Bird Island Diary — November 2009

30 November, 2009

It is my first visit to Bird Island and I have heard nothing but glowing comments about this place. I was worried that this would lead me to disappointment but no I can now see for myself what all the fuss was about. I am constantly entranced everyday by the sights, sounds and smells.

I was dropped of at the beginning of the month by the James Clark Ross along with Bird Island’s yearly resupply. This meant my awe at the place was put on hold for a few days whilst we rolled 210 fuel barrels behind the base and off loaded more toothpaste and tinned tomatoes than you could poke a stick at. There weren’t many seals on the beach when we arrived which helped us massively as the job of carrying boxes up and down the jetty is made much more spicy when few fur seals are sat in your way. I was initially very scared of the fur seals. They look like a huge angry alsatian although the face is actually more border collie. It is worth pointing out at this point, as my animal descriptions are less than text book, that I am not a biologist just one very lucky Base Commander.

Arriving at the beginning of the month meant that there were many reports that needed to be sent back to Cambridge pronto. However, even writing reports isn’t quite so bad when your window overlooks fur seals, the occasional leopard seal, penguins porpoising into the bay and many prehistoric looking birds. Early on I was looking out of my office window when an elephant seal bull lumbered out of the sea followed closely by another equally large male who proceeded to chase the first at high speed right across the beach. Both raced over our jetty and sleeping seals as if they weren’t even there.

After sending the reports back to say that all was well with the base my next job was to refill our rat detection boxes with out of date chocolate. This was a little bit of a problem since the wintering scientists had eaten it all. So I set forth with cooking chocolate to fill the boxes which are distributed the length and the breadth of the Island. Bird Island is completely rat free and the introduction of rats would be an ecological disaster for the birds. The detection boxes are a simple way of checking that rats still haven’t managed to swim the 500m channel that separates us from South Georgia. However, nothing here on Bird Island is simple and I quickly learnt what a mission it is just getting around the place. Early in November the beaches where already teeming with fur seals and I wasn’t quite brave enough yet to stand my ground. All it takes to deter an oncoming male is a flick of his whiskers with the end of a ski pole. But in order to do that you have to stay calm rather than running away as fast as your legs can carry you whilst 200kg of snarling seal closes in. Running or backing away is generally a very bad idea as you will inevitably run straight into another one. They gave me the impression of being clones of each other and all equally out to get me. Once I tired of moving through the fur seals I headed inland. However, inland we have metre high tussock grass to battle through riddled with deep bogs. There is also the occasional sleeping fur seal who unfortunately looks exactly the same as a mound of tussock. All the times when I thought I had got away from the seals and tussock and bog I would invariably end up in the middle of an albatross colony with the bird angrily pecking at my ankles.

By the middle of the month I was settled in and able to start helping the scientists with their work. This is where the fun really started as I had an excuse to get up real close to the wildlife. I returned to the albatross colonies that I had earlier stumbled upon and counted all the birds that were sitting on eggs. This provided data for a survey carried out once a year on the island. I also helped in the yearly weighing session of female macaroni penguins as they returned from migration. Once I had learnt how to pick up a penguin I was amazed by how strong these little birds are. They seem to be composed entirely of muscle and have feisty characters to go along with it.

Then the fur seal pups began to be born. I was very taken with our first little ball of fluff and took many photos only to be upset a few days later when he died. It has taken me a while to get used to the constant cycle of life and death on my door step. I found it deeply upsetting watching the giant petrels, skuas and sheathbills hanging around waiting for puppies to die and giving them the occasional peck just to check to see whether they have shuffled off their mortal coil yet. However, since that first pup we have had hundreds more born healthy including one white one whose mother has a good spot on top of our walkway so that the puppy is still clean.

So now a month on I have learnt to move amongst the fur seals calmly and my legs are much stronger from all the tussock hoping. Our beach is pretty much full of fur seals now and I can still manage to get to the end of the jetty with only a few whisker taps along the way. For the scientists their busy season is approaching and of course I will have to find some time soon to dust off the Christmas decorations and mull some wine.

Best Wishes to all my families and friends.

Samantha Gwyn-Williams: Bird Island Base Commander