Bird Island Diary — December 2001

31 December, 2001

Fur Seals and Festivities

Everyone that I had met before my visit to Bird Island told me that I would love this tiny isolated island and it’s wildlife. A visiting PhD student, I was here for the summer to study the sex lives of fur seals. I was coming probably at the most exciting time of the year – the Antarctic summer, and the breeding season! During this time, a host of animals descend upon Bird Island to mate and rear young, but the most conspicuous of all have to be the fur seals. During november, we had seen the first males coming ashore to hold territories, the arrival of the first females and the birth of the first pups. However, December witnessed the climax, so to speak, of the fur seal breeding season.

Already by early December, there were many hundreds of seals in front of the base. However, during the weeks to follow, the numbers of seals were to skyrocket. Soon, every beach and rocky platform on the island would be densely populated, and seals would even spread far up into the tussock grass towards the base of the mountains. By mid-december at Main Bay, many thousands of females had come ashore to give birth and increasing numbers of males had arrived and vied to mate with them. The beaches were an impressive natural spectacle, a seething mass of animals alive with the sounds of males growling, females calling and pups bleating. The noise was tremendous, and continued throughout the day and night, sounding a bit like a wild party. We could also hear seals from within the comfort of base, since some of the animals ‘moved in’ under the buildings. It was common during dinner to hear a muffled roar emanating from the floor beneath the table. Sometimes we would even hear a resounding thump as an animal collided with part of the building (the corrugated steel walls were full of dents to testify to this occurrence).

With the season kicking-off, Mark, Nick, Sascha and myself soon found ourselves busily immersed in seal work. On SSB (the ‘special study beach’) we tissue-sampled pups and territorial males, in order to test genetically which males successfully father pups. Tissue-sampling males at the very edges of the beach often involved clambering down onto the rocks and amid the males. In the style of true Antarctic heroes, Mark and Nick were never daunted! In fact, I don’t think that I have ever met two people that loved their jobs more. They even managed to remain cheerful when collecting scats, ten fresh ones each week, and examining them in minute detail for bones, krill carapaces and even eyeballs! Sascha’s project provided a welcome respite from scats. She was attaching devices such as video cameras to female seals to investigate how they obtained food for their pups. As part of this study, she was also radiotracking the pups, using miniature radio-transmitters.

This month we also helped Jane to count Macaroni penguins. Macaronis stand a little over a foot tall, and have floppy plumes of yellow-orange feathers on the top of their heads. They are the most abundant penguin in South Georgia. We conducted the annual census at the largest colony on the Island, affectionately termed ‘Big Mac’. ‘Big’, however, did not begin to describe the scale of the breathtaking scene before us – 60,000 penguins populating the face of a steep stony hillside facing the bright-blue Antarctic ocean. The calls of many thousands of penguins mingled with the crashing of the sea on the rocks far below to create a constant and deafening roar. Like much of the wildlife here, the Macaronis did not seem perturbed by our presence. Most of them sat together in pairs, calling to one another and performing the ‘ecstatic display’, with head and bill stretched forward and flippers waving rhythmically. There were also many other distractions to keep the macaronis occupied, including the sinister presence of scavenging skuas constantly wheeling overhead and sneaky sheathbills waiting to snatch any unguarded eggs. We began the census by painting transect lines with bright yellow paint as we carefully picked our way through the colony. Whilst most of the penguins sat still and pecked at us if we came within range, every now and then one would become unsettled and move away from the egg. When this happened, we waited for the penguin to return and closely guarded the egg from any scavengers. We later counted the numbers of breeding pairs within 5 by 5m quadrats along the transects. The density of penguins was amazing, with some quadrats containing over 60 pairs!

Johnny was also progressing well with his penguin experiment. The sight of penguins on treadmills became commonplace, as he investigated the relationship between heart rate and oxygen consumption. His experiments ran through the night, but despite that, he remained pretty ‘with-it’. At the end of each day, he never failed to impress us with his ability to transform from physiologist to chemist, mixing a bewildering array of exotic cocktails. In return, we all helped out by doing his late or early shifts, and Jane even volunteered for the graveyard shift (from 2am to 6am). Building the swim-channel, however (a device which Johnny will use to study the physiology of swimming penguins), proved more challenging. The pieces of metal and wood resembled a giant meccano set, but without any instructions. Just like self-build MFI furniture, all of the holes seemed to be in the wrong places. In the end, however, mind triumphed over matter and the channel began to take shape.

We also made some rather unusual nocturnal excursions. The aim of these was to help Richard to collect blood samples from a variety of birds that emerge from their burrows only at night. Using isotopic analysis of carbon and nitrogen, Richard hopes to find out what the birds eat. We began with a trip to catch white chinned petrels, small black-coloured birds with white chins and beaks and a wingspan of about 2 feet. They nest all over the island, and sometimes at night we heard the muffled sounds of their chicks calling through the ground beneath our feet. We set out at about 11pm in the fading evening light, and clambered over tussock to ‘Cobblers Hill’, about 20 minutes from base along the coast. The hill was very high, with a sheer cliff on one side and steep slopes falling away on the other sides down towards the sea far below. All around were the shapes of petrels whizzing by in the sky and the sounds of their calls. We finally realised why they call this place Bird Island, for it literally comes alive at night with many hundreds of thousands of nocturnal birds. The petrels were easy to catch with the hands since they were not afraid of humans, but we did have to carefully avoid their razor sharp beaks. One of the birds, had to be cut free from an ensnaring fishing hook and nylon line through its wing.

The second excursion was to ‘Sooty Cove’, a tiny steep-sided bay with a small seal colony down by the waterline and sooty albatrosses (Nick’s very favourite birds) nesting up on the cliffs above. Richard set up mist-nets to catch black-bellied petrels, small and elusive birds. They were attracted into the net by means of an enticing tape recording of randy black-bellies calling for mates. However, maybe they weren’t in the mood that night, because by the time most of us left many hours later, we had not succeeded in capturing a single bird. We did have a lovely time sitting in the darkness and absorbing the nighttime ambience of this lovely place though. Then there was the added experience of returning to the base in the wee-hours. It was very weird stumbling home in the pitch blackness with the sounds of unseen fur seals growling all around. Occasionally a seal would be caught in the beams of a headtorch, and we would see a pair of large eyes reflecting brightly back at us, set within the great grey shadowy outline of the body – at those times they could have been mistaken for monsters from the tales of ancient mariners.

Despite the hectic December timetable, the base remained a picture of domestic bliss. The cooking was exquisite, ranging from a magnificent greek-style spread laid on by Mark to Jane’s excellent roast dinner. There was only one hiccup, when the range conked out, but Ben recovered well by converting his dinner into a delectable squid BBQ! To our widespread relief, Maggie then managed to repair the range, after much banging, crashing and drilling. The weather remained fine, and provided many opportunities for dining al fresco. One evening, we set up the dinner table on the end of the jetty, in the shadow of a large iceberg that had drifted into the bay. It was reminiscent of a ‘Monty Python’ scene. We were surrounded by swimming seals, and I even found a cute pup waiting for me on my seat! There was also much entertainment to be had around base, including films, fluffy toy photoshots, four-hour-long darts games and, of course, tickling the whiskers of playful pups (my personal favourite). The only thing that got a bit tricky was visiting the lavatory, since the seals decided to take over the jetty, but we soon learnt to don wellies and walk down the stream where the males were less territorial.

Near the end of the month, the Christmas preparations came into full swing. The customary vibes of Sheryl Crow were replaced by those of the classic crooner, Bing Crosby. Suddenly, gaudy decorations sprang up in every corner, above every door and in all of the nooks and crannies. The base was afire with gold, silver, red and green. Sascha got very excited and transformed the notice board with elaborate cartoons! It was a very fun time, but also a little sad for me, because I had just been told that I would be leaving earlier than planned – the Endurance had broken her helicopters and would be departing for the Falklands ahead of schedule. Before I left, a very special outing was arranged – swimming with the seals. Wetsuit-clad with face-masks and snorkels, we must have looked quite a sight, because the seals were very curious, nudging us as they swam past and inspecting us with wide eyes. I was amazed by their grace and agility underwater.

The next day I found myself standing on the jetty, just I had done so two months before, wearing a nasty orange survival suit and surrounded by the base compliment. After lots of handshaking, pats on the back, hugs, and a salad creme presentation ceremony I was whisked away in a zodiac out of that world and into another. Now I write this in my study back in Cambridge, where the roar of the beach has been replaced by the rumblings of the kettle, the smell of the seals by that of car exhausts and where people outnumber animals. By now though, many of the seals will also have left Bird Island to spend the rest of the year at sea. They are now probably well on their way to their favorite maritime haunts, which remain as mysterious to us as I am sure Cambridge would be to them.