Dr Irynej Skira, Tasmanian scientist and naturalist, died on February 18 in Hobart after being taken ill while doing research into birdlife on the remote Snares Islands in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand. His widow Suzanne Skira gives an account of his life:
Irynej was recognised world-wide for his research on short-tailed shearwaters (muttonbirds) but his work was much broader.
From whales, to seagulls, pest control on sub-Antarctic islands and a wide range of wildlife issues, there was little that Irynej didn’t have some involvement with over his almost 33 years as a scientific officer with the Tasmanian Government.
Right up to his death, Irynej was Secretary to the DPIWE Animal Ethics Committee and was responsible for government management of zoos and wildlife parks in Tasmania.
Irynej was born on May 18, 1950, in Launceston, the son of Ukrainian migrants. His curiosity with the natural world developed early as he began to explore the wilderness of his island home. One of his first work experiences was assisting Dr R._Green, the curator of zoology at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston.
His science degree from the University of Tasmania led him to the position of ranger at Cradle Mountain reserve in 1972.
A window to his future
Irynej was offered and accepted a position on Macquarie Island in 1972 and revisited it on several occasions in the early 1970s. There he studied the ecology of rabbits and rabbit fleas, assisted in feral cat research and seal and albatross biological studies. This work established base line monitoring that is still the key to the program 30 years on.
The scientific results have been used in numerous papers and was basic to his MSc, which he gained in 1980. His work on Macquarie Island made him an ideal government representative for the Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee.
Irynej’s trips to Macquarie Island were a window to his future as they led to his love of small islands and seabirds.
During the mid-1970s Irynej became field assistant to Dominic Serventy, one of the fathers of Australian ornithology, who had been studying the short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris ) since 1947 on Fisher Island in the Furneaux Group. Irynej assumed responsibility for research and management of that program in December 1975.
This research has been expanded to include collaborative studies with the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Tokyo, Murdoch University in Western Australia and the University of Otago, New.Zealand. Fisher Island continues to be a reference point for visiting scientists, naturalists and artists.
Always generous with his time
Irynej was author of more than 60 papers and articles published in scientific journals and books. It is largely due to his efforts the short-tailed shearwater has become the subject of Australia’s longest-running scientific investigations, spanning more than half a century.
Irynej became involved with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community in 1975 through muttonbirding. Being responsible for the muttonbird management program, he liaised with the Aboriginal community, either through individuals or organisations such as the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. His good rapport with the community is borne out in his PhD, which he was awarded from the University of Tasmania in 1995.
A true field biologist, he was able to mesh his field observations with scientific objectivity. As a result, his work brought about greater understanding and appreciation of the Tasmanian muttonbirds.
Irynej was hard-working and always generous with his time, sharing his wealth of knowledge with students, wildlife care groups and any interested volunteers. Conservation of the short-tailed shearwater and Tasmania’s native wildlife was of utmost importance to him.
He despaired as he observed the gradual disappearance of Tasmania’s native forests and therefore the loss of habitat for our native fauna and flora.
He gave regular twilight talks at the Clifton Bluff shearwater colony. It was here that Irynej met his wife Suzanne in 2000. They married on his beloved Fisher Island just two months before he died.
Irynej Skira’s death has brought a premature end to a remarkable and passionate relationship with nature. A softly-spoken, unassuming and unique man who was greatly admired and respected by his peers, he moved gently on the earth but left behind a huge legacy.
In recognition of his work and a personal tribute, the Second International Manx Shearwater Workshop to be held in Northern Ireland later this year, has been dedicated to Irynej’s memory.