HO7 the Curlew …

I met this individual on my recent travels.

He or she is a Eurasian Curlew, Numenius arquata, and I encountered it in the Odiel Marshes, Huelva, Spain just across the river from where Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage to the new world.

I say individual for a reason. One Curlew looks a lot like another, if you’re interested in life span or movements of birds from a particular area you need to mark individuals. The common method to do this in the past was with a metal ring. This guy (in the non-gendered sense) has one on the left leg. To read it though one has to catch the bird. The advent of coloured flags has meant that anyone with binoculars or a camera can identify the bird easily in the field.

In recent years a Eurasian Curlew was seen on Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia. The Australian Wader Study Group are active there, in fact I have banded birds with them there myself. Ever the optimist I entertained the hope that this one might be it.

I reported my sighting through the International Wader Study Group (sightings@waderstudygroup.org) and in the fullness of time received the information that this particular Curlew was banded as a first year bird at Poscien, Mazowieckie, Poland 10 months earlier. It was reported 50 days after banding in Irun on Spain’s north coast where it stayed for at least a month. It was first reported in Huelva on the south coast six months prior to my seeing it. In all seven sightings had been submitted. This is a much more efficient means of following a bird than relying on recapture.

So far in its short life it had flown at least 2,800 km. May it fly many more.

Point Danger …

Not far from Portland, Victoria, there is a major nesting colony of Australasian Gannets safely out of reach of foxes on Lawrence Rocks.

Point Danger and Lawrence Rocks

Whilst the rock is safe from terrestrial predators real estate is at a premium. In 1996 some adventurous Gannets gave it a go on Point Danger. It wasn’t a great success but humanity stepped in, fenced the area and there is now quite a colony, the only colony on the mainland.  It depends for its success on a tall outer and an electric inner fence. Maremma dogs were trialled as guards but were not a great success.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to be invited into the enclosure.

Australasian Gannet colony

You can get a good telescope view of the colony from a viewing platform about 125 metres from the birds and you can get a little closer by following the perimeter fence around to the left. But if you are lucky enough to be granted access you can get to about 25 metres away.

Australasian Gannet

As you can see from the photos it was a great opportunity. And this isn’t the breeding season. That runs from October to February corresponding with the Bonney Upwelling when ocean currents bring nutrients that trigger a boom in the food chain from the bottom up, a good time to be feeding youngsters.

When you get close to a Gannet colony part of the fun is spotting the one that doesn’t belong. When I visited the Lambert’s Bay colony of Cape Gannets the big news was one Australasian Gannet among thousands of the locals. Likewise at Point Danger the visit was all the sweeter for finding a Cape Gannet in the crowd …

Cape Gannet among the Aussies

The Cape Gannet is the one on the right showing off its long gular stripe. On the Australasian Gannet the stripe is much shorter. You can just make it out on the guy on the left also pointing his bill up.

There are some other differences that help distinguish the Cape, it has an all black tail whereas the Aussie has a black centre and white outer tail feathers. Their call is also harsher. There is no substitute for getting up close.

It must have been me …

As I said earlier there was something missing from the trip but before I go there let’s recap …

Polar Bear, Ursus maritimus, and glacier
Polar Bear, mother and cub
Brünnich’s Guillemot

The weather and the sea were pretty kind to us. One night the sea did redistribute our possessions around our cabins but mainly because we had been lulled into complacency. It had been so calm that we had stopped securing things for the night.

The Norwegians have a saying

ikke dårlig klær, bare dårlig vær
which rhymes very nicely in the original and translates as “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. For our Zodiac trips we wore one piece flotation suits provided by the ship that definitely kept the weather out.

But I digress. Something, I hope, was missing.

It is axiomatic that …

  1. There is an arsehole in every group that you travel with
  2. The individual in question is absolutely oblivious to the fact that it’s them

so it follows that … If you can’t work out who it is … It’s you.

So was it me or were we uniquely blessed? My companions had all made a significant contribution to conservation but it seemed to me that none were fanatical. There was no maniacal twitcher, no demoniacally possessed wildlife photographer. Everyone was engaged, intelligent and possessed of a sense of humour. No one wimped out because it was cold, and at times it was very cold. No one wanted to leave a polar bear because it was tea time. It was a great group to share a great experience with.

So my thanks to you all. I hope our paths cross again.

I have added a new album to the gallery. When you have a moment I’d be thrilled if you took a look. Click on the button over to the right where it says Gallery or if you are reading this as email click <HERE>!


Fluke …

It was the last day of our voyage. We were heading back to Longyearbyen. It had been a very successful expedition. Two very sharp-eyed local guides had found us eight different individual Polar Bears and we’d had the opportunity to spend many hours in their company. We had seen Walruses by the dozen and had close encounters with other seals. We visited bird cliffs and watched Reindeer and Foxes. Pete Oxford Expeditions had delivered everything on the packet and more.

Pete has a childlike engagement with the natural world. He is enthusiastic, energetic but I would not have chosen the word excitable until this happened on our port side. He yelled “There she blows”, so loudly it was a wonder the whales were not frightened away.

Blue Whale, mother and youngster. We had learnt by marine radio that there had been sightings and now we were lucky enough to find them near us. Early in the trip we had seen some Belugas at a distance but they had paid us no mind. This duo seemed to enjoy our company and swam along side us for a while.

One Captain Pool made a voyage to Svalbard in 1612 and reported that the sea was so full of whales that it was almost necessary for the ship to break its way through. Whaling commenced in earnest soon after. Initially it was shore based. As numbers declined it was necessary to take to the high seas and it was relentless …

“So little by little they wipe out the whale until they are all gone – and the winter take back its undisturbed control of the land” (Nansen 1920).

Norway continues to hunt whales but it restricts the numbers and takes only Minke Whales which are not endangered. Blue Whales are increasing in numbers but there is a long way to go before ships will have trouble finding a way through the crowd.

Eventually they tire of us and make a deep dive …

I am left with tears in my eyes.

The Third Pole …

The ice ages were a  series of major glaciations with intervening interglacials. This process has been playing out over about two and a half million years. The epoch over which this all occurred is the Pleistocene.

The last glaciation finished about 11,500 years ago. Our present epoch has been given a new name, the Holocene, which implies that this is something different not just another interglacial. We shall see.

Prior to the Pleistocene the world was a warmer place. This was the Pliocene an epoch that spanned about 9 million years. In mid-Pliocene temperatures were 2 or 3°C warmer than present , sea levels were about 25 metres higher. Continents were wandering very slowly. In the late Pliocene South America collided with North America, bringing about an interchange of flora and fauna and also bringing about a change in ocean currents and climate.

A collection of cold adapted mammals emerged from a variety of families. Where did they come from? Ice is the unifier of the Arctic, in its absence sea levels are higher and land mammals don’t enjoy the ability to wander from one side to the other. That makes it a poor candidate . The Antarctic continent is cut off by the Southern Ocean making it an even worse candidate.

By contrast the Tibetan Plateau even though close to the equator is at sufficient altitude to rival the true poles for cold weather. It was called the third pole by Marcel Kurz, the great Swiss geographer, mountaineer and explorer. It is well-connected to surrounding land masses meaning that a good variety of mammalian families were represented there during the good times of the Pliocene. As the cold times came on the Tibetan fauna adapted. During the height of the glaciations they could radiate out far to the north.

The Out of Tibet Hypothesis suggests that the Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros, the Three-toed Horse, Sabre-toothed Cat and other cold adapted megafauna originated in the Himalayan mountains. For example the Arctic Musk Ox and the Himalayan Takin are fairly closely related being the only extant members of the tribe Ovibovini.

Since most of the cold adapted megafauna shuffled off this mortal coil in the last 10,000 years you might be wondering where this is going. There are Musk Ox on Svalbard but I wasn’t lucky enough to see or photograph them but I did catch up with another creature that provides a strong link with Tibet …

Arctic Fox

At under 5kg they don’t qualify as megafauna but according to Xiaoming Wang et al. the Arctic Fox is descended from the Early Pliocene (3.60–5.08 Myr ago) high altitude fox, Vulpes qiuzhudingi which they have recently discovered, and which they consider support for the Out of Tibet Hypothesis. The following figure is shamelessly stolen from their article.

The Arctic Fox has a fairly short life, typically 3 or 4 years, 10 or so if they are lucky. When food is abundant they can have large litters (as many as 25 – the largest litter size among the Carnivora) although 5 or 6  is more usual. This is a very different life strategy than the Polar Bear.

As can be seen in the photo above there are two colour morphs. This is genetically determined. On Svalbard 85 – 98% of the population is the white form. This despite the fact that the gene for the blue form is dominant. There is clearly some selection pressure against the blue form. This was certainly true in the fur hunting days when pelts of the blue form were worth considerably more.

If you do a Google search for Arctic Fox you will be overwhelmed with links for a semi-permanent, vegan haircolouring. An odd choice of name for a vegan product – the Arctic Fox is a ferocious little predator. Lemmings are high on the menu where they occur (no Lemmings on Svalbard) and birds elsewhere. They take carrion, seal pups and some plant food . When you see a Polar Bear there is often a fox not far away hoping to steal a few mouthfuls. Some food is cached for winter consumption.

Arctic Foxes are susceptible to rabies and toxoplasmosis. They are the final host of the tape worm Echinococcus multilocularis, a parasite that can be fatal in humans.The Norwegian Polar Institute recommends wearing gloves if you intend to handle fox faeces.

Arctic Fox

King and Commoners …

The summer visitor to Svalbard will see a few ducks. The commonest is the Common Eider but if you’re lucky there will be an occasional King in the flock.

Kings and Commoners

The male King is hard to misidentify …

King Eider

the female can be distinguished from Common Eider by its slightly smaller size and more concave face.

Common Eider

Both species are sea ducks that dive for their food. They nest on the ground which puts them at the mercy of Arctic Foxes. There are often small nesting colonies of Common Eider near the compounds where the sled dogs are kept. Foxes tend to keep away from the dogs. They also lose eggs and young to Glaucous Gulls and occasionally Polar Bears.

A rare bird among the Eiders on Svalbard is one named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, a biologist that I have more than a little admiration for. Steller’s Eider is the smallest of the eiders and we were lucky to get fairly distant views of a single male.

Steller’s Eider

We encountered some other ducks on fresh water.

Long-tailed Duck (or Oldsquaw to some of the politically incorrect) has the distinction of being the deepest diving duck (60 metres, ~200 feet). It is a sea duck but the one pair encountered were on a freshwater pond.

Long-tailed Duck

Not a sea duck and the only representative of its species that we saw was this Tufted Duck.

Tufted Duck

All of these birds dive for their food so too does this one. It’s not a duck it’s a diver or, as the Americans would have it, a loon.

Red-throated Diver (Loon)

Where the Eiders are seasonally gaudy the Divers are elegantly understated in designer pastels. Note how far back the legs are set on the body. They are on a different evolutionary path than the Auks. All five species of Diver are foot propelled underwater. They can use their wings to change direction but essentially their wings are for flight.