Bird Island Diary – March 2014

1 March, 2014 Bird Island

The RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived on the 6th of March for last call. This marked the end of the summer season and the beginning of winter. While this year’s winterers (Jerry, Jess, Cian, and Rob) were excited for the season ahead, it was sad to say goodbye to the summer crew and last year’s winterers. We all had a hugely busy and successful summer season, and it was all down to the terrific team that we had on base. We’d all like to extend a huge thanks to the summer crew, and myself and Jess would like to give particular thanks to Hannah and Steph for training us in and handing over the seal and albatross assistant roles respectively. We wish them all the best and a safe trip home.

But before we could say our goodbyes we had to get the base ready for last call. This meant all hands on deck as everyone got stuck in moving oil drums, packing cargo, ploughing through paperwork, and tying up loose ends before the ship arrived.

The bulk fuel team did an amazing job in getting the system up and running in such a short time frame. Thanks to their tireless efforts the base is now running on a bulk fuel system. This is the end of an era on Bird Island, as first call will no longer involve rolling hundreds of oil drums up and down the jetty.

The seal team had a few last minute jobs to get done before last call. The smelliest of which was collecting teeth from dead males. This meant combing the beaches and walking up and down every stream as these are often hot spots for dead males. The later in the season we wait to do this, the easier the teeth are to remove, but the smellier the seals get. As a final part of the handover, Hannah walked me through the leopard seal round. Once the leopard seals start arriving I’ll be out every day trying to get photos of them for identification. We’re all dead excited to see the big fellas. Our last puppy weighing session this year fell on the 11th of March, a few days after last call. With only four of us left on base this meant all hands were needed to catch and weigh 100 of the feisty little pups which aren’t so little any more. We were all muddy and tired afterwards but it was a job well done.

Lots of Jerry’s northern Giant Petrel chicks are fully moulted now and are looking spectacular with their dark black feathers. They’re so grown up that they’ve started leaving the nests, with nearly half of the chicks now fledged. Jerry’s also been doing some behavioural observations of the Macaroni penguins, focusing on preening behaviour, trying to get an idea of who’s preening who. They look a bit scruffy at the moment while they’re moulting.

It’s business as usual for Jess and the albatross. Most of the Wanderer eggs have now hatched and we have lots of fluffy little Wanderer chicks around the island. They’re already growing quickly but it’s still hard to imagine that something so small will grow into a bird as enormous as the parent sat above them. Everyone on base is getting set for the first island wide Wanderer census on the 1st of April. It’ll be a full team effort to visit every Wanderer nest on the island in a day.

Rob’s been keeping the base running smoothly and fixing anything that we break. No news is good news in this regard. Rob also took a trip over to the special study beach to give the scaffolding a once over and make sure it’s in top shape for winter. Speaking of the man himself, it was Rob’s birthday this month. The weather was a bit too foul to fire up the hot tub so we made pizza and chips and had a movie marathon. Jess made a tremendous mocha cake and decorated it to look like one or Rob’s precious generators.

It was a strange adjustment at first, going from 11 on base down to 4, but we’re all enjoying the extra space, and there’s something really spectacular about having the whole island to just the four of you. For the next 7 months we’re unlikely to entertain guests, but the other day we did have a yacht sail past. Myself and Jess spotted them from Molly Hill and radioed them to say hello. They were a friendly bunch, who were on their way to South Georgia. The swell was really tossing their small boat around and they said some of their crew were feeling very rough, and the rest were teasing them without mercy. We had a brief chat and wished them well on the rest of their journey.

So after the first month of winter we’re all having a great time. It’s a joy to call this special island home. Bring on the next seven.

Cian Luck

Seal Zoological Field Assistant, Bird Island.