Bird Island Diary — May 2010

30 May, 2010

May is the month of transition between summer and winter on Bird Island. The last of the summer staff left Mid April, so by May we were starting to get used to only having four of us on Bird Island, and the fact that we would not see another ship or person until September.

By May the days are getting much shorter and by the end, most of the remaining wildlife had left the island before the weather turned too wintery. The shorter days meant we were treated to some nice sunrises and sunsets, without having to get up at a hideously antisocial hour to see them!

The departure of most of the seals at this time of year, before the weather turned too wintery made moving around the island much easier and proved great for doing work around the base and repairing the field huts. The jetty bog, which sits at the end of the jetty and is still frequently used by some, received a well earned coat of paint and now looks like it will survive many more winter gales. We also found the time to paint the Fairy Point hut, ready for the winter. This hasn’t been done for a number of years, and now looks very smart.

May marks the end of the breeding season for the majority for the wildlife on the island and is a month of departure for many creatures. The Southern giant petrel chicks and Black browed albatross chicks had all fledged by the middle of the month. Many of the giant petrels were given tiny GLS’s which we attached to rings on their legs. When these chicks return to breed in a few years time, some will still hopefully be still carrying the device which will have recorded where they have been during their time away from the island. A few of the Black browed albatross chicks were given small tracking devices, taped to the feathers on their backs. These will fall off when the bird moults its feathers, but in the meantime enables us to track their progress around the globe and see where they are at any time. The grey headed albatross chicks also started fledging this month, and by the end of the month a scattering of grey headed albatrosses and the ever increasingly fat wanderer chicks were all that remained as evidence of the busy summertime.

For the penguin and albatross field assistants the departure of the wildlife meant less hours in the field and more hours on base. I spent many weeks in the lab counting, measuring and identifying krill and otoliths (fish ear bones) taken from penguin diet samples collected over the summer. This tells us the composition and the size of the organisms they have eaten, which gives us an insight into the food abundance and availability in the surrounding ocean. Our workload eases slightly in the winter, giving more time for going out and appreciating the island and its wildlife, rather than rushing past on the way to do some kind of work.

For the seal assistant, winter means more fieldwork, and Mick started his winter leopard seal round. This is a daily walk around the beaches to find these beasties and photograph them for the database of catalogued seals found around Bird Island in previous years. Sadly May didn’t produce any leopard seals, probably due to the lack of really cold weather as they only tend to appear when the ground is frozen.

Now that the Summer 2009/10 season is over, May is the time of year when the staff at HQ in Cambridge start to think forward to the next season. As a result, we spent many hours this month counting items on base; from tins of beans in the food store, to antibiotics in the medical cupboard, washing up liquid in the cleaning store and syringes in the lab, to place orders for what we need next season. We also had a good base tidy up after the hectic summer, and transferred large numbers of fuel drums round to the generator shed at the front of the base. Soon the snow and ice will make moving barrels from the depot at the back of the base impossible, and we need enough to keep us going through the winter. By the end of the month the weather was turning wintery and we received our first big load of snow, making Bird Island and neighbouring South Georgia look particularly picturesque.

People started making midwinter presents this month, in preparation for the upcoming midwinter celebrations in June. The long winter nights on Bird Island are good for watching movies and playing games. Friday night has become our regular games night and usually involves things such as Cluedo, trivial pursuits or scrabble, or sometimes a game of cards. We have had a few games of darts with the other bases; via webcam — it always makes a nice change to see friends elsewhere, even if only over the webcam.

This month, we were treated to a few lovely still nights with a big bright moon and stars. Nights like this are rare as it nearly always windy on Bird Island. It is uncommon to get a night that is calm enough for the long exposures needed for night time photography, and we managed to get some nice pictures of the night sky and the mist curling over the mountains.

That’s all the news for this month; best wishes to all of you at home enjoying the longer days and summer warmth!