observing the unobservable

By Claire Mason. Claire is currently undertaking an Honours Research Project at the University of Queensland. She is investigating the foraging ecology of shy albatross utilising tracking data spanning over 20 years to identify spatial and temporal variation in their distribution and behaviour. Furthermore, she aims to explore the implications of these findings to ongoing conservation and management, particularly within the context of climate change, fisheries and the designation and effectiveness of marine protected areas. 

On the 4th April 2016, on a small rocky island in the Bass Strait, Dr Rachael Alderman, a wildlife biologist for the Tasmanian Government, and her colleagues fitted two juvenile shy albatross with miniature satellite transmitters. Over the last eight weeks, these transmitters have tracked the birds' movement in real time, revealing where they go and how they utilise the marine environment. Insight into the otherwise unobservable life of this threatened albatross is critically important for conservation. A thorough understanding of their at-sea ecology and behaviour allows us to inform successful management strategies that maximise their survival and effectively mitigate threats.

These two newly fledged juveniles are the 260th and 261st individuals tracked from the shy albatross population. Since 1980, the Tasmanian Government has annually monitored the population, with the deployment of remote-tracking technology an integral aspect of the program. The shy albatross population is currently declining and this monitoring program has proved invaluable for identifying and understanding the factors driving population dynamics.

As of 22nd May 2016, one juvenile has headed back out into the Southern Ocean after spending some time under the Great Australian Bight. The other has been fairly sedentary, spending most of its time off the south-west coast of Tasmania. The flight paths of these two individuals has been quite surprising and quite different to the movements of juveniles from Albatross Island in previous years which have tended to stick to the continental shelf and travel north and west from the colony to spend time in productive upwelling areas around Kangaroo Island and western Victoria.

This variation in juvenile dispersal between years is important information to capture, firstly, to feed into management of fishery operations and secondly, to explore the role climate plays in these shifts and the effect this has on the demographics and biology of shy albatross.

If all goes to plan, the two satellite transmitters will last for another two months, sending back regular location estimates to the research team. For the next 3 or 4 years, these two juveniles, along with the rest of their cohort, will remain within the Southern Ocean refining their foraging skills, before returning to Albatross Island, their birthplace, to search for a mate and begin to breed.



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