Bird Island Diary — April 2009

30 April, 2009 Bird Island

The month of April had an interesting but late start for me on Bird Island, arriving back from a two-week stay (or as some less sympathetic base members have called it — a holiday!) at the BAS base at King Edward Point after small medical blip. It is very reassuring to me and my other colleges at Bird Island that in an emergency situation, medical help is only a short boat trip away .The arrival of the James Clark Ross signalled the end of the summer season and after a few days of frantic packing by the outgoing people, there was enough time to fit new batteries to the uninterruptable power supply system (which allows the base generators to be switched off at night to save on fuel) and one last infamous bird island party. Then it was good time to say goodbye to good friends and meet the new arrival to Bird Island, José Xavier, who had arrived on JCR for the winter to carry out seabird research.

Whilst I was away, life continued as normal on Bird Island, with summer fieldwork beginning to tail off. All folk on base assisted with the black-browed albatross chick count at the start of the month, and Ewan and Andy Webb carried out some structural repairs to the scaffolding gantry at the seal Special Study Beach, to ensure its security over the winter and for the 2009/10 fieldwork season. Everyone was busy preparing for the visit of the ship — packing up outgoing cargo and those that were departing were busy out and about saying farewell to the island that has been their home.

The main thing I noticed when I returned was that most of the fur seals, and nearly all the pups, had left the island, returning to the sea for the winter. In addition to this, most of the black-browed albatross colonies were almost empty, more chicks leaving every day, but the wandering albatross chicks have grown considerably since they hatched in March. The macaroni penguins that returned in March to moult have now all returned to the sea, and the Big Mac colony is now a bare scree slope again.

Soon after my return, and the departure of the summer visitors, we saw the first signs of the coming winter, with a not insignificant snowfall, meaning that Ewan and myself could even dust down the plastic toboggans and go sledging on the lower slopes of La Roche.

It wasn’t all play and no work, though, as shortly after the ship departed José was keen to get started on his many fieldwork projects for the winter. The first of these involved catching and marking some gentoo penguins, to assess attendance patterns during the winter — that is, how often they are seen on Landing Beach, near the base, where they were marked. This involved a couple of early mornings on the beach for all of us, in some foul weather, assisting with penguin catching!

It must be fascinating for José, being back here, as he wintered on Bird Island during the winters of 1999 and 2000, whilst working on his PhD. One ‘tradition’ that José has reintroduced is that of the Fat Knacker Award. Once upon a time, there was a seal assistant (one of Ewan’s predecessors) who ate so many Mars bars during the winter, that he was presented with a Mars bar encased in epoxy resin as a trophy. This continued for a couple of years, but José has returned with the idea. Since the ship left we have ‘weighed in’ every Friday evening, wearing the same outfit each week for consistency, and it has proved a good way to keep an eye on our health through the less-active winter. The person who gains the most weight by the end of the witner will be presented with a trophy.

Ewan continued to deploy the little geolocator devices on fur seals this month. The target animals were male ‘widges’ — the name by which juvenile seals are known on Bird Island. These young animals have a beautiful soft grey coat — it is easy to see why Antarctic fur seals were hunted almost to extinction for their fur, in the days of sealing. Hopefully these seals will keep their geolocators until they return sometime in the future, so we can find out where they have gone.

The weather in April was typically mixed. We had some cold weather soon after I returned in the middle of the month, but it soon turned mild again and we had a week of fog and drizzle and sleet showers at the end of April, which made José’s early morning work with gentoo penguins on Landing Beach more challenging.

On April 29th we saw the first leopard seal since November. Leopard seals are common visitors to Bird Island during the winter — they come here to feed on gentoo penguins and seal pups. On this day, José, Ewan and I were taking a walk around the beaches, when Ewan spotted a large lump at the shoreline on Main Bay beach. He hurried ahead to get there before the animal disappeared to the water. It was a leopard seal, and the photos showed that it was a large adult female that had been seen frequently during the winter of 2008, and was given the name Rhian.

We celebrated two birthdays during April — in fact, two on the same day! José and Stacey’s birthdays both fall on April 30th and we celebrated with cake and a soak in the outdoor hot tub while a snowstorm raged above our head.

I have a number of technical jobs to do over the winter, so I have been making a start on them. Fingers crossed for no disasters arising during the course of our seven months without a ship visit!

So as the weather starts to get colder, the days shorter and most of the wildlife deserting us until later in the year, the five of us are settling into our winter routine — cooking more frequently but having more time to relax. Roll on midwinter and the snow!

David HaynesWintering technician