Bird Island Diary — May 2007

31 May, 2007

Welcome to a summary of what has been happening down here at Bird Island during the merry, merry month of May! While you all back in the Northern Hemisphere may be celebrating the coming of summer by dancing round the May pole, or other strange similar ceremonies, we have had our first month where it has just been the four of us boys with no ship calls and us settling into our winter! So far so good, with us all getting on grand, and had some nice wee smatterings of snow, coming a lot earlier than last year, changing the face of the place and making it feel nice and wintery!

This month has seen a lot of the animals disappearing off for the winter months, all the Macaroni penguins finally left Big Mac by the first week of the month, the last two spotted on the 5th, looking very lonely in a colony that had 80 000 birds a few weeks previously. Using GLS (Global Light System) devices deployed and retrieved last year, and more put out by Fabrice this year to hopefully be retrieved when they return in October, we hope to solve the riddle about where all these wee chaps disappear to for the winter months. By the end of the month nearly all the Northern and Southern Giant Petrels chicks had gained their very smart charcoal plumage that the young have and have flown off from their nest sites, not to return to Bird Island for around 5 years. Fabrice has been busy ringing these and attaching more GLS to hopefully get an idea of where they go during this time.

The blackbrows were the first of the mollymawks fledglings to make that first big leap into their first flight, around the middle of the month. After many weeks of manic wing flapping to practice and build up their muscles, they only have once chance to get it right if they mis-judge it and take a tumble into the tussock, there are many dastardly giant petrels and hungry skuas ready and waiting to pounce on them and devour them quick sharp! They were followed into taking the big leap into the unknown around the end month by the greyheads and sooty albatrosses. Robbo has been busy ringing the fledglings of all three species, and we have all been out helping him count the number of fledglings in numerous colonies. Encouragingly this year looks like one of most successful records in recent years for the number of chicks surviving from hatching to reach the fledgling stage for all three species. The reasons for this are unclear, maybe it is due to an abundance of food being available during the summer months for the adults to provide to their chicks, but whatever it is great to see as these dudes need all the help they can get to bolster their dwindling numbers! This month has also seen a lot of the fur seal pups head off on their own into the big Southern Ocean, mums have still been returning to the spots that used to find their pups for suckling only to discover that they have headed off of their own accord, still gives them a chance for a well deserved rest!

We have had few animals returning though; we smelt one of these before seeing him! Fabrice opened the window of the office on the morning of the first day of the month to be hit by a waft of that oh so unique odour, and sure enough he looked down to see a big fully grown territorial sized male fur seal snuggled up to the building! We have started to notice more and more of them dotted round the beaches, with gleaming sleek healthy looking coats and puffed out chest dwarfing the young pretenders, that had thought they were the top dogs till being put in their place by the return off the real Mac-daddies! It has been great to see the big lads back looking in such fine fettle and back at their proud best, truth be told when they left here at the end of the fur seal breeding season around turn of the year they weren’t looking so great!! Being fair though I think most of us would start to look a little haggard after near two months of fasting, regular and often brutal fighting with each other to hold their territories, while also trying to stop their many ladies from squabbling with each other and keep them happy and contented, as well as putting up with hundreds of screaming bairns, all on very little sleep! By tracks we obtained from satellite transmitters we attached to some males before they left, we have gained an idea of where some of these guys may have been for some rest and relaxation in the intervening months before returning to Bird Island, we have found some went to South Sandwich Islands, some popped in to vist the South Orkneys, and one even went right down to Adelaide Island on the Antarctic peninsula!

We still haven’t had any leopard seals appear yet despite regular checks of the beaches, however we have had pictures of the first small male sent up to us from our neighbours at King Edward Point, so wont be long till the sleek top predator around these waters, and one of the highlights of the winter, starts to show up here again! There have been lots of juvenile elephant seals around the coast, always very amusing staring at you with big doleful eyes, then giving you a big gummy smile accompanied by a lovely farting sounding gargle, charming indeed!

The cold snap accompanied by a wash in of krill has brought the South Georgia Pintail duck down to the shoreline in big numbers, getting Robbo very excited and causing him to whap out his big scope at the end of the jetty at any opportunity to see how many rung individuals he can spot. This krill wash in provided a great feast for the other birds as well, with all from the wee pipits to the large geeps down getting a good feed while the going is good. However the cold snap has caught out a few poor souls, we have found a few wanderer chicks that just seemed to have been unable to withstand the dropping temperatures and dying on their nests, even though the parents have been next to them ready to feed them, but they just too weak to lift their heads to feed, it’s a very sad thing to witness. The ones that have been strong enough to tough it out are now all nice and big with nice fluffy white coats to keep them warm!

Well enough on all the cool critters, best let you know what the small human contingent of the island been up to over last month! We had our first birthday of the winter with Robs falling on the 13th (unlucky for some so they say, we best not ask his mum’s opinion!), wont say how old he is, lets just say he is the most mature member of base! We forced a few celebratory drinks down our throats, and after a while it seemed like a good idea to have a bit of a vist to the BI barber, well me and Fabrice let ourselves get sheared! The birthday boy seemed to suddenly disappear after seeing what Robbo had done to us, and we couldn’t cut Robbos mop head, not after he has not had it cut since he left the UK back in October 2005, he may be like Samson and lose all his power if we were to scalp him! I thought my cut was pretty unique for down here, a bit of the De Niro look out Taxi Driver, so imagine my surprise when out with Robbo checking sooty albatross fledglings to find one sporting a very similar style!

I said are you looking at me, I don’t seeing anyone else round here!

Fabrice cut is very different shall we say, maybe this is the “in look” in the chic bars of Paris, however it did remind me a little of one the moulting pups with their baldy heads back in February, I will let you decide for yourself!

We had our first camping trip of the winter on Saturday the 19th when Robbo, Fabrice and myself headed off with the tent and kit on our backs towards Natural Arch to pitch up for the night, leaving Rob rattling around base on his own for the evening, who knows what he got up to! As befits any camping trip anywhere in the world, the weather soon started to deteriorate once we got to a spot we thought was suitable to whack up the tent, with what would been lovely view across Bird Sound to the South Georgia mainland if the mist and rain had allowed it, and next to a wandering albatross chick who seemed very puzzled by what was going on! After pegging down the tent securely, we had wee wander over to Natural Arch to see the amazing scene of thousands of gentoo penguins all squabbling away as they come up the narrow passageway to their roosting site at the top of the Arch, it is just like all the suits in London trying to get up the underground escalators at rush hour! As the wind picked up, blowing sleet in our faces we decided it was time to return to the tent for shelter. We whiled away a nice snug evening with a spot of spag bol for dinner followed by a few rounds of cards, all the time being buffered by a howling gale outside! I don’t think any of us slept great; we were all on tenterhooks in case the tent started to blow away in the wind that never seemed to die down all night! Luckily it held firm and all in all it proved a very successful outing, ace to have a night off base with a change of scenery even if the weather wasn’t the best!

The dump of snow can make getting around the place a little bit more tricky at times, still not at the stage of the infamous Bird Island bogs having frozen up completely and the snow does good job of hiding these pitfalls! None of us have avoided the experience of being caught out during this month by taking one wrong step and finding ourselves with one leg at least knee deep in frozen cold mucky water, not up there with the most pleasant of experiences! But although the snow can make it harder to get around it has given us a chance to get the skis and snowboards out early, with Robbo and myself having been out brushing up on our admittedly rusty skills! The snow covering may not be the best yet, so have had few scraps on underlying rocks making gouges in the gear, but got all kit for fixing it up here, so had bit of a repair job, involved me having to locate the iron for I think the first time since I have been here! No I wasn’t suddenly taking pride in my appearance and ironing my clothes, needed it for reapplying the wax to my board! The snow has provided fun for us all, with Fabrice constructing himself a very attractive snow-lady, only another five months till we get to have the pleasure of having the real thing and the nicest smelling visitor back to Bird Island again!

It not all been fun and games though, us three scientist have all been busy preparing our annual reports covering evidence of incidents of marine debris over previous collection year for submission to Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is responsible for governing activities including fishing in Antarctica and the surrounding region, and setting laws and guidelines relating to disposal of material at sea in this area. Fabrice does one looking at amount of man-made debris washed up on a specific beach here, Robbo’s one covers the type of material found in bird re-gurgitates and incidences of birds with hooks and oil and other such man related debris found in association with birds, while mine covers the number of seals we find entangled in unnatural debris. Depressingly while complying these is obvious what we had all realised over the collection period, that there has been a huge increase in the amount of debris and animal related incidents involving such material over recent years. The vast majority is most likely originating from fishing vessels, with us finding lots of large hooks in bird re-gurges and seals often being found with bits fishing rope and net looped round their necks often causing horrible gashes, these would obvious lead to the animals dying if we weren’t able to remove them.

What we see here at Bird Island is only likely the tip of the iceberg of the actual amount of illegal dumping that is occurring in the Southern Ocean, it is very distressing that such a pristine environment is being treated in such a way, not only littering the region but causing such unnecessary suffering to animals. Hopefully by submitting these reports to CCAMLR and highlighting the problem, can hope for action to reduce these actions and harsher punishment for those found to be flouting such laws. On a positive note we have only had one seal being found entangled in fishing gear so far this winter, while we had already had nine by this period last winter, however still finding a lot of rubbish washed up on the beaches, and when Robbo diet sampled his wandering albatross chick this month found a large percentage of those sampled to have hooks in them which have got from the parents when they feed them, which is very worrying indeed.

Rob, also known as Super Mario, has been busy with lots jobs needing done around base, from fixing the bits of roof back on that had come off in the big gales, to cleaning out our water tanks regularly, after our water had started to taste and smell a bit funny. It took us a while to figure out where the taste was coming from after cleaning all the tanks and it coming back, Rob soon found the culprit to be the sheathbills who had been taking bits off dead seal up onto the roof for a bit of a feed then leaving wee left overs that where then being washed into our gutters and finding their way into the main water collection tank, though the filtration system we have makes it perfectly safe to drink it does give it a very unique flavour! But after a thorough clean of the gutters and yet another clean of the tanks we now have water as pure and clean tasting as the bottled stuff you get back home! After learning last winter from Jobbo, a carpenter by trade, that there are very few problems that cant be solved by a bit of 3″2 wood, we are learning off Rob as a plumber that a bit of hosepipe can also fix a lot of stuff!

Just as one summer season comes to an end, not much of a chance for a break before having to think of what is needed for the next season for folk back in Cambridge to order for us, and when you only have once chance to get the shopping list ready and no opportunity to nip down to the shops when forget something, got to try and remember everything that might need. So we have all been busy counting up everything from loo-roll, to science equipment, to outdoor clothing, through to Kit-Kats and jaffa cakes, true that didn’t take long after I munched my way through most of the supplies for the year before Christmas!

Well I think that about sums up another month on this magical wee rock. I will take this chance to pass my congratulations to Steph and Iain on your engagement, looking forward to being back in the homeland for the big day! Best luck to my wee sister Holly on your exams, you are a smart cookie though, so know you will whoop them! Also birthday greetings to my brother Brendan and my wee niece Rosa for their birthdays this month just past, hope you both had good ones, and of course big birthday greetings from all at BI to Jobbo, for the big four-O coming up in early June, have a great one mate and have a white Russian on me dude!! Just left for me to say hello to all my friends and family, hope you all keeping well miss you all heaps.

Cheerio for now