Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 4. Sinister Fairy Prions

Here is the forth instalment in our series of blogs all about prions!  This is in preparation for our upcoming Science Live event on Oct 22nd at 1:50 pm NZ time when you can accompany us into the lab via live streaming (a permanent link to the YouTube video can be found below).  For more details please see: http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/allevents/Pages/ScienceLiveWhalebirds.aspx 

Kyle Morrison on his way back from the Snares. Photo © Phil Battley.

Kyle Morrison on his way back from the Snares. Photo © Phil Battley.

Today’s blog was written by Kyle Morrison, a PhD student at Massey University studying Rockhopper Penguins on Campbell Island.  He just came back from conducting penguin research on the Snares Islands and tells us about his first encounters with prions.

 

“There is nothing fairy-like about them!” was my immediate reaction upon hearing and watching the pre-breeding activities of Fairy Prions in early October 2013 on the Snares Islands. A quick bit of reading on http://www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/fairy-prion revealed that Fairy Prions had been given their name by a man named Kuhn in 1820, from a painting made by Parkinson in 1779 while west of Cape Horn. I can appreciate Kuhn’s interpretation of a portrait of a delicate, blue and white bird, riding effortlessly on the wind between southern ocean swells. However, I am writing this blog to amend that view with my observations of “Fairy” Prions on land. There is as much mean-spirit and obnoxious noise packed into their diminutive 120g size as found in the largest 40kg Emperor Penguin!

A pair of Fairy Prions looking deceptively peaceful in a rock crevice on The Snares. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

A pair of Fairy Prions looking deceptively peaceful in a rock crevice on The Snares. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

On The Snares, Fairy Prions typically lay their single egg in a rocky crevice, cave, or earthen burrow in early November, but are quite happy to take up residence in any enclosed space people accidentally provide them. A pair of prions have evidently taken up residence in a wooden box stored below the main hut on Northeast Island of the Snares islands group.  The box has round holes at either end and is filled by research expeditions to the island with goodies like shredded paper and pieces of soap or wax meant to reveal if rats or mice have reached these islands for the first time. Thankfully the islands remain rodent-free, and prions nest in the box instead of rats! That said, rats would be quieter neighbours for the researchers trying (and failing) to sleep through the night above them.  Some species of storm petrel have an amusing laugh-like call that causes me to chuckle back to them, but Fairy Prions sound like sinister little gargoyles that are angry at the world! Have a listen to the video I recorded if you dare to have your pristine view of “Fairy” Prions dashed.

Fairy Prions are not just all bark and no bite. They are more than willing to back up their proclamations of passion for each other and possession of their nest site with physical violence. After dark one evening I ventured from my cozy bunk into my clammy and cold rain trousers, jacket and gumboots, ready to crawl around in nearby “Flea Cave” in pursuit of a variety of cave weta unique to these islands. I had been forewarned that unlike Fairy Prions, Flea Cave was deserving of its name. A past researcher of the Fairy Prions there had been given the nickname “Scratch” because that’s what he did at the breakfast table after each night spent in Flea Cave! There were few enclosed rock cavities in the cave and most of the prions had claimed a section of crevice formed where the sloping ceiling of the cave met its floor. Here I was to witness a battle royale between two pairs of Fairy Prions both intent on ownership of the same small section of crevice. When penguins fight they lock bills and rain blows against each other with their sturdy flippers. Prions have hollow wing bones and relatively long fragile flight feathers, so they refrained from beating each other with their wings. They made up for it with the ferocity with which they bit and grappled with their shark hooked bills. Two opposing pair members would grip, hold, and twist in the disputed rocky crevice like Olympic wrestlers while the other two danced around the ring of the cave like fly-weight boxers. They would break apart, only to run back to the where their mates were fighting and attack each other again. The fight lasted minutes before one pair admitted defeat and sat panting on the cave floor, blood smeared across their formerly “fairy-like” faces of blue and white. “Fairy” Prions? Not on land they aren’t!

Fairy Prions do battle over a disputed nest site. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

Fairy Prions do battle over a disputed nest site. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

 

Fairy Prion rests in defeat. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

Fairy Prion rests in defeat. Photo © Kyle Morrison.

Kyle W. Morrison, Oct 2013

The video of the Oct 22 Science Live event can be watched by clicking below.

One Response

  1. Gillian Candler

    Thanks for setting the record straight about these prions that are fairy in name only! Many of us won’t ever get the chance to get up close to them, your description was both entertaining and informative – almost like being there. I hope you keep writing.

    Reply

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