Bird Island Diary – August 2014

9 August, 2014

Film Festival

The first weekend of the month brought us the eagerly anticipated Antarctic 48-hour film festival. This annual event brings together all the bases on the continent and islands in dressing up and making fools of ourselves on camera. After having great fun recreating Star Wars last year we decided to go for a similar parody of / tribute to Lord Of The Rings.

Receiving details on the Friday of five elements (props, characters, dialogue) that we had to fit in we sat down and came up with a script and costumes.

A heavy fog hung over the island all Saturday, causing a few filming problems but adding a slightly mystic atmosphere. While Cian carried out his daily round looking for leopard seals the other three headed up to the cave to record a tense moment with Frodo and Sam. Brief but brave attempts were made to recreate the Hobbit’s barefoot style.

After returning to base to warm up, Cian and I got our chance to play at being Hobbits, meeting up with Gandalf, before we headed up the valley to run around with swords and cloaks, living out every geek’s dream of being Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. We concluded with a monumental battle on the beach against an army of orcs (though with extras a little hard to come by it may look like one orc over and over again). We even managed to sneak in a cameo from some of the island’s winter wildlife.

Watching the films from the other bases on YouTube was great fun – a chance to see people we knew from Cambridge and others we only know from remote conversations, in places we’ll never visit. A tremendous amount of skill and enthusiasm had gone into some really great films so we were amazed and flattered (and a little bemused) to have been picked as best actors and second best film overall.

Ice and Snow

This has been by far the coldest month of the winter, with the temperature almost always below 0 and dropping to near -10C. The wind has seemed relentless at times, and yet it’s been an amazing time to be outside.

We’ve had pancake ice in the bay and frozen streams and ponds all over the island, making the watery meadows much easier to walk across, while unexpectedly waist-deep snow drifts make areas of tussac grass much harder.

One of the highlights of this was the appearance of a couple of snow petrels in the bay. Normally these pristine white birds are only glimpsed flashing past the peaks and cliffs so it was a real treat to see them spend some time feeding in the slush beside the jetty.

The big freeze led to that rarest of events on the rain-swept Bird Island; a water shortage. So while Rob got out the hoses and primed the pump I smashed a hole in the ice where we could hear water running underneath. I then smashed another hole when we found there was a limit to the hose length.

Wanderer ringing

While Cian has been kept busy photographing leopard seals on his daily rounds I have been helping Jess ringing the wandering albatross chicks. It’s about six months since they hatched and they’ve spent the vast majority of that time sitting alone in their turret-like nests watching the winter pass, interrupted by weekly feeding visits from their parents. They can stand up to about waist height now and, although it’ll be another three months at least before they start to fledge, they will soon start to get bored and explore away from their nests.

Before that happens we’ll put a unique identification ring on every one of the 600+ chicks. This will enable us to identify any individual subsequently nesting or picked up elsewhere in the southern ocean and will help to build up a picture of their survival rates, dispersion and life history.

Preparations for new season

August marks the start of the new breeding season and despite the cold weather there have been signs of activity; pintail chasing each other round, sheathbills collecting nesting material, giant petrels pair-bonding and, most pleasingly of all, South Georgia pipits singing.

We’ve completed our annual reports and most of our preparations for upcoming work as we’ll soon be out every day checking on giant petrels, black-browed and grey-headed albatross. Nest-marking stakes have been cut and painted and marker tags have been cleaned and sorted. New spreadsheets and notebooks have been drawn up and we’re all raring to go.

By Jerry Gillham; zoological field assistant (penguins and petrels) & winter base commander.