|Avian Demography Unit
Department of Statistical Sciences
University of Cape Town
Earthwatch Project: South African Penguins
Diary of Team Two
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Photo Jane Underhill|
Earthwatch Team Two, left to right: Marsha Halfman, Norman Dong, Laura Grant-Dong, John Caddick & Phil Whittington (team leader)
Thursday, 22nd March 2001 Team 2 met at the appointed hour of 17:00 at the City Lodge Hotel in the Waterfront area of Cape Town. Our team leader and principal investigator is Phil Whittington and the volunteer team comprises John Caddick, Laura and Norman Dong and Marsha Halfman. We were joined by Mario Leshoro of the Robben Island Museum and Sue Kuyper of Cape Town University for a meal at the City Grill restaurant on the Waterfront. This had been chosen by the team because it specialises in South African cuisine and we were treated to such delicacies as Ostrich and Springbok - yes this is a wildlife project!
Our early conversations covered a whole host of topics: where we lived; how we had travelled; previous Earthwatch projects and safety. Mario had once met an unfriendly Ostrich at Robben Island and of course, we were all instant experts in what to do in the event of an approach by an Ostrich. Marsha had been on a tour that day and relayed what the tour guide had said which was to lie flat on the floor to avoid disembowelment and if possible to attack the Ostrich in the eyes. Phil promised to give us the correct procedure the following day.
Friday, 23rd March 2001 We arose early in order to take the 07:30 staff ferry to Robben Island. There was much debate about our boat, the Makana as to whether it is a Hydrofoil or a Catamaran. The team view was that it is the latter but the local wisdom says the former. Whatever, it goes blazing fast and crossed a very misty calm sea in less than thirty minutes. Cape Fur Seals graced the harbour exit and birdwatching from the back of the boat was good despite the limited visibility and we saw several Sabine's Gulls, a large number of Cormorants of 4 species and our first tantalising glimpse of a few small groups of Penguins bobbing about on the sea.
On arrival at the island, we were met by Shaun Davies, an Environmental Officer and David Barron. David is a professional photographer assigned by Earthwatch to cover the project. Mario drove us and our extensive luggage to our home for the next 2 weeks, the Sea Fisheries House. We had agreed not to have breakfast at the hotel as it would be waiting for us at the house. This was in fact true but it was in boxes with the rest of our provisions and covered the total floor area of the kitchen. Having unpacked all the food and cleared the kitchen, we dined on cereals, toast and fruit.
Mario suggested a tour of the Island in order to familiarise ourselves with the geography and drove us on a circuit which allowed us to see several species of South African animals and the Penguin research area. We were all surprised at how close many of the nests were to the road but pleased to see that one road was roped so that traffic could not pass. We returned to the house to unpack and settle in. Our accommodation is more spacious than any of us had imagined with kitchen, dining room, lounge, bathroom and several bedrooms.
Playful Team ...
Phil called us together for an extensive briefing which included safety procedures at the house, at the research site with the Penguins and what to do if faced by an aggressive Ostrich. The recommeded action is to head for the nearest bush or to walk into the sea! After lunch, we walked to the research site and Phil took us to many of the target nests where we recorded the status and activity. We were a little concerned that a few of the nests appeared to be empty but we will need a few more visits to determine if the adults have deserted the nest. Exhausted, we returned to the house at 20:00 in the dark and damp - a sea mist was rolling in and the foghorns had begun to sound. Our spirits were lifted when Phil identified 2 Fiery Necked Nightjars calling to each other and even more so when he spotted one of them hawking for insects from a perch on a telephone wire.
Back at the house, we found that disaster had struck during the afternoon as we had been invaded by a colony of ants which were marching in formation from the garden through the door and the window to the garbage and the food. David was mortified to find that his favourite tin of shortbread contained thousands of ants. Wildlife project or not, drastic action was required and war was declared - Robben Island ants are not rare, are they. Dinner was delicious but late and we collapsed exhausted into bed.
Saturday, 24th March Phil decided on an early start and after breakfast, we departed at 08:00 for the museum in order to use Mario's computer to send a few e-mails. We soon moved on to the Penguin colony and found one nest site in a new drainpipe and another under the road at the entrance to the Docks a few feet from the wheels of coaches and cars. We visited the boardwalk and visitor hide and started to record ring numbers of penguins. We then visited our target nest sites and recorded the status and activity.
Photo Sue Kuyper|
Large chick on its nest
David had a much better day with the photographs as a result of the light having improved from yesterday. We wore our Earthwatch T-shirts in order that the organisation and its sponsors would get maximum publicity. David had requested a number of different situations all involving Penguins which would be ideal to photograph but it was late morning before the right opportunity arose. We found an unbanded bird on the nest with a chick and this gave Phil the opportunity to demonstrate how to capture and hold a Penguin. The necessary skills are a lack of fear from Penguin bites, a strong arm and tenacity greater than that of the Penguin. Laura applied a generous portion of Picric - a yellow dye behind the eyes, measured the bill length and depth and David went into action with the camera equipment. The Penguin was initially very aggresive but calmed down with Phil's expert handling.
A brisk walk back to the house was necessary as a phone call alerted us to the fact that our guests had arrived for lunch! The guests were Laura and Jessica, daughters of Earthwatch Directors from New York who are on holiday in South Africa. We quickly put together an excellent lunch of soup, salad, sandwiches and fruit and we discussed the project and what had brought us all to it. After lunch, we escorted our guests to the research site for their first view of Penguins and an introduction to our work before they had to leave all too soon for the staff ferry back to Cape Town. Sadly, the Penguin to which we had applied Picric appeared to have fled the nest.
Phil and David stayed out till dark and carried out a full survey of the nest sites. We were pleased to hear that Phil had come across several million ants and that the rescued shortbread did not taste of formic acid. Exhaustion is setting in and we are ready for bed contemplating another early start tomorrow.
|Doing the touristy thing...|
Sunday 25th March David had managed to reorganise his flights to get an extra day on Robben Island so he joined us for a long morning visit to the research sites in the hope of some great action shots. After a misty start, the sun was appearing through the clouds and the possibilities for photography were improving. We decided to carry out a complete survey of the nests in the Cornelia and Switchboard catchment areas.
It was not long before Phil had his head deep in a penguin nest and was locating a flipper in order to extract the bird. This is a traumatic moment as the Penguin does not appreciate the intrusion of its own and its chicks privacy and Phil received the regulation bites to his fingers. The Penguin was soon safely held in gloved hands and John applied the requisite picric to the side of the head a little way behind the eye. Lots of photographs were taken and David seemed happy with his work.
Following several hours in the field, we returned for lunch after which David had to hurry to catch the 16:00 ferry. The life of an international photographer had seemed good up to this point until we saw the amount of kit which had to be carried to the harbour without transport. A relief group of Laura, Marsha and Norman were quickly assembled to help carry the luggage and en route, a kind local stopped to give them a lift.
Before David had departed, he had managed to find a solution to the hot water problem, that is to say the lack of hot water problem. Several proposals had been put forward including putting microwaved rocks in the bathtub. The eventual solution was simply to heat a huge saucepan of water on the cooker and use the lid to create a shower in the bathroom.
John spent the afternoon carrying out some data analysis and presentation of the nest site information in order to get a better appreciation of the number and location of active and inactive sites. Laura and Norman carried out a survey of the 25 deluxe penguin nest boxes. These had been built of wood and appeared to offer better protection for the Penguins and their chicks. The survey revealed however what we had suspected, they are all empty!
A fly past of 10 Greater Flamingoes proved to be the birdwatching highlight of the day - this is the first time that Phil has seen this species at Robben Island. Towards dusk, John reported a Night Heron at Van Riebeeck's Quarry.
Photos Sue Kuyper|
Marsha & Phil handling penguins...
Tuesday, 27th March We awoke to a clear blue sky and after breakfast, set off from the house in order to arrive at Mario's office by 08:00. Mario was walking up from the boat with our 2 guests for today, Sue Kuyper and Megan Morris, a reporter for the University of Cape Town newspaper, Monday Paper. Megan interviewed each of the Eartwatch volunteers to learn why we had joined the project, where we lived and what other plans we had. We then took Megan to see some nests so that he could take photographs before returning on the 10:45 boat. An article about the project is planned to be in next Monday's edition of the newspaper.
John used Mario's office to create a spreadsheet of all the nest sites showing the co-ordinates and the records of the latest observations. Both paper and diskette copies have been stored in Mario's office so for the first time, we have back-up information in the event of loss of the detailed paper records. The spreadsheet will be updated every few days.
Meanwhile, Sue joined the volunteers to help us complete a total survey of all the nest sites during the morning. Over lunch, John and Sue discussed this diary which is being produced on an old PC with old word processing software. If you are reading this, Sue has obviously managed to find a way of recreating the file in a more modern format.
Later in the afternoon, Laura and Norma carried out a survey of Penguin rings on those birds returning from their day's fishing. Meanwhile, John and Phil carried out nest observations which entailed sitting quietly for an hour and recording activity at a target nest site. John found this extremely interesting as there was significant activity both in and around the nest. Phil, on the other hand, had a rather boring session with little activity apart from occasional head movements.
Wednesday 28th March Today was a holiday! We left the house early in order to catch the 08:15 staff ferry to Cape Town. The Makana bounced considerably during the crossing which meant that bird observations were difficult but we still managed to see Sabine's Gulls and a dark phase Arctic Skua. We had coffee at the waterfront before visiting the aquarium. The aquarium is extremely interesting and contains many samples of the local fish and crustacean species. The exhibits are all well labelled and contain explanations of the behaviour and range of each fish. One section has a few Penguins with Rockhopper as well as the local African Penguins.
We ate lunch at the aquarium before meeting Jane Underhill who had agreed to take us for a visit to SANCCOB. This is one of the centres of expertise in the world for treating oiled seabirds and is located a few kilometres up the west coast from the centre of Cape Town. We were pleased to see that the centre only had a few Penguins, Hartlaub's and Kelp Gulls, one juvenile Cape Gannet and a few White Breasted Cormorants. We watched some of the centre staff at work and purchased a few items in the shop before setting off a little further up the coast for a walk along the beach at Bloubergstrand.
On the way back to Cape Town, we stopped briefly for birdwatching at a lake, seeing Eastern White Pelican, Purple Heron, Sandwich Tern and Purple Gallinule among other species. Jane took us on a tour of downtown Cape Town before heading for the 16:30 ferry back to Robben Island. Jane had left us with several heavy boxes of food but the harbourmaster was kind enough to give us a lift back to our house from near the harbour.
Photo P. Whittington|
Laura catching her penguin...
Thursday, 29th March This morning, we were up early to say goodbye to our overnight guests, Bruce Dyer of Marine and Coastal Management and Samantha Petersen who is with SANCCOB. They had spent time yesterday on the island before joining us for dinner last evening. Samantha is a vet who departs next Wednesday for a 14 month secondment to Marion Island, some 2,000 miles south of Cape Town. Marion Island is a 290 square kilometre landmass with a good variety of breeding seabirds including 4 species of Penguin. Bruce had trained Samantha yesterday in the art of catching Penguins and pumping their stomachs in order to determine what food they are eating. Our refrigerator last night contained semi-masticated and digested Anchovies and Pilchards. Bruce had Anchovy paste on his toast for breakfast, hopefully from the correct source.
Marsha also left early for Cape Town where she visited the Groote Schuur hospital where Dr Christian Barnard had carried out the first heart transplant. She also visited Table Mountain.
The rest of us carried out both morning and afternoon surveys of all nest sites. We are having some success finding new nest sites to replace those that have been abandoned and this morning, we applied picric to 2 birds and banded a third. We also see birds with bands which have rotated on the flipper making it impossible to read the ring number. Phil decided to do something about it this morning when we found a bird with 10 of its colleagues deep in a bush. John guarded the escape route and Phil slid in at ground level to grab the offending flipper, unable to avoid an attack from all the other birds. The band was soon refitted in the correct way.
The mobile phone keeps ringing and one of the calls this evening was from Peter Barham, the designer of the new band, who has arrived in Cape Town and is coming over to the island on Sunday. We had pizza for dinner which Marsha had brought back from Cape Town.
Friday, March 30th Our house is situated off Lighthouse Road towards the top of the hill and affords us excellent views to the sea and across to the bay area north of Cape Town. We have a large garden with a number of tall trees and a water storage container which drips constantly. This acts as a magnet for many species of mammals and birds. First thing in the morning is a good time to see large parties of Helmeted Guineafowl and Cape Francolin. When disturbed, they try to fly over the fence although sometimes, when they are too close to the fence, they fly into it. So far this has not resulted in any permanent damage to the birds.
There are a number of paths to the research site but the most attractive takes us across open land and through the lime quarry where the political prisoners spent many years breaking stones. This area is particularly good to see the four species of antelope and deer which breed on the island. These are Bontebok, a rare endemic species of antelope from the Western Cape, Springbok, Steenbok and Fallow Deer.
Two large male Ostriches were in the Northern Perimeter Road area and an alarming situation arose as a result. John was walking towards an exposed nest site when Phil called out that the Ostriches were close by. One of them was beginning to turn red on the legs and the neck, an indicator that it is coming into breeding plumage. They eventually moved away up the road when Laura and Norman came round the corner from the other direction having surveyed the Cornelia Road area. John and Phil gesticulated furiously but they assumed that this meant they should keep coming. They realised that this was not the purpose of the signal when they came face to face with 2 very large birds. They remembered their day 2 training however and ran into the sea - the Ostriches did not follow.
Saturday, 31st March An early start was necessary today in order to meet Mario and Joye Newby off the staff ferry. Joye was visiting for the morning and assisted with the nest sites and data recording. John spent a couple of hours in Mario's office updating the computerised data records and printing the latest spreadsheet. Unfortunately, he lost some of the data which he had keyed which necessitated some rekeying this afternoon. This was made easier by the fact that Phil has installed Excel and Word yesterday on the somewhat slow but functional personal computer at the house.
Mario has not been able to visit the research site for a few days as he has an eye infection and the doctor has advised him not to visit dusty and windy areas. Today was especially windy with a strong south easterly blowing across the island. Having completed the nest survey, Joye, Phil and John did some birdwatching at the quarry towards the north end of the island and near the two shipwrecks. The quarry has some water in it which has turned a deep red colour but this does not seem to concern the birds and today, there was a large gull and tern roost. 3 species of tern were present: Common; Swift and Sandwich - a single example of the latter species which by now will have started arriving in Britain.
The wind was obviously good for Swift species and we saw House, White-rumped, African Black and Alpine today. Laura and Norman followed up their Ostrich scare by seeing a 2 metre Mole Snake at close range whilst they were carrying out nest observations.
Sunday, 1st April The gale has subsided and we awoke to a beautiful sunny day. Phil and John walked fast to meet the 08:00 staff ferry and our guest for the day, Marje Hemp. Marje is the production manager of Getaway, an upmarket South African tourist magazine. After meeting Mario and sending a few e-mails, we divided into 2 groups and carried out a survey of all the nest sites. At the north end of the Perimeter Road, Phil, Marje and John were very fortunate to see a Bryde' s Whale a little off the shore. The other team came across the sad site of a Penguin which had died as a result of its old style band becoming impaled on a branch.
Photo P. Whittington|
The red waters of the quarry
An early lunch was followed by a brisk walk back to the prison for a tourist visit. This was most interesting and gave us some insights into the life of a political prisoner.
We then carried out some band observations and John and Marje prospected the area to the south of the harbour for potential new nest sites.
We arrived back at the house to meet our second visitor of the day, Peter Barham, the inventor of the new bands and the instigator of this Earthwatch project. Peter is going to be the leader of Team 3 and his visit affords the opportunity for a formal handover from Phil.
Monday, 2nd April Another early start was necessary in order that Marje could catch the first ferry back to the mainland. Peter and Phil spent the morning working together so that Peter could get a full induction of all the activities and understand how to find each of the nest sites. During the rounds, they came across a chick at one of our research sites which was being pecked viciously by 2 adults assumed not to be the parents. Phil decided that the best course of action would be to send the chick on the first available ferry to Cape Town and on to SANCCOB for treatment and this was duly organised.
After such a long time surveying the research nests, we have come to know some of the birds as individuals. There are some ardent defenders of their chicks and one such bird is known as Sid Vicious - be very careful when you are near Sid's nest. Just along the Perimeter Road from Sid is a bush that holds two P4 chicks. A P4 chick is as large or larger than its parents and can probably defend itself but these chicks have an aggressive Dad (or Mum) that leaps out of the bush at any passing ankle. Then there is Lazarus where one day, we found a dead chick and the next a P2 chick, half adult size. Laura's favourite is Pinball. Pinball lives in the corner of a building behind several oil drums and gets rather excitable at the approach of dainty human footsteps. The result is that it goes into a frenzy and crashes into the drums before hiding in the corner of the building.
During the day, it rained for the first time in 3 months. This was doubtless welcomed by the locals although there was insufficient rain to turn the landscape from parched brown to green.
Tuesday, 3rd April The rain had stopped in the night and we awoke to a gorgeous sunny day, sadly our last full day on the island. From close to our house, we have a view past the lighthouse across the bay to Table Mountain and this morning, the light was especially clear.
Phil and John had heard a Bokmakierie calling last evening. We heard it again today but have not been able to see it despite trying on several occasions. The official bird list for the island defines it as extinct so we suppose it is at least a rare visitor. The bird total for Team 2 now stands at 59 species.
Following a survey of all the nest sites and banding of a few more birds this morning, we have spent the afternoon updating all our computer records ready for handover to Team 3. As well as the nest records, we have some 600 plus individual ringing records which will help to understand the impact of last year's Treasure oil spill disaster on the Penguin population.
We have had some excellent food since we have been here with Norman taking the culinary lead ably backed up by John. However, we have discovered that Peter is an expert chef and has written a book on the science of cooking. Team 3 should be in for some treats - or perhaps an assault on the tastebuds.
Photo P. Whittington|
Joye Newby and John on penguin patrol...
Wednesday 4th April Phil was on the mobile phone late last night as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had decided at short notice to visit the Earthwatch project today. We left the house early to meet Charl Pauw, the presenter, and Trevor, the cameraman, from the 07.30 ferry from Cape Town.
We were filmed as we carried out our regular nest monitoring activities. The light was superb and Trevor was able to film chicks with adults on the nest and penguins moving towards the sea with a backdrop of Table Mountain. Charl interviewed the principal investigators and volunteers.
It seems incredible that we have spent nearly two weeks here but as volunteers, we have had a rewarding and educational experience watching the chicks hatch and get bigger, seemingly by the day.
So it's over to Team Three now to carry on the work. We hope they have a great time with the penguins and enjoy their time on Robben Island.
John Caddick, Phil Whittington