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!
September 25, 2014 at 10:31 pm
Given that we have only one device left, there was no time to waste. We wrapped the i-gotU up in cellophane, stuck in a couple of condoms and sealed it up with Tesa-tape. By now the procedure is more of a routine than it is the weirdest thing I’ve done for science so far. Sure, that getting a device for deployment involves getting your hands smothered in lubricant while you try to tie a knot into an “extra strong” condom is still pretty strange. But, hey, for data we scientist would do everything.
We headed out to the heads in late afternoon. Since we had last worked with a penguin from the eastern end of our study site, it was time again to choose one of the few candidates we have from Popi’s Plaza.
The weather today was pretty grey with occasional showers making sure that we would get soaked to the bones. But that wasn’t really what was worrying me. The problem in this kind of weather is that the tape won’t stick if it gets wet. So going to Popi’s Plaza for a deployment had the added value of attaching a logger under cover of the forest.
I hiked up to the Plaza around 6pm. All three burrow nests were single dads with their chicks; no female had returned just yet.
We tried it again just before 8pm. There certainly was going on a lot more now with penguin cries echoing from the bush. While finding our way through the kiekie we stirred up some birds loitering around in the undergrowth. We carefully went past JH09, where our previous logger bird had yet to return. Just above me, I saw a penguin scramble up the hill, presumably not so happy about our presence. When we made it to the Plaza we found one of our potential candidate nests occupied by two adult penguins!
Just as we started the get our gear out of our backpacks, it started to rain. Even here in the forest we could not avoid getting wet. But the logger had to go out today; I was not prepared to unwrap the device from it condom-casing tonight to reprogram it for a deployment tomorrow.
The deployment itself went reasonably smoothly. Hotte held the bird tight on his lap, and the penguin did not struggle or wriggle as much as yesterday’s. The tape did not stick that well, but that was much less a problem of the rain than it was the tape being cold. However, once the logger was firmly wrapped into tape and sealed nicely with rubber glue, it actually looked quite good to me. We waited 5 more minutes until the rubber glue hat set then I took the penguin, carried it up to its nest and released into the burrow. What then happened caught me by surprise.
The female with the logger tried to slip into the burrow, but the male guarding the chick started to attack her violently! What was wrong with this guy? Next thing I knew was that the female scrambled past me down the hill in a frantic escape from its vicious mate!
Or was it the mate? In all my years in penguin science I have never seen such a reaction between mates. I suddenly had a very bad feeling about this. What if the bird we had just attached a logger to was in fact a different bird that had just tried to hide in the burrow in response to our arrival? And what if the bright lights of our head torches had distracted the male attending the chick long enough to let a stranger enter the burrow?
Well, I guess we will find out. If it was the female belonging to this nest, she will return the next days. Before we left the Plaza I readjusted the trust camera monitoring the area for predators. We will come back tomorrow and check the footage.
September 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm
In truly appalling weather Popi and I managed to recover our first GPS logger carrying tawaki this afternoon. And despite all my concerns about difficulties of recovering penguins in the rugged terrain of Jackson Head it went extremely smoothly (well, smoothly as it can go while it is bucketing down cattle and sheep).
It went down like this. After taking a very slow start to the day – the sound of rain pounding on the roof of the house is not really stimulating to go out – we geared up in the afternoon and made our way to the Head. Just to warm up we checked some of the cameras we have installed at nests, changed SD cards and, if necessary, batteries. As the afternoon slowly but surely turned towards evening, we made our way down to the rocky shore. We had checked the loggers bird’s nest and found its partner on duty. Which meant that we would have to wait until the penguin emerged from the sea and try to get her on the rocks.
If you’ve got things to do, being out in the rain is half as bad, really. But if all you have to do is sit and wait for a penguin to show up, you inevitably will get wet (or in our case ‘wetter’), cold and eventually miserable. Under such circumstances it’s best to try to get out of the weather as much as possible. So Popi and I squeezed ourselves under a large rock where it was easier for us to pretend that we indeed were out of the weather (which we weren’t, really).
But mind you, we only had time for one quick selfie…
…when our bird appeared on the rocks just above the waterline!
“What? Can you belive that?”, Popi exclaimed while I carefully climbed out from underneath our rock and started to sneak up towards the unsuspecting tawaki.
The penguin stood on a rock preening and did not take notice of me. I had one last rock to negotiate. I took my eyes off the penguin. When I looke dup again it was gone! What? How? Where? For a moment I panicked. Did it spot me and hightailed it? I arrived at the rock the bird had been sitting on just a minute ago looked around… and there it was just below me, still busy with rearranging its feathers. Apparently it just did as Popi and I had done a short while ago and got out of the weather.
Next thing the bird knew was that a cloth bag slipped over its head. By the time I started to peel off the tape that attached the logger to its feathers, the bird had settled down on Popi’s lap. It clearly was quite alright with the fact that it would get rid of the backpack it had been lugging around for the past 48 hours.
Now, as I said earlier if you’ve got things to do, it is okay to be out in the rain. Well, this was very different. Not only were Popi and I focussed on getting the device off, weighing the penguin and getting head and foot measurements to determine its sex. We were truly stoked! From the forst look it seemed as if the i-gotU was good, no signs of leakage despite our rather unorthodox method of water proofing. Now if the NZ$100 device had actually data on board we could expect to see the first ever recorded foraging track of a Fiordland penguin tonight.
Popi released the bird not far from its nest site and observed how she headed back to where she belonged falling into an ecstatic trumpet concerto with her partner apparently no worse for wear!
That was a really good start! Despite all the doubts whether it was possible to work with tawaki that are often said to be extremely timid, we not only managed to recover a data logger from a penguin. Our intervention did not result in behaviour that could disrupt breeding or even cause nest abandonment. What a huge relief!
Popi and I were literally dancing back towards the car, totally on cloud 9. Rain? Who cares? We got the logger back and the penguin is happy!
Back in Neil’s Beach I cut the logger form its double-condom casing. I hooked it ono the computer and waited for the “Ding-Dong” indicating that the device was recognized.
I held my breath. Nothing. I held my breath a bit longer. More of nothing. “And? Did it record something?”, asked Popi.
I was just about to tell him that the computer would not recognize the device when suddenly – “Ding-Dong”.
I gazed at the screen. A window popped open to ask me wether I wanted to download the GPS data from the device. Ok?
“Downloading 2097 data points” read the message on the screen. What? 3000 GPS fixes? It worked? It really worked?
Yes, it did. Sort of. Most of the GPS fixes were recorded when the bird was sitting on its nest during the nighttime hours. However, it had performed two foraging trips. The first one yesterday, but GPS fixes stopped some 5 km northwest of Jackson Head about four hours after the bird had left its nest site around 6am in the morning. The next GPS fixes were stored just after 5pm about 4km north of the bird’s nest.
But the next day way like a birthday and christmas wrapped into one. We got a full foraging track! The first ever recorded in tawaki. And it was a surprise. For an offshore forager the bird stayed bloody close to land never putting more than 9km between itself and the coast. The penguin actuall entered the water in the middle of the night at around 2.30am then doodled around at the surface until daybreak slowly making its way to a point about 9km almost due west of the Head before it started to forage northeastwards for the next 8 hours. Just after 2pm it then turned back south landing where we eventually recovered it around 6pm. All in all it foraged for a total 16.6 hours covering around 55km in the process.
The stats read more like those of inshore foraging Yellow-eyed penguins!
We can’t wait to get more information in the next few days.
September 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm
After another comfy night and a solid breakfast at the Heartland Hotel in Haast, we climbed into our field gear. The weather looked rather dull and grey. Today was definitely an oil skin day.
The drive from Haast to Jackson Head seems to get longer every time. 48 Kilometres of one of the straightest but also bumpiest roads in New Zealand can be a real drag. Especially when you want to get back home after a long, wet day in the field. I look forward to the 15th when the Japanese film crew will have wrapped their filming and we move to Neil’s Beach.
It was drizzling when we made our way across he rocky shore towards the base and the rope ascent to the Apartment Block. The last three weeks have been phenomenal in terms of weather, with not a drop of rain. Everything was bone dry. Not today. The climb up the rope was slippery business. Today, Ida-san and Hongo-san both shared filming duties, with the director being curled up in the tent looking after the remote controlled cameras, while the camera man spent the entire day in a tiny canvas hunters hide of dimensions of no more than 80x80x160 cm. From in there he manually operated a large 4K camera as they had found that the remote camera was to slow and sluggish to pan around chasing the penguins as they moved around the apartment block. The penguins did no mind the hide at all, so I was happy with this activity.
Popi and I did the camera run around the Apartment Block and the Hill Top with the scenic nest. I was pretty dismayed by the fact that again, two cameras had not recorded anything. Another camera had been knocked over by some pesky penguins and had recorded nothing but close up shots of the surrounding vegetation.
My Argentinian colleague was impressed by the fact that the penguins choose to breed that high up the hill. Of course the scenic nest added to the experience. It is a lovely spot indeed.
Saying that, we both agreed that the number of nests suitable for logger deployments was not so flash. What we need are closed nests without a back entrance. The nests need to be approachable and ideally a bit secluded from other nests so as to minimize disturbance. Not to mention that a lot of nests were in impenetrable or simply nasty (ongaonga nettles!) vegetation. So far I had identified about six potential candidates. Hardly enough for the proposed 20 logger deployments.
After the camera run we headed west along the shore to a spot where I knew one of the West Coast Penguin Trust cameras is located. Apart from the fact that this camera needed its batteries replaced anyhow, I wanted to have a bit of a look around to see whether there might be any more suitable logger nests.
The camera nest certainly is not. You have to be a contortionist to get to it, weaving your body through an impossible tangle of kiekie. It does not help at all if you are tall. Like me.
However, a bit further up the hill I spotted what looked like tree daisy. Perhaps we had more luck there?
We had! We had to dive through a wall of wet kiekie to find ourselves at the base of an open but steep and muddy slope with a large rock face to our right. Right at the bottom of the rock we looked at a single cave nest. Exactly what we were looking for. We kept going up and found a bit of a clearing. Well, actually it was a bit of forest with closed canopy above but little undergrowth. It seemed really open to us and in honour of my companion I was quick to name it “Plaza del Popi”. I had to name it, because right here we found two more nests that were perfect for logger deployments!
We continued to search the area but found only open nests that were tucked away in dense kiekie. However, three more nests was not bad for a quick look around.
We headed back to the car and hopped on the car for the long drive back to Haast where we spent the rest of day beginning the analysis of the Bushnell time lapse data.
September 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm
This was a long day today. I got up just after 6am, jumped into my truck and headed across into the Alps. I had to get to Queenstown airport by 11am to pick up Popi Garcia-Borboroglu who flew in today from Argentina.
When I reached the airport I found and email from Popi, telling me that he had missed his connecting flight in Auckland an would arrive about two hours later – at 11am. Well, since I was sure he told me he would arrive at 11am in the first place this was not as bad as it sounded. Just enough time for quick visit to the loo.
Where I unceremoniously met Popi.
He looked quite fresh despite his 13 hours flight from Santiago de Chile. We picked up his gear and headed out of the airport to do some shopping before heading back across the mountains again. Popi geared up on field equipment – working pants and gaiters were a top priority. At the supermarket we want berserk and left an hour later with more than NZ$500 worth of groceries. (Which sounds more than it actually is because grocery prices in New Zealand are obscenely high! I know because I spent the last year in Germany.)
We used the long drive back to catch up on all kinds on penguin gossip and discuss the problems we have with the supplier of our GPS dive loggers. Because up until now there is no news from earth&Ocean as to when they think they will dispatch the five GPS dive loggers we’ve order more than 5 months ago. Devices that are entirely funded by the Global Penguin Society. Popi is the society’s president and the one who raised these funds. So doubly embarrassing that we not only haven’t received the main devices for the project, but also have no idea when they might arrive.
Well, fortunately it wasn’t planned to use earth&Ocean devices from the start. At around NZ$3,600 a pop these things are far too expensive to randomly slap them on a penguin and hope for the best. We’ll conduct dummy experiments first, where we use cheap i-gotU travel GPS loggers and see how the penguins behave, if we can get them back without a problem and if the devices affect their breeding behaviour. And maybe we even get some data. I-gotUs have been used successfully on other seabirds like gannets – but to my knowledge not on diving species that spent most of their time under water like penguins.
But first… let’s give Popi a bit of time to get over his jetlag. And the best way to do this was to get him out into the field shortly after we arrived in Haast in late afternoon. We stopped at the Heartland Hotel, geared up and were away to Jackson Head West.
I cannot imagine in what kind of trance Popi must have been when he climbed up our rope route to the main filming site where Hongo-san was still curled up in the tent remote controlling the cameras up at the Apartment Block.
We did half of the camera run and managed to get down to the rocky shore just before it got really dark. Together with the Japanese film crew we boulder hopped back to the Jackson Head track. The lights of our head torches limited our peripheral vision to just a few metres which actually made boulder hoping somewhat easier – and, in fact, quite meditational. Back in the car, Popi told me that he had to fight dozing off while walking. That was just moment before his head fell backwards and he started snoring.
September 2, 2014 at 7:37 pm