AM: We spent yesterday evening from sunset until 10:00 this morning on Middle Island. Because Brown Boobies are a low priority for tracking this trip, I had to ring, bleed, and fling ten of them to keep my molecular-analysis stockpile up. The others were searching, mainly, for tagged Red-footed Boobies, Masked Boobies, and Lesser Frigates, of which there were only small numbers to get through, so I had an abundance of help. We finished the target species around 21:00, and moved on to Lesser Noddy, picking up another few.
The last two nights, there have been tropical storm-systems along the Northern horizon, crackling with yellow lightning. On an island that is regularly swamped by storm-surges, with a collection of electronics of varying degrees of frailty, these caused some small amount of concern. Fortunately, the squalls have held off hitting Ashmore in each case until we were safely aboard Diversity for the day. At one point, though, the weather was intense enough to break one of our ship’s tenders loose. There being ladies present, this gave one of the crew a fine excuse to throw off his shirt and dive into the ocean to retrieve it. It is now held with a somewhat stronger rope.
The squalls are ongoing, making planning somewhat difficult, though ongoing general plans are to collect enough mummified Bridled Terns for molecular analysis (the numbers of live ones are very low), and find out what can be done with Crested Tern.
PM: Slow day today. Went for a dive around the reef and sorted out my plans for the remaining time here. I will overnight on Middle Island tonight with AH and RM catching Lesser Frigatebird juveniles, one of the remaining nights on East Island bleeding a collection of species, and probably two days mapping the vegetation on East and Middle so that I can calculate the available area for each species to breed in (as this may partially-determine subcolony sizes). One more day (or night) will be spent collecting dead specimens to fill gaps in my molecular samples. This combination should see me very busy until we leave for Cartier on the 20th.
The Navy and Customs crews are sending over visitors for drinks tonight from 17:00. As the earliest extraction from Middle tomorrow morning is ~08:00 on the rising tide, I will endeavour to nap until then.
12/11/2013 -> ?14/11/2013
Since last update, we’ve worked two full-nights back-to-back, sleeping in the day. As I write, it is around 07:00 on the 14th.
My first impression back on Middle Island is that the place is dead. Most of the vegetation has died off. Many of the breeders have gone, leaving nearly-mature young and the bodies of chicks at a range of stages-of-development. A quick walk along the beach gained us a handful of dead birds that had been ringed on a previous visit.
We are capturing birds by spotlight: we turn off all our lights, approach, then turn all available lights on the birds, dazzling them. Most often, the birds sit still and are easy to pick up. I collected a good haul of Black and Lesser Noddies with AH, while the others targeted Boobies and Frigates for tracker deployment. Towards dawn, we carried out a group raid on a Red-footed Booby roost, netting five birds at once.
The sudden change to night-work is a little odd. Towards 02:00, it seemed a very good idea to write names on the shells of the massively-abundant hermit crabs, and see where they ended up. Now, around thirty named hermit crabs are running around Middle Island, happily tucking into beach-cast seabirds. Given that the crabs are mainly named after lab-mates and members of faculty, this is somewhat macabre.
We have arrived at Ashmore, moored on the Inner Mooring alongside the Australian Customs Vessel Ashmore Guardian, with two Navy vessels on the Outer Mooring. Rumour has it that the reef has been relatively quiet these past few weeks, and that the crews have had little to do. In any case, they ran us through the landing paperwork and we were quickly moored.
The last stretch through to the reef was reasonably quiet and calm – a Tahiti Petrel, a Streaked Shearwater, some Sooty/Bridled Terns (they’re basically indistinguishable at range), and a handful of Brown Boobies. Notably, about two hours before the reef, we encountered a mixed cetacean pod, with ~50 Short-finned Pilot Whales, and ~10 others, tentatively False Killer Whales. Around 30 minutes before the reef, we ran into another pod, this time of >20 Spinner Dolphins.
Bird-life on the reef is as I remember it – large numbers of Brown Booby and Lesser Frigates, with Common Noddy; less commonly Red-footed Booby and Masked Booby. I’m yet to see any Tropicbirds, Black or Lesser Noddies, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of getting ashore.
Our plan for fieldwork is to work nights, being dropped on Middle Island around 16:30, staying on-island until 06:00, and sleeping through the day. I am sure this will play merry hell with journal-keeping.
10/11/2013 -> 11/11/2013
10/11: Spent the night in the Roebuck Bay Hotel, after a catch-up drink with RM and JC, who have been in Broome the past ten days. JC has rented a scooter and explored, while RM has participated in the Australasian Wader Study Group survey for the year. Both appear to have had fun.
Woke around 07:00, packed down all the things, and went to purchase a seasickness-friendly breakfast of sweet biscuits and a pair of bananas – after my dreadful trip out last time, I am taking no chances.
Rendezvous at GS’s house, around 10:00, then off to the beach 10:30 for a wet boarding. All aboard around 11:00, then off immediately.
Our course to Ashmore takes us ~NNW for half a day, then NNE until we reach the reef. This line hugs the edge of the 200m depth contour, more or less.
JC has, for this trip, installed a boom arm on the boat, from which we are towing a high-speed trawl for microplastics. The boom arm is a substantial piece of engineering – the first version, a straight aluminium tube, was bent to right-angles by the drag-force of the trawl. The new one is reinforced by buttressing steel cables, and held by four lines at critical points.
Species sightings are reasonably predictable: Brown Booby, White-winged Black Tern, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Lesser Frigatebird, Common Tern, Crested Tern. Occasionally turtles (Flatback and Green) and sea-snakes (larger golden ones and smaller yellow-and-brown striped ones). Several cetaceans, mostly bottlenosed dolphins. The sea-state is mild.
Woke around 06:00, spent the day observing on the bow. A good diversity of species, but none of them particularly abundant. Saw White-winged Black Tern, Tahiti Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Lesser Frigatebird, Roseate Tern, Streaked Shearwater. Around midday, saw a mixed pod of around 60 Spinner and Spotted Dolphins.
The plastics trawl keeps on bringing in interesting things. Much of the plastic it collects is too small to be seen from the bow, where the smallest visible pieces are around 3cm on the long axis.
AH’s birthday today. Cake, candles, and singing. We’re all unspeakably glad that the sea conditions are mild.
We should arrive on-reef tomorrow around midday. The plan is to do mainly night-work to make bird-capture easier, and with a high tide at 18:18 on the first night, that plan should work well enough.
I fly out tomorrow morning for Broome, Western Australia. From there, my lab will ship out to the Ashmore Reef, Cartier Island, Browse Island, Adele Island, and the Lacepedes, counting seabirds and shorebirds, collecting samples, and deploying tracking tags. It’s similar to the trip we had in April this year, but with an additional island landing (Lacepede), and at the end of the dry season rather than the end of the wet. Those who know about it say that this means the islands (Adele excepted) lose their vegetation, and everything feels hotter.
Adele has just had an eradication attempt of Pacific Rats – two of my lab-mates have been there doing research and assisting with the eradication. I’ve never visited an island so soon after an eradication, so that’ll be a particular point of interest.
Now, off to buy last-minute things: new seasickness meds, fresh camera batteries, cheap shoes to be mistreated on the island. A haircut and beard-taming (it is worth keeping it long enough to prevent sunburn, but short enough that the breeze can still get through). The evening will be spent tucking piles of blood-sampling and bird-banding gear into the backpack, along with the two changes of hot-weather field clothes that represent all of the clothing for the trip. People who work on seabird islands come back with a distinct sweet, delicate musk. It’s a thing you can learn to miss.
What seems like an age ago, I wrote a Masters thesis. That thesis contained three data chapters – one testing other peoples’ research idea, and two tightly-linked chapters featuring my own research idea. The other peoples’ research idea was quickly published – it became this paper. The other two chapters took more work, and more time: they weren’t shaped like a single paper in the thesis – and perhaps more importantly, I was distracted by working at an oil spill and analysing data that gushed from it.
Today, after a little over three months with peer reviewers and a journal editor at a Quite Nice Journal, I have two positive reviews and an ‘accept with major revisions’ for the paper that came from those two tightly-linked chapters.
Today is a good day.
It’s been five months since we returned from the Ashmore Reef for the first time, and the next major trip is still another two months away. I have spent the coldest months of the winter in a very academic sort of hibernation: sitting in an office doing statistics, writing grant applications, and learning how to use a new software platform to simulate animal populations in a spatially-explicit, individually-based way.
From the first of those, I hope to have co-authorship on a paper about shark bycatch reduction sometime in the near future. From the second, I rather hope that I will get some money. From the third, I hope it’ll give me detailed, biologically-sensible null hypotheses to test my genetic data against. It’s called HexSim, and it looks hopeful. I also have a paper in review, for which I expect reviewer comments at essentially any time – it has just passed the three-months-since-submission mark by which most reviewers submit their reviews.
In downtime, I’ve become associated with the Victorian Wader Study Group, with who I’ve been out cannon-netting twice. Catches were nonexistent on one occasion and light on the other, but I’ve now stuck tags on both Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers. I may well join them in Broome for a major knot-catching expedition this year, as it happens the week before I have to be in Broome to head back to Ashmore. I’ve also become associated with a local bat-monitoring group looking at local Melbournian microbats although, without rabies shots, I’m not allowed to handle them.
The plan for the next twelve months is looking promising: there is a seabird conference in Alaska that I would dearly love to present some data at, and a landscape genetics workshop in Germany shortly after that. Some preliminary research suggests there are good collections of seabirds in Dutch museums from colonies near the Ashmore reef, so all going well I may be able to get some more data while in Europe as well.
This is, of course, contingent on being allowed to take samples from these birds at all, and further, on being allowed to export those samples from the European Union. Our existing Australian import permit lets us bring avian samples into the country, so that part, at least, should present no trouble.
Odd trips to the Ashmore and nearby islands pop up occasionally, too. One of my labmates is on Ashmore at the moment, deploying loggers, making observations, collecting plastic and, I hope, gathering some more tern and noddy eblood samples. Another trip came back recently, piggy-backing on a trip to Adele Island with the Bureau of Meteorology, who were installing a new weather station. Yet another small trip is potentially upcoming, again to Adele, although details are scarce. Still, there is a buzz, and data is being generated. Maybe spring will break up that very-academic hibernation a little.