Bird Island Diary – December 2002

31 December, 2002

Christmas and new arrivals

December is traditionally one of the busiest months here at Bird Island and this year was no exception, both at work and at play. The month started with a visit from HMS Endurance. We had a couple of visitors ashore who were taking photos for the South Georgia website, but the main reason for Endurance’s visit was for them to take aerial photographs of the large macaroni penguin colony (known to us as Big Mac) using one of their helicopters. Hopefully we will be able to use these photos to make more accurate estimates of the size of the penguin population. This is currently a bit of a grey area! We know that there are a lot of them, more than any other penguin species, but not exactly how many.

This month Jane and Chris started to install an automatic identification system which will read tiny tags that we are implanting into the penguins in the small colony (Little Mac), in an effort to find out more about the survival rates and and breeding success of individuals in the population. My own work looks at how much energy the penguins use and how much food they need to eat. In January Jane and Chris will be using satellite transmitters to find out where the penguins go to feed. Putting all of this together, BAS are trying to work out the role of this important species in the ecosystem around South Georgia. Luckily we had a clear day for the photos, most of which Jane and Chris spent waiting for the flyover, video camera at the ready to monitor for any potential impact of the helicopter. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to remind people that penguins do not, have not and probably will never fall over backwards when a helicopter passes overhead. In fact our penguins barely even noticed that the helicopters were there! As is traditional on sunny days, our evening meal was a barbecue, prepared by Ben and held outside along with the fur seals, skuas and various other uninvited guests!

Construction of the automatic identification gateway kept Jane and Chris busy through the end of December. Before that, all of the penguin team were involved in monitoring nests in the gentoo colony at Square Pond and collecting individuals for implantation with heart rate data loggers. The remaining chicks hatched at the beginning of the month but by Christmas they had been left alone by their parents and are hanging around in crèches for protection from hungry skuas. The first macaroni penguin chick hatched in Little Mac on December 18th. From tiny 100g fluff balls the earliest chicks are already starting to look like proper penguins! This month I also deployed some more heart rate data loggers in macaroni penguins but most of my time was spent performing experiments at base measuring the heart rate and rate of oxygen consumption of macaroni penguins for 48-hour periods.

Our next visitors came aboard RRS Ernest Shackleton which brought with it some missing bits of cargo, fresh fruit and veggies and more importantly four new personnel; Sascha, Richard, Paulo and Andy Cope. Maggie left us for a six-week secondment to the ship and this exchange took our numbers up from a sleepy seven to a tumultuous ten – our capacity. The ship call was also an opportunity to get some people ashore for a day or two to help us with some jobs. There was a fairly simple exchange rate; hard labour in return for expert guided tours to the main breeding colonies. With the help of a gang of ten volunteers led by John Critchley, Ben managed to get his miniature bird hide transported across the island and erected in the grey-headed albatross study colony. The weather was a little misty but those who stuck it out for the complete tour were treated to the grey-heads, wandering albatrosses, macaroni penguins and views across to the mainland of South Georgia – a rare treat but well earned! Thanks also to Phil and Chris the RAF radio operators who serviced our antennas and had the dubious honour of a day in the company of the animal nerds and a sleepless night in the Hilton, serenaded by thousands of Antarctic fur seals whose beach our base is located on.

With the full science team now in place, work on all the intensively studied species has increased to top speed. Nico and Jaume continued their twice-daily visits to SSB where they continued to monitor the breeding fur seals. Tension built as we all followed the increasing count of pups born. Our bets for the total number had to be in on the first of December. The person guessing furthest away from the final total has to bake a cake for the person closest to the total. You will have to wait until next month for the announcement of the winner but I should perhaps mention for Nico’s benefit that I am a fruitcake man….. The seal teams’ workload did not stop there. A total of 60 female seals were equipped with radio transmitters and half of these were also fitted with hydrodynamic retarders. These devices mimic the effect of a season of low food abundance and a colleague from the University of Cambridge is interested in how the seals cope with this. This work is being supervised by Sascha, who has also deployed some more of her digital seal-cams in order to answer some questions posed by her work from the previous two seasons.

The birds-except-penguins team have also been busy. Ben handed over daily weighings of grey-headed albatrosses to Paulo leaving him to concentrate on preparation for and the commencement of the whole-island wandering albatross survey. Approximately 1000 pairs will nest on the island this season and Ben will put a bright red stake by each nest and record the identities of the breeding adults. First though he had to gather in the 1000 stakes he put out last year and repaint or replace those that had fallen victim to the weather or the powerful beaks of the albatrosses. Ben also had time to spend a week in the lab measuring krill carapaces from albatross diet samples. He asked me not to put that in the diary as it is boring and not very glamorous but as we all know Ben, science can be a cruel mistress!

Richard and Paulo have been colluding on a number of projects on the grey-headed albatrosses. They have been weighing adults, checking for hatching dates of chicks and deploying light sensing devices. This is Paulo’s first visit to Bird Island and he seems to be enjoying himself despite having to spend many hours outside in the cold waiting for the albatrosses to swap incubation shifts with their partners so he can weigh the departing bird! Richard was very excited to get back the light sensing devices that he deployed on his favourite brown skuas last season. These devices will tell him where the skuas have been all winter while he has been in Cambridge.

Late December is Christmas party season and Bird Island was no exception. Our parties were in fact confined to two days but we attempted to make up in enthusiasm and vigour what we lacked in quantity. On Christmas Eve we sang carols accompanied not only by Chris on his electric piano but by mince pies made by Jane and Ben and a large vat of mulled wine magically produced by Mr Cocktails. Christmas day was a day off for some but sadly not for all. Most of us were able to partake in a cooked brunch though and witness Jane start on her present-opening marathon. Sascha, Nico and Richard also provided presents for all so we didn’t feel left out. After relaxing with a cocktail in front of our Christmas afternoon movie we all gathered for our Christmas dinner. Jane was on her usual fine form in the kitchen and hence so was the turkey who had spent most of the day loitering in the bottom oven of the Aga. After stuffing ourselves silly we spent the rest of the evening relaxing, smoking cigars, sampling various alcoholic beverages and shouting down the satellite phone at far away family members.

HMS Endurance came back once more on the 27th of December to take Jaume back home and bring us Andy Smith on loan from King Edward Point (KEP). Jaume took with him many happy memories, lots of pictures of king penguins, his expertise in Catalan cooking and a particular fondness for grilled squid – which is fantastic. Andy S is here for two weeks to give our generators some much needed TLC and he forms the other half of our technical team with Andy C. Since arriving Andy C has taken on base commander responsibilities from Maggie and with his facilities engineer hat on has been fixing various broken bits of the base and performing other annual maintenance checks. Both the Andys have also been getting stuck in helping with science jobs and producing large quantities of fine bread.

Andy S arrived just in time for our New Years Eve party. Our fancy dress theme this year was “Superheroes and Supervillains” and so the evening was spent in the company of Superman, Spiderman, Wonderwoman, Catwoman, Robocop, Sir Lancelot, The Last Mohican, Zorro, The Shadow and The Dark Lord Sauron. Sauron produced an impressive feast for us all – we suspect he may have used the dark magic of the Ring of Power, and then the partying started in earnest with many silly games. Nico and Sascha had spent the afternoon constructing our own game of Twister with the predictable embarrassment for all concerned! Bouts of this were interspersed with “pin the crests on the penguin” and the return of “the flour game”. New Year was celebrated with a fizzy toast, much hugging and shaking of hands and a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. After that it was silly dancing until dawn, led by Sauron. Once again we suspect dark magic may have been responsible for his seemingly endless supply of energy and DJ The Shadow was kept busy on the wheels of steel.

And on this happy note we welcomed in 2003 and said goodbye to December and the rest of 2002. This is where my contribution ends too and all that remains is to wish a very happy New Year to all of you at home and to someone else far away from friends and family at the moment.

Jonny Green