After 36 hours at Port aux Français, it was time for Charly Bost and me to head into the field again. We were accompanied by Aymeric Fromant, another IPEV ‘VSC’ (Volontaire Service Civique) volunteer. There are a dozen such ‘volunteers’ on Kerguelen each year, with two (Côme Rebaudet and Aymeric Fromant in 2016) focused on bird and seal ecology projects. They are strictly not volunteers, as they receive 1,000 Euros per month after accommodation and food are deducted from their stipend. The system is similar to the New Zealand student employment schemes pre-Rogernomics, except that IPEV volunteers are contracted for 14-month-long stays on one of the three French subantarctic island groups.
It took 2 hours motoring south-west across Golfe du Morbihan on le chaland (L’Aventure II) – a motorised barge that travelled at about 8 knots. There was a brisk westerly and much bow spray, but we were able to look for wildlife on the lee side, including seeing at least four Commerson’s dolphins. These small, boldly-patterned dolphins are the nearest relative of New Zealand’s Hector’s dolphin, and the small Kerguelen population is very isolated from the main population in waters around Patagonia and the Falkland Islands.
Mayes is a delightful island about 3 km west-east by 1 km wide. The landscape is reminiscent of Mangere Island in the Chatham Islands, but instead of a single large plateau encircled by cliffs, Mayes has several flat-topped ‘castles’ surrounded by sheer basalt ramparts. The same landscape is repeated on surrounding islands and the nearest part of Grand Terre (1 km away), and as the channels between the islands are often obscured by the hills, the impression was that we were on an island much larger than 300 ha.
The only introduced mammal that has ever been on Mayes is the house mouse – and I did not see any (or their sign) during a week ashore. In the absence of rabbits (and reindeer), the vegetation is more pristine than on Grand Terre, with large patches of Pringlea antiscorbutica (Kerguelen cabbage) and cushions of Azorella selago much larger than we have seen previously. The plant highlight was a single large cushion of Lyallia kerguelensis – the only plant species (and genus) endemic to the Kerguelen Islands. Its nearest relative is Hectorella caespitosa, an alpine cushion daisy from the Southern Alps of New Zealand. [As for Hector’s dolphin, Hectorella is named after Te Papa’s founding director, James Hector]. Although wonderful to see these plants growing vigorously in the absence of browsing mammals, it was disappointing that the most conspicuous plants on the island were two species of introduced dandelions, with their bright yellow flowers dominating most plant communities. We tried our best at biological control (dandelion salad being our only green vegetable), but we made little impression.
Compared to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, the interior of Mayes is almost devoid of birdlife during the day (at least above the ground surface). There were a few Eaton’s pintails (mostly near the coast), but there are no true landbird species on the Kerguelen Islands. Southern skuas and a few light-mantled sooty albatrosses and northern giant petrels were the main species we saw flying during daylight, with all three species breeding. The skuas were common (more than 100 breeding pairs), feeding on the abundant burrow-nesting petrels, but were nowhere near as aggressive as New Zealand birds when we approached their nests – which was fortunate, as there were no sticks on the island to use in self-defence.
There were small colonies of (eastern) rockhopper penguins, Kerguelen shags and kelp gulls scattered around the coast, and a few pairs of sheathbills (though none near the hut). There were also a few terns, possibly moving between islands. There are two species here, but adult Kerguelen terns remained elusive, providing only distant views when I did not have binoculars or camera at hand. All the adult terns that I saw well were Antarctic terns, but one very confiding fledgling Kerguelen tern was feeding like a wader in tide pools near the hut on 2 January.
While almost devoid of birds during the day, the night sky is full of calls from several species of petrels returning to their breeding burrows (the subject of my next blog).
The hut on Mayes is a delightful 4-bunk cabin about 100 metres from where we stepped ashore. It was built in 1986 by the first field worker (Richard Zotier), and has been used almost entirely for bird studies. The work bench is set up for banding and measuring birds, and one wall has more than 30 photographs of the ornithologists who have lived and worked on the island. But two images are missing, as they predated the hut. The importance of Mayes as a cat- and rat-free seabird breeding island was first recognised by Jean-Claude Stahl (now Te Papa’s natural history photographer) in 1984, and confirmed during a survey by Henri Weimerskirch and Paul Sagar a year later. Henri’s image is at the top of the wall – labelled “W The Boss” – but the two New Zealanders are missing (Jean-Claude and Paul have both lived in New Zealand long enough that I think we can claim them).
The weather was boisterous throughout our stay, with almost unrelenting strong winds and frequent rain, hail and snow squalls. Our departure on 5 January was particularly breezy, making for a wet and wild ride on le chaland back to Port aux Français.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
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