|Avian Demography Unit
Department of Statistical Sciences
University of Cape Town
Earthwatch 2003 Project: South African Penguins
Diary of Team 1
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2003 Team 1
Day 2: March 28
Our team of 6 (2 staff, 4 volunteers - Doris, Lewis, Myrna and Joyce) was out of the house at 08:30 to begin the search for potential nests for this penguin tag study. Our group of penguins will have pairs of birds, who have been given metal flipper bands in the past, (many of them banded when they were cleaned and released after the last oil spill near the island). Another group will be unbanded pairs, and a third group will be fitted with the new rubber bands on their left flippers. Nests are everywhere! Some are just a depression in the sand; others are under bushes or beneath dead tree roots and branches - some even in A-frame wooden boxes purpose built for nesting. Many of the nests are abandoned, with one or two orphaned eggs deserted during the cold/rain/windstorm last week. We're sad about seeing so many abandoned eggs, but are able to identify a number of nests with "content" (birds sitting on the eggs).
As we walked along the rocky shore there was a sound of heavy breathing - we could see a V-shaped spout out on the water, and a long black shape breaking the waves. A Southern Right Whale just off shore! What a treat to see this in March - I hadn't dared to hope for such a sighting "Thar she blew" indeed!
Day 3: March 29
We knew we were living close to a lighthouse this morning at 4 a.m.-the fog horn started to blow every few seconds and was still blowing when we drove out after breakfast at 8:30 in the bakkie (covered pickup truck). Our job was to check yesterday's yellow-tagged nests to see if the other bird of the pair was on the nest and fit one of our categories. If they do, they get a red tag and will be followed all season-you have to wonder if the penguins would really rather not make the grade.
In the afternoon we had a game drive-not for Africa's Big Five, but for all these animals that have been introduced onto Robben Island over the years. Our leader, Bruce, drove; up front with him was Joyce, the record keeper. In the back of the bakkie were Myrna, Lewis and I sitting on a mattress that helps soften the bumps on these island roads. In two hours time we spotted 3 elands, 47 bonteboks (my favorite) 46 springboks, 26 steenboks, 30 fallow deer, 288 rabbits (brown, gray, and black), and 15 ostriches. We feel like we're living in a zoo!
Day 4: March 30
More checking for matched pairs of penguins this morning 9-12. Fortunately it was cloudy and cooler. In the afternoon we did the beach trash pickup every team will do, looking especially for fishing line, which can become entwined around penguin flippers and feet. Bruce netted a penguin on the beach rocks whose feet were caught in a big tangle of line and cut it loose so it could be free again. From 4 to 6 p.m. we lined up with our binoculars at the top of the beach to do a count of moulting penguins. This sounded so simple at first. As usual, it turned out to be difficult for my untrained eyes. The moulting fluff was easy to see, but discerning between juvenile and adult was not so easy. Penguins just hang around on the beach during the weeks of moulting; they can't go in the water to fish until their nice new feathers are in and oiled, so they are fasting for 3 weeks. Penguins look so formal when they're all smooth and shiny in their tuxedo attire. During the moult they are a real hoot because they are suddenly messy blobs of gray fluff sticking out in unusual arrangements-head, back, belly, even on their beaks when they have been trying to preen. Many of them are sleeping through this awkward stage, conserving energy till they can eat once more.
Day 5: March 31
Our first day off! We took the staff ferry over to Cape Town to the busy Waterfront area. Lewis bought a newspaper and sat catching up on news while I wandered around to visit the stores in the Clock Tower area. We checked out South African Airlines and were able to confirm our flight and seat assignments for the return trip. We spent most of our time at the awesome aquarium, even visiting the penguin exhibit at feeding time -a real busman's holiday! Lots of things to buy, but we have 5 more days after the Earthwatch program is over, so we are not ready to buy yet.
Day 6: April 1
All the penguins left this morning. April Fool! Did I get you? We checked penguins again 8:45 till noon. Mario had two email messages for us from our children. Great! We yellow-tagged new nests up to EW 80 which we'll check tomorrow to see if we have more matches. From 2-5:45 p.m. we did a wading bird count all the way around the island. We split into two teams and using the bakkie we leapfrogged around the perimeter, walking 1.2 km and then riding 1.2km. Our total results: 322 Ruddy turnstones, 208 African black oystercatchers, 17 Gray plovers, 27 Little egrets, 19 Speckled bikkops, 8 Whitefronted plovers, 1 Piping plover, 34 Sanderlings, 26 Kittlitz's plovers, 23 Curlew sandpipers, 39 Ringed plovers, 39 Blacksmith plovers, 72 Sacred Ibis, and 1 Whimbrel.
Day 7: April 2
More nest checking 8:30 to 12:30. Still looking for enough nests for the study. We took a longer rest time today because it is so hot. It was a good time to wash my hair in rain water which is collected in a big cistern beside our house and every other island house. The tap water here is hard as nails and doesn't even think about making bubbles, so this shampoo was really a treat. We've had plumbing problems since we arrived and have had almost daily visits from one or more plumbers. First we had no tap water, just a drinking water tap and a working toilet. Then we had very hot water but no cold water. Back to no hot or cold when a new pump was installed which made all the old pipes leak. Finally the plumbers drilled a hole in the wall and inserted new pipes to bypass the old ones. Fortunately our leader took us to an empty guest house where we could get baths every day or so.
Day 8: April 3
Fog horn again during the night. I'm growing fond of the sound-we don't have many lighthouses back home in Tennessee! More checking for pairs 8:30 to 12:30. Lewis and I came back with bright pink fingers from marking unbanded penguins. In order to identify an unbanded pair for the study you mark the first unbanded bird with pink Vitamin B paint on the chest. The paint doesn't wash off for several days, so if we find another unbanded bird on the nest tomorrow with no pink, we know we have a pair! Our marking device is a broomstick with a hooked wire attached on one end. The wire tip is dipped into the pink paint pot and applied to the white under the bird's chin. Then you stand back and admire that passionate pink penguin while your partner checks the egg count-usually two.
Day 9: April 4
Peter Barham, our new PI (principal Investigator) arrived on the staff ferry late yesterday afternoon and settled right into the kitchen despite any jet lag from his trip from the UK. Our menu included lamb and pork chops, oven fried potatoes, salad,ratatouille, and a commercial apple crisp with ice cream he transported from the mainland. Even though he's a physicist, he's a real kitchen chemist and we're eager to see what his next creation will be. This morning we split into two teams. One team walked through the colony and added GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates to all the tags we have created thus far (a huge help for identifying nests) and the other team continued to check for those elusive last nests to complete our study field. Peter has stirred the pot in more ways then one: He has added a fourth group for the study, to be called mixed pairs, i.e., one unbanded and one banded bird on a nest. His rationale is that unbanded birds are usually young birds and therefore more likely to be unsuccessful at nesting and raising young. He's the boss, so we'll start that assignment tomorrow!
Day 10: April 5
One team finished writing GPS coordinates on all the tagged nests this morning. Mario's team checked yellow tags and then added more potential yellows because we have the new category of mixed pairs. It was really hot by noon, and we were eager to get back to the house, have some lunch and some rest time. Peter gave us lessons in entering computer data to start our record-keeping phase. Each of us took a turn at the keyboard or reading off the data until we all knew how to do it. About 4:30 Peter, Myrna, and I did another game drive in the bakkie while Lewis and Joyce did some data entry. Our evening meal was a concoction Peter called "Toad in the Wall" which was sausages and Yorkshire pudding served with mashed potatoes and mixed veggies. Followed by ice cream in front of the telly in the den!
Day 11: April 6
An early game drive: 7 to 9 this morning for Peter, Joyce, and Lewis. Lewis came back all smiles because he finally found a steenbok that would stand still until his camera clicked-they are usually gone as soon as you drive into sight. Myrna and I entered more computer data after breakfast. I washed out some clothes and hung them outside to dry. By the time we came back in from the penguin colony at noon they (the clothes, not the penguins) were ready to take in. Joyce and Myrna did more recording of data this afternoon, while I caught up with my journal and Lewis and Peter checked GPS and colony data, since Peter has to leave in the morning. There are a few white clouds in the blue sky, which may mean another sunset special opportunity up on lighthouse hill. I have my camera ready!