Stories from the Field: South African Penguins
Stories from the Field: South African Penguins
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Stories from the Field: South African Penguins

The purpose of the census was to determine the trend in African penguin breeding numbers. In the past few years there had been a decreasing trend, but the good news was that we saw an increasing trend this year.

Day 1 - August 20
This was the first day of our African penguin journey on Robben Island, South Africa. All the team members gathered in Cape Town, beside the waterfront. We had Sue from Earthwatch; Rob and Mario from Marine and Coastal Management; Les and Genevieve from the University of Cape Town; Richard, our team leader, from the University of Bristol; and team members from both West and East - Maureen and Becks from the U.K., Yukari from Japan, and me from Hong Kong.

Tourists to Robben Island, a World Heritage Site, can normally only visit the island on a coach tour following the standard routes, but as part of an Earthwatch research team we could go around the island to learn more about its habitats, so it would be a really good experience for us.

The ferry took around 30 minutes for us to dock at Robben Island. Then we rode in a bakki to our accommodations in a four-room, self-catering house. After we had unpacked, Richard drove us around the island. We saw not only hundreds of African penguins, but also many other birds, such as African black oystercatchers, kelp gulls, Hartlaub’s gulls, and others. We also saw ostriches, fallow deer, steenbok, bontebok, eland, springbok, and lots of rabbits.

In the evening, Richard gave a presentation about safety and the background to the island, so we had a better idea of the different tasks we would do in the coming days and the history of Robben Island.
There was a major oil spill in 2000 when 19,000 penguins were covered in oil, of which 16,000 were cleaned and released.

Day 2 - August 21
It was a pity the weather had turned bad in the night. It was raining heavily so we couldn’t do our tasks in the early morning, but when the rain stopped we went for our first penguin nest checking. Because penguins take time to bring up their chicks until they can fledge, they usually only lay eggs a maximum of twice per breeding season.

We used GPS to find the location of nests and burrows and recorded what we saw inside them. Sometimes, we could see the penguins in the nest sitting on their eggs, and sometimes abandoned eggs in the burrows. The penguins could build their nests anywhere, as long as it was a safe place. They could even build them inside a toilet or under a cement step. Whenever we saw a penguin in a nest, we would check whether it had a band on its flipper; if not, we would match it with the photos on the tag near its nest. We also checked to see if there were eggs or chicks underneath the penguin. Unlike the adults, the chicks’ feathers were brown. It was hard to distinguish between male and female penguins. The general rule was that males were bigger, but there could be exceptions.

In the afternoon, we counted penguins. We were split into two groups. Becks and I went to sit on one of the "penguin highways" to count the number of penguins that passed inland from the beach or from the inland to the beach. The penguins usually went in pairs or groups moving at the same pace; but it was a pity there were lots of vehicles on the road and whenever they passed, the penguins would go back to hide from them and would wait for a long time before they dared to cross the road again.

Day 3 - August 22
This morning we split into two teams again. One team joined Mario to do the third penguin colony nest check. The other team joined Dieter and Rex, who were experts on weaver birds and hadeda ibis, respectively. Maureen, Ari, and I joined the latter team to look for the nests of both types of birds. Historically, hadeda ibis have not existed on Robben Island, but in recent years, they have started to extend their range to the island. Rex was investigating whether this was due to the higher breeding success rate or greater food availability in this area.

The first hadeda nest we saw contained two chicks, and we could also see their parents flying around to observe. After that, we headed off to find another hadeda nest, but sadly this time, we couldn’t see the chicks; we suspected they had been eaten by a sparrow hawk seen near the nest the previous day, and we discovered feathers and part of a skull on the ground.

Next we went to look for the weaver nest. It was amazing that the nests were woven simply by the bird’s bill, while it takes a person both hands to weave a net. Although the nest had an entrance at the bottom, the weavers could build a rim close to the hole so that the eggs and chicks wouldn’t drop out of the hole. Excellent design!

In the afternoon we counted game. There were hundreds of them: bontebok, springbok, fallow deer, steenbok, and eland. We had to differentiate between males, females, and juveniles. Sometimes they ran so fast or were so far away we could hardly identify them.

In the evening before dinner, a research student from the University of Cape Town took us on a tour to look for chameleons. It was difficult but finally we found one. The chameleon was tiny - smaller than an index finger. Its skin was bright green and its eyes were very small but we could still see them rolling. We returned it to the bush.

Day 4 - August 23
Today it rained again and we set off at about 9 A.M. for our beach cleaning activities. We were given gloves and big plastic bags to collect waste found on the beach. We found quite a lot of rubbish, including plastic bottles and wires. During our cleanup work, we found some super-sized abalone shells that appeared to have been freshly poached.

In the afternoon we did our molting count, splitting into two teams again. My team did see quite a lot of penguins at the beginning, although it was hard for us to tell whether they were molting or not, as we couldn’t go too close to them because they were so shy they would run into the sea. This could be detrimental because when penguins are molting their feathers are not waterproof so they can easily get cold. When we finished the counting and arrived at our house, we heard from the other team that they had witnessed a fur seal killing a penguin for food.

Just before dinner, Ari had drawn a picture of a penguin and Richard wondered which picture she had referenced it from, as the penguin looked like a well-known penguin called Peter who had survived the oil spills. Together with two other penguins (Percy and Pamela), they were tagged with satellite receptors after the spills. After they were cleaned up, the scientists placed them at Port Elizabeth along with other penguins and traced their movements afterwards. As planned, all of them swam back to Robben Island, their breeding colony. The funny thing with Peter was that it took two weeks for Mario to chase Peter to get back the satellite detector, but due to the time lag between the actual position and the satellite result, Peter cleverly escaped from Mario every time. In the end, the detector’s battery ran out and no more traces could be found. It was not until two years later that Peter was once again found.

Day 5 - August 24
Today it was raining again and we split into two teams. My team was to do the nest checks again. We did two rounds with Mario taking the lead. Mario explained that the number of breeding pairs was fluctuating. In 2005 there were about 8,000 pairs breeding on the island. In 2006 the number suddenly dropped by half to 4,000 pairs, and this year, up until now, they had found more than 7,000 pairs and were expecting more in the coming month.

While we were waiting to meet up with the other team, Richard found an injured penguin. Mario drove the penguin to the harbor in the bakki, and it was sent to the mainland to be cared for. During the waiting time, we heard the siren which meant the last ferry of the day would be leaving in the next hour due to bad weather, and usually schoolchildren on the island had to get packed to leave by then.

In the afternoon my team did the re-traps. This involved counting the number of banded penguins and logging down their band numbers so we could track their activities. We found that around 10 percent of the penguins were banded.

For dinner, we had braai, an African-style barbecue with lots of meat and sausages. We enjoyed that night very much.

Days 6 and 7 - August 25-26

Day 8 - August 27
This morning we started with the nest checks in two teams again. Many of the nests were closed, as it was toward the end of the breeding season, but we still found some penguins breeding in artificial burrows, nest boxes, or natural burrows under bushes or tree trunks. During the nest checking, Darren also found some reptiles that we had never seen before on this island - three slug eater snakes, one of which was pregnant. Next, he found a baboon spider. We took pictures of them for Darren to use for future research.

After we had finished the nest check, we went for the re-trap again. It was ironic that when we were doing other tasks we saw many banded penguins. However, when we wanted to find them during the re-trap, it was hard for us to find one. In the end, we could only find six.

In the afternoon we went for another game count and beach cleanup. The game count was great. We saw bontebok, steenbok, springbok, fallow deer, ostrich, and eland again. Today’s weather was just fine, so we could see both the sun and the moon on either side of us at the same time when we drove through the penguin highway.

Day 9 - August 28
Today’s weather was fine. This morning we had Sam from England, Marius from the Avian Demography Unit, and Leshia from Marine and Coastal Management joining us to supervise the banding of the penguins. It was really a valuable experience. Leshia demonstrated how to hold a penguin by catching its skull at the back and supporting its tummy. Then we were shown how to attach the new plastic band on the penguin’s left flipper. After that we started to do it by ourselves. We were all a bit nervous at the beginning, since penguins can give a painful bite. Sometimes we needed to wear gloves to protect us against the adults’ bites, and some of the bands were damaged due to too much stretching. But then we managed to do it quickly and took lots of photos to record the spots on the chicks’ tummies. This was to track whether the spots would stay the same when the chicks grew up. Although at the end we were dirty due to penguin guano or mud on our clothes, we were all happy and had enjoyed the morning.

In the afternoon, we started the wader count. My team walked down from the lighthouse to the seashore. There were plenty of birds along the shoreline: kelp gulls, Hartlaub’s gulls, blacksmith plovers, and others. When we had almost finished the count, Richard called us to say there was an oiled juvenile penguin on one of the beaches. He had used his jumper to catch it. Genevieve then went back to our home to get the bakki to collect the penguin. On the way home, Richard found another oiled penguin, which he managed to catch by wading into the sea.

Day 10 - August 29
This was our last morning with Mario leading us to perform the nest checks. As usual, we completed the nest check quickly and we also saw the newly banded chicks at the nest. After that, we went on a prison tour. We were first on the bus, which toured round the island; we learned about the history of the island from the leper detention era, through World War II, and finally to the prison time. Then we got off the bus and were guided around the prison by an ex-prisoner called Sparks. We learned about the harsh life and the classification of different sections in the prison. The prisoners had to work for six days a week in a lime quarry, and on their rest day they had to stay in the dark and cold prison cells.

We also understood from the guide that even within the prison, there was racial discrimination; the food for black inmates was different from that for other prisoners, such as Asian inmates. Despite the harsh life they spent in the prison, many ex-prisoners were proud of having been kept in there in the past because they were detained due to political reasons. Many of them now live on the island and have even made friends with their former prison guards.

In the afternoon we split into two teams, with one doing the re-traps and the other monitoring the bank cormorant nest count. Bank cormorants are known to be an endangered species, and Robben Island is their major breeding site.

Along the jetty we saw not only bank cormorants, but also crown cormorants, kelp gulls, and Hartlaub’s gulls. After we had finished the count, we found a Hartlaub’s gull entangled with string on our way back. We brought it back to our house and removed the string so the bird was saved.

Day 11 - August 30
Today was the last day of our outings. We first carried out a census by counting the number of nests in an identified area of the colony. There were several classifications: active, molting, abandoned, potential, or more than two chicks in one nest. The purpose of the census was to determine the trend in African penguin breeding numbers. In the past few years there had been a decreasing trend, but the good news was that we saw an increasing trend this year.

After the census we walked around the lime quarry where the prisoners used to work. Due to the reflection of sunlight on the lime rock, many ex-prisoners’ eyes were damaged from working at the rock for whole days in the sun. Close to the entrance of the lime quarry were piles of stones - a monument created by the island’s ex-prisoners. At a reunion five years after they had been freed, the prisoners returned. Nelson Mandela placed a stone on a spot and took some time for quiet reflection. Then each ex-prisoner placed a further stone on the pile.

After the quarry walk, we walked around the island to see the birds. In the afternoon we did a final nest check, and then finally we went to the penguin boardwalk to watch the penguins walking back from the sea to the beach. During our fieldwork we had tended to work at times when there were not so many penguins around to avoid disturbing them. As this was the last day, Richard decided to show us the magnificent view of penguins going back home from the penguin hide. When the area became dark, we could see hundreds of penguins walking slowly inland. This was the first time I had seen so many penguins together.

Learn more about South African Penguins.

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