Bird Island Diary – January 2004

31 January, 2004

Sushi & smoothies

Considering the fact that you trip over seals the minute you walk out of the door, you would have thought that ten scats a week is not a lot to ask of the hundreds of thousands of Antarctic Fur seals here on Bird Island. It would be nice to think that between them they could help us out and produce ten, just ten, on a Wednesday. But once again as we roam the beaches and tussock-covered hillsides looking for our weekly ‘diet sample’ requirement, we are at a loss to explain where it all goes.

Why on earth do you need to collect scats? You may well ask…

Many of the long-term projects conducted here contribute to increasing our knowledge on the natural variability of the marine ecosystem. Now the Southern Ocean is a big place, and logistically pretty difficult to sample. By collecting and analysing diet samples from the animals here we can discover things about them, such as the size of krill they are eating and the species of fish, and also determine what might be happening in the bigger picture. So effectively we are using them to sample the system for us. Similar work is conducted with the macaroni penguins over at ‘little Mac’ and the map shows where the satellite tagged animals have been going in January. In the same way we can use seals to sample the system, the penguin satellite tags can tell us far more than just where the penguins swim. From the tracks shown you can see where the penguins have foraged, and how long it has taken them. This combined with looking at what they eat can tell us if their food source is scarce, and even provide information about the population structure of one of their main prey species, krill.

Jordan Cove has been host to two yachts this month with the Ada II paying a number of visits and Phil Trathan (BAS senior scientist) leaving BI, bound for the Willis Islands aboard the Golden Fleece. Dinner invitations were exchanged providing us all with the opportunity of meeting some very interesting people. Ben and Isaac have been assisting Sally Poncet and Graham Robertson with there survey of all South Georgia’s Albatross colonies and Nicholas and I have been lucky enough to have Dion Poncet and Callan Duck along on a few occasions, the latter able to share some insights into BI and its seals, having lived and worked here in the 80’s.

As would seem to be the way down here on our little island, an excuse for a party is rarely missed and with everyone approaching sociable tasks with great gusto the year started well with an excellent New Year pub-crawl. The night was danced away at Club Dorchester, the delights of the BI Sushi bar sampled, many smoothies consumed at the ice cream parlour and it all ended in a rather Roman fashion at the Centurions Sandals.

The dinner party circuit has been a busy one this month! We were treated to Reindeer Fondue on the Golden Fleece and Pumpkin pie courtesy of our Canadian friends, Ken and Edith, on the Ada II. The crew of the Ada was anchored in Jordan Cove on the 20th and came ashore for Maggie’s birthday meal, for which Benny cooked up a feast.

Dave Molyneaux joined us just before Christmas and worked wonders with BI communications. Thanks to his hard work installing the new VHF repeater on top of Tonk (Stejneger Peak) we can now relay messages all over the island and apparently provide much amusement for ships within a 40-mile radius.

The daily visits to the Seal Study Beach ended in the first half of January with the total number of pups born this year a staggering 769. Core blimey I hear you cry followed by ‘but Sarah that beach is only one tenth of a rugby pitch in area, how many pups were born on the whole of Bird Island?’. Well my friends soon Jaume Forcada (BAS senior scientist) may be able to let you know. As well as being an essential and much loved member of the seal team this season Jaume has also been conducting a fur seal census. Using digital photography, a rather groovy range finder and aerial photographs, taken by Dirk Briggs with the assistance of HMS Endurance, he hopes to develop methods to establish just how many fur seals we were blessed with this year.

100 Fur Seal pups on Main Bay and 100 Gentoo fledglings at Johnson Cove were weighed on separate occasions this month, involving everyone on base. Chris managed to provide a fine day for his penguin weighing and we even ate our evening meal alfresco as the good weather continued through into the evening. A local inhabitant spied us at Main Bay during pup weighing and quickly resumed occupation at her ‘usual spot’ just outside the back door. Wendy is back. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of an encounter with perhaps the worlds friendliest Antarctic Fur Seal, I have to say that she is quite unique. This is the third year that Wendy has found us and dutifully remained out side base for days at a time, enjoying a good petting whenever someone passes by.

The presence of Wendy on base has seen a subtle change in the male field assistants, some might say it has brought out their feminine side and others might remark that the photos below prove it. I for one am rather happy as I’m sure there will be a few more willing members for the first BI knitting circle… place your orders of winter warmers now!

The numbers on base dropped to six when we waved farewell to Jaume and Dave who left with the JCR mid way through the month. The large amounts of ice around South Georgia made it difficult to predict their departure, but have provided us with some spectacular views. Their passage to the Falklands was a little smoother than Phil Trathan’s who departed shortly after them on the Golden Fleece… ‘Continuing bad weather. Normally Jérôme reckons on one depression during the crossing. We left on the tail of one so that should have been it. This is now our second and another is forecast so he has definitely declared this to be a bad crossing.’ – Phil 20/01/04. It has been great to hear of his adventures on board and we were sad to see his departure from base as much fun and friendship had been shared during his stay.

The end of the month saw everyone on base taking part in the Wandering Albatross counts. I headed South West from base to my designated areas and spent a very pleasant afternoon chatting to these enormous birds and enquiring after the health of their eggs. The bird boys, Benny and Isaac are sad to report that Wanderer numbers continue to decline at an ever increasing rate, with only 948 eggs laid this year compared with around 1500 in the 1970’s.

One last photo – a little competition for you and a ploy for us to get more post! If you have any idea what the following is then send your answers on a post card to Bird Island Research station, British Antarctic Survey, C/O Stanley, Falkland Islands, South Atlantic FIQQ 1ZZ, and don’t forget to send your name and address as we promise to send a special BI Aga baked cake to the first correct answer…

The weeks are whizzing by and there looks to be a very enjoyable time ahead of me, so much to learn, delight in and experience. I’m looking forward to making the most of it. Big love to everyone at home, Sarah.