Bird Island Diary – August 2002

31 August, 2002

More sketches

I can hardly believe that August has already come and gone. It still feels like it should be sometime back around July. Time has flown, as Bird Island time seems to have a way of doing, and in the next few weeks our grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses, brown skuas and other summer visitors will be arriving back from their winter at sea. Our visiting summering scientists will be migrating South not far behind. But that’s another story for next month and the one after.

August has given us the best snow, but also some merciless thaws, and as I write, most of the island is coated in a thick layer of treacherous ice, which builds up every time the weather swings above and below zero. Going for a walk without instep crampons is a risky business! (Insteps are small metal spikes that you can strap onto your boots). Earlier in the month, Matt let me borrow his snowboard and gave me a few tips, so we donned the baggiest trousers we could find and enjoyed a few days of lovely soft powder snow (perfect for boarding!) but since then the wind has blasted away all but the hard icy snow underneath (not quite so perfect for boarding….). Nick hasn’t let it stop his skiing though, and Jane managed to dig a snowcave in a big drift before we had a bit of a thaw and it all went icy again.

Ice is good for leopard seals, who are so well insulated that they like nothing better than a good long sleep on the skating rink that is now Freshwater Beach. Nicholas “always gets his lep” Warren has been busy with the tagging pliers, and with a combination of commando crawling, nocturnal raids and extreme stealth he has managed to tag another nine this month, including Madame Medusa and Horatio Hornblower, who snore on blissfully unaware of their newly-acquired double-barreled titles. And of course there is Loaf, named for Jane’s impending niece or nephew (who we are happy to report is rising well and will be ready sometime around November).

Wanderer satellite tracking continues apace, and at the end of the month, one of my birds was as close to the equator as to Bird Island, having flown well over 3000 km in less than 10 days.

Others have flown as far as the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego in pursuit of squid and fish to feed their chicks. The chicks are starting to look a bit more like real birds, with dark brown feathers showing more and more through their fluffy down. Some have even started to exercise their wings, but it will be another three months before their flight feathers have developed enough for them to take to the air.

After deploying each satellite tag, I put a fence around the chick. When the adult returns, he or she will wait patiently beside the fence, giving me enough time to get up the hill and retrieve the tag before the parent can feed its chick and fly off on another two-week epic. I arrived at one nest, however, to find that the chick had somehow managed to get out by itself, and was happily glugging down mouthfuls of semi-digested squid regurgitated by its recently-arrived parent. I was in time to catch my bird, but there was only one name for the enterprising chick – Houdini!

The other albatrosses aren’t back yet, but their voms are still with us, and I’ve been busy in the Room That Was Called The Biolab But Is Now Called The Sample Analysis Facility, measuring and identifying squid beaks. And because most people don’t get the chance to see what a squid beak looks like (did you even know that squids have beaks?), I’ve drawn one.

With a bit of practice you can tell which species of squid they come from, and by measuring them, how big the squid was. They’re quite sculptural wee things, although the squids themselves are encumbered with such names as Ancistrocheirus and Psychroteuthis.

The pure white snow petrel must be one of the most beautiful birds in the world, so we are lucky that they have started showing up in small numbers again. We have even seen some of them circling around the top of La Roche, perhaps checking it out as a potential nest site. They have never been proved to breed on Bird Island, as their habit of hiding their eggs away in crevices at the top of cliffs tends to keep people guessing. But if they keep showing signs that they are taking up residence on La Roche, you might be reading about a summer abseiling expedition off North Cliffs in a few months’ time!

Back at base we keep ourselves entertained with barbecues, films, games of bridge, canasta and trouble, cooking, black-and-white developing and Jukebox Nick’s phenomenal ability to spontaneously sing random lines of songs, never repeating the same one twice. There has also been some experimental cooking (Jane has invented a new but not very filling dish called “bean on toast”) and there are rumours of some crazy dancing late at night brought on by experimental cocktails, but none of them are true. I’d tell you about the quote book too, but I don’t think any of it is printable….

We’ve discovered that whatever the song says, four is the perfect number. Ideal for playing trouble and card games, fitting round the table, and it even means Jane still has someone to talk to when me and Matt are playing the guitar (in my case, very badly). Our numbers were boosted very briefly near the start of the month with a welcome visit by the RFA Grey Rover on the 9th. As well as delivering our post and freshies, they brought Gareth and Will – some of our next-door neighbours from the BAS base at King Edward Point – for a quick visit ashore. How they ended up on a ship out of the Falklands when a few days earlier they weren’t expecting to travel beyond the limits of Cumberland Bay for at least half a year is another story, but it was great to see them, even if they only had time for a quick chat and a cup of tea.

Good wishes to friends at home and abroad, big hugs to my family, and to a certain talented trapeze artist a long way from home.