Bird Island Diary – April 2015

5 April, 2015

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April has been an extraordinarily busy month both work-wise and base-wise. It’s also been a month of change as we have gone from 10 people down to just 4, reflecting a change too in the seasons… but more on that a bit later…

Team Bird

April was a month of many censuses and a LOT of bird ringing for ‘Team Bird’. Jess and I started the month with organising the first of the winter monthly censuses for the wandering albatrosses. This one is a fun one as we have to go up to every single wandering albatross nest on the island (all 725 of them) and check if there is a little chick underneath the adult. It is always a joy to see a tiny face appear from under an albatross. Unfortunately, this month’s census fell on a day with torrential rain and winds gusting to 40 knots, so Jerry sensibly and correctly called everyone back from the census once the weather had worsened, as it was not conditions people should be out in. The census was completed the following day which, in true Bird Island weather unpredictability, was glorious sunshine — much safer for censusing.

The black-browed and grey-head albatrosses (collectively termed mollymawks) were also counted across many different colonies across the island. It was quite exciting going to different colonies outwith the normal study colonies, and made me realise just how much more of the island there is left for me to explore during my time here. The mollymawks are also beginning to fledge now which means I am out most days checking on the study colonies to get accurate fledge dates. I know it should be a rule that you should never get attached to, or be allowed to have a favourite individual bird but I did have one at our study colony. It was the first black-brow egg I saw on my second day here on Bird Island which Jess excitedly showed me and was the first chick that Jerry showed me the technique of how to weigh an albatross chick. I followed the egg to hatching, had seen it become a fine-looking chick and finally to fledging. It was a special moment. Unfortunately, the next day I saw the reality of nature in action as I found my beloved first black-brow fledgling being eaten by another resident of the island, a brown skua. I thought to myself, this is how nature is, it’s a beautiful thing — but I am never going to have a favourite chick again!

Another important task this month was to ring all the southern giant petrel and mollymawk chicks in their respective study areas, so Jerry, Al, Jess and I set about this task with fervour. Our hands were well-practiced with K-rings by the end! On the bird-tagging front, we also completed the wandering albatross chick-rearing GPS tracking and got 70 GLS (tiny tags which record light levels) onto grey-headed albatross chicks. Hopefully in years to come these chicks will return to Bird Island and these tags will tell us important information about where they go in these formative years. Al has also deployed 13 satellite tags on white-chin petrel chicks and thrillingly we are now getting real-time data on where these fantastic petrels go for their very first flight — truly wonderful technology in action.

For the non-flying birds, Al has now dismantled the penguin weighbridge for the season as nearly all the penguins have left the study site. Instead, the penguin tasks now relate to labwork and for that Al has been going through many diet samples, which as you can imagine, smells fantastic (though not as good as what the albatross diet samples smell like!).

Team Seal

It is incredible the change that has now occurred on the beaches — there are so few fur seal puppies left and just a gathering of adults left on the shore. There are still a few elephant seals around the beaches who just lazily look up from their slumber when you walk past them, and sometimes give their ‘silent scream&rsquo where they basically just open their mouths really wide. Not as scary looking as they probably intend!

The biggest event of April for &lsquoTeam Seal’ has been the arrival of the leopard seals. Their arrival brought incredible excitement to the whole base and none more so than to Siân whose job it is to take detailed photographs of each leopard seal that is spotted and, where possible, collect scats (that’s poo to you and me). The first leopard seal to haul up was called Max, a regular in recent years, and we were lucky enough that his chosen sleeping spot is right by our jetty! I think it’s the most animated I‘ve ever seen Siân, when she came running into our office exclaiming that “Max has done a poo!!” and quickly set about gathering it all up, before the poo-loving sheathbills could eat it! Not before she had demanded that we all go out and look at the poo too mind you! It’s one of the many glamorous jobs that need performing living as a zoologist on Bird Island.

Team Tech

Robbie, our extremely hard-working tech, has also had a busy month making sure our base is prepared for the coming heavy winter winds and cold weather. This month has been spent checking all our important systems are functioning well — the generators, the boilers and our water supply systems.

We had our first frozen water supply of the season which meant that Robbie had to break into one of our frozen streams and pump water from underneath. Under Robbie’s watchful eye we are now being even more careful with our water usage. Of course this means very quick showers and minimal use of the washing machine – so I’m pretty sure this means that our King Edward Point neighbours, approximately 115 kilometres away on mainland South Georgia, can probably smell us from here! Mick, our visiting carpenter also completed his work fixing lots of things on base that needed his expert eye and helpfully gave the new winter team a run through of the workshop tools and how to use them safely. This teaching will certainly come in handy for future mid-winter gifts we are sure!

Base-life

Whilst it’s been a busy month work-wise we have still managed to have great social events during this month too, including two birthday celebrations. For Al’s birthday we had a surprise tea party in one of our huts at Fairy Point with presents, cards and lots of party food set up. It was a group effort to keep the surprise and I think Al enjoyed his day.

It was also my birthday, and it was a big one, the big 3-0! I could never have imagined that for my 30th birthday I would be on a rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean but it was genuinely the best birthday I have ever had thanks to the amazing Bird Island summer team. Knowing my love for all things music, and especially live music, they set me up a festival tent in our lounge for our very own B.I. festival which they called ‘Quinnbury’! Complete with a ‘main stage’ (aka a projector playing live music from Glastonbury), armbands, wellies, a bouncer and a camping area! I was overwhelmed and deeply touched by the home-made gifts they put together for me, it more than brought a tear to my eye to think how kind and thoughtful the B.I. team really are. I am reliably informed that when you celebrate a birthday with BAS when South these birthdays don’t count, so in reality Al and I haven’t actually become any older… well that’s what we’re telling ourselves anyway!

In keeping with the tradition of celebrating national days, this month it was St George’s turn and we dressed up for the part and had that traditional English dish of risotto for our dinner. Siân became the Queen, I tried to channel my inner thespian by going as Shakespeare, complete with a sonnet I wrote for each of my winterers, Robbie was St George himself and Al came as an old-fashioned FID (an old BAS fieldworker).

Departures and a new winter begins …

As well as being busy with birthday parties and base events, we, especially our excellent Station Leader Adam, were kept busy with getting everything ready for the last ship coming in before winter. This meant having to get all the cargo ready to leave and making sure the departing personnel had everything packed. It also meant all the final hand-over checklists had to be completed and for Alastair this also meant becoming the winter Station Leader. Once everything was packed up on the last Saturday before the summer team left we had a ‘Leavers night’. This is where the new winterers, Robbie, Al, Siân and I, put on an extra special 3-course meal for the departing winterers, Jerry, Jess and Cian, and the rest of our great summer team, Adam, Helen and Mick. We also provided some musical entertainment for them with a song composed for each of them by myself and a rap penned for each of them by Robbie. We certainly hope they liked their send off.

Without doubt the hardest thing that we have had to cope with this month was saying goodbye to our amazing summer team on the jetty as they were about to get on the cargo tender. We had worked so closely with them for 5 months and living and working together in an environment such as this can form incredibly close friendships. Each of the summer team gave us an amazing training hand-over and I have learnt so much from all of them — it has truly been a magical summer for work and for making new friends with BAS colleagues. I knew my albatross predecessor Jess before coming to Bird Island, as we started our bird-based PhDs at the same time with the University of Aberdeen. However, getting to share an experience such as this with a friend undoubtedly has made us so much closer and we tell ourselves that we will be reliving Bird Island albatross stories ad infinitum as we get older! I wish each of the summer team great luck in their new ventures and know that we will be working hard to continue the great science and base maintenance which is being carried out here on Bird Island.

And so it was that the 4 of us were left standing on the jetty, hugging each other and feeling somewhat shocked. But it was also an incredible feeling and we are all so excited for the upcoming winter and greatly looking forward to seeing how the island changes through the seasons. We’ve already noticed the nights are drawing in more and more and there is a, more chilly than usual, bite to the air now. To make the change-over day more bearable we had our post to open from loved ones back home which really put smiles on our faces and set us in a great, positive mood for our inaugural meal as a foursome (which was a fantastic chip shop night by Al!).

Having now had 2 weeks with just the 4 of us, we have now settled into a routine and are getting used to the quieter base. We’ve all still got lots of work on at the moment to keep us busy and we’ve been making sure there are games nights and theme nights planned to keep us busy socially (or as socially busy as you can be with only four people!). Getting to share seeing a leopard seal for the first time with your fellow winterers is a special thing indeed and made us all realise just how amazing a place Bird Island is going to be in winter and reminds us, as if we need reminding(!), of just how lucky we are to be here and to experience working and living here together.

Here’s to a safe, happy and productive winter to all the other winter teams across Antarctica!

Lucy Quinn

Albatross Zoological Field Assistant.

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