Bird Island Diary – January 2014

1 January, 2014

After seeing in the New Year at the end of the jetty, the first day of 2014 dawned bright and sunny. Adam, Cian, Hannah, Steph, and I decided to make the most of the sunshine and temperature high of 6 degrees with a walk up La Roche, Bird Island’s highest peak. On the summit we enjoyed mince pies and a flask of tea. We spent an enjoyable hour among the terns and watched a Southern Right whale feeding in the water 350 metres below us. From this high vantage point we also saw two large icebergs on the distant horizon, the first of the season.

The zoological field assistants have had a busy start to the year. The black browed and grey headed albatross chicks have hatched and grown quickly, so that by the end of the month the adults were leaving them alone to go out to sea foraging. While the parents were brooding the young chicks Steph and I collected nearly 100 faecal samples from black browed albatross for a study of dietary DNA being carried out by the Australian Antarctic Division. It is great to be able to help where we can with other international projects.

The wandering albatrosses continued to lay eggs until the middle of the month and all the nests were visited and parent birds identified. One wanderer surprised everyone when I found it with a chick more than a month before the wanderer eggs are due to hatch. After initial confusion and checking of dates the chick was inspected more closely and found to be a southern giant petrel chick. This is the first case of inter-species adoption (or perhaps “chick-napping”?) that has been seen on Bird Island so we are monitoring its progress closely.

The penguin chicks are starting to get really big now. Some of the gentoo chicks are the same size as their parents and starting to lose their fluffy feathers and replace them with sleeker adult ones. The chicks can often be seen madly chasing their parents around the beaches screaming to be fed. The macaroni penguin chicks are also growing fast and the colony at Big Mac is emptying out as the adults return to the sea to feed.

Now that many of the fur seals have gone back to sea or moved up into the tussac the beaches are relatively clear which has given the newer arrivals a chance to explore areas of the island that were previously out of bounds. The first monthly fur seal puppy weighing was an activity that required all on base to get onto the beaches and get involved. It was hard work catching 100 puppies to sex and weigh but also a lot of fun. No one ever tires of the opportunity to get close to the fur seal puppies when they are at their cutest. Our hard work was repaid with a delicious cooked breakfast supplied by Hannah and Cian, the seal assistants.

We prepared for the departure of Manos, IT, with a fancy dress party. After watching many a zombie film over Christmas and New Year we decided it was the perfect theme for the event. We also had a brief visit from HMS Protector to drop off Paul Cousens, the first of several people arriving to complete a project to install a new bulk fuelling system on the base. Since then Paul and Rob, the base techs, have been busy carrying out an indent of all the technical supplies on base as well as providing the generators and water systems with some TLC to ensure we are all kept warm and watered.

Towards the end of the month the RRS Ernest Shackleton called in to Bird Island to return Jerry, the penguin assistant, and bring in Alun, Barry and Dale to work on the fuel system project. The visit of the Shackleton also meant a keenly awaited fresh food re-supply with more fruit and vegetables arriving than we have seen for several months. It is amazing how excited you can get over some lettuce when you haven’t had any salad for a long time!

To round up January, on the 31st we carried out the first whole island wandering albatross census of this breeding season. Over 800 nests on the island were visited to check that they were each still active and to identify any adults who had not yet been recorded. The weather was in our favour, mild and calm, and with the inclusion of some delicious chocolate brownies baked by Steph an enjoyable day was had by all on base who took part.

Jess Walkup

Zoological Field Assistant