Bird Island Diary – April 2012

30 April, 2012

The beginning of April on Bird Island saw the successful completion of the building projects which were started last month. In particular, the rusty and decrepit old jetty was gradually replaced with a shiny and robust new jetty. The jetty re-build proved to be a little more challenging than the re-build of SSB, owing to the fact that it is almost completely submerged in water for a large proportion of the time, but it was nothing that our team of techs could not handle. Gaz and James worked tirelessly on the project, in all weathers and often spending long hours standing up to their chests in the icy cold water of the bay. They were assisted at various stages by Graham, Nick, Rob, Jon and Allan. The nature of the structure, and the fact that it had to be built using manpower alone, meant that it was not possible to simply tear down the old jetty and start again from scratch. Instead the old jetty had to be removed a small section at a time, and the framework for the new jetty inserted piece by piece. This gruelling process took several weeks to complete, but once it was done the task of laying the new wooden walkway and attaching handrails was fairly straightforward. The final task was to re-erect the jetty flagpole and run up the colours, thus safeguarding British interests in the Southern Ocean, or at least on Bird Island.

The jetty re-build was a complete success, but sadly there was one casualty. Due to limitations on building materials and health & safety issues, our beloved jetty bog (reputedly David Attenborough’s favourite toilet in the whole world) could not be restored to its rightful position. This decision caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the residents of Bird Island, however you can rest assured that the bog will be preserved for posterity and used for some other purpose, just as soon as we figure out what that purpose might be.

The new jetty was finished on the 14th April, and not a moment too soon as the very next day the James Clark Ross arrived to start ‘last call’. The JCR was originally scheduled to call on the 21st, but due to favourable weather conditions decided to come in a bit earlier and collect all our heavy cargo. This resulted in a rather frantic 24 hours on Bird Island as we tried to finish packing up all the outgoing materials (including around 30 tonnes of scrap metal from the old jetty) and prepare all the associated paperwork. Luckily everything was done in time, and last call (part I) went very smoothly. The JCR then disappeared for a few days and returned on the 19th for last call (part II), where it picked up all the outgoing summer personnel. Thus we sadly waved goodbye to Allan (base commander), Graham (facilities engineer) and Gaz, James and Nick (tech services). The population of Bird Island has now been reduced to just four — myself, Jon (seal assistant), Jen (albatross assistant) and Rob (tech services), and we will not be seeing any other people until late September.

As well as a reduction in the human population of Bird Island, April also marks something of a pre-winter exodus for the wildlife. The fur seal puppies, which have been entertaining us since December, have now all gone to sea for the winter. By mid-April the macaroni penguins had also departed, after spending a month on land to moult, and will not return until October. Big Mac is deserted, and the island now seems eerily quiet without the constant chatter from this enormous colony. The black-browed and grey-headed albatross chicks are also preparing to leave. Most of the chicks now have their sleek adult plumage, and are ‘practising’ for that all important maiden flight, which essentially means that they spend a lot of time standing on the edge of their nests flapping like maniacs. This season’s giant petrel chicks are also looking sleek and grown-up in their new charcoal-grey feathers. The Northern giant petrel chicks have all fledged, but the Southern giant petrel chicks, which hatched about six weeks after the Northerns, are still here. This time next month they, too, will be gone.

But despite the disappearance of many of its summer residents, Bird Island is far from quiet. The wandering albatrosses will be with us all winter. Their chicks are now large enough to be left alone while both parents forage at sea and the island is covered with these little, grey, fluffy bundles, who sit patiently on their nests waiting for the next delivery of fresh squid and snap their beaks indignantly at any human that gets too close. The gentoo penguins also stay on the island throughout the winter. In recent weeks large numbers of gentoos have started gathering on the beach in front of the base in the evenings, emerging from the sea at around 5pm, staying overnight and then leaving again in the morning. There is no colony on this beach and they did not do this last winter, so speculation is rife on base as to what is causing this new behaviour. Too many penguins on the other beaches? A new colony forming? The penguins are planning to invade the base and take over? Only time will tell. In the meantime, they might be visible on the Bird Island webcam to anyone who is interested — check it out from around 5pm onwards.

As always, best wishes to friends and family back home,

Ruth (penguin assistant)