ONE LAST THING
Scavenging on beaches yields many wonders, not least the history of sea birds
Nicky Smith column
Recently I received a very exciting e-mail. The message came from Safring, the South African Bird Ringing Unit based at the University of Cape Town.
I had been waiting to get information requested about a year ago on a gannet I found many years ago, washed up on the beach after two days of storms in December 1997.
The curt e-mail stated the following: ring 937727 had been placed on the bird by a Dr NTW Klages on March 5, 1985. The bird, Morus capensis, had been ringed on one of the largest remaining breeding colonies in SA — Bird Island off Algoa Bay.
It had been 4,315 days between ringing and the day I discovered it in between the flotsam and jetsam that is pumped out of the Mbashe river onto the beach during the Transkei’s summer rains. Eleven years and 10 months to the day.
Countless summers, autumns and springs wandering the dunes, beaches, rock pools and lagoons as a child always gifted treasures: from sun-bleached vertebrae to driftwood shaped just like a bagpipe or sometimes a precious sand piper nest with speckled eggs.
Sometimes the find would be macabre.
In the rocks of a gulley I found the remains of a manta ray which had been eaten by sharks. All that was left was its head, which was about the size of a cow’s.
Every visit yielded dead things, fish, crabs, sea urchins. But some of these were special dead things, such as gannets. Too beautiful, and so too tragic, to be tossed back into the sea, they were solemnly buried with little dune flowers and driftwood crosses.
At some point things stopped getting buried. An inspection of the dead creature became enough. Then on a walk two days after Christmas in 1997 with my friend Paul and my mother to the mouth of the Mbashe I was drawn to the distinctive bright white and black feathers of a dead gannet.
I wanted Paul to see it; we pulled it out of the sand to admire its golden nape and crown, its beautiful feet and the bright blue rings around its eyes. Then we discovered it was ringed. We spent ages prying the steel ring off of its leg before we were rewarded with the scuffed, stamped grey ring.
It felt outrageously precious. I wore it on a string around my neck for years. The impossible austerity of the sea bird’s life seemed to hold some kind of truth for me. It was a magical thing to contemplate.
After the email from Safring I had to get in touch to find out more. A man who works there told me that the bird return rate by the general public is “incredibly low” with only 148 bird finds reported in 2014. Safring has 2.45m ringed birds in its records. Most of the data is collected by scientists with some by volunteer “citizen ringers”, with a return rate close to 10 000.
The data can tell scientists a lot about food sources (such as fish stocks), if there are climate change effects on bird habits and where those are being felt.
I had to know more about the 15-year-old gannet which had somehow become mine.
Flying about 450km a day to hunt, the almost metre-long bird glides up to 30m above the surface of the water. Its forward set eyes, while slightly comical, give it wonderful binocular vision.
When it dives it can drop at about 120km/h, the speed helping them to hunt at lower depths than other sea birds. It turns itself into a spindle-shaped bullet, its neck, back and beak all in an unbroken line.
Part of its brilliant design is what the bird does just before it hits the water. Slow motion photography has revealed how the gannet initiates a drill-like spin with its entire body by adjusting its tail feathers moments before it hits the surface to create gyroscopic stability to counter gusts of wind, or changes in wind direction.
It turns one or twice and pierces the water to reach its prey. Air sacs under its skin in its head and chest and in between the muscles cushion the bird on impact, distributing the force across the bird and protecting it.
They live for about 18 to 20 years and, while mainly a southern African bird, have been sighted in Nigeria and Mozambique.
The reward of the ring turned me into a scavenger for rings. I found none until last December after digging through the remains of three dead gannets. A ring was found and retrieved. Since the Safring e-mail there is now a terrible hurry to find out everything about this one, too.
The impossible austerity of the sea bird’s life seemed to hold some kind of truth for me