Bird Island Diary – December 2003

31 December, 2003 Bird Island

The Bird Island Flying Times

December’s Bird Island newsletter could be called the The Bird Island Times, or, to be more precise, the The Bird Island Flying Times, given the many events to tell and how fast they went by. As is typical at this time of the year, there was a massive arrival of marine wildlife looking for breeding grounds on land. With it came the continuation of many monitoring programs and the start of new science projects. December is also a month with a lot of movement of BAS and non-BAS people, and so we had many ship calls and numerous visitors. It is also a month of traditional celebrations, a Base full of people and multiple social events. The month has passed before our eyes at the speed of light, and with it the Christmas and New Years Eve celebrations, Cuz and Graham bound to Halley, Sarah and Isaac’s birthdays, and also year 2003.

Early in the month we had the visit of yacht Ada II, with Sally Poncet and her team bound to do research all over South Georgia, and in particular, to try and take digital pictures of all the albatross colonies to conduct photographic counts. Their visits were repeated on several occasions while they were in the vicinity of Bird Island, and as their work continued we could share nice and late evenings with good company, food and drinks, both on Base and on Ada II. The Golden Fleece with Jérôme Poncet also showed up to finalise plans and logistics with Phil, who is charting the yacht through BAS for his research located on the Willis Islands next month. We also had HMS Endurance near Bird Island on a few occasions, with our own Dirk Briggs onboard, who was flying aerial transects with their helicopter and taking pictures to conduct fur seal and penguin counts in a collaborative project between BAS and the Navy. Dirk, a veteran of Bird Island, was warmly welcomed on Base not only for bringing mail and goodies. HMS Endurance personnel visited on several additional occasions to set up a tide gauge, shortly before the arrival of the Shackleton on December 9.

As is usual when the Shackleton arrives, the winterers went for their long due dental checks, and many of the people en route to Halley went for a visit of Big Mac and to the wandering albatrosses. A new cargo lifting gantry was put together and several long awaited repairs to the radio masts could finally happen. Steve Canham and Mark Godfry gave us an extensive talk about ideas for the near-future rebuild of the Base, filling us with hope. With the departure of the Shackleton we said goodbye to Paul Cousens (Cuz) and Graham Gillie, and wished them all the best in their upcoming seasons at Halley. Before that, we enjoyed many events with them, including Tandoori barbeques, climbs to La Roche and Mexican parties, and we took our summer picture. During his stay at Bird island, Graham excelled in his wood work and helped to fix dozens of things all over the Base. Cuz also worked real hard on many things, including our AGA oven, which has become not only temperamental with age, but also somehow unreliable. We know we are going to miss it when a modern impersonal appliance finally replaces it, but I guess that some things have to change and this is the way it has to be. Thanks again, Graham and Cuz, especially from Maggie, now the main one in charge of the AGA and the person who misses their sleep after having to be awake in the wee hours to make regular checks. All the best.

Sarah and Isaac, the new zoological research assistants, had their birthdays and corresponding parties on December 10 and 28 respectively (numbers mean days, not age). For Sarah we had a “B” party as per her wishes; this challenged our abilities to dress ourselves in the best possible way and with imaginative taste. Thus, we had a party with a(n) (Antarctic) Beaver, a Blonde, a Ballerina (no comment…), a Bat, a Barbarian, a Bubble, a Bug and, of course, a Bunny. There was no prize (in points, usual currency on Bird Island) for the best costume, because Sarah deserved them all on her special day. With Isaac the thing was a bit trickier. He came out with the idea of Glamour, which of course is something we all have when we come back in the evenings from the field, after a day among the tussock, the mud and the animals. But, again, neither imagination nor resources ran out and we all showed our best possible glamour. At this point, I will just refrain to comment on things, some of which I wasn’t really prepared to see… Please, just judge for yourselves and, perhaps, don’t try to understand. I am sure that Isaac had a great time as did the rest of us, and this time he deserved all the points. Happy birthdays!

The James Clark Ross reached Bird Island in December 23, after lots of bad weather and uncertainty about whether the call would actually happen. Luckily it did and we were all pleased to see her again, even if very briefly. Just time to have Nick Dunbar and Tony Poole on Base, ship’s engineers, to check the generators that have been giving us grief and misery lately, unload a very small amount of cargo, and to bring us Dave Molyneaux, our communications expert. Dave is working hard these days to fix plenty of things, and he is struggling to catch up with the continuous parties, celebrations and festivities that for some reason have accumulated this month. We have him with us until mid-January, enjoying the Antarctic fur seals and lodged at the Dorchester (see November newsletter for official opening).

Indeed, a remarkable December fact was the consolidation of the Dorchester as additional accommodation facility with the arrival of the first lodgers, Phil and myself. The new facility surpassed by far the qualities of its predecessor, the old bird hide named The Hilton after the well-known international hotel chain and the sarcasm of the hide builders. In the Dorchester, bunks are comfortable and storage cabinets are big. Like the Hilton, it has the utter dampness of the Bird Island summer, which just in the first night transforms your bedtime paperbacks into wrinkled “wigglebacks”. As far as the name is concerned, the new facility could have been called The Chelsea Hotel; after a night in the Dorchester one usually wakes up with a confused smile on the face. This is not because of a fantastic room service or because of the throwing of wild parties like the celebrity Chelsea clients have, but because the average room temperature was 7-8°C, the relative humidity was well over 85-90%, there was a direct connection to the sound of the morning start up of the generators, and condensation that freezes on the door knob and everything else. All this was enough to put a smiley rictus on our faces as soon as we stepped outside on top of the Antarctic fur seal male that likes to sleep right behind the door, acting as a grumpy, living door mat. In mid December, Phil and I moved inside the warm main building, and neither him nor I miss badly the Dorchester.

Let me continue the celebrations report with the arrival of Christmas, which this year was a nice and sunny day. It was one of the rare days with clear blue sky that we fully enjoyed indulging in a few extra sleep hours post-Christmas eve celebrations. These, by the way, included singing Carols to the fur seal puppies outside Base, with candlelight and intruding fur seal males to help us sing even more out of tune, if that could ever be possible. In the morning we opened our presents, and I pondered about the question of Santa having a flying sled and the convenience of not having to park it among the fur seals. I guess I was a little bit tired… Next came a new Christmas activity, a dip and swim in Prion Pond, which is a muddy pond of freezing cold water on Top Meadows. I stayed in the kitchen to prepare the traditional brunch with lots of very fatty products that people enjoyed after the momentarily and massive loss of body calories. I must say that I enjoyed more cooking Christmas dinner the rest of the afternoon, and I did not regret missing the freezing dip in the pond. In the evening, we consumed the meal with traditional decorum until the unexpected irruption by some yakuza type bunch, that happened to be loaded with friendly good intent to cheer us all through the night. Only this time fur seals were not allowed.

December has been a month of high Antarctic fur seal presence, with dozens of thousands of females arriving from the ocean to their annual call to breed. The main beaches at Bird Island were fully booked, with a higher level of occupation than the most popular Mediterranean beaches in August. Landing beach was only good for the landing of seals, or perhaps also for the bravest scientists equipped with cast iron underwear. Demographic studies on the Seal Study Beach, with continuous monitoring by BAS scientists for over 20 years, indicate that December 2003 has seen by far the largest pup productivity of the last 8 years. But it has also been a year of high pup mortality, which suggests that most mothers had a difficult time finding food to provision their offspring. The peak of the pupping season was on December 7, and up to that date we had just under 2000 pups born on Freshwater Beach. From then and to date, another 2000 were born, with the survivors taking over any available space around the Base.

The pups are now growing up fast and their mothers have initiated their trips back to the ocean in search for food. While the little ones wait for their mothers to return, they move around a lot and they like to squeeze in the walkways around the Base, looking for a warm and dry spot after all the rain we had in late December. Outside the Base now there is a black carpet of apparently defenceless big-eyed puppies that inspire tenderness. But no messing with the little ones here. These puppies are born in a world of brutality. Adult males, with their massive bodies, are always ready to trample upon them to protect and safeguard their virtual mating territories and the custody of the females that happen to be there. Thus, pups usually respond to humans with anything from an indifferent bark to an active chase for a bite of your lower reaches. (Given their size, the reaches are usually low.) It is the time when one must remember to not leave any doors to the Base facilities open, as Maggie realised when she found the generator shed open with only 17 pups inside that decided to share the warmth of the engines for a nap.

December has also been a busy month for all those born with wings, including flying and flightless birds. Amongst the most majestic of the flying ones, albatrosses are well into their breeding seasons, including grey-head, black-browed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. The wandering albatrosses have also started the return from the ocean to the nesting valleys and ridges. The old nests and vicinities, some of which are still occupied by late last-year fledglings in the phase of landing-on-water training, have been taken over by adult consolidated breeders, and also by young birds that will attempt to build nests and breed for the first time. Wandering albatrosses have a long breeding cycle and rearing a chick can take as much as 280 days. When the rearing is successful they do not return to breed on the island for at least one season, delaying the birth of their next chick. Unfortunately, the combination of this long and costly reproduction together with increased mortality resulting from interactions with fisheries have made the Bird Island albatross numbers dwindle under the significant figure of 1000 breeding pairs for the first time.

Although numbers continue in decline, we have seen again the amazing breeding displays of these three-metre-winged long-lived giants in all the top valleys and meadows. Even more amazing to me has been the return of at least three birds ringed as chicks in 1958 by Lance Tickell that continue breeding in the Island at 45 years of age. The invaluable continued resighting of these and thousands of other birds over so many years provides a living record of environmental fluctuations and ecosystem change, and many lessons to be learned. The resilience of these old wanderers to human pressures should bring us hope and inspiration for better conservation management.

Amongst the flightless birds, Macaroni penguin chicks were born by thousands in the huge colonies of Big Mac and Mac Cwm. It was a very active month for their parents in egg laying and incubation, and also protection from air-borne predators, including Skuas and sheathbills. These scavengers need to build up reserves for their respective nesting and egg laying, which takes place this month. In a more advanced stage are Gentoo penguin chicks, born early in the season, even in impossible places like the back end of Landing Beach. Landing Beach is one of the busiest seal breeding areas, and the Gentoos have stayed away from it for many seasons. This year, despite having to sometimes share the same square metre with fur seal males, many pairs have been successful in bringing up chicks. In long established Gentoo colonies like those of Johnson Beach or Mountain Cwm most chicks are already big, fat and independent and wander around while their parents go back to the ocean to collect yet more meals of krill and icefish.

Bird Island in December is a place of multiple seasons, where mornings can be rainy or snowy, sun may shine after the rain and later on the fog can switch to a shower of hail. In this variety of weather, the island, and especially the areas around Base, are packed with fur seals and seabirds that are born, live and die, filling the air with pungent smells and strident sounds. In December, the snow rarely stays, and the tussock grass becomes slippery and muddy. Walking is difficult and falling is common. Luckily, it is easier to hurt the sense of pride than the bones while learning to walk in the tussock and amongst fur seals. And yet, this is also the Bird Island we love, and the one to which we want to return every year, those of us who are visitors from Cambridge. Skies are cloudy most of the times, but on rare occasions the wind blows hard, bringing gorgeous sunsets and starry nights. No matter how busy the season becomes, these are the evenings to relax, perhaps sitting at the end of the jetty with dangling feet, in the silence of solitude or in company, discoursing slowly and philosophically on matters of interest but of no importance. I like those nights where the stars shine and the sun sets, but not quite, and the horizon still glints with clear blue light. These are the nights to enjoy, to think of the beloved ones, the ones who wait for us far away, or those who recently passed away. And the stars in the clear night fill our hearts with the joy of their memory. I recall such a night in my first generator shut down in December 3, at 1.30 PM. A date to remember.

To you all, thank you very much for everything and all the very best for 2004.

Jaume Forcada