Far From Land: The Mys­te­ri­ous Lives of Se­abirds by MICHAEL BROOKE Il­lus­tra­tions by BRUCE PEAR­SON

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — TANYA LOOS TANYA LOOS is an ecol­o­gist and science writer based in re­gional Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralia.

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.

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