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The little auk that landed on deck. Photo. Hanna Thevik

The fate of the stowaway

4 months ago
Written by Ronald Toppe
Life on board > The fate of the stowaway

The fate of the stowaway

4 months agoLife on board
Written by Ronald Toppe
The little auk that landed on deck. Photo. Hanna Thevik

On Thursday 13 January, Captain Marcus Seidl reported that the crew had discovered a stowaway.

The stowaway was not trying to hide at all, just sitting still on the deck.

– A very exhausted seabird that needed rest after days in windy weather has been given food and shelter on deck in the hopes of getting it on its wings again, Seidl wrote.

The small bird is a little auk, also known as dovekie.

Little auks. Photo: Richard Crossley
Little auks. Photo: Richard Crossley

These birds nest in the far north in Canada, in Greenland, Svalbard and further east in the Arctic. In winter, they migrate south, along the east coast of Canada and the United States all the way to Florida, and along the coasts of Europe to northern Spain.

It is not uncommon to see little auks in southern Norway during the winter.

- This species is the most numerous in the North Atlantic, perhaps as many as 100 million birds live in this area, says Tycho Anker-Nilssen, who is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).

How did it end?

How was the fate of the bird that took a break at Statsraad Lehmkuhl?

- It left the ship after a few hours, says Captain Seidl. We will probably get more such visits as windy as the weather is here now.

Little auks in summer coats; black chests and  cheeks. Photo: Wikimedia
Little auks in summer coats; black chests and cheeks. Photo: Wikimedia

In winter coat

In summer, the head and chest of the little auks are black. The bird that landed on the deck of Statsraad Lehmkuhl is in winter coat, with a white breast and white cheeks.

Little auks are cousins of guillemots and puffins, but much smaller. About 20 cm long, and 150-200 grams heavy. They feed mostly on species of calanus, small crustaceans, which they hunt out at sea.

- They hunt some small fish as well, but do not transport the catch back to the nest in the beak, such as puffins. The catch is collected in a small sack under the beak, says Anker-Nilssen.

The open ocean

The birds live for 10 to 20 years, most of the time out at the open sea. It is only when they nest that they are on land. All auks are well adapted to life in the waves, and storms like the one Statsraad Lehmkuhl was in the middle of when this one ended up on deck, they normally handle without problems.

- An air layer in the plumage keeps them nice and warm. Only birds that are not in good conditions head for land, says Anker-Nilssen.

Difficult to hunt

The challenge in bad weather is finding food.

- They find their food just below the surface, and even though they can dive down to 20-30 meters, the waves make it difficult to hunt, Anker-Nilssen explains.

The larger auks handle storms better. Common murre hunts at around 70 meters, and can dive all the way down to 200 meters.

Measures the sun height

The little auk lays only one egg, which it hides well in crevices or beneath large rocks. The nesting areas are so far north, and the nests so inaccessible, that the researchers do not know much about the species.

To disclose where the birds stay throughout the year, the researchers have come up with a clever method.

- We attach a small capsule that uses the sun to calculate the position, the same principle that the sextants used on sailing ships utilized, says Anker-Nilssen.

This little auk has a capsule on its right foot. Photo: Jerome Fort
This little auk has a capsule on its right foot. Photo: Jerome Fort

The small capsule is attached to the foot, and registers how bright the light is. The number of hours the sun is up tells how far south the bird is, the time of sunrise and sunset how far west the bird is.

The method is not super accurate, but a good help for researchers.

More than 14,000 such capsules have been used in the project which has been named Seatrack. The map below shows where birds that were marked in Kongsfjorden on Svalbard, the black dot, stay in winter.

Little auks nesting in Kongsfjorden migrate to the orange areas during winter. Map: SEATRACK
Little auks nesting in Kongsfjorden migrate to the orange areas during winter. Map: SEATRACK

Click here to study the map yourself, and choose between different species and times of year.

Less ice means less food

The little auks are currently doing well, but in general seabirds are struggling now that the temperature on the planet is rising.

- The areas right at the edge of the sea ice are very productive, and important for the birds during the breeding season. This is where they find most of their food, and less ice on the Arctic Ocean makes the trip between their food dish and the nest longer, explains Anker-Nilssen.

A very special dish

Seabirds are good food, but the inuits in Greenland have a way of preparing little auks that seems a bit strange to the rest of us.

They cram as many birds as they can into a sealskin - as many as 500 birds, with feathers and beaks. All air is forced out of the skin, which is sewn shut, and sealed with seal fat. The skin is covered with stones, which compresses it and prevents air from getting in. Inside the skin, the birds begin to ferment, and after three months they are ready for serving.

Fermentation of fish, meat and vegetables is a well known technique, and a way to preserve food.

This inuit version, called kiviak, started out as a winter reserve, but are now party food, served for weddings and birthdays.

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