Bird Island Diary — January 2001

31 January, 2001 Bird Island

A time of rapid change

So what’s been happening this month? Unfortunately for you all, it’s my turn to try and provide a witty commentary on the exciting events of January (assisted by Sascha because she seems a trifle fed up with how long this is taking me to do). And believe you me, writing newsletters is something that fills me with dread; too many people have done such a good job in recent months.

The island is changing incredibly quickly; it seems that if you blink you miss things. This is definitely the month of (seabird) chicks. The young ones grow up so quickly these days, not like when I was a lad! Almost everything has hatched now, or at least everything that nests on the surface rather than deep down under the ground like a Clanger. The exceptions are the wandering albatrosses which have the peculiar and rather unsociable habit of rearing chicks through the winter. Having finished laying only a fortnight ago, the adults are currently sitting on eggs. And what enormous eggs these are, weighing in at an average of 500 g. Still, as wanderers are winter breeders, monitoring chick survival provides Daf (the seabird field assistant) with a welcome diversion from skiing, drinking, singing, practising rugby and playing Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Catatonia CDs (and yes, Daf is Welsh).

But returning to the topic of chicks, the gentoo penguin chicks are already as big as their parents and almost fully feathered. The majority have lost most of their lovely velvety down. Just a few tufts remain, giving them impressive Mohican style hairdos and every time we enter the colonies, we should probably play Sex Pistols CDs to make them feel at home. Particularly as it’s not easy being a gentoo chick. Every time mum or dad returns from the sea, the chicks are forced to follow them on an ever-changing assault course up and down and round and round until the parent is entirely convinced that it is in fact its own chick that has spent the last 10 minutes chasing its little orange heels. But the reward is well worth it, half a kilo of semi-digested krill served at body temperature. Delicious!

Meanwhile, the fur seals pups are getting huge and developing much bigger sharper teeth! Most of them still growl at anything that moves, but luckily some (mostly the fat boys, termed ‘Cartman’ by Mark) have much nicer temperaments and are quite inquisitive. We’ve had a fair few come into the porch again this month. Mark and Jane developed an especial fondness for a rather skinny and unfortunately doomed pup named ‘George’. But no sooner had they decided to make the welfare of this particular individual their main project of the day, that its condition deteriorated and the poor wee fella died. But little George was not forgotten and as it was felt he required a suitably memorable send-off, a full Viking burial at sea was arranged. George may have lived but a short while, but his spirit burned brightly (literally – it’s amazing what a litre of aviation fuel can achieve).

In addition to her ongoing concern with seal pup welfare, Jane has been very busy with her macaroni penguins. Because of their characteristic gait, a macaroni penguin has a passing resemblance to a very small, very stocky and very stupid person. But Jane loves them. She has been spending various evenings at her home away from home over at the quaintly named ‘Love Shack’ at Fairy Point waiting for her incoming penguins to return with their recently-acquired satellite tags and time-depth recorders. Mark, Sascha and I went over to join her there one evening for a vacation away from base. Unfortunately we picked the wrong time as the following week the weather was much mistier, causing disorientated prions and storm petrels to actually fly into the hut. This woke Jane up at 4 am, apparently with quite a start, a thumping heart and a concern that Bird Island was being invaded by pirates! Ever since then, Maggie, who always has our health and safety as her top priority, has meticulously arranged a rota of all-night watches. You can never tell who might try and steal Mark’s supply of coco-pops or Daf’s supply of toffee pennies. These Daf has painstakingly extracted from dozens of boxes of Quality Streets by selflessly eating all the other sweeties that most people mistakenly think taste rather better. We are all grateful to him for this ultimate altruistic sacrifice, particularly as he has already been medically evacuated to have major root canal work. Either Daf has a very very sweet tooth, or he likes one particular dentist an awful lot!

Speaking of evacuations, there have been more changes to base personnel this month. John Croxall made it in the end, although it was touch and go at one stage whether he would be able to get here. John Newman, who was here on behalf of BAS Building Services, left on RRSErnest Shackleton, bound for King Edward Point on South Georgia where he is involved with the building of the new BAS Applied Fisheries Research Station. The station will be officially christened in March by a party of eminent dignitaries. Oddly enough, our invitations seem to have been lost in the post. Which is strange as we were sure we’d be invited. But we don’t mind as long as our nearest human neighbours (who are 50 miles away) turn the music down after midnight.

So, now we are left with: Mark, Jane and Daf (the three winterers), Nik (the outgoing assistant), Maggie (the base administrator), John Croxall (senior scientist), Sascha and myself (both post-doctoral scientists). Nik will be off on the next ship which will also deposit three builders to build the new indoor toilet and jetty extension. Whether the former will ever get used remains a much debated matter. Either people here think the idea of an indoor toilet is a backward step and a trifle uncivilised, or alternatively no one relishes the prospect of fixing it. Should it break, in the game (a bit like Russian roulette) of deciding who should repair it, the most sought-after trump card will be. “Well, I never used it anyway!”.

And sometimes we even do some research down here. Sascha, Mark and Nik have been busy with seal pup weighing and tag deployments. Sascha and Mark are often to be seen heading off into the tussac armed with seal catching poles and other equipment. Unfortunately on the fifth deployment of Sascha’s extremely expensive and sophisticated video camera, the battery seems to have failed. Seeing this only as a temporary setback, a determined Sascha spent several days getting into drilling, re-wiring and tag epoxy rebuilding! And fingers crossed, camera girl number six (deployments are all on females) who is out at sea at the moment, will be back sometime soon and we’ll find out if all of this worked. In the meantime, with her newly-acquired micro-electronics skills, Sascha has applied for a job as technical director of Microsoft. She always did aim high.

Daf and now John have taken to wandering all round the island in recent days. Everyone on base was involved in the island-wide wanderer census a couple of days ago. Daf provided us with maps of nest locations, and like inquisitive social workers we made house calls to see how well the parents were looking after their eggs. As wanderers have an incredibly high hatching success, only a few showed the sad tell-tale sign of a major family break-up. A sure indication that a skua somewhere would have recently enjoyed a substantial omelette, had they taken the trouble to cook it properly. Daf’s maps were very good too and with such a professional job, a casual observer might have thought they were prepared days in advance. And yet, there is a scurrilous rumour going round the base that ‘somebody’ was up rather late the previous night, so we have our suspicions.

We celebrated Burns’ Night in inimitable style on January 25. Bizarrely, all except the one Scot (me) took the opportunity to dress up in various scanty pieces of tartan. I tried to point out that the plaid garments in question were shirts and not kilts, but I suspect that those present had been at BAS for too long, and besides, why fight years of tradition. I made do with a tartan shirt worn, rather unconventionally for the evening, as a shirt! The meal was a great success thanks to Daf’s instinctive affinity for Celtic cooking from slightly further north of his home country. The starter was some Bird Island-grown Acaena salad, after which we moved on to the haggis, properly addressed in the traditional manner, with everyone reciting a verse in turn. I’m guessing, but I suspect that much of the pronunciation of Burns’ ‘To a Haggis’ wasn’t entirely accurate.

The following day, quite groggy-headed for many of us given the excellent supply of malt whisky on base, was Australia Day. Mark duly celebrated his national day with Anzac cookies, a cuddly kangaroo, and an Australian flag replacing the British flag that flies above the toilet. We wanted him to keep it there until RRS Ernest Shackleton was due to arrive and swap essential supplies in the form of mail, five automatic nest platforms and several crates of tonic (in case of malaria, obviously) for our accumulated rubbish including an enormous half tonne box that several weeks previously Maggie had single-handedly and determinedly moved to the end of the jetty over the course of a rainy afternoon. But Mark wouldn’t do it, so now we’ll never know whether the boat crews would have noticed the difference.

Well, that’s it for January’s news, I think. We are almost into February and all that remains is to wish everyone a slightly belated Happy New Year from the residents here at Bird Island. So that’s your lot. Take care and thanks for all the fish!