Lord of the sky

 

Tour to Neocene

 

9. Lord of the sky

 

 

 

In a Neocene returning of Antarctica in warm latitudes closer to equator began actively. The continent started to be shifted to Indian ocean. By this moving it began to break off a ring of Western Winds Current, which deflected out of its coast warm equatorial waters. The north of Antarctica in Neocene is in a zone of the temperate climate similar to a climate of the New Zealand south in Holocene. The dense vegetation - grasses and huge-sized sedges, and also undersized bushes had appeared there. But the central part of continent still remains under a kilometer cap of glacier. The movement the continent causes active volcanism at edges of tectonic platforms. Externally it is shown as occurrence of a chain of the volcanic islands reminding modern Iceland along the coast of continent. These islands became a haven of innumerable sea birds eating seafood.
Islands are grown with grasses and sedges. By this feature they are similar to Falkland islands near the coast of South America covered in a Holocene with similar vegetation named "tussock". Among outputs of rocks bushes up to 2 meters height grow, and marshy low-lying lands are plentifully covered with the bog mosses forming wide green and brownish carpets. Occasionally small trees grow here – they are occasional immigrants from continents - Africa and South America. But in an inclement climate of subantarctic islands they grow close to the ground and are bent because of severe gales.
On these islands there are few species of the animals living here constantly. They are small species of bugs and flies, some species of ground crabs, and the biggest constant inhabitants of this island community - colonial flightless birds penguigulls.
Penguigulls nest on islands by colonies of some hundreds birds, being fed with various sea animals. When the spring comes and the sun is late longer at sky, in water shoals of plancton breed, it is food for sea “red robber” crustaceans. These crustaceans devour it, swimming by huge schools, coloring water in reddish color along hundreds meters. These crustaceans breed very quickly, having time to breed three generations during the summer. And approach of this abundance stimulates breeding games of penguigulls. Males dig out in turf small holes and call females, having lifted a head to the sky and clapping by flipper-like wings. When pair will join, together they will complete a nest and will find relations of dominating with neighbours; later female lays two large speckled eggs in a nest.
Some pairs nest on sloping plains at a sea coast, some ones prefer to do it in bushes. The majority of birds prefer plain, littered with large rocks though here it is necessary to make the way to the sea in dangerous affinity from beaks of hatching birds.
In some weeks nestlings covered with brown-colored down are hatched. Parents go to the sea for a fish and crustaceans for eternally hungry offshoots by turns. Clumsily waddling on a coast, they change in water. Wings, useless for flight, as if recollect the past applicability: their waves speed the penguigull up to huge speed. Paws help these birds to swing and to make figures of the supreme underwater pilotage at hunting for crustaceans and fishes. At times it is possible to see the seagull pulled out from water vertically almost on two meter high, pursuing a fish.
Birds fill craws with the food, and go at the coast with a wave. Somehow having risen, they hobble waddlingly to the nest to feed shouting nestlings. On a beak of the seagull there is a vertical red strip - the signal to a nestling: here is the food! The nestling pecks the parent in this strip, forcing to belch the piece of catch which is greedy pulling out from a parental mouth and swallowing. Having filled a stomach, the nestling calms down to any time and falls asleep. And parents are replaced: one of them has a rest, and another one comes to sea to have feed.
At the island temporary settlers, small migrant sea birds yellow-headed divesparrows, start to appear. They are warblers who had developed sea life and began to eat ocean resources. Their heads are yellow with black "glasses" around of eyes: it is a recognition symbol for neighbours. Using narrow long wings divesparrows soar above ocean, snatching crustaceans out from superficial layers of water. Sometimes they hunt in union with sea fishes, clamping flight of crustaceans in a superficial layer of water. The powerful beak of these birds helps to crush carapace of crustacean, and also is using as the pick for digging a hole in which the nest of a bird is making.
At the island divesparrows nest in places, where the penguigull doesn’t get through: in the dense bush, among stones and on precipices combined by soft rock. Penguigulls at times attack divesparrows and easily can peck a careless bird, therefore now only few divesparrows are anxious with hole digging. They wait for other event, being restricted closer to the flat plateau on island. It is a plateau openly to a wind, and on its edges bushes grow. But on a plateau penguigulls nest: some young birds food their nestlings here. The surface of a plateau is covered with the stamped heaps made from a mix of pebbles, ground, turf and dung. The size of heaps is impressive: about meter in height and two meters in diameter. At top of such heap the non-deep pit is visible. Divesparrows gather closer to these heaps: in soft ground of a plateau between them there are their last year's holes. Gulls do not give divesparrows to approach to holes, clicking by sharp yellow-red beaks. One of males clumsily drives divesparrows from heap to heap, waddling sideways and clapping by flipper-like wings.
But it is only a prelude to majestic performance of life which will be soon played at this plateau. These gulls are young, and they simply do not remember ones who blinded these heaps with a small pit at top. Meanwhile owners and builders of heaps are already close: on horizon there are some dots gradually turning to silhouettes of long-winged birds. At first it can seem, that they are insignificant, but in due course it becomes clear, that their size is simply improbable.
And above colony of penguigulls shouting in all ways first of air giants appears. Five-meter in wingspan wings flap slowly and regulary, and the huge head with the sharp hookedly bent beak turns asides. Flight of this bird is a strange show. It seems, that it is a picture from the far past: the “feathered pterodactylus”.
After the first giant the second one flies, after them a pair of these birds comes, and soon already some tens of pairs and single birds fly above island. It is the thalassocrator, “the lord of the sea”, the huge nomade albatross. Each year tens of nomade albatrosses fly to this island to hatch nestlings. And heaps of dust on a plateau are their nests. Huge birds start to fall on a plateau. They have fine memory, and they correctly define their own nests. They live a long time, and many nests already ten years are occupied by the same pair of birds. The plateau is constantly blown by a wind that helps birds to fly up. And among rocks and bushes they would fail even to spread wings, therefore they do not risk to settle in such places. But penguigulls are protected from attacks of huge birds only by this way. Penguigulls have nested at a plateau are too young, they yet do not understand, than the arrival of such neighbours threatens them. When the nomade albatross, taking steps by short legs, comes nearer to one pair of gulls, flightless birds accept the fighting position - they shout, slightly having bent a head, swing scanty wings, hoping to drive off the albatross. Their nestling flattens himself against the ground and tries to look imperceptible. The brownish down helps him, but not for a long time. When the female of the flightless gull pecks the albatross’s beak, terrible attack follows as the answer: by one blow of the beak the albatross kills a bird on the spot, by the second it kills a nestling. The male who has lost in an instant the house and family, rescues his own life. He runs away, shouting desperately. Other albatrosses finish with other penguigulls. In half an hour all impudent flightless birds are expelled or killed, their eggs are pecked and nestlings are eaten. Albatrosses start to equip nests, to repair and build on them, and yellow-headed divesparrows occupy holes. Albatrosses do not pay attention to these birds: they are too small to harm giant birds. Besides divesparrows dig holes, throwing out on the ground surface pebbles and sand which are the same moment raked up by the albatross on top of a nest with the help of comb-looking formation on a beak.
Week later in nests of nomade albatrosses large eggs appear. And yellow-headed divesparrows, having repaired holes, get families. Males sing, sitting near a hole. Sometimes instead of a stage for singing they use a back of phlegmatically hatching albatross. When the female reciprocates, both birds complete a hole and build a nest. Albatrosses are an inexhaustible source of soft down for them: the moult of huge birds begins and hundreds of fuzzes fly around of their nests. Soon divesparrows start to hatch the clutch, being replaced and departing to the sea for a feeding.
Morning in a colony of birds begins with long "concert": albatrosses welcome the partner with the loud shout reminding donkey’s one, and then they switch on a nest. Woken up divesparrows utter morning warbles, warning neighbours that the place (and the huge albatross on a nest) is occupied, and the owner of territory is ready to fight for the property. But shouts abate, when above ocean the wind blows: albatrosses had stayed a night duty, depart to the sea for feeding. After them divesparrows are flying also. Birds fly above a waking up colony of penguigulls from which columns of hungry fishers go to the sea too.
At the sea each bird hunts in own way. The nomade albatross ploughs water by a beak, sufficing fishes and crustaceans taking place in a superficial water layer. It uses a wind dexterously, practically not spending efforts to flight. And such way of a feed allows it to eat, not stopping. This bird does not sit on water, otherwise it simply can not fly up.
Penguigulls catch fishes, swimming under water. Sometimes the albatross watches the seagull, waiting while it will expel a school of fishes or crustaceans to a water surface.
Divesparrows eat both from a surface of water, and under water. Their feathers are covered with a layer of fatty greasing similar to wax which makes them practically not moistened. The bird dived under water seems silvery because of an air layer surrounding it. Flapping wings, the divesparrow swims under water and catches fishes and “red robbers”. But under water also the danger waits of it: penguigulls willingly catch also divesparrows. The large bird pursues the divesparrow under water, snatchs it and heats, or kills by impact of the beak.
Having filled craws, birds come back to a colony. The divesparrows fly first, later penguigulls return from the sea, and at the afternoon nomade albatrosses fly to a nesting place. Nestlings receive a long-awaited food and calm down on any time.
Abundance of food in the sea involves to the island not only birds. On shallow waters, far from rocky coast sandy shallows are spread. And on them sea inhabitants settle, not so harmless as crustaceans and small fishes. Attentively having got accustomed, it is possible to notice, that sand somewhere moves, and in different places pairs goggled frog eyes jut out from it. From time to time from sand diamond-shaped shadow darts off which slides above a bottom and again dives into a sand. This is a congestion of huge wolfhalibuts. Large grey fishes having habits of piranha hunt not only fish, but also sea birds. The penguigull is delicious catch for them.
The lone penguigull goes down to water and is swimming, flapping wings. It turns a head, looking for a fish. But one of fishes watches it itself, not losing sight the penguigull. Lustring grey eyes turn, observing the bird. And when the penguigull, having caught any small fish, emerges to a surface, attack begins. The bottom blows up in ten fishes which fall upon the bird and start to tear its body by long jaws. Short shout is the only thing that the gull has had time to make. In some seconds it already became the tormented piece of meat. Flounders surround its body and peel meat from bones, as piranhas. One of fishes can not squeeze to “dinning table”, and it solves a problem by a simple way: it jumps through feasting neighbours and plops down on catch from above.
Yellow-headed divesparrows get on a table to predators too though it is more difficult to prey them - they dive superficially and swim quickly, having time to swim away from a heavy flounder. They can be preyed only from an ambush, having attacked suddenly when the bird will swim up too close.
On land relations develop so sharply. At divesparrows nestlings were hatched, and adult birds constantly carry them food. The young growth became feathered and now nestlings expect parents at the hole entrance. Penguigulls frequently use it. They frighten away badly flying nestling and drive it up to exhaustion, and then attack and finish grown weak bird by a beak. But divesparrows have good defenders - nomade albatrosses. Their huge nestlings covered with white down, tower in a nest, as if a snow cap on mountain. Adult birds feed them plentifully, and the chick weighs more than any of its parents. Above a colony adult birds constantly fly and if the penguigull will go to edge of a colony, it is waited with sound impacts by a beak. And nestlings can shoot at the enemy a jet of a fat stinky liquid. Divesparrows feel like in safety under such protection though they keep away from nestlings - sometimes the juvenile albatross can have eaten a careless nestling of the divesparrow. Adult divesparrows are very desirable for albatrosses - they peck parasites of giant birds, searching them so accurately, as it is impossible to make with a powerful beak of the albatross.
There about two months passes. Nestlings of the nomade albatross already became feathered and now they study to fly. Standing on edge of a nest, future lords of heavens flap wings clumsily, trying to come off the ground. From time to time they jump up, but these attempts to master flight while are vain.
At this time in the sea wolfhalibuts begin spawning games. Males become striped, and their blind side gets coral-pink color. The females are full of eggs, they become almost black. Fishes move to areas of the sea, where there is a strong current. There males pursue flights of females, from time to time catching up for one of them. The male accurately clamps by jaws the basis of a female’s pectoral fin, and some time both fishes are swimming together. The male clasps a body of the female by back and anal fins, both fishes are shaken in ecstasy and in water there is a cloud of grains of hard roe. The male lets off the female - their duty to a nature is executed. Eggs are carried away to the sea and long time develops in a plancton. Larvae drift on current, and then they settle on a bottom in more northern warm areas of ocean. But having become adult, they will come to a feeding to coast of subantarctic islands.
At last nestlings of albatrosses have mastered flight. Fat is the reason of their failures. Parents already care of themselves, feeding nestlings only one or two times per day. At such Spartan education the young growth grows thin, and wings already can lift them in air. But first flights are unsuccessful: young albatrosses fly too slowly and low. At times flight comes to an end near a colony of penguigulls, and the juvenile albatross should seek safety in flight from aggressive bird pack. And at one nestling the situation is absolutely bad: it has made alighting. It swims badly and can not fly up at all. Convulsively moving with paws, the nestling tries to reach a coast.
However the splash draws attention of absolutely undesirable visitor: the large wolfhalibut. It begins to chase a bird. The nestling slaps by legs and wings on water, but the huge fish does not lag behind, and soon it seizes a wing of the albatross just at that moment when it went out of water. The seized nestling pulls a fish behind itself, but it does not wish to let off catch though it already has half climbed out on land. At last it lets out a wing of a nestling and somehow climbs in water. And the nestling drags a wing by the ground. In the roundabout ways it reaches a native colony, it is alive, but the way to the sky to it is closed.
The autumn comes in Subantarctic quickly. The cold wind from the south blows, the sky is clouded, and the water becomes colder. In such conditions the quantity of fishes at ocean is reduced, and the plancton does not breed almost. And it forces many birds to leave these islands. Yellow-headed divesparrows come first to the mild North. Their flights reach southern islands of Indian ocean, and coast of the Eastern - African subcontinent with fair winds. There these birds will spend snow cold winter. They are going to flight simultaneously - all birds leave island for one night. Without them it becomes unusually silent on island. Only sharp shouts of penguigulls break silence.
After divesparrows albatrosses gradually leave the native house. Nestlings and parents leave the island together. Youngsters have learned to fly perfectly, and for them the first wandering in life is quite feasible thing. Pairs of adult birds leave island, not being separated. They will fly together above seas and oceans, being guided on a magnetic field of the Earth and on stars, together they will return to island the next year.
But one nestling cannot leave the island: it is a nestling undergone to an attack of a flounder some time ago. It wanders on a coast, dragging the injured wing. Sometimes it tries to wave it, but it hangs, as a cloth. When last adult birds leave island, it remains alone with crowd of penguigulls. In the beginning it is able to be hidden on a plateau of nests, but gulls quickly understand, that albatrosses have departed, and they have remained unique owners of the island. And on earlier forbidden plateau pair of penguigulls and behind them other ones come. They push aside young cripple albatross to edge of a plateau, and the outcome of a drama comes quickly and inevitably.
Winter covers island with a thin layer of snow. Under bushes it is possible to be covered from a wind, and the ocean softens a climate, not supposing strong frosts. But in the biggest colds it drops to island thousands the splashes stiffening on a frost in biting sleet. And penguigulls prefer to go hungry, being covered in thickets of a bush than to go to the sea for a feeding. But colds last not so long - only some weeks in middle of winter. The sea freezes not for a long time too, and in clear days penguigulls come to be fed. They gather sea fishes having thrown out to a surface by deep currents, and drive schools of fishes, closed in ice traps. So monotonously winter passes.
But later the sun starts to be late in the sky longer. Also stocky bush begins to blossom white tiny flowers, marking arrival of spring. Penguigulls stay at the coast longer, equipping their simple nests. Even in these inhospitable places life proceeds.
To the north from Antarctica there are two continents, Southern and Northern America, having stretched from the south to the north. They incorporated and separated many times. But now their ways are dispatched finally. Life in these continents began to develop specially, evolving to amazing and fantastical forms.

Bestiary

Wolfhalibut (Serrassalmoglossa lupina)
Order: Flatfishes (Pleuronectiformes)
Family: Deinosoleidae



Large (length is up to 1,5 m, weight - up to 20 kg) representative of group Pleuronectiformes; it represents the special family Deinosoleidae closed to family Soleidae (tonguefishes or tongsoles). It is carnivorous schooling fish keeping on sandy and pebble areas of a bottom, having dug in a ground.
Body is tongue-looking, a head is large, pointed, eyes are on the right side of the body. Unpaired fins have grown together, bordering the body. The top (right) side of a body is painted like color of a ground (in a quiet condition it is grey with small brown and white speckles, color can vary from almost white up to black and brick-red), the bottom (left) side is white with rare black irregular-shaped spots. Eyes are big, convex, an iris of the eye is grey. Mouth is wide, teeth are sharp and blade-shaped.
Fish eats any animal food, attacks schooling fishes and birds diving into the water. At the case of large catch (for example, a sea bird) attacking fishes operate with school, seizing teeth in a body of prey and trying to drown it. Hunting the school of fishes few halibuts surround it, then they attack the surrounded fishes at the same time. Small catch is caught one by one.
Wolfhalibuts are diecious fishes. In a spawning season at the male forward beams of back and anal fins grow as white "sultans". A spawning is in the shallow water. Eggs emerge on a surface of water. The larva is plancton, in 20 days it turns to an asymmetrical fry. Settling on a bottom, fries form schools of equal-size fishes, hunting shrimps and larvae of other fishes.

Nomade albatross (Thalassocrator magnificus)
Order: Petrels (Procellariiformes)
Family: Neodiomedeidae



Huge species of sea flying birds of group Procellariiformes, the largest flying bird of a Neocene: its weight is up to 16 kg, wingspan up to 5 meters. The most part of time it spends in flights above ocean, once at 2 years arriving to subantharctic islands in a zone of a moderate sea climate where pair of these birds grows only one nestling. In flights birds keep by pair whenever possible; this feature allows them to synchronize arrival to island and nesting. A body is short, pectoral muscles are well advanced. Joints of wings are specially arranged, that they can be fixed in opened position; the bird practically does not spend efforts to maintenance wings opened. Legs are strong, but short, the swimming membrane between fingers is partially reduced. The bird does not do alighting because it can fly up only from the firm ground. A beak is long, the bottom jaw has the "comb" which is juting out downwards; a tip of the top jaw is hooked. Bird eats fishes snatching out from the top layers of water by a beak. In the basis of the top jaw large salt gland is located, allowing a bird to drink sea water. Colouring of a body is light white, ends of wings are black, top of wings is grey, a beak is bright - pink with a black tip, paws are meat - red.
Pairs are formed to all life, frequently during flights above ocean. In this case already generated pair arrives to islands. If partners were born on different islands, pair nests on male’s native island. Otherwise pair is formed on island directly before nesting. Pair starts nesting as soon as partners will find the nest, either will occupy nest standing empty or will construct new. The nest is formed as a cone of densely stamped ground and stones, each nesting time it is under repair. The beginning of nesting falls to early spring. The female lays only one egg in weight 400 g and hatches it up to 50 days. Nestling is hatched with opened eyes, covered with black rich down. Parents food it by fish, and alternately fly to catching to the ocean. The nestling develops slowly: only to middle autumn it becomes able to fly. The young bird just has risen in air, weighs up to 10 kg. The young albatross will spend first 5 years of life in flights above ocean where it grows before nesting and searches for a pair.

Penguigull (Sphenicilarus apterus)
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Sphenicilariidae



It is the species of large flightless sea bird (growth is up to 60 cm, weight - up to 8 kg). The body is put almost vertically, a tail is short, wings are flipper-like (as at penguins), keel is well advanced, colouring of a belly is white, a back and a head are grey; a beak is massive, yellow with a vertical red strip. The bird occupies an ecological niche of penguins: it eats crustaceans and small fishes, under water can attack yellow-headed divesparrows, on land at an opportunity ravages their nests. Bird breeds in early spring, forming pairs to one season. Female lays eggs (2 ones, weight up to 100 g, shell is motley, looking like color of sand) to a small pit in the ground, choosing for nesting flat places. The incubating lasts about 20 day, one of partners always is on a nest. Nestlings hatch with opened eyes, covered with down of brown color. During the first 6 - 7 days of life they do not leave a nest, later they move to the centre of a colony. Since 4-th month of life nestlings grow approximately to 75 % of weight of an adult bird and become covered by a juvenile feathering of brown color. From now nestlings become independent. Since 15-th month of life they become covered by feathers of an adult color and in the age of 3 years their sexual maturity comes.

Yellow-headed divesparrow (Oceanopasser flavicephalus)
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Cinclidae

Picture by Alexey Tatarinov

This sea bird is the representative of passerin birds group (Passeriformes), the warbler who has developed a sea inhabitancy. The nearest modern relative of this species is water ouzel (Cinclus). It is the bird of the average sizes: length of a body is about 20 cm including a short tail, wingspan is up to 50 cm, weight is about 50 grams. A back is grey with blue shade, belly is grey, wings are bluish-grey with black primary feathers, tail is black. Head is yellow with black areas of skin around of eyes. Males differ from females by thicker beak.
The bird flies good, but is not able to swim at the surface of water (swimming membranes on legs are not advanced). Coccygeal gland is strongly advanced, its fatty greasing is very plentiful, therefore a feathering does not become wet. Bird dives well, at the moment of immersing under water nostrils are densely covered with skinny operculums. Under water it moves similarly to modern diving petrels (Pelecanoides) and to penguins: bird "flies" flapping wings. Bird flies up from water, gathering speed under water and jumping out in air. Sometimes it falls on a surface of water and snatches from it tiny invertebrates, not diving (similarly to modern sea birds of Pachyptila genus). Food consists of crustaceans, ground insects, small fishes. Occasionally bird pecks large fishes cast ashore and renders services of the cleaner to nomade albatrosses during their nesting.
The breeding season of this species begins in the late spring (in the Southern hemisphere it is the end of October). Bird nests in holes, which males dig out or renew. Sometimes in one hole some pairs nest. Males dig or renew holes, sit before an entrance, and start display, opening wings and tail. Thus they utter an advertisement song: short melodious warbles. A litter in a nest consists of moss, feathers and dry seaweed (for disinfection of a nest). In a clutch there are 2 - 3 eggs, incubating lasts 14 day, nestlings hatch blind, with a small amount of black down on a body. The feeding of nestlings (in the beginning with pieces of the fish, later whole small fishes and crustaceans) lasts 3 weeks. Young birds quickly study to fly and soon leave a colony together with adults, passing to independent life. Birds spend winter, making a passage to the north, to temperate latitudes, to volcanic islands of a southern part of Neocaenic Indian ocean. Some birds reach with fair winds the south of East Africa.

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