Bird Island Diary — February 2001

28 February, 2001

What we did to the builders

The shortest month is now over and has been full of a variety of events. It has also been frustrating at times and with lots of laughter at others. On the first evening of the month Daf could be heard screaming and shouting outside. Further investigation found him running around in shorts and ventile calling to what could amount to “imaginary friends”. Rugby season had started. On the same day HMS Dumbarton Castle left the Falkland Islands with three technical services personnel heading our way: Simon Berry (scaffolder), John Critchley (joiner) and Paul Cousens ( plumber who claims to be a fitter turner). This was also Nik’s transport off the Bird Island after 2½ years. He intends to undertake a tour of South America after connecting with some folk leaving Halley.

We were keen for Paul to arrive as the Aga (which he serviced last year) had decided not to perform to its usual standards. We wanted to wait before pulling it apart….just in case. However the Bird Island weather proved too much for Dumbarton Castle so they headed directly to King Edward Point, South Georgia. By this time the Aga had been cleaned as much as Mark had been shown previously. Trying to relight it however coincided with some very strong easterly winds which kept blowing it out. As a result we resorted to cooking on Optimus stoves for three days. Richard prepared delicious cheese and lamb fondues, which you would never have known was inspired through lack of an Aga! After the unsuccessful attempts to relight the Aga we resorted to reading bits and pieces for further info, as something didn’t seem quite right….This part of the job is normally kept for the technical team, however due to circumstances beyond our control we decided to go ahead. The “in use” burner was compared to an “out of use” burner after cleaning and hardly surprising it wasn’t working. After changing the fuel filter and separating a couple of pipes for further cleaning and widening of the respective parts, it lit beautifully with flame heights at the correct level, and it has performed well ever since. Paul didn’t have to work for his first supper after all, little did he know!

Meanwhile Dumbarton Castle was still at King Edward Point and the Captain posed us with two choices: To leave the three technical team at King Edward Point, until the next ship to make another attempt at Bird Island, or for them to go on a circumnavigation of South Georgia (sightseeing) after which a further attempt could be made on the warship’s return route to Stanley. The decision was for the “enforced” circumnavigation. Fortunately the weather was reasonable for their transfer on the appointed day. However most of the kit, mail and themselves got wet, but there were three happy faces stood on terra firma. The story of an uncomfortable passage was soon revealed due to weather and ratings accommodation; which was compared to living in a generator shed, as they were right above the engines.

Some folk have been fortunate this month to take part in mist netting which occurred on three occasions. This involved catching birds at night using a static net, supported by two bamboos, around 20 foot by 6 foot. It has net pockets at the bottom so as the bird flies into the net it rolls down and is caught in the pocket from where it is retrieved by careful hands. Feathers and a small blood samples were taken by Richard, as part of his research, before the birds were released. These particular species of bird (burrowing petrels etc) are small and easily consumed if seen by skuas, so they come out at night. The weather has to be just right for mist netting – darkness with no bright moon, no rain, no wind or only slight wind, not too much mist but slight mist is good. Mist netting is a rare event as this weather rarely coincides at the right time of year. The first bird strike of the season also occurred on base where the small birds are attracted by the lights of the building. As soon as the first bird is heard making contact with the buildings, blinds are quickly shut, almost completely eliminating all light; and various scientific equipment is readied. The birds are picked up and handed to Richard for his sampling routine and then released in the tussac, away from base and the skuas. The skuas have learned to sit beneath the windows where the birds can be quickly scooped up and eaten. This event was special for me as I hadn’t been involved in the earlier mist netting.

The most frustrating part of the month has been putting the tonnes of steelwork together to build a walkway and jetty, and we started with the walkway. The first few pieces of steelwork that were looked for were either not present, or were of a different length and design to the drawings. The steelwork and our drawings did not match. Neither could the steelwork be fitted together as it was designed. A few phone calls, faxes and many rude words later, with much juggling of a big, heavy meccano set, possible solutions were tested. The result is now workable but not quite as the design was intended. The recent acquisition of a portable welder has allowed a kink to be put in the walkway to direct it towards the jetty, so it will almost line up and some wood will fill the remaining gaps. The walkways between the jetty and buildings, until now, were very heavy, wooden pallets, and recently these were picked up and blown several metres by strong winds, while still linked by the safety matting. This was just after the walkway building had begun and we witnessed the scene during the Saturday evening meal! At least this meant less back-breaking work removing them.

The indoor toilet has also been plumbed into the end of the main building and the waste pipes are presently being boxed in for protection from the heavyweight seals. These pipes will follow the course of the walkways and be laid underneath. To stop the waste pipe freezing there will be small-bore copper tubing running underneath the pipe containing hot water as a heat trace. All this will be insulated and placed in trunking for which we will still need to create further seal protection.

Very entertaining moments have occurred, particularly in the science department, such as gentoo chick weighing and seal pup weighing which are base events. The pup weighing was Simon and John’s first real introduction to the cute little creatures. Simon was quick to catch on and grabbed the weighing bag thinking the easiest task was ahead, but after lifting 25 of them in rapid succession, long enough for them to stop wriggling, and read the Pesola scales, the scaffolder complained his arms were knackered. John’s first encounter was hilarious as he confidently went out to catch a pup which ran at him growling, grabbed his wellington boot and trousers and shook hard. John shouting, tried to run backwards from the very small, cute, furry pup (not quite knowing what to do) while it was still growling and shaking his welly. We were almost wetting ourselves with laughter. John wasn’t expecting to be bitten by these cute, furry creatures, not so aggressively anyway. However he quickly became immune and by the end was catching them at will for the camera.

A perplexed Mark tried to track a seal with a radio transmitter, in the tussac near base, and couldn’t work out how it was travelling so fast, just in front of him, and yet he didn’t see it. It turned out that Mark was actually tracking a very nimble, well camouflaged animal by the name of Sascha who was inadvertently carrying the said device in her pocket, switched on. On a more recent occasion Mark has been trying to catch another elusive seal to retrieve a few thousand pounds of equipment from its back. This seal obviously remembers Mark from the last (first) time she was caught, when Mark gave her an enema. She now bolts as he approaches. Mark has been seen trying to disguise himself as best as possible, travelling commando style on his belly, among other seals, even sneaking up behind her, but to no avail. With all his cunning he has not been allowed closer than two metres before she bolts into the sea! Still it has been fun watching him through binoculars and getting rather wet and muddy in the process. Mark loves his seals!

Jane has been shown a new trick for cracking and removing the shell from a hard boiled egg by rolling it over her head. Simon was the teacher. Jane has also learned to make sure she knows the egg in her hand is a hard-boiled egg first! A few more antics were played on Jane before she (and Mark) sought revenge by emptying a box of Rice Krispies in Simon’s bed. Simon found this after a night of socialising. He woke Paul, by falling loudly to the floor, while trying to shake his sheets. Paul thought he heard rain indoors as the Krispies fell onto the floor. The following morning apparently, was quite a novelty waking up and walking on a crunchy surface with bare feet. Needless to say the antics have paused for a few days.

Mid month saw several appointments at the hairdressing salon (laundry room) courtesy of Jane. Several people empathised with the seals who are marked with identification numbers using “born blonde” hair-dye. Changes from “natural” to “born blond”, in various degrees, was witnessed over the course of a few days. Daf had highlights, Paul had an (unintentionally) slightly off centre stripe, whilst Mark, John Critchley, Simon and I went all over blonde. Simon’s head is virtually shaved however so we couldn’t see much difference. John’s kids appeared to like Dad’s new look but his wife must be wondering what we are doing to him!

Later in the month saw the departure of John Croxall and Sascha who headed to Montevideo on RRS Ernest Shackleton. They diverted to help another vessel in distress and escorted them safely into Monte, fortunately still in time for flights to the UK for everyone.

We also had a barbecue, in not such bad weather as it turned out. Many uninvited guests disguised as skuas crashed the scene, continually trying to access the food, but fortunately only one close call required action on our part. I was also lucky enough to see the first Wandering Albatross chick this season on 25 February. I joined Daf for the day doing the rounds and as Daf was checking the rings on one adult, the other sat on the nest, shuffled and revealed a newly hatched chick!

In case you are wondering what goes on in our spare time, this may give you further insight. Work in all areas has been going on as normal, honestly. Changes in personnel always seem to add to the base experiences and one which has been a pleasure to report on this month.

Love to family and friends back home and elsewhere.