Bird Island Diary — June 2007

30 June, 2007

June is a very important month in the BI calendar. With the last ships of summer having left us long ago, all of the seals and most of the albatrosses and penguins having cleared out, the island seems starkly quiet. A few weeks of tranquillity are very much enjoyed as the weather calms down and the snow begins to fall. It’s all very exciting watching the temperature drop and finding time to get off base for a recreational stroll in the snow. Then from out of nowhere, the peace and tranquillity is shattered by the most unholy of festive periods, mid-winters week!

But before I go on to explain all of the shenanigans that unfolded, a few words about other events and goings on in the run up to the mid-winters celebrations.

During the monthly wandering albatross chick census on the first day of June it looked as though winter was really here to stay with deep snow in places and sub zero temperatures. All four of us got out to count chicks at various locations around the island. Late in the day as the sun was setting Robert, from a vantage point on Molly Hill, called out across the radio that he had seen whales in Bird Sound. Luckily Fabrice and I were also high up above the valleys. It was quite a scene to take in as we all, in view of each other, watched a number of Humpback Whales repeatedly surfacing for air with the late afternoon sunlight bathing the icebergs and the snow-swept landscape. Just one of many whale sightings we’ve had over the last few months, including some sightings of southern right whales very close to the coast from our number one whale spotter Fabrice.

The wanderers are the only albatross species seen on Bird Island during the winter as their chicks take a lot longer to develop, the best part of a year from egg in December to fledging in November. So we loose the black browed, grey headed, and light mantled sooty albatrosses as well as the small burrowing prions and white chinned petrels. The skies are a lot thinner with just giant petrels, wanderers, pintails and gulls that remain local. The macaroni penguins also take time out before returning with the other birds to breed in the summer. For the scavenging skuas there are fewer and fewer dishes on the menu as the other birds leave and when the ground freezes and the snow piles up there are not even any tit-bits, so they too depart. It is common to have a few skuas that hang on; making the most of what little is on offer. One charismatic individual was noticed to be hanging around the base a lot and we noticed that he had a damaged wing and could not leave the island even if he wanted to. We all took a liking to this guy, distinguishable by a hole in the webbing of his right foot and his cheeky inquisitive character. Fabrice in particular formed a bond with the skua, which came to be known as Rex and the two of them would often be found sat side by side on the walkway chewing the fat.

In early June though, another much less friendly bird was also found to have a broken wing and was also flightless, this time a large very dominant and aggressive male giant petrel. One morning I was out on the beach with my camera photographing a group of giant petrels (geeps) squabbling over a dead gentoo penguin, a fine prize for a hungry geep and an even finer prize for a skua with a broken wing if only Rex the skua could get a look in amongst the much larger geeps. Instead he stood there watching the commotion with a tear in his eye, although looking back, he was probably salivating excessively rather than actually crying. One of the geeps in particular seemed victorious amongst the others, really hogging the gentoo carcass, the other geeps taking a back seat, occasionally challenging him but to no avail. The characteristic crooked wing gave him away and with his head and face scarlet red with blood striking out against the snow, he took the name Damien, the DEVIL’S geep.

A few days after the commotion around the gentoo carcass had died down and Damien had finished digesting, he was once again hungry for flesh and looking for his next victim to quench his appetite. We were watching through the window onto the beach and saw Rex legging it towards the sea, flapping his wings in a much uncontrolled fashion and slipping around on the ice and cart wheeling helplessly. Damien was in hot pursuit. Immediately Fabrice ran to the rescue before Damien could close the gap. After a severe talking to from Fabrice and a good chase around the beach, Damien backed down. For two days, Rex was nowhere to be seen. He was later found cowering beneath Beck’s house. With some persuasion from Fabrice he was back to his normal self and the two of them were once again to be seen philosophising. Until on one morning Fabrice stepped out of the back door to find Rex with his neck and head locked in Damien’s bill. Fabrice once again jumped to the rescue. Damien, with a start quickly regurgitated Rex and with Fabrice on his talons, headed towards the safety of Wanderer Valley, which was deep in snow and impassable to Fabrice without snowshoes. Fabrice consoled Rex but another battle was yet to be waged. Damien had set his targets higher and this time Fabrice was in his sights. Having revived Rex, Fabrice was catching his breath when he felt the ice cold grip of Damien’s razor sharp bill around his trouser leg. Damien tugged and tugged and it soon became obvious that he had bitten off more than he could chew. He let go and with Fabrice chasing him scattered to the hills never to be seen again. With Damien out of the picture Rex has been much happier. We often see him climb up onto the walkway getting as high up as he can and jumping into the air. At first these sessions were very uncontrolled and Rex would spin through 360 degrees and often land on his back with a very embarrassed look on his face. Defiantly he struggles on and of late these jumps have become much more controlled. There is some hope amongst us for Rex’s future. If he can mend that wing before the other Skuas come back he will be fine. If not it seems certain that they will see him as an easy meal to tide them over until the pickings become easier and I think Rex knows this. He knows that he must train hard if he is to survive. With Fabrice as his coach and with the eye of the tiger, he might just make it.

The first Leopard Seals have been seen hauled out on the beaches and Donald has been out daily with his camera searching the local beaches and taking snaps for the photo-identification database where leopard seals can be identified by their distinctive spots. So far this season five individuals have been identified, one of which was matched to an individual who Donald also photographed last season.

With the other albatross species away for the winter between their summer breeding seasons my field work now focuses on wandering albatrosses who are feeding their chicks throughout the winter. I have been taking diet samples from the chicks to get a better idea of their nutritional requirement. Amongst the squid beaks and fish bones in the samples that are used to identify the key prey species that are important for wandering albatrosses, I have also found large numbers of longline fishing hooks. These hooks (6-7 cm long) are thrown overboard by fishing vessels in discarded fish heads. The longline vessels are trailed by albatrosses that pick up these fish heads during their foraging trips. The hooks are fed to the chicks back on Bird Island along with the fish and squid collected by the parent during the trip. A more detailed report on these findings is available on the South Georgia Island website newsletter for June.

On the 27th we competed, via webcam, with KEP towards the title for this year’s winter darts tournament. Bird Island are the current titleholders since we thrashed all of the other bases last winter. After three games it was getting late and we decided to call it a day, leaving KEP winning at 2 games to 1. This is a great opportunity for KEP and BI to get to know each other better. We’re relatively close geographically speaking but we may as well be on other sides of the planet, particularly at this time of year when no ships are visiting BI. We are looking forward to further darts matches with the other bases and hopefully we will reclaim our title. Always outnumbered, never outgunned, except it seems on this occasion L.

Back in May in anticipation of mid-winter celebrations we all pulled names out of a hat to decide who we each would be making midwinter presents for. As mid-winter drew near the workshop was busy with people working away. It was difficult for us each to work on our various projects whilst keeping them a secret from each other to keep the element of surprise for the big day. Monday 18th marked the start of mid-winters week. The Christmas decorations were put up and all week messages of mid-winters greetings were exchanged between us and the other stations representing all nations across Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic islands.

Also on the 18th we went on a pub crawl. We each prepared a room on the base as an alternative night spot. We all agreed that Fabrice’s bar in the girls shower (currently out of commission) was very cosy but a little tight.

Fabrice was nick named the Pink Panther a while ago, after he put all of his white laundry in a wash with a very red t-shirt.

The day itself was like Christmas day for us, with a long afternoon of festive activities, including the midwinter games held outside in the pouring rain.

After a huge evening meal, which none of us could finish, we exchanged presents that we each had grafted over for a long time. Rob had made Fabrice a tambourine from laminated strips of ash, which he glued into a perfect circle and used beer bottle tops for the symbols. We were all very impressed and have each set about making our own since. Don put together a collage of pictures and artefacts that he dug out from my time spent in Cyprus which I am always banging on about! I made Rob a sledge which is yet to be tested and Fabrice came up with a bizarre sculpture for Don, which he fashioned from a piece of log found washed up here, which he believes to have been gnawed by the beavers of Tierra del Fuago in Argentina. Salvaged from fur seal skeletons on the beach he used vertebrae for the eyes, and teeth, whiskers and fur for decoration.

We also opened presents sent to us from folks back home and from Bird Islanders who had arranged goodies for us on their way back home at the end of the summer whilst they were in the Falkland Islands, so many thanks you guys.

Later in mid-winters week was the mini-kitchen ping pong tournament. Many thanks to my friend Helen, who sent down the kit last season.

On the last day of the month we all sat out under the stars and full moon and enjoyed a barbeque.

Lots of love to all my family and friends who I very much look forward to catching up with next year.