Bird Island Diary — July 2002

31 July, 2002 Bird Island

Sledging and Sketches

Hello and welcome to another month in the life of the Bird Island winterers – Jane, Ben, Nick and Matt. This is my second winter and second July on Bird Island, which seems unbelievable because leaving RAF Brize Norton on the Tri-Star still seems like such a recent event!

Much of our month has been spent talking about snow, walking in snow, looking at snow and creating angels in snow! Some has fallen, a lot has melted and some has frozen, but we are still not inundated with tonnes of snow and big drifts! I don’t think we ever will be considering we are 900 miles from Antarctica, but we can hope! We have done some skiing this month though, with various results. Nick is our alpine ski aficionado….having taken on the black runs in French ski resorts in days gone by. I have watched him gliding down a streambed, making graceful and easy turns, knowing that my attempts always end up with a close inspection of the snow by my face! However, I have learnt to fall in the “correct way” and can stop by hurling myself to the ground so things are improving!

Ben and I decided to do some sledging instead one day. The streambeds become almost like toboggan runs in winter (with a bit of imagination) and you can zoom down on a sledge and navigate the turns quite well. I went out to join Ben, whose only instruction was “avoid that little rock sticking up”, so I set off down the small slope and hit the little rock sticking up! The only rock there was, infact, and ripped a hole in my little board sledge and made a bruise on my bum! I still got several hours of runs on my sledge on another route though!

We all spent a day out counting wanderer chicks at the start of the month. We do these all through the winter to check up on the chicks, who have to spend the whole season sitting on their nests, growing feathers and getting fatter. Matt’s round takes him to Farewell Point at the easterly end of the island and it was there that he saw a brown skua – probably the last one of these, usually plentiful, birds that we will see until they return to breed in summer. They all head off to sea for the winter, and this year a few lucky volunteers have been fitted with geolocation devices attached to a leg ring. Next season we will hopefully retrieve these devices from the birds and find out where they went during their months away from the island. This hasn’t been done before so it will be very interesting to see their routes.

There is also a special wandering albatross project going on this winter. The fat chicks sit on their nests waiting for their parents to return and feed them, and when they do Ben might be laying in wait for them. Every fortnight Ben chooses four adults that have returned to feed their chicks at the nest. He catches the adult after the chick has had its dinner – they are so fat and full of food that they just sit and watch – and Nick or I hold it while Ben attaches a satellite tag to the feathers on the back of the bird. They also get a radio transmitter attached to a leg ring. When we let them go they have a rest for a while, and regain their composure, and then head off to sea to look for food again. We can follow where they go each night when the satellite data comes in. Ben puts up a little fence around the chick and when the parent returns it just sits and patiently waits to be let in to its chick, after which the devices are removed and the adult goes off to sea again. You just don’t realise how big the wanderers are until you sit on the floor and Ben hands you an adult male wanderer to hold on your lap – they’re huge! I can only just get my arm around one and the massive beak is so sharp that you hold on to that like your life depends on it, but they’re actually quite peaceful birds usually.

Southern right whales have returned to our waters recently. One lovely day in early July Nick, Ben and I were in Top Meadows and took a tea break in Colony J hut up on the hillside. In the summer the colony is filled with black browed albatrosses but after the chicks have all fledged the colony is empty until the birds return to breed in September. Colony J hut is a good whale spotting site though and Ben set up his scope and we all sat looking for whales. In the end we saw three separate southern right whales – swimming at the surface, diving, blowing and showing their flukes. They were quite a way off in Stewart Strait but with the scope you could clearly tell what they were. It’s fantastic to see whales from here and even better when you think how close to extinction they came in the not-so-distant past.

Matt has been busy with all sorts of carpentry work this month – he has one of the biggest job lists for his winter that we have ever seen and so he creates a lot of sawdust and wood off-cuts. This means that we really have to have a lot of barbeques! Luckily, two of Matt’s other speciality skills are kebab and roll making so we’ve had a couple of lovely BBQ nights. It’s handy that we’re all so carnivorous here because we end up standing round the BBQ eating straight off it with rolls as the only non-meat item! We turned the power off for one BBQ so that we stood outside around the fire in the peace and quiet with snow gently falling around us. You can just happily munch away on kebabs and look at the stars.

The full moon this month was spectacular and coincided with a time of clear skies and calm weather. We all decided it would be good to get photos of the moon over the Willis Islands. So one night we worked out that it would be low enough in the sky to make a really good moonlight picture at about 3 or 4 am. We all settled down for a film double bill, by which time it was 2 am. We kept running outside to give “moon reports’, and after the second film it was obvious that the moon was not going to be in place at 3am…it was so high that you couldn’t fit it and the land in the one frame! Matt and I went to bed with the theory that the moon would be lower next month. Ben and Nick stayed up for the third film and decided the moon would be right at about 5 or 6 am – they were certain! At 5.30am Nick came in to tell me that the moon was way too high still and off he went to bed. Ben remained determined and set his alarm for 9 am to check on the status of the moon…too high! You have to commend his determination! We decided the next day after lots of speculation and theorising that perhaps next month the moon will be lower in the sky as it travels across the island….we’ll see!

There’s been a slight French theme this month as it was Bastille Day on the 14th, and Nick’s birthday on the 28th. Ben made little croissants and pain au chocolat for Bastille Day and we all sat down to a very continental seeming breakfast with coffee and croissants. Nick was on cook that day and made us dinner from his French cookbook. Later in the month it was Nick’s birthday and Matt cooked a 3-course roast dinner using our last fresh potatoes. It turned out that the cake Matt made was a particular favourite of Nick’s, and we had the cake with some champagne (Moet of course!), our daily game of Trouble and then gave Nick his card. We also played a special edition of Trouble (Frustration to the Brits, Trouble to the Aussies) involving drinking when you landed on certain spots – I seemed to find all the spots!

Towards the end of this month we’ve begun to see more and more leopard seals in our bays. We’ve had some bergy bits floating in the bay and the leps love to climb on to them to sleep – it must remind them of their pack ice homes. One day, in particular, we woke up to find two leopard seals on the snowy beach and one asleep on a berg not far from shore. As we watched three more leps swam into the bay like a gang of troublemakers. They spent hours trying to climb on the bergs but were useless at it….I don’t know how they ever manage to get on the pack ice! The lep sleeping on his berg kept getting woken up by other leps popping out of the sea and peering over the edge of his berg, maybe to see if they could fit on there too. Perhaps it was one of the others that gave his platform a nudge because it began to tip and the seal looked so startled as it had to scramble like mad to stay on! Since then we’ve had a few days where there have been six or seven leps in Evermann Bay – calling, laying on a blue iceberg and just dozing in the water. Nick has been busy tagging most of them, adding to the growing leopard seal database.

And so that brings us to the end of July, and it’s August already! We’re hoping a ship might visit this month with some post, but otherwise we continue our peaceful life on our little island, surrounded by the wanderer chicks and the leopard seals.

Lots and lots of love to everyone at home, and especially to Loaf and the new homeowners!