phanaerozoic

Musings about life on Earth in all its aspects…

Category: Ornithology

ANTARCTIC JOURNAL – 1998 – DECEPTION ISLAND

In the Antarctic, krill, which means ‘whale food’ in Norwegian, sustain not only whales, but also penguins, seals, squid, fish, albatross, and other seabirds. These small, shrimp-like creatures represent the very cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem — processing the energy of the sun stored in phytoplankton (microscopic free-floating plants) and breeding by the thousands to provide an abundant source of nourishment for higher-order predators. Virtually all the larger animals of the Antarctic are either directly or indirectly dependent on krill.” – from Krill: Cornerstone of the Antarctic, PBS.org

From my journal:

“Chinstrap Penguins at Bailey Head stream up the slopes in a continuous river of movement: swirls of penguins, freshets of penguins, long sweeping arcs of penguins, occasional eddies of penguins that hesitate briefly before continuing on.

Chinstrap 1

I point the viewfinder of my video camera into this chaos of penguins, then zoom in to focus on a square meter of black sand. I can cope with this small patch, analyze it just as I would a fluid flow problem. Establish a fixed reference volume and measure what goes in, what goes out. Thirty-eight penguins pass through my little box in two minutes. That’s nineteen penguins per minute per meter. The penguin stream here is about six meters wide. One hundred and fourteen penguins per minute passing this point, flowing uphill, uphill. Uphill to the chicks.

I change experimental techniques. One can also study flowing fluids by tracking the path of individual particles within the flow. I pan the camera back to the source of penguins, the rolling swells at the beach. Catch a knot of penguins at the water’s edge. Choose one. Watch the swell sweep it up onto the beach. It stands erect and steps. Step, step, step. Halt. Shake. Joins the flow: step, step, step. The penguin particle traces a path, a penguin streamline, up the beach toward the colony.

At this time of day, the net flow of penguins is uphill. Occasionally individuals or small groups can be found bucking the tide, going down toward the sea. Perhaps one in forty, one in fifty. Also going down the hill is a small stream of fresh water. The sea below penguin colonies seems always to be tinted, muddy, reddish, murky with suspended sediments of earth and guano: guano dyed pink with krill colors, organic krill dyes.

krill

Krill fuel this system, provide the energy that pushes this flow of penguins uphill in defiance of gravity. Step, step, step. Each footstep like a meshing gear tooth in a machine. Lifting krill soup, krill stew. Kilocalories of krill being carried up in discrete penguin packets, levered up the hill step by step.

I first sit on the sand, then move to a rock further up the slope. I use my brain as a signal processor, filtering out the squawks, creaks and groans of penguin vocal cords. Filter out the rolling swish of water onto the beach. I focus on the background sound, the stepping sounds, the almost sibilant slapping of feet onto the ground. Step, step, step. The quiet, insistent background sound of energy going uphill, always uphill.

Chinstrap 2

I go with the flow. Climb the hill myself. The stream of penguins opens, parting to form a tear-drop shape of penguin-less space around me, as if I were a boulder in the stream. As I top the hill the stream begins to lose its identity, to diffuse, to disappear into the melee of the colony. Here raucous groups stand in the sun on the rounded slopes above the beach. Chicks beg for food, insistently pecking at adult bills. The chicks are of course the reason for all the commotion, all the movement, all the flowing river of black and white that stretches back across the sand into the distance. The penguins in the distance are barely distinguishable, but their rocking, pendulum-like motion looks like ripples on water, like the fine-grained capillary waves that dapple otherwise calm seas. Each roll, each bob represents a step. Step, step, step. Nearly countless feet taking nearly countless steps, right, left, right, left, a sound like light rainfall. As time passes and my memories of Antarctica fade, I know that it will be the memory of these soft sounds of penguins stepping slowly, steadily up the slopes of Bailey Head that will make this precious moment real for me once again.”

– Roy Beckemeyer, Deception Island, South Shetlands, January 31, 1998.

ANTARCTIC JOURNAL – 1998 – THE DRAKE PASSAGE

“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, Logbook for Grace

From my journal:

“God seems to have graced some living things more abundantly than others. He was particularly generous to pelagic birds. Our days between Ushuaia and South Georgia on the open waters of the South Atlantic Sea provide ample evidence of this.

Storm Petrels are a case in point. They dash across the sea like frenzied ice skaters, like Bolshoi dancers. They stop in place and dap their toes into the water like ballerinas en pointe. They careen off again, rolling back and forth, back and forth. Watch them closely enough, long enough, with sure and agile enough tracking, and they will reveal their identity by way of their belly plumage: dark for Wilson’s, white with a black streak for Black-bellied.

Wilsons StormPetrel Photo Filtered

But it is the stiff-winged albatrosses that to me best reveal the sea birds’ special grace. The first species we encounter is the lovely Black-browed, with its snowy white head and stunning black stripe through the eye. These birds wheel and glide behind the ship showing off their natty black and white plumage from all angles. Later we see Light-mantled Sooty and Gray-headed Albatrosses as well, each with equally pretty plumage. They are much rarer than the seemingly ubiquitous Black-browed, however, and for that reason seem more precious.

Wandering Albatross Quick Sketch

Soon the Wandering Albatross appears. We see mostly immature birds of this species, which even in the adult plumage is somewhat drab when compared with the other albatrosses. But this bird’s blessings are not cosmetic, not skin-deep. The Wanderer possesses unimaginably efficient wings. Wings capable of keeping the bird airborne day after day after day, almost never needing to be flapped. Wings sensitive to the slightest nuance of wind, of updraft, of gradients in the boundary layer. This species’ grace and beauty are functional, structural, geometric, aerodynamic. This bird is the consummate flier, with slender sail-plane like wings that can bring tears of joy to the eyes of an aerodynamicist.

Wandering Photo

Occasionally bestowing on us a close look as they glide over our heads, these huge birds with their eleven foot spans more often skim the wave tops one or two hundred meters away. They are nearly always within sight of the ship, but not tethered in its wake like their molly-mauk and petrel cousins.

Wandering ALbatross SKetches

I have dreamed of seeing the Wandering Albatross for years, since reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a child. My desire only intensified when I became an engineer and read the works that document the astounding feats performed by Diomedea exsulans. In 1964 Clarence Cone of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science published a mathematical analysis of the energetics of dynamic soaring that showed albatrosses to be the original wind machines, able to extract energy from wind and wave with the clarity, precision and unerring control with which they maintain their attitude and position in time and space.

Cone Analysis SKetcvh.

In 1982 Colin Pennycuick made field observations of the gliding performance of the albatrosses of South Georgia and quantified their impressive performance. P. Jouventin and H. Weimerskirsch tracked Wandering Albatrosses using satellites in 1990 and determined that the birds made foraging flights away from their nests of from 3 to 33 days that covered from several thousand to 15,000 kilometers. Credible documentation of incredible feats.

Now I stand at the stern of the Akademik Ioffe, shifting my weight from leg to leg as the ship lifts and rolls on the swells of the Drake Passage, the wind whipping my cheeks with spume plucked from white-fringed waves. The surface of the sea is almost alive, in constant motion. I stand and watch them: Real albatrosses. Live albatrosses. Albatrosses sharing with me this position in time, this position in space, this raw and lovely intersection of nostalgia and reality.

Wandering Albatross Photo FIltered.

At the edge of the horizon a Wandering Albatross skims the waves. The swells reveal then hide, reveal then hide the bird. It suddenly wheels up above the plane of the water, dark against the leaden sky, showing me its perfect planform. The arc of its path brings it nearly vertical to the surface of the sea. There is a catching in my throat. The bird reaches across the water and captures a bit of my soul. I hold my breath. The bird hangs there in mid air. I have seen my albatross at last!”

– Roy Beckemeyer, Drake Passage, 22 January, 1998

My travel journal entries from a trip I made 15 years ago to Antarctica have long been posted on my web site http://www.windsofkansas.com. I have decided to extract some of them and post them here on my blog so that they are exposed to a different audience. The text and rough sketches are from my Antarctic Journal. The schematic diagram is from the cover of “A Mathematical Analysis of the Dynamic Soaring Flight of the Albatross with Ecological Interpretations,” by Clarence D. Cone, Jr., Virginia Institute of Marine Science Special Scientific Report No. 50, May 1964. The color images are from photos I took on the 1998 Antarctic trip and are of a Wilson’s Storm Petrel and two different Wandering Albatrosses. I used Photoshop filters to make the photos look like paintings.

The Amazing Ancient Murrelet

There is something very special about the birds that live most of their lives at sea – the penguins, albatrosses, petrels.  But near the top of my list of favorite birds are the alcids or auks.  These birds of the northern seas are the ecological equivalent of the southern hemisphere penguins, and are fat birds capable of diving and swimming after prey in cold water.  Alcids have the added advantage that they can fly as well as swim.   Included in the group are auks, murres, puffins, auklets, and murrelets.  And my favorite alcid is the little Ancient Murrelet (Scientific name Synthliboramphus antiques). 

The bird got its sobriquet “Ancient” from the specific name, “antiques.”  The specific epithet appears to have its origin in the Russian folk name for the bird, “Starik” (which means “old man”), which is based on its appearance.  One of the first western authors to describe these birds was Thomas Pennant, in 1784, who wrote “white, long, loose and very narrow feathers…which give it an aged look.” (These feathers occur on the side and back of the head of the adults.)

Ancient Murrelets are distributed along the Asian and American coasts of the North Pacific, from Japan, Korea and the Kurils north to Kamchatka, across the Aleutian island chain to Alaska, south along the coast to Washington State.   Some of the largest breeding colonies for these birds are on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. 

Adults weigh around half a pound, and live nearly their entire lives at sea, usually out of sight of land.  They are on land only during the breeding season.  In the Queen Charlottes, this is April through June.  They nest in colonies on conifer-forested slopes of islands within 400 meters or so of the water, digging burrows several feet long at the bases of large trees under the roots, or under grass tussocks.  They typically incubate two eggs for about a month, taking two to four day shifts.  The adults are active above ground in their colonies only when it is nearly completely dark.  The males sing from tree branches or other perches at night in the nesting colonies.

The baby Ancient Murrelets are precocial, that is, they are covered with down and able to walk almost immediately after hatching.  The adults do not feed them in the nest, and the young leave their burrows when they are from one to four days old.  The adults fly to the water at night, while the young (they weigh only about one ounce!) walk to the shore.  The adults swim just offshore, calling to the young; they have individually distinctive calls, and the young rendezvous with the adults by recognizing their calls.  Once they reach the sea, the family groups travel nonstop out to sea for about 18 hours, travelling to offshore feeding areas.  The youngsters can swim and dive immediately on reaching the sea.  The parents feed the young birds for about a month, and the young fledge at sea at six weeks or so of age. 

AncientMurreletLittleTanaga

 

Back in the early 1990’s, I went salmon fishing off the Queen Charlottes several times, and saw both Cassin’s Auklets and Ancient Murrelets in those waters.  The picture posted here, however, is one I took on a boat trip my wife and I took across the Bering Sea from Kamchatka up through the Aleutians to Nome in 2006.  It was taken off Little Tanaga Island in the Aleutians.  I like the way the small bird looks so vulnerable, and yet so comfortable, bobbing in the cold green water.  Amazing birds, these tiny sparks of life scattered over the surface of the vast and heartless northern sea.

– Roy Beckemeyer

There is a marvelous book summarizing what is known of this bird: “The Ancient Murrelet: A Natural History in the Queen Charlotte Islands,” by Anthony J. Gaston, 1992, T & AD Poyser, London.