Understanding the Falklands Steamer Duck

Alix Kristiansen

When deciding to specialise on polar and sub-polar ecosystems during my Masters, little did I know that it would bring me to the Falkland Islands. What for you may ask. To have a better understanding of the territorial yet skittish Falkland Steamer Duck. Despite being recognised as a species you see everywhere on the coastline by many Falkland Islanders, it remains quite a mysterious neighbour.

And that is how I embarked in a journey to pierce what is a good habitat for breeding pairs, understand better their diet and estimate their breeding success. I am currently at the very beginning of this incredible PhD project. After moving to Australia in early November 2022, I headed to Stanley Harbour late January. Travelling nearly the entire planet to study a single species might appear rather extreme, but again, it is a unique opportunity to study an endemic species for which so little is known.

And why is that? Well, because the Steamer duck family puzzled scientists for more than a century. Eminent scientists would not agree until 1934 that two species existed: the Flying Steamer Duck and the Falkland Steamer Duck. Two years later, the Magellanic Steamer Duck was recognised as an entirely independent species followed in 1981 by the White-headed Steamer duck, thriving solely in the Chubut region. You would think that since then, we know for sure what a Falkland Steamer Duck is. It is a flightless duck which is year-round territorial, forms pairs for life and relies on kelp forests to feed. And that it is completely independent of the Flying Steamer Duck you might find here, which is more often found near lakes and in land. But a study by Campagna et al 2019 suggests that things might still be a little more complex. And as for exactly what it does or it eat, we still need to look deeper into that.

It is in that context that I discovered Stanley Harbour and its surroundings for the first time in January. This was my work base for six weeks and will be for the coming two breeding seasons. My PhD relies on three fieldtrips. The first one was a six-week period where I was able to test the protocols designed in Melbourne. They relied on several assumptions, the main one being that such a territorial animal is relatively easy to catch. Which it revealed not to be, or at least not at the end of the breeding season. The question quickly switched to “How do you catch birds?” and “What to do if you cannot?”.
If you cannot, that means you will not be able to deploy as many GPS tags as you expected. Those tags are useful to understand where the birds are going. This type of data is often used to determine home range, in other word how big their territory is and how they use it. We had also wished to detect behaviours through accelerometery. But you can only recover this peculiar type of data once you recapture the tagged individual. Not realistic when capturing them in the first place is so very tricky. So the best solution becomes a mix of trying to catch them to deploy GPS tags with remote Bluetooth download and spending hours on the beach looking at pairs to see how they spend their days.

Image: Falklands steamer Duck sleeping 
Images: Falklands Steamer Duck (L-R) swimming, preening and resting
We still managed to deploy a handful of tags and the tracks were really interesting. We could see different width and occupation of territories. So despite how difficult they are to catch, tagging the logger ducks provides rewarding results. We learned that one of the pairs near the Lady Liz wreck in the Whalebone Cove has a very tight territory. Visual observations allowed to understand where they rested and foraged. We could have guessed it from the tracks, where those areas appeared through denser GPS points. On the other hand, a pair on the Lake Point beach appeared to overnight regularly on the other side of the kelp forest, on the end of Port Harriet, close to Seal Point.
As you may have sensed, I am at the beginning of this journey. My first fieldtrip may be over, it gave me the opportunity to test most of my protocols. What in theory should be working, fieldwork is the best judge to test the solidity of your procedures and gears. I leave the Falklands with new ideas for next breeding season and questions which need answers before my return. Time on the field is over. I am in Ghent (Belgium) to start analysing data then back to Melbourne. I hope to come back in September with most of the analysis done from the first fieldwork and adjusted protocols for the coming breeding season. This should give me more insights on when to catch ducks, when to observe them directly on the beach and methods to look at breeding phenology. I also hope to tell you more of those first results in a talk when coming back in September. This way, if you see me on the field, you will know what I am up to. Which does not prevent you from coming to greet me and ask as many questions as you wish.

My many thanks to Al Baylis and John Arnould, with whom I work with for this amazing project. We have learned that catching a logger duck is not as easy as most people think. A warm thank you to SAERI where everyone gave us great support and ideas on our quest to catch those lovely birds.

This project is a cotutelle PhD between Deakin University and Ghent University with the collaboration of SAERI. It has been possible thanks to the Shackleton Scholarship and the Environmental Studies Budget.

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