Bird Island Diary — February 2008

28 February, 2008

Being still in the midst of wildlife breeding season February is always a busy month at Bird Island keeping the zoological field assistants at a hectic pace. The young in the studied breeding colonies are quite vulnerable still and a myriad of monitoring tasks such as counting, weighing, tagging and sampling is needed to accurately keep data records up to date.

Along with surviving against predation and acquiring enough food to prevent starvation there is also the weather conditions that these young infants must contend with. Surprisingly, as it’s in the midst of summer we were very astonished to wake up on the 7th to find a covering of whiteness over our island with the ambient temperature decreasing enough to allow 15-20cm of snow to fall. I’m sure quite a shock for the young animals and a bit hard to take for some as they were not quite ready for wintry conditions as yet. Fabrice on his Giant Petrel round found a few nests buried within the snow and a few chicks had perished due to the adverse weather. Having that amount of snow about in the midst of summer was an opportunity, which Fabrice and Claire decided that they couldn’t pass up on, so a sled was released from storage and they had some fun on the slopes enjoying the first sleding for the year.

Early in the month due again was the weighing of over 100 fur seal pups at Main Bay in which almost everyone on base gets a chance to don the rubber overall attire in order to get down and get dirty, literally, with these cute and comical creatures. We had quite ‘gnarly’ weather and with the pups being 4 weeks worth heavier then last time we all deserved a fine fry-up cooked by the seal team Don and Ewan as a thank-you reward. A brilliant aspect of working here on this biological research station is the ample opportunity to help the field assistants with their tasks at various times, I feel very fortunate to be in this position. Not many other places of employment as an electrician are you are asked to assist to weigh/tag fur seal puppies and penguins or identify albatross nests.

Don and Ewan’s major task for this month was tagging as many as they could find of the fur seal puppies, which had been born at the special study beach (SSB) back in Nov/Dec. Some of the little adventurous ones were found to have clambered 60m in altitude up into the tussock and at distances of 1km from SSB. Obviously these puppies have quite an ability to wander off, how their mother’s manage to catch up with them again after a number of days feeding away at sea has got me beat.

In continuing with the theme of weighing 100 specimens this month, Fabrice had some of us assisting with the task of weighing his penguin study colonies whereby first on the list was the Gentoo colony at Johnson beach. Later in the month we ventured across to ‘Little Mac’ Macaroni penguin colony to weigh 100 of them also. Purpose of this weight recording is for comparing data to previous years hence the data is gathered on the equivalent day whether there being wind, sleet or shine. Most often at Bird Island you get that all in one day anyhow so we’re quite used to it.

Derren and Robbo being the bird team on station were kept well occupied this month with continuing counting of failures in the monitored Mollymawk (smaller Albatross) colonies. Identifying both partners of all the Wandering Albatross nests on the island also on their task list. The last day of the previous month January 31st was the day of the all island Wandering Albatross census. We had a little competition on base of predicting this year’s count whereby the most correct to be presented with a cake whilst the least correct had to make it. Initially a little controversy was stirred up over the manner at which the final figure is determined. In the end fairness prevailed I think as the controversy instigator’s figure was well out of the ball park whilst it was the poor victim closest to being on the money and became the just recipient of the fine dessert.

Exciting news this month on the 26th was arrival of the first Wandering Albatross chick, for us winterers it is quite special in that we are aware that these young Wanderers will be staying put until they fledge next November/December and so keeping us company all through the coming winter.

On the subject of albatrosses Ewan Wakefield in February shifted workstation residences from Colony J Blackbrow Albatrosses to Cave- Crag Blackbrows. In Col J he was in a sturdy reasonably comfortable weatherproof hut with great views and balcony features. But he downgraded standards at CaveCrag to a bright orange two man tent. Having to spend allday everyday monitoring the movements of his Blackbrows, I couldn’t quite understand it myself why he wanted to downgrade so. Perhaps he felt he wasn’t experiencing enough the harshness of environment that the Antarctic is renowned for whilst at the luxurious Col J.

Later in life he’ll be true to form of heroic storytelling to his grandchildren of the time in his younger day when he spent a season outdoors in the harsh Antarctic frontier.

Ewan W together with Derren and Robin took an opportunity on one of those rare Bird Island sunshiny days to walk the 5 major peaks of the island. It’s quite a trek to do within a day but it seems they accomplished it with ease finishing well before dinner time.

The James Clark Ross arrived on Sunday the 10th dropping off a little cargo but more notably taking away three of our residents Robin Snape (Robbo), Claire Waluda and Helen Peat decreasing our personnel number to seven.

The previous evening we went for a ‘last hike’ together up to Bandersnatch before the ‘big red taxi’ was due to arrive the next morning. Helen here for six weeks spent much time in the office sorting out the BI database but got out to visit the BI wildlife as often as possible also taking on works involving the monitoring of the walking paths.

Claire had been at BI for most of the summer arriving on first call beginning of November, completing her own studies on Gentoo penguins but also getting quite involved in the Macaroni’s, Fur Seals and Albatross works.

Robbo was leaving after this wee island had become his home for the past 2½ years as the Flying Bird Field Assistant enjoying a very successful and wonderful experience. It could be seen that leading up to and on the day of his departure he felt much emotion, sad to be leaving a place so dear but excited to be starting his return journey to family and friends.

The Last Hike: Ewan E, Claire, Felice (Flea), Robin (Robbo), Don, Helen, Ewan W, Derren

absent: John – caretaking at Base, Fabrice – working with Macaroni penguins

On the subject of family/friends and goodbye’s, this is a good time for me to sign out and I would like to send my love and best wishes to family and friends back home.