Bird Island Diary — October 2001

31 October, 2001

Summer Personnel Arrive

The island silence of waves and birdcall was shattered by the cacophony caused by fuel barrels being rolled up a steel walkway, and numerous people marvelling at our rich and diverse wildlife. But this was all at the beginning of November, and I appear to have jumped the gun somewhat.

“So, how did you all spend your last month of winter?” I hear you ask. Well, we managed the perfect mix of excitement and last minute relaxation before the onslaught of a rather busy summer season. On the 2nd, the Golden Fleece again visited our shores with the BBC Natural History Unit after a successful few days filming elephant seals and king penguins on the South Georgia Mainland. After making ourselves beautiful for the cameras, we discovered that they didn’t need us, just our calm anchorage so that Steve Leonard could make pumpkin soup on the yacht! Once done, they came ashore brandishing a thermos flask of soup for us to trial, and after polishing it all off, we showed them how Cerys the satellite-tagged albatross had done on her trip. We couldn’t have asked for a more classic foraging trip, and the BBC were elated at their good fortune.

For the next 2 weeks, Jane and I had our work cut out for us reminding Daf of his obligations to write the previous months newsletter. Let’s just say that procrastination was taken to dizzying new heights. We tried everything, from cajoling, bribing, and annoying to covering his desk with post-it-notes and general reminders. Finally, a threat to withhold ice-cream seemed to have done the trick as it miraculously appeared, better late than never. Badgering people is a remarkably stressful pastime, so when a beautifully sunny day presented itself on the 9th, we took full advantage of the warmth and soaked up some rays through multiple applications of factor 30 suncream. Ozone is at it’s lowest levels during this time of year, so we have to be especially careful not to get burnt. Far from stopping us from enjoying the great outdoors, we took advantage of a few more nice days at the end of the month to go for a final winter dip in the bay. With wetsuits donned, we braced ourselves for the first freezing trickles of water seeping into the suits and jumped in. Rather a lot of effort to go to for a couple of minutes swanning about in the water (hands and feet just get too cold) but well worth it.

October has been the month for the return of the wildlife. The albatross colonies are full of birds sitting on plump eggs, and the macaroni penguins have begun to return from 7 months or so out to sea. Some huge male fur seals have emerged from the water to set up territories on the beaches, perhaps a bit early as the females are not due for a couple of weeks yet, but they are obviously keen to get the breeding season underway. But by far the most entertaining animals here at the moment are the skuas. Throughout the month they have learnt that by sitting outside the kitchen window, they will regularly be fed scraps by whoever is on cook for the day. Fierce rivalry ensues for the prime positions, and one particular couple, who we have called Bonnie and Clyde for the sake of calling them something, have managed to establish the area as their own private fast food outlet, quickly seeing off any interlopers. These two have learned especially quickly that we are all suckers for wildlife, and follow us along the walkways in the hope of a piece of cheese or other scrap of food, and are even so bold as to take it from our hands (tuck thumbs in!). On the 23rd we discovered an unexpected dinner guest. Seeing that the back door had been left open, Bonnie took it upon herself to invite herself in. Bold as brass she walked in, took a left turn down the corridor and sauntered into the dining room with an air of expectation. She was rewarded for her audacity with loads of cheese, but then promptly evicted (voted out big brother style) once she had spurned our hospitality and messed on the floor!

It hasn’t all been fun and games though. With the arrival of the first ship call of the season looming over us, there has been plenty of work to be done in preparation. Waste drums have been painted and neatly stored, outgoing cargo has been packed and manifested, trolleys fixed, and of course, a last minute tidy-up before the boss arrives! I must say I have never seen the place looking so spik n’ span. In amidst all our preparations, normal science work still needs to be done. Every afternoon base is abandoned while the three of us head out in different directions to do our various tasks. Daf races off to the albatross colonies where he lies in wait to catch them ‘getting jiggy with it’ (there is a valid reason – it lets him know which birds are males, and which are females), Jane goes to count penguin arrivals, and I go off to search for leopard seals and collect fur seal poo for analysis in the lab. Never a dull moment is to be had on Bird Island!

A number of whole base activities were being put on hold in the hopes that the ship would arrive, and we would have loads of willing volunteers to lend a hand. Unfortunately the wind blew, and the James Clark Ross, after spending a few days bouncing about the southern ocean, decided to head to King Edward Point before coming here. Things could be put off no longer, and the last days of the month have been spent scattered all over the island. First was the annual count of gentoo penguin nests in the various colonies, which I am glad to report, are at the highest levels for a number of years. Next day, we headed across to the largest macaroni penguin colony on the island (aptly named Big Mac) to weigh arriving males. Some time next week we need to go back to weigh females, as like females of our own species, they tend to arrive fashionably late. This gives us some idea about what condition they are in; hopefully big and fat, ready for breeding. The last day of the month was spent carefully working our way around the steep slopes of certain grey-headed albatross colonies doing yet another annual count of nests with eggs.

Since the seal study beach work starts on November 01, I took the opportunity to have my last sleep-in of the morning until January on the last day of October. Come weekends, public holidays, rain, snow or New Year’s hangover, work must start at 9am every day. It makes it easier knowing that everybody else on the island will be equally busy and hardworking. Some say that we must be mad, but a healthy dose of madness is a cost all of us would bear without the slightest hesitation to be here in this spectacular place.

And so, on the last day of the month, with the ship due any day, I asked my island compatriots, Daf and Jane “if you had one word to describe the winter what would it be?” After careful consideration, Daf chose “a privilege”, which is technically 2 words, but we will allow it just this once. Jane’s choice was an emphatic “Outstanding”. Since I am writing the newsletter this month, I can use as many words as I like, free of the censor’s red pen. I must say that I have been immensely proud to be part of such a strong team on this, the smallest overwintering BAS base, and my 7 months here have been some of the most enjoyable of my life. Winter for me at least, has run through a range of contradictions, relaxing yet productive, quiet yet exciting, and professional yet homely, but above all, personally satisfying. But to be fair to the others, I would just have to say “Fulfilling”.

With so many people now on base, I will go and do some serious socializing, and allow the new chaps to introduce themselves next month.

Big “hellos” to all the usual family and friends, and I will be seeing you all soon.

Mark Jessopp

Zoological Field Assistant