A lot has changed since we started following wandering albatross chicks on Bird Island. It began last year with our first wanderer family Amelia and Atlas, and their chick Greta. Greta is currently on a whirlwind adventure for at least the next five years as she takes on the High Seas! So what’s new on Bird Island? What do you think it is really like being a wandering albatross? With a bit of creativity and imagination we try and answer that question… read on! If you have been following #AlbatrossStories, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, then you will have already met this season’s wandering albatross family. If not, then we have some introductions to do…
Meet Sitka and Ernest (AKA mum and dad). The name ‘Sitka’, chosen by #AlbatrossStories follower @ruthsmithbishop on Instagram, is Inuit for ‘Snow in the South’ while Ernest, chosen by @WillowChiff on Twitter, is named after Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Sitka is our supermum, having raised eight chicks successfully since she hatched in 1986. She met Ernest (who hatched in 1997) a few years ago and together they have successfully raised two chicks. Their latest adventure began this year when Nova, named by #Albatrooper Elizabeth Nerviano, hatched in March! Since then Sitka and Ernest have been making regular trips out to sea in search of food for this fast-growing chick.
But unbeknown to Sitka, she has become part of something much bigger when earlier this year she became an ambassador for albatross conservation. She is part of a study to better understand wandering albatross interactions with fishing vessels in the southern Atlantic (see her tracking data RIGHT). You can learn all about the study and what it’s like working in remote locations like Bird Island here, where we caught up with Ana Carneiro, a BirdLife International seabird ecologist running the study. Sitka was fitted with a radar data logger which detects her proximity to fishing vessels, as well as a tag to track her movements. Technology advancements like this have made it possible to better understand what seabirds get up to when they are out at sea, and even offer insight into why their populations are declining. Since albatross alone are being incidentally caught in fishing equipment at a rate of around one every five minutes, this study is vital for their conservation.
However, fancy trackers can only reveal so much about the life of an albatross. We still can’t answer the age-old question: ‘What are they thinking?’ What is it like for Sitka to leave Nova at the nest to find food? How does it feel to travel thousands of kilometers in days? (We know from her logger she travelled 2,500 km in just 17 days!). Or to search for food in the High Seas, some of the most volatile and expansive oceans on our planet?
We can only imagine……
“He’s back. Ernest arrives at the nest with an abrupt bounce and stumble - he never was the best at landing, but then again not many albatrosses are! After a quick exchange of bill taps and calls, it was Sitka’s turn to leave the island: no time for affection now, Nova needs food. With feet the size of an adult human's hand, she paddles them along the tussock grassland of Bird Island. She’s going to need all the momentum she can muster to take flight, but her 3.5 meter wingspan should help too. Home quickly becomes a distant mirage on the horizon behind her, but in many ways, she is more at home than ever.
She’s flown straight into a storm. 40ft waves, 60 knot winds, freezing sub-Antarctic temperatures… PERFECT. In her element, with her wings outstretched, her muscles, tendons and feathers all working in unison making speeds of 110 kmph an effortless motion. Despite the storm, her mind wanders to Nova getting hungrier by the day, a reminder of island life. A brief memory of that funny scientist emerges... Why did she hug Sitka? Why did she attach something to her back where she can’t reach it? Unimportant questions to Sitka now: time to find some food.
(Albatross species behind a vessel with bird scaring lines - Photo: Barry Watkins)
The storm fades and Sitka spots some unfamiliar humans throwing squid and fish from that floating object… easy food! – thousands of miles away, Ana’s laptop pings. Sitka’s logger has detected a fishing vessel nearby. The team can only wait to see the outcome of this encounter: Will Sitka keep moving, or could she join the thousands of other seabirds who fall victim to fishing lines? – the peace of Sitka’s journey is abruptly stopped. There are giant petrels, black browed and grey headed albatrosses and more, everywhere! But the easy food seems out of reach. Too deep where she is, and she daren’t get any closer to the floating object, which is covered in brightly coloured ribbons flapping in the wind (bird scaring lines)! This meal is not for her, she’ll pick some up elsewhere, it’s about time she started heading back soon anyway.
The laptop screen updates, Sitka’s logger reading shows she’s moved on, heading South and back to Bird Island. A sigh of relief among the team.’
…… Well this could be what is going on in Sitka’s head, or it might not. Some secrets are best left unsolved!
Make sure to follow #AlbatrossStories on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. and send us your own stories of what our albatross stars are all getting up to down on Bird Island.
If you want to support the work of the Albatross Task Force you can become a friend of the albatross, helping projects such as educating fishers on the importance of bird scaring lines which deter Sitka and many others from the dangers of fish hooks.
Albatross Stories is funded by the Darwin Initiative, South Georgia Heritage Trust, and Friends of South Georgia Island.
Photo credit: Alex Dodds and Barry Watkins
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