Prion Island: nesting wanderers

The prion (in Antarctica, where there are no cows) is an abundant seabird. There are several species, primarily differentiated by their bills. They fly fast and low and so I have no good pictures of them. The point of Prion Island In the Bay of Isles, though, is that it is home to nesting Wandering Albatross and one of the very few places in the world where you can come close to these astonishing birds. (Jordi took the great picture of an albatross on her nest above.) They do nest on some other spots but visitors are only allowed on Prion.

 

We dropped our anchor in an eerie, milky calm. The sea was glassy and the air was limpid and white. It seemed light but in fact visibility was so poor that at one stage a friend’s flashlight went off automatically. Looking out from the ship, anchored close to the small island to the south east corner of Prion, the land was barely visible. The air felt both dry and humid and we spoke quietly even on deck, as if a loud voice might cause an arm to rise from the deep brandishing a sword, or the kraken to overwhelm us.

There is only one beach where landing is permitted on the island and when we arrived it was busy with fur seals and penguins. Pipits played among the kelp strands. (Thanks to Greg Warton of the voyage crew for this fantastic picture.) From the beach a board walk leads up among the tussac grass. People who see these places become ambassadors for their protection, so it is great to be able to climb the hill but the area still needs careful management.

Near the top, on albatross was looking after her chick on a nest near the boardwalk. Wandering albatross breed once every two years and come back to the same nest. This bird, judging from the whiteness of her feathers, has reached quite an age, but the paparazzi clicking their shutters about three meters away did not worry her or the chick at all. They must be used to stardom.

Wandering albatross have the biggest wingspan of any bird, reaching 3.5 m from one wingtip to the other. At the same time, their hollow bones means most of them weigh under 12kg, very important to their long periods on the wing. There is some evidence (based on tracking individual birds) that each Wanderer group has a specific range for foraging but that they all range very widely at sea. One monitored bird travelled 25,000 km in about nine weeks, and other tracking shows they average 55km/h when flying, and an impressive 85 km/hour or more for over 10% of the time. (From A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife by Shirihai.)

Although there are several breeding colonies of albatross, all species are under severe threat particularly from longlining and plastic. Longline fishing can see up to 130km of line running from one vessel, dangling up to 20,000 baited hooks. Each year (according to the RSPB) three billion hooks are set, killing an estimated 100,000 albatross (and 200,000 other seabirds). The albatross dive on the baited hook just before it sinks, get pulled under and drown. Longlining is considered by some to a be more sustainable method of fishing than others, such as bottom trawling, but it is the most dangerous method for a species in rapid decline. If you eat fish, enquire carefully into its provenance.

The other big threat is plastic. Albatross fish by snapping their prey out of the water, but it turns out they are very bad at knowing the difference between real meat and your rubbish. All around the world, albatross chicks are dying of starvation and their stomachs are full of our waste. The director Chris Jordan made an extremely moving film, Midway, about this issue: it’s not long but have tissues to hand. You can also read a lot about the project, which was crowd-funded. Again: what you do makes a difference. Try to minimize your use of plastic, including microbeads, and if you do use it, then dispose of it responsibly.

 

The Wandering Albatross mates for life. When they return to their nests after a long period at sea, the birds go through elaborate mating dances, thought to ensure they are recognizing their own sweetheart. From laying to fledging, it takes over a year to raise a chick, with both parents working together, so it’s important to get it right at the start. Notoriously, too, they find it hard to take off. Every albatross colony has a runway (also used by giant petrels) which they lumber along, finding the speed to get aloft.

For a long time, it was thought that the extraordinary flights of the albatross were possible by riding thermal updrafts from the waves. In 2012, a detailed paper pointed to another strategy. As simplified in the press (necessary for those of us who cannot follow the maths of aerodynamics), they operate more like a paraglider. An albatross will use their extremely fine muscular control to gain height by angling their wings as they fly into the wind then they turn and glide for tens of meters. This technique allows them to fly much faster than the wind, and it also explains the repeated circling and swooping you see even without any prey beneath them.

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