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Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg: Falklands Ornithologist
The Quietus , June 14th, 2013 03:20

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg goes back to nature in the Falklands. Words and video by JM; photographs by JM and Andy Stanworth. Please click through to the Flickr galleries for photo captions and credits

Jonathan Meiburg, the frontman for Shearwater, moonlights as an ornithologist, and his interest in the natural world and our uneasy place in it turns up often in Shearwater's music. The Austin and New York-based band is now at work on two new albums, but last August, in the midst of 200 shows in support of 2012's Animal Joy (Sub Pop), Meiburg took a month off to get out of the tour van and into the field. He travelled to the remote island of Steeple Jason to study Striated Caracaras, rare and strange birds of prey that scavenge at albatross and penguin colonies in the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego. This is his account of a few weeks away from the world - or much closer to it, depending on your perspective.

Travelling to the Falkland Islands from New York means about thirty hours in the air, much of it over the southern Andes, a chain of wild, snow-capped mountains longer than the Himalayas. Looking down from 30,000 feet, you can see the remnants of the Patagonian Ice Sheet, which still holds entire mountains and valleys in its grip but once swelled to the size of ten meters’ worth of global sea level. This wall of ice probably isolated Striated Caracaras from their Andean relatives hundreds of thousands of years ago, and confined them to the remote places they live now: a handful of islands south and west of Tierra del Fuego, and the Falklands, where they live and breed on the outer edges of the archipelago.

It’s not the remoteness or rarity of the birds that draws me, though; it’s the birds themselves. Striated Caracaras are related to falcons, but they act more like crows. They hang out in groups, they walk almost as much as they fly, they favour scavenging to hunting, and they seem unusually conscious; I can’t think of a better word for it. There’s something about them – their dark, searching eyes, their peculiar fearlessness, the way they’re always probing their surroundings for anything of interest– that’s almost eerily familiar. It’s like you can see them thinking, and even see a bit of yourself in them. They were one of the few features of the Falklands that really interested Darwin when he passed through – he devotes a few bemused pages of The Voyage Of The Beagle to these “tame and mischievous, quarrelsome and passionate” birds, and describes their strange habit of stealing unusual objects from the ship's crew– including hats, knives, shirts, a compass “in a red Morocco leather case”, and “a pair of the heavy balls used in catching cattle”.

Sheep farmers in the Falklands, suspecting that these odd raptors posed a threat to their stock, exterminated them from most of the islands decades ago. But their nickname for the birds – “Johnny Rooks” – stuck. Maybe I’m stretching, but I hear the echo of an old fondness in that name. James Hamilton, the Falklands government naturalist, admitted in the 1920s that “there is an irresistible, shambolic clownishness about them that demands attention”, adding that “one bird with whom I had a slight acquaintance would play for a long time with an empty sardine tin.” Bill Conway, the former head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, once told me with a bemused smile that “that bird is as close as the class Aves has ever come to producing a rhesus monkey.”

I couldn’t wait to see them again.

Stanley, the only town in the Falklands, is a quiet settlement of about 2,500 people that resembles what I imagine a seaside village in rural England might have been like in the early 20th century, despite the fact that it’s almost as far from London as London is from Beijing. (And yes, they do drive on the left.) I met up with my two fellow researchers, Robin Woods and David Galloway, at a guest house in town after an hour’s drive on the gravel road from the military base.

Robin probably knows more about Falklands wildlife and its history than anyone else alive, and I was delighted to see him; we hadn’t been in the field together for six years, and he sparked my interest in birds when we first met in Stanley in 1997. He and David are more than twice my age, and when they first visited the Falklands as young men in the 1950s, horses were still a common mode of transportation, and even in Stanley you cut your own peat to heat your home. These days there are gas stoves and even a small internet café, but the Falkland Islands Company (remember the Virginia Company?) still exists, and a few old-style red phone boxes are posted conspicuously on the waterfront. Nights in Stanley are mostly silent except for the wind blowing in from Patagonia, rattling the iron roofs of the older houses.

From Stanley, we took one of the Falkland Islands Government Air Service’s little planes to Carcass Island, a traditionally farmed island at the edge of the human-inhabited portion of the Falklands. It’s become a favored stop for Antarctica-bound cruise ships due to its abundant birdlife; thanks to decades of good luck and careful management, there are no rats, mice or cats on the island. We’d be travelling by boat from Carcass to the even more remote island of Steeple Jason, and as we bounced over the dirt track to the settlement in an aging Land Rover, I glimpsed the first Johnny Rooks I’d seen since 2006. Every time I leave them, I’m never sure if it’s the last time, and it was thrilling to hear the weird, raucous cries of a group at the house that afternoon, begging for scraps at the back door. (Lorraine McGill, pictured sitting outside her kitchen, isn’t above giving them a handout now and then).

The Steinhardt Field Station on Steeple Jason, owned and operated by the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, is a comfortable base for studies of one of the world’s wildest places. There’s no television, telephone, or internet, but there are warm bunks and an ample kitchen, and it’s perched above a gully where we could watch sea lions hunting penguins on calm days. Striated Caracaras seemed drawn to the station; as soon as we’d moved in, they lit on the railing outside the front door and peered in at us.

I was more than a little relieved to see the caracaras. We weren’t certain that they’d be on Steeple at all in the winter, as no one had studied them there outside of their summer breeding season. As a part of Falklands Conservation’s Raptor Project, funded by a grant from the UK-based Darwin Initiative, one of our goals was to find out how they survived the winter while the island’s seabirds, whose chicks and eggs provide most of the caracaras’ food in the summer, were away at sea. (More on that in a minute.)

Our first step was to band as many birds as we could, so we could get to know them as individuals (and, with luck, learn more about their movements between islands in the coming years). Keith Bildstein, a raptor biologist from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania who’s researching Striated Caracaras on other islands in the Falklands, came with us to Steeple for a week to supervise the banding. Keith’s worked with birds of prey all over the world, but he seems especially taken with Johnny Rooks; he says they’re one of the “easiest” species he’s ever encountered. And, sure enough, trapping them was an uncomplicated affair: Keith fastened a piece of mutton to the ground with two iron hoops, then surrounded it with a nylon rope bristling with fishing-line snares. He’d hardly finished pounding in the stakes when an excited mob of caracaras arrived and lunged for the meat.

We “processed” each bird in the garage behind the field station, placing ID bands on their legs, weighing them, snapping photographs, and taking tiny blood samples for genetic analysis. Some birds were relatively calm in our hands and gazed at us in silence; others screeched and snapped at our fingers. When we released them, they usually stayed nearby, and some even walked back into the garage to see what we were up to. “They’ve just been abducted by aliens,” Keith said. “You’d think they’d be more upset about it.”

In the austral summer, Steeple Jason teems with birds. It’s home to the world’s largest breeding colony of Black-browed Albatrosses (about 140 to 170,000 birds; imagine seagulls with eight-foot wingspans and you’re somewhere in the neighborhood), as well as three types of penguin and a few species of the little burrowing seabirds called prions, storm-petrels, and diving petrels. The eggs, chicks, and adults of these colonies provide a wealth of food for Striated Caracaras in the warmer months of the breeding season. But in the winter, most of these seabirds are gone; they forage at sea, and can drink salt water. And at the site of the albatross colony – crowded with caracaras in the summer – we saw only a few adult Johnny Rooks, picking through the mud between the albatrosses’ empty nests. When we surveyed the entire island, however, we counted about as many caracaras on Steeple Jason this winter as we’d seen in previous summers.

What, then, were all these large birds of prey living on in these lean times? We were surprised to find groups of as many as fifty Johnny Rooks scratching in the turf at the base of the island’s central ridge, tearing divots in the earth with their powerful talons and shoving their beaks into the disturbed ground to feed. The effect they’d had on the landscape was remarkable; in some places it looked like someone had tilled the earth to plant crops. (These “tilled” areas are so large that you can see them from space – they appear as dark ellipses on the northeast corner of the island on Google Earth.)

To see what the birds were digging for, we did some “gardening” of our own, and found that the peaty soil was studded with small beetle grubs and earthworms. It wasn’t a feast, but it might be enough to keep the birds going through a hungry season. I couldn’t help thinking that Striated Caracaras are what chickens might imagine themselves to be - fearsome-looking falcons, digging for worms.

Worms and grubs, however, aren’t the only items on the winter menu. Unlike other species of penguin that only visit Steeple Jason in the summer to breed, Gentoo Penguins roost throughout the winter in groups that range in size daily from dozens to thousands of birds. These groups are usually attended by Striated Caracaras, which spend most of their time pacing slowly among the penguins, picking at globs of excrement. The penguins, for their part, don’t seem to take much notice of them; but caracaras are quick to take advantage of an injured or dead bird of any kind, and the penguin skeletons littered around the roosts (and clumps of penguin feathers we found in caracaras’ regurgitated pellets) suggest that they’re a significant, if occasional, source of food for Johnny Rooks.

Rooting around in so much dirt, excrement, and carrion can leave Striated Caracaras pretty filthy, so it wasn’t too surprising to find that frequent bathing seems to be an important part of their lives. I loved watching groups of caracaras at a little spring, soaking their feathers and calling softly to each other, or holding out their wings to dry in the sun. They seemed shyer than usual at these communal baths, and I sometimes felt a little abashed watching them. This video below shows a group at a pool in the lee of a boulder near the research station; keep an eye out for the hunched-up young bird that can’t quite decide if it wants to get in the water.

Video 1 (Striated Caracaras bathing, Steeple Jason) from Jonathan Meiburg on Vimeo.

Robin, David and I were joined on Steeple by four researchers from Falklands Conservation, funded by a grant from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Team leader Kalinka Rexer-Huber and her husband Graham Parker hailed from New Zealand; they’d had previously spent just over a year studying the effects of invasive mice on the isolated island of Gough, in the middle of the Atlantic. Andy Stanworth, who’d recently moved to the Falklands from England, and Micky Reeves, a born Falkland Islander, both work full-time for FC in other capacities, but came along to assist Kalinka and Graham for the month.

Collectively (and affectionately), we called the four of them the “mouse team”. They were here to conduct experiments to see if house mice, introduced accidentally to Steeple long ago by humans, could be eradicated by spreading tons of poison bait on the island from a helicopter. Mice can pose a threat to ground-nesting birds, especially when the birds haven't had time to adapt to their presence, and a preliminary study suggested that the Steeple Jason mice are fond of smaller birds' eggs and young chicks. A little beachcombing bird found only in the Falklands, the Cobb’s Wren, is also conspicuously absent on Steeple, though it’s common on nearby islands that are mouse-free, and it seems likely that the mice have eaten Steeple’s Cobb’s Wrens out of house and home.

To test the bait-drop strategy, the team tagged mice in two study plots in the thick coastal grass, spread non-toxic cereal pellets marked with a UV-reactive dye in the plots, and then recaptured the tagged mice to see if they glowed under a black light. The pellets looked like neon-green rabbit food, and I ate one: it was chalky, grainy, nearly tasteless. Not too appetizing, I hoped, for a caracara.

At first, the Johnny Rooks didn’t seem to know what to make of the cereal baits. I watched one bird tentatively peck at a few pellets, then go back to tearing at the desiccated foot of a long-dead penguin. But about a week later, we started noticing green streaks near the caracaras’ roosts, and shortly after that we saw several birds eating the bait pellets like popcorn. (One of the photos in the gallery, taken by Micky, shows banded bird Y9 in the act of leaving a fluorescent dropping). I took a UV torch to a roost near the field station one night and watched the rocks light up like a cheap haunted house, and later I gathered regurgitated food remains from the same roost; they, too, fluoresced under the torch, as did the tongues of some birds captured near the mouse team’s study plots. It seemed to everyone that if you wanted to avoid feeding cereal bait to caracaras as well as mice, you’d need to find a different way to deliver it.

As winter shaded into spring, the albatrosses began returning to their nests, and we noticed adult caracaras leaving the foraging groups and behaving more like the territorial pairs we’d seen in summers past. Seeing which of the banded birds paired up and where they hung out was a little like reading a gossip column. Y5 and F0, shown in the gallery on a patch of ground they’ve been excavating, patrolled an area just north of the station, where I saw them almost every morning. Another group of three young banded birds behaved like a pair, calling and defending a small territory together; Andy dubbed them “our ‘progressive’ Johnny Rooks”.

My favorite birds, however, weren’t banded. They were an adult pair who kept a territory on a pretty little boulder beach north of the station, between a roost of penguins and a favorite napping spot for sea lions. What I loved about these birds was that they both had funny feet. One, “White Claw”, had all-white claws on all but one of its toes, and the other, “Long Claw,” had a wicked-looking claw on the middle toe of its right foot that stuck straight out instead of curving down. White Claw and Long Claw didn’t seem as excitable or curious as younger birds; they were calm and efficient, and it was easy to imagine them raising brood after brood on this remote beach, year after year. We don’t know how long Striated Caracaras live in the wild, but it could be quite a while; in captivity, they’ve lived for more than thirty years.

What drew these odd-footed birds, or the young trio, to one another? It’ll be a while before we can ask that question in a scientific way, but it’s the kind of question that sticks most in my mind. Right now we’re still in the earliest stages of getting to know them, asking: How many of you are there? Where do you live? What do you eat? The chance to shine even a little light on them is exciting, but there’s a great deal we don’t know, and may never know, about their lives.

Springtime also meant more scuffles among the caracaras, as pairs establishing breeding territories kicked out juveniles and non-breeders. These encounters were mostly sound and fury, with scruffy young birds running and flying away from sleek, aggressive adults, but sometimes they appeared to have gone further. We found the remains of a few younger birds near the field station, and one afternoon Andy and I came across the freshly killed body of one of our banded birds, G7. I was a little stunned; Micky had seen him just that morning. G7 was one of the active, healthy-looking youngsters we saw most days, keeping an eye on the penguins or waiting for sleeping sea lions to leave something tasty when they woke from a nap, and here he was, half-eaten. What had killed him?

Kalinka performed a necropsy on G7 that evening back at the station. His insides looked healthy, she said; they weren’t the guts of a diseased or starving bird. But his neck was broken, just below the base of his skull - a fatal injury, probably inflicted by another caracara. I took one of his smooth, limp feet in my hand, opened and closed the talons, and marveled at their breadth and toughness. It was as close as we could ever come to shaking hands. Graham watched over my shoulder. “Amazing,” he murmured.

Toward the end of our stay, the sea gave the Johnny Rooks a gift: after a few days of high winds and rough water, a long-dead sea lion appeared on the kelp-strewn gravel beach in White Claw and Long Claw’s territory. The pair probably got first dibs on the carcass, but a few young caracaras discovered it and began calling loudly and repeatedly, summoning all of their friends. Within a few hours, the sea lion’s body was swarming with a mob of about fifty birds, who cleaned it thoroughly in about a day and a half with the help of a few Turkey Vultures (see below).

Video 2 (Striated Caracaras Feeding on a Seal Carcass) from Jonathan Meiburg on Vimeo.

White Claw and Long Claw occasionally charged half-heartedly at the intruders, but seemed generally overwhelmed, and mostly settled for perching nearby and looking annoyed. The mob’s frenzied behavior – swarming, tussling, and gorging themselves – was a stark contrast to the birds we’d seen patiently digging for grubs and worms, and a reminder that free-for-all ‘bonanzas’ of carrion are probably essential parts of Johnny Rooks’ diets year-round, especially for birds without breeding territories. Moreover, it struck me (and not for the first time) that their intense curiosity about anything new in their environment – so odd and comical when that new thing is you – is probably a shrewd adaptation to the unpredictable offerings of the sea.

All too soon, our month on Steeple Jason was over. The mouse team cleaned their traps and set them out to dry, and we packed our gear back into plastic buckets and rucksacks. A friend had loaned me a guitar in Stanley, but I’d hardly touched it; as close as I’d come to making new music was recording waves sloshing in the gully below the station. It felt good to be away, away from crowds of strangers and rock clubs and music, especially since it would all come rushing back so soon; the next Shearwater tour was only a couple of weeks away. But for the moment, I felt clear and calm, ready for whatever was next. We hauled everything down to the shore to wait for the boat that would take us back to the human world, and for the last hour we sat alone with our thoughts, watching the returning albatrosses wheeling overhead. A pair of curious young caracaras, checking out our kit (see below), seemed ready to come along with us. I wished I could give them a ride.

Video 3 (Two young Striated Caracaras investigating unfamiliar objects) from Jonathan Meiburg on Vimeo.