30 November, 2013 Bird Island
It is now November, and spring is in the air on Bird Island. Seal puppies are appearing at an ever-increasing rate, the penguins and albatrosses are jealously guarding their eggs and the intrepid humans who over-wintered here get their first visitors for many months. Arriving at Bird Island for the first time is a memorable experience, so, as one of the newcomers, here are my first impressions.
Getting to Bird Island is a bit of a mission: after 20 hours on a plane from the UK to the Falklands, an hour on a bus across to Port Stanley and 3 days on board the RRS James Clark Ross, we awoke on the fourth morning to get our first glimpse of Bird Island through the cabin window. As we headed out to the deck to get a better view, the tell-tale whiff of fur-seals already carried to us on the wind, a distinctive ammonia scent that was soon to become part of our daily lives.
The JCR’s small cargo tender ferried us the short distance to the base’s jetty, where the four wintering residents (the three zoological field-assistants and the base technician) greeted us warmly. This was a significant moment for them — as their first visitors for nearly 8 months, our arrival signalled the end of their lonely winter in this remote outpost. Happily, they were in excellent spirits and gave us a hearty welcome. Possibly this was also due to the large amount of fresh food that accompanied us, heralding a much-needed change from the frozen and dried food that had sustained them for the latter part of winter.
The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind. As well as delivering five newcomers, the JCR also carried the food, fuel, domestic goods, science equipment, spares and everything else needed to sustain the base for the next year. The schedule only allowed us the briefest of introductions, a quick tour of the base, and a hasty cup of tea before the tender arrived back at the jetty for the next round of cargo to be unloaded. As we puffed our way up to the base with heavy crates, drums and packages, our physical efforts were observed by fur-seals, gentoo penguins, skuas, snowy sheathbills and many others, all curious about the unaccustomed level of hustle and bustle on their beach.
It took us a full three days to transfer all of the cargo, after which we waved farewell to the JCR passengers and crew and spent the next week settling into the daily routine of life on the island. In addition to their daily jobs, everyone chips in for the regular chores — cleaning, checking the generators, unpacking the cargo, and (of course) cooking. Good food is an important part of everyone’s day here in this chilly climate, but swapping a beanie for a chef’s hat and getting stuck into large-scale bread-making can be a daunting task for a new arrival!
All of the base members help out with the science when needed, so it was no surprise that, shortly after our arrival, I was recruited by Steph and Jess, our albatross scientists, to assist in the 10-yearly census of black-browed albatrosses. This was a mammoth job that required every one of these beautiful birds on the island to be counted individually — over 6,500 of them in total. Happily this was a prime opportunity to leave my desk and head up into the hills for some exercise. I got plenty of that — navigating up and down the hillsides and through the giant tussocks of grass to find the birds was a physical challenge, but a great release after the confinement of the ship. We were also treated to the rare sight of a couple of the braver wandering albatross chicks fledging, with the less ambitious ones busy stretching their wings in the wind in preparation for the big day.
These trips out also let me sneak a glimpse of Big Mac and Middle Mac, the two largest penguin colonies on the island. It is a startling sight when you round a corner to see 80,000 macaroni penguins strewn across a hillside, creating a wave of noise and smell that can knock you sideways. Often at this time of year you can spot Jerry, Bird Island’s resident penguin specialist, hidden in the midst of the colonies. He is monitoring the increase in numbers of penguins as they return to the island to breed this season, carefully weighing individuals and counting eggs as part of the long-term monitoring programme. On the beaches closer to home occasionally, if you’re lucky, you can see a tiny grey, fluffy gentoo penguin chick peeking out from beneath its mother, perched on her uncomfortable-looking nest of rocks. There is always a risk that other adult birds will sneak in and try to steal choice rocks for their own nests, so everybody has to be constantly on their guard.
The living accommodation at Bird Island is lovely — cosy, well-designed and spacious, but its real selling-point is the vista it gives over Freshwater Beach, and our noisy, grunty, smelly neighbours who reside there. At this time of year the beach is predominantly covered in adult male fur-seals, big, solid looking chaps who are busy trying to stake out their few square metres of territory to impress the females as they come ashore. Already, some of the local females have produced pups, but this is just the start; the floodgates will really open in December, when the base gets overrun by the tiny, squeaking youngsters. This makes it a hectic time of year for the seal team, Hannah and Cian, who have their work cut out counting new pups, weighing and measuring them and monitoring the numbers of adults coming ashore to breed. They sometimes find it difficult to tear themselves away from watching one particular pup, a cute but belligerent youngster who spends his days chewing everything in sight, including his long-suffering mothers’ flippers. November is also the traditional month for the base members to bleach their hair, an act of sympathy for the fur-seals on the seal-study beach who get marked with hair-dye in order to track and identify them! There’s no doubt that we could all be easily tracked now…
This is a fascinating time of year to arrive at the island. There is life everywhere, with adult birds and seals heading ashore in vast numbers to breed, and new chicks and pups being born everywhere you look. It is also the start of the busy summer season for everyone on base and the end of the period of solitude for the winterers. I look forward to seeing what else a summer at Bird Island brings!