The reason for our visit to Cap Cotter was to continue Charly Bost’s long-term studies of the macaroni penguins. During our 1-week stay we undertook five separate projects, beginning with attaching GPS loggers and dive time/depth recorders to eight breeding females. Like most crested penguins, macaroni penguins are highly synchronous breeders. In late December most pairs had hatched their single remaining egg (they invariably lose the first egg laid), and the males were brooding the young chicks while the females made a series of short feeding trips to sea. We searched for pairs at a nest with a chick, and identified the female by her clean plumage (the males become soiled from their prolonged stay ashore). We marked the males with dye (to help locate returning females), and carefully attached logging devices to the females’ backs and legs without damaging their feathers. By deploying the devices soon after we arrived at Cap Cotter, we hoped each female would complete two foraging trips before we removed the loggers on or before 26 December, when we started the walk back to Port aux Français. We also attached two tiny new accelerometer dive loggers to two further females, as a trial of new technology. To ensure we were not unduly affecting the birds’ behaviour, we marked a further 20 pairs of birds (not equipped with logging devices) at a nearby sub-colony, and monitored all 30 nest sites every 4 hours during daylight to record when the females were present.
Our second task was to check contents of over 300 nests along transect lines across a large colony, to contribute to long-term monitoring of breeding success. Third was checking about 200 penguins in a defined area of the colony for implanted transponder tags. The birds have no exterior markers applied, and so each individual needed a transponder reader waved over its rump, and a spot of dye applied to show that it had been checked. It sounds quick and easy when you write it! The next development with transponders is installation of an automated aerial array that can be left in place to monitor at a long-term scale the movements of birds between the colony and the sea. The dozens of dye-marked birds allowed Charly to determine the route the study birds used to move to and from the sea. More than a day was spent installing and fine-tuning the buried antennae, and attempting to protect the raised solar panels from lumbering elephant seals.
The final project was collecting blood, breast feathers and tail feathers from 17 immature birds and a similar sample of breeding females, for isotopic analysis. The breast feathers store an isotopic signature of the latitude that the birds were foraging at just before moulting (Jan-Feb for immature birds, a month or two later for breeders), the tail feathers a month or so later (as they continue to grow after the newly-moulted birds return to sea), and the blood shows where they have been feeding in the last month. The study is designed to determine whether young birds use the same foraging areas as adults. It is not feasible to attach GPS loggers to departing chicks, which do not return to the exact location they hatched at. Data loggers need to be retrieved to download the data they store, and so can only be used on birds that will reliably return to the same site for recapture (i.e. breeding adults, in this case).
Our stay at Cap Cotter included Christmas day, and Côme compiled our menu with great enthusiasm, while Charly produced Christmas decorations, candles, and a variety of food and drink treats from a metal box of field gear sent in advance from France.
We ate very well while at Cap Cotter, but our prompt departure from Port aux Français after disembarking from the Marion Dufresne meant that we missed out on bringing fresh fruit and vegetables delivered by the ship. Up until 24 Dec, I did most of the cooking (including skinning and baking a rabbit that Charly snared), but was happy to let my French companions plan and prepare the Christmas eve feast. We started with nuts, olives, chips and camembert (with Ricard aperitif) about 8 pm, and continued feasting until after midnight. Nibbles were followed by pate de foie gras on toast, accompanied by Cremant d’Alsace (method champagnoise), both provided by Charly. The main course was canard à l’orange baked on a bed of marrons (chestnuts), cèpes (wild mushrooms), onions and potatoes, served with cabernet sauvignon. We finished with pears smothered in chocolate sauce (prepared with a splash of single malt – my only contribution). Magnifique!
The Christmas day highlight was an excursion to climb Mont Campbell – the 143 m high sheer-sided volcanic peak 2.5 km south of Cap Cotter. It was a great vantage point to view the extensive plains and numerous lakes of Peninsule Courbet. The top and steep slopes are inaccessible to rabbits, and we saw a few large Pringlea plants (Kerguelen cabbage) and large clumps of Azorella, and harvested handfuls of small-leaved dandelions (introduced) for a green salad. We had another feast for Christmas dinner, though not as elaborate as Christmas eve, finishing with chocolate fondue (with fresh pineapple, dried figs and tinned apricots).
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
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