Bird Island Diary — October 2000 (new arrivals)

31 October, 2000

New arrivals at Bird Island

Bird Island Diary

New arrivals at Bird Island mark the transition from winter to summer activities.

Where would the human community of Bird Island be at the start of the month besides in the great outdoors checking on the wandering albatross chicks? This month was an emotional event for most of us, being the last round of the winter. All too soon our charges will be fledging and leaving the island for six years or so before returning to breed. Not a thought for those that have been checking up on them all winter to see that they are all right. Thanks to Daf (our Bird Assistant), all of these chicks have been fitted with a loose fitting ring around the leg, each with a specific serial number. Wandering albatrosses ringed on Bird Island have been known to turn up off the coast of Australia some 17,000 kilometres away, and these numbered rings let us keep track of individual birds over the years.

Charlie, the Wandering Albatross has recently recieved his/her monel metal ring for identification. We can now compile information on Charlie over a number of years using the unique serial number on the ring ‘5216873’.

The wandering albatross builds quite a substantial nest so that the chick is kept above the accumulated snows of winter, and they know where to find their chick when they return to the island to feed it. A parent will only feed its chick if it’s on the nest (or in the immediate area), saving it the trouble of having to go looking for errant offspring. Chicks have other ideas though. After sitting in the same spot all winter, they are all too eager to explore their surroundings. One chick in particular, has made a habit of wandering (no pun intended) too far and losing its nest location. Three times over winter, the caring people of Bird Island have had to pick it up and take it back to its nest, denoted by a numbered, red painted stake in the ground. Either this bird is a completely incompetent navigator, or it has us trained to give free rides home. I’m inclined to believe the former. They don’t call them ‘bird brained’ for nothing I assure you.

October seems to have been the month for birds. The albatross colonies are brimming with birds ready to start off a new breeding season. Gentoo penguins are already sitting on eggs, macaroni penguins are returning from a winter spent at sea (minus all the little bits of gadgetry they were sent out with, which are probably lying at the bottom of the Southern Ocean), and the haunting call of the light-mantled sooty albatross can be heard as it tries to attract a mate from a rather precarious perch on the cliff faces. I suppose I had better mention the rarities as well, or I will never be forgiven. The first at the start of the month had the birders Daf and Nik in fits of excitement – A duck.

Yes, pant-wetting excitement over a duck.

A rather colourful duck, but a duck nonetheless. This was a Chiloe widgeon – a vagrant from South America, here to impress the local (and comparably dull) teals with its lovely plumage. Now, it’s one thing to have a look – perhaps take a photo or two, but to sit outside in the cold for hours on end looking at it through a spotting scope seems a little extreme to me. ‘Bird-brained’ can obviously apply to more than just birds I believe! Our second ‘twitch’ was a barn swallow, pretty much the same as you would see in Europe, but for one to make it all the way out here is a remarkable feat. I must give them credit for the journey, but it does beg the question, why? Obviously, there are no others for them to breed with here, and despite their probable appeal to members of the same species, they are doomed to be relegated to a non-breeding status. Makes for interesting news though. There, the birds have been mentioned, keeping the birders on base immeasurably happy, so now I can move on to the ‘cute and fluffy’s’.

I may be biased, but seals are definitely the way to go for personality and entertainment value. While all the adult fur seals have been away for the winter, bulking up for the coming breeding season, the younger set have been free to play. Daily walks about the beaches have led to some interesting games of chase with curious seals, who will even go so far as to come up and sniff boots and trouser legs. One little seal who had set itself up near the Communications Tower even let a timid Maggie give it a good scratch under the chin to the clicking and whirring of cameras. Part of the joy of living and working with these seals as constant companions over the winter is their obvious curiosity and playfulness. One minute they will be growling fit to burst at these strange two-legged creatures ambling past, and the next belly-sliding down snow drifts and sidling up to you for a sniff of a boot and a quick session of follow the leader. Of course, they then grow up to be fat, aggressive, and territorial; but nobody’s perfect.

With so many playful fur seals about, it is easy to be diverted from work. The daily walks do serve a purpose besides just entertainment. A winter visitor to Bird Island is the leopard seal, with a reputation far worse than it deserves. Daily checks of the beaches are done to see if any of these animals have graced us with their presence. With tagging pliers and measuring tape holstered at the side like gunslingers of the west, Mark Cassidy and the snowdance Maggie have been off on the daily ‘lep rounds’. Any leopard seals, hauled out on the beaches and unsuspecting, are crept up on from behind, and a small coloured tag attached to their rear flippers. Invariably, this wakes them up, with a spectacular show of teeth (all show), and we then try to measure their length before they flee the beach. Sleek and powerful, they are one of the top predators of the Southern Ocean (along with killer whales), but get them on land and these seals are more likely to flee than attack The only unfortunate incident to date has been a bruised dignity, as crawling up behind one, it let fly with a powerful release of pent up wind, leaving me spluttering. Very little is known about the lives of leopard seals, and tagged individuals can provide valuable information when sighted over the years.

On the seal front, October has also seen the birth of eight elephant seal pups on the beaches around Bird Island station. The pregnant females have hauled out on the beaches, much to the delight of the resident bull males, who had set up territories mere days or weeks before. A female in his harem gives him exclusive breeding rights, a privilege he is prepared to defend vigorously against all intruding males. The emerging pups resemble little more than an empty fur sack with a cute face, which is quickly filled with vast quantities of milk. All this milk drinking must be accomplished in the twenty-one days or so before the mother abandons it to return to sea. A harsh start to life, but the species seems to be doing all right.

The island silence – of birdcall, seal growling, wind and sea – has of late been concealed by the noise of preparations for the forthcoming summer season. A huge amount of cargo is due to come in for various building projects, including an indoor toilet. This will save us from the cold dashes to the end of the jetty, dodging wildlife on the way to use the facilities. Going to the loo will never be the heroic adventure we all know and love again, but thinking of the comfort value, it must be considered a wonderful investment! The boardwalks have been cleared of ice, areas for placing cargo prepared, waste has been packed up and readied to be sent out, and the waiting game has begun in earnest. What the wildlife thinks of all this activity is anybody’s guess. While RRS James Clark Ross was due in the last week of the October to undertake relief, Bird Island has had other ideas. People often use the phrase ‘Four seasons in one day’ to describe our weather, but it seems we have had everything besides a calm summer day. Winds and sea swell have been too high for unloading cargo, so we are reduced to waiting patiently (and in the case of all the fresh food aboard, not so patiently) for conditions to make small boat work possible.

Fortunately, a small “weather window” allowed our newest base members to come ashore, and this is probably the best opportunity to introduce our new recruits. Jane Tanton is here as the new seal assistant here to replace Nik when he leaves at the end of the summer. Jane is taking a break from all the warm weather she experienced while completing her MSc in South Africa. She will be here for the next two and a half years, and has taken to the island like the proverbial penguin to water. Along with Jane, we have had a small influx of summer personnel, here from a few days to a few months. Andy Wood made a triumphant arrival after his last harrowing attempt to get to Bird Island, which ended in the ship heading back to the Falkland Islands after experiencing high winds and huge seas. Paul Sharp is sorting out our electrics, and getting his last look at all things green, hilly and wildlife-oriented, before heading on to Halley station for the next two and a half years (flat, white and desolate). Finally, Mike Hazell, another lad returning to Halley, although just for the summer, is fixing up a load of the things that we science staff have broken over the course of the winter. He will also erect a field hut which will be used as accommodation when the real Bird Island population explosion occurs.

Going from a quiet base of four over the winter, to a teeming base of eight to ten over summer is taking getting used to, not least of which is cooking the right amount of food to feed the hungry hoardes. At least the Aga stove remains patient with our experimentation. With all these new people around, we have the chance to proudly show off our little island, and we are taking people on leisurely strolls across to various points of interest (and getting them working while there). We even convinced our Base Commander Maggie to help in the weighing programme on macaroni penguins, and we had her flailing about the rocks chasing the little critters like a professional (usually denoted by the presence of copious amounts of animal excreta on all outdoor clothing).

In that vein, I will be off to lead ‘Mark’s tour of the Seal Study Beach’. The sun is shining, and we like to make the most of that here.

Big “Hello’s” to all the folks back home, and a special thought for my brother Michael and fiancee Christine, who were married on November 6. Sorry I could not be there, and I know you understand.


Seal Assistant and Bird Island ice cream maker (and primary consumer)