It is the time of the hatching of the eggs, the emergence of new life. And I’d like to say that it’s rich and invigorating….but…it’s not. Up here, for these birds, it’s a struggle. A struggle against weather conditions, against the ever-present threat of predation, and against a shortage of the right food. Each daywhen we check we find an egg missing here or a chick there.
We had a lot of precipitation this week and cold, hard winds. Many of the birds were sitting in or were having to slop through small puddles of liquid guano. Some were spattered almost from head to tail. What a relief it must be for the mate to switch over incubating the egg so that the sitting bird can drop down to the ocean and clean itself up (this is probably pretty anthropomorphic – at least I would find it a great relief. As for the weather, these hardy birds have evolved over the years to not only exist but to thrive in these conditions and, so, seemed to be coping well. But the eggs are starting to hatch and it’s the young chicks that will take a few days to adjust and thermoregulate and during these few days the parents must take considerable care to keep them warm and protected from the elements. The murres generate a great deal of heat. You can feel it radiating from their brood patches and, especially, from their feet when you handle them. During the high winds, a parent will tuck the young one up onto the top of its feet and right under the brood patch; it will then drop or droop its wings to completely surround the chick, blocking out the wind. As long as the birds can provide that kind of care the chick is not in jeopardy – despite the conditions. It is at the time that we try not to disturb them as the first few days are critical.
But it’s the same for all the local species: the Glaucous Gulls have chicks, as do the local Snow Buntings and Barnacle Geese. The geese are interesting. Young goslings provide a good meal for the gulls and are highly sought by them. The two parents take great care to keep the young ones close by (usually between them) whenever a gull comes into the area. The gull usually has two strategies: it will land on the water and swim toward the geese hoping to see an opening and make a fast dash to grab a gosling; or, especially when the wind is blowing, it will hover several meters directly over the birds, again hoping to see an opening it can take advantage of. But…there is a good thing that happens (if you side with the geese). Very often each parental group with young is joined by several other adults that move with the group and help to protect the young. These are probably non-breeding or unsuccessful breeders. But they play an important role. I watched a Glaucous Gull for over 20 minutes “work” an “extended family” family of geese. No matter what method it tried it was thwarted by 5, not just 2 adults. Finally it gave up and flew off for more productive hunting. Recently, family groups have been joining together for mutual benefit. There was a flock of 13 goslings mixed in with 32 adults all of whom provided a lot of support.
Note the unhatched egg in the top left of the nest.
So far, in the murre colony, we have seen just the tip of the iceberg. When I go back tomorrow (and during the coming week) I expect a lot of new chicks. We will try to catch and band them when they are 10-15 days old. And then we will start to watch for the truly remarkable flight of the young birds from the cliffs down to the ocean…and a life at sea for the next couple of years until they reach breeding size and condition….and then return to the cliffs to raise their own young.
On the last day before returning to Longyearbyen, we did a count of the whole colony at Diabas and then, because the weather was drizzly and lousy for catching but there was no wind ( a rarity!!), we decided to cross the fjord to visit the ghost-town, Pyramiden. It was established as a coal mining site by Sweden in 1910 but was sold to the USSR in 1927. The Russians had a presence there (population 1000), mining coal, up until January 10, 1998 at which time the people were ordered to evacuate…and to do so overnight! Although the buildings are out of bounds, it is reported that most people left most of their belongings, even food on the table.