Bird Island Diary – January 2006

31 January, 2006

January was heralded by the obligatory hangovers, which were soon forgotten by getting back to work on seals, seabirds, IT, and multiple base tasks.

The seal team closed the SSB (Special Study Beach) season on January 10th, recording the second worst total number of pups born ever. This was a total of 464 pups, well below the long-term average of 710 pups. The low productivity of female fur seals was caused by a knock-on effect of last year’s poor environmental conditions, with low food availability and the struggle of fur seal mothers to find food. The seal team, Sarah, Donald and Jaume then recruited all the island hands and moved onto the Main Bay pup weighing. This helps monitor the fitness of pups and the state of the environment around Bird Island each year through the monthly weights of a sample of a 100 pups. During the January Main Bay weighing, we met Wendy the friendly seal again for the fifth year running.

To celebrate John Croxall’s retirement and thank him for all of his work on Bird Island, everyone on base (including Wendy) lined up for a group photo. This was followed by a live web link with John’s last Monday morning meeting. Robbo’s webcam, which had previously only been used for late-night phone calls with his girlfriend, was finally put to good use.

Living and working at Bird Island isn’t all about science and wildlife. Food plays an important part too! Some of us struggle in the kitchen and try to keep up with the high standards of restaurant quality meals that the winterers are so good at producing. Baking cakes and bread is not an exception and we have come to realise that making bread is not such a challenge as we first thought. It just takes time, patience and a simple recipe to start with. After his first successful attempt, Manos is now on a promise to bake more bread when he returns home to his wife.

Saturday the 21st was Robbo’s Turkish cuisine night. This was a very successful evening with delicious meze and kebabs but it soon went wrong when the vodka cocktail came out (is this a Turkish drink?). It wasn’t long before the cocktail was finished and was swiftly replaced by tequila and a game of Mexican. The evening became a blur especially for Richard who seemed to lose every round. We don’t think this was deliberate but can anybody be that (un)lucky?

With the arrival of the VSat dome, Bird Island has gone fully interactive, and Manos had the job of networking the base, installing servers, migrating e-mail accounts and putting backup systems in place for the science databases and everything else, which did lead to the accidental discovery of Bird Island Iced Tea cocktail:

Bird Island Iced Tea

  • Take one tape drive.
  • Address to Manos Tsentides, handle with care!
  • Remove tape drive from box, and hand-carry with your personal luggage to Bird Island next to a duty-free bottle of Kahlua destined for a friend in Rothera.
  • Shake vigorously in the Southern Ocean.
  • Remove from bag, and serve to Manos from a safe distance.
  • This cocktail can be expensive, and cause headaches, until Manos ‘The God of Computers’ can work his technical wizardry from spare parts and cleaning fluid, without which the whole project would have been a failure.

He successfully overcame a multitude of other technical obstacles ranging from faulty parts to an overheating server room and brought Bird Island online before the next Shackleton call. The base now has phones into the main BAS network, internet, a more user friendly email system and lots of space for music, pictures and the odd bit of scientific data. Prior to that, an exciting hurdle race granted long working days and nights to Manos, the longest night being the night of migration when Manos eventually went to bed at 6am. This wasn’t helped by Sarah’s 3700+ emails which took more than two hours to migrate (thanks Sarah!).

The wandering albatross decline continued one more year unperturbed by international conservation action and fund-rising campaigns. The numbers of pairs nesting on Bird Island fell a further 8% from last year, and only 845 nests were recorded this year. Work on Bird Island reflects the worldwide trends and concern for these amazing birds. Incidentally, Manos won the cake for the best guess of what was the number of staked nests (occupied nests are marked with a red stake). This was a challenging bet because we usually bet on the actual total number of nests. Either way, Manos was once again disappointed, not because of IT matters this time, but because he never got his cake. He gets the sympathy of some of us who know through experience how this makes you feel…

Towards the end of January, the Shackleton called again with the team from the Morrison group on board, and Rod Downey, who was leading the South Georgia cleanup. The aim of this call was to remove the waste from the demolition of the old base and the rebuild program, and return the main beach to a normal state as much as possible. Some of the fur seal pups, which were starting to moult their black coats and only wanted to find the driest spots around to catch a snooze weren’t too keen on this. The clean up removed their preferred sun(?)bathing spots.

The cleanup team successfully removed the redundant Johnson Hut, and a boat on Landing Beach which had been wrecked and abandoned stranded on the beach by the Navy in 1988. However, the cleanup of Freshwater Beach was very limited by the weather, which needed to be good to run the Tula (the Shackleton’s workboat) between the ship and the jetty. The cleanup team and extra BAS hands from the Shackleton who volunteered worked very hard, and looked like achieving one of their customary miracles when rough weather forced them to postpone.

With the cleanup team came the snaggers to solve any small problems which had not been completed during the build. Pete Convey and Tom Hart, who were using the cleanup cruise as an opportunity to sample sites around South Georgia also came ashore. The Base Commander took particular interest in the snagging process, and coped admirably when the snagging team got stuck on base for four days due to bad weather! In unrelated news, the Dorchester (the emergency accommodation shed on BI) got a stay of execution during the cleanup, and may be staying for a while as storage place. Those of us who spent some nights in it, even before it was properly acclimatised, would have been sad to see it go.

Since she was unable to run boats between the ship and shore, the Shackleton left to pick up the Cooper Bay field party (Iain Staniland and Ash Morton) and returned in more favourable weather. During the extra days, Penny (Dentist) and Paul (Cadet) got stranded on the island, but they got an extended tour of Bird Island, which led to a particularly successful curry night and many more science activities. These include tagging of pups born this season on SSB, and blood and diet sampling penguins at Big Mac, for which the seal and penguin teams were very pleased. Needless to say that the extended period granted enough time to Manos to see his important work finished, and also made possible his uplift by the Shackleton, as opposed to having to stay an extra period of time and being uplifted by a cruise ship.

The Shackleton returned on 1st February, and managed to complete the cleanup and uplift the JCB and tractor, leaving the area around the base clean and lemon fresh (or it would have been were it not for the smell of seals). The team also removed waste fuel drums and rubbish for recycling. There was a celebratory glass of champagne as the Shackleton left, and base life settled down again. With the departure of the ship, Jaume, Richard and Manos left Bird Island after a successful season studying seals and seabirds and cleaning coffee-based spirits off computer equipment.

Team Penguin had a highly successful month as well, which involved getting diet samples for long-term monitoring for the CCAMLR (Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). This was carried out for Macaronis and Gentoos, the two species of penguin that breed on Bird Island. The team also got DNA samples for Tom’s study on the population trends and migration of macaroni penguins. Tom left with the Shackleton and a dodgy Bird Island haircut.

And this is it. Pretty much as busy and unorthodox a season as can be. Lots of people around, all busy but with a good task ahead to finish, and successfully completed for the sake of the Base and the work in this very special site.

From Jaume, Manos, Tom (guess who wrote which paragraph?) and Richard, all the best to our families and friends.