Bird Island Diary – May 2014

1 May, 2014

May began, as most months begin on Bird Island, with a census of all the wandering albatross nests on the island. Everyone helps out with the wanderer census as the whole island is covered in a day. The wanderer chicks are growing fast and most are left alone on their nests by the beginning of May. By the end of May the chicks are about as large as medium sized dogs and perched atop their tall nests and threatening to shower you with a vomit of fishy oil if you were to get too close. Working with these birds can really mess with your sense of size perspective and I am sure I will be surprised when I eventually see “normal” sized birds and chicks back in the UK.

In the second week of May, Jerry and I carried out a census of the light-mantled sooty albatross chicks along part of the coast line. This is one of my favourite jobs, following the cliffs along Bird Sound, seeing the otherwise unnoticed coves, inlets and rock pools that line this edge of the island and looking out for the sooty nests that are precariously balanced on the cliff faces. There are not a lot of sooty nests and few pairs seem to successfully rear a chick so it was a real treat to see a few well grown and healthy looking chicks during the census.

May is fledging time for the grey-headed albatross, which are now fully feathered and almost as smart as their parents (minus the attractive yellow stripe along their bill). I have been visiting two study colonies almost every day to record the date on which they finally leave. It is sad to see the colonies emptying, although the whole breeding season has been leading up to their ultimate departure, I feel like I know the chicks so well that it is almost like saying goodbye to friends, alas the feeling is almost certainly not mutual. Once fledged, these chicks will not return to the island for around 8 years. During their absence they will feed around the southern oceans. Their usage of this region is not well understood so this year I have been fitting small leg-ring mounted locator devices which, once retrieved upon the birds return to Bird Island to breed, will provide BAS with tracks of the birds foraging trip. It is great to be able to shed light on this mysterious period in the albatross’s life.

Of course the most exciting thing to happen in May by far has been the arrival of the Leopard seals, the first one arriving right on cue at the start of the month. Jerry had seen them before, this being his second Bird Island winter, but for Cian, Rob and me it was a treat well worth the wait. Watching our first leopard seal feeding on a fur seal in the bay in front of base is truly the most amazing wildlife spectacle. Rarely is it possible to see a top predator in action at close quarters, never mind from your front door! Known leopard seals can be identified from unique patterns of spots on their coat and Cian is helping build up a photographic record of which individuals visit Bird Island. Our first sighting was of a leopard seal that has visited the island in several years previously. For Cian, patrolling the beaches and bays for leopard seals hauled out on the beach, sleeping in the kelp, or hunting along the coast is now a daily job and one which he understandably enjoys, whatever the weather.

May has seen the temperature on Bird Island drop, at times as low as -7 °C with a wind chill below -25 °C. And with temperatures that low, snow and ice. The streams and ponds have frozen solid which has made passage across the island somewhat easier as, once spikes have been attached to boots, the shallow frozen steams provide the perfect walking surface, much better than clambering over the tussac. In fact walking anywhere that involves crossing areas of tussac has become particularly challenging, or course stepping from tussac mound to tussac mound avoiding the boggy and often neck deep bits in between is tricky at the best of times but when a covering of snow has rendered the such a landscape uniformly white the challenge becomes somewhat like tussac roulette. However Bird Island looks particularly beautiful with a frosting of snow so we can forgive the occasional fall into a muddy puddle in exchange for the super views and the great photo opportunities.

Jess Walkup

Albatross Zoological Field Assistant