TeachWild Field Trip started on October 8. Head for home at 11:00 on October 12, 2013
Well! I made it here. Now I just have to survive the next few days. I will be writing the Blogs in MSWord and copying them onto this page. I will put the first one on tonight. I have a few photos and paragraphs to add yet. Catch up with me on Wednesday morning. I have put a few photos in the gallery but they still need some work. For some reason the photos are showing up as very condensed images. [note: this is because of a glitch with IE7 on my laptop. On most browsers such as the iPad, it works beautifully] Just click on the strip to view. Hope everyone had a good first day back.
Morning one Wednesday, 9th October 2013
We arrived at about 6pm Tuesday night and had a sandwich before getting ready to go over to the Penguin Parade. Graham (one of the local rangers) showed us around the viewing centre and took us down to the parade. The area is covered with burrows and about 2000 little penguins live around the visitor centre. The visitors are confined to the viewing platforms as the area is covered by burrows. The penguins are not scared of the visitors and walk right beside the viewing platforms. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed because there can be as many as 2000 people on the viewing platforms. Since the penguins come ashore after dark, there would be hundreds of flashes going off every minute which might scare the penguins. I bought a few postcards and I will send some away today so they should arrive before the end of the week.
It is almost as amusing to watch the visitors. As soon as the first 10 or so penguins come ashore and cross the beach, hundreds of visitors get up and leave. They have seen a penguin so they are satisfied. Others couldn’t seem to get enough. One penguin walked under the raised walkway where we were waiting. When it stopped on the other side of the walkway to preen, I worried the fence might collapse under the weight of tourists leaning on it to get a closer look at the penguin.
Back when I was young, they were generally known as Fairy Penguins but the correct name is Little Penguins and that is the name generally used these days by the rangers and scientists. Old habits are hard to break. If I use the term Fairy Penguins, you now know why. They are cute but scientists need to be careful when handling them because the males have a hooked beak and all the little penguins have very sharp claws on the ends of their webbed feet for scrambling up rocks. Adults are about 33 cm tall. (This is about as tall as a ruler.) We don’t see the young ones because they stay in the burrows. The sharp claws allow them to climb rocks that I doubt I could climb. Because they can easily put most of their weight in front of their feet, penguins are unlikely to fall backwards down a slope. They may fall forward but that doesn’t seem to worry them.
The penguins come ashore in groups called rafts. Last night, the rafts were fairly small (about ten at a time) but at some times of the year, they can come ashore in groups of a hundred or more. That must be quite a sight to see. As they cross the beach, their white chests show up very clearly from the floodlighting. The beach has lots of exposed rocks because storms have eroded a lot of the sand. It will come back but that takes time. Rangers sit in the commentary box and try to count the penguins as they cross the beach. That must be hard when they come ashore in their hundreds.
We were fortunate to have a ranger with us to tell us about the history of the area and the conservation methods being used. They used to weigh and measure birds coming ashore to keep track of the health of the colony. A Brazilian scientist has set up a weigh bridge with electronic wifi detectors and now most of the birds are micro chipped to keep handling to a minimum. The weigh bridge and computer box can be seen in the top-right picture in the gallery. Most of the burrows are like the one in picture two. Just holes about half a metre long in amongst the roots of the tussock grass. The scientists have set up some breeding boxes like the one in picture one so that they can access the birds for study without having to reach into the hole and drag them out. The scientists try to do as little handling as possible so that the birds do not become stressed.
Morning Two Thursday 10th October, 2013
Yesterday was an intro to surveying as most of the group hadn’t done any before. We went to the beach where we had seen the penguins come ashore and did six transects of the beach as scientifically as possible. Then we came back and entered the data on the computer website. It was a lot easier than the last time I tried. They have simplified the form and now I know what is wanted. My next job will be to get our school data onto the site.
Today, we will be doing a different type of transect on a different beach. This will be more the sort of methodology we can use with the junior classes. I would like to do some of these in the last couple of weeks before the next holidays. What do you think Miss C?
This afternoon, we will be trying to chemically type-test the plastic we discovered. Apparently, it is very easy to do. This term, I hope to run some chemistry as well as the physics. Should be fun.
The penguins occupy a large stretch of coastline where the tussock grass can support their nests. Beside the penguin colony, the shearwaters (medium sized birds as big as a small seagull) have colonized areas the penguins cannot use. There are thousands of shearwaters on the island and tonight we will be going out to watch them land just as it is getting dark. We will be helping the scientist catch some birds so we can collect some of their preening oil from a gland on the back of each bird. Then we will weigh the birds and record the data.
We have spent the morning doing an emu parade style cleanup of a beach further around the island. One of the interesting things discovered was the huge number of nurdles. “What are nurdles?” I hear you ask. (Very noisy when I can hear you from 3000 kilometres away. Talk quieter.) Nurdles are small pieces of plastic used to make other plastic objects. They are discs about 2mm across and 2mm thick. They are melted down to make plastic bottles and things like that. I’m not sure how they get into the waterways but there are millions on the beaches. In our emu parade across an area 30m long and 25m wide we found nearly 200 and probably missed twice as many since they are so small. There are probably millions on the beaches in the north but we cannot find them because they look just like tiny shell fragments. We will have to check it out when I get back. in the afternoon we did floatation tests on plastic samples to try to determine what types of plastic get washed ashore. It is a very simple process with applications in Chemistry and Physics. It should be fun to try it out with our samples at home.
It has been a very late night. Two members of the Victorian Ornithological Research group (VORG) came out to the site. They have been running research on the movements of shearwaters. These birds travel hundreds of kilometers a day and they are just starting to return from the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. We went out with the VORG team to help trap, weigh and band birds. Denise (CSIRO) also wanted to sample the preening oil for traces of plasticizers to try to work out how much plastic they had picked up. (more about that later) Most of the birds we found were healthy and still had plenty of fat and condition. This is quite surprising since they have just returned from a 12,000 km trip. We didn’t get back till nearly midnight and we have only managed to sample seven birds. We will be trying again on Friday night in another location.
Morning Three Friday 11th October 2013
Measuring the birds is very slow work. Each nesting box has to be opened and checked. If a bird is found in the box, it is picked up and checked for a leg band. After that it is put in a bag to be weighed. After weighing, birds without leg bands are given a new band and the bird goes to our team for measuring. The measurements taken are
- beak (length, width, depth and exposed length)
- Tarsus (lower leg bone)
- Wing (elbow to tip)
- Estimate of muscle and fat around the breastbone (by feeling around the birds keel)
Once the measurements are recorded, Denise massages the oil gland until some thick, gooey oil appears and then she takes a swipe of it on a cotton swab. The cotton is places in a sample jar to be sent away and analysed.
The bird is released back into its burrow. If the bird is held properly, it will not be damaged. If it gets a wing free, it needs to be released as they are very strong and fragile so it could break a wing. About half the birds were very quiet and half were very angry. Handlers needed gloves and safety glasses as the birds have very sharp beaks and claws. It was a late night but I enjoyed it.