90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
February 14th Entry
February 10th Entry
February 6th Entry
February 5th Entry
January 31st Entry
January 27th Entry
January 22nd Entry
January 17th Entry
January 14th Entry
January 13th Entry
January 9th Entry
December 29th Entry
December 23rd Entry

View images in a collection of Photo Galleries.
Watch video of penguins at play.

Antarctic Journal

January 14, 2003

I'm Introduced to Southern Giant Petrels

Giant petrel
Scientist Donna Patterson with a giant petrel
see more pictures
Today starts slow, but before dinner I have seen some sights I would not have thought possible. I see the nuts and bolts of a natural history experiment that combines old-fashion observations, cutting edge technology, and a huge dose of TLC. And I wish three southern giant petrels bon voyage on journeys that could take them a thousand miles to fill up on fresh fish, dead seal, or squid.

It is raining when I wake up at 5:30. The sky is so light here, I've been rising early. There's always someone else in the dining hall having a cup of coffee no matter what time I get there. I've been waiting since I got to Palmer Station to go with scientist Donna Patterson to Humble Island to see her attach lightweight radio transmitters to southern giant petrels, the largest flying bird that nests in the Antarctic Peninsula (some penguins are bigger, but they are flightless). But the weather has not cooperated. It's been too wet, and the tape she uses to secure the devices won't stick if the bird's feathers are damp. When Patterson comes down for breakfast she says it looks too inclement again. However, soon the clouds lift and the drizzle stops.

We set out with Cindy Anderson, one of Patterson's assistants. Chris Denker, an Alaska river guide who has helped with bird research here in previous seasons is at the helm of our Zodiac. Humble Island, the primary site of Patterson's research, is an easy cruise in good weather. On windy or rainy days, the ride can be rough or downright hazardous. Today we are hopping onto the rocky shores of Humble in a matter of minutes.

Giant petrels have more names and nicknames than a character in a Tolstoy novel. Their scientific name is Macronectes Giganteus which means giant long swimmer. But they've been called Giant Fulmars, Gluttons, Mollymawks, Mother Careys, Sea Geese, Nellies, Vultures of the Seas, Bone-Shakers, Stinkers and Stinkpots. The latter two monikers derive from their dreaded habit of spitting a foul, oily juice containing regurgitated food at intruders. At Palmer Station everyone calls them GPs for short, which they pronounce, "jeeps." Patterson wants to know which factors determine the success of the GP population here. Throughout the Antarctic, these resourceful scavengers are in decline. Researchers believe that fishing practices are a major factor. Fishermen using long lines, cables tens of miles long with tens of thousands of hooks are a major hazard to the giant petrel. The birds fly behind boats, looking for an easy meal. As the lines are let out, the petrels (as well as other birds) dive for the bait before it sinks far below the surface and get hooked. Some researchers estimate that tens of thousands of giant petrels drown this way every year.

For some reason the GPs around Palmer Station are bucking the trend. Patterson has discovered that the population has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Annual breeding success is much higher than in other areas on the Antarctic Peninsula.

One way the researcher is trying to learn why the GPs here are thriving is by studying their feeding habits. Petrel parents trade places incubating eggs and protecting chicks while the other partner travels tremendous distances in search of food -- at first just for itself and later for its single chick. For the last four years, Patterson has been tracking these journeys by attaching radio transmitters to the birds' backs. The devices, 33 gram-marvels of miniaturization, take advantage of satellite communication systems as well as satellite position-locating technology. Once attached with sticky tape and nylon cable ties to a bird's back, the little gadget transmits its location several times a day to satellite receivers. Patterson can check where her subjects are anywhere in the world from her desk.

Patterson is a compact woman with a wicked sense of humor. One of her favorite pranks at Palmer Station is doctoring digital photographs, putting people or animals in places where they don't belong such as one with people riding penguins. She studied the human impact on Adelie Penguins at Montana State University, where she met Bill Fraser who she later married. Patterson's rapport with her "babies," as she calls the GPs of Humble Island, is remarkable. She knows them all intimately from a decade of visits to the windswept research site. She knows which male has nested with which female and whether they've been faithful.

Our first stop is "Nest One," which right now is occupied by the male. (She has a policy against naming birds, though she has made five exceptions to the rule: Psycho and Norman Bates (both aggressive nippers); Emma (named after the anarchist), Hollywood Girl (so mellow she has been exceptionally well-photographed) and Rusty (its nest has an old steel marker). Speaking soothingly, she lifts the bird up and plucks its egg out. It has "pipped" meaning the chick has chipped a hole in the shell and will be hatching in several days. The researcher always removes eggs and chicks temporarily when attaching transmitters in case the animal becomes aggressive. During the procedure she places a dummy white wooden egg in its place.

The Nest One male appears completely comfortable while Patterson pulls up some of its back feathers, presses them to the plastic transmitter, and wraps tape tightly around the bundle. As a "belt and suspenders" measure, she adds two nylon cable ties. Then she returns the egg and we're off to nest nine, occupied by a female. Before long, Patterson has mounted transmitters on four birds. Now she must wait until the mates return and these "tagged" birds leave to forage. I'll be posting their locations and other information about them on a daily basis. Please join me in the days ahead to see where they go.
In the Teacher Guide section, look for these related projects:

  •  Journal Jeopardy
  •  Giant Petrels

  • Read the January 13th entry
    Read the January 9th entry
    Read the December 29th entry
    Read the December 23rd entry