Bird Island Diary — March 2009

31 March, 2009

Last month on Bird Island…

After a little more than two years on this amazing island, sharing my daily life with great people and thousands of penguins, albatrosses, petrels and seals, my time has come and before the emotion takes over I’d better tell you what happened in March (with too much delay, sorry for that!!)…

On the 1st while most of the people were still sleeping on base, (well, it was on Sunday), I climbed up La Roche peak where a thin layer of snow had covered the highest peak of the island (with only 356m) during the night. There was only a few millimetres but because it was the first snowfall for a while (probably since December) and could have been the last time before I leave I went to the top to feel the wintry conditions and build a snowman — a mini model.

Later that day the clouds scattered for a bright and sunny afternoon. After a long walk to the east of the island along the shore I went back to La Roche to see if my snowman had survived this calm and warm day… It had melted and the only snow still visible on the top was found in the shadows of rocks.

On the 5th for the third and last time this summer all the base went to Main Bay to weigh 100 fur seal pups. After three months of being fed they have almost finished moulting and are getting stronger and bigger. This year the krill is less abundant around South Georgia and so it has been more difficult for the females to find enough food to feed their pups but we still caught an enormous pup weighing 17kg while the average mass for this year’s third session was only 9.6kg; it’s almost 5kg less than last year.

On the meadows, northern giant petrels have started to fledge but before the chicks of the study area (about 250 of them) take off for their first long journey across the Southern Ocean Stacey and I spent three days ringing, weighing and measuring all of them. Well, it took a little less: one afternoon because of the heavy rain, (conditions that are not suitable in which to handle birds) we went to Loveshack hut, drank tea, ate biscuits and played “Pass the Pigs”. I don’t remember who won the decider!!

At the end of the month we could see a few giant petrel chicks aggregated around Prion Pond. On a windy day they use the pond as a runway to try to take off… it doesn’t look that easy!

On his side with the wandering albatross chicks hatching, Derren has been busy going every day to record the hatching date for all the nests on Wanderer Ridge study area. After about 78 days of incubation the first crack appears on the eggshell and 2 or 3 days later the chick has come out but hides under the adult; too small to protect itself and can not keep itself warm. By the end of the month, still under the protection of one of the adult, most of them were watching what’s going to be their new environment for the next 9 months.

Non breeding and immature birds have been displaying all the month on the meadows and even after two years living on Bird Island you can not be insensitive to their dances: stretching their neck up to the sky when calling, spreading their long wings, turning around each other, clapping their bill… and I’ve stopped very often to watch then again and again.

For the three other species of albatross breeding on the island the chicks have been sitting on their nest waiting the rich meal brought in turn by both adults. This oily food of squid, krill and fish, is used to grow and the first feathers have come out on their wings this month.

Macaroni penguins on their side after two weeks at sea replenishing their fat reserves are back to the colonies around the island. They are staying ashore without feeding for about three weeks and will change all their old feathers for new, more insulating ones: essential to survive the cold winter spend at sea. Then for the second time this summer eighty thousand penguins are occupying Big Mac, where millions of feathers are covering the ground when not blown away across the meadows with the wind.

After two and half months without visit, the Pharos called at Bird Island on 13th. Our three summer Japanese residents went back to their country of the “sun-origin” after a good field season on the island deploying amazing devices such as still cameras on penguins, albatrosses and fur seals.

The Saturday before their departure, they spent the day in the kitchen preparing a delicious three course meal made of Japanese specialities and an unexpected Kamikaze invited himself to the party that evening.

Two new islanders arrived with the Pharos: Mark Preston, an electronics engineer, and Andy Webb, the BAS Facilities Engineer for the base. Mark came to set up the new penguin gateway at Little Mac. This system automatically reads and records into a computer the Passive Integrated Transponder tag implanted under the skin of more than half of the penguins breeding in the colony. At the same time the gateway gives the information on the penguins movements if they go in or out of the colony. With Mark and Andy arrived a few boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit, of which we run out two weeks earlier. For lunch that day we ate a big watermelon.

At the end of the month, although the wind wasn’t very strong, huge waves hit the island and broke on the south coast all the day. This big swell took apart a piece of the scaffold walkway used by Ewan during the breeding seasons when studying fur seal on the Special Study Beach.

The same day I was at Little Mac watching the macaroni penguins coming ashore in these huge waves… There were more seals playing in the swell than penguins trying to come ashore.

Now most of the seals have gone, it was time to wash the outside wall of the building around the base where fur, seaweed and dust had been blown and stuck to the wall during the summer. With all the people pitching in, the base was like new (or almost) after three hours brushing and scrubbing the walls; after which an enormous brunch was served.

Again all the people on base were conscripted on the last day of the month to roll drums from the back of the base to the front of the generator shed. With about 100 drums close to the refuelling point the winterers won’t have to roll any drums this winter, which can be difficult after heavy snowfalls.

On March 28th the Princess Royal and her husband Admiral Laurence called at Bird Island for a short visit. Accompanied by about thirty trustees of South Georgia Heritage Trust they arrived aboard the “Grigory Mikheev” a small Russian cruise ship chartered by Professor Frederik Paulsen. They all had the chance to meet wandering albatrosses, giant petrels, gentoo penguins, Antarctic fur seals but also South Georgia pipits and pintails, followed with a tour of the base and a chat over a cup of tea with the people of the base. This Royal visit will hopefully help to increase public awareness of the problem of interactions between albatrosses, petrels and fisheries and their conservation.

Well, I think I’ve done the round of the main events of this last month of the summer on Bird Island…

I am writing this from Brittany in France where I arrived a month ago now. If the mid-April departure was difficult after more than two unforgettable years on this tiny but beautiful island, I am getting used to the crazy old world… although I miss the place, the albatrosses, the penguins, the petrels, the seals, my piece of thousand year-old iceberg to cool down the gin & tonic, the sunrise from La Roche, the long nights playing bridge…

All of you still on BI take care.


“When you are the moon, the best form you can be is a full moon. And then the half moon… he’s all right. But the full moon is the famous moon. And then three-quarters, eh, no one gives a … about him. When does he come, two days in, to the calendar month? He’s useless. Full moon. The moon. The main moon.”

The main moon