Bird Island Diary — February 2002

28 February, 2002

A busy month on Bird Island

February is almost over – and this may be my last ever visit to Bird Island, at least that’s the reason the others here have come up with as to why I’ve been voted to write the diary. Pretty lame, if you ask me – they could have come up with something better! That said, I really don’t mind – it’s been another great month down here and there’s lots to write about.

The highlight of this year has been getting in the water. This is something I never did last year, and have made up for it this year (very glad I brought my drysuit as it’s pretty cold!). The seal pups are really quite different in the water. On land they have an automatic reaction to growl at anything unknown. In the water though, they will come and investigate you, chew your mask or flippers and climb on you to sniff you! Generally though, this is best appreciated in sunshine, of which unfortunately we have had a grand total of about three half-hour periods this month. Someone really should remind us about the proliferation of rain at this time of year. At the start of the season in all the California-style (no, I’m not exaggerating) days of sunshine (okay – so maybe just a little bit) we all forget about the manky weather to come….but it’s been a month of rain, drizzle and sleet really! Now we’ve just had the first snows, though not settled yet, and the weather is turning colder – winter is on it’s way!

We’ve had no crew changes this month – the next change will be at the end of this week or beginning of next as Jonny (penguin biologist) and I (seal biologist) leave, and three technical services personnel (Matt – chippie, JD – sparkie, and Rickie – plumber) come in. So the rest of the base contingent this month has been: Richard (albatross biologist), Mark and Nick (seal assistants), Jane (penguin assistant), Daf and Ben (albatross assistants), and Maggie (Base Commander).

We all heaved a big sigh of relief at the end of January as the oceanography survey offshore from Bird Island finished. January was busy getting as much foraging information as possible from the animals here to coincide with the cruise. So we had a plethora of instruments out on fur seals, albatrosses and penguins, to see how what they were showing us corresponded to what the ship was finding, and we were looking at diet samples of these and other animals (petrels and prions) to see what they were feeding on at this time. However, work has chugged along at a fairly busy pace this month too.

Jonny and Jane, and various other occasional guests, have been off for a good few nights in their other home, the hut over at Fairy Point. There they study the macaroni penguins at the smallest macaroni colony on the island – Little Mac. The macaroni penguin chicks have grown up and most have now fledged. We were all watching out for the two runt chicks – affectionately named Humpy (the hunchback) and Stumpy (who was missing much of his foot). Surprisingly they’ve done pretty well so far, although we’re not hopeful that they’re going to make it to fledging! Several people have spent evenings over at the hut to watch the chicks take their first and departing swim. They jump into the water and splash around for a few minutes before suddenly realising what their wings are really for, and then they’re off. The giant petrels lie in wait for their banquet and take a few. Surprisingly no leopard seals turn up for this event, presumably they’re kept busy with other penguins further south!

Richard has been swearing at his autonests a fair bit, but apparently in the mystical ways of electronic equipment, they’ve chosen to behave now. His black-browed albatross chicks look very cute sitting on their plastic nests above the automatic balances, which record their every regurgitated meal! Together with Daf and Ben the albatross biologists have joined forces with Jonny to use the respirometry equipment, to investigate the difference between grey-headed and black-browed albatross chicks. They want to see whether the differences in growth are related to differences in metabolism between the two species.

Meanwhile, we seal biologists (Mark, Nick and I) have finished our study of the pups, and are just recovering the last few tags in these few days I have before I leave. We had a great, traditionally extremely muddy day for our monthly pup weighing on the 10th. This is done over on the next bay round, so the whole base dons serious plastic gear, ready for the mud-wrestling contest with the pups as we attempt to catch and weigh one hundred of them! Similar fun was had for the macaroni chick weighing on the 17th (though they smell worse than the seal pups!).

Unfortunately we’ve had more cases of seal entanglements than usual. Seals are naturally inquisitive and so will poke their heads into anything. Generally for them this is only kelp or other natural things (which don’t tend to be loops), but people discard a lot of loops into the water. Unfortunately for the seals, they don’t have reverse and can’t pull things off, so once they get anything caught around their neck it is almost impossible for them to get it off (particularly against the direction of their fur). For young seals, which still have a lot of growing to do, these nooses gradually bite into their skin and fat as they grow. Whenever we see these we try to catch the seal and cut it off and have done this for over 30 seals in the last few months. Given that we only see a small portion of the seals on the island though, this definitely makes you realise what a terrible effect any discarded loops may have.

Cooking on base is always something I’m nervous about here. This month though, despite having cooked one of my best meals ever (I was rather proud of my pepper steak and chips!), only a few of the base members actually managed to digest it. This actually had nothing to do with my cooking….but rather, with about four litres of tequila! Tequila Tuesday was a night enjoyed by the more foolish base members, who paid severely for it the following day! Generally however, meals are enjoyed properly, and this season everyone has again surpassed themselves! In fact, we have gone to a variety of exotic places on Saturday nights – Chinese, Indian, and this month….courtesy of Ben we went Indonesian. We all dressed for the feast and ate from banana leaves (well okay – just china plates) but on cushions on the floor – which was a good thing for those who become more and more prone as the evening went on – many of us were still recovering from the Tuesday!

An alternative Saturday night of entertainment has been provided by the outdoor world. We were all sat (properly digesting this time) following a fantastic dinner from Mark. Outdoors, the weather had been fairly manky all day, and the fog was still thickening. Just after midnight, we heard the first thud against the base. Daf went out to investigate, and on the second thud, I ran out too. Already there were several prions and diving petrels on the ground, and the skuas had begun their feast. The lights from base were disorienting the night-birds and causing them to fly toward the light. We had been waiting for this event which generally happens once or twice a season in order to catch some of these birds, so a team was quickly mobilised. First priority was to get the base blacked-out, lights off. Meanwhile, Jane, Daf and I were picking up the petrels and prions as fast as we could before the skuas took them, and trying to keep the torchlight to a minimum to prevent other birds being drawn down. We took the rescued birds to the biological prep room where Jonny was keeping track of the incoming birds, Richard, Mark, Nick and Ben were ringing and sampling feathers and blood from each bird, and then the outdoor team were taking the birds down to the end of the jetty to be released. It was a real rush to begin with, and a lot of skuas were looking pretty happy. The whole experience was incredible though – especially holding these little birds in the hand to see the difference between the South Georgian diving petrels (with a stripe on the leg) and common diving petrels (no stripe). They have to be my favourite birds here I think, these little diving petrels, very similar to the little auks of the northern hemisphere. We also had phosphorescence in the water that night, so standing down at the end of the jetty waiting for the birds to adjust to the dark and fly off was made especially magical by the seal pups making sparkling trails as they swam below!

We had a great Friday night of entertainment this month too on the 8th, with a darts match against King Edward Point. This took place over the radio – we played three beer legs (taking turns and scoring down from 1001, with the final winning dart a double!). Scores were then relayed to each other by short-wave radio. This turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected, and was a close run thing – despite our initial leads, KEP managed to scoop us in the first and third matches to win overall, and we now owe them a case of beer! The darts match started a trend too, and we had another evening of the bird people (Richard, Daf, Ben with guest appearance from Jane), and the seal people (me, Mark, Nick and special guest star Jonny). This time we played something called Mickey Mouse. (You may be able to tell here, that my knowledge of darts games is pretty minimal, but it was a lot of fun!)

In more energetic entertainment, Daf treated us all to an evening picnic up on North Cliffs. He did a fantastic job cooking picnic treats, and we spent a lovely couple of hours up there wining and dining in style! Unfortunately however, despite hopes otherwise and a pretty calm evening for it, there were no whale appearances.

Four of us braved the height of LaRoche (all 356m of it!), and as true Antarctic explorers made it to the summit for a little photography session. Actually we were most of the way there to go and look for tern chicks. The terns nest up on the scree slopes, and we found an egg, a small chick, and big chick and saw a fledged chick flying! Quite a spread of nesting times! From there it’s just a hop skip and a jump (well okay – for those of us who don’t like heights, particularly heights perched on a ridge of crumbly scree – more of a cling and crawl) to the top. (The picture shows from left to right: Nick, Sascha, Richard and Ben).

Also this month, we had a surprise visit from the Golden Fleece. One of those things that you least expect – sitting around the table having a cup of tea when someone says “Is that a boat?”, and already they were almost into the bay! All ran out to the end of the jetty, but the tide was too low and they could only come part way into the bay. It was a bit like a stand-off, each group scrutinising the other through binoculars, and not even close enough for conversation (which we had by hand-held radio). And then they were gone again – off to collect reindeer foals to take back to the Falklands. It is very odd here, in our little world – we suddenly get visitors from the outside world (to remind us that it exists) and then just as suddenly they are gone again!

Other unusual visitors this month have included another subantarctic fur seal visit. In fact, on the same day, a chinstrap penguin walked past the base! Quite a day. The subantarctic fur seal male was lovely, with his two-tone fur, and mournful call. He was really quite unafraid of people too – as most base members trekked over to the Seal Study Beach (SSB) to see him. The latest addition to the island has been the first wandering albatross chick – a little bundle of feathers huddling under its parent, and looking really very adorable!

Now this week, Ben just celebrated his 24th birthday (and one of the wanderer chicks is now called Ben too)! He’ll be 26 by the time he leaves here! This might sound a bit mad to a few back home (and given his recent mohican hairstyle, you might have reason to be concerned on this count!). However, with updates from home as to the traffic jam gridlocks and incessant crowds, the idea of living where the only crowded thing is the number of fur seals on the beach, or the competition for space is that for blue-eyed cormorant nest space on a muddy cliff, it makes you wonder who is more sensible. Despite this island being a bit of a mud-mire and often coated in cloud, it has to be one of the most wonderful places for wildlife in the world!