Bird Island Diary — May 2013

31 May, 2013 Bird Island

May has been an exciting month on Bird Island. One morning we received an emergency call alerting us to a potential tsunami heading for South Georgia due to hit in 20 minutes! We had to evacuate base and head to higher ground. It was pitch black outside so we all took torches, and once we had gotten far enough up the hill we sat down in the snow to wait. We had taken an iridium (satellite) phone with us, so we could call Cambridge when we were in a safe place. In the end we stayed up the hill for around an hour before being allowed back down. Luckily the tsunami didn’t materialise, but it was still a scary few minutes when we were getting ready to leave the base. We later learned that there had been an earthquake in the South Sandwich Islands which was fairly shallow, and so could have triggered a tsunami.

We have had a few sightings of Southern Right Whales, which is apparently fairly late in the year to still be seeing them before they head towards Argentina for the winter months. We have been attempting to take photographs which are going to be sent to a scientist working on them in Argentina. She may be able to ID them from our images, and find out if they are the same individuals sighted there.

Jerry spotted a bird of prey being pursued by a Skua which was most likely a Cassini Peregrine Falcon. We all watched it for a few minutes diving away from the Skua before it disappeared.

Mid winter is fast approaching so we have all been spending time working on our winter presents. We have been learning wood working skills from Craig and hopefully we will all be able to make something respectable for the big day.


Leopard seals

At the start of the month Hannah began her daily Leopard seal rounds. They only visit Bird Island during the winter season as they prefer cold weather. Every seal spotted is photographed, and their behaviour is recorded. All the photographs are sent back to Cambridge where they can be identified from their unique pattern of spots (I guess that is how they got their name!).

The first seal, now known to be Max, was spotted on 9th May lying asleep on Main Bay. We were all very excited to see this massive predator up close. It had flipper tags, so we knew it had visited the island previously, and it had a geolocator tag attached to one of the tags. This was extremely exciting as only three other tags have been retrieved in the last 10 years, out of 50 deployed. Hannah managed to get the tag back when Max was sleeping, and the data has been sent back to Cambridge for analysis. Not much is known about where these seals spend the rest of the year, so every tag retrieved provides valuable data.

Max has been sighted on 12 occasions during May, sometimes sleeping on the beach and other times feeding off shore, usually on young fur seals. It’s an impressive sight to behold but can be quite gruesome.

Since Max’s arrival we have also had a number of other visitors to the island including; Stephanie, Paddy Boy, Pearce, a new seal (we haven’t decided on a name yet), and a seal that could not be identified due to lack of good photos. Hannah deployed a GLS on Paddy Boy, so hopefully next year we may get some more data.

We have had 25 Leopard seal sightings in total in May, which is very promising for a good Leopard seal season. In comparison last May there were only four sightings of three individuals.

Antarctic Fur Seals

There isn’t too much to report this month for the fur seals. All of the seal pups have now departed and most of the females have given up coming back to look for their pups. There are still some seals around, and we have noticed an influx of larger male fur seals. Since the end of the mating season they have been away feeding at sea, after spending weeks defending territory, and getting noticeably thin. Now that they have regained some weight, they have been gathering up the remaining females into harems; practicing for next season perhaps.


Black-browed Albatross

The last chick fledged from the study colonies on the 11th May, freeing up some of my time for other work, after visiting on a daily basis for the last few months. The colonies look so empty now after being occupied since October when the adults returned to lay the eggs.

Grey-headed Albatross

The chicks started fledging this month with the first chick leaving on the 14th May. There are still quite a lot of chicks in the colonies, around a third, so I will be continuing my daily checks until the last one goes which could be as late as the 17th June. The mortality rate seems to be higher than the Black-browed Albatross chicks, and recently I have been finding dead chicks which when weighed only a few days previously seemed healthy. A possible explanation is that Giant Petrels and/or Skuas are killing chicks, as there is very little food around for them. To try to prove our theory Jerry has been setting up time lapse cameras in the colonies to attempt to capture the fatal peck. So far we haven’t seen anything definitive, but we have had a fair bit of snow which makes it difficult to get good images.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

On the 10th May we did the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross chick survival survey. It was dire news though, not one chick was found still alive out of an initial 75 nests.

Wandering Albatross

The Wanderer chicks are quickly growing up and each week when I visit Wanderer Ridge they seem visibly bigger. They still have a few months to go before they will be large enough to ring.

Giant Petrels

All of the Southern Giant Petrel chicks have now fledged with the last one departing towards the end of the month. Jerry had put geolocators on some of them which will hopefully be retrieved in around 4 years, so we can see where they have been spending time.

Tech’s month

This month Craig our technician has been busy doing a 10 000 hour service on one of our two generators. He also spent time giving instruction to some of the scientists on how to change various parts on the generator.

One of our boilers went down in the middle of the month, so Craig spent a couple of days working out the problems and getting it fixed. I’m pleased to say we still have hot water and heating!

Social side of Bird Island

On the 4th May (May the fourth be with you) we celebrated international Star Wars Day. We all dressed up as characters from the films, had a nice meal, played cludeo, and watched the fan made version on Star Wars episode 4.

Every Saturday evening we have been doing a “Come Dine with me” night (like the television series). Each week one of us has to cook a three course meal for the others and provide entertainment. The event is filmed and we all give a score for the evening. Eventually we hope to edit the footage to make a short film and find out who the winner is.

Stephanie Winnard

Zoological Field Assistant