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Death of a shearwater

October 28, 2013
If he can eat something and rest a night I thought this shearwater might be ready to go again in the morning. But he died before the next dawn.

If he can eat something and rest a night I thought this shearwater might be ready to go again in the morning. But he died before the next dawn.

By Mic Smith

When I picked up the little black seabird off Nobby Beach, he was bright enough for me to think some rest and food might be all he needed.

I decided to try to give the short tailed shearwater a safe place at my home to recover, but a few questions about ethics, intervening in nature, the delicate balance between scaring it and helping it came to mind.

Although he still died soon after, it wasn’t a waste of time or care, as I found out a lot about these amazing birds.

The first thing I found out is why he wasn’t able to walk well: Shearwaters are swimmers and flyers, they never make landfall until they reach their nesting grounds down south… unless they’re compromised like this guy was.

Even on a good day they can’t walk more than a few steps, nothing like our friendly seagulls.

This one along with 23 million others had been doing a lot of flying up until I met him. The flock was on the return leg of an annual migration of 30,000 km that started in the Tasman Sea in April.

To Japan and Alaska and back home by September if all went well.

Click on this frame from the short movie "Shear" by Mic Smith to see it on Vimeo.

Click on this frame from the short movie “Shear” by Mic Smith to see it on Vimeo.

But strong winds, food shortages and exhaustion were the most likely factors that compromised the bird’s progress.

These events, when shearwaters wash to shore, are called “wrecks” and the general cause is starvation, says retired biodiversity planner Philip Du Guesclin, who studies a shearwater nesting ground near his home in the Southwest Victorian coastal town of Port Fairy.

Once they wash to shore hungry and tired the shearwaters are very difficult to nurse back to health, Mr Du Guesclin says.

There are such numbers, it’s best to let them fend for themselves.

The breeding birds that have arrived at the Port Fairy nesting ground in September are now excavating their nests. The non-breeders are still coming. Mating starts next month.

Last year at the Port Fairy colony was the worst year on record for nesting with about 10 percent survival of the chicks because of food shortages, Mr Du Guesclin says.

Shearwaters, which are possibly Australia’s most common seabird, don’t breed till they are seven years old and can live as long as 40 years though most live till their 20s.

While a lot of people on the Gold Coast aren’t familiar with these seabirds, shearwaters also known as mutton birds are perhaps best known by Gold Coast fishermen for their audacity and diving skills when stealing bait of mackerel lines. Listen to a fisherman Peter Richards tell about how hard the hungry birds make it to sink a bait.

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To also see the story and other amazing stories on ABC Open go to Shearwaters wash up in sheer exhaustion

Abc open screen shot

 

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