DIARY LOG- Andreas Engelen

OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE: FOLLOWING SEABIRDS

During this year I had an opportunity to spend 125 days researching protected marine bird species on Lastovo islands – Scopoli’s Shearwater, Yelkouan Shearwater and Audouin’s Gull. Apart from contributing to nature conservation, I had the opportunity to experience some unforgettable experiences while observing their habits and interesting behaviour.

In April 2019 I changed the densely populated country of the Netherlands for the barely populated island of Lastovo to work on the Adriatic Seabird Guardians project and LIFE Artina Project, together with my colleagues. This former military outpost of Yugoslavia is a 5 hour ferry ride from Split and is largely ignored by the mass tourism that flocks the Croatian sea coast every summer. Even common European breeding birds such as Great and Blue tits, seem to think this island is a step too far. However, it is exactly the calmness that draws several endangered seabird species to this archipelago. They have their breeding colonies on the uninhabited islets around Lastovo, many of which have unpronounceable, vowel-deprived names.

View of the westside of the Lastovo archipelago with islands Bratin, Vlašnik, Mrčara, Kopište, Pod Kopište and Sušac (Author: Dries Engelen)

One of those islets is Zaklopatica, the place where I had my first encounter with the globally endangered Yelkouan shearwater. At night these birds return from sea and seem to torpedo themselves onto the island. In the process, many of them get entangled in the small trees and shrubs, after which they drop on the ground and look around confused. Then they use all means possible (bill, wings, webbed feet) to find back their nesting crevices where they are welcomed by their surprised sounding partners. Probably surprised to see them return home unharmed again, because to be honest, after witnessing this clumsy spectacle for the first time I seriously wondered if the biggest threat to this bird’s existence might in fact be itself. However, the Yelkouans are repeating this behaviour every night of each breeding season during their 15-20 year lifespan, which makes you realise that they are actually very sturdy animals and that sadly their population decline is due to external factors such as light pollution, plastic waste and predation by gulls and invasive mammal species on the colonies. Identifying the breeding colonies and closely monitoring the birds is very important to identify their key threats, so that they can be dealt with adequately in order to safeguard the survival of the species.

While monitoring the nests you also learn that the Yelkouans are not only loyal to their partner, but also to their specific nesting crevice where they return each year again for breeding. They start fairly early in the season (March) to make sure the chicks are fledged before the two times bigger Scopoli’s shearwaters return to the island in June. This angrier looking cousin of Yelkouan does not tolerate any other birds in its nest crevices and the haunting sounds of the ‘didgeridooing’ male and the ‘whining cat’ female are a warning sign to get out! This night chorus will last until October because it takes time to grow a chick to the size of a proper adult Scopoli’s.

Successfully hatched Yelkouan chick (Author: Dries Engelen)

The clumsy behaviour of the shearwaters in the colony is left behind the moment they take off from the island and go to sea. Here they turn into agile and graceful birds. Especially the Scopoli’s has taken ‘shearing’ to the next level with long and slow wingbeats only centimetres above the sea surface, but never accidentally touching it. It is really rewarding to watch these birds shear along the boat during sea surveys, which are most of the time spent staring at an empty sea, monitoring plastic waste. Although admittedly, there were some other pretty unforgettable moments as well, such as swordfishes and rays jumping out of the water; tunas chasing a school of fish; sea turtles drifting by on their way to the northern Adriatic; or dolphins coming to inspect the boat.  

Scopoli’s Shearwater shearing along the boat during one of the sea surveys (Author: Biljana Biljana Ječmenica)

Apart from the two shearwaters there is a more elusive seabird that finds it home in the Lastovo archipelago, the Audouin’s Gull. This is sort of the sophisticated relative of the Yellow-legged Gull. Its meals consist of seafood instead of garbage, and the species remains perfectly calm and well-behaved while being deployed with satellite transmitters instead of trying to bite you at every given opportunity. It makes you wonder how the two species end up in mixed colonies every year. Perhaps opposites really do attract… or perhaps it explains why the Audouin’s keeps changing its breeding location each year.

Audouin’s gull being deployed with a satellite tag (Author: Dries Engelen)

Lastovo is also a good place to see migratory species, as the island happens to be the last larger landmass in the Adriatic Sea and is thus an important stop-over site. Some highlights during this season were groups of 27 Cranes, 56 Night Herons and 57 Spoonbills; two field observations of European Roller; a flock of 8 Eleonora’s falcons catching and eating insects in air; several migratory raptors like Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Hobbies, three species of harriers and of course Honey Buzzards – the biggest kettle observed had more than 250 birds in it!

Flock of Cranes on the way to their breeding grounds (Autor: Dries Engelen)

While working in these remote areas requires you to leave your comfortable life at home behind (with cinema, concerts and well-stocked supermarkets), it does bring you to beautiful places – like living in a lighthouse on Sušac – and leaves you with some unforgettable experiences – like snorkelling around Palagruža. Things most people could only dream of, all the while having the privilege to contribute to the conservation of some of the most enigmatic European seabirds.