Bird Island Diary – April 2003

30 April, 2003

Comings and goings

April has been a month of comings and goings. We have seen the arrival of winter snow and ice, and of the first of our most impressive top predators – leopard seals. Others have departed Bird Island. We were glad for the young black-browed albatrosses to take flight for the first time and disappear out into the ocean, but sad to say goodbye to Jane and Jonny, who have spent longer on the island than any of the rest of us (I hesitate to call them “old hands”, but they have certainly become good friends) and Paulo, who can cook squid like no-one else. They have all made an indelible mark on Bird Island life, and will be greatly missed.

A few days before last call, it was Jonny’s birthday. In case you were wondering what it says on the cake, “Z” and an upside-down “V” are some of the symbols we use when dying numbers onto seal pups. They stand for 2 and 9. Jonny’s still young at heart though.

Soon, the summer had come to an end, and we all wondered where the time had gone. Uncharacteristically, the weather was perfect – flat calm, beautifully clear, and even sunny. Nobody from the ship believed us when we told them that most of the time the island is cold, wet, windy and covered in mank.

Nico popped a champagne cork or two for a farewell sip on the jetty, before everyone clambered into the cargo tender and it motored out of the bay back to the ship. The four of us let loose with a few volleys of flares above Freshwater Bay, and as RRS Ernest Shackleton pulled slowly away through a field of icebergs, the foghorn sounded once, deep and low, across Bird Sound. April is, I suppose, autumn at South Georgia, so it seemed appropriate that we were left with vast quantities of fresh fruit. Apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, lemons, pineapples and even a few of those most fantastic of fruits, avocados! Mmmm. You really appreciate fresh fruit and vegetables when they’re a rare and seasonal treat. (As they once were in Europe before the rise of intensive horticulture, heated greenhouses and refrigerated shipping containers, but how can you argue with progress?)

Shortly after the arrival of the avocados, all of the macaroni penguins left the island. (We’re pretty sure there was no connection. For one thing, if I was a macaroni penguin, I’d find it hard to say no to krill with a guacamole dip.) Once they have finished breeding, and have regrown all their feathers as part of their annual moult, the penguins have no need to remain on land, so they swim off to richer feeding grounds a couple of hundred kilometres north of South Georgia. We won’t see them again until they arrive back in the spring.

One reason that the penguins might not be keen on staying around Bird Island is that the leopard seals have arrived. Leps, as we affectionately call them, are impressive and powerful predators. They feed on fur seals, penguins and even young elephant seals. They are quick and agile in the water, but slow on land, so we can get quite close to them when they haul out on Freshwater Beach, to admire their enormous toothy yawns. Nick monitors each individual, crawling up quietly behind them and marking them with small plastic tags. Already we have seen several animals familiar from last winter, including Pierce, who was one of our most regular visitors. Nick is hoping to deploy a geolocator on him, to track his movements away from Bird Island. If all goes well, he may deploy on as many as ten leps. The downside of using these tiny tracking devices is that they are too small to transmit to a satellite, so we have to hope that the leps will return next winter and allow their tags to be recovered!

In the mollymawk colonies, black-browed albatross chicks have been fledging, and I’ve been visiting several of the colonies daily to ring and weigh the chicks, and check who’s still alive and who’s dead. They’ve had quite a poor year, and less than one in five of the eggs laid last October has survived to fledge. We’re not sure why they’ve been doing so badly. The closely related grey-headed albatrosses seem to be doing alright (their chicks will start fledging soon). BAS scientists on RRS James Clark Ross have told us that there seems to be plenty of krill in the waters near South Georgia. In years when krill is scarce, black-brows have difficulty finding food, and their chicks may starve, but that doesn’t seem to be the problem this year. For now, it’s a bit of a mystery. Despite the departure of our study animals (penguins and albatrosses) Chris and I continue to study them in their absence by counting, identifying and measuring all the small leggy creatures in diet samples that we collected earlier in the summer. That information may help to solve the mystery.

Almost as soon as RRS Ernest Shackleton left South Georgia, our fine summer weather was replaced by winter winds howling up from the south. Snow began to fall in thick soft flakes, and brash ice filled the bay. Within a day or two, it really felt wintry, and many of the island’s brown skuas wisely decided to leave. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. After a few days of snow, it all thawed again. And then refroze. More snow. And yet another melt. It’s typical Bird Island weather: we can have snow, ice, sun, rain, sleet, hail, blue skies, drizzle and mist all in the same day.

Clearly, it was the perfect time for a barbecue. So we wheeled our makeshift half barrel down the beach and sat on chunks of ice enjoying Nick’s kebabs, steaks and salads. Kev found a piece of ice that made a perfect seat, but almost got stranded on it when the tide came in around his feet!

Kev has had the unenviable task of crawling around under the base fixing wooden boxing to protect a new set of pipes. Not so bad when everything is frozen, but with our freeze – melt – freeze weather it’s been quite soggy under there a lot of the time.

Back inside, he is our undisputed darts champion. Not only that, but he’s leading the “Are you chewing on a brick?” Winter Trouble Tournament. I’ll have to leave it to Chris to explain the name. This innocent-looking board game is the setting for a daily battle of wits, strategy and tactics between the four of us. (Actually – dare I say it? – it’s largely a matter of luck, but then I would say that. I’m currently coming fourth.)

On Easter Sunday Chris cooked up a three-course feast (you will by now have realised that life here revolves around food, wildlife and Trouble) and we even had some Easter eggs to open (thanks to Nick’s mum and Les!) Kev has discovered that his true calling in life is to make muffins, and has spent hours in the kitchen perfecting his craft. Funnily enough, no matter how many he makes, the muffins never seem to last very long.

In fact, I think I can smell some now, so I better wrap this up. Lots of love to all my family and friends back home and wherever else you’ve got to.