Bird Island Diary – November 2003

30 November, 2003

Bird Island Dorchester

November has been a month of endless variety on Bird Island from both science and base life aspects. The most visible change has been the emergence of the mosses and tussock from underneath the white blanket of winter, adding an emerald tinge to the landscape. The moss beds appear soft and inviting, like an organic mattress where one could lie for hours admiring the incredible views of South Georgia and the icebergs, or just the stunning array of wildlife that we are blessed with every day.

Having displayed the variety of green goodies on offer, I now gaze out the office window to a predominately white landscape as a late snowfall blankets the island! The scenery is ever changing, one of the most attractive aspects of life here. The dinner table conversations often turn to the antics of the Gentoo penguins, Antarctic fur-seals and Elephant seals visible through the windows, it’s hard to imagine a life where vistas remain constant from day to day.

The beginning of November was celebrated in true style with the ceremonial opening of the ‘Bird Island Dorchester’, a snug one-bedroom apartment replacing the venerable ‘Bird Island Hilton’. Invitations were sent to various celebrities and royal figures, but for reasons unknown all offers were politely declined. Vicious, unsubstantiated rumours were heard about a certain unpleasant fragrance that the local possess, but we put down the lack of notable turnout to the BAS alcohol policy. After all no self respecting personality would limit themselves to two drinks on such a momentous occasion! Our trusty winter base commander stepped in to fill the breach and gave a rousing opening speech.

The reliable Bird Island BBQ was then called into action to feed the hungry builders and labourers who had completed their job early and well under budget. It must be noted here that a base BBQ is a challenge to see who can get the food first, the occupants or the rapacious Brown Skuas who are quick to strike once a back is turned, regardless of singed beaks and feathers!

On the 10th of this month the RRS James Clark Ross made her second call of the season bringing several new faces and departing with two familiar ones. I’d like to mention best wishes and sincere thanks from all base members to Andy Wood and Andy Cope for their time spent here. Although it was a brief three week stay the memories they left behind will last considerably longer. Welcomed in were Maggie, our permanent base commander, Phil, Jaume, and Sarah. Maggie’s arrival was most fortuitous as the winter base commander, Nick, had clearly been mentally affected by the stresses of his job and was in sore need of relief.

Sandwiched either side of the James Clark Ross visit we conducted an island wide survey of both Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross. Both of these beautiful birds nest in colonies, ranging in size from as few as 20 nests, right up to super large colonies, which can have 1000+ breeding pairs. Their preference is for steep slopes that have constant winds, however the Black-browed Albatrosses often occupy more inaccessible areas making manual counting a bit of an exercise. Thus an all hands operation was swung into process, with many areas to be visited and individuals counted. It gave people a great chance to explore previously unseen areas of the island and take in some superb views of South Georgia and Bird Sound.

In total nearly thirteen and a half thousand birds were hand counted by the team, gracious thanks from the bird boys for the all the help.

Numerically Bird Island is one of the most biologically rich sites on the planet. While it is a fantastic privilege to live in the middle of such animal activity, it also has the effect of lulling you into the erroneous conclusion that the wildlife is safe from man’s interference. Results from our census work provided the sobering realisation that Albatross populations are still in serious decline, with reductions of over 50% on the island since 1977.

Recovery of populations will take decades. Adults don’t begin to breed until they are 12 or 13 years old and some species of Albatross only breed every second year. We are still unsure just how long mature birds may live for, individuals ringed on the island in 1958 are still returning to breed. Yet another amazing Bird Island experience, being surrounded by wildlife that surpasses myself in age!

The Wandering Albatross chicks that hatched at the beginning of the year start to leave the island in November. As their time approaches they swing into practice mode, ridge lines island wide are dotted with mammoth flapping wings as these gentle giants strive to become airborne for the first time. First excursions result in lift-of of a few feet, followed by an even shorter horizontal flight that inevitably ends with a thud back to earth. Undaunted the chick turns to face the wind and begins anew.

Not all the action is limited to the birds during November, an overwhelming build up of the Antarctic fur-seals occurs seemingly overnight, with beaches changing from being relatively furrie free to a sea of snarling spitting beasts with no fear. Males stake out their territories and rigorously guard them from intruders, including pesky humans who would obviously like nothing better than to claim a female furrie for their own! Vicious fights are common, incredible tussles of flying fur and flashing teeth as 200kg heavyweights slug it out for some prime beachside real estate. On one memorable occasion I witnessed a beach-master hold four other intruders at bay from his harem of females with menacing charges and slashing attacks. These titanic struggles also take place directly underneath the base, quite a novel experience listening to the dulcet tones of mortal combat whilst consuming the morning porridge!

The arrival of female fur seals heralds one of the great Bird Island traditions, the annual wager on the arrival of the first pup on the seal study beach. Any excuse here is a used for a wager and the currency of choice is cake. This year, after much thought and scientific study, the majority of the base settled on the 17th of November as the day of choice. Obviously democracy doesn’t rule on Bird Island, and Ben was the overwhelming winner receiving five cakes with his sole prediction of November 21st. right on the money. Naturally all losers took the outcome in good spirit and humour.

First pup arriving also means the base personnel become ‘born-blonde’, a bonding exercise between man and freshly born seal pups that have a large blonde spot painted on their backs for recognition purposes. Salon de Bird Island was opened with Sarah our stylist for the evening. After hours of painstaking work everyone agreed that Sarah has obviously missed her calling, her selection of styles and themes would undoubtedly make catwalks worldwide.

The few days of this action packed month have seen the arrival of the ‘Ada II’ with a regular visitor in Sally Poncet, and several enthusiastic participants. Sally is here on an expedition to survey Albatross numbers on the surrounding islands and the South Georgia coastline. A great social evening was enjoyed with a stupendous smorgasbord provided by the islanders, complimented with some lovely vintages from the seadogs. After the night of gluttony the base embarked on a rescue exercise, hauling Ben around the scree slopes to test our new emergency sledge. This proved to be a most instructive exercise as well as an excellent procedure for working off the effects of a heavy evening!

The final day of November will see a visit from HMS Endurance with some much anticipated mail and yet more visitors. With the end of 2003 fast approaching I’m signing off by sending love and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year to all of my family and friends.


P.S. Any generous readers out there who feel like donating a gift to the Bird Island Christmas fund, just think DVD player!