Bird Island Diary — January 2002

31 January, 2002

A New Year begins

Welcome to another instalment of the life and times of Bird Island and its inhabitants, human and animal. Our newsletter this month actually begins in late December last year with a special Christmas and New Year round-up. Joe was sadly taken away from us by HMSEndurance just before Christmas and so didn’t join in the fun, but we did put up all the decorations before he left, including the little flashing garden gnome that he gave the base as a present!

Our Christmas Eve was one of the most memorable days of the whole season. In the space of just a few hours the bay suddenly filled with brash ice blown in by a southerly wind. There were pieces of ice of all sizes and the evening was calm and clear so we all donned our wetsuits and went playing. We spent our Christmas Eve clambering on the steadiest brash bits and pushing each other off while the sun set over us. After that we warmed up with mulled wine and mince pies and then sang carols to the pups and to Ben, who was feeling a bit off…..well he definitely was when we finished singing the first few lines of any carols we could remember!

Christmas Day started off lazily with a big brunch for all of us and then we opened all of our pressies! We all had things from home to open and then Sascha, Richard and Joe had got little presents for each of us. It was like one big family! Then we all watched Goldeneye, our Christmas day Bond film, accompanied by Cosmopolitan cocktails. This is just one drink in the repertoire of Jonny “Mr Cocktails” Green. Every Saturday Jonny produces another cocktail of monumental alcohol content and Christmas Day was no exception, although the Cosmopolitans surpassed all previous attempts to reach 100% proof…..the film was followed by a lot of dozing! We had a whole real turkey for dinner, kindly donated by the RRS Ernest Shackleton. It even had bones in it! To those of you who think that sounds like grounds for insanity – all our meat is boneless so our turkeys are normally a de-boned squashed affair called “Turkey bombs”. Dinner was the full traditional roast and veggies followed by Christmas pudding and custard and brandy butter. Most people enjoyed watching Ali G that night, but the Cosmopolitans caused a sudden need for sleep in me!

The week after Christmas saw Jonny continue his operations at the “Loveshack” and keep a watchful eye on his penguin charges with daily checks of his nests so that he knows when all of the chicks hatched, and so that he knows when they are ready for their first cuddles. It’s funny that in only just over one month the chicks have already grown and creched. Their parents now return once a day to feed them whilst the fluffy little penguin chicks spend their days huddled up with their friends, occasionally having a bout of flipper flapping in a mad five minutes. It’s now only two weeks until they fledge and leave the colony all together, at which time they will finally understand what the purpose of those flippers are! The “penguin sports facility”, complete with pool, treadmill, and changing room was completed this month after lots of effort from Jonny. The pool is actually a 14m long wooden swim channel filled with stream water. On either end there is a sealed perspex box that the penguins pop up into after swimming along the channel. Heart rate and the air that they breathe in the box can be monitored to determine how much energy swimming requires. The treadmill has a similar perspex box and associated gadgetry over it which measures heart rate and oxygen consumption while walking. Some penguins will have heart rate loggers for a year and so Jonny will be able to tell us what activities they got up to and how much energy they used to do it. Last winter some penguins travelled huge distances and this winter we might learn how they manage to do it!

New Year was celebrated in the style of a children’s party, complete with fish fingers and chips for dinner, cakes, pineapple and cheese on sticks and fairy bread. Everyone dressed up in school outfits, but little Jonny’s Mummy made him come to the party in his pyjamas so that he could go straight to bed when he got in. Little did she know that her boy would be up until 6am with some big boys and big girls that were also at the party! Things were progressing pleasantly all evening, with games of pin the eyebrows on the penguin and pass the parcel, until the flour game began and Mr Cocktails swung into action. The idea was to put a marshmallow on a pile of flour and then slice the flour with a knife. When the tower of flour fell you had to retrieve the marshmallow with your mouth. Needless to say, within half an hour the entire lounge was covered in flour, and so were all the children at the party. Somehow it all got cleaned up before the morning when Maggie woke up to a spotless base and all the children sleeping peacefully in their beds like little angels (that they are!). New Year’s Day involved the minimum of work, maximum of sleep and a film or two.

The intrepid seal team of Mark, Nick and Sascha have continued with deployments of cameras, satellite tags, conductivity-temperature loggers and time-depth recorders, interspersed with some cuddling of pups otherwise known as serious science to find out where they get to in their hectic pup lives. Most of this month has been work, work, work here at BI, but also lots of fun as always. On the 7th January the RRS James Clark Ross arrived to take Daf on board to act as a seabirds and whales observer during the month’s special science cruise in this area. At the time of losing Daf we gained Tony Martin, for his first ever visit to Bird Island. Tony spent his month coming out with everyone to see what we all do, how we do it, and why, and then spent most of his spare time mapping where the light mantled sooty albatross nests and ringing ducks. To be precise, the South Georgia Pintail, otherwise known as the toilet duck for certain unsavoury habits involving the “little house on the jetty”, and to quote “the most charismatic duck in the world”. At the end of January the ship returned and did a swap so we got Daf back and Tony headed off home. Daf had plenty of fun on the ship seeing more whales than most people do in a lifetime, including Minke, Fin, Killer, Humpback, Southern Right, Southern Bottlenose and beaked. The ship food also appears to have agreed with our tall Welsh friend!

Richard and Ben have spent much time this month putting out autonests in Colony J, one of the black browed albatross colonies, mapping all of the wandering albatross nests on the island and checking on the grey headed albatrosses. The work in Colony J involved temporarily replacing the nests of some albatrosses with fibreglass copies that have a load cell in the bottom to register the weight in the nest every ten minutes. These can be downloaded remotely so that Richard can see when, and how much, the chicks were fed at each meal between now and fledging. Some of the parent birds have satellite tags deployed on them so that he can also tell where they have gone and how much food they return to the chick. He has put out 25 nests and each one takes at least an hour to set up so he has been kept very busy. Ben has successfully staked all the wanderer nests on the island, and on the last day of the month everyone joined in the annual count of nests with eggs. We had a sweepstake over who could guess the correct number of nests with eggs, and I won with a guess of 1022. The actual number on the day was 1025, an improvement on recent years, which is very encouraging. The loser of our little bet now has to make me a cake of my choice…..I haven’t decided what Mark has to produce yet but my taste buds don’t stand for any old thing!

On the day that Daf returned we all went to Johnson Beach to weigh 100 gentoo chicks. This had been postponed from the day before when the skies had opened and confined us all inside, as the rain has again today. Gentoo chicks really do smell quite badly, but are quite cute and fluffy to the touch, so everyone was happy to help. Meanwhile I continue deploying satellite tags and time-depth recorders on the macaroni penguins, and later this month we will be weighing 100 of those as well.

So that brings us up-to-date for the Christmas/January period on Bird Island. In the coming month the work continues, and we round off the month with the departure of Jonny and Sascha, and the arrival of Richard, JD and Matt, our new wintering carpenter. We also continue with main bay puppy weights, which began this month, but you will hear more of all this in the next newsletter….

Until then lots and lots of love to everyone at home and a special hello to the people at Halley, who have now technically had 11½ months of winter!