Bird Island Diary — August 2013

31 August, 2013

One season ends, a new one begins

August on Bird Island makes the transition from one season to the next. With the few exceptions talked about below the place is relatively quiet on the wildlife front. It’s a time for the field assistants to concentrate on lab work (analysing and identifying diet samples) and write annual reports. It’s also about preparation for the new season – cleaning and sorting nest markers, creating new spreadsheets ready to fill with information and repairing worn down outdoor gear.

Throughout the month though there have been a few changes to indicate the return of spring. The days are becoming longer and the Northern Giant Petrels have been spotted mating. The world’s most southerly songbirds, the South Georgia Pipits, have started singing, marking their territories in preparation for breeding. Away from the wildlife we’ve started talking about deliveries for next season, most importantly the food order. And to top it all we got our first contact with the new staff that will be coming down here in two months time.

Film Festival

The month started with the annual 48 Hour Antarctic Film Festival. On Friday evening we received a list of instructions and five different elements to be included in our film (a character, lines and a few props). We quickly set about writing and designing costumes. We then spent Saturday filming and Sunday editing before submitting it for judging.

As we had costumes still around from an earlier fancy dress night we decided to go for a Star Wars homage and I got to fulfil a lifelong dream of beating Darth Vader in a lightsaber battle. The ‘acting’ required a lot of running round and trying not to laugh too obviously in front of the camera, particularly during ridiculous death scenes.

Everyone got involved with the editing and when on Sunday evening we were able to view our film in its entirety we were amused and pleased with the results. At time of writing we’ve not heard the results of the votes but we’ve got favourable feedback from people who’ve watched ours.

The rest of the month was spent downloading movies the other bases had made. It was a great chance to see what their places are like and witness people we’d met back in Cambridge making fools of themselves.

A youtube search for ‘Bird Island Star Wars’ should bring up our movie for those interested.

Wanderer chick ringing

The Wandering Albatross chicks that hatched in March have been sitting tightly all through the winter, protected by their extensive coats of fluffy down. Beneath it they have been developing their adult plumage and now many of them have proper feathers down the wing, on the chest and around the face. Although they’re still several months off being able to fly they can now stand up properly and are regularly seen stretching their wings.

They’re big enough now to be ringed so we’ve been out assisting Steph, the albatross assistant, as she covers the whole island, going from nest to nest to fit the little metal ring on each bird’s leg. The information we get back from these will be able to tell us all sort of information about survival rates and migration and help us better understand and so protect these amazing huge birds.

When out with them it’s really special to see the odd adult returning to feed its chick. They’ve been away for days, covering hundreds of miles and hopefully returning with a crop full of squid and fish. Very rarely a pair returns at the same time and it’s amazing to see them spending some time together, preening and re-establishing the bond between them.

Weddell Seal

We’ve all been helping Hannah with her daily round looking for Leopard Seals and one of the joys of being out is the unexpected sights, whether it’s a large and active group of Gentoos, a lost Chinstrap Penguin or a Fur Seal rolling enthusiastically in the snow. When the weather got really cold the pipits were searching for food in the thin band of exposed seaweed between the snow and the sea and several hundred Antarctic Terns were fishing just off the beach. But every now and again there’s something that really catches the attention, such as the Weddell Seal in Everman Cove on 17th. We were returning from a long day out and it was beginning to get dark as we spotted what we assumed was a Leopard Seal in the water. Yet there was something more like it that was more like an Elephant Seal, so we quickly got out cameras and binoculars and as it came closer to check us out we were ecstatic to see it was clearly a Weddell Seal, there was no mistaking its fat body and small, curious face.

These seals breed much further south on the pack ice and are only occasionally seen at Latitudes like ours. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around but it was still the wildlife highlight of the month.

Jerry Gillham

Zoological Field Assistant (Penguins)

Winter Base Commander