Observing animals in the field is only a part of the process of data collection. If that is all I did, I would not be doing my job. In the days before personal computers, the next step would be to transfer key observations into a central journal. Anyone who has read any of the classic books by wildlife biologists about life in the field knows that when they returned to camp, no matter how exhausting their day had been, they had to transfer some of the data to the journal. Usually social interactions were recorded, and other types of behaviors that the person in charge considered to be important: exact locations of the animals, the foods they were eating, vocalizations, interactions with other animals, whatever was deemed to be especially significant. The journal made it easier to find the information the researchers were most interested in. Now computers serve as journals, as repositories for field observations. Older data that was recorded in journals is now being entered online. Jane Goodall’s journals are currently being transferred to a computer database which can then be accessed by scientists all over the world.
With laptop computers the job of recording the most important data is much easier. I record all of my data for each season in an Excel chart. Rather than flipping through all of my observation notebooks (about 9 small notebooks per season of daily observations, and I am now going into my 9th year) I can find what I’m looking for online in a few minutes.
I was wondering why KP618 had returned to Princeville on November 4th, a week before I had ever seen an albatross return to Princeville. I remembered that KP618 was not one of the birds that I often see at the very beginning of the season. I checked my charts and found that the earliest he had ever come back was November 21st. Why would he come so early?
Then I saw that the last time I had seen his mate last season was December 16th. After she left, KP618 incubated their egg for a total of 44 days. That is an unusually long time for an albatross to sit on an egg. He finally abandoned the nest. Two days later he was back on the egg, then he was gone by the next day. I saw him a few times during the following week but I never saw him interact with any other albatrosses, he just hung out near his nest.
When an experienced nester fails to return during incubation, I always assume that he or she has died. Nesters may abandon an egg, but they will always come back during the season to renew the bond with their mates. So now I am guessing that KP618 realized that his mate will not return, and that he came back this early to find a new mate.
Saturday morning I watched a second albatross fly over my neighborhood and land near KP618. KP467, a female, immediately displayed with KP618, who had vocalized at her as she circled overhead. In my post dated November 22, 2011 I told the story of how KP467 was dumped by her long-time mate. She has not found another mate since then, although I have seen her displaying with other albatrosses. I never saw her displaying with KP618 last year, but they were together Saturday morning.
They were still sitting together that afternoon, occasionally grooming each other. That is a behavior you see with the couples who nest together. I record it as “quiet contact,” but I think of it as being “married couple behavior.”
By 3:30, they were sitting quite a distance apart; they were still in different areas as of yesterday. Were they still a couple? Usually, an albatross who has lost his mate the previous season will take more time to find a new mate, at least one season, sometimes even several years. And usually birds who will be raising a chick together will stay together until one or both of them leaves for a week to 10 days before coming back to start nesting.
Today the soap opera became more interesting. But you will have to wait for my next post to read about it.
One of the reasons I love to observe these birds is that they surprise me all the time. Occasionally they lull me into feeling secure that my vast experience observing albatrosses will guarantee the infallibility of any predictions I may make about their behavior.
Oh, what fools these non-albatrosses be!