Bird Island Diary — May 2002

31 May, 2002

Snow and winter visitors

Last month we brought you pictures of blue skies, green hills, and a rather summery-looking Bird Island. Some of you have been wondering if we are really in the Antarctic at all or just making it up from the small tropical Île aux Oiseaux in the Caribbean, so this month we bring you lots of snow and an assortment of exciting winter visitors.

It’s been getting colder, so (apart from Jane) we’ve been cultivating some Biological Energy Attraction and Retention Devices. Horrible things really, but they help keep your chin warm. Most of the running and standing water has frozen over, so we’ve had some impromptu (and often inadvertent) skating sessions, particularly during one of our evening barbecues, fuelled with the offcuts from Matt’s nonstop activities in the chippy shop. When howling blizzards and biting winds have driven us indoors, we’ve struggled with the intricacies of Bridge, watched some classic Humphrey Bogart films, and of course, kept up the ancient tradition of playing Trouble every lunchtime (well, it’s been a tradition for at least a year anyway).

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Trouble is a mutant species of ludo, with the dice imprisoned in a plastic popper and the aim of getting your four little men around the board and home before anyone else. On the way you can kill your opponents (temporarily) and risk the wrath of the other players, or you can be nice and hope they’ll repay your kindness by not killing you. Who tends to play what strategy? All I can say is that power corrupts In the end, winning is mostly a matter of chance, although Nick produced some convincing statistics early on that showed a significant correlation with weight.

Earlier in the month I was kept busy ringing and monitoring the progress of lots of fluffy black-browed, grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatross chicks. Most of them have flown away now, and will roam the Southern Oceans for the next eight years or more before returning to breed. Now fieldwork is giving way to labwork, as we start sorting through diet samples (aka bird vomit) collected during the breeding season, to see what the albatrosses and penguins have been eating this season. Sorting voms is not as disgusting as it might sound (although it can get tedious) and it’s quite interesting when you find a whole lamprey or a bizarre crustacean in a sample (or a tabasco sauce bottle top – those albatrosses eat the strangest things)

We find plenty of excuses to get out and about in the snow. Conditions haven’t been good enough yet for novices like me to start skiing, but we have had some visitors from further south. On 7 May, a South Polar skua turned up (I found it with some brown skuas, all happily eating one of my black-brow chicks). South Polars are inveterate wanderers from the Antarctic continent and have even flown to the South Pole. The exciting thing was, it had an American ring on its leg, and probably came from the Antarctic Peninsula. But unfortunately, it was getting dark and I couldn’t read the ring. By the next morning, when we set off before dawn on a Skua Hunt, it had gone. It was a lovely morning though.

Our other visitors from further South have been more obliging. The first appeared on 9 May – a large sleek form lying on the beach, with a powerful body, huge head and an enormous grin. A leopard seal! These streamlined hunters are the big cats of the Antarctic, and rely on ambush techniques to catch their prey – mostly young fur seals, but they will also hunt penguins and even young elephant seals.

This one had been tagged on a previous visit to Bird Island, and from her tags we could see that she was Sheryl. Within a week or two, others appeared – Pierce and Sigourney, and a new boy, who we tagged in the dead of night and named Mark (a very apt honour for Nick’s predecessor). Leopard seals are impressive animals. Measuring over three and a half metres long and weighing up to 600 kg, they are BIG. And when they casually yawn, you can see why they have such a big grin – no fur seal stands a chance against that Tyrannosaurus-style array of teeth. Nick walks a stretch of coastline every day, come wind, sleet or snow, to see who’s around and also to keep an eye on the elephant seals and pintail ducks.

On the 17th, Nick and I were lucky enough to watch three humpback whales swimming through Stewart Strait on their long migration to warmer waters. Near the end of the month, we had a visit from the HMS Newcastle. While the grey ship waited just offshore (well camouflaged in the grey mist), the first officer and nine others came ashore to deliver boxes of fresh fruit and veg, sacks of post, and a new battery-driven drill for Matt. We crammed everyone into the lounge and fed them on tea, coffee and apple pie, before leading a group up the ridge to see some of the wildlife. They must have thought we deliberately led them into the deepest snowdrifts and most cunningly-disguised mudholes, but it’s the same all over the island, honest! They were full of questions and impressed to get close to a big male furrie, and to see penguins and baby wanderers, but taken aback to learn how long we are here for.

Since their much-appreciated visit, more snow has fallen. As I write this, sitting wrapped in a duvet in my room looking out over the snowy beach, with Antarctic terns fluttering above the water’s edge, it looks and feels like winter. Definitely time to go into the much-warmer lounge for some coffee!

Lots of love to all my family and friends back home and around the world, especially to my girl in the warm…

Ben J