Bird Island Diary — January 2011

31 January, 2011

The new year took us all by surprise here at Bird Island. Not only did it come around very fast but it also reduced the number on station quite significantly. Five people left very early on the 1st and Jon Ashburner arrived from KEP, so as you may imagine the station dynamics went into a spin. We could hear the echos of those just gone and although we set less places at the dinner table, the feeling remained that folk were missing.

In true Bird Island form, before long, work commitments had us running around. The first ‘all hands on deck’ job was Antarctic fur seal pup weighing on Main Bay. With our rough kit on we wandered over to the bay avoiding the many seals that still abound the beach area. It was nice to see the station from a different angle and also assess how the access through the beaches is for walks later on. Once we had collected enough data it was time to return to the station for a well deserved fry up. A sweep was also carried out along the beach. As part of a monitoring program we regularly check the beaches for foreign debris. It’s quite surprising how many things do get washed up.

The albatross work continues to be a big job on station with Stacey out for long days scouring the island and checking the many different colonies we have. As the wanderers have returned to their nests and have been laying, time came to mark all of these nest out. Between Jon and Stacey they covered a significant part of the island, checking all the birds for eggs, rings, partners and noting them down. A number of us joined them for the western section of the island, covering Gony Ridge, Molly Meadows, Morris Point, Dank Fen and Round How. We clambered over, and often amongst tussocks (as close to a jungle as you can get here) and found ourselves falling in plenty of muddy holes too! Despite a bit of wind it was as good a day out as you can get on Bird Island, and we ate our lunch delighting in the seals lounging on the tussock and the odd clumsy wanderer.

It’s surprising to see how far the fur seals get when walking around the island as well. Once the females have mated and the pups are old enough they start to migrate up the hills away from the beaches and laze about on the softer tussocky lumps. They look so comfortable and it’s tempting to just lie down and give it a go. A soft growl however reminds us that they are wild animals who have no intention of sharing their space with the likes of us.

Freshwater Beach, which is just in front of the station, was full for most of November and December of adult males, females and then pups as they started to arrive. January has seen this change dramatically with the males seeming to disappear overnight and females frequently going out for several days to feed. By the third week of January the beach felt virtually empty. Watching the pups swimming in the water is my new pastime and I could spend hours out with them. Our first blonde pup (nicknamed Couscous) this season and the second (as far as we know) pup born on Freshwater Beach is still about and stands out like a sore thumb amongst the mass of black puppies. We seem to have a number of these blonde pups about this year and have provided the photographers on station with and irresistible urge to get ‘just one more photo’.

A common contest between the Antarctic stations is the ever famous darts competition. Signy Station saw a later start to their summer and in the first week challenged us to a darts game. Despite having more people on station than them, we were low on the darts sharks stakes and didn’t manage a win at all out of the three games we played. We think a rematch may be required at some stage, especially as some ex-Bird Islanders Joe Corner and Derren Fox have gone over there this summer!

As the range of wildlife we have on the island are moving through their respective changes, the Zoological Field Assistants are recording as much information as they can. Next on the list of big jobs was the gentoo chicks census and it took us two days. First we wandered over to Natural Arch and armed with shiny clickers and presented with groups of chicks we endeavoured to count them all. Now, this is not an easy feat as they do like to move about. On the second day we finished at Johnson Beach, where a sample of chick weighing is also carried out. All in all a good couple of days out and a final count of chicks was 3,322.

In between all these events we have the normal routines on station to carry out. Everyday somebody has a turn at cooking, we all help with the dishes and we have cleaning days to get things looking spic and span again. The Zoological Field Assistants have their routine long-term monitoring checks to carry out and data input is high on this station as valuable information is sent back to Cambridge. They have great dedication, going out in often poor weather which Bird Island is famous for. Most of January was overcast and wet and the boot-room on most days would smell something akin to wet mossy ground.

Joan our visiting scientist who is studying the Antarctic Prion, Blue Petrel, Common Diving Petrel and the South Georgian Diving Petrel, has continued to go out everyday checking his sites and the devices he has sent out on the birds. The remainder of the season will see him beginning his night work to catch the same birds. Paul has been busy on station too, as the only Tech Services technician (as Joe has handed over and left), he has been jumping in to jobs around the station with both feet. The water tanks have all seen a big clean out and it was a shame to see the mucky stream water go back in. The water is filtered and processed past this point so we are receiving nice clean water in the end. He’s been helping to tidy up around the outside of the station and getting himself organised for the next generator change.

The end of the month finished with a wanderer check covering the whole island. Each of us armed with our maps of nests we set off in the pouring rain to check on how the birds are doing. We would mark down if they have failed (egg and bird gone) and if they are still present. Another task involving tussock jumping, some of us with more grace than others. Although our maps did show us roughly were these nests were, a number of us struggled and spent some time wandering in circles in rain and mist to stumble across a very content wanderer sitting on their nest. I’m happy to report that all birds in my areas were present and accounted for.

There are many species I have neglected to mention and every time I go out I am overwhelmed by the number of things to look at. If I was to account for everything I have seen this month then a book would a better medium. For now, this provides a snapshot of our January at Bird Island.

Agnieszka Fryckowska