31 August, 2000 Bird Island
Wildlife on Bird Island: At this time of year the wildlife is nothing compared to the summer. Presently there are seals mostly consisting of: Antarctic Fur Seal (furries) which are usually black but with five “white” in our immediate area, some being muddier than others, occasional Elephant Seals (ellies) both small and large, and occasional Leopard Seals (leps). The Leopard Seals are looked for on a daily round and if discovered and are sleeping, they are tagged, measured and their sex noted if possible. We have a rather frequent female visitor to our cove and although there is not much known about leps it seems that they come ashore for a rest and sleep. On land they are not a threat; in fact Sheathbills peck at their rear flippers incessantly and often drive the animals into the sea. In the sea however a caught penguin is thrashed around violently and stripped of its skin almost turning it inside out to get at the flesh.
The fur Seals at this age and up to several years (before big enough to hold territory about 7 years) behave like otters and puppies and are timid, yet very curious, and some will come up close and sniff, then run away only to repeat the process, like a game of chase.
Other wildlife here presently are birds: the Wandering Albatross (wanderers) – adults and chicks. The wanderer chicks take a year to raise and have impressed me in their ability to sit calmly in their bundle of down and feathers and take everything that the weather can throw at them. The Sheathbills (mutts) are an ugly looking bird, that eat anything and everything in sight; quite a scavenger. Great Northern and Southern Giant Petrels (geeps) are also scavengers and are presently courting, mating and digging scrapings in the tussock for nests; a sure sign that spring is upon us. The first eggs will be laid fairly soon. Antarctic Terns are very similar to their northern equivalent and are a delight to watch with their quick, darting movements. Dominican Gulls are very similar to the Lesser Black Backed Gull in the northern hemisphere. The South Georgia Pintail and the South Georgia Pipit only exist in our area. The South Georgia Pipit song has become very noticeable in the last few days, another sign of approaching spring, and the South Georgia Pintail is yet another scavenger. Both are in abundance in our cove. Finally Gentoo Penguins are starting to build nests with what they can find above the snow and ice. More birds will be arriving soon and already the first Grey-headed Albatrosses have been sighted offshore. There is so much to look forward to over the coming months.
Sexing albatross is very difficult for several years and many mix-ups have occurred. Charlie’s egg was laid on Wanderer Ridge on Bird Island in December 1999 and was hatched in March 2000. The parents were both born in 1989, on the same ridge, so returned to their birthplace to breed. The birds breed every 2 years and are monogomous for life, unless a partner dies. Both breedings from this pair have been successful, the first hatched in 1996, and the second in 1998. Charlie is their third chick.
The station facilities: Life on Bird Island is simple. There are four of us here although the month began with five. Jose departed earlier in the month having completed his field work. The power for the base runs off two generators, one in use and one on standby, which run for about 15 hours each day, being turned on and off when the first person gets up and last goes to bed. Once the generator is on, warmed up and the load switched on, the electrics, such as boiler for heating, lights, computers, fire alarm system, fax, telephone are powered up. The cooker is a kerosene Aga which runs 24 hours a day and provides some heat overnight for part of the main building. There is no running water, so this is collected from rain or snow melt on the roof of the buildings. This fills up three large tanks and is pumped through a filtration and purification system into two smaller tanks in the loft, from where it provides our daily source of water. Water can be pumped between the tanks at ground level (when the pipes are not frozen) or syphoned if they are. If there is no rain or snow melt, a small pump and long hose is used to pump water from a small stream nearby. The hose and pump need to be warmed up so that they don’t freeze during the pumping process. Once water is running freely this is normally sufficient. If the equipment gets too cold during the preparation, then water will freeze in the hose and we’ll have to warm it up overnight, next to the Aga, to repeat the process the following day. Needless to say there is usually a thaw just after we’ve gone through this process! We have created a temporary gutter to catch more melt from an extension put in last year which feeds directly into a tank through an open window. This helps considerably although this reduces the temperature in the accommodation end of the building, and is removed in strong winds.
Relaxation at Bird Island: Adding to Station are our very regular and looked-forward-to game of Trouble (a board game called Frustration to the non-Aussie readers) which occurs around lunch time. It isn’t played more than once a day and if someone is out in the field then the game is delayed until all are present. Such fun and delight with a simple kids game! Decisions as to what music is played is the role of cook for the day which is on a rota. Creation is the name of the game and if we don’t have a particular ingredient, the challenge is to find substitutes! Another challenge is to use up the least favourite foods in the most unrecognised way. For example Cornflakes make great breadcrumbs for everything. They are great for breaded chicken, in nut roast, and as a crunchy topping with cheese on mashed potato – just try it!! The cook on Wednesdays and Sundays (film nights) also makes “film goodies” which are looked forward to immensely, and Saturday is a special occasion with a theme – food from a particular country. The Saturday cook also decides on the evening’s entertainment which can include such things as bowls (down a dog-legged corridor), Risk and other board games, Pool, table tennis, pin the flipper on the furry (no donkeys and tails down here), and darts. So the entertainments go on and on with more than enough to fill time without coming close to boredom
On the tenth of each month there is a “weigh-in” to establish who wins the “Fat Knacker’s Award”. Just before the weigh-in people can be found taking sneak previews to decide how much exercise to undertake before weigh-in day! The August award was won by Mark who lost weight, but not as much weight as everyone else. However Nik did break the webbing when he sat on it, which brought much laughter. The award is a Mars Bar (with a bite out of it) encased in epoxy resin and mounted on a plaque. Mark just loves Mars Bars so was delighted to win.
Keeping the station running: Routine jobs are split between everyone. There are no technical specialists and so solving problems finds us pouring over workshop manuals and brainstorming to see if we can put the problem right. Recently one of the generators failed to start due to low battery voltage and we needed to finish off the basic service on the other before we could start it up. Lots of jobs learned here could save a lot of time and expense waiting for the relevant services to come and fix in the UK! Saturday brings the time of scrub-out, a weekly list of jobs involving cleaning the station, waste management disposal, cleaning the water purification filters, restocking food and drinks from outside stores, painting and sealing drums of waste, filling water tanks, refuelling tanks for the generator and Aga, and doing jobs of maintenance and repair which require concentrated effort. It usually takes 150 rotations of the hand-pump to empty one 205 litre drum of fuel into a tank.
The work of the Bird Island scientists: Work generally occurs all the time and there are two Seal Assistants here Nik and Mark and a Bird Assistant Daf. Jose (who left earlier) was a squid scientist who satellite tracked Wandering Albatrosses to gain information on the squid and fish they feed on. Some of the wanderers travelled from Bird Island to the northern Antarctic Peninsula or near the coast of Argentina and were away for about 2-3 weeks before returning. When one adult is away on this cruise the second feeds the chick locally. Each Assistant has particular responsibilities and such is the glamour of seal work that competing with the Sheathbills for seal poo is a part of the job. The work is shared when needed, as with entanglements and the Albatross chick census. The chick census occurs at the end of every month over the whole Island, and every nest is visited taking note of any deaths. My role is evolving but is to relieve the science personnel from additional work such as administration and later routine maintenance unrelated to science. I’m also learning much about the science and helping where I can.
Human impact on wildlife welfare: Assisting with freeing seals and birds caught in the litter created by humans is part of the work. Packing bands, plastic rings and long line hooks etc all entangle animals. The birds swallow the large hooks or they get caught beaks, wings or legs. Fur Seals necks also get caught in packing bands. The seals are curious and playful and put their heads through them. Unfortunately for them their fur acts like barbs trapping the band in place. As the seal swims, moves across the ground and grows so the band tightens. The severity of the entanglement progresses from: loose; tight and embedded in the fur; and severe cutting into the flesh restricting movement causing serious wounds, and finally death through infection or suffocation. When an entangled seal is spotted equipment is used to catch the seal (long pole with a rope loop) and a shorter pole with a curved blade attached cuts the band. Catching the seal can entail much manoeuvring over difficult terrain to put the loop over the seal and restrain it sufficiently for another person to cut and hopefully remove the band. My first observations of this task were in the deep flesh wound category and not at all pleasant. One band was cut but too embedded to be removed completely so all we could do was hope it would be washed out with time. Just now I have returned from another deeply embedded band that I cut (my second so far) but sadly not remove. The next option is to restrain the seal on a restraining board and pull the band out manually which may be tried later. So wherever you are please cut up all your waste plastic bands before throwing them away, no matter how small they appear to be!
And, finally on a more pleasant note I saw my first Right Whale the other weekend.
Maggie Annat (Winter Base Commander)