Grey petrel tracking results, a summer resupply around the wildlife, cute skua chicks and island invertebrates all revealed this week. And December 3 is the anniversary of the Nella Dan’s unfortunate demise at Macca — we have an eyewitness account.

Grey petrel tracking

For the first time, we have revealed the at–sea foraging behavior of grey petrels on Macquarie Island!

Grey petrels are a small (one kilogram) burrowing seabird that breed on Macquarie Island in winter. They are currently listed as a threatened species due to impacts on land and at sea.

Over the past 16 years we have learnt about their breeding activities on the island, including positive responses to the eradication of feral cats in 2001 and then rabbits and rodents as part of the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Program in 2014. However, until this year we knew nothing about their at–sea foraging behavior and habitat use.

Over winter, the team here on Macquarie Island attached a small satellite transmitter to ten adult grey petrels. The transmitters collected data on the bird’s movements for more than 100 days! The transmitter data showed that birds foraged over a very broad area north of the island and regularly returned to their burrows on the island during their breeding season.

Some birds foraged in New Zealand waters and over 3000 kilometres east of New Zealand. Other birds foraged several thousand kilometres northwest of Macquarie Island, almost to Australia.

The foraging data that has now been collected will help to identify key foraging areas for grey petrels during their breeding season. With this information, we can better manage human interactions with grey petrels at sea (e.g. with fisheries) and explore potential impacts of changing ocean conditions on the health of the Macquarie Island grey petrel population.

Marcus Salton

Summer resupply

On Friday L'Astrolabe was back with us, after a reported sunshiny, calm voyage down from Hobart. It brought us 10 new island inhabitants, nine round trip voyagers on science projects and cargo for summer science and infrastructure projects, as well as some Christmas presents and mail for resident expeditioners. Oh, and we got fresh fruit. Mmmm…watermelon.

The visit had been delayed by a couple of weeks due to the weather down south at the French station, which was great news for the gentoo colony which had nested around Landing Beach Road, as the delay meant the chicks were now off the nests and mobile. A fence was erected along the road and wranglers were on standby, so they had no opportunity to get under the wheels of a passing LARC.

Changes in the weather have meant the ship has had to move around to keep finding the perfect place to work from, including on Monday from Hasselborough Bay on the west side of the isthmus, the first time this side has been used in the last few years.

And for those that follow island resupply activities… a new JCB excavator has finally arrived on dry land after three years of unsuccessful attempts. This one is a bit smaller (so it could fit on a LARC) and will be a useful addition for station tasks.  It’s very clean and shiny… we'll see how long that lasts!

Skua chicks

Being one of the most successful predators (and clean-up crews) on the island doesn’t necessarily lend itself to having the most favourable advance press, however, like our other species, skuas are breeding here at this time of year and whatever you think of them, their chicks are pretty cute too!

Island invertebrates

There’s a new health craze on Macquarie Island. Forget boring old rice milk. Put the soy milk away. Consider the health benefits of Macquarie Island Invertebrate Milk ©.

Invertebrate ‘milk’ comes to you across many kilometres of feldmark, tussock, cabbage, herbfield and grassland and from all over the island. The sweat and tears spent, the pain and suffering experienced by dedicated porters add complexity and depth of flavour to the product.

We ‘milk’ the invertebrates using specially designed funnels, called tulgrens or berlese funnels. Surfer-come-chippy extraordinaire Joe, fashioned up some hooks along the ceiling of the biology lab, so that the funnels can hang in a warm, dry place whilst we continue laboratory work underneath them.

Litter is collected from 24 sites across the island by myself the resident invertebrate hunter, at a volume of one litre per one square metre in replicates of three, and taken back to the laboratory on station, with the assistance of any unsuspecting field parties I might encounter on my way back up-island.

On station, litter is placed into the top of the berlese funnel, whilst a jar of ethanol is attached to the bottom of the catch piece. As the litter dries and warms the worms, springtails, spiders, snails, beetles, mites and other creatures crawl downwards to try to escape, falling unsuspectingly into the ethanol below. The method is very effective at capturing everything in the litter. The funnels have stirred a few comments from station locals, Doctor Helen referring to them eloquently as Melissa’s ‘Hanging Gardens’ and reminding Sparkie Benny perhaps wistfully of ‘Udders’. What do you think dear reader?

Litter sampling is just one method of sampling invertebrates that I am employing as part of my PhD project — investigating ecosystem recovery on Macquarie Island after the successful rodent and rabbit eradication project. I began sampling last summer and will continue through to 2017.

The aim is to measure ecosystem change over time through macro-invertebrate surveys, a keystone group in terrestrial sub-Antarctic ecosystems. Changing macro-invertebrate community assemblages are assessed by sampling at 24 sites, 10 of which are historical sampling sites, in five different vegetation communities across the island using a range of techniques including vegetation beating, sweeping, pitfall trapping, litter collection and 20 minute counts.

The results of this project, a collaboration between the University of Queensland’s Environmental Decisions Group and Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment, will give an indication of ecosystem recovery since the removal of pest vertebrates, detect ranges of non-native invertebrates and potentially provide a framework for a cost-effective and efficient method to monitor the Macquarie Island ecosystem as a whole. 

AND… I get to fantasise that I am continuing exploration work in the Antarctic region in the footsteps of the great explorers; discovering fascinating, weird and wonderful creatures every day. It can’t be denied some of these invertebrates are pretty cute! 

Melissa Houghton 

Flashback — To the ship!

On December 3rd it will be 29 years since the MV Nella Dan dragged its anchor and was forced aground by heavy seas on the eastern side of the Isthmus at Macquarie Island. Just days before we had left Hobart on what was to be a marine science and resupply voyage — my first trip south to begin a winter as the AAD’s upper-atmosphere physicist on the island. The events that unfolded during that fateful evening were a dramatic start for the 41st ANARE.

During the afternoon the wind and swell had picked up from the east and cargo operations had been suspended, with my scientific gear being among the last cargo unloaded.

Despite the weather, pumping of fuel to the station had continued. I was fortunate to have moved ashore the previous day to start my handover from the outgoing physicist. It was close to dinner time and on heading back to the mess with others from the physics group we were immediately struck by the proximity of the ship to the shore. We watched in disbelief as the ship moved closer, evidently under power, but without sufficient steerage to avoid running aground. Several people ran out from the radio office just as the ship’s horn sounded for ‘abandon ship’, having been alerted by communications from the bridge.

Most people on station rapidly converged at radio after hearing the horn. The army LARC crew mobilised their three vehicles and headed into the surf between radio and the powerhouse, while Ian Jacobsen and Glenn Kowalik, the outgoing and incoming station leaders, respectively, commanded the emergency response on shore. I joined several others in the field store to grab blankets and anything else we thought useful to prepare for the worst during the rescue of those on the ship.

On returning from the field store, I watched the rescue unfold.

The expeditioners and crew on the vessel were mustered on the starboard side near the front of the ship, and were descending a rope ladder one at a time onto a waiting LARC — a very hazardous operation to say the least, with the vessel listing to port and rocking as it was pounded by waves that were deluging the decks with spray, while at the same time the LARC alongside was rising and falling by several metres. To make matters worse, diesel was gushing into the air from the refuelling line which had ruptured at the ship, and while this problem was quickly brought under control, the diesel covered just about everything and everyone near the ship.

Amazingly, all on board were rescued in under an hour and without any serious injuries. For their actions, the LARC crew of Philip Clark, Kenneth Barrington, Dudley Crowe, Timothy Gay, Gregory Kenny and Alistair Scott were awarded a Group Bravery Citation in 2009.

The events during the days that followed — how the station coped for several days with over 100 people sleeping on shore, the arrival of MV Icebird on December 8th for repatriation, the refloating operation by the Lady Lorraine, and then the unexpected fire on the Nella and its eventual scuttling on December 24th, are stories for other times.

One phrase born at the bar late on the night of December 3rd became the catch-cry for our wintering crew — “To the ship!”. This became our special way of remembering the events of that day and was used regularly to toast the ship and all who were involved with her.

Dr Andrew Klekociuk