1 March, 2015 Bird Island
March on Bird Island feels very like autumn; the days are getting noticeably shorter, more mornings are greeting us with ice and snow, and the summer residents are preparing to leave.
For me the 2014–15 season started in mid-September with the daily giant petrel round. I spent every day for two and a half months walking the study area, marking every nest and identifying every adult. The eggs started to hatch in December and in this last month the first chicks of the northern giant petrels have begun to depart. With their almost completely black plumage they look extremely smart, even when stumbling across the beach or inexpertly jumping up, desperately flapping their wings when attempting their first flights.
Prior to their departure we again went around the study area, this time recording weights and bill lengths of all the chicks. Each one got a unique ring number so it can be identified when it hopefully returns to breed in five to eight years time. Where it will go in the intervening time is still largely unknown but they will certainly get to see a lot of the south polar sea as they circumnavigate the Antarctic.
The penguin chicks have all departed, heading off for their new life at sea, while their parents will follow them once they have moulted. It was strange seeing the macaroni colonies empty completely for a few weeks and then fill up again with fat adults, standing around shedding worn old feathers as fresh new ones grow through. The whole colony looks like an old feather duvet has exploded, it’s impossible to do any work there without finding moulted feathers in your pockets, bag and mouth.
This time last year I spent a few hours studying the macaroni penguin behaviour in this period; recording how often they scratched and preened. It’s fascinating watching the two sides of their personality as they tenderly preen their partner before snapping aggressively at a stranger who has passed too closely by.
While the black-browed and grey-headed albatross chicks continue to grow, their adult feathers poking through the fluffy down as they get bigger, our attention has been focussed on the wanderers. Since the start of the year we have been trying to record each nesting adult. With only a few left to get this has required repeat visits to individual nests scattered across the whole island, typically to find the same bird as last time stubbornly sat tight while its unknown partner is once again feeding out at sea.
By the end of February we’d started hearing the first peeping noises emanating from beneath the wanderers as the chicks started poking their heads through tiny holes in the eggs, hatching over the next day or two. Those first chicks have grown rapidly and it’s amazing to think that such a young bird is now the size of a large duck. Daily rounds of the wandering albatross study area to record hatching dates tells us that the vast majority are now sitting on chicks.
While taking turns sitting on the egg the adults can be away from the island for a week or more at a time. When caring for young chicks though they tend to carry out relatively short trips (relatively short; 2’3 days, 1000+km), swapping over regularly to ensure the chick gets a regular supply of food. By attaching tiny GPS loggers to them we are finding out exactly where they go in this vital period. Through understanding their key foraging and feeding areas and environments we can hopefully preserve them, reduce fishing impacts and ensure the long term success of this iconic, vulnerable species.
Although the beaches are certainly feeling emptier than last month there are enough fur seal pups around to keep life interesting; still climbing up and sleeping on whatever gets left outside, still approaching you curiously then growling when they get too close, but by now the majority of them are wearing sleek, smart silver coats, having moulted their black puppy fur.
The final pup-weighing session of the summer took place on March 10th, when we all headed over to Main Bay and split into two teams to catch and weigh 50 pups each. Weight is a good indicator of general health and happily there were some big, heavy young ones about with the largest coming in at 19kg. Enjoyable though this job is I think we were grateful that’s the last session of the year — another month and they’ll be back-breakingly heavy, too fast to catch and too happy to run into the sea to get away.
It’s currently a joy to see the pups embarking on their first adventures in the water; play-fighting, washing, breaching. You frequently see them chasing giant petrels or pintail that are sitting on the surface, or grabbing a bit of kelp between their teeth and thrashing it from side to side. We’ve had the first light dustings of snow and ice on the beach and they seem to lose their minds with excitement, rolling over on their backs in it, scratching and sliding.
It’s not all departures at the moment. Carpenter Mick has arrived to carry out a few base repairs before the winter, getting dropped off with another load of fresh vegetables — not just a top up of potatoes and onions but juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce and firm grapes! For a few days salads have accompanied every meal and we’ve seen the most amazingly complex sandwiches.
With a seasonal reduction in the penguin and seal workload our benevolent station leader has not left us short of tasks. Low tides have found us shifting rocks and digging up mud in an attempt to clean up the old stone jetty. This was put in when the base was rebuilt ten years ago, created on a foundation of stone-filled industrial sacks. Over the years the earth that covered these has been washed away and the plastic edges of the bags have started to fray. Before they become an environmental problem we’ve decided to remove them. This means digging out, by hand, a tonne of stones, gravel and silt from each one, usually battling against the stream and the incoming tide. Seeing a group of us out there in our orange boiler suits, breaking rocks and shovelling dirt, you’d think we were manacled together, yet there is a great satisfaction when a bag is ripped free of the earth and we know we’re leaving the island a better place.
When not forcing us into back-breaking labour our glorious station leader has graciously allowed us to have some fun. With the beaches clear of seals we have a lot more flat space to move about outside of base. We’ve put this to the best use with a few games of rounders and French cricket before dinner. Although flat the beach is far from the perfect bowling crease and several people have been caught out by the ball taking an unexpected bounce off a rogue pebble or bone. Further complications arise from hitting the ball too far and those in the outfield had to sprint to keep it out the stream or to drive away the curious skuas will take a bite at anything that comes near them in the hope it is edible.
Al organised a Monty Python themed night and although some of the food was rather tenuously linked (Thai curry? Well the coconuts were carried here by migrating swallows) the costumes were awesome; Brian, the guy next to Brian who sings ‘always look on the bright side of life’, Polly, Mr Milton from the Whizzo Chocolate Company, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, Zoot of Castle Anthrax, Tim the enchanter and a couple of Black Knights in different stages of dismemberment. As might be expected, much silliness ensued.
On one of our rare clear nights we headed out to observe the universe and take some photos of the stars. As the clouds encroached we thought our time was done until the appearance of a number of torches and glowsticks with which we were able to create our own artworks.
The preparations are well underway for the winter season, with cargo getting boxed up for departure, food supplies being organised and safety procedures being revised. For the first time I’m not directly involved, just standing at the side offering occasional bits of advice.
With the exception of one short holiday and one long trip to the dentist I have been on Bird Island since November 2012. With less than a month to go before my departure I find myself going through a mix of emotions. There are things I’m looking forward to; spending time with friends and family of course but also watching live music and sport, forest walks and swimming. There’s excitement about what’s to come next; I’ve been applying for jobs and PhDs and have some good work lined up for the summer tracking seabirds in Yorkshire and Scotland. Apprehension certainly; how am I going to be able to cope with the crowds of people, shops and traffic? I got genuinely uncomfortable at first call when 30 people were crowding into our lounge and kitchen, rather than the four I was used to.
There’s also sadness and melancholy, like at the end of the most amazing holiday you’ve ever experienced — you always knew it couldn’t last forever and are so grateful you’ve experienced it, but it doesn’t make the end any easier. Every day is full of scenes from the best nature documentary you could imagine (complete with smells), but one that feels like it is being made especially for you. There’s always something unexpected round the corner — a new arrival, activity or behaviour — and as you see the animals from arrival to departure, birth to fledging, you really get a feel for the personality of a species or individual.
I’ve wintered with two awesome teams, supplemented by some fantastic summer colleagues. Base life is everything I hoped it would be; friendly, supportive, relaxed, hilarious and full of good cooks. During the good times it’s felt like the most southerly student household (though far cleaner, hard working and more productive than any I’ve known) and during the stressful times it’s felt like a home where you’re safe, comfortable and surrounded by people willing to help in whatever way they can.
The hardest part of my time down here was saying goodbye to my previous wintering team, now I’m going to be the one saying goodbye. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel standing on that ship waving to the island; the penguins, the petrels, the albatrosses, the seals and the people that together make it the most amazing place to live and work.
Zoological Field Assistant for the penguins and petrels.