Living with penguins

By Dick Mason, The Observer June 01, 2012 12:43 pm

Researcher shares his Antarctica experience, where he studied penguins eight hours a day, with Ladd Marsh Birdathon audience 

A striking and uncommon image is painted when Noah Strycker speaks of standing out in a crowd.   

Strycker traveled to Antarctica four years ago for  the chance of a lifetime — to be among 250,000 Adelie penguins for four months with two other people. 

Strycker, the keynote speaker for the recent Ladd Marsh Birdathon, compares the experience to being  at the largest rock concert of your life. The only difference is “everyone is two feet tall, wearing a tuxedo and smells like fish.”

Strycker found that the flightless birds are not afraid of people. In fact, they are drawn to people and infinitely curious. This was  apparent when Strycker discussed his daily routine.  

 “My job was to study penguins eight hours a day, seven days a week. It was endless hours of staring at birds starring back at you,” Strycker said.

Penguins are so attracted to people that it is hard to take photos of them since they are always almost on top of you. 

“It (taking photos of penguins) is frustrating because they too approachable,” Strycker said. “They are chasing you.”

He found that Adelie penguins tend to always be good-natured with people and usually get along with each other. Occasionally penguins will fight among themselves — but this tends to be rare.

Noah Strycker poses amid penguins at Cape Crozier in Antarctica.
Noah Strycker poses amid penguins at Cape Crozier in Antarctica.

Strycker worked with two other researchers in Southeast Antarctica. They were flown into the site from McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Strycker and his fellow researchers stayed in tents and a small building at the site.

The world they lived in was one of subzero temperatures and roaring winds.

“It is one of the windiest places on earth,” Strycker said.

Winds often blow continuously at 70 miles per hour and sometimes reach 100 miles per hour, which are hurricane force.

“A subzero hurricane is totally disorientating,” Strycker said. “You can’t see, hear or stand. It is hard to think.”

It rarely snows in Antarctica. In fact, the continent receives so little precipitation that it is considered a desert. This means texture of the snow has an almost unnatural feel. 

“The snow is amazing. It is cold, dry and light weight. It is like Styrofoam,” said Strycker, who graduated from Oregon State University in 2008 with a a degree in fishery and wildlife.

Antarctica is one of many places Strycker has studied birds. He has also observed them extensively in Australia, the Falkland Islands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Fiji, New Zealand, Hawaii, Alaska, California and Oregon. 

Strycker wrote a book about his experience in Antarctica, “Among Penguins: A Bird Man In Antarctica,” which was published by Oregon State University Press in 2011.

Strycker noted during his keynote address that decomposition is slow in Antarctica’s dry, freezing environment. Many penguin carcasses, as a result, have hardened into a dry, mummified state. 

“Penguin mummies covered a lot of the ground surface,” Strycker wrote in his book. He said in La Grande that research has indicated that many of the mummies are hundreds and possibly thousands of years old. 

Despite Antarctica’s remote location, Adelie penguins are among the most studied birds in the world, Strycker said. He attributes this, in his book, to their charisma, fearlessness and abundance. He describes Adelie penguins as among the few species “with so-called star appeal, which are easy to observe.”

The Adelie penguins of Antarctica live in a world where there is virtually no plant life. Strycker and his researchers thus had no fresh fruit or vegetables during their stay. Strycker developed a strong craving for fresh produce. So great was this longing that upon returning to the United States the first thing he ate was a bowl of lettuce.

“It was the best meal I ever had.”

Strycker spoke to an audience at the Blue Mountain Conference Center. At least 250 people participated in the Ladd Marsh Birdathon. Almost all of its events were conducted at Ladd Marsh. 

The birdathon was organized by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The birdathon’s major sponsors included Friends of Ladd Marsh, Union County Tourism, the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.