Monday, November 28, 2011

Albatross Encounters

            I walked the Kaikoura Peninsular Walk a few days ago, which is a pathway down to the fur seal colony, and across the eastern end of the Kaikoura peninsula.   \ Seals don’t smell as fishy as most people think (though there is a fish component in there somewhere); mostly, they just smell like a really, really sweaty mammal.   How smelly are the seals?   Well, the first two seals I saw, I smelled them before I saw them.   The first sea lion I saw was hauled out on an old dock about ten feet away from the road.   She seemed quite aware of the vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and was half-opening an eye every once in a while to keep track of what we were doing.   Otherwise, she seemed quite happy to lie in the sun, fumigating away on the shoulder of the road.   The next sea lion was actually lying across the pedestrian boardwalk just before the peninsular walk carpark.  If I hadn’t smelled this one in time, I might have actually walked into him before I realized he was lying across the path.   Like the first seal, he seemed totally unconcerned about his proximity to the cars, camper vans, pedestrians, and camera-toting Japanese tourists edging closer and closer to him with their giant zoom lenses.   

            There were signs pointing out that the seals will bite, and can lunge at people more quickly than you’d expect from an animal that spends most of its time swimming.   Apparently, the peninsula car park was built before the fur seal numbers increased.   As the seal population got bigger, the seals slowly took over.    Vehicle traffic notwithstanding, it looks like a pretty decent haul-out from a seals’ point of view – it’s a big, flat concrete surface that’s conveniently been built just a  few feet above the high tide line.   There were signs all over the place warning people that the fur seals will actually sleep in the parking lot during high tides or bad weather.    A few of the signs had suggestions for what to do if a seal has decided to bed down next to your car (walk slowly and quietly past it, was their advice.)   Most of the seals were further out by the beach, sprawled on the rocks, or standing up with their necks arched over their back as though they had decided to take up yoga.   The car park isn’t a breeding haul-out, just a resting place, so there wasn’t a whole lot going on but sleeping.   Occasionally, a seal would shift position, or wake up enough to huff at a tourist who was getting  too close, but that was about the extent of the action.   
Fur seal sleeping on the boardwalk near the Kaikoura Peninsular Walk carpark.

            The peninsular walk itself was really sunny, with great views of the bluffs at the east and south ends of the peninsula.   The environment reminded me a lot of Rathlin Island in Ireland, with the high bluffs, and the seals, and the birds.   Kaikoura is home to the South Island’s largest colony of red-billed gulls, and I watched the colony from the top of the cliff.   Watching a seabird colony is like watching the most argumentative sort of family reunion – everyone running around screeching at each other, and butting into each other’s business, all the while gossiping with each other at the top of their lungs.   That’s if you look at the individual birds.   If you start looking at the colony as a whole, it almost looks like a noisy sort of snow globe.

            A few days later, I got a free trip out on the Albatross Encounter boat, courtesy the company that brought me to Kaikoura to interview me, but didn’t actually give me a job.   Which was disappointing - but a free birding tour that has a sticker price of  $110 is a pretty awesome consolation prize.   It was also a neat thing to do on Thanksgiving.   It would have been nice to spend the holiday with family, but spending it with giant pelagic seabirds was a good alternative.   They’re certainly as big as turkeys, although possibly not as edible.   

            We saw both Wandering Albatross and Royal Albatross, which have the largest wingspan of any living bird.   Depending on how you measure these things, Royal Albatross are also the world’s larges flying bird.   The ‘largest flying bird’ label is debatable depending on whether you’re going by wingspan or weight (condors and bustards being the heaviest, though they have smaller wingspans).   Seeing the albatross flying was kind of like seeing an ellipsis in the sky – there’s a shallow curve to their wings, and they tend to angle themselves to take best advantage of the winds.   When the albatross weren’t flying, they seemed to be at some pains to avoid getting tangled in their own wings.   Most birds are pretty good at tucking their wings at their sides; albatross wings are so big that they seem to stick out at the back no matter how they’re folded.   Albatross, more that any other bird I’ve seen, were built for hanging in the air.   Not flying – that word implies that there is flapping involved.   The albatross literally just hang there in the wind, shearing from one side to another as they speed up and slow down.   Albatross look beautiful when they’re flying, and a tiny bit ridiculous when they’re doing anything else.   On this tour, we didn’t see the albatross flying very much.   Mostly, we saw them eating.

            The main reason behind the popularity of this particular bird tour is that the boats can entice the albatross to approach the boat by using chum, which is a fancy word for fish guts, or anything else that a bird might be tempted to eat.   To start things off, our skipper threw in some chum directly into the water, just to entice birds in and get things going.   As soon as the fish livers hit the water, the birds started showing up.   

            If you’ve never seen it before, a group of gulls feeding can be seen for a remarkably long distance over the water.   From a distance, the white of the gulls’ wings as they dive looks like a cluster of little lights constantly flicking off and on over the water.   The red-legged gulls showed up first, along with a couple of Giant Petrels, and started working away on the bait.   The gulls started to feed, and further out in the water, the other seabirds began to take notice.   If the chum in the water was like the ‘Open’ sign on the shop door, then the mob of gulls flying around our boat was like a neon billboard facing the interstate.   

            Pretty soon we had our first big albatross – a Wandering - showing up, landing in the water by throwing his feet forward and cupping them, using the webbing on his feet as a sort of air break.   The albatross ran the petrel off of the biggest chunk of fish, and started tucking in himself.   The chum was gone in another minute.

            Then, our skipper threw in a larger block of chum, which was tangled inside a sort of wicker cage, and tied off to our boat.   This meant that the birds had to come up to the boat to eat it, and also meant that they had to pull the fish out bit by bit, which limited the speed at which the chum was consumed.   As soon as the new chum hit the water, the albatross started swimming over to the boat, paddling with his feet, and sticking his neck out towards the boat like a dog who suspects you’re holding bacon.   

            I knew the albatross were big, and I expected them to be impressive, but I didn’t expect them to be so noisy.   The birds were constantly quarrelling, and shooing each other off of the food.   Usually, there was only one albatross at a time eating the chum, with the other albatross circling around, voicing their displeasure and keeping their distance.    The Giant Petrels, although smaller, seemed to have a much scrappier temperament, and would snatch mouthfuls as often as they could.   There was also a flock of Cape Pigeons, small enough that the albatross mostly ignored them, who gobbled up any scraps that the larger birds dropped.
Wandering Albatross, Giant Petrels (black), and Cape Pigeons (small,) eating chum at the back of the Albatross Encounter boat.

            The Wandering Albatross had the most luck at the chum, being slightly larger than the mollymawks.   We also saw a Royal Albatross very distantly – our skipper told us that sometimes these albatross will come towards the boat later on in a feeding session, when things have quieted down a little, but for some reason, this particular Royal Albatross didn’t feel like contesting the mollymawks for a spot at the feeding trough.   He swam as close as thirty yards, and then picked himself up laboriously from the water, and flew off again.    

            After about forty minutes with the birds, the supply of chum was running low, and the wind had picked up significantly, so we headed back to the harbor.   

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