Here’s a treat for you; I have written about horses arses, and Donald Trump all in the same post, but it’s not what you think…
If you missed the first part of this story you can read it here.
Falklands Conservation visit Steeple Jason a couple of times each year to conduct research and seabird surveys to get an idea of the health of the seabird populations. It’s really important work as seabirds are a good indicator of the health of the ecosystems on which they depend, furthermore many of our seabirds are of global significance (70% of the world’s black-browed albatrosses breed in the Falklands) and so it is vital to keep a close eye on how they are faring.
The biggest albatross colony in the world doesn’t disappoint on impact or drama. It stretches as far as the eye can see in a continuous band along the western coast of the island.
Each albatross sits atop a mud nest about 18 inches high. The nests must be hundreds of years old and the result of careful sculpting by generations of albatrosses. Each nest is carefully spaced out so that the neighbouring nest is just out of pecking range.
I remember reading about how horses arses have literally shaped the development of our cities and towns. Carts were designed to straddle the width of a horse, and so the wheels on the carts made ruts in the ground which later became roads. This was the basis for the width of streets and the spacing of buildings. Later, when horse and carts were replaced by the motor car, cars were built to this standard size so that they could make use of the existing roads.
So the orderly arrangement of nest mounds is based not around a horses arse, but the reach of grumpy albatross neighbours. This results in a uncannily ordered appearance, and in places the nests almost align in neat rows and look for all the world like they have been carefully laid out by a town planner. On the edges of the colonies are clear areas used by the albatrosses as landing strips. With a wing span of over two metres, Albatrosses need clear areas to take off and land. Once safely on the ground they commute to their nest on foot – running the gauntlet of snapping beaks between nest mounds.
How they find their own nest is a miracle of nature in itself, and they don’t only manage to return to it after each foraging trip, but they manage to come back to it year after year.
The list of interesting things about albatrosses doesn’t end there. They can live to a ripe old age of 70, and they mate for life – although like humans they do occasionally divorce and find a new mate. Apart from when they are breeding they spend their whole life at sea, mostly on the wing. When a baby albatross fledges the nest, it won’t set foot on land again for about 7 years when it is ready to find a mate and begin breeding. At sea they can cover hundreds of miles in a day and circumnavigate the globe. When finally the albatross does return to the colony, it returns to the same spot it fledged from.
It really is a fantastic sight and one which I can’t do justice in words, nor in the many pictures that I took. I should also mention that it’s not just about the incredible sights; it is a multi-sensory experience! Firstly there is the unmistakable smell of guano which you can detect long before you see the colony. Then there are the myriad of noises – some which the albatrosses make themselves like the aggressive beak clack which sounds like two pieces of wood being banged together, to the various calls they use in courtship and to welcome a returning mate. On top of all of that the colony is shared by rockhopper penguins, king shags and a few giant petrels. Over head swoop skuas and striated caracaras and along the coast are hundreds of sea lions and fur seals – it is all quite overwhelming.
Apart from counting breeding pairs of seabirds, another part of our job was to continue with a piece of field work which has been ongoing for many years. One distinct part of the albatross colony is used as a study site and each year Falklands Conservation return to the site to tag the breeding birds and their chicks. What is fascinating about working at the study site is that you can see the birds return to the same colony each year, and you can see young juvenile birds returning (perhaps their first time on land since fledging) to begin their journey of courtship and nest building.
Aside from the world class wildlife and stunning scenery it was also really nice to be in such a remote place with a few good people. The three of us; Sarah, Janet and myself made up the only human population for miles around. That was except for one day when thinking we were the only people on the island we were somewhat surprised to see a man walking down the hill towards us! It turned out that a small expedition cruise ship had dropped off some passengers that afternoon, but a few hours later they had all left leaving us to ‘our’ island once more. The only other interference from the outside world was the occasional satellite telephone call to the Falklands Conservation office to tell them that we were still alive. On one such call we received the news that Donald Trump had been voted in as president elect. We honestly thought it was a joke, and didn’t believe it (or didn’t want to believe it). When the boat arrived at the end of our two week stay to pick us up they told us that it was no joke, and indeed the world had gone completely crazy. It was a rude awakening bringing us back to reality with a thump.
It was a huge privilege to visit Steeple Jason, and more so because we were there collecting valuable and important data. Sincere thanks to Falklands Conservation for allowing me to come along, the Wildlife Conservation Society (owners of Steeple Jason), Rob McGill on Carcass Island, and Mike, Shane, Derek and Mike on the S/Y Condor. But most of all thanks to Sarah Crofts from Falklands Conservation and Janet Fairclough from the RSPB for their great company during the trip.