Bird Island Diary — March 2008

31 March, 2008

Well this could be an emotional diary entry, as it covers my last full month on the magical wee rock, which has been my home since November 2005, before I get hooked out and head back to the “real world” in April! So am sure there will be lots of, “This is the last time I do this”, or, “Last time I see the animals doing that”, so I will apologise ahead for that. I have been spending a lot of this month getting out and about as much as possible to say goodbye to the place and all its local residents!

The month began well for me with a great sighting of minke whales surfacing just off Big Mac on the first day month, with a pair gracefully breaking the flat surface before disappearing again into the depths of the Southern Ocean. It has often been the case since I arrived at Bird Island that I haven’t been in the right place at the right time for whale sightings and always seem to have missed them, so I was pretty pleased to have got such a good sighting. My sighting was met with a degree of sceptiscm by those back on base given my rather poor track record at spotting whales, but luckily I had been able to grab a few photos to prove I hadn’t been making things up!

We had the last Main Bay pup weighing of the season, and most probably my last one ever, on the 7th. So Fabrice, Flea, Derren, Ewan (the young gun one!) and myself headed across to Main Bay all kitted up, head to toe in rubber Helly Hansens, it is most definitely a distinctive BI look! By now nearly all the pups have moulted their black puppy fur and are looking very smart and sleek with their silvery adult fur. They have also all got a lot bigger and more agile since we carried out the last pup weighing at the start of February and are much more confident in their swimming, so they quickly realised the way to avoid being caught by us was to leg it into the water!

It always seems to be the way that when the time comes to do the March pup weighing, when they are the heaviest and the hardest to catch, we have the least amount of people about to help do it!

We had our only ship call off the month dropping off a visitor the day after the pup weighing, typical! The Pharos dropped off Chris Martin who has come down to do lots of technical bits-and-bobs to the place, from maintenance on our fire suppression system, to putting a solar-panel heating system in the roof, all in all it sounds like him and Flea are going to be very busy between them before Chris heads back to the real world around the end of April. Was immaculate timing by Chris, he arrived the day after the pup weighing, but the day before his birthday on 9th of March, so the obligatory cake was rustled up by the young buck on base, and very tasty it was too!

This ship call saw some GLS (global light sensor) devices arrive from the University of Tasmania in Australia. These are being deployed as part of an international study to compare where female fur seals in different parts of the Southern Ocean are spending their winter periods. So while me and Ewan Edwards have been busy catching and deploying these devices on around 30 individuals here at Bird Island, our American counterparts at the South Shetlands and South African friends at Marion Island have been doing likewise. So around 100 female seals, with such devices attached recording their locations, are going to be swimming around the Southern Ocean this winter, before returning to their respective island to breed and hopefully allow us to retrieve these devices and see what kind overlap, if any, these populations have in their winter ranges.

Ewan Wakefield’s orange endurance test has been carrying on up at Cave Crag, with him deploying on adult blackbrow albatrosses as they carry out impressive foraging trips to bring back food for their rapidly growing chicks. Ewan has been up there from first light till dusk, day after day, no matter what the weather with only a bright orange tent for shelter! The rest of us on base have been nipping up from time to time to give him a bit of a break and stop him going completely mad! The work requires someone to be there all the daylight hours when the adults may return, to be ready to catch a returning bird to allow retrieval of the devices in the very short period of time that the adults hang about to feed their chicks, often less than 10 minutes, before setting off on another amazing trip in search of more fish, squid, krill and jellyfish to provide the sustenance to let their clucking chicks reach the stage of fledgling.

On the 26th we managed to catch the last bird with devices still attached, which I think came as quite a relief to Ewan, although he had kept himself amused up there by pumping iron, playing with his fancy new moustache, and chatting away to his friends – the giant petrel chicks up there! It has been a great effort by him and looks like some very interesting data he has been able to get, with nearly 50 foraging trips being recorded from adults, spanning from when the chicks have been newly hatched up until almost the time of fledgling. We have seen a big change in the length of trips the adults carry out, with short trips of only a couple of days when the chicks are still small and being guarded by the other parent, to trips nearing 3 weeks in length later on once the chicks are bigger and unguarded. The distances covered by the birds when they are looking for food has been amazing, with us finding that some individuals were heading deep into the Weddell Sea, while others have headed up to the north of Argentina. Ewan actually became the BI radio star during this month, with a programme on Radio 4 featuring him talking about his work and this place going out over the airwaves, which included a live interview from the colony where he was working carried out using Iridium satellite phones, very good it was too by all accounts!

Inspired by the building feats of our colleagues down at Halley this summer, Ewan Wakefield, with assistance from myself and the other Ewan, undertook our own ambitious construction project this month, with the construction of the new BI corral! Like our colleagues down on the Brunt Ice shelf we had various problems competing with the conditions (yes, it blew down to begin with)! However a few alterations and we soon had a rock steady structure that is going nowhere!! Our skills and expertise are available for the continuing Halley rebuild; just get in contact we would be happy to help for a very reasonable fee! Am sure this is going to be a useful addition to base and will provide storage for all sorts, from animals to rubbish bags! Now we just need to think up a name for this new addition to base, Briggs House (commemorating the field assistants’ trusty manager, Dirk) and Halley 6 are the early contenders!!

As the mollymawk chicks have been getting bigger they have been keeping Derren, as the now lone birdman, busy with regular weighing of both the blackbrow and greyhead chicks. He has been carrying on diet sampling the chicks to see what they have been getting brought back by their parents, they are normally more than happy to show you as they regularly projectile-vomit it over you when you go anywhere near them! It’s a very unique but effective defence mechanism to keep away hungry skuas and geeps, but it really isn’t nice and quite off-putting being covered in hot oily stomach contents!!

This month has also seen the wanderer chicks begin to hatch after the diligent parents have been incubating for the last two-and-a-bit months. So Derren has been busy carrying out daily checks on wanderer ridge to get the hatching dates for each chick there. The others have been more than happy to help when the weather has been good, to get the chance to see the little things starting to break out their shells, and then get the chance to see such a tiny wee chick dwarfed by such a big parent! They are very cool looking chicks indeed, and I feel really lucky to have got to see them one last time, they soon fluff up and look very comical with their big beaks and often just a head poking out from under mum or dad.

It has been great going up seeing the chicks, and also still getting to see the amazing displays put on by the non-breeding individuals that are trying to find a partner. It really is such a thing to behold, lots of sticking out of their massive wings, puffing out their chests, and throwing back off their heads and beaks giving triumphant clucking noise, then they often get a lot more intimate with light peaks off each others beaks, sometimes feel you are intruding on their privacy!

The Giant Petrel chicks have also been nearing the stage of fledging, with the northern ones being more advanced than the southern ones, so they are starting to lose their fluff and gain the lovely charcoal colour that is characteristic of the juveniles. Fabrice has been out and about checking how they are all doing, soon they will be ready to be given rings before they head off from the island in the next few months. He has also been keeping an eye on his penguins, as this month has also seen the Gentoo and Macoroni penguins carry out their annual moult, this involves them having to sit it out for a good few weeks and wait for all their feathers to be replaced for a shiny new set. This tends to lead to very scruffy penguins, that seem not particular happy with their lot, and definitely in the case of the Macs leads to them being even more grumpy than normal. Still was great for me to see Big Mac full again one last time!

Ewan Edwards did have a great early sighting of his first ever leopard seal which seemed to be playing with a young fur seal pup at Johnson on the second last day of the month, this is quite early compared to when we have tended to see them appear in my two previous winters, and luckily Ewan was able to get a few snaps and using the photo identification scheme we are pretty sure it is an individual we haven’t photographed on BI before, so another individuals ‘mug shots’ are added to the collection we have!

On the people front this has been the first full month where BI has returned to an all male base after Helen, Claire and Robbo (well he was a big girls blouse and very much in touch with his feminine side, Love Actually as a favourite film – enough said!) all left us in February. This has maybe led to the place not smelling as nice as it did, well that is a result of Helen and Claire leaving, not so much with Robbo, however it has also seen our water usage decrease by half so maybe it’s a bit of a trade-off! There has definitely been more talk about football since they all left, and I have also noticed a lot more lads mags like FHM are being left about the place, sure it is the top quality articles in them and nothing to do with the pictures of scantily clad women!

The last day off the month saw a bit of the DIY dentistry that we have to carry out on each other at BI from time to time take place, with Fabrice and Ewan Edwards examining the inside of each others mouth! I have to admit I think I would have to have pretty sore teeth to let either such a pair of motley looking dentists anywhere near my mouth! This may be a sign that Fabrice is going to have to carry out his yearly migration to the Falkland Islands, as it was a similar time last year that his tooth started playing up so much that he had to get it taken out in the Falklands by a professional, and he is most definitely a creature of habit our resident Frenchman!

Oh well I suppose I best sign off there, well done if you got to the end, last one of my rambling web diary entries you will ever have to plough through! I have had an amazing time on such a special wee place, and really going miss it, however can’t wait to get back to the bonnie homeland to see everyone again, see you all very soon now!

For the very last time this is Donaldo signing out from BI!