26 October, 1998

October 26, 1998


It's a gray day here in Christchurch--chilly and cloudy. I was expecting to check in for my flight to the ice this morning at 5:45 but was awoken last night at 11:30 by a phone call telling me that the plane was broken and that I would not be leaving in the morning. So I slept in until 7:15. However this gives me time to catch up on my journal and to read some background information to help me better understand about the ecology and physiology of the fishes I'll be studying.

Right now I am in the computer room of NSF headquarters next to the airport. On two computer terminals near me are two other TEA teachers. One is Betty Trummel, a 4th grade teacher who will be studying geology in the Cape Roberts area. The other is Elissa Elliott who is studying microscopic life (like rotifers, tardigrades, and cyanobacteria) in the ice of the frozen lakes in the dry valleys region where there has been no precipitation for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of years. (Question to think about #1: How can there be a lake here if there is so little precipitation?)You can follow what they will be doing by clicking on their website journal entries too. They are excellent people whose enthusiasm about their work is contagious.

The last few days have again been chock-full of interesting experiences.


On Friday, after writing my journal entry I went to Arthur's Pass with my PI (Principal Investigator), Dr David Smith. His main interest in the fish research is to analyze what parcticular protein extracts from the brain, kidney, and heart have a hormonal effect on the Na-K/ATPase (sodium-potassium pump)in the membranes of the chloride cells in the gills. Because of the delays and the limited time we will have on the ice, we are hoping that some of this extraction work has already been started by the crew who is in Antarctica now: Dr. David Petzel (the other PI), two Creighton U grad students (Sierra Guwynn and Ed Wren), and two other TEA teachers (Lori Bachle and Skip Zwanzig--check out their webpages on the TEA site). (This is a great crew of people. We spent about 10 days together in Omaha at Creighton University

in July practicing the procedures we will be using on Antarctic fish on carp.)

Arthur's Pass is an absolutely spectacular area 2 hours west of Christchurch in the Southern Alps. I wish I had a digital camera with me to send back some pix for you to see. I thought the road to Mt Cook was fabulous, but this was even more spectacular. On the east side of the mountains there were wide open spaces, high mountain plains, with majestic snow-capped peaks jutting up all around. Blue and turquoise lakes, meadows full of sheep, large stands of native beech forest, and braided river valleys all served as foregrounds to the magnificent backdrop of snow-capped peak after peak after peak. There were so many spectacular views, even in one spot, that I could not take it all in. It was overwhelmingly awesome. When I see things like this I am thrilled and inspired. My faith in God is deepened. And my views on who I am are put into a more humble perspective. Homo sapiens NEEDS experiences like this. As Thoreau wrote in Walden, "We need the tonic of wildness...we need to see our own limits transgressed" Well, enough of this philosophical wandering, and back to Arthur's Pass.

On the east side of the mountains it was beautiful weather but as soon as we hit the Pass we ran into a snow storm. We drove to the viewpoint that looks down a gorge towards the west coast and all we could see was about 100 feet of woods and roads obscured by the heavy snowfall. It was such a contrast to see a kea, a parrot, perched on an exposed tree, oblivious to the wind and snow. I always think of parrots as tropical birds, but this bird's chunky body and dense, layered feathering kept him warm. We also got a nice view of the kea at the garbage dumpster behind the cafe in town. Keas, like other parrots, are smart birds; they have been known to raid people's picnic baskets. They have even been known to eat dying sheep!

Question for you to think about: #2 Why was the west side of the mountains so wet but the east side so dry?

Before we left the mountains we took a nice long walk in the forest. It was wonderful thinking about what it must have been like to be one of the first Maoris to walk through these woods with glimpses of snow-capped mountain peaks and dazzlingly-blue sky visible through the thick beech woods illuminated by shafts of light filtering down through swaying branches festooned with beard lichens. Maybe they saw the huge Moa, an ostrich-like bird that used to haunt these forests, one of the biggest birds ever, which the Maoris eventually hunted out of existence. (Every now and then as I have been driving through the highways and biways I have thought I have seen a moa, but it was just a statue of one that had been erected in the woods along the road.)


The next day, Saturday, I got up early to drive to Oamaru to look for the colony of Blue Penguins that this seaside town is famous for. They have bleacher seats right next to the penguin colony to watch the penguins as they return en masse to their nest burrows at night. Unfortunately for me the penguins do everything together and during the day they are all out to sea fishing. I saw nothing. But it was only another hour or so to the Dunedin area, famous for its wildlife, and it was only about 9:00 AM so I drove down the coast. I knew it would be an awful lot of driving on the way back to the hotel and that I had to leave time so when I got back to the hotel I could eat, pack for Antarctica, and get to bed at a reasonable hour, but I figured it would be worth it.


It was worth it... After reaching Dunedin it was another 3/4 hour drive to the end of the Otaga Peninsula where there is a nesting colony of Royal Albatrosses. Unfortunately the albatrosses were not actively courting or feeding young at this time of year and the caretakers don't allow people into the colony observation blind until breeding season is well underway so the birds are not disturbed. Too much disturbance could prevent their breeding there. However, I did get to see one albatross fly over riding the strong NE wind that zoomed in off the ocean. What a graceful looking bird. It didn't flap its wings once in the several minutes that I watched it wheeling, soaring, and gliding up over the cliffs, against the sky, down towards the white-capped ocean, and out to sea. While here I also saw several shags, the New Zealand name for cormorants. Several pairs of striking Spotted Shags were nesting on the cliffs. Some were sitting on eggs. Others were presenting nest-mates with twigs they had ripped off the cliff-bank vegetation. Others were mating, perched precariously on narrow ledges looking like the wind would blow them off any second. YELLOW-EYED PENGUINS AND EFFECTIVE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT

From there I drove quickly to the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony a few minutes down the road. Again, this was not the best time of day or season to see activity in the nesting colony because the birds don't do much when they are sitting on eggs, but it was still exciting to see one of the rarest penguins in the world just a few meters away. Almost all the birds in this colony have been tagged with numbered flipper tags so the individuals can be recognized and kept track of year after year. The colony started with just a few individuals less than 10 years ago and is now up to 49 pairs because of the excellent wildlife management practices of the landowners of this private farm. There have been many problems they have had to deal with to improve the nesting success of the penguins, all of which relate to dealing with the exotic flora and fauna brought in by the English settlers. Stoats (like weasels) and Ferrets were introduced decades ago to control the rabbit population which had been introduced (in part) as a possible source of food but which had ended up causing lots of damage to farm crops and native vegetation. However the stoats and ferrets also like to eat penguin chicks and eggs and will do so at any ooportunity. (They have also been a bane to many other native bird species, especially the flightless or ground-nesting ones.) So the managers of this refuge had to set traps that penguins would stay out of but which would trap the predator mammals. They also had to clear away the dense growths of gorse that covered the area making it difficult for the penguins to move around and making it easier for the predators to sneak up on the penguins unawares. The gorse is a thick impenetrable shrub with beautiful yellow flowers that had been introduced to be used as a decorative hedge and as a border to keep sheep from wandering away. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my last journal entry this plant has taken over the countryside. The managers of the penguin refuge have planted native shrubs in clumps surrounded by clear areas so the penguins feel protected by the bushes but able to see all around them. In places where the managers have also placed A-frame wooden shelters just tall enough for penguins to stand up in, the penguins have seemed to select these shelters instead of more natural bushes since they apparently feel more protected since the predators can't get at them from behind. Penguins are feisty and can easily fend off a predator when it can see it coming. Last year they only lost 2 chicks due to predators. The return rate of fledged chicks returning back to the nesting colony is presently 14%. Questions to think about:

#3.If this return rate is sustained what will happen to the colony--will it grow or shrink? (Remember that parents come back to nest year after year for at least ten years.)

#4. What is causing the loss of the other 86% of the fledged young? Other questions to think about:

#5. What do you think New Zealand can/should do about the problem of alien (exotic) species like gorse, pine trees, ferrets, rabbits, stoats, and bushy-tailed possums.

#6. Do we have any other similar problems in USA? Are we doing anything to deal with them?

#7. What can we learn from these problems about introducing alien species to new areas?


Also in Otaga I saw the rare Hooker's Sea Lion and several more fur seals. On the way back I stopped along a deserted sandy beach and relaxed to the sound of the surf in the brisk breeze. I also stopped at a very interesting geological place near the town of Moeraki. Here there are some very strange boulders that look almost like huge round-backed fossilized turtle shells in the sand of the beach. At one time, some people thought they may have been an art form of the early Maoris. However, these strange geological formations are called concretions; they are formed as layers of sedimentary deposits accumulate around an object such as a pebble, sand grain, or fossil. Some of these boulders were one and half meters in diameter; the biggest concretions I have seen before were only a few centimeters in diameter.

Yesterday was Sunday and I had a great time attending the choral mass at the Anglican Cathedral. I have always loved the good old hymns but they have never sounded as awe-inspiring as they did here in this setting. Wow!

All the best to you; I hope you have a good day and do something good for someone.

Will my next entry be from Antarctica? I hope so.

Fred Atwood



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