Sunday Times

IN A SEA OF BIRDS

Dra­mas abound on Mal­gas Is­land, where lovely gan­nets breed, writes Vanessa Stephen

- © Vanessa Stephen Animals · Zoology · Wildlife · Biology · Iceland

Mal­gas Is­land — the is­land of Mad Geese — is 8ha of un­in­hab­ited, flat, blind­ingly white land, ringed by large, wave-smoothed rocks, near Sal­danha Bay.

Its leg­endary in­hab­i­tants, how­ever, are not geese at all but Cape gan­nets — beau­ti­ful, creamy-white birds with a dust­ing of yel­low around the head and neck, the seabird equiv­a­lent of an arum lily.

Mal­gas is one of only six is­lands upon which they breed but their num­bers have dropped rapidly. I headed to the is­land to spend a week doc­u­ment­ing their breed­ing colony and the pre­da­tion on chicks and eggs from gulls and seals.

Get­ting there is the first hur­dle. Despite the prox­im­ity to the main­land, there’s in­vari­ably a large swell, and the is­land has no beaches off which one can safely moor.

There are two ways to get ashore. The first is for the boat’s skip­per to time the waves right, and get close enough for you to leap like a salmon onto one of the slip­pery, sea­weed­cov­ered rocks.

The al­ter­na­tive is the jetty, built many years ago when Mal­gas was mined for guano. Here, a lad­der needs to be low­ered for ac­cess. The skip­per must per­fectly time the swell so that one brave soul can leap onto the lower rungs of the lad­der and climb up to the jetty.

We opted for the rick­ety lad­der — which I man­aged with a 5l wa­ter con­tainer in each hand.

Safely on the is­land, we were met by a num­ber of derelict build­ings, rem­nants from the guano-min­ing age.

One house has been re­stored and, while ba­sic, it con­tains beds, a place to cook and a fair num­ber of feathers.

It’s only when we rounded the build­ing, away from the crash­ing surf that the noise hit us. A cease­less squawk­ing es­ca­lated while feathers and a fine, white dust blew in the breeze. The earth was spongy un­der­foot from years of guano and feathers de­posited by 50,000 pairs of gan­nets.

My first glimpse of the sea of birds was spell­bind­ing. Each pair guarded a spot, where a small mound held an egg or chick, nes­tled be­tween webbed feet and jeal­ously guarded from im­pos­si­bly close neigh­bours.

They’re en­chant­ing. Dark-feath­ered ju­ve­niles perched on rocks and flapped their wings when the breeze blew, some­times lift­ing into the air for a mo­ment or two.

The nest­ing birds squawked as we passed by. Here you are an odd­ity to be ex­am­ined with cu­rios­ity. We had our shoelaces tweaked by a beak or got ac­ci­den­tally wal­loped by a gan­net whose con­cen­tra­tion at tak­ing off had been ru­ined by our un­ex­pected pres­ence — an ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to be­ing hit by a pil­low.

A con­stant fine rain of uric acid from birds fly­ing over­head be­gan the work of slowly bleach­ing our clothes.

Despite the spongy, bleached ground of feathers and hol­low bones, it was quite im­pos­si­ble not to fall for their charm as we watched them play­ing with twigs, ex­press­ing out­rage at neigh­bours who mis­judged a land­ing, dis­cov­er­ing the joys of flight or — har­row­ingly — fall­ing vic­tim to lurk­ing preda­tors.

The is­land is home to thou­sands of lit­tle dra­mas and one soon gets sucked in to these avian lives.

There’s noth­ing for it but to lower your hat against the ae­rial splat­ter and for­get the fact that a hot shower is a week and an ad­ven­tur­ous boat ride away. Only the now mat­ters.

“The Note­book” is about chance meet­ings and un­for­get­table en­coun­ters peo­ple have had on their trav­els. Mail your story — no more than 400 words — with the word Note­book in the sub­ject line. If pub­lished, you win R500. Mail trav­el­mag@sun­day­times.co.za

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