Rory Wilson

Albatrosses in corridors!

December 13, 2009

Thought I’d sign in quickly before I popped off down South in search of the Black-browed albatross. Why? Because I said I would … and… well, somebody might even read it!

Just to set the scene, I’m sitting in an internet café in Punta Arenas. There’s a bloke opposite with the sultry, swarthy looks of the locals, chewing very industriously on his pen and not using his keyboard at all, despite the fact that he is staring intently at his screen. Bet he’s just waiting for the blog. Why else would he be doing that?

I also wanted to put in a note about ‘Q’ (aka Clive Francis – you’ll remember ‘Q’ from the Bond films… Clive does the same things for Swansea University). He and his partner in things technological, Steve Jones, from Engineering repeatedly help us with problems and they’ve done it again. I marched in on them at an impossibly late date sometime in late November making noises about having a special new housing for the albatross DDs Q sighed (he always does that though) but then, in the briefest of times possible, turned out (literally) 10 immaculate new housings with O-rings to make them water-tight, and out of anodized aluminium to be light and waterproof. The DD’s have been potted in resin inside them. They look wicked. Thanks Q! Hope the albatrosses appreciate them too. I’ll take photos and try and put them on the blog when I get back.

I guess I should also seize the day while I’m in the internet and tell you more of what’s going on in things ‘albatross’ anyway.. There is a team of people backed by the Wildlife Conservation Society going out to Seno Almirantazgo to look at the wildlife there. Seno Almirante is located south of Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is, of course, in the Chilean deep South. The Wildlife Conservation Society is particularly interested in what is thought to be a new colony of Black-browed albatrosses on ‘Isla Albatros’ located well away (in fact about 250 km) from the open sea. The colony is, in fact, at the bottom of a long leg of a Chilean fiord that runs approximately South-East. You can find it on google earth. Given that albatrosses are birds of the open ocean (ask the Ancient Mariner) and are always known to nest right next to it, it seems extraordinary that this colony should have decided to set up shop so far away. Perhaps this is a new trend? There is certainly something strange going on. Do these birds really commute the length of their fiord and then some to get to the open sea to feed? What are the consequences of the commute to the ocean, which would take them many hours? Perhaps they are actually foraging in the fiord? Why travel all the way to London to eat in a restaurant if you can shop in the local supermarket? Albatrosses in general do the gliding thing extremely well so maybe the transit to the sea is not particularly energetically costly though they still have to invest the time of course. Their single chick brood might not appreciate waiting ages between meals (they feed the chicks by regurgitation of stuff they’ve stored in their stomachs – sounds horrid, but not if you’re an albatross). Long waits between meals mean slow growth rates and slow growth rates mean low fledgling weights and that compromises survival of the newly airborne. No, overly long waits between mealtimes are definitely not good.

The other thing about nesting on an island at the end of a long thin fiord is that it might complicate the costs of flight. Albatrosses use the winds over the ocean waves to move using a clever technique called dynamic soaring. We’ve all seen the films of the albatrosses gliding for long periods with barely a wing-beat. It looks soooo easy and indeed studies have shown that albatrosses use incredibly little energy to fly like that. However, for dynamic soaring to work albatrosses need wind and, ideally, they should be flying with the wind coming from the side or slightly behind their general direction of travel. If they have to fly directly against the wind they have to work harder, flapping more. Not surprisingly, albatrosses seem to pick the directions they leave their oceanic islands according to wind direction, always going with the easy option. Seems sensible enough and it’s certainly something you can do if you nest on an island in the middle of the vast ocean.

But what of our birds in Seno Almirantazgo? If they are located at the bottom of a long fiord, they can only fly out in one direction which is, let’s face it, unlikely to always be ideal with respect to wind direction. So much for free will! Beyond that, they might even have compromised wind conditions due to the sheltering effects of the land on either side of the fiord. So it would seem that the birds on Isla Albatross might just be working more than they should for a variety of reasons. Is this the price of choosing an extraordinary and exclusive residence? Anyway, if all goes according to plan, the team, working with the DD, should figure some of this out in the next few days.

Stay tuned….

My pen-friend has gone (I think he swallowed the top) and so should I. Still need to program the devices.

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Comments (1)

    bryan wilson - December 14, 2009. 4:07PM

    good to hear from you, love B & G

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