Juveniles wandering albatros: First tag-birthday

BU8 has been lingering along the south-western Australian coast for a few months, flying around in a sector she seems to appreciate. As for BK2, she has been exploring the Tasman Sea and the western coast of New Zealand. They have not always been there: they began their trip a year ago, 7 000 thousand kilometres away, in one of the remotest place on Earth: Crozet Island. In the rough Southern Ocean and constantly swept by strong winds, this stony island is nonetheless where our two travellers were born.

But who are BU8 and BK2?

They are two young wandering albatross females, part of a bunch of 10 birds chosen to carry our scientific questions on their backs.

November 2013

Pointe Basse, on the northern coast of Crozet, kingdom of the Wandering albatross. A wet afternoon, as often, the sun is just a white ghost behind a heavy grey cover. A big brown half-downy chick slaps its bill as I walk around the nests made of earth and moss. Only a few adults are still in the colony, so the 9-month chicks are now on their own, sticking to their nest or wandering (that’s what wandering albatrosses do, don’t they?) around without any obvious purpose. They are very big, even bigger than adults since they can weigh up to 14kg. Moreover, they are enduring a tough diet which, eventually, will send them on their way. Indeed, feeling hungry is a good motivation to fly, even when you don’t exactly know how to. Besides, flying requires a slim and full feathered body, not a fat, fluffy one as they are today. So they are waiting for their turn, breathing the salty wind as they step closer and closer to the cliff each passing day. When the wind rises, they start unfolding their wings and flap awkwardly against it, then bouncing on their short legs, they sometimes even screech like adults.

As the days pass, their jumps become higher, their training session longer and their belly less bulgy. The soft and spongy moss carpet of Pointe Basse has become the landing cushion of hundreds of failed take-off attempts.

At the end of November, we choose 10 chicks which seem ready to take-off and with a team of field workers, we capture them, one by one, to fit a spying device on their back, meaning a tiny tag combining GPS logger, Argos transmitter and a solar battery. The whole thing weights only 65g and we fix it with tape on a few back feathers. When the bird is sitting, only the antenna pops out of the feathers. We also measure and weigh the chick in order to get an idea of its body condition. The whole operation lasts at the most 20 minutes from capture to release.

Then we wait for them to fly, while they are waiting for good body and wind conditions. A storm would be welcome to help them leave the ground. When this time comes, in early December, everything happens very fast. One moment they’re sitting on their bottoms, a bit sleepy, as they often are, and the next moment they’re running down the hill toward the cliff, they jump, they’re off and eventually they’re flying above the sea for the first time in their lives. We watch them disappear into the foggy horizon.

The Argos/GPS system will give us an accurate position of its carrier every two hours, as long as it stays in place. It will eventually fall as the feathers moult, after a few months or more.

And now, it’s already December 2014, our ten birds have been working hard for the Early Life program, collecting data for months. After one year, BU8 and BK2, are still bearing their GPS. Every 3 days I click on a button and I can see where they are, where they’ve been.

Follow them along their peregrinations!

Juveniles wandering albatros : first tag-bithday from earlylife on Vimeo.

Happy tag-birthday BU8 and BK2, and thanks for your cooperation!

These data are unique and very precious in order to investigate the early life at sea of young seabirds. Where do they go? How do they learn and how fast? How do they survive, alone in the vast Ocean, without guidance of any kind?

Sophie De Grissac

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