Bird Island Diary – February 2014

1 February, 2014

The main event of the month was the BBC arriving aboard the Hans Hansson, to film for the children’s nature show ‘Deadly 60’. Steve Backshall arrived with a team of eight to find the “deadliest” of the island’s animals including; fur seals, giant petrels, brown skuas and wandering albatrosses. Having the film crew on the island doubled the Bird Island population, and it was a busy three days accompanying the crew around the island and ensuring they got the footage they needed. Before they left for the South Georgia mainland we had a BBQ on the beach, much to the local bird population’s delight. When having a Bird Island BBQ nothing can be left uncovered, otherwise it won’t be long before a cheeky skua is flying away with a sausage.

Since the technical team arrived at the end of January to install the new bulk fuel system they have been working flat out to get the project completed in time. The new fuel tanks are in place and all the pipe work has been fitted. They are now testing the lines to ensure there are no leaks before transferring our drummed fuel into the new tanks.

The whole team have had a busy seal month having completed the second pup weighing session, and tagging over 200 seal pups that were born on the special study beach so that they can be identified if they return in later years. Hannah and Cian have nearly completed removing TX devices from females that were attached shortly after giving birth. These devices show when the seals are on the island and allow us to calculate how long their foraging trips have been throughout the season. Some of these females have now have TDRs (time depth recorders) which also contain a GLS, so that we can find out where they travel to, and how deep and long they dive whilst feeding. Hopefully Cian will be able to retrieve the TDR’s next season when the females return to pup.

An unusual visitor was seen on the island this month, a male sub-Antarctic fur seal. These are rare visitors to South Georgia and are usually found on distant islands including Crozet and Tristan de Cunha.

After an incubation length of 77 days the first wandering albatross chick hatched on the 25 February. Jess and I are now doing daily visits to the Wanderer Ridge study area to determine each chicks hatching date, as well as visiting all of the nests on the island for which we have not confirmed both parents’ identities. It is keeping us fit as it requires a lot of hiking around the island to visit the 800 or so nests on the island.

Following Jerry’s absence from the island he has been very busy catching up with the penguin and giant petrel work. The whole team helped out weighing gentoo penguin chicks, as well as counting all of the chicks on the island. One of the chicks weighed was an isabelline gentoo, which is a rare genetic mutation, normally we only see a couple each year. The macaroni penguin chick weighing and tagging session was also completed, and left the base reeking of penguin for days afterwards. If the chicks return to Little Mac in a couple of years 100 of them will now be identifiable from their tag.

It has been a bad season for the Southern giant petrels with almost all of the nests in the study area failing at egg stage. One of the remaining chicks has a white morph mother, and has inherited this trait. This is the first white morph chick that any of us have seen on the island, as the trait is not always inherited.

It was sad news for the giant petrel chick that was being fostered by a wandering albatross when it was found dead this month. Clearly a wanderer was no substitute for the chick’s actual parents.

A search and rescue exercise was conducted which involved almost everyone on base and was organised by the technical team. The scenario was locating and rescuing a casualty with a broken leg and suspected punctured lung from up the hill over difficult terrain. Living on such a remote island without a doctor means it is vitally important that we all know what to do in an emergency situation.

One Saturday evening we played a darts match against Signy base, and even managed to get a video feed to them using our limited internet connection. It was nice to see some familiar faces and hear how their season is going. We played three games and Bird Island came out as victors, with Alun throwing the winning dart. It was an excellent evening and we are now awaiting our prize from Signy.

It is now only a week until last call when the Ernest Shackleton will arrive to pick up all of the summer staff and outgoing winterers, including Hannah and myself. After spending a fantastic 16 months on the island we will both be very sad to leave this special place, and will miss all of the animals and people that make it such an amazing place to live and work.

Stephanie Winnard

Albatross Zoological Field Assistant 2012–14.