30 April, 2013 Bird Island
April has been a month of very noticeable changes. For the majority of species it has marked the end of the breeding season and their departure from the Bird Island. For most of us that means a reduction in field-work and a shift to the laboratory and computers.
The weather has a distinctly wintery vibe about it with the streams regularly freezing over and the more regular appearance of snow. There have been some beautiful crisp days though and cold, clear nights – perfect for appreciating the open skies.
The first big storm saw waves crashing into the bay from the south-west, tearing up huge amounts of kelp other seaweed and piling it upon the beach and forming a blanket stretching out past the end of the jetty. Amongst it was a variety of starfish, sea squirts and giant crustaceans that we’d never normally get to see.
The albatrosses have dominated the field work, with everyone out helping Steph with her counting, recording and weighing. The Black-browed Albatross chicks have started to fledge – many have left and it’ll be up to eight years before they return to breed, while those still at the colony are stretching out their wings and jumping up and down, feeling the wind blow through them before they make that scary leap.
The Grey-headed Albatrosses are a couple of weeks behind the Black-brows, but the larger ones are starting to look more like adult birds and it won’t be too long before they depart too.
The Wandering Albatross chicks are getting bigger, putting on layers of fat and down to help them cope with the oncoming winter.
April is also the month when the Giant Petrels start to depart. The Northern chicks have all gone, while their Southern relatives are just starting their departure. Jerry spent a few days ringing all the chicks in the study area and attaching tiny geolocators to a select few to help us discover where the young birds spend their first three or four years before returning to breed.
For most of the month the Macaroni colonies were full of moulting adult penguins, replacing their worn out feathers with fresh ones for their winter spent at sea. Over a few days the colony at Big Mac went from 80,000 to one lonely penguin (who has now left).
Gentoos will continue to return to the island throughout the year and can still be seen coming ashore in the evening, hanging around their nesting areas.
The beaches around base feel empty as the majority of the seals, particularly all the young ones that slept on our walkways, have headed off to sea. This makes it a lot easier to walk around but it makes looking out the window less exciting. There are still good numbers of seals around though (including a few young Elephant Seals) and it’s good to see the females lazing around looking a bit fatter after the stresses of raising pups.
With the field season winding down we have been concentrating on other tasks based at the computers and in the laboratory. All the monitoring requires an awful lot of data-entry and, although we try our best to keep up with it through the season, there is always more to do. This is the time of year when it all gets collated and handed over to CCAMLR – the multinational committee leading the conservation of Antarctic waters.
In the lab we have mainly be sorting through diet samples; identifying, sexing, aging and measuring of krill, squid beaks and otoliths (the tiny ear bones that can be used to identify fish species).
As always in the winter months reasons to celebrate and theme evenings become important. Recently we enjoyed our own Grand National with extravagant hats and a seal-racing board game developed here many years ago. With more days spent on base we’ve also embarked on our winter fitness regime – the intense series of interval-training DVDs left by the last winterers. What started out as the most painful thing in the world has now settled into merely unpleasant but fingers crossed the weekly weigh-ins will show the benefits.
Zoological Field Assistant