Text and photos: Frances Cooke, phd CAGE.
I arrived in Tromsø in 2019 at the end of spring. It is this time of year that Tromsø’s inhabitants start preparing the exterior of their houses for the summer. This may include dust blowing, snow spreading, and for many putting up kite bird repellers to deter the seagulls. Currently out in the Barents Sea on the Helmer Hanssen there is no deterring the birds. Stein, one of the ship’s deckhands has designed his own bird deterrent.
It has since been referred to as the bird scratcher, as a bird (pictured) has finely demonstrated. With the intent to scare the birds away, Stein’s bird deterrent became a favorite spot for the birds to rest. He is now working on an improved model.
I haven’t always been a bird enthusiast. My fascination began when I started to work on ships in 2010. You develop a certain respect for them being out in the open ocean, forgetting that this is their natural environment and that they are, of course, adapted to these conditions.
Early on in my career, I was working on a ship in the North sea. One morning I walked into the instrument room to find a pigeon standing there. It seemed quite happy so I let it be. It was no ordinary pigeon, it was well looked after – a homing or racing pigeon. I hadn’t expected a bird like that to come out to sea, I thought they found their way following roads or landmarks. I decided to keep an eye on it over the course of the day. I took a break and went to check on the new crew member, only to be told that it had just been caught and taken to the galley by the Indonesian cook. I asked what he might be doing with a bird in the galley, not thinking that someone would actually consider eating this pigeon. I ran to the galley. “What are you doing with the pigeon!” – “I’m going to cook it” he said. “..But you can’t do that, it belongs to someone!” I was relieved to find that the pigeon was alive and well. It was handed to me. The poor thing was so trusting, had no idea that some humans, knew nothing of its importance!
Some years later I decided to place myself in a warmer part of the world – in Australia. I was on a ship with one of Tasmania’s highly regarded and most passionate marine ornithologists – affectionately known as ‘Bird Man’. He had dedicated his whole life to protecting birds and cared for them as much as one would their own children. I learned from him how to identify birds from their motion in flight. Some would flutter, almost butterfly-like and others would take advantage of the lift from the waves and tilt repeatedly from one side to the next dipping their wings right down to the water’s edge, with tremendous precision. Others would soar high above, like a kite, namely, the Frigatebird. To Bird Man’s dismay, I developed a distaste for this bird. The Frigatebird, also known as the ‘Pirate of the Sea’ is kleptoparasitic. Yes, you guessed correctly, it chooses prey that have recently fed, latches onto them, making them regurgitate their food, and then eats that regurgitated food. This is how they feed. It quickly adopted a new name that was banned from use on Bird Man’s watch – ‘The Frigging Frigate’.
It was on a voyage to the remote sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald Islands in 2016 that inspired my move to the Arctic – to CAGE, and not because of the penguins (..!) but they were an impressive part of the scenery. We were not there to study penguin colonies but to hunt for gas flares seeping from the seafloor. A notable difference in data collection here in the Arctic is the absence of water column disturbance from penguins streamlining through the path of the multibeam echosounder. There is a very high flaring activity in the Barents Sea and we are here monitoring that activity. There are many clues in the data that corroborate flare presence, for example, pockmarks or circular depressions found on the seafloor that are collapse features. There are fish that are known to make homes in these shallow craters. You may often hear, “Are we seeing fish or flares?” and where there are fish there will always be birds!