Bird Island Diary – March 2005

31 March, 2005

A doctor writes

The duty of writing this month’s newsletter has fallen to me- Jenny, the base doctor. I have been at Bird Island research station for the last two and a half months and in the next two weeks, after 18 continuous months ‘down south’ (South Georgia, Halley, Shackleton, Bird Island) I am heading home. Almost at the end of my contract, like the end of a long running race I am out of breath and at a loss for words, at least useful words that can convey the meaning of this place and its importance, words that can explain adequately.

I can describe the months events, I can show photos, but in sentence and picture there is no way that I can wrap the smells, sounds and sights into this page. You’d have to visit. South Georgia and Bird Island are places that have to be seen to be understood. And seeing them they are shocking in their stark revealing beauty.


The Bird Island base is being rebuilt by a team of dedicated construction workers that toil between 6 and 7 days a week in mud, heinous weather and between the onslaught of fur seals that are always on the offensive. The reconstruction is the reason that the base requires a doctor this season, an unusual base member amongst the normal summer team of scientists and technical services staff.

Over the past month we have watched the building rapidly progressing from muddy pits of foundations lined by various bones and decaying flesh of long-dead fur seals that resembled WWI trenches, to a fully roofed structure. The progress has been remarkable despite various setbacks suffered by the building team.

The building team has a their own accommodation, toilet facilities, offices and even their own cook- Shaggy. Occasionally we are invited to join in with one of their Saturday night meals and are treated to a three course meal par excellence from the Shagster.

The beginning of the month saw the departure of three visiting scientists- Phil, Tony and Aki. The company of the alpha males and the fascinating dinner time conversations over a bottle of red wine have been missed! Chris, penguin scientist has been absent this month from the base owing to a trip around South Georgia aboard a fisheries patrol vessel to collect blood samples from penguins for Avian Cholera (Pasturella Multocida) taking slightly longer than intended. The patrol vessel sighted pirates, gave chase and escorted the pirate fishing vessel back to the Falklands, along with Bird Island’s penguin scientist. Unfortunately for Chris there was no easy way back, he has to wait until the JCR comes in, in early April.

Bird Island science

I’m sure that one of the scientists here would be better qualified to tell you about the science this month but I’ll write what I know.

Due to the absence of Chris, Sarah (seal scientist) and I have been stepping in to do his work on the birds. This involved a trip to Fairy Point hut and Little Mac penguin colony every two days to check for marked returning penguins and to download data from the penguin gateway. We were after 30 marked birds that have been followed throughout the season for Stable Isotope Analysis sampling. I have seen more penguins than patients on the island and I can see myself slipping up if I’m not careful on the next patient I treat telling them to, ‘be a good penguin.’

Out of the 30 expected birds we got 28, which considering one of us is used to fur seals and the other to humans, I don’t consider too bad.

I can tell you, catching penguins is no easy task. Macaroni penguins are evil little devils with mighty tempers even toward one another in the colony. Until you get used to handling them they seem to take any invasion into their space, whether by fellow penguin or human, very personally. Not being used to penguins I was bitten and beaten with flippers. A bite is like someone taking a clothes peg and closing it on a fold of your skin, then pushing each side of the peg with all their might and giving it a twist at the end. A flipper beating is even worse- it is like someone taking a hammer and thudding your forearms repetitively about 40 times a second. I cannot write the words I uttered at the time because they would definitely be edited out.

The penguin huffs and puffs a little but generally doesn’t object overly to the attention before it is released back to the colony where they quickly resume their normal behaviour. These measurements and samples are invaluable to the ongoing science that will in the long term help with the preservation of the species and give the scientists details of the penguins feeding patterns and genetics.

Despite the fierce anger of the macaronis I have a good deal of respect for them. They are birds of character and it is not unusual to find one that despite the size difference between human and penguin (penguin just reaching knee high) will come up to ones boot and legging and have a go, grabbing on with beak and flapping away madly squawking as if to say- ‘get off my bit of turf.’

Sarah normally does fur seal science- and here she is removing a ring of dead gentoo skin that became trapped around a fur seal pups neck.

Isaac is the flying bird scientist and has been busy with Giant petrel tagging, collecting diet samples from Grey headed albatross and monitoring wandering albatross for signs of egg hatching.

The egg starts ‘pipping’ when its ready to hatch, and this continues for at least two days before a down covered floppy creature that is all yawns and tired eyes emerges. There are several large sized chicks at present and Zac has been collecting feather samples from the adults for isotope studies and so needed an assistant to cuddle the chick whilst this was done. I was quick to volunteer for that job. The first chick that I held did empty its bowel all over me- but as I shall describe later, that is something that I am used to.

Most of the photos that I show are taken in the odd moment of sunshine, which gives a false impression of the place. Perhaps I should describe the weather. Weather here is one of, if not a combination of the following- wind, rain, mist, snow, wind, wind, wind. Wind prevented a visit from the Governor scheduled earlier this month. Wind blew concrete slabs into the new generator shed that left dents in the steel framework. Wind moved the builders bootroom 8 inches. Wind bent the sides of the builder’s storage tent to the extent that they had to take it down. Rain is welcomed as although it worsens the mud, it means that we don’t have to drink water from the stream that is filled with the carcasses of decaying furseals, but can rather drink roof collected run off rainwater. (Here the technical team will describe to me exactly how well our water is filtered and how sterile it is- which is quite true but despite the process, methinks they cannot quite remove the taste of dead fur seal!) Mist- means that the surrounding seals can only be heard growling and not seen before they attack. Believe me ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ is nothing comapred to Furseals in the mist. Blowing snow- is nothing that Sarah and I cannot face. Dedicated penguin researchers and true Antarctic hardcore staff we do science in any weather!

Tech services

This month would not be complete without mentioning the garullous and gregarious technical services team. These two – tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, the humming and the hairy, inspect the site daily, manage the rebuild, deal with all sorts of technical problems and also help confused doctors undo a bolt or two on the refueling system or water filters.

Other events

There have been a few birthdays this month, one of the builders 40th and my 29th. We had an ‘Alice in wonderland’ themed party for my birthday and Alice (Zac) did the cooking – barbequed toothfish, stuffed squid – all delicious. A cheshire cat, a white rabbit and of course tweedle dum and tweedle dee came to the party. Me, – I intended on being queen of hearts, but ended up being a joker.

Fur seal pup weighing

The last of the fur seal pup weighing happened this month.We had to weigh 100 of the little gremlins. To do this we wore layers of clothing as protection, inner fleece as padding and then outer thick green HellyH waterproofs as a bite proof layer. What you do is catch the pup by the hind flippers – easier said than done, and walk it back to the weigh point (the pups now weigh at least 10 kgs so after a few it’s an arm burning workout). Then one examines beneath its tail to discover its sex (sometimes obscured by excrement), weighs, marks and releases the pup. Catching 100 is no easy task- especially because they end up being the ones that catch you!

My personal experience

Science work is a pretty messy business on Bird island. This is a description of a typical day helping out the scientists – today I went with Sarah to take samples from the Macaroni penguins. We did 6 birds, and 6 birds left little packages in my hands. These are warm fishy smelling packages that fill my cupped palm and trickle down my arm spiralling toward my elbow slowly. On the walk back from the colony Sarah had to gather fur seal poo – she sorts through it in the lab and collects fish otoliths (ear bones) from it to type the fish eaten to get an idea of the diet of the seals. So I helped gather some of the most disgusting specimens, and then just as we were done and almost back at base a large amount of white substance came flying through the air towards me. I thought it had started snowing again, but alas no, it was a skua flying overhead, and I was coated in the excrement. At times I’ve thought that the island should be not be called Bird but Turd Island.

There is a quote that I love about South Georgia, taken from Captain Cook’s Discovery voyage of 1775. When I was at South Georgia I loved it because it was so far from the truth, so vastly different to my experience there, it made me smile. When I arrived at Bird Island initially I thought that surely it must apply to here instead. The author must have been referring to this place…

The storm increases, the Sea runs high, the Snow makes the Air thick, we cannot see ten yards before us, happily the wind is off shore. If a Captain, some Officers & a Crew were convicted of some heinous crimes, they ought to be sent by way of punishment to these inhospitable cursed Regions, for to explore and survey them. The very thought to live here a year fills the whole Soul with horror and despair. God! What miserable wretches must they be, that live here in these terrible Climates. Clarity lets me hope, that human nature was never thought so low by his Maker, as to be doomed to lead or rather languish out so miserable a life.

However over the past two months I have begun to see differently, I have begun to see it all through the eyes of the scientists that live here and love it. Although I will say that the fur seals are mostly miserable wretches (OK, the pups are cute), and in a big blow when one hasn’t seen blue sky or sunshine for three weeks everything can seem a little godforsaken. However the souls on this base are some of the nicest anywhere and if a place is defined by people then this is a place to love. Hello to all ‘back there’ (rest of the world other than here), Im coming home – beware the manic haired female!

(Mum, no I havent gone mad – not yet anyway)