Recap of the 2013 field season

Sorry for the silence, I’ll try and sum up last year’s field season now.

After the first trips to Lion Island and Bowen Island (see here and here), I made it to Lion Island a second time before embarking on an exciting trip to South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. On KI, we met Diane and Katharina who are surveying the penguins in the Gulf St. Vincent region. We were able to help them with their surveys, exchange experience and methods and I got to take few penguin blood samples, too! Have a look at the highlights of our road trip below.

Upon our return to Sydney, the weather continued to act up. I had planned to join the UNSW Underwaterclub on their dive trip to Broughton Island in Myall Lakes National Park, currently the most northern breeding colony of Little Penguins. The trip would have allowed me to dive during the day and sample penguins at night, with plenty of keen volunteers to help me out at no extra cost. But, you guessed it, it was not meant to be. At extremely short notice, the dive club had to change their plans as camping on the island would no longer have been safe – and so my wonderful SIT intern Melissa and I had an unexpected, rainy weekend off and a week of lab work before we could finally head out, not yet to Broughton Island but to Lion Island again. The weather was not pleasant (hence the lack of photographic evidence), but Melissa and Monica, an experienced penguin handler, kept up nicely. Penguins obviously do not mind rain, so we counted only slightly lower numbers than the trip before – which was around peak breeding.

We returned on Sunday 17 November, thinking we’d have to be in Port Stephens on Monday morning, but were not too disappointed when I received a call and the plan changed again – giving us an extra day in Sydney. On Monday afternoon, we were finally off to Port Stephens, where we spent the night in the lovely YHA at Samurai Beach. Unfortunately, we did not have too much time to look for the Koala we were told lives in one of the trees nearby.

At 8am sharp on Tuesday morning, we were to meet at the Nelson Bay Marina to get on the boat to Broughton Island. This was also where we met the five NPWS officers who would share the camp with us – and being as bad with names as I am, I cannot remember a single one of them. Despite their namelessness, the guys were an interesting bunch to talk to (and have a beer with) and a great help. They had lots of gear that made the trip one of the most comfortable ones I had been on. Camping shower? Yes, please!
But the true reason Melissa and I went to Broughton Island was to catch some penguins and take a tiny blood sample. This proved easier said than done, as we did find one burrow during day 1, but not a single penguin made it into our custom-built penguin fence. We did hear the occasional “arrival squak”, but the penguins were obviously not coming ashore at the spot we had identified as the landing site. So we spent the second day trying as hard as we could to find more burrows, came across a pair of chicks and one more adult, but if it had not been for the second night, which we spent among the rocks on the far end of the beach, we would never have reached our decent sample size of 11.

I still had not been back to Bowen Island after the initial trip in October, so I was really keen to get there the following weekend. We therefore had to be picked up from Broughton Island before the NPSW guys were done with building the hut and maintenance work. Thanks to Peta, the ranger for the area, we were picked up by a Marine Parks boat around noon on Thursday, so we were back in Sydney in the afternoon and ready to drive down to Jervis Bay the next day. But guess what? The wind picked up again and we had to cancel once more. Definitely not a lucky field season this year!

We tried again the following Monday, which was still too rough, and so was Tuesday, but on Wednesday, 27th November, we finally made it to Bowen Island for the second time in 2013. This time, there were three of us, Melissa, Toki and myself. We found some delicous-looking physalis on the island and it became a routine to have one or two each during our rounds of checking the penguin burrows. We also noticed some amazing-looking spiders next to the path and were extra careful not to destroy their nets.
Due to our sub-optimal timing, we were only able to stay for two days, until Friday, but a short trip is much better than none at all!

I should probably mention that a big plus of the latest round of trip cancellation and rescheduling was that I was able to pick up my gorgeous sister from the airport and spend a few days with here while she was getting over her jetlag and ready to start her clerkship in the neurology department of a big Sydney hospital.

In December, we received the great news that my grant application to include more research on parasitism in Little Penguins was successful, and so I tried to enable some people from a collaborating group at ANU to join me on the last remaining field trips for the year, while Melissa was writing up her report about mitochondrial DNA sequences in the penguins she had got to know.

Another funny coincident occurred during the following weekend, when we were out hiking in Berowra Valley NP but my sister did not feel up to walking the whole way and we ended up hitching a ride with a guy who turned out to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and who, after we’d started talking about penguins, told me he’d just received a text message asking whether he’d want to volunteer for a penguin survey on Lion Island. I did not know National Parks were conducting surveys on the island, and neither did the responsible ranger know I was doing research there. Small world, but communication is key!

Unfortunately, I was too late to join National Parks on their surveys, but ended up going to Lion Island again with Laura from Germany and Katie from ANU on Saturday, 14th December. We spent two beautiful days, but did not see many penguins, as most of them had already left to fatten up before moult. At least I got to introduce my sister and natural penguin handling talent to my study animals!

You might think that’s it, because Christmas was approaching fast and most penguins had already left Lion Island by the time we conducted our fourth and last survey there – but don’t forget about Bowen Island! I’d only made it to Bowen twice this season, and so we planned the last trip for the weekend right before Christmas. But it would not be 2013 without a bit of drama, and the weather forecast indeed showed a strong wind warning on Thursday afternoon, while we were getting ready to drive to Jervis Bay. Luckily, I checked again in the evening and the forecast had been downgraded, it looked like there might be a small window of opportunity in the early morning and our amazing supporter Martin at Booderee National Park did not hesitate to drive us up to the beach on the morning of Friday, December 20th, and pick us up on the 23rd, when most others were already on their summer vacation.

So to sum up, this year was much more stressful in terms of planning and rescheduling field work, but I did end up getting some great samples and good data. Stay tuned for a sneak peek at my survey results soon, and enjoy some nice pictures from Bowen Island!