“Penguin Town” and the southern beaches. Penguin burrows are visible as little ‘caves’ on the top of the bluff.

Day 3

Today is our first day of fieldwork at PSJ. With every trip I make to PSJ, the first day in the field is always one of my favorite days. The PSJ peninsula is a series of beaches separated by rock outcroppings. All of the beaches back into rocky cliff faces that are 50+ feet tall. The view is stunning from these cliff edges – and seeing the first group penguins on one of these beaches always makes me smile. Getting down to those beautiful beaches, though, is another story!

The less “glamorous” side of fieldwork at PSJ involves a lot of hiking – particularly up and down rocky, guano covered paths in the cliffs. Due to the arid climate, the guano, dirt, and sand mix to create a fine powdery substance, kind of like the dirt on a baseball diamond. When the ocean winds are blowing, it can create quite a dust storm. The substrate also crumbles very easily, so you have to find solid footing as you hike up and down the rocks or you will end up sliding down a very rocky path to the beach.

Although most people don’t think of penguins as being very graceful out of the water, they are in fact incredibly agile. Many of the penguins nest in burrows at the top of the cliff faces. Burrows dug deep (several feet) into the guano are really their ideal nesting sites. In order to get from these burrows to the ocean to feed, the birds must make their way up and down these cliff faces several times a day. It’s somewhat humbling to see how much better they are at it than I am.

There is a cliff top that we call “Penguin Town” that has been one of the more successful sites of reproduction over the past several years. We are planning to spend a day working in this site later this week, but for today we decided to work on some of the beaches below. We have worked alonge these southern beaches a lot over the past few years evaluating penguins, but this year the numbers of penguins in these locations is low. Marco Cardena, our lead Peruvian biologist at PSJ, tells us that the birds are not nesting well in this location this year. Although the overall number of penguins at PSJ is higher this year than in years past, the number of birds nesting on some of the southern beaches is much lower. We only collect samples from penguins that are in a nest, as it is the safest and least stressful way for us to catch them. In years past we have examined 40-50 penguins nesting on these beaches, but this year we only found 11 penguins in these locations. All the birds appeared healthy and in total they had 7 healthy chicks, which was a nice thing to see. I’ll talk more about how we examine the penguins later on this week.

We are suspicious there may be changes in temperature and humidity that have made some of these southern nesting areas less desirable to the penguins. Many of the burrows are warmer and more humid than in years past, possibly due to a combination of a mild El Nino even this past winter and climate change. I brought some data loggers with me for this trip to leave with Marco. The loggers are about the size of a matchbox and are able to collect and store temperature and humidity reading every 15 minutes for about 90 days. Marco is going to deploy these loggers into some nests on the south beaches where penguins have abandoned nesting sites and compare the data to burrows at other beaches where the penguins are reproducing. It will be very interesting to see if there are significant differences.

After a long day in the field examining penguins, collecting samples, and testing/processing the samples, I’m happy to be heading off to bed. Tomorrow we are heading off to work on some of PSJ’s north beaches. More tomorrow! Ciao!


Michael Adkesson, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian - Chicago Zoological Society

June 9, 2010

Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan Reserve

Humboldt penguins on one of the southern beaches

Day 1-June 7, 2010
Day 2-June 8, 2010
Day 3-June 9, 2010
Day 4-June 10 , 2010
Day 5-June 11 , 2010
Day 6-June 12, 2010
Day 7-June 13, 2010
Day 8-June 14, 2010