Bird Island Diary — April 2010

30 April, 2010

April began as April begins every year on Bird Island, with the Wandering Albatross egg/chick survey. Wandering Albatross begin laying their eggs during December and the final egg is laid sometime in January. On the first day of each month between April and September, the island’s Wanderer eggs and/or chicks are carefully surveyed in an effort to assess the annual breeding success of this endangered species. The island’s nesting sites, which span its length and breadth, are divided amongst all base occupants to ensure that all chicks and eggs are accounted for on the day. The April count gives an instant indication of the rate of hatching success (i.e. number of chicks hatched from the total number eggs laid). Unfortunately, the April survey has indicated that the 2010 season is destined to be the worst year on record for Wandering Albatross breeding on Bird Island.

The next big job for the month came the following day when all hands on deck were required again to prepare the base for the Last Call by the Shackleton, which was due in to Bird Island on April 3rd. Prince House was given a proper spruce-up inside and out, biological samples were collated and packaged for analysis back in Cambridge and a summer’s load of garbage and recyclables were prepared for removal to Stanley. After a couple of cancelled attempts, the Shackleton finally arrived for Final Call on April 7th. In addition to re-supplying the base with much needed supplies, Last Call also enabled all Summer base members to have their teeth checked by BAS Dentist, Dr Burjor Langdana, with myself acting as his temporary and very fetching dental nurse. Fortunately, no blood was spilt and we were able to tuck into the fresh food supplies unimpaired.

Last Call also marks one of the island’s more enjoyable tasks — mouth-swabbing 20 Fur Seal pups for a study conducted by BAS Medical Unit medic Dr Angharad Jones. The study aims to identify the unique microbiological inhabitants of Fur Seal mouth cavities. In a return gesture, Burjor assisted Ewan & myself in capturing the elusive pups from the tussac and mud surrounding the base and risked a finger or two in obtaining the bacterial swabs. Other seal-related work conducted during April included disentangling a juvenile Fur Seal from nylon string, deploying Geolocator (GLS) tags on six Fur Seals pups and retrieving two GLS tags from another two individuals.

Last Call generally signals the departure of at least one long-term Bird Islander and this season it was time to bid adieu to Derren Fox who has been working as the Albatross Field Assistant since September 2007. He departs leaving the Wanderers & Mollies in the capable hands of Claudia. Although he will be missed by all who remain, his departure from the island will impact greatest on our stoic Penguin Field Assistant.

Claudia didn’t have long to wait for her first solo flight as the Albatross Field Assistant, as she coordinated April’s Black-browed Albatross count. A total of 274 chicks were counted from the island’s six monitored colonies. Yet again, this count reflects poorly when compared with previous seasons.

Penguinwise, Stacey reported that the Macaroni Penguins had begun moulting their old feathers for a brand spanking new Winter plumage at the beginning of April. The development of this Winter coat is necessary for the birds to survive the bitter oceanic conditions that await them as they move from the island on their offshore winter foraging expedition. The Macaroni colonies were practically deserted by late April as all the feisty penguins, young and old, head away for their Winter feeding grounds, where they’ll remain until they return to Bird Island in mid-October.

Mid-April saw the departure of budding cinematographer Ewan Edwards, who managed Bird Island’s Antarctic Fur Seal and Leopard Seal projects since October 2007. He was escorted off the island by Hamish and Kate Laird aboard the aptly-named yacht the Seal. Together with Hamish and Kate were their daughters, Helen and Kate, and family friends, John and Sue Clarke. Ewan will have a gradual re-introduction to the Rat Race, assisting Hamish and Kate in sailing the Seal back to South America. As Ewan’s replacement, I am very grateful for his comprehensive passing of the seal baton. It has been an action-packed Summer, but we have both managed to come out the other side unbroken with all limbs and digits intact.

So now we are down to four until September. Stacey, Claudia, Joe and myself will keep the home fires burning until our next visitors arrive. We started our lives as a quartet by rounding the month out with Stacey’s birthday. She was lucky enough to receive the first framed photograph of Mick Mackey’s Bird Island Experience exhibition — coming to a church fete near you sometime in 2012.

Mick Mackey

Bird Island Seal Assistant