Bird Island Diary — April 2002

30 April, 2002 Bird Island

Last Call as winter begins

Welcome to Winter on Bird Island – at last! It has been a very interesting and unusual month here. The last newsletter ended with “under a week until last call”, but the seas and weather of the Southern Ocean had other ideas for us, as you will see.

The seal summer work drew to a close in the early part of the month with satellite tags deployed on five female fur seal pups. Only the biggest, healthiest, and of course the grumpiest, pups were picked for this honour. Mark and Nick wrestled for quite a while holding the wriggly little pups still while they had their items of jewellery attached. They headed off to sea for their first big swims not long after that and are still sending back plenty of information, via satellite, to us. This will provide a good comparison for last winter, when similar tags were deployed on five male pups. We can now see where the young fur seals go when they leave dry land for the first time.

The penguin work also ended earlier this month. There were five satellite tags for the female penguins to wear over winter. Macaroni penguins spend six months of the year at sea, not putting even one foot on dry land as far as we know, and so these satellite tags will tell us where they go during the winter. During the season plenty of penguins in the Little Mac colony gain interesting paint marks so that we can identify the ones that have had a device attached at some point. For some of the summer research that is done here we need to be able to identify the penguins next summer as well and so they need to have their paint marks re-done once they have moulted all their feathers out. The penguins return from a pre-moult trip looking very big and fat and then sit in the colony for almost a month waiting for their feathers to drop out and new ones to grow! Understandably they look very little and thin when they are all done, but are very soft to the touch indeed. It was at this point that I painted their new numbers on, and removed their little Velcro armbands that had the number of each penguin on them. The amazing thing is how synchronous the penguins are – one day there are 60 000 penguins in Big Mac, across the creek from Little Mac, and a week later it is totally empty. It is very eerie to walk across Top Meadows and not hear those thousands of noisy birds calling to each other. The image hee shows Macaroni penguins earlier in the season showing their paint decoration! Click on the image for a closer look.

The albatross work has continued busily. The monthly wanderer chick census began on the first of the month and we all took a region of the island to go and check each nest there and see who was a chick and who was an egg. The snow and cold weather last month wiped out a large proportion of the Top Meadows chicks and the population overall was considerably down compared to the counts two years ago, when this cohort of birds last bred here. It is very sad to see how the population is decreasing, and how many birds have signs of “unfriendly meetings” with fishing tackle. We’ve already had a chick of only a few weeks old that had received a hook and line in its meal from the parent. We were able to cut the line, but the hook had been swallowed down into the stomach already. However, a similar situation last year still resulted in a happy healthy fledged chick, so it’s not a total disaster for that particular fluffy chicken! The image here shows a hungry young wanderer chick with its visiting meal provider. Click the image for a larger version.

And then the ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton, arrived….and stayed quite a while! On the 11th April JD cooked us all some lovely curries and we had a big last night all together. Typically though for Bird Island this wasn’t the last night at all, the sea swell increased, the temperature dropped and the people on the ship had to sit it out waiting to get to us. On the 14th the weather calmed enough for the small fast rescue craft (FRC) to come into the bay and collect me, Matt, Nick and Ben to take us to see Penny the dentist on board the ship. So off we went all looking like Michelin men in our big flotation suits. It was a very rough ride through Bird Sound, but was brilliant fun riding the crests of the big swells. It’s so amazing to see your little island home from the outside looking in! When we got on the ship we saw Penny quickly and I remember laying on the dentists chair/bed thinking “I’m sure the ship is rocking more now”….it was and our dental appointment turned into a three-day holiday! The photo shows our wave riding trip out to the ship on the FRC. The masked man on the right is Nick! Click on the image for a better view.

Whilst on board we spent a lot of time on the bridge looking at our island, feeling quite like fish out of water. It was an excellent short holiday but it was also a very strange feeling to be away from base not knowing when you’d get back. The pull of Bird Island is surprisingly strong. We made the most of the lazy days though, chatting to friends that we haven’t seen for many months, watching the sea, playing twister in the evening in the lounge and enjoying the massive spreads of food and fresh vegetables that none of us had to cook! At this point all the winterers were on board and all the summerers, who wanted to go home, were on base! We got to see some lovely views of our island as we sailed around, parts of coastal South Georgia, and our first sunrise for a long time. I last saw the sun rise over the horizon from RRS James Clark Ross when I first arrived here 18 months ago, so it was quite a memorable event. The image here shows sunrise over the Southern Ocean seen from the bridge of RRS Ernest Shackleton.

Then on the 17th the long awaited northerly winds blew in and the sea calmed and we all piled back into the FRC and headed home through a very thick fog. So thick, in fact, we could barely tell where the entrance to our own bay was. A handy iceberg marked the spot! It was lovely to be back, but very busy! In the space of the next few hours we completed last call. We had champagne on the end of the jetty to say goodbye to our summer friends, and especially to say goodbye to Daf and Mark, who left after 2½ years on the island. I was especially sad to see them leave after 18 lovely months here with them. They are greatly missed, but very well remembered. They live on with us in the fact that there are now some Welsh songs that we enjoy and Mark has left his “Trouble” board behind for us all to play. The photo here shows Last Call on the end of the jetty. Someone chopped half of Nick’s body out of this one! (L-R Maggie, Matt, Richard B, Cuz, JD, Richard P, Mark, Daf, Jane, Nick and Ben in front). Click on the image to enlarge it.

And then suddenly they were gone, and there were four of us standing on the end of the jetty looking around thinking “Where did everyone go?”

We started off the winter with watches at Colony J. Ben, Nick and I divided the day up between us and sat in the hut there waiting for black browed albatrosses to return, making coffee and reading books. It’s hard work this science! The ones we were waiting for were the parents of the chicks that have spent their summer on automatic weighing nests, collecting valuable information for Richard. The parents had a radio transmitter and an activity logger on, so we wanted to retrieve them before the chicks fledged and the adults left for the winter. It went well with only a few wayward parents deciding not to feed their chicks! The biggest problem seemed to be a giant petrel with a penchant for albatross chicks – many a day we would go to Colony J and find another chick had been taken in the night! Other problems included the chicks that preferred to hop off their nests and wander about the colony approaching any adult that landed, hoping for an extra meal. We often had to put these naughty little chicks back on their homes.

Matt has already made a good dent in his now famous giant job list for winter and has made a set of shelves for our fresh fruit and vegetables that we got at last call. We also received a lot of proper milk, as opposed to powdered stuff, which is really quite a novelty. We’re beginning to get into our winter routine now with bridge playing on Monday nights, led by Matt “the bridge master” Jobson. Tuesday night saw the start of our Carpentry Masterclass with our first lesson teaching us mortise and tenon joints. The first winter weigh-in took place, after a particularly healthy massive fry-up, and I am happy to report that I am not the heaviest person on base. That brings us right up to date this month. So until next month….

With lots of Congratulations to Helen and Dave, who were married this month, Ben and Amanda, proud parents of what is currently a broad bean, love to my original boys and lots of love to everyone at home.