Bird Island Diary — December 2007

31 December, 2007

December at Bird Island is a busy time, filled with new life. With pups and chicks as far as the eye can see, the sounds and smells are rich and varied.

We began December with a darts game against our colleagues and friends at Signy Base. As is traditional at Bird Island, we managed to outmanoeuvre the Signy boys to win 2-1, with some fine arrow action from all involved. All good fun, though sadly (in best Bullseye tradition) we didn’t win a caravan, or a speedboat.

Hot on the heels of the weekend darts victory came Ewan’s birthday. Despite my insistence that he is ‘only twelve’, Ewan has reached the ripe old age of 23. We celebrated in style, by singing Happy Birthday to both Ewan and a fair few of the cohort of seals born at the Special Study Beach that day, and later in the evening with a magnificent cake made by our resident chef de patisserie Fabrice, and a variety of (what else?) fur-seal themed gifts.

What with the explosion of life at Bird Island, science has been busy this month, with the bird boys Robin and Derren out and about every day, come rain or shine, counting the number of new chicks in the black-browed and grey-headed albatross colonies, and beginning to mark out the wandering albatross nests, which are found far and wide across the island.

The seal boys Don and Ewan have been making twice-daily visits to the Special Study Beach, an enclosed bay with a scaffold gantry from which the seals are observed and counted, aided and abetted at times by myself and others (occasionally turning up with a welcome flask of tea). At the peak of the season there were 54 of these delightful little beasts born at the study beach in a single day. They look so sweet but are generally fairly angry almost from the moment they are born (particularly the girls, for some reason, but I’m not going to comment further on that).

Penguin work continues apace, Fabrice has been busy with the macaroni penguins at Big Mac and Little Mac, and he has been helping me to deploy new tiny temperature-depth recorders on the local gentoo penguins to see how deep they dive when they head out on their daily foraging trips to bring back food for their fast-growing chicks. At the end of the month we had the pleasure of the annual macaroni chick count, where we were treated to a cacophony of noise and angry pecking (right at shin level) as we battled our way through Big Mac to count the number of nesting birds along a set transect. This is done every year and allows us to calculate the number of successful nests in the colony as a whole. Given that there are in excess of 40,000 pairs of nesting birds here, this is no mean feat.

As I’m here to get to grips with all aspects of the Long Term Monitoring work we do on penguins, seals and albatrosses at Bird Island (which has been the mainstay of research here for the last 30 years or so), I’ve had the pleasure of working with as many of the study species (and the field assistants, of course) as possible during my time here so far. It has quickly become apparent that Bird Island has it’s own set of fashion rules with seal work requiring head to toe rubber overalls and Wellington boots, to defend oneself from various seal-related hazards, whereas work involving birds generally requires hiking around the place in walking boots and salopettes, though there is still a fair chance of getting covered in muck and grime of one variety or another whatever it is you’re doing. It’s all good fun really, and how often do you get to wade through muddy puddles and weigh fur seal puppies for a living?

We saw various comings and goings (of the human variety) during December. On the 9th we welcomed the Pharos SG carrying IT man Ben Tullis. Ben was escorted from the jetty through a sea of seals and quickly adapted to life on base, making a sterling job of sorting out the computer systems and frequently staying up late to make sure he got everything done in his short time here. He also showed a willingness to get involved with all and any of the myriad biological tasks on offer, however smelly or unpleasant, so thanks for that Ben.

A few days before Christmas we saw the return of the JCR, and the departure of outgoing wintering technician (and Plumbers Monthly magazine’s ‘Mr December’), Rob ‘we all share time together’ Dunn, who handed over the reins to the new technical man-about-base, Felice (Flea) Prosperi-Porta. Flea joins us after a short stint at Signy (at the other end of the Scotia Sea) to spend the winter at Bird Island taking care of the base and perfecting his darts skills for future victory.

The Pharos SG returned stealthily at tea time on the 30th December carrying two new base members: Helen Peat who organises and looks after the Long Term Monitoring data collected at Bird Island, and Ewan Wakefield, a PhD student who is here to study the foraging ecology of black-browed albatrosses using a variety of fancy bits of kit to track these birds as they head out to search for food.

During the month we made two trips up La Roche, the island’s highest peak at 356m above sea level. On the first attempt, despite beginning our ascent in bright sunshine, by the time we reached the top the infamous Bird Island mank had set in, though we did manage brief glimpses of bits of the island as small holes in the cloud buffeted through at a rapid pace. The second attempt two weeks later the sun stayed out giving us unrivalled views across the snowy peaks of South Georgia and Annenkov Island beyond. Well worth the journey on both occasions, and a good way (or not) to cure Ben’s vertigo.

We rapidly got into the Christmas spirit with presents from friends and family being ripped open almost as soon as midnight arrived on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day itself was celebrated in the traditional fashion by cooking and eating far too much food, including the annual treat of mulled wine and mince pies on the gantry above the seals at the Special Study Beach.

Rounding off the month, New Year’s Eve once again involved an indecent amount of food, with each of us cooking a dish from a different continent. This resulted in soup, samosas and sushi packed cheek by jowl with empanadas and Anzac biscuits. We celebrated in style with champagne at the end of the jetty, and the bells of Big Ben competing with the sounds of the seals to welcome in the New Year 2008.

Well that’s me signing off for this month. Best wishes for 2008 from all on base to Vreni Hearnshaw, Bird Island’s number one fan, and I’d like to send my love to family and friends at home, look forward to seeing you all in February.

All the best,

Claire ‘still blonde’ Waluda