Saturday, January 23, 2016

Bird watching lesson from the Kerguelen Plateau

Albatrosses and petrels, constant companions of our journey, are majestic indeed. I had a bit of time yesterday to admire their turns, their perfect aerodynamic shape, their confident look. It was such a gorgeous sunny day! Not warm, though: air temperature was about 3 deg C and the wind so strong that I had to wear my beanie, wool gloves, snowboard jacket, wool socks, waterproof boots.. which really didn't protect me from freezing. And the wave that caught me on the back deck? Didn't feel that warm either.

But in that half an hour or so, I took out my camera, my zoom lens and had a bit of fun by trying to capture their freedom on my artificial memory. Not an easy task, I must say, with a moving boat and their fast flight. Their turns are so elegant, so perfectly calibrated. Sometimes they just barely touch the thin ocean surface with the last bit of their feathers, or they appear just below a breaking wave. Just a touch, an intimate exchange with the never stopping, troubled, immense blue. Always tending to each other, bird and ocean. One with its mesmerizing flight, the other trying to capture it by over stretching in the form of a wave. It's like they play, never really tired of doing so. 


Wandering albatross


Cape petrel

Prion (unfortunately I couldn't get the right focus on this fast bird very well.. but you get the idea)

I had a chat with Fernando Arce, a PhD student at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart. Hemhas a background in terrestrial ecologist, however he's finding his path to the ocean "much more interesting and definitely more challenging". On board, he's one of our wildlife observers (how cool is that?!). Despite our contrasting views on which one, bird or whale, is far more beautiful than the other (I stand for whales, of course), he happily instructed me on the bird life we are encountering in these days. For example, so far he spotted 45 species of seabirds, with 8 types of albatrosses (such like those big guys in the first 3 pictures above) and about 20 kinds of petrels, from the sub-tropical Barau's and Round Island petrels to the sub-Antarctic Kerguelen and Cape petrels (oh, these are really beautiful: did you see the Cape Petrel above? how amazing is the pattern on its feathers?!). He told me that there are about 17 species of albatross in the Southern Ocean and as much as 10 just here in this region. I always see them flying, sometimes floating on the ocean (maybe to get some rest?), but I never actually see them eating. I wondered how long they can stay with no food… Fortunately Pete got the proof that they actually get something to eat. We can see them here, but they have a nest on some islands. They leave their nest when they are 6 months old, more or less, and then live for few years at sea, spending their youth in freedom. They normally mate for life, but divorces (?!) are not uncommon (e.g. if the couple fails to successfully raise a chick, after several attempts O.o ). Fernando loves everything about them (and you can see it in the sparkles of his eyes..), especially their effortless looking flying motion, their ability to fly over very long distances and even circum-fly Antarctica and…"because they are cute!". For his studies he's taking in situ information about their diversity, distribution and abundance, as so far not many data have been collected. Some of them unfortunately are endangered, especially the large albatrosses as they are a bycatch of long lines :-( To protect them, a network of protected areas is currently under development.

Fernando also spotted pilot, sei and humpback whales (Tim, the other wildlife observer, even spotted a blue whale!!), bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and penguins, but, as I have previously said, I haven't seen any of them.. with my deep despair.. 

A mollymawk albatross

A white-chinned petrel (on the left) and a black-browed albatross, on the right (it looks like this guy has a mask on his eyes..)

That's all from the bird life :-)

Goodbye form the brown skua..

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