Bird Island Diary — July 2008

31 July, 2008

Just over a year ago, I was graduating from university. Following four years studying Marine and Environmental Biology at St Andrews, and with a lifelong interest in marine mammals, I was very fortunate to have been offered the job on Bird Island working primarily with the seals.

What a difference a year makes – I have now been here for nine months and I still feel incredibly happy to be here. People at home often ask whether we get bored here, being just four folk on a tiny isolated island. I would say, absolutely not. There are always things to do on Bird Island. Boredom is never an issue. July has been another exhilarating month, with lots happening on Bird Island. After the excitement and busy social calendar of the Midwinter period, the start of the month was back to a more usual routine.

July 1st was a beautiful cold and clear day, with a brisk breeze, which made for perfect conditions to get out and have a tramp around the island counting birds. During the winter we do a census of all the wandering albatross nests at the start of each month, which requires everyone on base to, at some point during the day, head out to check whether the chicks are still ongoing. The survival rate so far continues to be very good, with no failed nests from the month before.

Fabrice and Derren have been busy in the lab this month, sorting through diet samples collected during the summer from the gentoo and macaroni penguins, and the black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses, to see what the birds were feeding on at sea. This involves measuring the krill, squid beaks and the tiny otoliths (ear bones) of fish to not only tell what species they are eating, but also gauge the size of the prey. This can be interpreted as an assessment of the foraging conditions encountered by the birds at sea. Now most of the birds have left the island, there is very little fieldwork going on, other than with the wandering albatrosses.

On the other hand, the middle of winter involves plenty of time outdoors for the seal assistant. On Bird Island we carry out a photo-identification project on leopard seals, which is managed by Dr Jaume Forcada in Cambridge but run in the field by the assistants on Bird Island. These stunning animals are just winter visitors to Bird Island (they breed much further South on the pack ice) and each has a pelage pattern in their fur that is unique. This means that a trained eye can identify individual animals seen on Bird Island, and match them to animals that have been seen in the weeks, months or even years previously. July was a busy month for leopard seal sightings. I have been doing a leopard seal round (aided by the others on base) since the beginning of April, where every day, regardless of the weather, I do a tour of the rocky coastline around the base, taking in Landing Beach, Freshwater Inlet, Main Bay and Evermann Cove, and photograph any leopard seals that I see, either on the iced-up beaches or in the water. These photos are entered into a database where they are catalogued, and this facilitates searching through and matching new sightings with previously seen animals.

This young male leopard seal has been recorded around Bird Island for three consecutive winters now. Although he has a flipper tag that aids identification, the photographic database is the most reliable means of identifying returning animals. The following four images (all of the same seal) show the sort of pictures that are entered into the database to help match patterns in the animals’ fur. See if you can pick up spots that are common to each photograph.

There have been some exciting leopard seal sightings this month. On July 15th we were treated to a spectacular, if a little gruesome, show close to the jetty, as a large female leopard seal was spotted eating a fat elephant seal pup. It was fascinating to see her return to the same spot the day after, to the remains of the carcass to carry on feeding! At least two animals that have been coming to Bird Island for many years have also returned. One, an adult male animal known as Pearce, was first identified here in 1993, and despite a recent two-year absence, has come back again. The other animal is recorded as being seen only once, in 1995, and although there was no photographic record of her, she still has a flipper tag from that year. It is really exciting to see these animals coming back, as it gives us more of an idea about what they do during the winter.

I have deployed a few tiny geolocator devices, weighing only a few grammes, on some of the leopard seals, to try and find out where they go when they are not at Bird Island. These small devices attach to flipper tags and collect data until they are retrieved. Hopefully some of the animals now carrying geolocators will come back in the next few years, so that we can get the devices back and find out where they have been in the meantime! The leopard seal work is very exciting – it is a massive thrill working in close proximity to these fascinating animals and I return from the round each day with a memory card full of photographs, and buzzing from the experience. Jaume in Cambridge conducts the photo-ID part of the work, although I relish the challenge of trying to match my daily sightings with animals in the database before sending him the photos.

July also brought a return to colder conditions, following a mild late-June. On Monday July 7th, we all took some time off to don crampons and carry ice axes, to climb La Roche in beautiful winter conditions. There was very little snow on the ridge, which made the walking easier, and Derren and I were fortunate to have a stunning view from the top, as far as Annenkov Island, over 60km away. Flea and Fabrice went up the hill later on and unfortunately for them, by then the weather had clagged in, but everyone enjoyed a great walk, and some bum-sliding down the icy snow patches on the way down!

Around the middle of the month, we had some more significant snowfalls, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the end of May. This brought out the skis, snowboards and sledges as we all went up the hill to play in the near-perfect alpine conditions!

The highlight came towards the end of the month, when the snow was as near perfect as could be, with around 20cm of lovely soft powder on top of a deep and compacted base, that should, with some luck, have us skiing right through the late winter. The low temperatures (-6.7°C was the minimum for the month) also brought more sea ice formation in Jordan Cove – not solid enough for us to walk on but thick enough for some smaller fur seals to scamper across!

The cold weather poses us few problems, as in terms of equipment and training we are well prepared, but does mean that we have to go to a little more effort to obtain water. Normally our tanks are filled with rain water, collected off the roof and then passed through a series of filters en route to the taps. But during cold spells in winter or periods of dry weather, we have to pump water from the stream. In winter this requires digging through the ice to find running stream water and then pumping it 40m or so to the water tank – with the added possibility of it freezing up in the hose.

During the evenings, the competition for ‘cake points’ has been fierce. We play a variety of games including bridge and a French strategy game called La Guerre des Moutons (War of the Sheep), and add up the points over a number of weeks with a target of 5000. The winner, who decides what kind of cake is to be made, is the first person with 5000 points; the person with the fewest number of points has to make the cake! This, along with the traditional ‘treats’ on film nights, has led to us rattling through the book of 101 Cakes and Bakes that Claire Waluda (BAS scientist) sent to Derren at the start of winter! Some culinary highlights have been a dark chocolate and orange sponge, and various Breton specialities courtesy of our resident chef de patisserie, Fabrice.

Throughout the winter we have been celebrating the national holidays of various countries. July 4th was celebrated with an American feast of chicken nuggets, hash browns and donuts, while Fabrice dusted down his home-made French tricolore flag for Bastille Day (July 14th), and Flea cooked bouillabaisse and gratin dauphinois (fish stew and creamy potatoes to you and me).

We dug out the dressing-up box for our Miss Bird Island evening – a celebration of the lack of a female presence on the island this winter. Fabrice prepared a delicious meal fit for the classy ladies that we were; complete with pink cocktails, and there was plenty singing and dancing to Abba songs throughout the night. The next morning, we learned all about the previously-unrealised problem of how to remove eye make-up! On the night of the 18th, we had a great barbecue outside, on a stunning clear and cold night. Flea provided a real feast of burgers, steaks and potato bake, all washed down by a fine ale or two under the light of the moon.

So, as the winter rolls on, there is still plenty time to get out and enjoy the island lying under its snowy blanket. It is less than two months, however, until our peace and quiet is interrupted by our first visitors of the summer. We are all out and about regularly making the most of the snow conditions, the fur seal-free beaches, the lovely fat wanderer chicks and the magnificent leopard seal sightings.

My best wishes to everyone at home, especially mum, dad, and Katie, and Lala. Love Ewan x