This week at Macquarie Island: 30 November 2018

Meet the skua family in the Met enclosure, and visit Secluded Beach

The growing Met family

One morning in mid-October, we of Team Met were surprised to learn that we'd be hosting a family of sub-Antarctic skuas in our instrument enclosure this year. Without fuss, fidgeting, or nest building, a female laid her two eggs within a few metres of our Stevenson Screen.

It’s made our visits to the instruments quite exciting.

In my experience skuas have a negative bias attached to their name. They’re bullies and predators, disillusioning countless expeditioners about the nature of nature. To be frank, their escapades belong in horror films. Our locals have turned the Met enclosure into a wasteland of bolus, bones and excrement. And they’re laying waste to our local creche of Gentoo chicks. And they swoop and intimidate us every day that we visit our instruments.

But the more time I spend watching the skuas, the more I appreciate them. As a species they have admirable traits that few other animals on Macca share.

Giant Petrels abandon their nests at the drop of a hat.

Elephant seal pups get washed out to sea, or abandoned by their mothers to starve, or squashed under overly enthusiastic bulls.

King penguins will watch with curiosity while another of their species is dismembered by predators.

Skuas on the other hand are brave, clever, and devoted parents. The chicks are independent and begin exploring from day one. The parents share the tasks of feeding and teaching the chicks: a few of us here have had the opportunity to see the adults deliberately tug-of-warring a morsel of flesh apart for the chicks to eat. They keep an attentive eye over their domain and warn the kids to hide while threatening any invaders. 

Seeing the Skua family care for each other, teach the chicks, and defend their space has certainly increased my esteem for them. 

There is a video of our skua chicks at https://youtu.be/7jW1Jt6cjLs

A nesting skua with first hatched chick nestling inside the Met enclosure on the ground directly behind the fence
Skua and chick nestled safely behind the fence
(Photo: Ali Dean)
Male skua showing his chick how to tear off bits of food from a regurgitated chunk
Male skua showing his chick how to tear off bits of food…
(Photo: Ali Dean)
The second egg in the grass nest - it hatched a day after the first
The second egg in the grass nest - it hatched a day…
(Photo: Vicki Heinrich)
One of the skua chicks exploring the soil thermometers with adult close by
One of the skua chicks exploring the soil thermometers
(Photo: Danielle McCarthy)
Skua family around the Stevenson screen in the Met enclosure
Skua family around the Stevenson screen
(Photo: Danielle McCarthy)
A skua chick wandering around the Met enclosure at Macca
One of the skua chicks wandering far and wide
(Photo: Vicki Heinrich)
A female skua sitting on her egg with the first chick nestled in the dry grass nearby
Family portrait
(Photo: Vicki Heinrich)

A visit to Secluded Beach

Secluded Beach on the east side of Wireless Hill is closed to visitors between 16th November and 30th September as this is the time when fur seals return to the island to raise young and hang out.

The fur seals on Macquarie Island were completely wiped out by sealers in the early 1800’s, an estimated 200,000 taken for their thick pelts. Since sealing stopped, the seals have gradually returned and are now breeding on the island again. Three species can be found in this area – the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), the Subantarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) and the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella).

We decided just before the Specially Managed Area (SMA) closed to pay a visit, and set out up Wireless Hill then down the ridge toward Totton Head along the marked track into Secluded Bay. Tucked away in the lee of the island, the beach is indeed a safe and sheltered place for fur seals and other seals / animals to breed.

Along with many ellie seal weaners and penguins, we found several small family groups of fur seals. The large upright males held territory and growled their intentions to would-be intruders. The much smaller svelte females lay sleeping, oblivious to the boundary issues. Luckily for us there were some early arrivals, a few new pups barely dry from birthing close to their mums. What a treat!

Proud looking Antarctic fur seal on the beach at Secluded Bay
Proud looking Antarctic fur seal on the beach at Secluded Bay
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
A giant petrel chick now large enough to be left alone while its parents are out foraging for food
Giant petrel chick awaiting its next meal
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
Female fur seal and pup - born while we watched at a distance
Female fur seal and pup - born while we watched at a…
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
A male subantarctic seal with his distinctive two tone colour coat and mohawk
A male subantarctic seal with his distinctive two tone colour coat and…
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
Female fur seal and pup on the beach at Secluded Bay
Female fur seal and pup
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
A watchful female fur seal and pup
Watchful female fur seal and pup
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)
Tagged female fur seal with suckling pup on the beach at Secluded Bay
Tagged female fur seal with suckling pup
(Photo: Thomas Leoni)