Monday, November 17, 2008

Animal of the Day: Southern Giant-Petrels

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to accompany Scott Sternbach to Jacob's Island, about 2 miles from station. Jacob's is an amazing rock, so thick with moss and ridges of white granite that I felt I had been transported to the Scottish Moors.

More about the island later, but the visit got me thinking about one of my favorite birds here, the Southern Giant-Petrel. On Jacob's, and on all the islands near here, there are a few birds, paired and sitting on nests.

In the air, the 'Giants' are powerful and graceful. Their gorgeous wings look loose and organic, and they easily curl up the ends like an amazing airfoil to maneuver their lazy turns. With their bulky bodies, they are most comfortable flying in a stiff wind or good air, and they are experts at finding that good air. When I'm watching, I almost never see these birds flap their wings. Seemingly, they can soar all day and love to do so, turning figure eights and circles above the islands. The silence, and their size (up to 18 pounds and a wing span span of over six feet) is what one notices most about the bird and it makes every action seem considered: even when flying fast and low, as they often do, the Giants never look like as though they are in a hurry; every feather looks dignified and they have a natural solemnity.

On the ground the Macronectes giganteus look pretty goofy. They half-hop from one enormous webbed foot to another; their wings held out like a haphazard balance beam. The combination of that awkward loping gait and their huge heads, constantly turning and craning, make them look like loveable cousins to the Three Stooges.

The truth is that the Giants are ruthlessly effective hunters and scavengers. They nest near penguin colonies and elephant seals in order to prey on the young of one and the dead of the other. Their enormously long, curved bills are strengthened to tear into intact carcasses, which they do, in addition to hunting krill, squid and fish. Two factors have contributed most to the declining numbers of the Giant (at least 20% in the last several decades), accidental entanglement in longline fisheries and the decline in elephant seal populations, whose carcasses they depend on. The Giants are variously listed as threatened or endangered on conservation listings. Giants, like most of the animals in the Antarctic are slow growing, reaching maturity at six or seven years. When they pair, it is to raise a single chick in a stone nest on the cliffs of islands like Jacob's. After 60 days of incubation, the youngster is brooded for about four months and then takes to the sea like its parents.

Fires in Southern California

This weekend I was glued to the news of wildfires in Southern California. Coming here from Pasadena, I understand how dangerous and destructive these fires are. I'm thinking a lot about the fire fighters on the lines and the families who have evacuated or lost their homes. My thoughts, and the thoughts of everyone here, are with you all in Cali.