Update #4

Finally, after twelve days since we left the States, we are ready to go to work. Our efforts are informed by some pioneering work by the Italian researcher Carlo Baroni. He has done much of the survey work to locate abandoned colonies over years past, and has published useful papers (eg. Baroni and Orombelli, 1994) and a geomorphological map (warning: this is a large file) of the area. So we know that there are abandoned colonies within walking distance from Terra Nova at Campo Icaro. We weren’t prepared for how extensive the site was, however. This must have been a very large colony during its peak, as pebble mounds blanket much of the flat terrace above the sea and run high up the hillside.

Steve chose a likely-looking mound, and we went to work. In short order we exposed the typical red ornithogenic soil of penguin mounds, but we were still unsure of deposit depth and quality of preservation, as we are further north here than along the southern Ross Sea, and the ground is moister. But we needn’t have worried- our second pit was quite deep, and we exposed a well-preserved mummy of an adult penguin at depth. Penguin bones were also abundant, as well as eggshell fragments that Ed needs for his isotope study. It is clear by the end of our first day that this is likely to be a successful season.

The area around Campo Icaro is scenic, with a granite seastack below the point, and while we were working a large iceberg blew in with a small group of penguins aboard, so we got a great view of their antics. Jurek was pleased to find more vegetation than near McMurdo, as demonstrated by this “jungle” of algae he found near our work site. Some ominous clouds on the horizon caused concerns for the next day’s weather, but we needn’t have been concerned just yet. The next day began cloudy, but by mid-day the sun was shining again and we enjoyed the temperate climate of what is known as the “banana belt” of the Victoria Coast. Although the actual temperatures rise no higher than freezing, the intensity of the sun when the winds are calm make stripping down to our lightest layers a requirement.

We concluded our work at Campo Icaro, and staged our heavy sediment bags for pickup by helicopter and transport to the lab at the end of the day. On Tuesday we moved further south, this time with a short ride in the helicopter to a site we named Halfway Headland, for its position relative to Adelie Cove. This site was again covered with numerous pebble mounds, although due to the rocky nature of the substrate we guessed that the deposits would be shallow. Steve proposed a series of pits from the lowest terrace to the highest mounds on top of a small hill. In this highest test pit, we uncovered another penguin mummy, this one of a small chick as often found in the abandoned colonies. This skua sat on a nearby rock and monitored our progress.

As we finished this final pit for the day, Jurek discovered a lichen “forest” (Usnea sp.), complete with lofty vegetation at least 15 cm high! We staged the sediment bags, and walked further south to an unnamed fjord before turning back towards the station for our two-hour hike home past Skua Lake and wonderful examples of wind-sculpted tafoni. On the way back we passed by the Italian seismic station, embedded deeply in a granite tomb. We now had quite a lot of housekeeping to take care of, with many kilos of sediment to wash and wet-screen, dry, dry-screen, and pick the coarse fraction for bones and shells. We spent a long day trading shifts screen-washing, and at the end of the day realized we needed another day to catch up before accumulating more sediment. So on Wednesday we continued washing, and now we were anxious to get back out while the glorious weather held.

Early Thurday morning we loaded into the helicopter with Angus, and took off for Adélie Cove, where there is an active penguin colony and more abandoned sites discovered by Baroni. We surveyed a complex series of lateral moraines to the Boulder Clay Glacier for pebble mounds up high, finding none, but as we approached the colony a number of previously occupied sites appeared. We dug one shallow pit, dry-screening in the field to reduce the weight of bags we had to carry back up to the landing site, located well away from the birds to reduce their stress. Then we entered the fringe of the colony to survey for more sites and to witness the action. The Adélie Cove colony contains approximately 10,000 birds, far smaller than the Crozier Colony on Ross Island but still impressive. The colony is located on lower-angled slope above a steep cliff over the sea, and I found a spot where an older site was eroding on its downhill side, exposing a profile of the sediments. We cleaned up the profile, and collected a grab sample for analysis. Then Steve found a sizeable abandoned site below the main colony, so we excavated our final test pit there.

As he carried gear back up to the helo site, Ed and I walked down to the ice edge to watch the birds. One can’t fail to be impressed with the activities at the ice edge. By moving very slowly, we were able to approach quite closely with the birds paying us no mind, and we watched their conversion from awkward, silly clowns that stagger about like Charlie Chaplin to awesome marine creatures. Once in the water, they virtually fly, accelerating at a rate that doesn’t even seem possible. I attempted to capture this movement with my digital camera, but they move so fast it is hard to follow them or anticipate them. To get to the ice edge, they followed another penguin super-highway, this one far steeper than any I have seen before. We loaded our sediments into a cargo net, and awaited arrival by the helo for pickup.

Dinner at the base was typically wonderful, but we got a special treat at the end of our meal. Whenever anyone here has a birthday, the cook Antonio makes a special cake, Happy Birthday is sung to the celebrants (in Italian of course), and grappa is poured for all. Quite a pleasant distraction for the evening. We have planned to wash sediments for the weekend, so the weather is not an issue for now. But the word is out that a storm is coming. Saturday starts out gray and dismal, and as the day goes on the ceiling lowers. While we screen wash on this cold day, a Russian icebreaker serving as a tour ship arrives, and herds of older tourists are unloaded from Zodiacs in the breaking surf to make a quick circuit of the base, then back to the lap of luxury in their cabins. As the ship departs, it cuts a quick swath in the sea ice in front of the dock to help the Italians clear the path, then heads back for Tasmania. Snowfall begins in the late afternoon, and becomes a full blizzard later. By Sunday more than 6” of snow has fallen and continued throughout the day. The next weeks plans have been complicated by this turn in the weather, as the sites will be hidden by fresh snow for some days to come.

More later, Larry

On to Update #5

Return to Updates