October 6, 2014 at 11:34 pm
We woke up to blue skies and sunshine. A welcome change to yesterday’s downpour. However, it blows a howling south-westerly which throws enormous seas at Neil’s Beach – and no doubt at Jackson Head. With high tide being smack-bang in the middle of the morning, there’s nothing for us to do until later in the afternoon. That’s fine as we’ll have to try to get our logger birds back this afternoon and evening.
So a bit of recreation was in order. Recreation which allowed us to stock up on our bread supplies and to check emails for a change. Since Haast alone has very little else to offer, we decided to take a wee trip to Monro Beach some 80 km North of here and have a look at the dramatic scenery of huge waves crashing over the rock stacks.
The actual sights far surpassed my expectations. The surf not only crashed over the rock stacks, it all but drowned them. All that illuminated by sunlight in front of a backdrop of dark grey clouds over the horizon… it was the perfect motif for an impressionistic painting.
How the penguins would fare in these conditions was beyond me. And just looking at the horizon I could see that even way out there the waves were breaking creating truly nasty conditions. If I were a penguin, I would not bother with staying at the surface longer than necessary. A breather and I would head back down into depths where the water was less behaving like a washing machine.
Of course, that idea might have some relevance for our logger data. The shorter the penguins stay at the surface, the less likely it is for the logger to store a fix. And the longer it takes the logger to calculate its position, the more likely it is going to fall back into cold mode. And in cold mode, the logger would need two minutes or more to determine its position. No chance that the penguins would stay that long at the surface in these conditions.
In other words, I was beginning to wonder if our i-gotUs would be able to collect any data in stormy seas such as these ones. So while we had plans to deploy our remaining three loggers tonight, just looking at the seas made me realise that it would not only be unfair for the penguins (who wants to carry a backpack through this mess?) but also pointless if we would expect the devices to not function correctly. So we’ll wait until it’s calmer again.
A purchase of several loafs of bread and checked emails later, we were back at Neil’s Beach with Ursula and I gearing up for a long night out at the Hilltop penguins’ main beach access while Hotte remained in the house to hold to fort. High tide was still three hours away and the waves hitting Jackson Head were pretty rough but we had no problems making our way to our designated lookout.
At first not a lot happened. So I took the chance to hike up to the Hilltop and have a look at our logger nests and get the SD cards from the cameras that monitored both nests with 1 minute time lapse imagery. JH06 was… empty. No adult, no chick. Oh dear. JH13? Also empty. Oh no. Had we picked exactly the last night of the guard-stage to deploy our loggers?
I headed back down the hill and joined Ursula. We spread out over the rocks to cover more potential access points. It got darker but the nearly full moon illuminated the rocky shore in a way that we could see penguins coming up without the help of our infrared scope or our LED head torches. We sat and waited and shivered until midnight. We spotted around 20 penguins none of which carried a logger on their backs. We were cold and tired and disappointed. And we decided to head back.
We arrived back at Neil’s Beach just after 1am. Before jumping in the shower I had to take a look at the camera data.
At JH06 it seemed as if the female with the logger vanished from the nest shortly after we had released her. She then reappears just after 3am to head downhill her mate in tow just 5 minutes later. The male later returned and spent the first half of the day yesterday with the chick at the nest. The chick then disappears downhill – and has not returned to the nest since. The male popped into the nest off and on, but never hung around for long.
The second logger bird at nest JH13 on the other hand, stayed at the nest with mate and chick all night obviously not having the whole logger attachment procedure too hard – she slept through most of the night. At 5.23am both our logger bird and her mate left the nest and chick behind. At 7.56am the chick disappears from the nest after having been busy wandering around for the past couple of hours. Since then the nest was left empty with the exceptions of a few short visits by an adult tawaki which I’m not sure was any of the original nest occupants.
It seems we deployed both loggers on birds that have entered post-guard stage. This means that we will have very little chance to recover the devices at the nest sites. The chicks can wander around and crèche up with other chicks somewhere in the kiekie. Although it is believed that chicks generally return to their nest at night to wait for their parents to return and feed them, our camera data suggests otherwise.
Before we deploy any more loggers we need to establish how likely it is to get the devices back at this stage of breeding. Could be that our new batch of loggers have arrived too late. Sending another small curse about the non-delivery of our GPS dive loggers in time for the fieldwork, I fell asleep.
October 5, 2014 at 5:40 pm
I hate it when the weather forecast is right about heavy rain. But they hit the nail on the head when they predicted 200-250mm for the West Coast on the news yesterday. It does not rain, it pours. Rain lashes the windows and drums on the roof of our Neil’s Beach retreat. It does not look as if we’re going to do anything out on the Heads today. We’re boxed in left to pursue rare moments of boredom or, alternatively, continue analysing our Bushnell time lapse data which isn’t that much more exciting either.
Talking about boxed in… Hotte finished casting the remaining three i-gotUs in epoxy. Once they’re dry and sanded into a more hydrodynamic shape they are good to go on three more candidates.
Just not in this weather.
October 4, 2014 at 11:59 pm
A beautiful bit ice-cold day on the West Coast today. In a way the weather was a perfect match for our final attempt to recover our logger bird.
We went in this morning to check the two track cameras observing the penguin landing and the logger nest. As on the previous days the nest was empty. However, when I looked at the camera data after we returned to Neil’s Beach in the afternoon it dawned on me that we had to accept defeat.
Our logger bird had returned to its nest in the night of the 2 September. And unfortunately it looked as if our logger was about to fall off, dangling only on the last couple of trips of tape. The bird left again in the early hours of yesterday and returned again to its nest about two hours before I arrived for my midnight stroll to the Plaza. Obviously the bird had buggered off again before I arrived. However, more importantly, the time lapse footage showed that the penguin had returned without logger. A few ruffled feathers on its back were the final indication that the penguin had been wearing a data logger for a short while.
Why the logger fell off so quickly is a bit of a worry. Usually the attachment method with tape and rubber glue holds for two to three weeks. I guess the cold and wet conditions when we fitted the device all contributed to the fact that the tape did not stick that well. With the bird fleeing the scene probably heading straight into the ocean certainly would not have helped the tape to warm up and stick better to the penguin’s plumage. In the end I guess the device slipped clean off.
However, it’s a real comfort to know my initial worries that we might have caused the female to abandon her mate and chick proved to be unfounded. She did what a good mother does – return to feed her chick. Which means that we have now handled a total of four Fiordland penguins without obvious long-term negative effect for the birds and their offspring. Considering that this was a major concern when we applied for research funding, this is good news.
And now that we have five more i-gotUs available, it makes it a bit easier to accept that we have lost a device.
We used the later afternoon and evening to prepare two i-gotUs for deployment. Rather than taking any chances again by wrapping our devices into condoms to waterproof them, we used epoxy resin to water proof the device casings. In fact, we removed the electronics from one device completely and cast it in Epoxy which we poured in a moult I had fashioned out of Dukit polymer clay. Unfortunately the moult did not survive when we tried to get the GPS logger out, but at least now we have a device which is completely sealed off from any water penetration.
Then we waited. To ensure that we would encounter females for logger deployment, we decided to wait until 10pm before we headed out to the Head. Which Ursula and I did while Hotte held the Fort.
Beneath a clear starry sky, we arrived at the bottom of our rope ascent shortly after 11pm. I decided to give the Plaza penguins a bit of a break and instead pay a visit to our birds up at Hilltop. This also meant that we had a considerable climb to complete. In darkness no mean feat.
We were lucky. We fitted the first device to the female of our camera nest JH06. And we encountered a second female a few metres above that nest and deployed our last i-gotU of the day. Well, actually, by the time we realised the second bird, the new day was three quarters of an hour old already. We made it back to Neil’s Beach just before 2am.
So here we are, moving on with logger deployments #5 and #6.
October 3, 2014 at 9:21 pm
The logger bird fooled us. Or perhaps its mate fooled us. I guess both of them fooled us good.
We headed out to the Head after breakfast to finish the camera run we’d started yesterday. One of the sites we changed SD cards was out at Popi’s Plaza, where image data hopefully gives us new intel on the fate of our logger bird.
Overnight a southerly had arrived bringing with it not only icy temperatures straight out of Antarctica but also quite impressive seas. Even though we scrambled along the rocks just around low tide, some waves crashed precariously close to where we were walking. It took me all the way to the penguin sites to get warm.
So in essence it was a quick-in-quick-out job. We were back in Neil’s Beach in the early afternoon where we spent the rest of the day keeping the fire going and reviewing our camera images.
First of all, I had a look at our beach camera which faces the rock the penguin use to get up into the bush after they landed. The angle of the camera is perfect with lots of upward traffic recorded between 5pm and 10pm on the two nights we had the device out. Interestingly, the majority of the penguins left between 4am and 5am, so about two hours before sunrise. More and more Fiordland penguins remind me of Little penguins with their nocturnal commuting habits.
However, most importantly no trace of our logger bird on any of the images. That is, on those images where we could actually see the penguin quite clearly. Last night, however, when it was raining hard, penguins appeared like ghostly, blurred figures. However, I was fairly confident that our logger bird did not go up there.
In the evening Ursula arrived with five desperately need new i-gotU loggers. Finally we can continue the main purpose of our study – to track Tawaki. A bit of good news after several days of disappointments.
I was ready to go to bed when I remembered that I hadn’t had a look at our logger bird nest’s camera footage. Quickly I clicked through the images… until my jaw dropped to the floor in disbelief.
The logger bird returned to its nest late on 30 September! Just shortly before midnight! It appears in the frame, has a frantic greeting concerto with its mate and enters its nest site to feed its chick which also had returned to celebrate the occasion.
To think that we spent 5 hours at the beach waiting for the bird to return only to give up after the steady trickle of birds emerging from the sea and heading up the hill stopped around 9pm. We were cold and frustrated and gave up that night. Yet two hours after our departure she returned.
So she was pretty successfully at making us belief she was someone else, an unrelated bird we accidentally fitted logger to. And her mate was even more convincing having tete-a-tetes with other penguins while his mate was out searching for food for their chick.
All the image data I had reviewed, all the theories and explanations I came up with. All out of the window. Everything is as it should be, really. No trace of the logger bird the following two nights. But a bird without a logger spent a few hours with our male again. Could it be that he has a couple of concubines?
More importantly, if the logger bird had not returned the last two nights, it seemed more than likely that it would be back tonight. So I geared up, grabbed the basic tools and headed out to the heads for a quick midnight stroll to the Plaza.
It took me less than half an hour from Neil’s Beach to the logger nest. And lo and behold… a lone male penguin occupied the nest with the chick snoozing in a mini-crèche in the neighbouring burrow. Doh!
October 1, 2014 at 7:15 pm
Yes, the weather is packing in. It started with clouds slowly creeping up on us from the South. And towards the end of our camera run taking us to all our Jackson Head West sites drizzle set in.
We got the SD cards from most our cameras and removed the Bushnell from JH07 which had failed a few days ago. A sad father was sitting on a now empty nest. I could not find the carcass of the chick anywhere. Maybe a possum did a bit of a clean-up job? But then again, penguin chicks – dead or alive – have the habit of vanishing from one day to the next.
I re-set the camera to take pictures at 1 minute intervals looking up towards the penguins’ entry point into the bush down at our logger site. Let’s see if that sheds some light on the whereabouts of our non-breeding (D’oh!!!!) logger bird.
When the rain set in late afternoon we were back at Neil’s Beach.
September 30, 2014 at 11:40 pm
We spent another evening hidden between the rocks below our logger bird’s colony. Today was supposed to be the last day of good weather before a southerly front hits the South Island bringing with it cold, wet weather. So better make the most of it and get our logger back.
Well, first thing we noticed was that the penguins seemed to be super careful today. The last few days they generally did not mind us peeking from behind our rocks. But today even the slightest hint of our presence stopped the bird in their tracks. This, of course, meant that we had to stay out of view entirely making it really difficult to check whether one of the birds was carrying a backpack. At least the sandflies weren’t as bad as the previous nights.
At around 9.30pm when we had watched around 20 penguins finally making their move – all without logger – I headed up to our nest to retrieve the SD cards from the track cameras. Our nest was still empty. But when I peeked into the second burrow located just a few metres below the logger nest, I saw two chicks being guarded by a male adult. So that’s where the chick from our logger nest had disappeared to.
We got back to Neil’s Beach around 10.30pm. I immediately reviewed the camera footage. And I think we have confirmation – the bird we attached a logger to was not the mother of our chick! This morning, at around 6am our Bushnell camera recorded two adult penguins and a chick in front of the logger nest and none of the adults carried a backpack.
This means we indeed fitted our device to a presumably non-breeding bird that had just sought shelter in the nest when we scrambled up the hill. That also explains why the male had attacked her when I released the penguin into the nest after attaching the device. And, unfortunately, it also lowers our chances to recover this bird significantly. Non-breeders do not need to come back to land regularly as they don’t have any chicks to feed. And likewise, if they land, they don’t have to do so at a specific site as they don’t have a nest to return to.
We will have to be extremely lucky to get that bird back. The more likely scenario is that it will elude us until the device falls off in 3 or 4 weeks’ time.
There’s still a minimal chance that we get the bird. But first we’ll have to establish whether she still comes back to the colony where we fitted her with a device. To do so, I have decided to install a trail camera at the site where most of the returning penguins hike up into the bush. Maybe we can catch a glimpse of her and try again to catch her one of the coming nights. Until then there is no point in spending more evenings on the rocks, potentially agitating penguin with our presence.
It also means that we’ve run out of devices to deploy. We will get five more i-gotUs by the end of the week. But until then, we have not much else to do than doing camera runs every now and then. And considering the weather forecast they just showed on TV that is not that bad. They mentioned snow towards the end of the week…
September 29, 2014 at 10:37 pm
We’re stuck in idle mode with not much to do other than trying to get back the only device we still have. The weather on the West Coast is spectacular which makes being stuck in town even more of a drag. It’s one of these days where you can spent hours on end thinking about the things you could be doing if it weren’t for the lack of devices. Well, at least we’ll go to Haast this afternoon to use find a telephone and check emails. Hopefully I’ll find the message saying that our GPS dive loggers are finally on their way to us.
I have decided against going back I during the day today to check the time lapse camera at our i-gotU bird’s nest. There was only a small chance that we would encounter it on the nest anyhow and we should try to cut down on disturbance of the neighbourhood.
Instead we took a trip to Haast to get some more groceries, make a few phone calls and connect to the internet. We returned to Neil’s Beach just after sunset and headed out to the Heads immediately.
We arrived at the Plaza at around 9pm. The rush hour had passed and only two apparently non-breeding penguins sat amongst the rocks not doing anything. I climbed up to the Plaza and made my way through the kiekie. Up past the second logger nest, into the Plaza. The lower cave nest had one adult guarding the chick. And our logger nest…
… was empty! No adult, no chick! Don’t tell me crèching had started!?! Did the chick leave the nest to hang out with other young ones in a penguin version of a Kindergarten?
I grabbed the SD card from our time lapse camera and we headed back out.
Reviewing the time lapse images shows the adult penguin leaving the nest between 7:33 and 7:34. The chick left the nest not long after at 7:47. Not to return into frame until I picked up the SD card at 20:31.
We’re in trouble now. The logger’s battery by now is drained. Whether the condoms have held out the water four days in a row is another question. But how are we going to get the device off the female if she returns to feed the chick not at the nest but somewhere in the bush around the Plaza?
Well, we just have to get her on the beach then. Hope dies last, they say.
September 28, 2014 at 11:55 pm
We went in this morning to check the i-gotU logger’s nest but just like last night only found her mate and chick in the burrow. A quick look at the time lapse camera revealed that she had not returned during the night either. Where is she?
After spending most of the day cleaning the house and our gear in Neil’s Beach, we returned to the Head around 5pm and found comfortable spots behind some rocks on the shore just below our bird’s colony. The first penguins started to come in around 6pm. They all took their time preening and getting their plumage in order before heading up into the bush, forcing us to stay in hiding with as little movement as possible so as to not scare the birds back into the water.
As entertaining as it was to watch the penguins during their preening routines, the sandflies did their bit to make us wish tha the sun would finally set.
Quite a good number of penguins arrived long after darkness. Through the night vision scope I peered at each bird until I could confirm that none had an extra-backpack on board. Numbers of penguins dropped off after 8pm and by 9m it did not seem as if any other birds would show up tonight.
Unfortunately, that also applies to our logger bird. Again.
We headed out around 10.30pm. We’ll try again tomorrow then.
September 27, 2014 at 11:12 pm
A lovely evening to sit between the rocks just underneath our logger bird’s colony waiting for it to return.
Today was the second day the penguin had been out with its i-gotU backpack. And it is time to relieve it for its load.
We got to the site in the late afternoon and decided to change SD cards in some of the surveillance cameras in the Hilltop area first. The weather here at the West Coast is gorgeous at the moment. Far too good not to walk up the hill when the vegetation is not dripping.
Everything was in order up there. Well, except for JH07 where the chick had died yesterday. In one of the hilltop nests, two about 2-week-old chicks were rummaging around in daddy’s brood patch. Perhaps this is going to be one of the rare nests that raises two chicks? Would be a welcome compensation for JH07’s failure.
After changing the last SD cards up at the scenic nest, we headed back down to the apartment block and past the TV tent to check on the time lapse camera that had malfunctioned yesterday. This time it recorded images as it was supposed to. What irks me is that I have no idea why it did not work before. The Bushnell’s are far too unreliable for my taste. Well, at least we don’t have the problems that the West Coast Trust is facing with its Little Acorn cameras which only record useless 1 second video clips if the temperature dips below 10°C, i.e. at night when it would be most crucial to get longer video clips to observe predator movements amongst the penguin nests.
On our way down, I reinstalled one of the trust loggers at nest JH10, the nest that had yielded us the first GPS logger data set last week. Both adults were present at the nest. An encouraging find, I thought. But my optimism was shattered when I peeked into the nest to find that their chick was dead, by the looks of its carcass dead since the rain yesterday. The nest is quite exposed. It seems as if the chick got wet and died of hypothermia. The second nest failure which pushes the breeding success rate below the 0.5 mark (i.e. less than 50% of all laid eggs will result in fledging chicks).
We assumed lookout positions below the current i-gotU bird’s breeding colony at about 5pm and waited for our bird to return. From 6pm onwards a steady flow of penguins arrived. Most of them seemed to appear out of nowhere and suddenly stood on the wet rocks some 100m below us. I stared at each bird through my binoculars until I could confirm that it did not have extra GPS logger baggage on board. The sun sank slowly towards the horizon and the sandflies whizzing around my head almost contributed to the serenity of the evening scenery with its warm light that slowly turned from golden to red to violet. The first stars appeared and the thin sliver of the waxing moon hugged the sparsely illuminated not-so-dark-side of the moon.
And penguins still kept on appearing. About half an hour after sunset a bit of a rush hour set in with six penguins making their way up to us and past our lookouts. Interestingly, in darkness the penguins do not seem to mind us at all.
The problem, however, was that our bird was not one of them. Or to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi: “These aren’t the birds you’re looking for.“
As night progressed the birds became increasingly more difficult to spot. Luckily, we had a night vision scope with us which allowed us to check on the birds with and infrared sensor. But, alas, that did not make the logger bird appear either.
At around 10pm I headed up to its nest site to check whether it had somehow managed to sneak past us. But its mate and chick were the sole occupants of the nest burrow. I got the SD card from the WCPT camera and just for good measure installed one of our time lapse camera facing the nest directly so that we can check tomorrow if the bird returned later that night and we headed out.
Back in Neil’s Beach around 11pm for a late dinner.
September 26, 2014 at 6:56 pm
Well, that was a bit pointless. We went in today to do the camera round. The idea was to replace batteries where needed and change SD cards so that we could retrieve recorded footage and time lapse images from all 17 cameras out operating at the moment.
Good idea in theory. But not so good anymore if you realise that you have forgotten the bloody replacement SD cards! Well, I had one SD card. But I needed this one to replace it with the one from the camera monitoring our logger nest at the Plaza. So we did the camera round only to replace batteries.
At least the rain had stopped, but the bush was dripping wet. And the ground was soaked which made for a slippery ascent to Hilltop and our cameras up there. It was a grey day that got a bit greyer when we reached JH07, the nest where time lapse footage had revealed some aggressive assaults on the resident female penguin time and again. This in mind the look our camera being completely knocked of its perch dangling from the rock on its strap did not bode well. But I was worse than I thought.
A penguin sat inside the nest but retreated through the back entrance when I approached to recover the camera. I am not sure if it was the male or female. But inside the nest I found the chick and it was dead since a very short time only. I recovered the little body and found not external signs of injury. It wasn’t wet either and it appeared to have a full stomach. Looking down at our camera I could only think of one explanation – trampled during yet another assault on the nest.
I placed the dead chick back into the nest bowl and re-set the camera. Maybe we will be able to see whether it’s mom or dad that is watching over its dead chick.
To make the day even more rotten for me, three of our cameras had not recorded anything although all settings were correct and the cameras were switched on properly. Damn those Bushnells!