Birds of Tikhaya

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12 August 2013

To the portside of Tara, dilapidated wooden shacks dot the shore. To the starboard rises a cliff. From afar it’s just a simple gray brown cliff covered with green and orange lichen, very beautiful indeed, but common in this region. But as the schooner approaches the rock, chirping resounds in the air.

Armed with binoculars, we discover the perpetrators of this cacophony. Thousands of birds are nestled on narrow rocky ledges. Every spring in Tikhaya, penguins and seagulls join their breeding colony. They will remain here throughout the summer, until their offspring can fly with their own wings.

“I’ve spotted six species!” says Vincent Le Pennec, first mate and enthusiastic birdwatcher. On the cliff facing us there are fulmars (Arctic petrels), and also black guillemots and thick-billed murres – 2 species of Alcidae among the 22 that exist. There are also gulls, kittiwakes, ivory gulls, and little auks, (dovekies) – another seabird, like the murres, that belongs to the Alcidae family. To learn more about the little auks – their lifestyle and migration patterns – scientists have come to spend the month of August at the base of Tikhaya: Jerome Fort, marine ecologist, and David Gremillet, marine biologist.

Tikhaya was the first polar meteorological station, established by the Soviets in 1929. For 20 years, scientists took turns manning the station on the shore of Guker Island, before abandoning it. Today there are still vestiges of past years: 2 airplane carcasses, a baby’s cradle, old rolls of film. There are also the wooden huts – some dilapidated, some restored. The 2 French scientists are spending the cool summer nights in one of these renovated houses.

During the day, the 2 men are out in the field, a 20-minute walk from the base, studying the little auk. Their mission has received the support of the IPEV*, the French Polar Institute. Under the supervision of an armed guard (because bears are prowling around), Jerome and David measure chicks, study the food given and taken by parents, collect blood samples and feathers. They also pose geo-locators on the seabirds, with the goal of learning about their winter migration, and blood pressure recorders, which will provide information about their behavior.

A small black and white bird, measuring between 21 and 26 centimeters, the little auk is among the world’s most abundant seabird species. Its global population is estimated at 40 to 80 million individuals. The bird is an excellent diver. “Here Dovekies can dive 600 times per day, to a depth of more than 20 meters. And in Greenland, our colleagues have observed dives down to 50 meters,” says Jerome. This Dovekie study is not only confined to the region of the Franz Josef archipelago. In Greenland and Spitsbergen, Russian and Norwegian scientists are performing the same research protocols done here by the 2 Frenchmen.

When the scientists are not working, they share daily life with the men at the station. Unfortunately, the banya* of Tikhaya is no longer functioning, but sometimes foreign tourists come to visit. “One morning, I woke up because I heard a noise. Our door had been opened, and I glimpsed a group of Chinese tourists who were taking pictures of us in our sleeping bags,” says David. Even on this bit of land so isolated from the rest of the world, men can’t sleep in peace!

To the chagrin of the ornithologists, people are not the only victims of the camera flashes. Birds also suffer from this intrusion. “On a video, we saw an icebreaker approach less than 3 meters from the cliff, just so tourists on board could take pictures,” says David. Every summer, between 3 and 8 icebreakers come to Guker Island, bringing more than 150 tourists for a visit. Until now, the area has been accessible only to the very wealthy. But the guards of Tikhaya are already fixing up paths in anticipation of the development of tourism in the Franz Josef archipelago.

Anna Deniaud Garcia

*IPEV:  Institut Paul Emile Victor

*Bania: Russian sauna

Bibliography: Les animaux des pôles, by Fabrice Genevois  Guide des oiseaux de mer, by Gerald Tuck and Hermann Heinzel.