May 1, 2008

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/29/08)

Today is our last day in the field conducting a health assessment on the Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan (PSJ). The weather was perfect this morning and we worked on the same beach we were at yesterday. This beach (S5) is definitely one of my favorite sites at PSJ. It’s a large beach and although the birds keep their distance from us, there are always some penguins swimming around in the crashing surf and more just hanging out on the beach. The cliffs above the beach are always alive with cormorants, terns, piqueros, and pelicans. The young cormorants we observed the other day when we worked on the cliff edge were now above us, occasionally crashing into the ocean in a less than graceful fashion as they continue to master flying. This beach also has a nice group of South American fur seals that leisurely bask on the rocks in front of us as we work.

The timing of our trip this year has coincided with a festival in Marcona to celebrate the town’s anniversary. There have been special events in town every night this week, but tonight was exceptional as there was an event to showcase PSJ. Dr. Patricia Majluf works at the Center for Environment Sustainability (CSA) at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima and has been working with conservation at PSJ for over 30 years. She is a remarkable person and has been fundamental in establishing our current projects. Patricia and two of her students, Alijandra and Santiago, came down to PSJ today to give a presentation to the people of Marcona about PSJ. As PSJ transitions from a guano reserve to a national protected reserve, Patricia has been working to increase the town’s interest and pride in the neighboring PSJ peninsula. Many of the locals have little understanding of the biodiversity at PSJ or of the importance of conservation. It can be very difficult to teach people to conserve nature, when they are struggling daily to make their own ends meet. The CSA center has many educational efforts underway at PSJ. Projects in the local schools are trying to teach children a respect for nature and conservation at an early age. Projects with local fisherman are attempting to understand how they view the protected reserve and educate them on the importance of sustainable management of natural resources, so they are available for future generations.

Conserving the Anchoveta
Tonight’s presentation in Marcona was also tied into a campaign CSA has started in Lima emphasizing the anchoveta. Peru’s enormous industrial fisheries collect an average of 8 million metric tons of anchovetas from Peruvian waters every year (during a short 60 day fishing ‘season’). The scale of this is almost impossible to imagine. Daniel had the most impactful way of explaining it me: 5% of everything fished out of all the world’s oceans is harvested in 30 days, from 1 bay in Peru, and it is all anchovetas. The troubling part of this is that the anchoveta is the base of the entire Humboldt ecosystem. Depletion of this resource impacts all the penguins, seabirds, and marine mammals. Nearly all of the anchovetas are fished for processing into fishmeal, a cheap resource that is fed to other animals raised for human consumption. This is a very poor use of the resource and the fishermen don’t receive much for their catches. The CSA campaign is attempting to change the public perception of the anchoveta. If people come to view the anchoveta as a good fish to eat (and it is very nutritious), the monetary value of the anchoveta will increase. With increased value, sustainable management of the fisheries will become more of a priority. If this campaign is successful, the species that depend on the anchoveta as a food source will benefit greatly from more sustainable management, as it will leave more fish in the ocean for them to eat.

It was very exciting to be in Marcona for the festival tonight. Many of the townspeople were interested in the presentations and loved the free anchoveta food dishes that were prepared as snacks. Hopefully some of these people will buy into the campaign and start to eat anchoveta dishes at home. We met one of Marcona’s councilmen, who is a conservation enthusiast and seemed delighted to see foreigners showing so much interest in the town and PSJ. It was also wonderful to see young children so excited and interested in the photos of wildlife at PSJ. I always feel that if you can reach children with a conservation message early in life, you can make a lifetime of difference.

Today we examined 10 penguins, bringing our final count to 90 penguins on this trip. Since we started this project in June 2007, we have now examined and collected samples from a total of 190 penguins and have identification tags placed on 368 penguins. It’s hard to believe how quickly our time in the field has gone by. We leave tomorrow morning to head back to Lima to get our samples ready for shipment back to the US. Humboldt penguins are afforded the highest level of protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species multinational treaty, meaning that our permit requirements for shipment are extensive.

The trip has been a great success and it has been a wonderful to see our Peruvian friends again. As we continue to build relationships and grow our programs, I feel a great sense of hope for the wildlife at PSJ. It will not be easy, but nothing worth protecting ever is. I always leave Peru with an appreciation of how far a little hard work can go. The enthusiasm that Daniel, Santiago, Alijandra, Marco, Milena, and the other CSA students have is inspiring. They are the future of their country and I know they will always fight to protect PSJ and the wildlife that calls it home.

Mike Adkesson, DVM
Veterinarian – WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo

April 29, 2008

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/28/08)

We headed to the beach first thing this morning for our fourth day of field work. The winds are stronger today and I’m glad we’re at the water’s edge instead of at the top of the cliff where we were blasted by wind and sand yesterday. The waves are the largest we’ve seen and there is a lot of surf through which the fur seals and cormorants are swimming. We caught a glimpse of a falcon hunting gulls as we climbed down the sandstone cliff to the beach below.

As on most beaches at PSJ there are many signs of the circle of life and evidence that only the fittest survive. The beach is scattered with bones and animal carcasses of many different species. During years when the fish supply is low (El Niño years) thousands of animals succumb to starvation and their bones are evidence of how strong the evolutionary pressures are. During this time of year many of the seabirds are breeding and a large percentage of their chicks do not survive to adulthood leaving many carcasses littered along the coast. At first, the quantity of animal carcasses is incomprehensible. In no other location have I seen such an accumulation of the remnants of dead animals. It is only after being at PSJ for a few days and observing the millions of animals that call this small reserve home that one can begin to comprehend that death is actually a sign that life is thriving in this unique ecosystem and the animals that survive are the ones that will be able to pass their genes on to the next generation.

Working on the beach known as S5 today, we had many spectators including several large groups of penguins, cormorants, and fur seals who didn’t seem to mind that we were there. We examined 20 penguins, all of which were found on nests in between large boulders and rocks at this location. Our group has become a well oiled machine and although we’ve only been working together for a few days everyone has got the drill down to pat. Someone asks which nest, how many eggs, wing band number? Then if no toe tags are in place, one gets placed on each foot. Next: the microchip under the skin, then a swab of the conjunctiva, the choana, and finally the cloaca for Chlamydophila testing. Five small feathers are collected for toxicological evaluation. A blood sample is drawn from the jugular vein. The syringe is handed to someone else that fills the I-Stat cartridge, the green and red top tubes and one for DNA preservation. A heart rate, respiratory rate and physical exam are completed. The bird is weighed and returned to its nest all in usually under 5-7 minutes. This times 20 in a few hours time. We have a great group of volunteers and wouldn’t be able to undertake such and ambitious project without their help. After sampling the penguins, we take a few minutes to enjoy PSJ and capture some breath taking photos.

Back at the lab the team is just as well coordinated, we finish processing our samples with a little time left over for email to coordinate all the necessary permits and the hopes of making a hot dinner.

Jennifer Langan, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian – Chicago Zoological Society & University of Illinois

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/27/08)

Our day in the field today at PSJ could be summed up with two words: penguins and wind!! We had a very productive day continuing our health assessment project working with the Humboldt penguins. The penguins we examined today were nesting in an area that the biologists call “Penguin Town.” The nests in this area are at the top of cliff overlooking beach S5. The edge of the cliff is 60+ feet above the rocky shore. The strong ocean wind blows relentlessly and kicks up constant sand, covering us and all our equipment in a layer of salty dust, making it a tricky area to work.

Penguin Town is really an area of prime real estate in terms of nest location. This area is away from the shoreline, where nests are protected from predators but can be washed away in high surf and. The penguins are able to dig deep burrows into a soft, sandy mixture of dry guano, creating deep safe nesting sites. This type of burrow is the ideal nest type for the Humboldt penguin. Guano harvests over the last century have significantly decreased the amount of guano covered landscape available where the penguins can dig nests. Conservation efforts over the past decade have helped to create “sustainable guano harvests” in which the nesting birds are not disturbed and guano is not harvested from the areas with prime nesting sites. In an effort to enhance the amount of available “property” available for nesting in these locations, biologists have tried giving the birds artificial nests. These strategically placed concrete huts have worked well in some locations to provide additional penguin nesting sites.

During our morning visit to Penguin Town, we were able to examine and collect samples from 24 birds. Since there are many nests close together, we were able to work fairly quickly. Marco is an expert at safely getting the penguins out of their deep burrows and restraining them for us to work, even when he is scooting along the edge of a tall cliff. It is amazing to think about the penguins making the trip up and down off these cliffs everyday to feed. When there are eggs in the nest, one parent stays with the eggs to keep them warm, while the other goes out to feed. When the chicks begin to grow, it’s common for both parents to be out at sea getting food to bring back for the growing chicks. It’s quite humbling to watch how easily the penguins hop up and down the rocky shoreline to get to their nests. There are times when Jen and I have quite a struggle getting down to some of the beaches!!

Getting back to the wind – today, there was a very strong wind blowing off the ocean over the beach below us. PSJ is currently full of juvenile cormorants that are just beginning to learn to fly and fish for themselves. Many of these birds were sitting on the cliff edges today in the wind, beginning to master the art of flying. When Jen and I were at PSJ in February, we examined some of these birds as chicks. Now that they are learning to fend for themselves, the cliff edges and beaches are full of juvenile cormorants. The winds also provide a constant updraft that the various gulls, Inca terns, and Peruvian boobies utilize to soar above the cliffs and nesting sites. Watching these birds just “float” about you is an amazing experience, as there are literally thousands of birds soaring overhead. The Penguin Town area is very close to many Inca tern nests and these birds were around us all day today, chattering at us as we worked.

We have now examined and collected samples from a total of 60 penguins since arriving in PSJ. We do some of the sample processing and tests in a house in the town of Marcona, which is just a short drive from PSJ, where we are able to set up a basic field lab. This lab work takes several hours to complete and it’s usually evening before we are finished. It’s definitely the less “glamorous” side of the fieldwork, but it is the part that provides much of our data to assess the health of the birds. Many of the tests we run can’t be performed in Peru and we have to bring the blood and serum samples back to the United States. We transport these samples in a liquid nitrogen dry shipper, which keeps them frozen to around -70ºC for the trip back home.

Since we have so much great help this trip, today we have finished all the lab work a little early and I was able to see the sunset over the ocean. The sunsets here really do take your breath away – it’s just a beautiful site to see! More tomorrow!

Mike Adkesson, DVM
Veterinarian – WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo

April 28, 2008

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/26/08)

Our second day in the field was fantastic, we were able to collect samples from 19 penguins which were nesting in a cave off of beach S4. The most challenging part was crawling through the very tight spaces to get deep enough into the cave to access the penguin burrows. Marco, Daniel and Frank maneuvered up and down the dark slippery slope with penguins in hand to the mouth of the cave so that we could examine and collect the necessary samples from them.

The walls of the cave are covered with a dark black and green algae that rubs off on everything that comes into contact with it. The floor of the cave is part guano, part sand and very slippery from the ocean mist that is blown into the mouth of the cave. There are a few vampire bats clinging to the ceiling in the crevices above and Inca terns perched just outside the mouth of the cave on the many little ledges above.

About 9 of the penguins we handled today already had metal ID bands on their wings. Biologists have used this identification system for over 10 years to identify and track individual penguins at PSJ. They have many years of data describing which birds are at which nests at which beach. This information along with our health assessment will begin to help us understand the health, breeding success and longevity of the Humboldt penguins at PSJ. It will also help determine what diseases and nutritional factors influence the health of the population. Four birds we handled today were also sampled last year. Compared to yesterday, the birds from this group of nests had more ectoparasites than those we examined yesterday. These include primarily feather lice and ticks, both of which are species specific but still bite if they happen to make it onto humans. To try to prevent getting bitten by these pesky insects we tuck our pants into socks and use a variety of insect repellent sprays to make sure the bugs stay on the birds and not us. We have seen a correlation between numbers of ectoparasites and nest locations in that the wetter, less desirable nesting areas appear to have birds with more ectoparasites than those from locations in drier locations.

Before an adult penguin is removed from the next, specialized tools are used to gently scoop the 1-2 eggs out of the nest so they are not damaged as the adult is lifted out of its burrow. While the adult is being examined, someone holds the eggs in their pockets to make sure they stay warm. The eggs are also numbered with the nest number so that the biologists will be able to determine which eggs hatch and which parents are successful with their breeding efforts.

The most exciting thing in the field this morning was that one of the nests had a chick that was beginning to pip. Pipping refers to when the chick is beginning to hatch. The chick makes a small hole in the shell with its egg tooth (a special projection on the tip of its beak that is only used to get out of the shell and falls off later) and begins to resorb its yolk sac. The chick begins to vocalize and the parents eagerly await the chick’s arrival. Over 24-48 hrs the chick continues to chip away its shell until finally it is able to push itself out of the egg shell. The chick we found this morning was actively vocalizing and had already made a 0.5 cm opening into its shell. Hopefully, a healthy, strong penguin chick will hatch by tomorrow.

It was encouraging that all the nests had eggs and that the animals seem healthy. There are periods when the penguins do not fare so well but food seems to be in good supply this year.

We’re off to the lab to process samples and start again first thing tomorrow morning.

Jennifer Langan, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian – Chicago Zoological Society & University of Illinois

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/24/08)

We’re here on the coast of Peru, at Punta San Juan on the Proabonos guano reserve just outside of Marcona (15°22’S, 75°12’W). Guano has been harvested at this location for almost 100 years and is used as a high quality, natural fertilizer for agricultural purposes. Guano for those that may not be familiar with this term is bird poop that has accumulated on the cliffs and bluffs along the coast, left behind from the millions of sea birds that live and breed here year round. Guano has played an important role in Peruvian history; it has been a strong element in its economy (the strongest in the year 1840 through 1880), until it collapsed because of an irrational and unsustainable approach to its exploitation. Since then it has been harvested intermittently on a rotating basis with as many as 5-13 years between harvests. This allows sufficient guano to accumulate for a productive harvest and at the same time also provides natural and almost pristine coastline to the wildlife in this ecosystem.

Increasingly the guano harvests have taken place in more frequent intervals depleting the substrate many sea birds depend on to nest in. One of the most impacted species on the 54 square hectares that make up PSJ is the Humboldt penguin. This non-flighted bird has evolved in this habitat for many thousands of years. And unlike many of the other sea birds that make their nests on top of the guano, the Humboldt penguin actually digs its nesting burrows into the guano. This provides their eggs and chicks a unique environment that allows them to thrive this harsh environment.

There is an 1.2 km long, 12 foot high concrete wall that traverses this point of coastline that protects the many species of birds and pinnipeds that call Punta San Juan home by preventing human encroachment and predators from disturbing the 18 beaches that make up the reserve.

The waves are crashing and the birds calling as we pack up our gear just after sunrise. Looking over the Pacific Ocean, I can see three small local fishing boats already staking out prime fishing locations just off the beach. The fishermen, like the wildlife found along Peru’s coast, depend on the rich abundance of anchovies that live in the cold water that runs up along the coast of South America as part of the Humboldt Current, because the fish they are fishing for also feed on the Anchoveta. It is because of the high productivity and abundance of fish in these frigid waters that so many birds and marine mammals have made PJS their home.

A group of 12 of us loaded our gear into two trucks and slowly drove across the reserve to beach S4, one of my favorites where Inca terns are constantly flying overhead and calling to one another. This morning we had some special guests along with us as well as several volunteers that have helped us with the project during previous visits. Nadine Kuhn and Gorka Sistiaga are part of film crew producing a series of documentaries (Sentinelles de la Nature) for French television (Ushuaia TV) on wildlife and conservation projects world wide. Their latest assignment has brought them to PSJ and they are excited to be able to film our field work first hand. In addition, we are joined by Drs. Vanessa Bachmann and Wendy Flores Saavedra, both Peruvian veterinarians interested in wildlife medicine.

We stop the vehicles several hundred feet from the edge of a cliff. Each of us loaded with equipment, start to walk slowly toward the edge of the bluff and then single file down to the beach. We hug the side of the cliff as not to disturb the penguins, cormorants and sea lions on the beach ahead of us. No sooner do we set our gear down and Marco signals that they have located a penguin burrow with a parent sitting on eggs. Our first penguin (ID 005) of the day is one that we had in hand last June. Mike and I were both rather surprised. We had hoped but neither one of us expected, with such a large Humboldt population at PSJ, to get our hands on any of the same birds as last year. This is significant as we hope to be able to monitor changes in the disease trends over time to evaluate how this may be affecting the population as a whole.

The morning flew by and we successfully sampled 16 penguins amongst the rock and guano burrows. Each nest had 1-2 eggs. Unlike last year we are here about 6 weeks earlier so it is unlikely that we will encounter any chicks but it would be a real treat if we do. In between birds, we took a few minutes to show our Peruvian & French colleagues what each part of the sample collection would be used for. The swabs for Chlamydiophila testing, blood for a CBC/chemistry panel, serological disease survey, genetic sexing and nutritional studies as well as I-STAT testing for ionized calcium values.

At about 1 pm we head back to the lab to start processing samples. Blood tubes get spun, slides get made and stained, WBC, PCV & TP are all done by about 6 pm thanks to everyone’s help. We finish by restocking our supplies and are ready for day 2 in the field. Mike and I hoping things go as well as today.

Jennifer Langan, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian – Chicago Zoological Society & University of Illinois

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/23/08)

Saludos!! Today we began our journey to Punta San Juan, Peru to continue a health assessment project focused on conserving the endangered Humboldt penguin. I arrived in Lima late last night after a 6 hour flight from Atlanta. Transporting enough equipment for a field project like this can be a challenge, but fortunately we arrived with no lost luggage and only required two taxis to get all our supplies to the hotel.

This morning we met up with our friend Daniel Abugattas, a graduate student in Lima who has helped us during our last two visits. We spent this morning picking up some last minute supplies and loading up our truck. After a long 8 hour ride from Lima, we arrived safely in Punta San Juan (or PSJ as we call it). The drive along the Peruvian coastline takes all day, mostly along the two lane PanAmerican Highway, and is full of beautiful scenery. The coastline of Peru is a very arid climate with large advances of rocky desert. The Andes mountains and cold Pacific Ocean combine to create climate conditions that produce fertile jungles to the east of the mountains and deserts along the Pacific coast. Some of these areas are so dry they may only see a drizzle of rain once every decade! This lack of rainfall is the definition of a desert, not the scalding hot temperatures that we usually associate with deserts in the United State. In fact the temperature here varies seasonally, and since we are visiting in the southern hemisphere’s “fall”, temperatures are fairly cool (60-70 oF) during the day. The ocean in this area is frigid (40-50 oF), with some of the coldest upwelling systems of the entire Pacific coast. The cold water is due to the Humboldt current which brings cold water northward all the way from Antartica. Aside from giving the Humboldt penguin its name, this current supports a very rich ecosystem of wildlife. The base of the food chain is the Anchoveta (Engraulis ringens), an abundant small pelagic fish. The plankton in the cold water provides the anchovetas with a source of food, which in turn supports enormous populations of seals, sea lions, penguins, pelicans, cormorants, many other species of seabirds and the largest fishing industry based on one species in the world. This very small fish is not only the source of food for the entire Humboldt ecosystem and species, but is one craved resource for the fishmeal industry, which burns around 8,000,000 tons of it a yearly.

After arriving in PSJ a short while ago, we quickly settled in for the evening. It’s great to see some of our friends. Milena and Marco are two Peruvian biologists that live at the PSJ reserve. They maintain the reserve, do field research on a variety of species, and help coordinate our projects locally. The PSJ reserve has an old building on site, the “guanera”, a remnant from the days of mass harvesting of guano from the shorebirds. The guano industry is an interesting story, but one that will have to wait until tomorrow. After two long days of traveling, one of the most exciting things about seeing the old “guanera” is that we can get some sleep before our first day of fieldwork tomorrow!

Mike Adkesson, DVM
Veterinarian, Saint Louis Zoo – WildCare Institute