Bird Island Diary – November 2002

30 November, 2002

Practice emergencies and a real birthday

November usually marks the beginning of summer for Bird Island. However, the winter has stubbornly refused to depart and every time we thought the big thaw had started we woke up to another layer of fresh powder outside. Although the snow poses no real problems for the human residents, it is a different story for the islands winged fraternity. Many of the Giant Petrel and Albatross nests have been failing due to the snowy conditions continuing so late in the year. Over the past week, the areas blanketed by snow are becoming scarcer and the stream that flows past the base is now in full flood, so we can all look forward to some sunny days ahead (hopefully!).

On the 6th day of the month we all had cause to celebrate as it was Jane’s 28th birthday! By the time I had got up and began chomping through my breakfast, Jane was already excitedly perched on the lounge table opening her cards and presents that had arrived on RRS James Clark Ross at first call (see October diary.) Just when we all thought the present unwrapping was complete, she produced another rucksack full of gifts that were hidden from view under the table. Everyone from great uncle Bob to Tom the postman seemed to have sent something down which was really great. In the evening, Jonny made a cake and we all enjoyed a bottle of bubbly.

It’s been an eventful month for practice exercises, with both a mock oil spill response and a coordinated search for a missing person in the field. Both scenarios were played out under the watchful eye of our Base Commander, Maggie.

Scenario one – oil spill

The aga fuel tank outside the kitchen had overflowed during refueling, with the result that fuel had infiltrated into the soil, contaminating the surrounding area. So it was up to us to contain the spillage and initiate a cleanup operation. Wasting no time, we began by laying absorption matting on the ground all around the tank. Meanwhile, Ben hastily got into his full-body, oil-proof boiler suit and fitted his respirator to assess the extent of leakage under the base. The operation ran without a hitch and it wasn’t long before we had all the hypothetical fuel mopped up and phoned Cambridge to inform them of successful completion.

Scenario two – missing person

On the morning of the practice search for a missing person, Ben was the only one absent from base and had signed out to most of the Island. He was due back at 11:00am but once 11:30am came and went, we began mobilising a search party. After a quick briefing from Maggie, Jonny and Jane setoff to comb Wanderer Ridge and Sooty Cove while Jaume, Nick and myself headed up North Valley, with a view to doing a thorough search of the Meadows. By pure fluke the conditions turned out to be ideal for the exercise (in the sense of not making it too easy) with a low hanging drizzly mist that reduced visibility to only a couple of hundred yards. After probing North Valley, the three of us regrouped at Flagstone and just as we were preparing to begin the next phase of the operation a faint whistling sound became audible in the distance. Immediately I became more eager as we were undoubtedly close. A short while after I’d wandered off into the gloom, out of sight of the rest of the search party the radio cracked into life. It was Jaume confirming he had located Ben snuggled up in his bivvy bag. Once again, the practice exercise went very smoothly; the speed and efficiency with which we located him was encouraging.

In the middle of the Island stands La Roche, and at 356m, is the highest peak. One Saturday the clouds cleared revealing gorgeous blue sky and sun – ideal conditions for an ascent. Maggie, being an experienced mountaineer and a former GA (field guide) for BAS, agreed to give Nick and myself some training in ice climbing and use of crampons before guiding us up the mountain.

Unfortunately, the fine weather cracked for the final summit bid with increased winds and low cumulus, dashing our hopes of a good 360-degree panoramic view. Nevertheless, the mountaintop soon came upon us and we each posed in turn for summit photographs. The three of us stood on the edge of the icy cliff for several minutes watching five Snow Petrels riding the breezy updrafts. Nick glanced at me, smiled and said, ‘pure poetry’. I nodded in agreement but said nothing, bereft of suitable adjectives or superlatives of my own to sum up the scene.

Ben has been working long days at the Albatross study colonies. The Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross have now laid their eggs and are busy incubating the next generation. A selection of the birds are being weighed periodically in order to follow trends in weight fluctuation throughout incubation.

The annual deployments of satellite tags on study birds of these species will be getting under way in the coming weeks so we will be able to monitor their movements while away at sea on foraging trips. The map below shows the route taken by a Wandering Albatross from Bird Island during a recent 12-day foraging trip to find squid and fish to feed to its growing chick.

The accretion of seals on the beach continues unabated and we now have numerous harems of females with pups on the beaches, jealously guarded by a few very large territorial males. Nick and Jaume have begun their daily trips to SSB (Seal Study Beach) to weigh and mark all newly born pups as well as tagging obstreperous females so breeding individuals can be tracked from year to year. Jerome Poncet arrived in his yacht, the Golden Fleece last week from Stanley to deposit some scientific equipment and most importantly our mailbag. His arrival was eagerly anticipated so when the yacht first appeared motoring into Jordan Cove, it was with great excitement that we all rushed down the jetty to greet him. I introduced myself and Jerome was quite the old sea dog I’d imagined, sporting heavily weathered features that have no doubt come from being repeatedly lashed by the elements over many years spent sailing around the Southern Ocean. He has a vast amount of experience of sailing and an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of South Georgia. Accompanied by his family, he’s sailed all round this area numerous times and been associated with BAS since the 1970s.

Everyone caught up on the gossip over a coffee before the assembled party ventured up to the meadows to see the albatrosses and penguins. In the evening we all congregated back at base to enjoy Ben’s roast beef supper with all the trimmings, as well as a very jovial atmosphere.

The elite penguin posse comprising Jonny, Jane and myself have been spending a fair amount of time over at Little-Mac, the islands smallest Macaroni penguin colony. Jonny has been operating on selected individuals as his research involves implanting heart rate loggers into penguins with the hope of attaining a better understanding of the changes in energy expenditure and physiology throughout the year.

Macaroni penguins are at their most endearing when coming round from general anaesthetic. Completely relaxed and still too dozy to give you a nasty peck they are very soft and cuddly. Nonetheless, the cuddly phase comes to an all too rapid end once they regain full consciousness and, as a consequence, their normal level of belligerence.

We recently fitted small radio transmitters to the back of 20 female penguins in the colony so we can record when they come and go during chick rearing. The procedure for fitting involves carefully inserted two strips of Tesa tape under a clump of feathers about half way down the penguin’s back, sticky side facing uppermost. The bottom of the transmitter is then coated liberally in epoxy and pressed firmly onto the strips of tape before the free ends of tape are wrapped back over and sealed in place. The whole process takes little more than 5 minutes for each individual and it wasn’t long before they were returned to their partners in the colony, albeit now sporting a very fashionable state-of-the-art piece of electronic hardware.

An Adélie penguin visited us one evening last week. Nick spotted him moseying up the beach within a gaggle of Gentoos. Adélies are smaller than Gentoos with black cranial plumage and a short, stubby bill. We were all very pleased to see one as they don’t breed on Bird Island and consequently, are rarely sighted.

Well, that just about brings us up-to-date with this month’s news. It only remains for me to send my love to family and friends and wish you all a brilliant end to 2002.

All the best,