Last Sunday I finally had time off. After procrastinating from fun all day, I decided to go for a hike. At the crack of 9pm, and after dinner of course, I set off down the valley towards Explorer’s Cove. Explorer’s Cove is where Taylor Valley meets the Southern Ocean, and I had hoped that I might see some penguins if the sea ice had melted. It hadn’t, but my night was incredible nonetheless.
Hiking in the Valleys is an experience. There’s no trails, so you decide on your destination and set off in any direction you see fit. For me, it meant hiking east through the middle of the valley over rolling dunes. As I was walking, I couldn’t escape the idea that in all likelihood my foot was touching someplace no one else ever had. As true as this was for the most part, I would occasionally come across a lone footprint – a captivating encounter.
Footprints are a funny thing here. The ground is made up of sand, gravel, and rocks of varying sizes. The landscape heals incredibly slowly – there is no vegetation to grow over a footprint, there’s no rainfall to wash it away. Each step along the ground creates a small crater, generally no more than an inch deep. As you get accustomed to the look of the earth, you can easily notice slight disturbances like these from 100 feet away. This means that as I came across a lone footprint in the middle of the valley, it could be a year old, or decades old. It would look nearly the same.
To be environmentally friendly, this means that when I hike I try to step on big rocks and disturb the ground as little as possible. Each footprint I leave in the sand could last decades and affect the untouched aspect of this place. I have big feet.
During my jaunt, I noticed one of these slight disturbances – but it wasn’t human. I looked down to see small footprints and a set of trails along a small lake. It was bird feet. I looked around and saw small depressions in the sand in the shape of a bowl. To my amazement one of them had a single brown egg. My heart jumped a little. I’ve been in the field for a month and haven’t seen a single living thing, and here was this large egg. I looked around and in the corner of my eye I saw a small head poking out of a pile of rocks on a hill. It was a skua.
The South Polar Skua is quite similar to what a large brown seagull would look like, except it’s highly aggressive. They eat fish, but are also known to kill other birds, eat penguin eggs, (and as I mentioned in the last post) rip the eyes out of mummified seals. They breed in November and December usually having 1-2 eggs. They’re also known for dive-bombing the people who work at McMurdo station.
I watched the bird (from a distance), hop about the rocks and circle in the air for a bit, paying no attention to me. It’s incredible to think that this bird would come into this desolate valley simply to lay a single egg when there’s no food source around. This also means there’s no predators. As I realized this, it occurred to me why the small ‘burrow’ nest was over open ground – the skua had nothing to fear. There were perfectly accessible protected sites nearby where it could defend territory easier. But this bird lays its egg in the wide open simply because there’s been no predatory pressure to teach it otherwise. How cool is that?
After spending an inordinate amount of time observing the bird and egg from an incredible distance*, I walked back to my tent.
All in all, I was able to walk to the sea ice and back in around 4 hours, finishing at the early hour of 1am. 9pm to 1am, bright as day, alone in places where no one has walked, and in short sleeves. What a good night.
*To NSF or Raytheon employees who may read this: ALL photos were taken with a huge 300mm telephoto lens from a distance of over a hundred feet, abiding by environmental non-disturbance rules.