I’m rudely awakened by what appears to be thunder overhead. It’s still pretty dark so I’m guessing it’s before 0600. In my sleepy state, I link the crashing sound overhead with the alarm on my phone and reach for the snooze button…maybe just another 10 minutes. As my eyes adjust, I see from my phone that it’s 0545, 15 minutes before my usual alarm. I realise that we could be in for a day of rough weather – not what you need when you have up to a hundred eager holidaymakers arriving in a few hours to gorge themselves on the abundance of nature that has squeezed itself into every nook and cranny and branch and flat surface on Cousin Island.
I go outside to survey the weather and to my surprise, there are a few scattered clouds but nothing resembling a storm – this is a good sign, but the crashing noise….
Instead of storm clouds, I look up to find thousands of birds swooping and, well, showing off, overhead. King of these, is the Wedgetailed shearwater – an acrobatic genius and veritable deep-sea diver – catching the thermals and changing direction with just the tiniest flick of its wingtip. By stark contrast, this aerial superstar – awe-inspiring in the sky – has a somewhat ‘limited’ ability on the ground.
Living at the seaward side of a Wedgetailed shearwater (Fouke) colony, I am privy to see their slightly comical takeoff’s and landings, and remember that my house is also home to two of their runways: the first of which is the path adjacent to the house; the second being the roof of my house…. so much for the thunder. The crashing sound I mistakenly took for thunder in my sleepy state was the crash landings of the Shearwaters on their way to and from the island. These specialized and hardy birds are well capable of diving up to a staggering 66m for their prey of fish and squid. Anatomically, they differ from many other birds; their legs being located further back on the body enables them to form a superb hydrodynamic body position. Very useful if your dinner lives over 30m deeper than your average SCUBA diver will ever go.
The downside to this or course is a rather humble gait on land, but I guess there has to be a trade-off for being an aerial superstar and deep-sea diver. Ah, there’s my alarm going off – no need for the snooze button today I think. Nature alarm clock never fails.
By Dan White, Cousin Island Chief Warden