Bird Island Diary — November 2000

30 November, 2000 Bird Island

Relief, visitors and the wildlife proliferates

Bird Island Diary

As the newest member on the station I have the honour (!) of writing the newsletter at the end of my first month. I arrived with Paul Sharp, electrician, Micky, the carpenter, and Andy Wood on Friday night, October 27, after a week aboard RRS James Clark Ross. It was not all rough seas and queasiness though, as we stopped off at King Edward Point on South Georgia. We delivered cargo for the contractors to build the new Applied Fisheries station there, which is due to open in March. Unloading took three days, which gave the rest of us on the ship plenty of time for a jolly around King Edward Point and on to Grytviken and Penguin River. Tim and Pauline Carr were very friendly and accommodating with lots of tea and cakes, and plenty to buy in the museum shop. My T-shirt collection is well underway after stops at Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Dick Laws, ex-director of BAS and founder of Bird Island, was on board with us and provided many tales of the old days of BAS – it was a lot harsher at King Edward Point in the 1950’s! It was amazing to stand and watch the elephant seals with a running commentary from one of the world’s foremost experts on them! The walk to Penguin River gave us our first opportunity to meet some fur seals, a gentoo penguin and five king penguins. There was deep snow, ice in the bay and it was freezing, yet we all got back to RRS James Clark Ross with sunburn! After this little sojourn it was on to Bird Island.

The weather was still pretty rough so we were deposited in rigid inflatable boats “Humbers” from the side of the ship in a large swell and whizzed through Bird Sound to reach Freshwater Beach and the jetty, with its famous outdoor toilet. Getting into the “Humbers” down a rope ladder from the main deck of RRS James Clark Ross was a hair-raising experience and we didn’t so much as step in, as let go of the ladder at the right time and plop into the boat and then flail around in our giant immersion suits. Many territorial male seals arrived on the beach within the first few days of my stay and I have quickly learnt to use my ‘bodger’, although I still maintain a rather healthy fear of the sharp-toothed furries. This highly technical piece of equipment for fending off aggressive seals is otherwise known as a broom handle. A month later there are now hundreds of seals on the beach in front of the station and getting down the jetty requires military precision route planning!

Relief finally began on the November 1 after five days of very large swell out to sea. The remainder of the BAS staff arrived on the jetty with a few tonnes of concrete, tales of sea sickness and falling off stationary chairs! We are getting a new jetty and boardwalk this summer, as well as an indoor toilet, so there was 75 tonnes of cargo to be man-handled along the jetty and into various new homes. The majority of this cargo was timber and scaffolding and relief took three days with 14 people helping to unload the tender at the end of the jetty each time. It was very hard work, but seemed to go smoothly and quickly. After relief RRSJames Clark Ross left for Signy leaving us with seven people on base.

I started my couple of years at Bird Island with my birthday on the November 6. I climbed up to the top of Tonk on the day with Mark and Paul only to discover that our VHF repeater had been ravaged by the wind and its solar panel flung to the ground! It has not yet worked since. On the same day Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Grey Rover arrived with four new personnel. Sascha Hooker, Ian Boyd, Richard Phillips and Phil Trathan arrived on Gertie – the little boat bringing them across from the ship. We also had a visit from the Captain who charged off up the hill in full immersion suit to look at albatrosses while I followed on filming with his camcorder. As Grey Rover pulled out of view we were left with our full November complement of 10 all arriving just in time for my birthday! Daf made an excellent carrot birthday cake and Micky made a wooden boot puller offer as my present from the station. It was an excellent start to living on Bird Island – I even got birthday cards in the post that Grey Rover delivered.

The seal work is now in full swing with twice daily visits over to SSB (special study beach) to tag females and born blonde the new pups. Sascha took a dive off the scaffolding gantry the other day straight onto the beach filled with big male fur seals. Obviously this was a cunning plan to commune with the wildlife and take a closer look at the pebble beach and not an unplanned event as some have suggested! She returned to the gantry unharmed after her little downward expedition. There are many cute little furry pups on the beach in front of base now. As you look out of the window you are confronted with a beach covered in big black wriggling seals. The males sit with their noses pointed high in the air guarding their little territories fiercely. Daily we see bigger and nastier wounds on the seals and when they fight the fur literally flies. Already some males have found it all too much and have dropped dead on the beach. Nothing goes to waste, though, and this has provided the Giant Petrels (geeps) and skuas with plenty of food. There are a lot of red-headed birds running around. The geeps seem to stuff their faces until they are too full to fly, and then run around the beach with their wings out. They look like vultures and are not the most attractive of birds at this point!

Early in the month all of us new arrivals received our field training from Maggie, our intrepid GA base commander, and got clearance for solo travel around the island. We can now all scatter far and wide, successfully lighting “Optimus” stoves and “Tilly” lamps wherever we go, giving Maggie plenty to worry about!

We all took part in a daring search and rescue plan early in the month, although there was not much searching involved! We carried the stretcher over to the Loveshack on the other side of the island and Sascha was volunteered to be our patient and develop a mild degree of hypothermia. So, on a very drizzly, misty and cold day we carried the stretcher and Sascha back to the station and carefully mapped the deepest snowdrifts and stinkiest mud-holes, using only our feet! It took us a gruelling 2 – hours, but was not as bad as anyone had feared, and now we are all happy in the knowledge that we could be rescued from around the island! We also let off flares that day and gave ourselves a little Son et Lumière display on the hill-top.

This was also the day that brought us some visitors – Golden Fleece, owned by Jerome Poncet, but with Sally Poncet aboard on this occasion. It moved into Jordan Cove and moored just off Main Bay for a couple of nights. We invited them all over for dinner and served them delicacies such as homemade beefburgers and chips courtesy of Ian’s culinary talents. There were 18 people on base that evening and not much room for anymore! The next night they invited us all aboard the boat for dinner, which was an exceptionally tasty curry. Golden Fleece had been sailing around the northern coast of South Georgia helping two New Zealanders set up a trial project for eradicating rats from Grass Island. If this works, as it has done off some New Zealand islands, they might use the method to eradicate the rats from the South Georgia mainland. They were also carrying out albatross censuses around the coast.

Since the departure of Golden Fleece, work has continued unabated. A dummy camera was deployed on a female fur seal from Freshwater Beach a few days after she had pupped in front of the station. If the dummy stays well attached after the animal returns from her feeding trip Sascha will be deploying a real camera on another animal. The aim of this is that we hope to get footage of how seals feed out at sea. Over recent years we have learnt much through the use of satellite tags and time-depth-recorders about where seals feed and how deep they dive to do so, but as yet we do not know how they feed on the krill or fish that they find. The results obtained from this camera will be very interesting indeed for seal research.

The island is beginning to fill up with cute little pups and chicks of all varieties. The first gentoo penguin and giant petrel chicks have been seen, the fur seal pups are popping out at an amazing rate, and even Keith Reid, line manager of the BI assistants has produced offspring number two, Verity. At around the time of the first seal pup’s arrival Mark could be seen skipping across the tussock singing – admittedly we had recently watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but we were concerned for a while! He now has a new ambition to climb La Roche in a full and flowing Jean Paul Gaunter creation and high heels, although we drew the line when ping-pong balls were mentioned!

The wandering albatrosses are beginning to return to the island ready to mate and some have been seen displaying on Wanderer Ridge. Daf was lucky enough to see one of last year’s chicks fledge and fly away – this is a rare privilege as very few people have ever seen it happen. The black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses are all incubating eggs, as are the macaroni penguins in Big and Little Mac. Within the next week the penguin season will be in full swing with satellite tags and time-depth-recorders being deployed. Richard Phillips has been out gathering blood and feathers from as many birds as possible. It appears to be going well, although no king penguin in our vicinity is safe from being held to the ground and plucked.

November has seen the first round of Bird Island bowls involving a ball and Newcastle Brown cans as skittles. Bowling backwards through the legs seems to be the easiest way to score points for me, but not enough to beat the well-practised winterers. It appears that no one has told the weather that this is supposed to be summer. We have had blizzards and freezing temperatures almost constantly, the most recent snowfall overnight being about 15 cm deep all over the island. It is hard work walking when your leg keeps disappearing in snow drifts and then your foot gets stuck in the stinky mud underneath! Is it possible for winter to last all summer we wonder?!

For a few days we all thought that we might have the first hand-raised seal pup. Sebastian’s mother was found dead on SSB so Mark, Sascha and Ian rescued the little furry bundle and tried to raise him on a disgusting smelling mixture of fish oil and protein. Sadly Sebastian has now gone to the big SSB in the sky and Mark can no longer pet him and love him and call him George.

November has been a very busy month here at Bird Island, but it will only get busier from now. In the next few days we are expecting RRS Ernest Shackleton and HMS Endurance and will be losing Phil and Micky and gaining John Newman. The next instalment of Bird Island Life will be coming to you, courtesy of Sascha, at the end of December. The year 2000 is nearly gone already!!

I’d just like to say a big hello to everyone at home, with lots and lots of love to Mum, Dad, Dave, Ben, Nicole, Amanda, Gram, Lauren, Sam, and BES (conquer the mountain) and to everyone else as well. All take care – love Jane. xxxxx

Stop Press …

Sometime in November, Charlie the Wandering Albatross chickfledged and left the island to go a-wandering.

For the weeks before Charlie left he/she would have been stretching and flapping his/her wings to strengthen them in readiness for departure. Now new adults have started coming in to set up nests and do their courtship displays. Soon there will eggs and then chicks and the wheel will have turned full circle.