This week at Macquarie Island: 5 May 2017

This week at Macca, we hear first-hand about the albatross and giant petrel research program and get to know research assistant Emily Mowat.

Albatross and Giant Petrel Research Program overview

Macquarie Island is home to four albatross species and many petrel species that are of national and international conservation significance. The Macquarie Island Albatross and Giant Petrel Program is a long–term seabird conservation program that has been running for over twenty years to determine the population status and trends of these seabirds. A team of two field biologists are deployed to Macquarie Island each year.

Over the last month the new field team (Emily and myself), along with recent seabird biologist now turned wildlife ranger extraordinaire Penny and our ranger in charge Andrea, have been out and about in the field completing the final nest checks and chick banding of the light–mantled sooty albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) that nest all over the island. As their distribution is so widespread, with an estimated population in 2013 of 1550-2700 pairs breeding over the entire island, we monitor seven long term study sites scattered around the island that are representative of the overall population.

During April we went on four field trips (including a couple of day trips from station) where we visited our study sites at Gadgets Gully, Bauer Bay, Sandy Bay, Sawyer Creek, Hurd Point, Lusitania Bay and North Head.

Our work involves firstly locating the nest via GPS (this is when it became really handy to have Penny working with us, who had already visited these nests for previous nest checks), identifying whether there is a chick present and the developmental stage of the chick (plumage score), and then we pop a stainless steel band and a plastic darvic band on their legs. The reason why we band them is to be able to re-sight these birds later on and collect population demographics information such as juvenile survival, age of first breeding and determine site fidelity or movements within breeding sites.

The work is physically challenging – the birds often nest on top of slopes that we must bash through human-sized tussock to climb to. Sometimes when navigating to a nest we may come to the realisation that the nest is actually on the next ridge line over and so often we may need to descend all the way back down and go back up again.

The work is also very smelly – working in close proximity to wild birds means that we are often subject to projectile poo and regurgitate. Personally, I love the smell our clothes and gear is covered in by the end of the day and I have wonderful memories associated with the odour of the various seabird excrement, of doing what I love most, living and working with these gorgeous sentient beings that rule both the sea and sky.

Collectively, we counted a total of 144 chicks and banded 108 individuals during April, a great and very rewarding effort. Work on the light-mantled sooty albatross will begin again in October when we search the slopes for nesting birds to monitor over the next summer breeding season.

Mel Wells

Research Assistant

Macquarie Island Albatross & Giant Petrel Research Program 2017/18

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross chick at North Head - Macquarie Island
Light-mantled sooty albatross chick at North Head.
(Photo: M. Wells)
Three expeditioners preparing to take on the Lusitania Bay slopes - Macquarie Island
Mel, Penny, and Emily preparing to take on the Lusitania Bay slopes.
(Photo: A.Turbett)
Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross Chicks - Macquarie Island
Light-mantled sooty albatross chicks.
(Photo: M. Wells)
Penny, Emily and Mel on the Macquarie Island slopes looking for nests
Penny, Emily and Mel on the Macquarie Island slopes looking for nests.
(Photo: A. Turbett)

70th ANARE winter expeditioner profile: Emily Mowat

Name: Emily Mowat

What is your occupation on Macca? Describe the main responsibilities of your role on the island.

I am working as a field assistant on the Albatross and Giant Petrel Program, which has been running for over 20 years on Macquarie Island.

We are responsible for monitoring population trends for the four albatross and two giant petrel species that breed on the island. This includes searching for and identifying nests at the breeding sites, monitoring hatching success and chick survivorship and banding chicks in order to identify individual birds when they return to the island later in life. We are very lucky because we get to traverse a large proportion of the island for our job and visit some pretty special areas.

Where are you from?

Originally from Sydney but I have called Newcastle home for the past three years.

What is your normal job back in the 'real world'?

I normally work as an ecological consultant with Eco Logical Australia, where I am involved in fauna surveys and monitoring, writing ecological assessments, conservation agreements and vegetation management plans.

Have you been to Macca or other Antarctic stations previously?

Nope! This is my first time down south.

What was your main motivation in coming to Macca in 2017?

The opportunity to work in one of the most important nature reserves in Australia, to expand my experience with seabirds, and for the unique and memorable experiences that you can only get from remote–area living.

List some of your favourite aspects of life on Macca so far:

The Macca community, such a great group of people! The wildlife is obviously amazing as well – there are very few places where you can walk outside your door and be surrounded by seals and penguins, with albatross and giant petrels flying around overhead. We are also lucky to have incredible food every day courtesy of chef Nick.

What are some of the most challenging things about living on Macca?

Missing family and friends back home, especially missing out on important events like weddings and birthdays. With regard to the island itself, I would say the most challenging things are the very strong winds and the limited sunshine, but they are an essential part of the Macca experience.

What Macca animal do you feel represents you best and why?

I would definitely say a skua, as I am always on the lookout for a free feed.

What is the one thing you miss most whilst on the island?

Certain fresh foods are definitely missed; I don’t think a day goes past that we don’t reminisce about bananas and avocados! I also miss being able to swim at the beach.

What do you NOT miss about normal life?

TV, advertising of all kinds, having to go shopping, checking my phone!

What do you like doing outside of work on Macca?

Drawing, reading, yoga, watching 'penguin TV' out of the field hut windows.

Name your go-to snack whilst out in the field?

Tahini and honey on crackers, halva, dark chocolate (anything sugary!)

Identify your favourite piece of AAD (Australian Antarctic Division)-issued kit?

I rather enjoy wearing my snow goggles; I haven’t been able to test them in actual snow yet, but they are great for keeping the wind and rain out of your eyes.

One thing you wish you had packed but didn’t?

One thing that I didn’t anticipate is just how many social events there would be here! I definitely didn’t pack enough nice outfits. It’s really great though that everyone here is willing to put in the effort to create so many special occasions.

Is there anyone you would like to give a shout-out to back at home?

So many people, but especially my Sydney 'BCC' buddies (you know who you are), my uni biology friends who I know would love to see this place, the Aust Bird Study Association banding gang and my Newcastle adventure friends.

Research Assistant Emily Mowat on the Macquarie Island slopes
Research Assistant Emily Mowat on the Macquarie Island slopes.
(Photo: A. Turbett)
The Awesome Foursome: TASPARKS & Albatross Program members Emily, Andrea, Mel and Penny enjoying dinner after a hard day's field work on Macquarie Island
The Awesome Foursome: TASPARKS and Albatross Program members Emily, Andrea, Mel and…
(Photo: A. Turbett)
A skua looking at a group of penguins.
Contemplative skua
(Photo: E. Mowat)
The 'outdoor office' of Research Assistants Emily Mowat & Mel Wells - Macquarie Island
The 'outdoor office' of research assistants Emily Mowat and Mel Wells.
(Photo: A. Turbett)