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Among Penguins

A Bird Man in Antarctica

Noah Strycker

Publication Year: 2011

The year he graduated from college, twenty-two-year-old Noah Strycker was dropped by helicopter in a remote Antarctic field camp with two other bird scientists and a three-month supply of frozen food. His subjects: more than a quarter-million penguins.

The Adélie Penguins who call Antarctica home have been the subject of long-term studies—scientists may know more about how these penguins will adjust to climate change than about any other creature in the world.

With wit, curiosity, and a deep passion for his subject, Strycker weaves a captivating tale of penguins and their researchers on the coldest, driest, highest, and windiest continent on Earth. He recounts the reality of life in the Antarctic—thousand-year-old penguin mummies, hurricane-force blizzards, and day-to-day existence in below freezing temperatures—and delves deep into a world of science, obsession, and birds.

“Noah Strycker is going places, and he is taking us along for the ride. There is something fundamentally sunny about Among Penguins. This book will be a fan favorite for years to come.”—Ted Floyd, Editor, Birding

“Cape Crozier, against the largest ice shelf on Earth, in the shadow of an extinct volcano, and at the doorstep of the least human-affected stretch of ocean remaining on the planet, is one of Earth’s power spots. It’s refreshing to get Noah Strycker’s impressions of this place through his day-to-day experiences; he definitely had all his senses tested.” —David Ainley, author of The Adélie Penguin: Bellwether of Climate Change

Published by: Oregon State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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1. Whiteout

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pp. 7-16

Kirsten, Michelle, and I leaned over the digital weather display as all hell broke loose.
“Seventy-five!” I gloated. An invisible freight train rammed the side of our tiny Antarctic hut, shaking the building to its icy foundations. ...

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2. Why?

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pp. 17-19

Half of my friends were immediately envious when I landed a four-month penguin research internship in Antarctica.
“Hook me up,” they joked. “Wish I could go. You know how much it costs to travel there as a tourist?” ...

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3. South

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pp. 20-24

I had just graduated from the university, with a flexible outlook on employment, when I came across an enticing announcement: Adélie Penguin Population Ecology Internship. Why not?
Antarctica sounded cool. Well, cold. And I liked wildlife and cold places. I corralled together some references, sent off an application, and figured that would be the last of it. ...

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4. Arrival

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pp. 25-29

The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III U.S. Air Force cargo jet lacked windows, so none of us in the cargo hold noticed we had touched ice until the engines reversed to brake. Relieved smiles cracked out all around. If a plane was going to crash in Antarctica, it wouldn’t be this one. ...

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5. McMurdo

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pp. 30-36

As Ivan the Terrabus docked on the ice alongside Building 155 at McMurdo Station, an ambulance pulled in beside us. From my seat on the bus, I watched the medics through a frosty window. ...

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6. Coffee House

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pp. 37-39

The Coffee House used to be the officers’ club, back when McMurdo Station served as a U.S. Navy base. Now, it’s a quiet place, with subtle pop rock playing to a backdrop of vintage skis and sleds hanging on lacquered walls. ...

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7. A Very Brief History of Penguins

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pp. 40-44

Antarctica is a continent, not a country. It’s one and a half times as big as the U.S., and 98 percent of the land is covered by a permanent ice sheet up to three miles thick. No nation really owns any part of Antarctica, though a few countries stake territory in various areas. ...

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8. Ice Figure

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pp. 45-49

Michelle and Kirsten were working hard, running errands all over McMurdo Station to prepare for our penguin field camp at Cape Crozier. They had to plan everything for three self-sustaining months on the ice—from tents, propane, and food to satellite tags and communications gear. The logistics were mind boggling. ...

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9. Visitor

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pp. 50-53

“It’s a PENGUIN!” I shouted. “An Adélie Penguin! Penguinpenguinpenguin!”
Totally blown away, I jumped up and down. Though penguins are known to wander the area offshore from McMurdo Station, people see them here infrequently. ...

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10. Home

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pp. 54-57

It’s an inevitable question.
“What got you into birding?”
To reply, I sit back, smile, and ask the asker: “What got you so interested in eating, sleeping, walking, and talking?” ...

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11. Crozier

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pp. 58-62

In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross sailed into new territory—and history books—when his two wooden ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, entered an unknown Antarctic sea. Ross’ expedition reached farther south than anyone had previously ventured, and...

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12. Snowcraft

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pp. 63-68

It was ten below zero when I dug my coffin.
I stood on an endless surface of level snow with no shelter in sight. On one horizon, Mount Erebus rose starkly white against the blue sky, a wisp of smoke wafting from its volcanic summit. ...

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13. Bucketheads

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pp. 69-72

The next morning found me ready for action with a sense of humor, a rope in one hand, and a white plastic bucket inverted over my head. ...

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14. Flying Machines

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pp. 73-76

“If the helicopter crashes,” the helitech advised, “lean forward and cup your hands on your knees. That way, when you hit ground, your spine won’t snap.” ...

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15. Touchdown

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pp. 77-83

As our helicopter landed at Cape Crozier, I imagined the arrival here of Apsley Cherry-Garrard one hundred years before. He must have looked upon the same landscape. The view hadn’t changed much in the intervening century. ...

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16. Among Penguins

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pp. 84-87

Think of the biggest rock concert you’ve ever been to, except everyone is two feet tall, wearing a tuxedo, and smells like fish.
And you’re on stage. ...

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17. Area M

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pp. 88-90

It was difficult at first to relate the photo to the landscape. The little dots didn’t connect in my mind to the sprawling masses of penguins, especially when birds kept bumping into my boots. I tried not to get too distracted. ...

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18. Metropolis

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pp. 91-94

Male Adélie Penguins, differentiated from females by their slightly larger size, thicker beaks, and bulkier heads, were in charge of claiming and defending nest territories. They’d pick a spot, scratch out a small depression in the ground, and stand over it protectively. ...

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19. Man Hauling

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pp. 95-101

“Let’s pack it up,” Michelle said.
All three of us struggled into cold weather clothing, arranged our packs, and headed outdoors.
Our project for the second day at Crozier involved encircling a small subcolony of nesting penguins inside a plastic fence with only one entrance. ...

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20. Life of a Penguin

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pp. 102-103

By the time an Adélie Penguin hatches from its egg, it’s already covered with a fine layer of gray fuzz. The hatchling, resembling a dainty Beanie Baby, is barely strong enough to lift its head or open its eyes, and can’t maintain its own body temperature. The young penguin has one sibling, and they hatch within a day of...

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21. Wrangling

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pp. 104-106

“Hey, Kirsten,” I called. “Do we have to move the fence?”
A penguin sat on its eggs between two metal poles, exactly where we planned to stretch a section of plastic fencing.
Kirsten paused, a solar panel in one hand. “Hm,” she said, considering. “I dunno. Michelle, what do you think?” ...

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22. Penguin Science

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pp. 107-110

Despite their far-flung stomping grounds, Adélie Penguins rank among the most-studied birds on Earth. Charisma, fearlessness, site loyalty, and abundance place them among an elite few species with so-called star appeal that are relatively easy to observe. ...

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23. Schedule

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pp. 111-119

The toughest part of sleeping in a cold tent was getting up in the morning. I struggled with it.
Initially, I stripped down each evening, dancing heroically inside the confines of my tent to change underclothes and slide into my sleeping bag, huddling there for half an hour to warm back up before drifting off to sleep. ...

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24. Never Trust a Penguin

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pp. 120-126

“If we’re going to visit the Emperor Penguin colony this season,” said Michelle one morning, “we’d better do it soon. The sea ice is starting to break up.” ...

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25. Gap Year

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pp. 127-131

I skipped my high school graduation party because I had to get up the next day at 4:30 a.m. to go birding. Fine with me.
By my great good luck, the American Birding Association, a twenty-thousand-member organization of like-minded bird folk, just happened to hold its annual convention in my hometown the very same week I graduated. ...

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26. Emperors

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pp. 132-135

The Emperor moved slowly, deliberately, like a very old man without his cane. It was almost slothlike in energy, plodding along with shoulders hunched and a pinched, watery expression in the eyes. ..

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27. Roughed Up

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pp. 136-138

“Hey, I noticed your bloody socks,” Kirsten said to me just before dinner. “How are your feet doing?”
I’d clipped the socks in question over our propane heater to dry. They were standard-issue wool hiking socks that reached my upper calf. ...

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28. Blondie and Blackie

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pp. 139-148

Blondie and I met on a chilly, overcast morning, with the wind blowing from the south and a lenticular cloud settling menacingly over Mount Terror. That extra edge in the air gave our introduction special salience, but he was the type to stand out anyway. ...

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29. Seawatching

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pp. 149-152

Barely visible on the horizon, a fin splashed in the sunlight. Two black, rounded shapes broke the sea surface, and fine spray spouted like a distant garden mister. My spotting scope was focused on the action, and I zoomed for a closer look with the high-powered optics. ...

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30. Satellite Tags

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pp. 153-156

“It’s not a UFO,” Michelle said over the radio. “It’s one of those giant scientific balloons launched from McMurdo Station.”
From my spot on the back side of Pat’s Peak, I watched the round, shimmering object hovering high above the continent. ...

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31. Thanksgiving

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pp. 157-160

“Happy Turkey Day!” I beamed to Kirsten and Michelle as we huddled next to a large subcolony of penguins.
“Yeah, I almost forgot,” Kirsten said. “Turkeys are kind of a foreign concept.” ...

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32. Young Birders

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pp. 161-163

In my final year of high school, I entered a national contest called “Young Birder of the Year.” The rules of the contest, organized by the American Birding Association, required keeping a field notebook, taking photographs, and crafting illustrations for seven months. ...

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33. Stranded

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pp. 164-166

While checking nests in Area M one afternoon, a familiar feeling settled in my intestines. Then some gurgling. Pretty soon, I was doing the funny walk while navigating with my clipboard and field notebook, trying to ignore increasingly urgent missives from my stomach. ...

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34. The Chase

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pp. 167-170

At 4:30 a.m. I was sprinting hard down the Antarctic glacier, searching for a wily penguin to wrestle. Behind me, Mount Terror stood starkly backlit by low-angled sunlight, cracked and crevassed with glaciers and sheer cliffs. Though the sun never dipped below the horizon, it did disappear behind Terror for a couple hours around 4 a.m., and now the mountain’s long,...

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35. Penguin Traffic

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pp. 171-173

Inspiration struck me one afternoon while I stood next to the penguin superhighway, which I’d first seen on the day I met Blackie, in a valley parallel to Area M. In this area, penguins funneled down to the valley mouth using a long, narrow strip of snow to commute between their nests and the sea. ...

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36. Christmas

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pp. 174-182

December 25 was not much different from any other workday in Antarctica. Like days of the week, dates had no real significance in our life. On Christmas Day, Michelle, Kirsten, and I worked in the penguin colony like we would on any other day. We never took a day off. ...

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37. Heat Wave

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pp. 183-187

January arrived with the warmest days we’d seen all season. For a few hours each afternoon, temperatures exceeded freezing, and the relative heat, at least at first, proved a nice change from bone-chilling lows of early summer. When the sun shone, the place seemed positively tropical. ...

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38. Bird Bums

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pp. 188-191

While most young adults with wildlife degrees graduate looking for a steady job, a few of us have set slightly different priorities. Not that we don’t want to work—just the opposite. We seek out temporary positions paying less than minimum wage, with few days off, no vacation, no benefits, dangerous and uncomfortable conditions, grubby living arrangements, and varying isolation. ...

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39. Banding

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pp. 192-195

Kirsten, Michelle, and I lounged around the table in the hut, discussing the day’s strategy over breakfast.
“This is it,” said Michelle. “Our last major task of the field season.” ...

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40. Aftermath

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pp. 196-201

“It’ll definitely be strange to return to civilization when this is all over,” Michelle mused. “Just think of it: showers, heaters, fresh food ... what I would give for an ice cream cone!”
“You want ice cream?” said Kirsten, surprised. “We’ve got all the ice we can handle!” ...


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pp. 202


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pp. 203-208

Color Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780870716171
E-ISBN-10: 0870716174
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870716294
Print-ISBN-10: 0870716298

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 16-page color photograph insert
Publication Year: 2011