Bird Island Diary – December 2004

31 December, 2004

A new Base Commander

Happy New Year to all readers, especially those nearest and dearest to the Bird Island team. December passed in a flash. Here we are in the New Year and it seems incongruous to be reminiscing on 2004 when there’s so much to look forward to.

This month, I have mostly been running to keep up. What with getting to grips with a new job and trailing scientists, often at a jog, over a landscape of mud, bog, tussac and scree, I have certainly been using brain and body, but in a pleasantly relaxing way. I transferred over to Bird Island from the South Georgia mainland on the 9th of December after a year working at the Applied Fisheries Research Station at King Edward Point. I caught a lift from the good ship Ernest Shackleton, bound for Halley, as she completed an ‘islands tour’ on the way, calling in at Signy, BI and KEP. Prior to transferring me, she had taken advantage of a good weather window on her way to KEP to drop off Akinori Takahashi and cargo at Bird Island on the 5th. The reputation for bad weather at Bird Island lives on as high wind and rough seas allowed only the necessary pax transfer and a quick visit of mast erectors to complete a survey of the HF radio masts, leaving those bound for Halley with no final opportunity to experience rock beneath their feet before they spend the next summer, or in some cases 2 years, living on an ice shelf.

Akinori has undoubtedly featured in Signy’s newsletters in the past as he has spent 2 summer seasons there studying penguins. He now returns to work in collaboration with BAS while completing his post-doctorate research fellowship with the University of Hokkaido (for the tertiary education uninitiated that means he’s a clever chap). His project is part-funded through the Antarctic Funding Initiative, which aims to promote collaborative projects between BAS and Universities world renowned for their science. Aki has with him some very fancy gadgets. There’s a lot of fancy gadgets here, come to think of it. I reckon his must be the fanciest as they are the smallest and most expensive. The advanced technology of the Japanese is apparent to even the amateur’s eye, when you recognise the amount and quality of data these super cool tiny things record. His loggers have been deployed on Macaroni and Gentoo penguins and shags, with plans to deploy on fur seals and albatross in the coming months. The loggers record lateral and longitudinal acceleration with time and depth, which allows us to understand the foraging activity of those animals and birds who are currently feeding babies….and believe me, everybody on BI has got babies this month.

From past and current research at BI and beyond, we know the growth stages of penguin and albatross chicks and fur seal pups, we have a good grasp on how long the parents leave the chick/pup to forage for food, and we are more recently beginning to find out where they typically seek their food, the duration and depth of their dives and what and how much they are catching when they dive. What Aki is adding to this minefield of information is data on their body movements during their time at sea. He is able to download the data immediately after retrieval and we have had some early views of several impressive raw data graphs already. We see the diving, prey chasing and ‘porpoising’ speed profiles of penguins, we see whereabouts in the dive they are catching their prey, how long it takes, and what type of movement is associated with it.

We’ve had a truly international base here this month, with 3 Brits, 1 Australian, 1 Spanish and 1 Japanese. Jaume, our Catalonian friend, and another very clever chap, has spent most of December working at the Seal Study Beach (SSB). He is a population ecologist with the BAS and his studies during this season were mostly concentrated on demographics of fur seals. Sarah, our wintering seal scientist, has joined him twice daily at the site, where they have spent upto 7 hours a day during the peak pupping week, often battered by winds blowing directly off the sea from Antarctica. The SSB is only a 5 minute walk from base, but on the way we see gentoo chicks fed by their parents on their nests, emotional and noisy reunions of fur seal pups with their mothers returning from their fishing trips, we perform a balancing act jumping from one seal flattened muddy tussac lump to another, avoiding the mud pools between and we scramble down a short cliff side, with the aid of a secured rope, to get down to the study beach.

So what do the seal team do there? They spend a lot of time talking to their Dictaphone. It appears that a Dictaphone is a field biologist’s best friend. From my observations, it is a common feature of all wintering biological assistants at Bird Island to spend many hours talking to their tape recorder out in the field and then they can be seen listening to themselves via headphones as they sit in front of their computers downloading the day’s information. I have tried to use one of these Dictaphones when helping Isaac with the albatrosses, and even discussed the various merits of different types, yes indeed, but I was all fingers and thumbs despite wearing fingerless gloves, and have since decided that the work takes half the time if left to the experts.

Back to the SSB. What do they say to their Dictaphone? They say how many new pregnant females have turned up, how many females there are on the beach that day, and they check whether the girls have any identification to show whether they have been recorded at the beach before. They note which males are holding territory, the numbers of dead pups from which they estimate mortality rate, typically around 17%, and they perform a basic investigation to see whether they can determine the cause of death. For most of the month, at least once a day and often twice, a female was weighed, tagged, tissue sampled and aged. Then they count the number of new pups (very cute), weighing, tissue sampling and PIT tagging upto 10 of them every day (PIT tags are very similar to the identifying devices commonly implanted in pets these days). Several of the mums have tags already, if they have bred on the same beach in previous years. Their pups are always the first to be chosen as then we can build up a better picture of how the genetic population of the study beach develops, and identify what influences successful breeding. The weighed pups are marked, with a blond hair dye, to allow the scientists to easily identify which pups have been handled, helping to ensure minimal re-handling. The dye works remarkably well and disappears within a couple of months as they undergo their first moult. We had a couple of special babies (there always are aren’t there), who are now identifiable by slightly different dye markings than usual. We have Elvis (looks like he has sideburns), Arrowhead (born a wee, scrawny thing, many didn’t expect her to make it but she’s thriving now) and several “J”‘s on Christmas day to mark the birth of Jesus.

Jaume’s work involves a lot of numerical modelling. He analyses the importance of many different, often global, variables on the breeding success of fur seals at Bird Island. He uses data collected over the last 40 years to predict changes in breeding numbers for current and future years, and then is able to build a picture of how those changes are attributed to previous population changes and food (krill) availability, and more indirect drivers such as changes in local sea surface temperature around the island and even the El Nino effect in the Pacific ocean.

It has been one of the busiest months of the year for Sarah, resident seal girl, as in addition to all the work at the SSB, she has continued with her more routine summer work of collecting seal scats (faecal samples) for diet analysis, and deploying various gadgets on various female fur seals, including Sattags, GLSs, TDRs and Txs. I can proudly claim to know what all these stand for now, and can tentatively claim to know what they do, but haven’t much of clue how they do it yet. Suffice to say that when the data is combined from each logger, it provides not only sufficient information on foraging trip behaviour but also due to obtaining certain data for several years, we are able to identify inter-annual changes in this behaviour. The deployments go on females found very close to the base who tolerate the human presence through familiarity rather than, I expect, any love of the race. Apart perhaps from Wendy, probably the friendliest fur seal currently known to man, who appears to prefer human company to her own kin. She visited to the station towards the end of the month having spotted Isaac walking above Main Beach and followed him back to base. Adult fur seals can appear very unfriendly if you stray into their personal space (seemingly quite a bit larger than ours), and although they infrequently attack, they would certainly not chose to act like Wendy, calling out to you to come and be friends and following you round if you haven’t said hello when you see her. Meanwhile, the station surroundings are now packed out with little black furry beasts that, like any baby, spend most of the day asleep. One of their favourite spots are the the drier walkways around the site. In the interest of keeping impacts on the seals down, we leave these open to the animals to use as they please while constantly trying to ensure that there is nothing left out that is likely to damage them.

I made a mental note to not write all this newsletter about science and wildlife – not doing very well am I? But I am new here and it is all very exciting so please allow me to continue.

I mentioned the profusion of babies, well, apart from spending time with the pups at SSB and outside the front door, I have spotted more baby birds than I ever have in my life. That’s not strictly true, as I didn’t spot any of them, it was Isaac and Chris that pointed them out to me. From the smallest up, we have: baby pipits – tiny wee things, ducklings – cutest yellow ones, shags – cutest brown ones, macaroni penguins – cutest black ones, gentoo penguins – cutest grey and white ones, skuas – shame, I’ve already allotted cutest brown ones. Best legs then, nice and strong, go like the clappers. Geeps (giant petrels) – cute at birth but soon grow up to be a little too prim and proper, bright clean white (the only thing on Bird Island to be so) sitting on their nests of dried mud and tussac grass. They look like high maintenance babies with delicate stomachs, which is somewhat surprising considering their parents are regurgitating the guts of dead seals as a tasty snack for them. They make a retching noise if you pass near to them and have a tendency to be sick if you get too close. A good enough excuse to stay away then – we don’t want their sick on us and they certainly don’t want to waste their last meal. And finally black brow and grey head albatrosses – I have to admit that I admired their parents for staying with them. I saw one at 1 day old and it wasn’t pretty, its feathers hadn’t fluffed yet and it looked damp and straggly. Luckily the parents persevered and stayed around a couple more days to see the ugly duckling turn into a beautiful albatross chick.

Chris has finally been able to relinquish his tasks as base commander upon my arrival, and has been able to concentrate once again on his penguins. After completing an extended winter season of management duties, it must be a pleasant relief to get back to concentrating on his science, and just in time as next month it’s Chris’s turn to be busy at all hours. This month he has ensured a comprehensive and efficient handover, helping me gain a good grasp on the base facilities & procedures, with utmost patience. He has also helped both Aki and I get acquainted with the island and its animals. He and Isaac are both gearing up for a busy couple of months ahead, Chris with his deployments on Macaronis and diet sampling of Gentoos. Isaac is visiting Wanderer Ridge, a particularly peaceful part of the island, away from the noise and smell of the animals (seals) at base, on a daily basis to check whether the last of the wandering albatross chicks from last year have fledged. He’s also visiting the black brows and grey heads to check out which are nesting successfully and he is just starting the wanderer stakeout, where he and various volunteers are visiting every corner of the island and allocating a number to every nest with an egg, recording its GPS position and which of the parents is present. The vast majority have rings present already as they have often been born or mated at Bird Island before.

The sun came out on the 14th, and it stayed out for more than an hour, a rare occasion this month. Most of us managed a trip up La Roche, the highest peak on the island at 356m, where the already stunning views were enhanced by a recent light snowfall on higher ground. The mainland of SG looked tantalising, you could see hiding between the immediate mountains of Cape Alexander and the distant peaks of the Nunez Peninsula, the space filled by King Haakon Bay, where Shackleton started his momentous trek across the island. You could also just make out Annenkov Island, sitting off the south west of the island. A pleasant scramble along 100m of exposed ridge felt similar to Striding & Sharp Edge, favourites of mine on a crisp winter day closer to home in the Lakes, but the view from the breathless summit was altogether different and one of my most pleasant yet.

Having arrived from KEP, reputed for the number of social occasions it has what with visiting ships throughout the year, I arrived at BI to be bombarded with parties in December. We had Sarah’s birthday on the 10th, where we held a murder mystery party, and acknowledged the lack of quality theatrical skills amongst the group. Christmas Day was celebrated in style, with a trip to the SSB for pre-lunchtime mulled wine and mince pies, followed by a feast for the evening meal, kindly provided by Zac. We received and passed on Christmas greetings with Sally Poncet and all aboard yacht Le Sourire as they left Elsehul headed for Albatross Island where Sally is completing an albatross survey. On Boxing Day we had another unexpected radio call and heard from Dion Poncet who briefly visited Jordan Cove to throw us some very tasty leg of meat from the yacht Golden Fleece before we threw back half of our Christmas cake. My guess is that their present to us fared far better than ours in the catching. The 28th was Isaac’s birthday, and he chose to celebrate with a Fantasy fancy dress party. May the pictures speak for themselves. With love to all those missed and thought of often. Vik.