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The Penguin Diaries - 15 of 36

Sunday, 18 February 2001
"...Packing up and heading north..."

We're in our final two weeks at Cape Shirreff. I don't really want to leave, but everyone including the birds & seals are packing up & heading north. It's a rough time for the penguins. The molt is happening full force & many of the non-breeding penguins already have all of their new feathers & just have to regrow their stiff tails. Now it's time for the breeders to start molting. The chinstrap parents have cut off their chicks & are no longer feeding them. After waiting patiently for a while, the chicks are forced to make their way to sea & fend for themselves - no swimming lessons, no advice on how to catch krill, no warnings about the hazards of the ocean, no parents to protect them. The poor little guys huddle in groups on the shore trying to get up the nerve to jump in. The adults preening by the shore harass & peck at the poor little chicks. That's tough love if I've ever seen it. I walked the beach & saw several dozen carcasses of fledgers who didn't make it very far. Leopard seals grab them & toss them to invert their skin. Right now the leopards aren't even eating all of the meat; just a nibble before they catch another defenseless little neophyte. Count yourself lucky you weren't born a chinstrap penguin. The gentoo chicks have it better. Their parents are still feeding them. The gentoos over winter here, so they are in less of a hurry to get on with their lives. Gentoo chicks are still fuzzy, cute & curious. They come up & look at you hoping for food. The feeding chases continue. In the next week or so they will start making their first trips to sea. Today it's beautiful & sunny. We had waffles on the porch & watched breaching whales this am. It's almost warm enough to wear a t-shirt. It seems like we get a spectacular day every 2 weeks or so, & when we do, there is no place more beautiful in the world. The seal pups have taken to wrestling on our porch. It's hilarious to watch their antics. We finished our last pup weights this week. That was a back-breaking chore. Most of the pups weigh 20kg now - imagine chasing, tackling, & carrying several dozen (4 of us caught 100 pups) 45 lb biting, squirming, muscular seal pups a couple hundred meters to be weighed & tagged. I've got a sore back & knees & plenty of bruises, but we're done. No more pup weights this year. We also finished our chick banding extravaganza - 1,000 muddy chinstrap chicks are now sporting their flashy new flipper bands & the 9 of us island residents have some nasty, smelly field clothes that will never be the same again. What other news... been doing a lot of hiking on the Cape during nice days. We spent the whole day yesterday trekking to our 26 gull territories to map & mark the nests for future reference. Our main penguin work now happens in the afternoons. We patrol the beaches to resight banded birds (part of a study in survival rates) & we have to catch 200 banded chinstrap fledglings to weigh them (comparing fledge weights with survival). Poor little fledglings - as if life isn't hard enough for them - we walk the beach & nab them before they head to sea. They are pretty light because their parents haven't fed them recently. I always wish them luck as I send them off & hope they'll make it back next year. Only about 10% will survive. Not much else from here. I need to head out into the field. Our days are getting shorter - it is dark by 11pm: ( Enjoy the arrival of spring.

Love, Iris 

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