Bird Island Diary — February 2013

28 February, 2013 Bird Island

Much like every month on Bird Island, February has hurtled by in a bit of a blur, and we now find ourselves with little over a week until the final ship call of this summer season! How has this happened so soon?!

On the work front everyone has been as busy as ever. Jen and Steph have been in the lab analysing diet samples from Grey-headed and Black-browed albatrosses, their most exciting discovery being a set of fur seal pup lungs! A reminder that these beautiful birds feed on a wide range of available food and don’t turn their beaks up at much! This is the month that the Wandering albatross chicks start to hatch, so daily checks of the nests on the Ridge are taking place and the first chick was heard ‘pipping’ from within its egg on the 24th. Two days later a fluffy Egbert broke through his shell, much to our excitement, and he is doing well so far! In total 7 chicks have now hatched and their progress will be carefully monitored by Steph until they fledge next year.

Ruth and Jerry have had their hands very full with work on a variety of the island’s birds this month, but particularly the Macaroni penguins. After last month’s Gentoo-fest, February was the time for the Macs to steal the limelight! Mac-month has included diet sampling and many hours spent in the lab sifting through fishy bits and krill-like crustacean remains to determine what adults have been out catching and feeding to their chicks. At Little Mac adults have been pit-tagged so that they can be identified as they come and go across the penguin weigh-bridge at the entrance to the colony. Ruth also reported the exodus of adults from Big Mac as they all go to sea to forage before retuning en-masse to moult in a couple of weeks. A strange lull in activity on the normally hectic colony as the chicks are left to their own devices and the population falls by around 80,000 penguins in a matter of days.

Hannah Wood

Zoological Field Assistant

The rest of the base was also able to share a MAC-nificent day out at Little Mac where we weighed and pit-tagged 100 chicks. It was a VERY messy morning, the smell of penguins is certainly a unique and lingering one… But we had a lovely, cosy brew in the Love Shack afterwards and the Tunnock’s caramels were certainly well deserved!

Seal work this month began with puppy weighing on Main Bay, which involved the efforts of the entire base. Once again 100 pups were weighed and unfortunately it appears that they are still much skinnier this year than in previous years. However, they still have time to bulk up a bit before they are fully weaned. Tagging of SSB pups is now conducted opportunistically whenever somebody (usually a birder) stumbles across an adventurous pup hidden up in tussock somewhere. We have now reached nearly 400 pups, a brilliant result, and we will hopefully see lots of them returning in the coming years.

This month we have encountered two young females who have been entangled in discarded fishing gear. We successfully removed the plastic, and happily neither of the seals were badly cut, but it is always a shame to see animals caught up in human rubbish, and a reminder of how marine pollution affects species even in remote areas.

After celebrating his birthday in style, the base waved goodbye to Jaume early in the month as he headed back to the UK on the James Clarke Ross. We were slightly consoled on his departure by the first mail since November and a big sack of fresh potatoes!! Following Jaume’s departure Tamsin and Craig have been incredibly helpful assisting with the daily weighing of puppies in the Female-Pup study, as well as deploying GPSes and transmitter tags on mothers and pups, a task which has monopolised their time somewhat but which they have entered into with enthusiasm, much to the gratitude of the seal team. The recent arrival of Dr Iain Staniland to BI, armed with seal GPS devices, has freed up Tamsin and Craig again just in time to begin preparations for the final ship call. Tamsin can now be seen hauling huge boxes of cargo around while Craig has been laying out brand-new matting on the jetty and digging out the stream to prevent flooding in the winter. During her routine rat-box checks, Tamsin has found an unexpected but very welcome visitor, a storm petrel chick! Apparently a rat-box makes a cosy and convenient house; we only hope that the word spreads!

February also saw an exciting break from normal work as we had a Search and Rescue exercise. Jen radioed from Main Bay to say that she had fallen and hurt her ankle. The whole base leapt into action and in no time at all we had her stretchered up and being carried back home. Although this was only a practice exercise it was a great opportunity for us to test out our ability to work as a team in a stressful situation. All in all it was a great success and a good confidence booster, especially for the new winterers.

Around the island we have had a few confused looking chinstrap penguins and a couple of straggler elephant seals hanging out on the beaches. Most of the Kings have finished moulting and have said goodbye, but there is still a small huddle on Landing Beach looking very sleek and smart. The right whales that were seen feeding around the North cliffs at the beginning of the month now seem to have moved on, but we hope it’s not the last we will see of them! The weather has been up to its usual tricks of four seasons in under an hour, but between the horizontal snow showers we have had blazing sunshine, and even ventured out to have a barbeque on the picnic bench!

This year the seals and albatrosses were very kind and send out Valentines cards to their attentive researchers. Their craft skills may not be the neatest, but not a bad attempt using feathers and flippers!! Steph also spent the day slaving over a special raspberry and love-filled cake, which was truly amazing.

It’s a sad sight to see the big cardboard boxes of personal gear being filled up as the others prepare to leave, but they will have a fantastic time on their journey back via King Edward Point, Signy and Rothera. Those of us left behind are a little jealous of their tour and the opportunity to sail beyond 60 degrees south and visit the Peninsula, but we look forward to the postcards and wish them a safe and not too rocky journey with lots of whales!