Bird Island Diary — January 2009

31 January, 2009

The first day of the New Year was dedicated to the clearing of fuzzy heads and a gentle introduction to the world with a walk across the meadows and back to base along the beaches. Any hope of this being a quiet and relaxing day, however, were short-lived as in the mid afternoon our first visitors of the new year arrived onboard the yacht ‘Seal’. She had been chartered by Kew Gardens and had onboard a group of botanists and entomologists who were conducting a survey of South Georgia, looking at invasive and non-native species that had found their way down here.

Generally an arrival of a ship on new year’s day may have been somewhat of a chore as it would involve a frenzy of activity around base but in this case it was very nice to have visitors and the new faces were a welcome sight, all the more so in the knowledge that these would be our last visitors for the next two and a half months. We were therefore more than happy to take our guests on a tour of the island and assist in their work.

The ‘Seal’ returned again on the 3rd January for the botanists and entomologists to complete their surveys and collect the traps that they had placed a couple of days before. That evening as the yacht departed we knew we would not be seeing any new people on base until the middle of March.

Life on base

The New Year here on Bird Island quickly settled into a routine, with no more ships, cargo, or visitors for a while everyone was focused on their work. Ten people presently occupy the base and most of these are scientists so they spend a large part of each day out in the field. My month has been very varied: Ewan and I assisted Dave our technician in repairing some leaking sprinkler heads, a job that sounded simpler than it was. As we removed more and more pipe work and ever more drips began falling from the ceiling it began to seem like a bad idea to tinker with it — I mean I suppose I really could have put up with that drip above my bed — it wasn’t that annoying really was it? Such thoughts occurred to me as yet another bucket of water drained from the pipe work directly above my bunk. But we stuck at it and in not too long the pipes and sprinklers had been refitted and it was all soon back to normal, and now I don’t get dripped on by a leaky pipe while in my bunk!

A lot of my work centres on the base but whenever I can I like to get away and explore the island. I have a couple of good excuses for doing this, as I am responsible for checking the rat boxes that are spread over the whole island. Unlike many areas of South Georgia, rats have never made it to Bird Island but with so many ground-nesting birds, if rats ever did make it here the results would be devastating. We therefore have strict bio-security measures on the island, part of which is the rat boxes. These are baited with chocolate and checked regularly. If any evidence of rats is ever found then we will be able to target the specific area in which they were discovered and hopefully eradicate them before they become established.

My other excuse for a nice walk is to monitor the condition of the paths and install anti-erosion measures that are being trialled here this season. We try to keep human impact to a minimum but with scientists moving between sites on the island it is unavoidable that areas get trampled. We therefore have marked paths to stick to; however, these become quite muddy as the season progresses as it does rain rather a lot here! So where the paths become impassable I install sections of walkway and planking.

Being out and about on the island can bring you into closer contact with some of the birds than you might expect, such as this petrel who I heard chirping from its burrow right next to where I had sat down to eat my lunch.

Towards the end of the month, our New Year’s party seemed like the distant past and we were ready for another celebration. Luckily enough it was Burns Night so it was time for everyone to don the tartan and prepare for the highland games, which included wellie wanging and toss the haggis, then back indoors to warm up with a whisky and a Burns supper. It was a great feast at which many dodgy Scottish accents could be heard toasting ‘the bard’.


For anyone landing on Bird Island the fur seals continue to be the most immediately striking feature of the place. Although most of the big male fur seals have departed there are still plenty of mothers and pups about and the pups certainly make themselves at home around the base. They may look cute while asleep but disturb one and they become little bundles of rage. The fact that they will confront a human who is ten times bigger than they are doesn’t seem to faze them at all — they are quite convinced in their ability to beat the humans, no matter the size.

About one in a thousand of the pups is born blonde but these are rarely born to blond mothers, so we were very lucky this month to see the very rare sight of a mother and its pup both in striking blonde.

In the macaroni penguin colonies around the island the chicks are growing rapidly, having hatched last month they are now putting on weight so fast that their bodies are out of proportion with their tiny heads and little flippers. These chicks seem to be doing very well, unlike the gentoo chicks, which have suffered from a very bad feeding year. It seems that the gentoo parents haven’t been successful in their feeding forays and so have had little food to bring back to their hungry chicks. As a result many of the young have starved.

While the northern giant petrel eggs began hatching last month, the southern giant petrels only began hatching in early January. The little white fluffy chicks are very cute and are just beginning to poke their heads out from under their parents to take a look at the world around them.

The Wandering Albatrosses which began laying last month are now patiently incubating their eggs, sitting on their nests in all weathers, braving the strong winds and driving rain that blow across the meadows and ridges where they nest. Mishaps occasionally occur and Derren discovered that an egg from one of the wanderer nests had rolled out and was lying near to the nest cold and dead, an unfortunate end for the egg of this pair of albatrosses who will now not mate and lay an egg again until next year. But for those eggs laid this year that do survive and hatch it will be December 2009 before the fledglings finally take to the skies and leave Bird Island. Below, the unfortunate Wanderer egg and an addled Pipit egg show the enormous size differences compared to a hen’s egg.

Well that’s about all from Bird Island in the first month of a new year. I hope it’s a good year for everyone on base and their loved ones out there in the real world.