Bird Island Diary – March 2003

31 March, 2003

A last word from Jane

After 2½ years here this has been my last full month on Bird Island. I’ll be leaving in April, almost 30 months to the day since I left the UK on October 16th 2000, and what a brilliant time it has been!

The month began with fire extinguisher training for this year’s winterers, Ben, Nico and Chris. They all gathered on the beach struggling to make a little fire in a barrel, but no sooner was it alight than all of them, plus Maggie (Base Commander), became desperately keen to put it out again using a whole array of extinguishers.

At last, we had found something to make Ben say “this excites me!”, which is not as easy as it may seem I might add, but when his fire extinguisher ran out after successful flame-dousing, his little face dropped, but at least he is trained even if not excited anymore!

There was yet more excitement for Ben the next day when we let off all the out-of-date flares on the beach. We actually have flares for emergency use and get new ones on base regularly, but it’s much more fun to just set them off when they’re out of date, although this comes under the heading of “training” really. The best ones fly up into the air and make a huge bang, so it was quite like a little fireworks display.

On the 5th March RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived at the island, passing by on its way out of Halley after their last call. We all spent an hour or two cramming the frozen food supply for the next year into our freezers. Eventually it went in after a lot of poking and pushing and quickly slamming the door shut! Great excitement was recently caused by the arrival of some frozen peas, so you can imagine how happy we all were with an entire freezer full of frozen things. This was also the ship that took Maggie away and back to Cambridge for the UK summer. She swapped places with Kev, who is here for a few months to do some plumbing work after a winter at Halley. As his plumbing equipment isn’t here for a few weeks yet he’s taken up his new hobby, muffin-making, with a vengeance and is trying to make us all fat with them!

Our next visitors arrived only a few days later on HMS Endurance; Howard Pearce, the Governor of the Falkland Islands and High Commissioner of South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands, Ian Montcrieff, Captain of HMS Endurance and five other crew members. After a month of lovely sunny weather here on Bird Island, the Governor brought with him the worst weather of the season, but they braved it to go for a walk on top meadows to see albatrosses and penguins. Instead they were met by driving hail and sleet and gale force winds! They then had to make a hasty exit as the ship reported that they had 40 knot winds and a force 9 gale out in Bird Sound! It was nice to meet the new Governor though and it was great that he was getting to see so much of his domain – he won’t forget his soaking wet, freezing cold visit to BI for a while! Some of those we met, like Angry Bob the Boatman, might now end up in Iraq so best wishes to all of them.

The month moved along with the last puppy weighing of the season, and my last one ever. Some of those pups are just huge now and have got wise to our ways of catching them, so they just dived into the sea when we got near! Puppy weighing saw the return of our favourite seal, Wendy. We were all in the tussac weighing pups when a female seal came right up to us. Everyone was cautious but excited because she had the right little brown patch on her back, which indicates that she is Wendy. Just like last year, Wendy followed us back to base and sat outside the door waiting for us to come outside.

This month the wandering albatross eggs have begun to hatch in earnest all over the island, with the first chick hatched out of its little shelled home on 20th February. Most chicks hatched on about the 11th March, so Ben spent the first half of this month going up to Wanderer Ridge Study Area every day to check which eggs had hatched. At the peak time of hatching you could go and look under a few nests and see the whole sequence of a little chick starting out its life on Bird Island.

The chick starts to “pip” through a little hole that it makes in the shell with its egg tooth, a little protrusion on the end of its beak. Gradually, and often over some days, the chick makes its way out of the shell squeaking all the time, until finally the proud parent is sitting on a fluffy white chick. These tough little creatures will now sit on their tall nests all winter until they begin to fledge in December. It’s quite sad for me when I walk around and see the chicks and think that I will never see them even with proper feathers, let alone as adults!

At this time of year there are a lot of non-breeding wanderers on the island. They display in groups and pairs strengthening bonds, forming pairs or just practicing for the years to come. This year, for the first time, Ben is putting geolocation devices on to the darvic plastic leg rings that some of these birds have so that we can see where the young birds go in the year or two before they start to breed for the first time.

After February’s fantastic sunshine extravaganza we were all amazed one night to hear torrential rain, thunder and lightening! There is a vague rumour in the history of Bird Island that someone, once, long ago, heard some thunder rumbling, but this time all seven of us saw the sky light up and heard the impressive rumblings. This was all accompanied by 60 kph winds and was very impressive. It was great to have a proper thunderstorm!

Paulo has been investigating when, and how much, food a Grey-Headed albatross eats when it is at sea, using stomach temperature loggers. These little cigar-tube shaped devices sit in the albatrosses stomach and record the temperature changes that occur when the birds eat different prey items. It was quite easy to get an albatross to swallow, and then regurgitate, its logger, however the four birds Paulo used went on extremely long trips all the way to the South Shetland Islands! We all took it in turns to sit in the hut at Colony B to wait for the birds, because they come back and feed their chicks within only 10 minutes, and then fly off again for days at a time. Paulo got some good data though and has now moved on to study how wanderers navigate over the vast Southern Ocean when they go to find food for their chicks. Strangely this involves attaching small magnets to wandering albatrosses to assess whether they find their way using the magnetic fields of the earth. It’s quite odd to see them sitting on their nests with magnets attached. The best part of this study is that the chick has to be taken out of the nest so that it doesn’t come to any harm, and so we are able to hold wandering albatross chicks wrapped in fleece to keep them warm!

Jonny has spent many days at the “Loveshack” retrieving his heart rate loggers from macaroni penguins. Chris and Nick have taken it in turns to go over and learn how to do this work because next year Jonny will be in his comfy Birmingham office, whilst Chris and Nick are at the forefront of science retrieving this year’s loggers. So far Jonny has had some loggers back that have been working for over 400 days! He’ll be able to find out information about the energy used and needed by the macaroni penguin all through the year, and even when they are at sea for winter out in the great unknown.

Nico is now in the final month of his seal science work, which is just as well because he is now the intrepid base commander of this small crack team on BI. We call him “Il Capo” and every day he tells us what we must do by means of little notes on the white board. Meanwhile, between dictates, he catches seals for the AFI project that has been running this summer. Catching the pups this late in the season is hard work as they are just like proper small seals (with proper small sharp teeth!) and will begin to leave the island soon.

Nick sighted a strange, yet giant, pup on the beach this month. The pup weighed in at over 20kg and was much bigger than any others on the beach, but still had its young black puppy fur. It seemed to be so fat that it couldn’t be bothered to run from us or be angry with us. We have taken samples from this strange little chap for genetic analysis as he is so unusual.

The month has ended with Jonny finishing all of his macaroni heart rate logger experiments and operations. The last few seals are being weighed, and so are some Black-Browed and Grey-Headed albatross chicks. We’re still keeping an eye on four light mantled sooty albatross chicks that are happily growing fat whilst sitting on autonests. These measure the weight of the chick every 10 minutes and so you can monitor chick growth and how much, and often, they are fed. After strong winds earlier in the month I went to one nest to find that the chick had been blown off!

So, that’s my last instalment of a Bird Island Newsletter! My second winter boys are all still South, so have a great time and I’ll miss you all; Ben for wiggly worms in the water, fluorescing seals and the special cocktail measures, Nico for the special karate manoeuvre, windy bandersnatch trips and being Fantastico Il Capo, Matt for routing, Bookends, 90 minute clubs and the joys of bridge (with Port)! I wish you all, plus Chris and Kev, an excellent winter with tonnes of snow and leps!

To everyone at home, Lots and lots of love and I’ll see all of you very soon!