Bird Island Diary – October 2003

31 October, 2003 Bird Island

Birds and big noses

October has seen the skies above the island come alive with birds, the beaches with elephant and fur seals, and the steep rocky slopes with Macaroni penguins. Since the return of the grey-headed and black-browed albatross to their colonies throughout the island, the birds have been busy building nests, mating and laying eggs. All the colonies are now a hive of activity and it is fascinating spending time amongst them.

Competition for the best nest sites results in some pretty ferocious fighting between individuals. One day, standing in a colony I watched as a pair of birds lunged at each other, their sharp beaks repeatedly snapping open and shut. One let out a shriek as the other clamped his beak around its neck, digging deep into the soft cranial plumage. Still tightly locked together, they thrashed around for a few seconds before one finally admitted defeat and staggered off sheepishly to preen ruffled feathers a short distance away. Scanning the colony through binoculars a little further down the hill, a building site appeared in my field of view; a newly arrived grey-head was preparing its nest for the season. I watched for a few minutes, enthralled at its dexterity. It stood beside the partially constructed mound, head bowed to the ground tearing up lumps of soil and foliage with its beak within the immediate vicinity. Once a small pile of loose construction material had accumulated, it ferried them to the nest in manageable proportions before adroitly laying them onto the nest site. Then lateral patting of the beak and delicate treading with its substantial webbed feet assured a smooth and solid platform. Finally, a few stands of tussock grass laid neatly in the convex depression provided the finishing touches. Not a bad job when the only JCB is a narrow beak.

The huge bull elephant seals (known affectionately as big noses) that frequent our beaches at this time of year have also provided great entertainment. By the time the males reach sexual maturity, as their name suggests, they possess a long elephant trunk-like proboscis. They are absolutely massive and grow to a length of 4.5m – 6.5 and can weigh as much as 3700kg – that’s as much a couple of family saloon vehicles! Despite appearing slow and cumbersome on land, they are surprisingly agile for creatures of such huge girth and you don’t want get in the way of a cantankerous big nose. They certainly make their presence felt with deep booming roars day and night that resonate off the surrounding hillsides.

There is a large breeding population on South Georgia but we only see a tiny percentage of them on the beaches of this island. Even the big noses we see here probably only come to breed because they are still too small to compete for a harem of females on the major breeding beaches on the main land. There are now 8 pups in a harem on Main Bay beach, many little velutinous bodies dozing quietly next to their mothers. Elephant seal pups are c.1.3m at birth and weigh 36-50kg. In the first 25 days of life they gain weight rapidly – around 3.6kg daily. and may then weigh 110-160kg. After only 3 weeks on the beach they will be weaned and left alone to fend for themselves in the vast wild ranges of the Southern Ocean.

Shortly before the arrival of the first BAS ship for the summer season, Nick, Benny, Ade and myself enjoyed the last barbeque of winter. The evening was warm and still, providing the perfect setting for a beach barbe. The flag at the end of the jetty hung limply against the pole – some respite from the usual pounding it receives from the ferocious southerly blows. Dozens of cheeky skuas surrounded us as we tucked into the lamb and chicken kebabs, eager to snatch any morsels that fell from our plates. We chatted about the winter, all of us commenting on how fast the latter half has gone. Ben and Nick have just 6 months left on the island before their two and half year tour is up, when they will be whisked off by ship back to the Falklands to begin their trip around South America.

The Gentoo penguins inhabit the island year round and, like the flying birds, have been busy this month building nests and laying their eggs. The largest aggregation of Gentoos occurs on Johnson Beach, where there are1248 nests with eggs this year. During one of my daily visits to the colony there appeared to be more penguins than I had ever seen in this spot before. There was, I estimate, an accretion in the region of 2500-3000 Gentoo penguins on the relatively flat relief of the upper shore. You don’t often see so many together, and I sat down on a tussock lump a few metres away from the periphery, careful not to scare them and be the cause of a mass stampede. Penguins literally filled the beach, crowding cheek by jowl, perhaps as many as 5-8 per square metre in the densest places. Some lay flat incubating their eggs, while others preened; a few wandered around, and the rest simply stood still staring into space. I wondered for a moment what was going through their little minds.

The life of a penguin, as with the majority of creatures, is a very simply one, composed primarily of four main activities: swimming, feeding, standing around and breeding once a year. I imagine they don’t worry themselves with why they do what they do, or how they fit into the systems of life; they are entirely insouciant. Due to their bi-pedal waddle and gentle persona, penguins are one of the easiest animals to anthropomorphise and understandably one of the most popular of all Antarctic fauna.

On the last Saturday night of winter Benny and Nick set up a mist net on the beach in the hope of catching a few black-bellied storm petrels. These small birds are agile flyers, live in burrows and return to the island at night having spent the day at sea. The under belly has a distinct stripe of black feathers running from head to tail which gives them their name. After extending the thin meshed net across the beach perpendicular to the shore and placing a stereo underneath playing a tape of the bird’s call, we sat quietly in the darkness and waited. We didn’t have to wait long. Within a matter of minutes a couple of black-bellies became caught in the net. Benny then carefully untangled them before ringing each individual. It was great to have the opportunity to be able to inspect one so closely as normally you only catch a glimpse as they rush past on the wing. A couple of big-noses dozed next to us, interrupting the tranquil atmosphere periodically with a few loud snorts. We caught ten in all before returning in doors for a warming brew.

On the 22nd of the month the first BAS ship of the season arrived, thus officially marking the end of the 6 months of winter for the four of us. It is amazing how fast the last few months have passed and the day of first call appeared to loom up very suddenly. It was great to meet both new and old faces once again, although there was little time during the first day to catch up on any news as we were all working flat out to move tonnes of cargo from the ship to the base. Dozens of boxes of food to keep us all fed for a year, 120 drums of fuel to run the generators, building materials, as well as other specialist scientific equipment were all unloaded throughout the day. The four winterers Nick, Benny, Ade and myself were invited aboard the ship for a meal in the evening which was a welcome change of scene and a chance to say our final goodbyes to Ade and wish him well for his future adventures in Korea.

The Macaroni penguins started returning to their colonies on the steep rocky slopes on 19th. They are amazingly punctual and the first few always arrive on 19th/20th October (give or take a day) each year and like with so many natural phenomena, no one knows quite how they manage it. As part of the penguin monitoring work we weigh 50 male and female birds each year when they first arrive at the colony having spent the winter at sea.This is to give an indication of the bird’s general heath at the start of the breeding season. Standing at the bottom of the colony and grabbing passing penguins before weighing them in a bag is always a good laugh and, for the most part, the penguins are pretty obliging.

There was quite a swell running and consequently a real spectacle watching these little creatures making the difficult transition from the sea to the rock. Large groups would congregate in the creek about 20-30 metres from the shore, their sleek bodies porpoising in and out of the water as they ducked and dived in an out of the mass of swirling foam. Then- presumably able to judge from a distance off whether it was a suitable moment to attempt the climb ashore- in their distinct groups they paddled rapidly towards the rocks just below the surface, and with one final bust of speed, rocketed out of the wave to be deposited on to the slippery inclined slab of rock. There are always a few that miss time the exit and get dragged back off by the undertow before they can get sufficient purchase; or overshot back into the whirling vortex once again. It must be akin to being in a washing machine during the spin cycle, necessitating a robust frame to withstand the heavy buffeting. We were even fortunate enough to witness a leopard seal catch a penguin in its formidable jaws as it was dashing to reach the safety of the rocks.

The winter months I’ve spent living on this wee island have been a unique experience, enabling me to attain a far greater affinity with my surroundings than is possible elsewhere. The atmosphere of the island is always changing; on occasions benevolent and hospitable, during other times possessing a foreboding and plangent hostility. As the traveller and explorer Christina Dodwell wrote: ‘I became part of the world. I lived in it, I didn’t just pass through it…Nothing was simply visual, it was all tangible…’ The incomprehensibility of this environment in terms of both scale and raw aesthetic beauty, as well as emancipation from the usual lifestyle, invariably leads ones mind at some point into the contemplation of existence; you are nothing more than insignificant spec, a minute piece of dust surrounded by a vast horizon that mother nature can sweep away on a whim. Despite its inherent adversities, this place draws you in like nowhere else I have ever been; it diffuses into your blood and surges through your veins. I’ll leave you with the words of Henry David Thoreau:

‘Many of the phenomena of winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of summer.’

Love to family and friends,