Sense and Sensibility in the Southern Ocean – A character-building story of albatross and researcher personalities in extreme conditions. Part 4. Le Champ des Albatros

Here at the haut lieu of albatross biology – Le Champ des Albatros, Crozet Islands the main study site for Wandering Albatrosses in the French Southern Territories, we have now done a round of all the behaviour testing, GPS deployments and nest checks that await us over the next month. We arrived a week ago, following a rugged hike over the island, and have spent the last days experiencing the ever-changing weather, the slow turn of the world of the albatross, with a few daily changeovers at the c. 150 nests we are helping to monitor.

We are connecting the oceanic world of the albatrosses, through tracking their at-sea movements with GPS technology, with their ‘at-home’ behaviour – by assessing how birds with different personalities deploy their time when they go to sea. The behaviour tests consist of a highly regulated series of observations to certain stimuli, which form part of our daily activity with the birds, such as approaching the nest to check their bands; and a test of response to ‘novel’ stimuli, in this case 50 cm high, blue, characterful, inflatable ‘spacehopper’ named Betsy – in the form of a smiley little cow. She has several advantages: being inflatable is easy to pack; being the size of a small albatross, being large enough to be of interest to a bird at the nest; being blue and funny-shaped, something we’re reasonably sure no albatross will have yet encountered! We note in detailed form whether birds turn their heads, clack their bills, vocalise, or in rare cases, simply sleep their way through the encounter.

Sam Patrick and Julien Collet discuss results from personality tests, assisted by Betsy, the blue test cow. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

Sam Patrick and Julien Collet discuss results from personality tests, assisted by Betsy, the blue test cow. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

Around the nesting birds, we’re surrounded by young albatrosses learning the routine of the intricate dance of their elders. Each afternoon, young birds gather in groups and take turns displaying, including the wing-spread spectacle, complete with primordial scream and rattling of bills. Around them incubating adults seem nonplussed, or at times display slight annoyance at being solicited by over-zealous youngsters. It’s a marvellous spectacle, and I can spend hours crouched in dip in the hill out of the ever-present wind, watching them as their different configurations turn and reform.

Young wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans display at the Crozet Islands. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

Young wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans display at the Crozet Islands. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

Within metres of the albatross colony, life abounds in all forms, from other species of bird, expanses of moss, and penguin and marine mammal colonies. One an off day, we were able to go to a local penguin nesting area, with some 80,000 king penguins in residence, and three other penguin species among other creatures. We spent the day on the lookout for penguins with loggers attached, arriving home from sea to feed their chicks. The water crashes blue and white all around the shore, with gigantic kelp swirling back and forth around the rocky shoreline.

Rockhopper penguin Eudyptes chrysochome hops between rocks. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

Rockhopper penguin Eudyptes filholi hops between rocks. Image: Susan Waugh, © Te Papa.

We have another three weeks here at the research cabin, accompanied by three new visitors, here to study the penguins in the nearby colony.  Meanwhile, I have managed to find a copy of the book which this blog is named after. Observing the albatrosses is infinitely more inspiring at this point than the outcomes anticipated by the Miss Dashwoods.

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