep #4: 30-31 January 2017

Copacabana Field Station is now closed. We can report that all 13 of the satellite transmitters we deployed remain active at this time. Gentoo penguin fledglings are remaining well within Admiralty Bay (map right), while Adelie fledglings continue their eastward and northward movements, with one bird already well into the Scotia Sea north of Elephant Island (map below).

Our final two days were spent packing and cleaning to prepare the huts for their long winter vacancy. On Tuesday 31 January, with logistic support from Chilean Naval vessel “Lautaro”, we closed Copa at 15:00 (map below right). Our four guests from INACH also departed Copa at this time. We required 2 zodiacs for all cargo and personnel. U.S. AMLR Personnel were transported to the Chilean research station “Escudero” and we currently await our flight back to Punta Arenas, scheduled for 12:30 on Friday 3 February.

We left Copa well supplied for next year. All water barrels are at 75% capacity and we estimate 375 gallons of unfiltered freshwater and 25 gallons of filtered freshwater remain on station. Gasoline and propane also remain on station. There are 25 gallons of gasoline and 29 full propane tanks stored in fishboxes to prevent spillage and premature rusting of tanks.

Locations of juvenile gentoo penguins with satellite transmitters.Locations of juvenile gentoo penguins with satellite transmitters.
Locations of juvenile Adélie penguins with satellite transmitters.
Locations of juvenile Adélie penguins with satellite transmitters.
Copa campsite 2017
Copa campsite 2017.

Garbage continues to accumulate at Copa, but all is secured in secondary containment to prevent wildlife access and release to the environment. We currently have 2 full overpacks, one full fishbox, and several loose bags, miscellaneous large items, and cardboard stored inside a small shed. A priority for the 2017/18 field season will be removal of trash. There are also 22 empty propane tanks and 5 propane tanks that are full, thoroughly rusted, and require removal.

We would like to thank our colleagues at INACH and the support of AGUNSA, the Chilean Navy, and the staffs of Arctowski and Escudero Stations for the logistic support necessary to facilitate our 4th abbreviated season at Copacabana Field Station. We’ve had a very successful campaign and extend our sincere thanks.

Copa out, Jefferson and George

Sit Rep #3: 23-29 January 2017

Science activities at Copa are now complete following our second full week in camp. A major objective of the field season was to deploy satellite transmitters on juvenile Adélie penguins. We successfully deployed 10 transmitters, eight of which have already begun transmitting after the fledgling penguins left Copa beach for their first winter at sea. As of 28 January, those birds had moved to the middle of the Bransfield Strait and toward Elephant Island (see map right). Movements of these and other penguins that are being tracked as part of a collaborative project with Argentina and Poland.  Additional deployments of transmitters by U.S. AMLR staff currently at Cape Shirreff are forthcoming.

Locations of juvenile Adélie penguins with satellite transmitters.Locations of juvenile Adélie penguins with satellite transmitters.

We also deployed three satellite transmitters on juvenile gentoo penguins to augment the collaborative project mentioned above. To our knowledge, these are collectively the first deployments of satellite transmitters on juvenile penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

Most Adélie fledglings have now departed Copa for the winter, concluding our study of fledgling weights. The average weight of all fledglings encountered during our 7-day study period was 3254 ± 325g (1 SD). This marks the first fledging-weight study to cover the entire fledging period at Copa since the 2011/12 field season.

We also concluded work to characterize length-frequency distributions of Antarctic krill that are eaten by penguins. This year, krill samples were collected from Adélie and gentoo penguins. The samples indicate a diet dominated by large krill (mean length = 48.3mm). Females were the most common sex in the diet, comprising 66% of all krill sampled. There was evidence of juvenile krill (length less than 35mm) in the diets, but they represented only 2% of our combined sample. Fish remains were evident in several diets from gentoo penguins, but tissue collections were insufficient to identify species.

We replaced batteries, corrected mounts and positioning, and re-deployed 16 remote trail cameras to monitor the 2017/18 breeding season of gentoo and Adelie penguins here at Copacabana and in the neighboring Pt Thomas colony. During the winter of 2016, we had one camera failure and one mount failure, resulting in useful photographic records of breeding from 8 of 9 Adelie locations and 6 of 7 gentoo locations. Of the current fleet of cameras in the field, 6 have operated continuously since January 2014, 3 have operated since January 2015, and 6 were installed in January 2016. We deployed one new camera this year to replace the one that failed during 2015. These 16 cameras are our core means of monitoring reproductive success and breeding phenology at Copa. The cameras will capture 12 images per day, centered on noon, from now through the end of the next field season.

We have initiated manual classification of adult attendance and egg or chick observations in the set of photos collected from 14 cameras since October 2016. We have completed classifications for 6 of 8 available Adélie cameras and have 6 gentoo cameras yet to begin. The manual classification process provides hours of googly-eyed entertainment/insanity for hut-bound researchers (see photo right).

Manual classification of attendance and observations in over-winter photos.Manual classification of attendance and observations in over-winter photos.

 This week has also been special for Copa, as we’ve hosted a team of four paleontologists since Monday. The team of Marcelo Leppe (INACH), Roy “Skua” Ferndandez (University of Conception, Chile), Luis Felipe Hinojosa (University of Chile), and Harufumi Nishida (Chuo University, Japan) have spent the week collecting fossilized vegetation from recently exposed rock outcroppings near the receding Baranowski Glacier. Their arrival to Copa brought much excitement, as the zodiacs used to ferry the team from ship to shore were swamped by large surf once on the beach. After several wet, failed attempts to launch the boats, we ultimately received a request to house 8 Chilean sailors and the team of four paleontologists on Monday night as sea conditions worsened and prevented safe launching of the zodiacs from shore. All were grateful for a warm hut, hot food (including a huge pot of soup made by us two Copapods and duly named the “Corpse Reviver”), and thick sleeping bags after a long day in cold winds, wet clothes, and ice-filled surf.

As our stay for the 2016/17 field season nears its end, we have initiated camp closing activities in anticipation of a 31 January close. We retrieved the canoe from Ecology Glacier and have started packing and making inventories of essential camp supplies.

Cheers from Copa,
Jefferson and George

Copa residents and visitors alike enjoy hot soup despite the crowded accommodations!Copa residents and visitors alike enjoy hot soup despite the crowded accommodations!.

Sit Rep #2: 16-22 January 2017

Our week started with a classic storm from the southeast.  Temperatures dropped, and the wind was significant (unfortunately we do not currently have a working weather station at Copa).  We confined ourselves to the hut, hunkered down for a day of mold abatement, and started analyzing our remote photo data in earnest.

When we closed Copa last season, we left 16 remote cameras in place to record photographic data on the timing of the reproductive cycle (e.g., the dates of arrival, lay, and hatch) and on reproductive success (the numbers of chicks successfully fledged per nesting pair of adults).  The cameras make it possible for us to collect these data when we are unable to be at Copa in person. Each camera recorded 12 images per day, equating to roughly 14,000 images from the 2016/17 penguin breeding season (see photo right) that we will analyze in the coming weeks.

Sample image from overwinter cameras left at Copa breeding siteSample image from overwinter cameras left at Copa breeding sites; this image was taken on November 17, 2016 at 1:00PM.

We conducted a census of active giant petrel nests and found 167 nests with an egg or chick. Most of the breeding activity is confined to two large breeding areas. However, two historically important breeding areas were largely abandoned.

We collected three penguin diet samples.  The length-frequency distribution of krill in penguin diets provides useful information on the composition of the krill population in the Bransfield Strait.  Results to date suggest that the krill available to penguins are predominantly females with a mean body length of 47mm (see graph right).

Adélie chicks have begun to leave the colony this week. This departure period marks the beginning of our fledge-weight study, which will continue until all Adélie chicks have left the colony for the winter. Thus far we’ve captured 61 fledglings with an average weight of 3283g. 

Initial length-frequency distribution of krill in penguin diets.Initial length-frequency distribution of krill in penguin diets (mean body length 47mm).

As of the end of this week, we have surveyed 125 skua (both brown and south polar skuas) territories (we have now totaled over 30 miles looking for skuas – see photo right).  Of these, 88 territories were occupied by birds, and 73% of these are actively sitting on eggs or raising chicks.  As we noted in our last sit rep, this is the most successful season we have observed for skuas in several years.

This week we have been fortunate to have many visitors from Arctowski Station.  They stop by on their way to or from their refuge in Paradise Cove.  Next week we are expecting a team of four Chileans who are planning to stay with us at Copa for a period of seven days.  The camp will be full, and we have been preparing the bunk room (e.g., airing it out, combating mold, making sure the heater works, and generally cleaning up all the miscellaneous stuff temporarily stored in there).  We do not yet know the details of our Chilean colleagues’ project, but they are paleontologists.  We hope they find some interesting fossils around here.

Project Butter continues.  As with many things in the ecosystem of life, there have been unintended consequences – with our singular focus on butter, we are making little headway in conquering our ginormous supply of olive oil.

Ciao from George and Jefferson!

So far the team has trekked over 30 miles looking for skuas!So far the team has trekked over 30 miles looking for skuas!.

Sit Rep #1: 16 January - Arrival & Camp Opening

Copa is open for the 2016/17 season!  Drs. George Watters and Jefferson Hinke arrived on the shores of Ipanema Beach, King George Island at approximately 1740 on 12 January 2017.  We want to give our sincere thanks to all who made our arrival possible.  In particular we shout out to our agent in Chile (AGUNSA), the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), the Chilean Navy, and our friends and colleagues at Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station.  Our trip here included rides on a C-130 Hercules, an icebreaker, a helicopter (launched off the icebreaker no less!), a zodiac, and our very own feet. 

We arrived to find our camp in good condition. No damage to the infrastructure is evident. The solar system returned online quickly, all appliances and heaters are working, and the water supply remains sufficient for our short deployments. This has been a warm Antarctic summer and little snow is present, so we will be awaiting precipitation to replenish our water supplies. The warm conditions have encouraged mold growth throughout the main hut and food storage areas, but we have already begun to conquer the mold, and expect we have discouraged its growth for the time being. The mold has not contaminated our food stores, and we prepared our traditional first night’s meal of pasta puttanesca, topped with Antarctic cave-aged cheese.

2017 Copa openingResearchers in dry suits preparing to transfer from Arctowski Station to Copacabana via Zodiac.

This warm summer has already affected the annual rhythm of our science here at Copa.  When we arrived, it was plainly obvious that the reproductive cycle of the gentoo penguins breeding here is very much advanced.  We pulled the memory cards from the remote cameras deployed around the colonies and used the photos to quickly estimate that the mean date of clutch initiation by gentoo penguins was approximately 20 October 2016. This is about 16 days earlier than average. The gentoo chicks have largely abandoned their natal colonies at this point and it will not be possible to census them this year. However, the estimated clutch initiation date suggested that it was possible to weigh them for an estimate of fledging mass (which we have been unable to do the past three years because we closed Copa before the chicks were old enough). We weighed 200 gentoo chicks (see photo right) and their average mass was 4.96 kg.  This preliminary result is greater than the long-term average at Copa (about 4.39 kg).  We will report on estimated breeding success after we are able to analyze the photos downloaded from our remote cameras.

We have completed the census of Adélie penguin chicks around Copa (our Polish colleagues already censused the Adélie chicks in the Pt. Thomas colony).  We estimated that a total of 2926 Adélie chicks were produced in the colony in the immediate vicinity of Copa.  For those of our readers who wonder what it is like to census penguin chicks, we suggest you imagine walking through the slipperiest mud you can imagine while simultaneously having sensory overload of both your hearing and smell (stench!) and also having a major thumb cramp as you click a tally whacker.  Oh, and don’t forget these animals move as you count them – who needs video games?!

Researcher weighing a gentoo penguin chick.Researcher weighing a gentoo penguin chick.

We have been fortunate to have good weather since our arrival.  On a calm, windless day we paddled one of our canoes to the lateral moraine south between Copa and Arctowski station.  We also hiked to our second canoe, which is staged to the south of us, with a load of life vests and paddles.  We extended our hike to the Baranowski by paddling the canoe across the lagoon and hoofing it all the way to a chinstrap penguin colony called Patelnia (the farthest from Copa, 12.3 miles round trip according to our GPS).  Along the way, we checked several territories traditionally held by south polar skuas.  These birds forage at sea and provide another indicator of conditions in the marine environment.  We found evidence that the south polar skuas are successfully raising chicks this year (see photo right).  To our knowledge, this is the first time that these skuas have had a successful breeding season since the 2011/12 season (although we were unable to check their territories during 2015/16).

We have dedicated ourselves to eating lots of butter.  Our butter supply is ginormous so we feel especially compelled.

Hola from George and Jefferson!

South polar skua chick.South polar skua chick.

Last modified: 11/8/2017