Bird Island Diary – October 2002

31 October, 2002 Bird Island

New faces

As I am writing these few lines at the end of this October month, spring or summer have yet to arrive. The island is still coated in snow, leopard seals are hauling out in very good numbers on the icebergs and the fur seals are sparsely distributed around the beaches. A very different picture to what this place is going to look like in a few weeks time but that is a different story altogether.

Matt, Ben, Jane and I began this tenth month of the year enjoying our ever-peaceful winter life. Jane braved the southern ocean in an impromptu swim off one of our beaches and she did so with no hesitation or wetsuit. I believe she is crazy. We enjoyed some great walks around the island in blustery conditions and found ourselves literally lifted up the slopes and having to battle our way downhill such was the intensity of the winds, but my word was it fun jumping down those gigantic snow drifts!!

Although Bird Island annually harbours a small number of breeding elephant seals (a pitiful amount in comparison to the hundreds of thousands breeding on the South Georgia mainland) last year’s breeding season came and went without any sighting of those gorilla faced pups. It was therefore with great excitement that we responded to Jane’s radio call on the 6th announcing she had heard the distinctive barking call of a new born ellie on Evermann bay followed by another discovery on Johnson Beach. Bird Island elephant seal pup production tallied up to an impressive 12!

On the tenth the BAS ship RRS James Clark Ross appeared of the south coast of the island ready for the renowned difficult Bird Island relief. Unlike most previous years, however, the weather conditions were very lenient and the cargo tender appeared at the jetty with our summerers, cargo and loads of little helpers to assist. Seeing all the new and old faces coming ashore to help with relief was great as you noticed yourself nodding and greeting all the people you had met in the previous year. It also made me realise at how content and settled I am to living on this island.

While the base buzzed with tens of people unloading all the necessary food and fuel for the coming year, the winterers escaped the madness of it all with a trip to the ship for a most civilised lunch. Since the ship works on local time and we on Bird Island are set to GMT the short journey from shore to ship, which takes less than five minutes, was accompanied with a three hour jetlag, quiet a surreal experience really. As we boarded the ship Hamish, the ship purser, welcomed us warmly with his strong Scottish accent. He introduced us to the Captain and after a brief discussion he took us down to the food stores. Having lived a year on an island where all our greens and fresh foods come in sporadically with every ship visit, seeing the well stocked stores of a vessel was like discovering Alibaba’s cavern. Hamish with great complicity treated us to the likes of cakes, fruits, yoghurts and cheeses (there was even some camembert!!). He must have been amused by our contrasting expressions of greed and polite restraint. After an exquisite four course meal and a good chat with friends who are on their way to their respective bases, we had to get back to our home after what was a most enjoyable break on the JCR. We wish to thank Captain Burgan and his crew, especially Hamish, for their hospitality.

The first few days after first call had been set aside for general base maintenance and due to our restrained bed numbers, our summerers (except Maggie, our base commander) had to return to the ship after helping with cargo transit. Richard Borthwick, Paul Cousens and Andy Wood stayed on Bird Island for six days. During theses six days as the brash ice reoccupied the entire bay and the leopard seals were filling the cove with their musical crooning, we laboured intensively on tasks that for some could only be fulfilled with the help of skilled technical services and computer expert. Although, first call had come and gone officially starting the summer season, Matt, Jane, Ben and I could still be found some evenings chatting together when all others were in bed, commemorating the good old days of winter.

On the 16th, having finished their required tasks, Matt, Paul, Richard and Andy were exchanged when the JCR revisited by the summer team composed of Jonny Green (we know you from last year and he still is a penguin researcher a.k.a Mr Cocktails), Chris Green (the new penguin assistant, they told me they were not related) and Jaume Forcada (population ecologist). Our friend Matteo Magnifico left the island that he has forever impregnated through his skilled professional achievements and great socials he established such as the infamous 90 mins Friday night club and the traditional Monday Night Bridge Rubber. Have an excellent time at Rothera Matt and see you soon!

The second half of the month was more scientifically orientated as one might expect with the return of most breeding species. Jaume accompanied me on my daily lep rounds as well as prepared for the up coming fur seal breeding season. As you might have guessed from the multiple references to the pinniped family I am the seal assistant down here but October is mostly the month of birds. Ben has been working most hours of the day recording daily nest attendance at a handful of Grey-headed and Black Browed albatross colonies, coupled with the ringing of the soon to fledge Wandering albatross chicks. Most Mollymauk albatrosses (i.e. Grey-headed, Black-Browed) and Light-mantled Sooty albatrosses have courted, reunified with their partner and laid their eggs.

The penguins have also returned and Chris, Jane and Jonny have been walking around the island to their different reproductive sites to monitor the build up of both breeding species. I suppose October is definitely one of the most transitional months of the year starting in winter with empty beaches and colonies and ending in summer with puppies and brooding birds. As November begins we prepare for another challenging season.

I wish to finish by sending my love to my family and friends.

A bientot! Enfin presque!