The wonder of wildlife.
“Wow, did you see that?” One of my favourite things to hear from someone in awe. A highlight of working on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island is experiencing the presence of wildlife, living among breathing beasts of marine mammals and soaring seabirds. As the Wildlife Ranger for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service being based here, my reality is a dream come true, where I am immersed in the cycle of wildlife every day.
Since we arrived, just over a year ago, fluffy king penguin chicks have grown up and left, replaced by the new cohort breeding again. We have witnessed the start and end of elephant seal breeding. As I type, the beach masters, 3-4 ton of marine mammal, are returning to the island to moult. Around August last year they began appearing on beaches, fighting for space to hold their harems. The pups arrived, with huge glassy eyes peeking out from between the females and as they became curious weaners, every expeditioner lost their heart. Overnight they disappeared to be slowly replaced by grumpy catastrophic moulting seals of various sizes around the island, forming famous wallows as they rest ashore, hauled out to renew their skin and fur for another year in the Southern Ocean.
With the seals providing an extensive food source, the scavenging predators returned, and giant petrels were on nests then with chicks. These pterodactyls of Macquarie Island, along with skuas, clean up all the dead animals and keep the place somewhat tidy. Come December, and when most penguins are breeding, a bounty of food in the form of eggs and chicks is available, and the circle of life continues. Skuas use this nourishment to lay eggs and soon their gangly hilarious chicks were seen marauding around the island, approaching anyone for a feed.
By now we were well into spring. Around September/October, the albatross arrived. The calls of light-mantled albatross or ‘sooties’ filled the skies. And in the hidden corners of Macquarie Island, tucked away in Special Management Areas, grey headed and black-browed albatross returned to breed. By December, last year’s wandering albatross chicks were fledging and the next year's breeding pairs were courting, with males building beautiful sits, waiting patiently for their mate to return.
Into December and the new year, my favourite time on Macca, fur seal pups began appearing around North Head and Handspike Point. By this stage, royal and rockhopper penguins had chicks. Everywhere you went, the smell of penguin colonies and wallowing elephant seals seeped into your nostrils, even the plateau on the windy day, the stench hits you rolling on the wind. Wandering albatross laid their eggs and sooty albatross chicks appeared as precariously balanced full balls on the slopes of the island.
Add the almost daily presence of New Zealand sea lions around station, orca cruising the coastline, gentoo penguins practicing nest building all year round, smaller petrels calling from underground as you walk past and the occasional leopard seal hauled out for a rest and you are truly living in sub-Antarctic paradise.
But they say that people make the place, and while counting, observing, recording and managing the wildlife here has been a privilege, the people of the 74th ANARE have been incredible, volunteering hours of their spare time to assist with wildlife work. Together we have completed a whole island elephant seal census, collected over 1000 poo samples for diet analysis, mapped and counted fur seals, albatrosses and penguins and recorded orca, leopard seal and sea lion observations daily. Without them, and their polite obliging to me asking ‘have you written it up yet’? And can you send me those orca photos? I would have missed so much. So thank you to each and every one of you for the contributions you made, the wildlife stories you told me, for following me into wallows and through head high tussock and for sharing the awe of the wildlife on this special island.
Kim Kliska, Wildlife Ranger, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service
And your friendly neighbourhood Macca crew ...