Michael Brooke on Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. Far From Land takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I like nothing more than being at a seabird colony under a sky full of whirring wings, hearing the raucous clamour of thousands of birds while the pungent smell of guano (the polite term!) oozes into my nostrils. For sure, research at such colonies, coupled with observations of seabirds from ships, has taught us much about seabirds’ lives. But the truth is that, once the birds dipped over the horizon, our knowledge of where they were and what they were doing also dipped, even plunged. This began to change around 1990 when results from the first satellite-tracking of Wandering Albatrosses was published. Then, in the last 15-20 years, knowledge of what seabirds are doing at sea has expanded amazingly thanks to solid-state electronic devices. The transformation of our knowledge of their habits has arguably been more profound than for any other group of birds. It is now possible to document where a seabird is when far from land, whether it is flying or sitting on the water. If it is on the sea, it is possible to register whether it is on the surface or underwater, and not just underwater but at what depth at what moment. It is possible to record when it opens its mouth – I should say beak – to take in food, and how big that food item is. A seabird one thousand kilometres from land can be monitored almost as intensively as a patient in hospital. My hope is to bring this astounding knowledge revolution to many, many readers who, like me, enjoy the salty tang of sea air.

Can you give us some stand-out findings that have emerged?

  • i) Murphy’s petrels, mid-sized oceanic birds nesting on South Pacific atolls, go for 20-day journeys covering up to 15,000 km, before returning to the colony to relieve the mate sitting on the egg at home.
  • ii) Male Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) may swim southward from Greenland for 3,000 km accompanied by their chick at the end of the breeding season.
  • iii) Arctic Terns, migrating south from Alaska, enjoy feeding stopovers off Oregon and Ecuador before crossing the Andes and Patagonia to reach the South Atlantic for the (northern) winter.
  • iv) Atlantic Puffins nesting in the UK use many different parts of the North Atlantic in winter, but each individual tends to have its own consistently-used ‘patch’ that is repeatedly visited year after year.
  • v) Wandering Albatrosses nesting on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean adopt different strategies when not breeding. Some linger in that region, while others repeatedly circumnavigate the globe at high latitudes. Once a bird has adopted one habit, it sticks with it for the rest of its long life, perhaps 30 or more years.
  • vi) Penguins, leaping out of the water onto sea ice, start their ascent at a greater depth, and accelerate to a faster exit speed, the higher the ice ‘cliff’ they need to clear.

I realise the book is not really about the electronic devices that have yielded so much information, but can you give us a sketch of some of the devices researchers deploy?

Yes, positional information comes from three main categories. There are devices which transmit the bird’s position to satellites overhead, devices that use the global GPS array, and light-sensitive devices called geolocators that detect the time of local sunrise and sunset. This geolocator data can be translated into a somewhat imprecise estimate of the bird’s position, an estimate that is good enough for plotting migration routes but inadequate for plotting, say, 5-hour feeding journeys from the colony.

Loggers attached to a bird’s leg can register every few seconds whether the leg is immersed in salt water and the bird swimming, or dry and the bird flying. Coupled with information about the bird’s location this can tell us when the bird is feeding, which normally means getting the feet wet!

Depth recorders combined with accelerometers which register a bird’s acceleration along three mutually perpendicular axes can yield a detailed picture of a bird’s underwater track. For example there may be spells of steady movement interspersed with abrupt wiggles which are likely moments when prey is captured, at a known depth.

What biological messages have emerged from the studies you describe in the book?

Two messages instantly spring to mind. The first is that seabird movements across the high sea are not random wanderings. For example the routes seabirds take on long-distance migrations often take advantage of prevailing winds, and indeed mirror the routes taken by sailing ships in days of yore. And, on those journeys, there may be mid-ocean ‘pit-stops’ that are used by most individuals. The existence of such mid-ocean refuelling stations was not anticipated 20 years ago. On a smaller spatial scale, birds leaving colonies to feed frequently head directly to areas where water mixing probably enhances local marine productivity and the availability of food. The birds clearly ‘know’ the whereabouts of rich pickings.

A second finding is that individual birds often have consistent habits that may differ from those of their fellows. I mentioned earlier the consistent habits of Kerguelen Wandering Albatrosses and wintering Atlantic Puffins. This pattern tells us that there may be several ways of making a living on the high seas, ways that are pretty much equally successful.

What are the remaining unknowns? What further advances do you anticipate in the next decade?

Devices are becoming ever-smaller. Even so, there remains limited information about the smallest seabirds, for example storm petrels weighing under 100 g, for which a 5 g device would be too great a burden. I am sure smaller devices will be developed that allow more tracking of these waifs but perhaps it will transpire that their habits are not fundamentally different to those of their larger cousins.

It is also likely that greater use will be made of base stations planted at colonies that can ‘interrogate’ devices attached to the colony’s seabirds. This will eliminate the need to re-catch a bird to download the information on a device; convenient for bird and researcher alike. But the old-fashioned dinosaur in me might yearn for the old days when seabird research involved clambering over slimy boulders rather than peering at a computer screen.

Michael Brooke is the Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He is the author of Albatrosses and Petrels across the World and the coeditor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology, and has written widely on science and travel for outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

Bird Fact Friday – Emperor Penguins

Adapted from pages 174-176 of Far From Land:

Diving to any sub-surface feast necessarily poses problems. An obvious problem is that, when underwater, the bird cannot breathe and must eke out those oxygen stores with which it submerges for as long as possible. The adaptations that help the diving bird overcome this difficulty has been most extensively studied in Emperor Penguins.

Given its size, and therefore predictable rate of oxygen consumption, an Emperor Penguin could remain underwater for about five minutes if its body processes continued to function as they do when it is breathing air. This ‘limit’ is comfortably exceeded by recorded dives lasting some 20 minutes. Just as a breathless athlete striving for the finishing line builds up lactic acid, so the underwater penguin builds up lactate, principally in the muscles. This is then flushed out when it returns eventually to the surface.

Another key adaptation to diving is a reduction in heart rate underwater, exactly as also occurs in diving seals and whales. Detected via attached electrocardiogram (ECG) recorders, the heart rate of a resting Emperor Penguin is around 70 beats/minute. This value roughly doubles immediately before the dive. If the dive is short, under five minutes, the underwater rate is about the same as when resting. If the dive is long, heart rate drops off dramatically, and may reach as low as three beats/minute. Just before the penguin surfaces, the rate accelerates. It can be around 200 beats/minute when the penguin surfaces and can breathe once more to replenish its oxygen stores.

Emperor Penguins are probably the deepest-diving of all seabirds, sometimes plumbing depths in excess of 500 m in pursuit of fish and squid. Illustration by: Bruce Pearson

Remembering that even in tropical seas, the water temperature below 200 m is probably no higher than 5°C, a further physiological problem faced by seabirds underwater is potentially that of cold. Penguins and auks have tight plumage that retains air close to the skin. This assists heat retention, albeit by creating buoyancy that hinders the downward dive. The situation is different in cormorants and shags. Their plumage is notoriously wettable. Think of the classic pose of a perched cormorant hanging out its wings to dry after a spell of swimming. If the water has reached the skin, the cormorant will have lost more heat than another seabird whose skin remains dry. How they retain heat became evident when European researchers looked at the plumage more closely. All four subspecies studied, living in sub-Arctic to subtropical climes, retained an insulating air layer in their plumage, which was, however, much thinner than for other species of diving birds. Detailed examination of the plumage showed that each cormorant body feather has a loose, instantaneously wet, outer section and a highly waterproof central portion.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Bird Fact Friday – Radios & the New Zealand Storm-petrel

Adapted from pages 18-19 of Far From Land:

Attaching transmitting VHF radios to animals has occupied biologists since the late 1950s. It is a powerful technique for relocating, say, a troop of chimpanzees that assuredly will not have travelled far since their last known position. It is less useful for seabirds which travel far greater distances, taking them beyond the line of sight of any scientist deploying a receiving aerial on some windy clifftop. Couple this problem with the fact that a seabird will often dip into the trough below the wave crests or, even worse, submerge underwater, and the upshot is that VHF radio-telemetry has not transformed seabird research.

Believed extinct for over a century, the New Zealand Storm-petrel (Fregetta maoriana) was re-discovered in 2003. Subsequently, radio-tracked birds led scientists to a colony near Auckland. Illustrated by Bruce Pearson.

Those disparaging words notwithstanding, radio-telemetry has had its moments. In 2003, the ornithological world was amazed when the New Zealand Storm-petrel, thought extinct for over a century, was re-discovered at sea off New Zealand’s North Island. That led immediately to the question of the whereabouts of its colonies, and the tricky task of discovering those colonies. The problem was solved when it proved possible to attract the birds close to a 3.5 m inflatable with chum, the ornithologists’ term for a smelly sludge of fish bits. Once in range, the storm-petrels were captured by a small net fired over them. Fitted with  a transmitter weighing two-thirds of a gram, the released birds then led the searchers in 2013 to nesting burrows in the rainforests of Little Barrier Island, a mere 50 km from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Bird Fact Friday – the Magnificent Frigatebird

For the next month, Bird Fact Friday will be showcasing passages and illustrations from Far From Land, a forthcoming book that reveals the lives and activities of seabirds as you’ve never seen them before.

Adapted from pages 9 and 35 of the text:

[T]he five frigatebird species … are predominantly black. By way of sexual ornamentation, mature males have red throat pouches that can be inflated to attract females. Since their legs are tiny, frigatebirds are virtually unable to walk, but the reduced undercarriage and the large angular wings mean that their wing loading, the weight of bird supported by each square centimetre of wing surface, is the lowest of all birds. This gives them extreme agility, well displayed when they are chasing other seabirds, forcing them to regurgitate, and then catching the vomited spoils in mid-air before they splat into the sea.

The bare-skinned red throat of a male Magnificent Frigatebird is inflated to attract a mate. Illustration by Bruce Pearson.

The juvenile Great Frigatebirds hailed from Europa, a low atoll between Mozambique and Madagascar. For the first six months of flying life, the juveniles go to sea by day but return to land by night to be fed, normally by their mothers. Then the satellite-tracked young birds move north up the Somali coast, perhaps looking down on the region’s contemporary human pirates. The journeys are relaxed, around 450 km/day. The birds alternate periods of soaring in circles, attaining heights up to 3,000m, and periods of slow descent. While soaring, the frigatebirds do not flap their wings but rely on differences in air speed between different blocks of air to gain height, so-called dynamic soaring. Using this tactic, the young frigatebird remains in flight for up to two months at a stretch, sometimes even passing close to but not making landfall on the scattered islands of the Indian Ocean. Only occasionally is the pattern broken with land-based rests of a day or so on isolated islets of the Seychelles or Chagos archipelagoes. As the young birds pursue repeated clockwise circuits of the Doldrums of the central Indian Ocean for a year or more, it is an immensely leisurely entrée to independent life.


Far From Land

Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Browse Our 2018 Birds & Natural History Catalog

Our new Birds & Natural History catalog includes the most comprehensive field guides to North American birds of prey ever published, an in-depth look at the most poisonous plants on earth, and a book that follows birds around the globe to reveal where they actually go when they roam the sea.

If you’re attending the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, FL, stop by Booth #59 for our full range of Birds & Natural History titles and more.

Written and lavishly illustrated with stunning, lifelike paintings by leading field-guide illustrator, photographer, and author Brian Wheeler, Birds of Prey of the East and Birds of Prey of the West depict an enormous range of variations of age, sex, color, and plumage, and feature a significant amount of plumage data that has never been published before. The painted figures illustrate plumage and species comparisons in a classic field-guide layout. Each species is shown in the same posture and from the same viewpoint, which further assists comparisons. Facing-page text includes quick-reference identification points and brief natural history accounts that incorporate the latest information. The range maps are exceptionally accurate and much larger than those in other guides. They plot the most up-to-date distribution information for each species and include the location of cities for more accurate reference. Finally, the guides feature color habitat photographs next to the maps. The result sets a new standard for guides to North America’s birds of prey.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.