A week or so of wanderer watching

This week at Macquarie Island: 21 February 2014

On Saturday I returned from a great 12 days in the field 'wanderer' watching. My purpose was to check on the seven wandering albatross nests we have here this season, to identify partners that we had not yet seen on four of the nests, and to identify any non-breeders hanging about. So armed with my binoculars, profile pictures of birds we had already identified and my notebook, I set off for Waterfall Bay on day one, to get ahead of the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project (MIPEP) crowd also heading down island on the same day.

When we identify a wanderer by reading the number on the band around its leg, we take a profile picture for future reference. The plumage on the birds is varied and unique, so having the pictures of the breeding birds previously seen meant that I could identify if that same bird was on the nest from a distance, and prevent unnecessary disturbance. When we do need to go close to a nest or a non-breeding bird, we sneak up very carefully and slowly, staying quiet and out of sight until close. As soon as we’ve snuck a peek at the bird’s band and snapped a quick pic, we retreat back out of sight.

On day two I headed cross country to Cape Star to check if the female of the pair had returned to incubate – luckily she was there. Then it was on to the Amphitheatre to check the status of two nests there. As we already had identification for both partners on those nests, I made a quick check to see if the adults were still happily incubating. It was then down to Caroline Cove hut for the night.

The following day on Petrel Peak two more of the birds I needed to identify were on their nests so I was feeling super productive – just one previously unseen bird to go! The first incubation shift on the nest taken by the male can be up to 21 days, so I spent the next week checking on the nests and hoping the last remaining bird would turn up, but to no avail. Hopefully we will see her on our next visit! Luckily my time was not wasted; I also obtained some re-sights of non-breeding birds on Petrel Peak, in the Amphitheatre and on Cape Star, including a courting couple on the top of Petrel Peak.

Meanwhile, I was based mainly out of the Hurd Point hut, and although right at the bottom end of the island, (as far away from station as it’s possible to get), I enjoyed the company of MIPEPers Lachie, Leona, Mike and Ange at different times. Ange was the only one who escaped without trialling a polenta recipe of some sort (there is an abundance of polenta in the huts, and Jaimie and I have been spending the summer on a mission to find ways to use it).

Upon my return to station, I plugged some band numbers into our database. Here are some interesting facts about some of our breeding birds this year:

The male incubating on the nest on Petrel Peak is a 25-year-old bird. In the years between 1998 and 2004 he bred successfully four times with the same partner (wanderers are biennial breeders - every other year). Then she seems to have disappeared – she has not been seen since 2005. Sadly, this could be due to being caught on a long-line hook. Of course we can’t know for sure but long-line fisheries are one of the major threats to a number of species of albatross, including wanderers. The females from Macquarie Island are more vulnerable to this threat than the males because they head north to feed and are more likely to encounter fisheries than the males who head south.

If a partner dies, it can take years for the bereaved bird to find a new partner (especially given the shortage of females, but also because they can be very picky about choosing a mate!) In this case, our male took five years to find a new partner, and bred successfully with her in 2009/10 and 2011/12. This is the nest where we have not identified the female this season, but we expect it to be the same female as in 2009/10 and 2011/12.

The nest at the base of Mt. Haswell has an 18-year-old male and female of unknown age (as she was not banded as a chick but as an adult in 2006). From 2007 to 2010, the male built 'sits' (a sit is a pile of nest material generally smaller and less well-formed than a nest, that gets built up into a nest if a breeding attempt is made), courted and tried to call in females. However, it wasn’t until 2011/12 that he got hitched and bred successfully with the same female as this year. In 2006/07 and 2008/09 the female bred with a different partner, unsuccessfully the first time and successfully the second. Three years later she’d switched to her current partner.

Let’s hope that this year, the second breeding year for this partnership, is also successful!

Kate Lawrence

Close-up of the male wanderer on his sit on Petrel Peak prior to an egg being laid. On his left leg is a identification band
Male wanderer on his sit on Petrel Peak prior to an egg…
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
The pair of wandering albatross nesting at the base of Mt Haswell. The female is the bird in front, while only the head of the male can be seen behind her
The pair nesting at the base of Mt Haswell. The female is…
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Wanderer in the air in the Amphitheatre. In the background is the mist covered slopes of the Amphitheatre
Wanderer in the air in the Amphitheatre
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
VWanderers courting on the top of Petrel Peak. Both birds have their wings outstretched and are facing each other. The rugged slopes provide a contrasting backdrop
Wanderers courting on the top of Petrel Peak
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Wanderers courting on Petrel Peak - still courting. This time the view is side on to the birds with the outstretched wings curving in towards each other
Wanderers courting on Petrel Peak - still courting
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Wanderers courting on Petrel Peak - You can tell I couldn't decide which picture to use. Again it shows the pair facing each other with outstretched wings and the rugged slopes providing a magnificent backdrop
Wanderers courting on Petrel Peak - You can tell I couldn't decide…
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
My home while down south - Hurd Point hut. A panoramic view of the inside of the hut, showing from the left, clothes hanging to dry, two double bunks on the back wall, table and chairs then through to the kitchen area and shelves stacked with food (on the far right)
My home while down south - Hurd Point hut
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
A stunning sunset viewed from Hurd Point hut showing the orange orb of the sun filtering through the cloud and the rugged offshore rock stacks (including an arch) silhouetted
A stunning sunset viewed from Hurd Point hut
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Only 27 kilometres to go back to station. The view is to the north from the track and shows many hills, the furtherest faded in the hazy air. There is a lake in the valley in the foreground
Only 27km to go back to station
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)