For months, the shadow of avian influenza has been looming over our heads and threatening to call off my second season of fieldwork before it even started. But although it’s inching ever closer to the islands, it’s yet to catch and spark among the breeding colonies. So, operation shag-tagging is on. After the long journey south, I had a couple of days in Stanley to grab all of my kit out of storage, confirm logistics, and charge and programme tags. I spent what felt like way too long trying to decide and buy what I might want to eat for the next two months (including special treats for Christmas and New Year) and divvied it all up in boxes for each island I’ll be visiting.
Then I was off to Bleaker Island. Having arrived too late to deploy tags last year, we made sure this was the first on the list. It’s an important colony for my research as it’s one of the largest in the Falklands and it’s also on the opposite side of the country to most of the other sites on my list, making for a nice comparison.
Within three days, we had all of our tags deployed. The skills and techniques for catching birds, taking measurements and deploying tags came back to me like riding a bike (much to my relief). But fieldwork can never be ‘easy’, so the island threw in a few extra challenges. The main shag colony seemingly provides a substantial food source to the Falkland skuas which spend their days snoozing alongside the shags until their stomach rumbles, then it’s up and into the air to spot an opportunity to grab an egg. Originally, I thought the skuas were just opportunistic, waiting for a fidgeting shag to expose an egg or an inexperienced breeder to accidentally nudge one out of it’s protective bowl. But then I started to notice skuas impatiently landing on the backs of incubating birds and bothering them to a point where they could force their beaks beneath the shag to grab a warm egg. So, this was my first new challenge; catching shags whilst ensuring no neighbours were disturbed enough to expose any vulnerable eggs.
The second challenge was the wind. Strong, relentless, roaring wind. All day, every day. Not only did it make it difficult to hold a catching pole steady to delicately catch birds, but it made for some unpleasant conditions to work in. The colony is surrounded by bare earth, and a lack of recent rain meant it was dry and dusty. I’ve never had so much dirt in my eyes, even when wearing sunglasses in an attempt to shield most of it. After every trip to the colony it was a couple of hours before my eyes were finally free from debris. As well as the dirt, it was also cold to spend hours sitting in the near-gale force winds. The island is very flat and exposed, and around the colony there’s absolutely nothing to provide any shelter. To retrieve tags, I would spend entire days sat at the colony, my back to the pummelling gusts, waiting for tagged birds to come home from the sea. One evening I had to bail earlier than planned as my fingers were so painfully frozen, even beneath two pairs of gloves. If the bird I had been waiting for had arrived, I wouldn’t have been able to fumble the tag off it anyway.
The last population estimate for the island was in 2005. I want to understand how population size is influencing where individual birds are feeding, so one of my tasks at each field site is to count the colonies. This was easily done last year on the Jason Islands where the colonies were small and the topography variable, providing me with a vantage point to count them from. But Bleaker is flat and the colony is humongous so there’s no way to count it from the ground. Drones are being increasingly used to survey flat seabird colonies, so we took to the sky and got some photos which I can later count from. There are a few smaller colonies dotted round the island too, so we spent a sunny day walking the 9km or so back to the settlement from the northern tip of the island, counting shags along the way.
I’ve been working with Amandine, a researcher studying pathways of wildlife disease transmission in the archipelago. We’re tag-teaming both of our projects; she helps me deploy my shag tags (it’s a two-person job) and in turn I help her catch and sample a wide range of species. This has been a great opportunity to learn some new catching skills and improve my confidence in handling a variety of species. It often takes a few mistakes to hone these new skills though. Whilst feeling proud at my first successful gentoo penguin capture, I readjusted my hold on the bird in a way that enabled it to spray shit all over my face. It then flipper-slapped me on my forearm so hard it formed a lump that ached for days.
Despite all the challenges and injuries, I left the island 11 days later with a new penguin species ticked off my list, samples in my bag and a heap of exciting new data on my laptop.
The day after I arrived back in Stanley, we took a day trip north of the city along Berkeley Sound. This consisted of an hour’s drive along gravel roads, followed by a seemingly endless 1hr 45mins of bouncing off-road. Eventually we rolled to a stop and tumbled out of the car at my next colony, Eagle Hill. There are three subcolonies here, all sat atop sloping rocky cliffs overlooking the sound. It was lovely to see a new landscape and spend the day with a sea view. The shags breed amongst Southern rockhoppers there, so we spent a bit of time finding the most accessible nests without bothering the penguins, and then it was down to business. There were four of us so we were able to work in two teams, which was incredibly efficient. Excluding a late lunch break, we got all our tags deployed and data collected in less time than it took to drive to the site. We’d so far managed to avoid the forecasted rain and didn’t fancy tackling the off-road in the wet and dark, so after a quick jaunt along the coast to stretch our legs, we bounced our way home. The rest of the team will head back out to retrieve these tags in a week or so, whilst I’m busy tagging a new colony on Saunders Island.
This post was written in December 2023 but challenges in accessing the internet in the Falklands delayed publishing until January 2024.