Bird Island Diary — June 2011

30 June, 2011 Bird Island

June on Bird Island is dominated by the Midwinter Celebrations. Midwinter is celebrated at research stations throughout Antarctica, as it represents the turning point in the long, dark winter months and heralds the ‘return of the light’. Each base has its own particular set of Midwinter customs and traditions, but one practice which is ubiquitous is the sending of messages of goodwill, often accompanied by photos of the wintering staff, between all the bases in Antarctica. In the run-up to Midwinter’s Day we recieved messages from Japanese, French, Italian, Argentine, South African, Ukranian, Korean, Australian, Uruguayan, Indian, American, Polish, Russian and German bases from all over the continent, as well as from the other British bases at King Edward Point, Rothera and Halley, and from our comrades back in Cambridge. And having a whole multi-cultural continent of people wishing you health and happiness for the coming year really does give you a warm fuzzy feeling all over.

One Midwinter tradition that is common to all BAS bases is the giving and recieving of Midwinter presents (or MWPs as they come to be known). At the start of winter everyone on base draws the name of one other base member out of a hat, and then has to make a present for that person. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy — nobody knows who is making presents for whom, or what anyone else is making, until Midwinter’s Day itself. For me the MWP was a source of much anxiety and indecision. People tend to go all out when making their MWPs and will spend long hours in the workshop shaping, carving and whittling pieces of wood and metal into elaborate and spectacular creations. Since my woodworking skills are close to non-existent I tried to think of something that would be relatively straightforward, and therefore difficult for me to mess up. I finally hit on the idea of making a wine rack out of an old man-food box (a wooden crate which originally contained rations for field expeditions). This way most of the structure was already built and I would merely have to add some internal shelves to the box. But, like many things in life, it turned out to be more complicated than I had originally thought, and on Midwinter’s Eve I was still working on it, cursing it, and at one stage hitting it with a hammer to try and get it all to fit together.

The presentation of the MWPs, on Midwinter’s Day, was a little nerve-wracking, but in the end everyone was delighted with the presents they received. My present from Paul was nothing short of spectacular — a poker set in a beautiful wooden box. The box was constructed from a staggering 76 individual pieces of wood with a further 160 little wooden disks making up the chips. The time and effort that went into making the present is incredible, and I was quite overwhelmed by it.

Another tradition of Midwinter on Bird Island is the Bird Island Highland Games. I think all the BAS bases hold a version of the ‘games’ during Midwinter week, but at some stage in the pre-history of Bird Island it was decided that the games should be conducted wearing full Scottish dress, which as everyone knows means a kilt and a tartan Tam-o-Shanter. Thus the games became the Highland Games. This year’s games were a mix of traditional events and whatever else we could think of with stuff that was lying around, so included Archery, Tossing the Caber, Welly Whanging, Swingball, Throwing-a-ball-into-a-bucket, and the ancient Scottish game known as Beach Frisbee.

Archery was the first event, and since it is a sport that requires co-ordination and good spatial awareness I was naturally hopeless at it, and trailed at least 50 points behind everyone else throughout the event. However, by sheer chance in the last round I hit the smallest animal on the target, scoring 100 points and sailing into the lead. Jenn’s talents shone through in the welly whanging event, with her superior whanging technique keeping her in the lead throughout. Paul brought brute force to bear in tossing the caber and won the event easily. The swingball event was cancelled due to technical difficulties, whilst ball-in-a-bucket was dominated, quite to everyone’s surprise, by me. We’re not sure who won the beach frisbee, but everyone had tremendous fun playing it.

In amongst all the frivolity there is still work to be done on Bird Island. Winter is a quieter time for the Zoological Field Assistants, since many of the animals that we study spend the winter months at sea. However, there is still plenty to keep us busy. Once a month Jenn (albatross assistant) organises the wandering albatross census, which involves counting every active nest on the island in a single day, and is big job when there are just four of us here to do it. The census takes a whole day to complete, with each person covering a different area of the island. It is one of the rare occasions when everyone is off base at the same time, and to reduce the risk of a fire starting while we are out and destroying the building we have to turn off the generators — meaning that the electricity, heating and communications all go off as well. So far we have had no problems getting everything up and running again at the end of the day, but just in case we also have battery powered Iridium satellite phones; our last resort for contacting the outside world if something were to go wrong.

Mick (seal assistant) is kept busy all winter looking for leopard seals around the island. His daily lep round takes him to several beaches where leopard seals habitually haul out to sleep, and any seals that he finds are identified by their unique pattern of markings. Reaching up to 3.5m in length and with teeth like an alligator, leopard seals are ferocious predators, and they spend much of their time hunting for fur seals and penguins in the bays around the island. However, when you see a leopard seal asleep on the beach and snoring loudly, it somehow seems a little less fearsome.

For Paul (technical services) there is no slow down in work over the winter, in fact the icy weather brings a whole new set of technical challenges to be dealt with. Most recently some of the pipes supplying our fire-suppression sprinklers unexpectedly froze up, causing all the pressure guages to go off the scale. Luckily the problem was quickly and easily resolved by our one-man tech services team!

There is no outdoor work to be done with the penguins and giant petrels during the winter, so my time is mostly spent in the lab. There are two main lab jobs to keep me busy. One is sorting all the beach debris that has been collected over the summer. Throughout the year we collect anything man-made that washes up on the beach at Main Bay, and then each item is weighed, measured and categorized, and the data is sent to CCAMLR (Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) as part of a global programme monitoring how much trash there is floating around Antarctica. My other lab job is analysing penguin diet samples that were collected in the summer. Any krill that were found in the samples have to be measured, aged and sexed by examining them under a microscope, and I also measure and identify otiliths — tiny fish ear bones that can be used to determine the species of fish that the penguins have been feeding on. I do try to get out and about as much as possible though, and the winter months give me more time for my favourite hobby — photographing the animals of the island. The other day I went to Johnson Beach, where there is a large colony of gentoo penguins, and was lucky enough to see a rare ‘isabelline’ penguin. This bird has a genetic mutation that alters its colouring, making it look like it has been left out in the sun for too long.

As always best wishes to everyone back home enjoying the sunny/rainy summer weather!

Ruth Brown

Penguin Assistant