Earthwatch 2004 Project: South African Penguins

Diary of Team 5

2004 Teams:                      5
2003 Teams:         1; 2; 3; 4
2002 Teams:             1; 2; 6
2001 Teams: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6

Day 1 (Monday, July 12, 2004)

Photo Michael Leibow
Cape Town and Table Mountain With Tablecloth

Most of the team arrived at the Clocktower at the Waterfront at 1 pm. Jen and Michael had airline problems and missed the delicious pancake lunch as well as their luggage! Terri and Brenda had time to shop before the ferry left, while Les took Jen and Michael for a whirlwind tour of "places to buy suitable clothing at the Waterfront."

A beautiful day afforded smooth passage on the ferry and a spectacular view of Capetown and Table Mountain with a tablecloth of clouds.

At the harbor, we spotted our first penguins (!) and a shy Steenbok. A quiche dinner and unpacking occupied the rest of the evening.

Day 2 (Tuesday, July 13, 2004)

Our first day in the field. We met Mario Leshoro (otherwise known as "MPS" for "Mario Positioning System" because he knows where everything is) and he took us around to about half of the nests that are under study this year. We learned how to record the data from the nests, how to band penguins and how to mark them with picric acid, a bright yellow plumage dye which lets us determine which penguin of a pair is on the nest (when neither is banded.)

Photo Chris Lotz
"Follow the feather" is always good advice when working with Mario in the field. As well as being a stylish fashion statement, the feather makes him easy to find even in the middle of dense bushes.
Team 3
Photo Michael Leibow
Two Posing Eland
Team 3
Photo Michael Leibow
Springbok Pronking
This photo is a composite of several showing a couple of young Springbok pronking.

After a quick lunch of sandwiches and fruit, Chris drove Brenda, Terri, Jen and Michael around the island to do a game census. We saw Bontebok, Steenbok, Springbok and a large herd of Fallow Deer. There are three Eland on the island; normally quite shy, all three appeared and posed for pictures and video, two quite close to the bakkie (a little truck commonly used for transportation on the island.)

Bruce heroically travelled to Cape Town to retrieve Jen and Michael's luggage, which had been found. After a dinner of pork chops and sausage cooked by Bruce and Chris, we transferred nest data from Bruce's notebook to the nest cards, and then entered the data into the database.

Day 3 (Wednesday, July 14, 2004)

Monitoring the rest of the nests in the morning, this time using the nest cards. Having the extra information, a history of what had been observed by previous teams at each nest, made it a little easier (for instance, an empty nest doesn't mean it was abandoned if the last occupants were a couple of grown chicks.) Most of us picked up our first penguin - watch out for your eyes and hands!

Bruce found a couple of jewel-like chameleons and a large, gentle mole snake:

Photo Michael Leibow
Chameleon in the Hand
Photo Michael Leibow
Chameleon in the Bush
Photo Michael Leibow
Bruce with Mole Snake
Photo Michael Leibow
Terri with Mole Snake
Photo Michael Leibow
Cormorants on the Jetty
Photo Michael Leibow
Surprise Visitor - an African Darter

After lunch, we monitored the Bank Cormorant nests on the old jetty.

Then we split into teams and tramped through the brush looking for "retraps" (previously banded penguins) and recording the numbers on the bands. This helps keep track of birds banded in the Apollo Sea and Treasure spills, as well as other SANCCOB releases.

Bruce, Brenda and Terri found an oiled penguin on the beach. Bruce made a spectacular charge down the beach to catch it. It was brought back to the house, where Brenda dubbed it "Picric"; fortunately, Terri rehabilitates seabirds professionally and was able to assist Bruce in hydrating the bird (this involved putting a tube into its stomach and pouring in a kind of "seabird Gatorade" containing water and electrolytes - not nearly as traumatic as it sounds!) It's very important to keep a rescued bird hydrated, and since the ferries stop running before sunset, we'd have to keep it in the house overnight. Arrangements were made for Picric to be taken to SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Seabirds) in the morning for de-oiling and rehabilitation, after a morning hydration.

Dinner was chicken and rice, cooked by Brenda and Terri.

Day 4 (Thursday, July 15, 2004)

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguin X-ing

An early start - we were up at dawn and split into two teams to monitor traffic at penguin crossings. One team observed a penguin highway, read bands when possible and timed some of the crossings. The other team camped out by a penguin crossing area of a human road, counted penguin and motor vehicle traffic and scowled sternly at speeders (most slowed or stopped for penguins, however.)

Photo Michael Leibow
Brenda Bands a Penguin

Using a GPS and MPS, we then found a few penguin nests that we'd missed the past two days. After that, Bruce showed us the areas along the shore where penguins hang out when they moult, and we counted the ones that were currently moulting (not a lot, as it's very off-peak season for moulting.)

We were joined by Marienne de Villiers for diet sampling; we trapped ten penguins and made them throw up some of the contents of their stomachs. This is done by funneling water into the stomach, then turning the penguin upside down and massaging gently until some fish comes out. It sounds mean, but yields valuable info about what they have been catching (anchovies, pilchards, squid, beaked sandfish and even the odd herring) and how human fishing is impacting them. Marienne had a heart rate monitor and a tape recorder to check how much the penguins were stressed by this process. Team members took turns helping Bruce do the flushing and holding the birds while the heart rate monitoring was done.

Photo Michael Leibow
Barfing Penguin

Photo Michael Leibow
Jen Monitoring Heart Rate

Photo Michael Leibow
What's in a Penguin's Stomach

Dinner was fish, with Michael's famous potato leek soup to start off.

Day 5 (Friday, July 16, 2004)

Photo Michael Leibow
The Penguin Hunter
Bruce does his best Steve Irwin impression before making a serious attempt to nab an oiled penguin. He didn't get this one (yet) but rescued three others during his week as PI (Principal Investigator.)

In the morning, we split into two groups to do nest monitoring and look for retraps. The group monitoring the Kramat area nests also took a quick look around for Peter the Penguin, but didn't find him. However, another oiled bird was found. It was in the middle of a large bush and Bruce decided to go back for it later, with the full team, when we could surround the bush.

A nest with three eggs was being watched closely; this is rare, and usually not all the eggs end up as adult birds. To our surprise, there was now a fourth egg. The three previous eggs have been there a month at least, so it's not known if they will hatch at all.

At lunch, we found we were entirely out of bread. Chris, Terri and Brenda whipped up some very tasty pancakes, which were a more than adequate substitute!

In the afternoon, we did a beach clean up (big catches: a shoe, a bucket, a big tire; small catches: lots of drinking straws, lots of fishing line.)

Bruce had seen another oiled penguin and tried to catch it, but it got away.

Photo Michael Leibow
Black Crowned Night Heron

Photo Michael Leibow
Little Egret

After that, we were treated to some birdwatching in Van Riebeeck's Quarry.

The water was very still, and Brenda got some terrific video of a Little Egret pecking at its own reflection.

We went back to the bush with the oiled penguin, and Bruce caught it easily. This visitor was also hydrated and kept overnight (aftrer being named "Petrol" by Brenda) though it proved a bit noisier than the previous houseguest.

Day 6 (Saturday, July 17, 2004)

Photo Michael Leibow
Brenda with "Petrol"

Photo Michael Leibow
Oiled Birds

Day off - we took the ferry to Cape Town. As it unloaded, we saw an adorable child get off carrying a loaf of bread. Jen, Chris and Terri discussed trying to bribe her for it, but in the end decided we could wait until we got to the Pick 'n' Pay on the mainland.

Chris got his employee Cheryl to drive us around for the day. We went for a visit to SANCCOB, where we dropped off "Petrol" and saw the intake procedure. Nola Parsons, the SANCCOB veterinarian, took us on a tour. (see more SANCCOB photos here)

After we'd bought every T-shirt left at SANCCOB (and anything else that wasn't nailed down) Cheryl took us to a photo spot on the beach:

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguins Go Swimming
Cleaned penguins must be able to swim for an hour and still be waterproof before they can be released

Photo Michael Leibow
Terri, Brenda, Michael and Jen

Photo Michael Leibow

We took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, where we had lunch and saw some birds:

Photo Michael Leibow
White-necked Raven

Photo Michael Leibow
Black Eagle

and some views:

Photo Michael Leibow
Waterfront from Table Mountain

Photo Michael Leibow
Robben Island from Table Mountain

Peter and Barbara Barham, the PIs for Week 2, had arrived and by the time we got back to the island had cooked a magnificent meal (Peter's written a book, The Science of Cooking.) We had another house guest, this time a juvenile ("Perky") that had been found, completely covered in oil, in the drip tray under a generator at the power station.

Day 7 (Sunday, July 18, 2004)

Another day off - this time, Chris drove us to Kirstenbosch for a birder's tour of the gardens.

Photo Jen Beaven
Michael Shooting

Photo Michael Leibow
Cape White-eye

We had lunch in Simon's Town overlooking the bay, then went to see the somewhat more tame penguins at Boulders. An adult was obligingly feeding two chicks in perfect camera range (see video here or download here- Quicktime mp4 approximately 8M), and we got lots of video of penguins lounging on the beach.

Photo Jen Beaven

Photo Jen Beaven
Beach Bums

We returned to Cape Town with our purses a lot lighter - the Boulders souvenir shop had enough copies of "Peter the Penguin" for all, plus T-shirts, fluffy stuffie penguins, and many other things.

We did some food shopping for the house, and returned to another fabulous meal by Peter and Barbara (we could get used to this!)

Day 8 (Monday, July 19, 2004)

Chris obligingly took Brenda, Jen and Michael for a sunrise photo shoot on the sand beach.

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguins Going to Work

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguins Hanging Around

We split into two teams to monitor the nests. Brenda was delighted to see the penguin she had previously caught on its nest. In the afternoon, we split into teams and looked for retraps. Right before penguin rush hour, we set up at three spots near the penguin highways and spent the next two hours counting birds and looking for band numbers.

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguins Going Home

Photo Michael Leibow
I Had a Rough Day

Jen and Michael had a moment of anticipation as a bird with only A1405 visible on its band waddled into spotting scope view and preened for a while. Finally it shrugged and revealed the whole number - A14054 (oh well!) (Peter the Penguin's band number is A14059.)

Day 9 (Tuesday, July 20, 2004)

Woke up to a very foggy morning. We had to wait until it lifted enough for us to go to the shore to do a wader count. We split into two groups at Van Riebeeck's Quarry and walked in opposite directions around the island, counting shorebirds until we met at the other side of the island. As we walked, Table Mountain came gradually into view, and we got a few pictures of it rising from the mist.

Photo Jen Beaven
Table Mountain in the Mist

We saw mainly oystercatchers, kelp gulls, little egrets and sacred ibis.

Photo Jen Beaven
Two Oystercatchers

Photo Jen Beaven
Hadada Ibis

Photo Jen Beaven
Spotted Dikkop

And some penguins:

Photo Jen Beaven
Beach Penguins

Photo Jen Beaven
Penguins on the Rocks

In the afternoon, we caught up on data entry and worked on photographs and video. Jen and Michael went with Peter to the museum to try to take a picture of penguins crossing in front of the cannon. No penguins did that, but two penguins did this:

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguin about to get lucky

Photo Michael Leibow

Photo Michael Leibow

Photo Michael Leibow

Day 10 (Wednesday, July 21, 2004)

Photo Jen Beaven
Cool Jeans!

We split into three groups to do nest monitoring in the morning. Brenda's bird A20444 had its partner banded with A20448. In the afternoon, we split up into three groups to do retraps. At rush hour, Jen and Michael set up by the penguin highway to read bands and take pictures. After sitting quite still for two hours, Michael had just run out of flash card "film" when two curious penguins walked under his chair and tested his pants and shirt as possible nest material. Fortunately, Jen got it on video. (See video here or download here- Quicktime mp4 approximately 7M.)

Terri, Brenda and Barbara went on a game drive with Chris, seeing almost the same animals as last week's game drive (though the Eland were all off somewhere, probably taking calls from their agents.)

We came home to a delicious meal of chicken curry. Les Underhill joined us for dinner and stayed overnight, giving us a presentation about the Treasure spill.

Day 11 (Thursday, July 22, 2004)

In the morning, Chris took Les to the harbor to catch the 6:30 ferry and let Jen and Michael tag along and go on to the sand beach for another dawn photo shoot.

Photo Michael Leibow
Going In

Photo Michael Leibow
Surf Penguins

At a more decent hour, we had a tour of the prison museum. It was interesting and inspiring. The "Cell Stories" exhibit is particularly moving, and we could easily have spent longer there.

Photo Michael Leibow
Robben Island Museum

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguin Nesting in the Courtyard

We walked home via the store, and had our last lunch on the island (frankfurters and baked beans) then cleaned the house and caught up with the last data entry tasks.

Our reward was to be taken to the sand beach (by Chris) to observe and photograph the penguins hanging out on the beach, surfing, and coming home from "work" full of fish. We didn't want to leave.

Photo Michael Leibow
Chris and Barbara

Photo Michael Leibow
Chris and Terri

Photo Michael Leibow
Penguin With Bowtie

Photo Michael Leibow
Here Come the Penguins Over the Hill

Photo Michael Leibow
A Raft of Penguins

Fog rolled in briefly, and we heard the foghorn for the first time. Also for the first time, we saw how quickly the weather on Robben Island could change.

For our last dinner on the island, we went to the restaurant. After hearing stories of inedible and indescribable (and possibly unidentifiable) scary meals in the past, we got a happy surprise. The restaurant turned out to be under the new management of a talented chef who gave us a choice of mince or hake (both terrific.) We planned another dawn photo session if the weather was willing.

Day 12 (Friday, July 23, 2004)

At 6:00 am, Chris and Jen decided that there was too much wind for a photo shoot on the beach. Jen and Michael went back to sleep; meanwhile, Chris had an emergency phone call from the mainland and took off for the harbor to sit in on the ferry captains' meeting. Finding out that weather (now heavy rain as well as wind) permitted only one trip to Cape Town today, Chris persuaded the captains to wait for us and flew back to the house. The team was awakened by Peter pounding on our doors, saying "Got to leave straightaway!" Fortunately, we'd packed most of our stuff the day before, so we collected our luggage in record time. The oldest and most seaworthy of the ferries, the Diaz, safely carried us over rolling waves that made some of the team feel like penguins about to give up diet samples.

Rob Crawford rescued Peter and Barbara, and Les Underhill ferried team members to Chris' house, where we dried off and were joined by the ever-cheerful Cheryl, who drove us all to the Canal Walk mall for lunch at the Ocean Basket and a little shopping. Afterwards, a trip to the Avian Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town (ADU) to finally meet expedition master coordinator Sue Kuyper.

Then it was off to the airport for Michael, Jen and Terri, while Brenda spent a few more days in Cape Town.

Related Links:
Earthwatch Institute
University of Cape Town
University of Cape Town Avian Demography UnitProject co-sponsor
University of BristolProject co-sponsor
Robben Island MuseumProject co-sponsor
Marine and Coastal Management of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and TourismProject co-sponsor
SANCCOBSouth African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds
Birding EcotoursChris Lotz' company
Peter and Barbara Barham's Penguin PagesPeter and Barbara were Pricipal Investigators the second week of the project
PengcognitoJen's penguin comic strip