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Wednesday, 9 October 2002

Fake pastry & a cargo haul through carnage

“Good morning. How are you?” Dave’s voice entered my dreams of giant sea lions chasing me on my way to the toilet. Strangely, it did not sound as if Dave was inside the hut. When I opened my eyes I could see that indeed he wasn’t. Melanie was still rolled up in her sleeping back on the single bunk next to the table. Where the hell was Dave? And who on earth was he talking to?

I climbed out of my bunk and peeked out of the window over the sink, the one facing out towards the outdoor water tanks and the lower hut, Dave’s retreat. On the track there stood Dave, hands in his pockets, talking softly to a sea lion which apparently had spent the night on the boardwalk and needed a bit of persuasion to make room for Dave.

Dave and a sea lion

Looking at Dave I realised that inevitably we’ll (have to) develop a close relationship with the island’s pinniped population.

After breakfast Dave and I retreated into the lower hut. We had some work to do on our GPS loggers. The loggers are some of the ugliest pieces of high-tech I ever laid my hands on. In comparison to our two Time Depth Recorders from Wildlife Computers and Lotek, the Sirtrack GPS data loggers look like someone’s failed first attempt in pottery. The black epoxy housing has humps and bumps, and looks all but streamlined. The data cable connector protrudes from the housing and looks damn fragile; I don’t want to know what this nipple looks like after a penguin went through a bit of a hard landing on the rocks. At 130 mm length the devices are pretty bulky and with 120 grams are far from lightweight. No wonder, these things are armed with two AA Lithium batteries – which we will have to replace after every deployment by breaking open the casing. Not to mention that the glossy black colour gives the loggers a Darth Vader look.

Sirtrack GPS data logger

All in all, our loggers are really ugly things – even for the prototypes they are. But they are the only GPS data loggers available. And any other methods of studying the penguins’ foraging movements are lost causes on the Snares. For radio telemetry we could not get enough distance between the tracking stations – the Snares are simply too small – not to mention that it would be a nightmare getting to and back from the aerials every day. Satellite telemetry delivers too crude data, particularly when the penguins are feeding their chicks and are only out for a day or two. So either it’s GPS or nothing.

Dave working on the GPS loggersBut Dave and I have a cunning plan. We sprayed expanding foam on the beasts. The idea is to carve the foam into a hydrodynamic shape once it has hardened. That way we’ll be able to rectify some of the worst bumps on the devices and perhaps the slight floating capacity of the foam might also bring the devices’ buoyancy closer to zero – 130 gram are no chicken feed!

So that’s what Dave and I did after breakfast – turning seven ugly wannabe Darth Vaders into fake pastry. That’s exactly what the devices looked like once the foam was on.

Fake pastry

While the cream, pardon foam, expanded and started to harden, Dave and I geared up. Melanie had asked us to help her transporting the parts of her viewing hide up to the colony. She had that hide built for her by Ian, the technician at the Department of Zoology, a guy who is not famous for flimsy jobs. Quite the opposite. The viewing hide Ian built for Mel is made of thick particle board; the walls and the roof of the long drop shaped hide are joined by wide stainless steel angle brackets. Metal loops at the top corners can be used to tie the hide to the ground. All in all a very impressing construction. But it has a major flaw.

The stuff weighs a ton. Of course, there was no way that Mel could get the pieces up to her spot by herself.

Dave and I spent the entire bloody morning shuttling back and forth between the hut and the colony, carrying insanely heavy sheets of particle board. However, it wasn’t only the weight of the stuff. Size played a role too – and the fact that both Dave and I were not quite sure whether having this monster up at the colony was actually necessary.

Carrying parts of the hide up the hill

The size of the pieces turned Dave’s and my morning into a particularly arduous nightmare. Not only were the pieces difficult to carry under normal circumstances. But we had to literally thread the stuff through the Oleria forest with its twisted tree trunks and its meshwork of branches. On top of that – or rather at the bottom of it – we had to make our way over some extremely fragile peaty forest floor, undermined by hundreds of sooty shearwater burrows. It was – sorry for the straightforwardness here – one hell of a shit job.

Threading the hide through the forest

But something else was rather gross too. The forest floor was littered with slaughtered sooty shearwaters – bloody skeletons with bits of flesh dangling from small rib cages that still had intact legs and wings attached. Some of the carcasses still had a head – generally with an enormous hole in roof of the skull. All fresh kills from last night.

Skuas had big party last night”, commented Dave while he was inspecting one of the carcasses. “Those guys just wait on the forest floor for a tītī to fall out of the sky and – whack! Really cunning hunters.”

Dave inspecting a titi carcass

We managed to get all stuff up in three goes but it took us most of the morning. We returned to the hut around lunchtime. Mel was ready to hike up to the colony to assemble her hide. “Excellent”, she said when we told her that our mission was accomplished. Then she took off. Dave and I looked at each other as Melanie disappeared.

After lunch we too headed up to the colony. Time check out or observation plots. Would there be any signs that the male exodus was imminent? If so, we would be in business logger-wise. No point in deploying any data loggers if the penguins have no inclination to leave their nest site. The first thing we noticed up in the colony was that there was absolutely no sign that the male penguins would go to sea soon. In fact, the whole colony appeared rather dozy, bills tucked behind flippers and all.

Dozy penguins at the colony

The second thing we noticed was the monster of a viewing hide on the other side of the colony. A pair of binocculars were peeking out of the observation slit. Melanie was at work. Looking at the size of the construction I began to wonder how we actually managed to get the pieces up here. But I must say that I was equally impressed by the fact that Mel had actually managed to assemble a hide of this size in the face of Olearia branches and trunks everywhere.

The hide at the far end of the colony

The next couple of hours, I sat on my branch and gazed over my little patch of penguins. The birds had all the time in the world. I drew a map of my patch and numbered the nests. Patiently I waited to get a glimpse at the nest contents – most of the nests still have two eggs. Not bad for crested penguins which – as obligate brood reducers – have even been described to commit infanticite (see here or here).  I might add that I find the deliberateness of this activity very hard to believe… that is something that usually lies in the eye of the beholder. Here in colony A3 there are some eggs lying in between nests, but whether these were expelled or simply rolled out by accident I couldn’t tell.

Dave came over from his wee patch 50 meters away. It was cold and it started to drizzle. He’d finished mapping the nests in his plot and was ready to head on home. I thought that was a very good idea. So we went home.

And finally, for the record another sea lion episode. Dave decided to wash some of his stuff (why the hell he needs to wash clothes after a mere two days on the island is beyond me). For that he required some water which he intended to get from the lower water tank. Problem was, there was this big furry fella lying on the platform in front of the tank. Dave, an old hand in terms of Snares and sea lions (it’s his third time out here) played it cool. He slowly walked up to the sealion with his bucket. He slowly bent forward. He slowly put his bucket down. He slowly reached out for the tap. He retreated very quickly when the sealion all of a sudden lunged forward and threw an impressive, ear shattering bark at Dave.

Dave’s quick retreat from the sea lion

Dave thought he made good for this moment of weakness by posing with the sea lion a moment later. But I am sure in his hairy chest (Dave’s, that is) his heart was still racing.

Dave posing with his attacker

          posted by Tom on 09.10.2002 at 19:35

Posted in Fieldwork 2002, Sea lions


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