Bird Island Diary — November 2008

30 November, 2008

Beasts of England

For much of early November, Bird Island was covered in fog. Going out across the island to do the day’s work, familiar landmarks like Tonk and La Roché have vanished; one must keep a sharp eye on the path ahead.

On one particular morning, Fabrice and I made our way to Big Mac to monitor egg laying by macaroni penguins. Moving across Top Meadow, winding our way through a pane of grey, wandering albatrosses emerged as we neared, appearing like white apparitions, alone or in twos or threes, their sagely white heads regarding us with what seemed curiosity. And here and there, the cries of wanderer courtship rose skyward, heralding the start of the breeding season. Pairs and individuals could be seen collecting shredding wet turf and tussock fronds, the raw materials for nest building, and groups of others formed circles in the open, misty areas, chatting and calling to one another, as bonds are formed, others re-established. Nesting would soon begin.

Nestled in among the Wanderers, Northern Giant Petrels watched all of this with a bemused if somewhat detached air whilst incubating their own already laid eggs. As we moved further along the meadow, an adjacent black-browed albatross colony on the slopes of Tonk was heard but not seen — the party-horn trumpeting of returning adults announced their return to nests where a mate was dutifully incubating a single egg. And further along yet, the chatter of 80,000 macaroni penguins could be heard down at Big Mac as females layed their first A-eggs and attendant males defended the nests, the din rising and falling above the surf-swell beyond.

As we descended towards the colony, a Brown skua popped up from its tussock nests by the path edge and warning to keep well away from its two-egg clutch. And the chirp of pipit chicks from well-hidden nests rose in wisps and drifted away with the breeze. With all this activity, all this new emergent life, all this animal prosperity, “Beasts of England” rose like pipit song…

Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the golden future time.

(from Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945)

For indeed, a Golden Time of reproduction has indeed descended upon on Bird Island. And with the massive arrival of albatrosses, petrels, penguins, and seals, the continuation of long-term monitoring programs and science projects has begun.

The Albatrosses

Derren has been making faithful rounds of the numerous Black-browed and Grey-headed albatross colonies, and egg incubation is well at hand. It should be noted that this November 24th was the 50th Anniversary of the Bird Island Research Station (see more on this topic below), and most remarkable was that Derren has noted the return of a Grey-headed albatross which was ringed as chicks by Lancelot Tickell back in 1958. This Grey-head reunited with her/his mate and the two are now taking turns incubating their egg.

The Wanderers too are presently building up in numbers across the island, and 50 year old individuals are also among the population. Courtship displays and sky-callings are occurring as couples new and old unite (Fig. 3), and nest-building is well underway.

With the arrival of the adults, year-old wanderer chicks are testing their wings in the November winds, preparing to leave Bird Island for the first time. Some have already fledged and won’t be back for seven or eight years, perhaps longer. Light-mantled sooty albatrosses are courting too, and can be seen in paired courtship flights above Mac Creek and along Cobblers Mound. Their haunting courtship cries can be heard rising from the misty bluffs of Prince Creek.

With the return of the albatrosses to Bird Island and the magnificence of their courtship rituals, it is easy to forget the fact that the Bird Island population of wanderers continues to decline at about 4% per year since the late 1990s. Though demersal longliners targeting Patagonian toothfish around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia have modified their fisheries’ practices to reduce albatross by-catch, the distribution of these birds goes far beyond these regions to areas were mitigation measures are not in place. This was made clear to us in mid-month when Derren and Fabrice restrained an adult wanderer on Top Meadow and removed a longline hook from deep within its throat. The hook had been encased in hardened scar tissue, and a small incision was enough to free the hook without causing any bleeding (Fig. 4). The bird wandered off, a bit perturbed at being handled, but otherwise in fine condition. Subsequent monitoring showed that the bird’s chick fledged successfully. The hook is now archived in a catalogue that records the incidence of fisheries gear and other human-produced items that are consumed by albatrosses and petrels and carried to Bird Island.

The Penguins and Giant Petrels

Female Macaroni penguins have begun laying the first eggs of their 2-egg clutches (Fig. 5), and the colonies at Big Mac and Mac Cwm are packed to capacity. The Gentoo are also incubating now, and some chicks at the Square Pond and Johnson Beach colonies have begun to hatch. Relative numbers of active Gentoo nests from survey work by Fabrice suggest that there are more nests than last year, which is a nice sign. Fabrice is also responsible for the Giant Petrel surveys, and numbers of incubating Northern giant petrels, which layed in mid October, is up slightly from the past two years. The Southern giants are nesting now and beginning to lay, and initial estimates suggest that their numbers are also higher than the previous two years (Fig. 5).

The Fur seals

The fur seals have been building up on Bird Island since mid October, and now the beaches are dominated by the bulls that are holding territory and by females who are returning from sea in droves. Moving across the beaches, and around base even, it is best to give the seals a wide berth, and when necessary a gentle bodgering may be needed to access the generator shed door. The bulls however are more concerned with the intentions of adjacent bulls, and will fight off intruders viciously.

Over at the Special Study Beach where a long-term demographic study of Fur seals occurs, the first of the season’s pups was born on November 18th, and early estimates from Jaume and Ewan suggest a good record year for pup numbers. There is much activity there. The bulls are lording their harems of pregnant females, and there is hardly a square centimetre of beach that isn’t occupied by seal. The males spar to maintain position, faces ripped to shreds and bleeding from the melee, and pregnant females and new mums and pups alike fill in the gaps. Once a female pups, she is almost immediately re-impregnated by the attendant bull. Sheathbills and skuas fly in and fight for discarded placentas, and the occasional swell rises and crashes onto the beach making the smooth cobble stones rattle like teeth. Brash ice washes in from the Scotia Sea on occasion, and the glaciated peaks of South Georgia proper line the eastern horizon. The beach is a remarkable place.

50th Anniversary

As mentioned previously, Bird Island commemorated the 50th year passing since the November day in 1958 when Lancelot Tickell and two colleagues arrived to study the wandering albatrosses…

The 50th anniversary also coincided with First Call and the arrival of the James Clark Ross on Nov 23rd. With First Call came Stacey — a new Zoological assistant, Dave — the bases’ technical services person, and Dickie — the summer base commander. In addition to the arrival of Stacey, Dave, and Dickie, the base received a delivery of food, fuel and equipment. Many hands came ashore to help with the re-provisioning effort, and to help fend off the scores of bulls who refused to yield their positions on the gantries around base to mere human-folk. By day’s end however, much of the base had been provisioned but an additional day would be required. The JCR left us for 2 days and returned on the 25th. This left 12 lucky individuals on Bird Island to celebrate the 50th in a proper fashion. To honour the occasion, we gathered on the dock at sunset, dressed in a manner which Lancelot Tickell might have approved, and raised many a whisky and champagne glass to ole Lance and the Albatrosses. We intend to contact Dr Tickell to extend our salutations and present the portrait below…

The Golden Time

The yellow and orange hues of sunset settled upon us and eventually turned to night. We returned to base with the warmth of whiskey in our veins, camaraderie in our hearts, and continued our merriment in the library. An annual summertime research activity on Bird Island involves the dying of fur-seal puppies at SSB with blond hair dye. Newly born pups receive a unique identifying number, emblazoned with blond hair-dye on their black fur, thus allowing the seal biologists to monitor the growth and survival of individual pups throughout the breeding season. And with the arrival and subsequent blond-ing of the first seal pup at SSB, tradition holds that all base personnel go blond as well (Fig. 9). Whether Lancelot Tickell ever went blond remains one of the great unknowns on Bird Island.

Until December, cheers from Bird Island.

Glenn Crossin