Bird Island Diary – May 2003

31 May, 2003 Bird Island

Counting birds

We spent the first couple of days of May on Bird Island, counting birds believe it or not! The first day was reserved, as is customary on every first of the month through out winter, for our Wandering friends and their small chicks. The island was divided into four according to the area covered and the numbers of nests; Ben, Chris, Kevan and I all disappeared for a few hours to each one of our areas with our maps of nest locations. I was to head east.

Around a thousand pairs breed on this island in any given year, in some areas the nests may form clusters, separated from each other by just a few steps, in others such as at the far end of our island, they are alone. This is one of my favourite activities here; roaming around the island from one nest to the other is just so simple, peaceful and beautiful; yet tiring, as continually falling between tussock lumps, into bogs or battling though half a metre of snow does turn a walk of just a few kilometres in distance into an arduous physical event. Those little chickens surviving whatever the winter weather gives them from gales to sunshine, snow to rain, plummeting subzero temperatures to slightly warmer ones, just simply amaze me.

The next day, as I said, we were out again, but this time visiting colonies of Grey-headed albatrosses (GHA). This smaller albatross with a wingspan of “only” 2 metres, nests in colonies of varying size from tens to thousands of pairs around South Georgia on tussock covered cliffs. We were out to count the breeding success rates i.e. how many chicks had survived from egg to this stage in the season.

After heading east for the Wanderer survey, Ben sent me west to count some of our study colonies over there. The chickens were getting close to fledging. I sat alongside one of these chicks for a little while. He first treated me as he does with anything that moves and does not resemble his parents by stretching his neck and body vertically and clapping his beak – “glop glop glop” is the noise associated with this defensive ritual. This behaviour however did not last long as he realised I was no danger to him and he had far more pressing things to do such as grooming and preening his new feathers, activity he was doing prior to my visit. Their down is virtually all gone now and they are looking very elegant in their newly acquired flying suits. Soon they will fly away, and within a few hours after their first flight probably attain the grace and agility their parents display.

Anyway sitting on this cliff edge, I admired all the different seabirds passing me by – some flying by like the cormorants or terns, others swimming by like the penguins. It was interesting to observe the giant petrels and the grey-headed albatrosses following the same wind currents, and although of similar wingspan and both highly adapted to a marine way of life, the giant petrel could not rival the albatross in the use of wind currents, as it had to flap its wings several times while the grey-head just glided.

Halfway through the month, Chris organised a night over at the Loveshack, one of our field huts on the west side of the island where during the summer, he studies Macaroni penguins. In winter the colonies are empty the Macs spending the season at sea. The hut is however a very nice and cosy venue for all of us to spend a night at. He prepared a delicious three-course meal with the little facilities this hut has to offer i.e. a single stove. If I was to be truly honest, I would add that organised as he is, he had prepared some of the items he served up while at base.

The night came and as we were engrossed in a game of cards, a knock was heard on our window. We counted each other’s presence and established they should be no one else on this island knocking on our window. The knock was in fact a bird strike, attracted as a moth to the source of light. Ben went out to survey the surroundings and found a little Blue Petrel lying on the ground next to the hut, unhurt but slightly confused. After, a rapid examination of this night visitor to our shores, we released him back to the darkness in which he flew off to probably find his burrow in which a chick might be awaiting to be fed.

A few days later, Chris turned twenty-four. As he was walking in and out of the lounge Kevan, Ben and I were trying to organise his “party” in greatest of secrets. Chris very kindly went for a walk that day, giving us the opportunity to put the decorations up, bake his cake, make him a card and shout “Surprise” as he returned! Happy Birthday Chris from the BI posse!

Throughout the month of May, the weather turned colder – so cold in fact that the entire Bay turned to rock solid ice. We were slightly helped by drifting brash from icebergs fusing together with the cold conditions, but nonetheless I think at least ten years had passed since such an event had occurred on BI. It was impressive to see packed solid ice covering most of Jordan Cove. The leps were loving it as it made excellent haul out spots and I hated it, not at all really but it just meant I could not approach the leps for my monitoring. For such a view I can live with that.

Another person on base concerned with the ice surrounding the jetty and filling the bay was Kevan. Kevan was hoping to return to the UK at the end of May after 18 month spent at Halleyand nearly three months amongst us. Getting excited to head back, he experienced the ice with mixed feelings. On one hand you could see him come back from Fresh Water Beach, with diverse tales of curious gentoos walking up to him to investigate, ferocious leps being chased off the ice by persistent sheathbills (little white birds that like poo and pecking on seal flippers) and on the other you would observe him hitting the ice from the jetty with a long pole testing its strength and planning alternative options for his departure. The day before the ship was due to arrive, Jordan Cove was three quarters full and the ice was packed solid. We were investigating other possible places to land from Landing beach to Main Bay (our surrounding beaches). Fortunately during that night the temperatures rose and the wind shifted north, drifting some of the ice from Fresh Water Beach but not enough for the transfer to take place from our jetty. Transporting Kevan’s personal gear to the boat and collecting the personal effects of our newcomer, we had to get our feet wet!

As Kevan departed, Adrian arrived….ever changing faces! Adrian is an electrician who has worked at Rothera last summer and is here to join us for the rest of the Winter. We hope he enjoys his time amongst us.

Lots of love to my family and friends.