Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds by MICHAEL BROOKE Illustrations by BRUCE PEARSON
Princeton University Press ( 2018) RRP $ 59.95
HOW DO YOU study the behaviour of animals such as a grey-headed albatross that can traverse 950 kilometres a day, and spend months, if not years, at sea? Before the 1990s, ornithologist and author Michael Brooke had to confine his studies to when the birds came to land to breed. Where seabirds foraged for food, or departed post-breeding, remained frustratingly out of reach.
The development and miniaturisation of electronic devices has completely transformed the ability of researchers to track the location and activities of seabirds while they are at sea – and Brooke has written a comprehensive summary of much of this latest research.
Reading Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds is a little like visiting a loud and crowded seabird colony, as the author recounts the many discoveries made. Each chapter is densely packed with recent research recounting distances, dive depths, speeds, and feeding behaviour. Brooke flavours the science with dry humour and entertaining anecdotes, which are as much about seabird researchers as the birds themselves. At the 2015 World Seabird Conference, for instance, biologist Mark Maftei revealed where a species called Ross’s gulls spend the winter in a rap. Brooke provides the verses for our amusement.
A number of electronic devices are used to track the activity of seabirds, revealing astronomical distances travelled and surprising behaviour. Brünnich’s guillemots are small seabirds which forage for food by diving, and it is the males that take responsibility for the chicks after they fledge.
A combination of geolocators and immersion recorders disclosed that the males and chicks undertake an annual southern migration by swimming 3,000 km south from Greenland. A GPS tracker and stomach temperature sensor can also record the precise position of a wandering albatross and the moment cold temperature food reaches its stomach. The technology revealed the bird can follow an odour trail from five to six km away!
The book concludes with a cautious plea for marine protected areas, at least at times when the birds are breeding and foraging in productive areas. It has certainly given me a much greater appreciation for seabirds and an appetite to learn more about their ecology.