Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Photographic Ode to the Adelie

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you the much adored Adelie penguin.  Over-enthusiastic.  Over-excentric.  And often very clumsy.  Everyone wishes they were one, or at least had one for themselves...

Thursday, December 1, 2011


A typical mush pool of an atypical color.  I wonder why it is that color??!  Pup just came out of the water, mom always swimming nearby.

Mom peering through the mush

Our fearless french leader commanding the troops...

Darren and Thierry on our route out of North Base

Saturday, November 26, 2011

McMurdo 5k Turkey Trot 2011!

We like our turkeys cold!!  And well massaged....

Video is best viewed by watching from here!

(Sorry about the poor quality video...due to poor video and editing skills)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Slugs of the Ice

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Season Glimpse

The season begins with very clean, tidy, and organized food shelves.  A day later, its like Erebus erupted inside our hut...packages ripped apart, boxes strewn on the floor, cans balancing precariously on top of each other...

The last of the sunsets at camp.  Now we have incessant light at all hours of the day.
Emperor penguins on the move at Big Razorback Island.  These random groups, probably all juveniles or non-breeders, are seen every season a-wandering across the ice.  They always look lost.  Which makes sense because they are about 10 miles from the open ocean.

Penguin head

We grow big eyebrow-cicles down here.

Mom-pup pair at the Turk's Head colony.  Pups are getting FAT these days.  About 70 pounds at birth, twenty days later...170 pounds!!!  Mom's milk is over 40% fat...highest in any mammal (that I know of)

Nearly every evening there is a dazzling light display in some form over the mountains.  This is looking from McMurdo onto the sea ice, where a line of snow machines are parked.

A sudden storm ("condition one" storm; ie the worst category) during a typical day of seal research forced us into our emergency "Scott" tent.  Visibility went to nill, the wind was whipping, and five people had to cram inside the "tiny, wet Scott tent" (as Jessica put it; she was stuck in there with four guys!).  It seems alright to hunker down in a tent, but the humidity inside the tent is terrible...everything gets wet.  And its cold.  And you can't move because there is no room to. And you are there for another 6 hours.  We had a Condition One Dance Party to keep us entertained (and warm) when we dared to leave the tent.

Can you feel the humidity and the cold?  Luckily I brought an Outside Bozeman magazine to keep us entertained.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Camper 2011

Curious as to what the infamous "Happy Camper" entails?  Here's a quick peak, shot by crew member Darren Roberts, edited by Mary Lynn Price.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Antarctic Field Prep Continues"

Rounding out the team: Mary Lynn, our fabulous videographer and videopodcaster, has arrived!  Yay! Check out her new post here!

Within the week, our crew will be entirely trained for safe living and traveling on the sea ice and our field camp will be happily situated in the "Great White."  The female seals should already be giving birth to wet, baggy-skinned pups, directly on the cold ice, regardless of the temperature and weather.  Got to hand it to them...they are some phenomenal creatures.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Icy Arrival

How fitting, eh?  I'm on that plane somewhere...!  Photo courtesy Katie, my girlfriend.
Departure is bittersweet.  My girlfriend saw me off, ensuring I was well supplied with a collection of home-baked cookies (which I DID share with the rest of the crew) and a bundle of great memories to reminisce on while I'm on my way.  All the flight details were just the same as always: a jumble of airports and airplanes, masses of people, time compressing and expanding depending on what you are doing or thinking.  Amidst this, our crew met in the airport of Los Angeles, Darren* and Colleen* arrived first, followed by myself, then Thierry and Mike*, and finally Jess.  (*=newbies!).  After much excited yakking, we all boarded the near-midnight plane bound for Auckland, New Zealand.

Somehow, eventually, we found ourselves in Christchurch, home of the United States Antarctica Program and the point of departure (or ICE flight) for Antarctica.  Prior to deployment to that icy place, we are required to obtain our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear, which entails dressing up in all of our warmest clothing to ensure proper fit.  Everything about flight preparations is finely choreographed and detailed, and we are always well taken care of by the fine folks at the USAP.

During our time in Christchurch, we had time to explore the area, and with our hotel close to downtown, Thierry and I took a walk around...which is completely shut off due to the earthquake back in February.  The damage is frighteningly extensive, and it appears it will be a long time before it is opened again.  I believe about 200 people were killed in this earthquake, and my heart goes out to all those impacted.  I cannot imagine what they have gone through.

The crew...taking pictures of mallards.  From left to right: Thierry (PhD student), Michael, Darren, Jessica, Colleen.
The next day, after waking up early early, we headed back to USAP, grabbed our bags, passed through security, ate a little breakfast at the Antarctica center, and boarded the C17 (I love this thing!)

Typical ice flight shot

Enclosed in the belly of the C17, you basically see nothing of the world as it passes by (there are tiny little windows to peer out of, but usually its of clouds or nothing but ice).  "Flight attendants" are comprised of members of the Air Force (from Seattle, I believe)...they make this flight many time over.  After 6 hours of the loud hum of the plane and the droning rumble of the jets, you are quite suddenly landing on the ice!  Tires on ice, touch down is smooth as silk.

Bright blue cold day


the cold against the face, the crunch of the boots, the HUGE expansiveness of ICE!   Sooo happy to be back!

the infamous Ivan the Terra Bus

And so the adventure begins!  It will still be some time before we even see the seals due to training and research logistics in McMurdo, but it will be soon!!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Packing for the ICE!

BEFORE shot -- got everything I need at ready! On the left is most of my backpacking gear for post-Antarctica travel in New Zealand, and the majority of stuff on the right is my gear for Antarctica.

AFTER shot -- defying the laws of physics, everything fit...except for the furniture and the dog...they just wouldn't squeeze in.  And Abby was looking forward to going SOOO much!  Look how sad!  Awww :(
It is time again!  The southern-most mammal species in the world is calling! The Weddell seal research team from Montana State University will UNITE and DESCEND upon Antarctica for the 42nd season of population ecology research.  Our flights, from various airports, leave tomorrow, and will converge on Los Angeles, where the team will reunite and welcome its new team members.  From there, we fly to Christchurch, obtain our ECW gear (extreme cold weather gear), board the belly of a bird, and fly south to McMurdo Station on Oct 4, if all goes as planned.

This being my second year and knowing what to expect, there is a feeling of comfort in returning to this place.  Regardless of the frenzied winds and frozen extremities that accompany being present on the ice-laden continent, all I can say to those that can only ask "why?!?" is "BLEH!"  (that's the sound a Weddell seal makes when they are lounging on the ice even in the coldest, fiercest conditions...they love it down there and I do too!).

This year, our crew will have several avenues where you can keep up to date with the research:

1) Right here
2) the Weddell Seal Science video blog
3) Facebook
4) Twitter

And check out the official website, Weddell Seal Science, to learn about the history and purpose of the project, as well as watch some very cool videos produced by Mary Lynn Price (who will be joining us again this season)!


Thursday, August 4, 2011

I don't even know where to begin with this, my first post since April!  The past few months have flown by, and I hold much regret for my lack in writing.  My initial intent was to document the development and progress of Robert Garrott's new research endeavor, the Greater Yellowstone Area Mountain Ungulate Project, as well as the duties and challenges I have experienced in my position as part of the project.  Instead, I will summarize the current status and progress of the research I was/am/will be doing and then try harder in the future to write more!

During my time in Antarctica last fall-winter, Robert Garrott (from MSU, whom I have worked for in Antarctica and Yellowstone), offered me a full time position for 10.5 months as a "Research Assistant III," which I cheerfully accepted.  The position was threefold, including field work: (1) in Yellowstone during the spring performing elk population estimates of the Madison headwaters elk herd, (2) in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (which includes all mountain ranges surrounding Yellowstone NP) aiding in the development and field work of the mountain ungulate project, and then (3) back in Antarctica this fall, for anther season studying Weddell seal population ecology.

Madison headwaters elk - Spring 2011
Mark-resight surveys were done for about a month to obtain an estimate of the Madison elk population in Yellowstone for this spring, which has been in continuous decline.  Mark-resight basically says this:  If you have a known amount of collared individuals in a population, and you take the ratio of collared individuals to uncollared individuals that you see in a survey event, you can obtain a population estimate.  If you do a bunch of these surveys, you can get an average population estimate.  So, every day, we drove the drainages (Madison, Firehole, Gibbon rivers) counting all the elk, noting whether they were collared or not.  We were also able to put out two new collars during a Fish and Wildlife Techniques course offered by the Ecology Department at Montana State.  This upped the number of collars deployed to seven...but then two elk died not too long after (different individuals than were just collared).  They just couldn't outlast the winter, which was a very harsh one.

These surveys resulted in a final spring population estimate of 47, down significantly from last years estimate of 72.

Greater Yellowstone area Mountain Ungulate Project

The project has its beginnings in 2009, as Robert Garrott began entertaining and acting on an idea to study bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.  His idea gained momentum as more state and federal agencies took interest in the research.  It may be of surprise to you to know that mountain goats are not native to the Yellowstone area.  Biologists in the 1950's and onward began introducing mountain goats to several ranges in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho for sportsman.  Since those introductions, mountain goats have been expanding, pushing further into the high mountains in and around Yellowstone.  The expansion of this white climbers range has butted right into bighorn sheep range, and there is much concern over the effects of this, as bighorn are notorious for succumbing to many different pressures, primarily diseases, destruction of habitat, and becoming pancaked on roads and highways.  So what effects are the nonnative mountain goat having on the bighorn sheep?  No one really knows.

This, and also the interest in much more detailed habitat models, population dynamics, and spatial  dynamics for both species, has motivated biologists from the tristate area to form a large collaboration in the pursuit of mountain ungulate knowledge. ("Ungulate" refers to any hoofed animal, "mountain ungulate" refers to those hoofed animals that inhabit the high mountain areas, which, in our case, is only the mountain goat and the bighorn sheep.)

And so I was hired.

Since then, my skillset as an aspiring ecologist has quadrupled.

Here is a rundown of the tasks I have been charged with:

--Writing of proposals to obtain permits for radio-collar related capture for various agencies, including Yellowstone NP, US Forest Service, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Wyoming Game and Fish Department
--Writing of a proposal for the International Animal Care and Use Committee
--Writing of a proposal for a US Geological Survey grant (unsuccessful)
--Creation of a database for capture and radio-collar data (GPS and VHF)
--Videography and editing for media to be published online
--Initiating the development of a website for the project (soon to be published!  I will let you know!)
--Ordering field equipment
--Collecting spring reproduction data from collared bighorn sheep
--Performing occupancy surveys as part of Megan O'Reilly's Masters project (more on this later!)

From this viewpoint (in the Gros Ventres, WY), we found three of the collared ewes we were seeking, two with lambs.

Splendid blendin'

Winter-worn coat of a collared sheep.  Looks diseased(!), but normal for this time of year.   Give her a few weeks, and she will look like she's off to the Prom.

Weddell Seal Ecology, Antarctica
Logistics for getting down to Antarctica are quite intense, and these are being spearheaded by PhD student Thierry Chambert, whom I worked with last year on the ice.  It is required to be PQ'd (physically qualified) to lessen the chances that they will have to fly you back to civilization with some raging fingernail disease.  So, after two dentist visits (luckily I didn't have to do a physical again this year), I was PQ'd, and now I'm ready to tag some seals!  We depart around Oct. 1 for New Zealand, and then McMurdo, Antarctica.
Last season, we successfully deployed a round of temperature tags on seal pups and got some very cool data looking at how much time they spend swimming.  See below!  

The following is data collected from temperature tag sensors placed on the rear flippers from two Weddell seal pups.  One swims many more times in its life.  How do we know this (see if there are any biological thinkers out there!)????

This up and coming season, I will be organizing and leading the deployment of another round of temperature tags.  More on this to come!


If you are interested in getting a better glimpse of the challenges and work of a dedicated biologist currently undertaking a Master's degree, Robert Miller (at Boise State University) has a wonderful blog documenting all aspects of the process as he attempts to better understand Northern goshawk ecology.