ONE LAST THING

Scav­eng­ing on beaches yields many won­ders, not least the history of sea birds

Financial Mail - Investors Monthly - - Contents - NICKY S SMITH

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

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