Bird Island Diary — July 2007

31 July, 2007

Welcome back to BIRD ISLAND July diary, right in the middle of the winter.

July has been the coldest month since the winter started but not only, it’s been also the snowiest, sunniest and calmest with lot of interesting sightings and entertainment! But maybe before you start to read my prose spend a few seconds watching the animation below.

Animation of evolution of the snow cover on Freshwater Beach in July – click to start animation.

Have you seen the ice coming and leaving the bay ? And the leopard seal laying on an iceberg during 2 days ? Perhaps not, too far but what about Roxanne the gull, and Rex our skua ?

Minus 10,5°C on the 19th and minus 11,3°C on the 28th are the lowest temperatures recorded for July (temperature without the wind-chill factor). During more than 2 weeks the average was around -6°C with a south wind that gradually turned the sea into ice in the bay facing the base.

First appears a thin layer of soft ice with a creamy colour… 2 or 3 days later this layer is thicker and firmer and we start to see geometrical shape: oval, round or polygonal, we call this pancake ice…This blocks of ice, which are more and more solid and heavy, cling, bang together under the action of the waves and tides forming like a tiny wall all around each pancakes… And at the end of that slow process all this blocks bigger and bigger freeze together in a floe but not this July, the wind turned north-west and blew away the ice from the bay.

Sea ice formation

At Bird Island cold weather with only snow precipitation is also associated with water chore! Most of the year we collect water from the roof or a stream where a small dam canalises the water in a pipe. But when there haven’t had any water flowing in the gutters and when there is more than 15cm of ice on the dam, how do we fill up the 4000 litres tank? Just dig a hole in the snow and the ice, which cover another stream where the water always flows, set up and start the water pump and as quick as you can unroll the 50m long hose from the main building and connect it to the pump… And if it’s not to cold or if the pump doesn’t stop the water will flow in the hose to fill the tank. If not the water in the hose can freeze in few minutes and you have to try again few hours later (during this time the hose is in the lab warming up).

Too late Robert !!! the water has frozen in the hose.

That day Robert did a small experiment with his watch that can also record the temperature : -1.8°C was the water temperature and 2 minutes was the time for the water to freeze on his watch !

With all this good snow, July has been the month of winter sport : skiing session for some of us, snowboarding for other and sledging for me, but snowshoes for everybody if you want stand up in the snow.

Skiing at Bird Island resort

We are not the only inhabitant of Bird Island who enjoy the fresh powdery snow, fur seals like it as much as us. It’s ideal for a friendly fight after a refreshing nap on the sun, to rub your nose and to glide to the sea from the hill on their belly.

Fur seals fighting in the powdery snow

Fur seal in the snow

On the meadows heavy snow falls look more restrictive for wandering albatross chicks. Nests, that are not exposed to the wind or high enough above the ground were almost cover in snow and chicks had to dig out to see the sunrise after a snowy night.

Wandering chick out of his nest.

When they’re not digging the snow they sleep (most of their time) and wait their parents for a good fishy or squidy meal but the delivery could be only once per week. If he’s lucky the chick can have 2 meals the same day, if both parents come back together that day. It looks that this irregular deliveries are enough to start trading down for growing feathers. But they remain very fluffy.

Time for lunch

Chick with its both parents at the back

Because they will fly off in November they also need exercises. So they’ve started flapping of their wings to develop their muscles.

Chick flapping its wings

Winter is also the period of the year when leopard seal (Lep) visit Bird Island and they’ve been very numerous this month with a maximum of 7 individuals on the same beach on the 29th. This regular attendance around Bird Island has kept Donald very busy with his daily Lep round. During these rounds our Bird Island “paparazzi” takes pictures of all Leps laying on the icy beach or swimming in the bay when they’re kind enough to show him the black spots on their body. These spots, which draw like a map on they fur are used for individual identification. Using this characteristics few Leps spotted in July have already visited Bird Island the previous years.

Some of them get a tag like this is much more easier for individual identification. What are the chance to see a Lep attacking another seal? Quite high around Bird Island specially if it’s a winter with lot of fur seals…

And if this Lep is tagged? Chances are lower but still good…

And now if this Lep is tagged and attacks an elephant seal? Chances are lower and lower because we have only few elephant seal hanging around Bird island…

Now something almost impossible to see : a tagged Lep attacking a marked elephant seal (for information nobody marked elephant seal on South Georgia). But impossible is not possible here at Bird Island and Robin was very lucky to see that from North Cliff. With a yellow tag the Lep was tagged in 2006 or 2002 and the nearest place where biologists mark elephant seal like this is in South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. According to Robin the elephant seal escaped… for this time.

Tag Marked elephant seal attacked by a Leopard seal.

After a very poor summer with only one sighting of whale, July has been very exciting. On 3 occasions Southern Right whales has been seen this month but not only a fluke or a blow and after they disappear in the deep ocean. No, it was some very good sightings of 2 to 5 individuals seen between half to one hour less than 500 metres from the shore… turning on their back with the flippers outside, sounding with the fluke outside of the water, hearing the noise of the whale blowing!!

Southern Right whale fluking.

And what’s happened on the human side ?

14th of July was an important date with an important event for Bird Island. In 1789 the French revolutionary stormed the Bastille prison symbol of the tyranny by the monarchy and they’ve started cutting heads… In 2007, for the French national day, I didn’t cut any head I’ve just hoisted a French flag (home made) and Bird Island came “Ile aux oiseaux”.

Making the French flag with the manual sewing machine.

Hoisting the flag on the 14th of July.

For this special occasion the dinner table and the room was dressed with the French colours and French symbols from the British’s point of view : bread, camembert, brie, garlic (we hadn’t got any more fresh onions) red wine, frog and mini French boules… Ok it’s not totally wrong.

French colours for this 14th of July dinner.

The same evening we trained to play poker with French cards and Monopoly banknotes before the launch of the official Bird Island money.

Robert during the poker training night.

The official Bird Island money.

One week later the 1, 5, 10 and 20 banknotes were shared between the 4 inhabitants of Bird Island : 170 pesos each…And like all professional poker players to try to disturb your opponent, we were dressing or carrying special items. Donald was very lucky that night and robbed Robin and me of our money…

Clockwise : me, Donald, Robert and Robin at the poker night.

Donald celebrating all his money.

One day in the middle this month, me and Robert went to Loveshack hut. It was to replace a window but he had the bad surprise to see, perhaps to late, that the new window was little too small !! By way of consolation we saw 2 whales this day and the weather was very nice.

Robert noticing that the new window is too small.

For the last Saturday night of the month we had the perfect night : full moon, no cloud, no wind, dry atmosphere and minus 8°C. So why not spending the night taking crazy pictures walked up the hill and watching the mainland and the mountains by full moon. But after few hours we were cold and warmed up around a fire.

Bird Island base by night and their ghosts.

Warming up around the fire at the end of the night.

The same night the biggest leopard seal we have ever seen this winter hauled out of the sea right in front of us and did for us few singing exercises of her repertoire that only a Lep can do (or maybe also Chewbacca in Star Wars).

To conclude this brilliant month of July few random pictures… sometime better than too much text.

Nice iceberg in Freshwater Bay.

Bird Island scenery

And a picture of Roxanne and Rex… the same that is in the animation above…

Rex is the only skua to winter with us, with his broken wing he hasn’t had other solution.

Bien le bonjours en Bretagne et ailleurs où le mois de juillet avait un air d’hiver également… c’est sûrement un coup du changement climatique !!

Portez vous bien, bises australes.