Bird Island Diary – February 2006

28 February, 2006

Aaahhh, and relax. The Bird Island Redevelopment Project drew to a satisfied close on the 3rd February, with the removal of the building and demolition waste from the beach. We waved goodbye to the magic combination of RRS Ernest Shackleton ship crew, sending profuse apologies about making their hold so smelly, and the South Georgia clean up team, led by Rod Downie, BAS’s Environmental Manager and consisting of Morrison men, good and true, and a few BAS FIDs at a loose end while being transported home after their field seasons at South Georgia. We wished them well for the remainder of their clean up program, they were off to remove old redundant huts from several spectacular locations around the South Georgia coast. The sun came out and we decided we should make the most of our freshly swept, litter free beach, so we had a quick Saturday afternoon sports session of French cricket followed by rugby.

The 6th saw Helen and Zac heading over to Fairy Point hut for the night to try and find out when Helen’s targeted macaroni penguins returned home to feed their chicks. They appeared to be in stealth mode, returning at the most awkward times of day, but that night they found the remaining 2 birds they had been waiting for and removed the loggers that had been recording data during their latest fishing escapade. Helen’s also been meandering around the meadows on a daily basis, checking Southern Giant Petrel nests to see when the chick’s parents think their offspring brave enough to be left alone for the day and big enough to fight off skua attacks. She was mildly disappointed on the 15th when her favourite got eaten, but as a vet, and now as a veteran Bird Islander, she is accepting of the life and death world of nature left to its own devices.

The 7th saw a quick ship call to drop off Jon Shanklin, co-discoverer of the ozone hole no less, who has since upgraded our weather station. Jon was actually my boss during my first stint with the Survey when I spent two magic years at Halley as a meteorologist, so it was great to see him again here on Bird Island. Jon has been a true star and has revelled in his time here at Bird Island, we have thoroughly enjoyed having him here. We now have a brand new intranet guide to the local flora courtesy of Jon’s extracurricular activities while he was here (he was also seen meandering a lot), and it was brilliant to have someone so knowledgeable around to enthuse about and explain the local plant life and the night skies (we saw a comet at 05:00 on the 17th!). It might also be worth noting his cleaning skills are exemplary but now I feel like I’m writing a reference so must stop gushing.

The 6th – 9th was sunny (noteworthy at BI), and this good weather period was celebrated with a picnic tea in Wanderer Valley, courtesy of Sarah, who also added a sparkle to Valentine’s day dinner table, another picnic at Fairy Point Hut and catered for the Commissioner’s visit (see later). My, that girl can cook!

Unable to help pup weighing on the 11th, Zac stayed at home to prepare a Saturday night treasure hunt. We needed help with the first clue, and although we managed to solve the rest eventually, it gave us quite an insight into his head, which I had up until this point thought perfectly rational.

We had an oil spill training exercise on the 17th, a fairly minor affair compared to the larger bases who have boats and inflatable booms etc but if we did have a spill we have the added complication of wildlife waiting to step right into it, so it’s worth knowing what to do. On the 18th Helen tagged Little Mac penguin chicks, with the help of most of the base, just a few days before they took to sea for the first time. Once tagged, when they return as adults and come through her clever little gateway, it records their return remotely and allows her to see their movements in and out of the colony without having to disturb them. A Health and Safety meeting was held on the 20th but I’m sure you don’t need more details. Helen and Robin struggled with flighty geeps (giant petrels) on the 21st. Its all very well putting fancy techno logging devices on the animals, but it can prove fairly tricky when the time comes to take them off again, especially when the creatures can fly! We had one very clever lady fur seal this month who sat out on Iceberg Point for a week with her transmitter still attached. Every time the seal team + co crept up to the Point at low tide, the pups would see us and yelp a warning in enough time for her to take to the water. Very frustrating. Eventually, stealth mode was adopted by Donald and Sarah and the logger was successfully retrieved, a memorable day for them.

On Tuesday 21st all of us were involved in preparations for the opening ceremony, a great day for ticking off jobs on the ‘to do’ list. We even scrubbed the building clean of its fur seal pup tide mark.

The internet and VOIP phone system is still very new to us and its advantages are still being discovered. All calls to BAS, Cambridge are effectively free and emails are almost instantaneous, which I have to admit makes my job a whole lot easier and efficient. It also means that we have been able to listen to live radio broadcasts and this month’s sporting highlight has to have been the Calcutta Cup on the 25th. My English over-confidence took a bit of a beasting from Donald (true Scot) who was joined in support by Isaac (true Aussie – and the World Cup is not so long ago – it still hurts, bless) when in the final 15 minutes of the match I listened with increasing desparation as the English were beaten by what sounds like the better team on the day.

After the excitement of the clean up visit at the beginning of the month, the end of the month will be remembered for the Opening Ceremony. The Commissioner of South Georgia and the head of BAS Biological Sciences, Paul Rodhouse, were welcomed ashore along with a variety of other happy faces on the 26th. Tours were given, ribbons were cut, speeches were made, gifts were exchanged, photos were taken, champagne was drunk, buffet treats were consumed, and then we all kitted up and went for a walk up the hill. The weather was superb and the event was enjoyed by all.

The grey head and black brow albatross are well on their way to successfully making it to fledginghood. This is kind of equivalent to toddlers taking to their feet for the first time – except these guys are then on their own, flying around the world looking for food at 4 months old. Zac and Robin discovered an albino grey head (or not as the case may be!) in one of the colonies.

The first wanderer pipped and squeaked out of its egg on the 27th February. It will now enjoy the sauna like comfort (almost 40C and stifling under feathers!) of its parent for up to a month before the parents will start leaving it on its own while they fly on longer foraging flights. The vast majority of pups now have their silky silver new coats, and peg it up and down the beach in groups, off to the sea for a swim.

So, personal highlights of the month:

After visiting black brow albatross Colony J every day since mid-September (through wind, rain and snow – but mostly fog) Isaac finally finished this monitoring work and was relieved that his day became at least more of his own again. Oh, and he also mentions the day his back was straight again as a highlight (after waking one morning with a crooked back a few weeks ago, he has taken things easy and is now back to normal). Xander remembers a pleasing moment as he sat at Cave Crag colony (also black brows) looking down over an empty beach for the first time. Since his arrival demolition and building waste has been piled in a corner awaiting uplift. He has been working overnight throughout the month and despite being an insomniac is now suitably relieved to have this part of his project out the way. Helen enjoyed sunny days including the day of the opening ceremony, particularly as it was a chance to meet Jamie and Wil, two happy BAS fishery scientists stationed at KEP, South Georgia, who were lucky enough to visit briefly during the ceremony day. Robin was ecstatic after he came in from hunting birds just last night, his favourite recreational activity. I think he is hoping to ring the whole of the BI population in his spare time! Sarah enjoyed her walk up Gandalf, the second highest peak on the island, which she had been saving as ‘something new’ for her last summer at Bird Island. We scrambled up a fine route for a subtly different view of the island and enjoyed taking Jon out with us only 2 hours after he arrived. Needless to say, Donald’s highlight was Saturday evening, 25th Feb when Scotland won the Calcutta Cup, but he tells me catching the foxy lady (on Iceberg Point – see above) was also a highlight. And mine, well I enjoyed the clean up visit at the beginning of the month and the opening ceremony day at the end, but I think my favourite moment was probably while I was taking some science equipment up to Colony J hut for Xander. I stopped on the way to watch the wanderers displaying. Time on my own, away from the computer (at last!), enjoying what I came to see. Yes, I’m privileged to have seen it before, and I will see it again, but it is still overpoweringly awesome.

I have particularly enjoyed my homemade socks this month, the delicate warm wool and their gentle soothing colours have provided my feet with a rare luxury and my face with a smile. Thank you Ursh. Love to all family and friends and see you in April!

Vik brushing up her batting skills – always comes in handy…

Bird Island weather log

Being very British, and what with a new weather station and all, here’s a bit on the weather. Below are graphs showing our measured weather for the latter half of February, showing our average temperature during this period hovering around 4°C, going up to 8°C and down to 1°C . Our relative humidity (RH) is often above 80% indicating a wet/humid climate. Remember Bird Island is at 54° South, equivalent to UK’s Northern latitude, and this is our summer!

The last few days of February were relatively warm with north easterly winds (wind direction 000 to 045 degrees). This brought air that had travelled from warmer climes up north. On its travel south it has picked up moisture from the oceans (through evaporation). The whole of the north of Bird Island is imposing steep cliffs of 150m and as this moist air rises over the cliff, it cools and the moisture condenses into clouds. This is a very fast process and we almost always sit under dank heavy cloud in these conditions. They usually occur at the beginning of the passage of a low pressure system, where the air circles the low pressure clockwise (opposite of northern hemisphere). We then get gusty winds as they come over the cliffs and lots of rain.

After the system has passed through it usually gets colder, because we have southerly winds blowing cold air from the Antarctic. These can often be gale force (~35kts average) and our little Freshwater Cove, while sheltered from many angles, receives the full force of these winds. Luckily this summer we haven’t had much of this and the summer has also been very dry, unusual for Bird Island. This wind brings air that has travelled above the southern oceans and had plenty of chance to become moist from evaporation of the ocean surface, because this air is cold it cannot hold as much moisture as warmer air and so we see the humidity levels drop. On the chart we had cold temperatures around the 23rd February and we actually had snow showers as a frontal system passed over us, the first signs of autumn.

My favourite weather is from the west. This usually occurs after a southerly wind, the skies clear and the sun comes out – if only for a day at a time!

We also now have new model forecasts provided to us, that are remarkably accurate. We get 2 of these a day and it helps us predict which days will be best for deploying tags/loggers on animals (for instance, we only work with birds in dry weather), also helps us decide what time we should plan our outside work and helps plan our water management as it forecasts when it is likely to rain.

On Wednesday 22nd it snowed, on Thursday snow lay on the ground in the morning but the sun was out and it all soon melted into a glorious day. Further snow showers on 24 like the first snow showers of autumn.