Bird Island Diary – October 2005

31 October, 2005

Bird frenzy

October is always the transition month on Bird Island. Its begins with skiing, short-ish days, clear beaches with leopard seals and elephant seals matching fur-seal numbers, skies only containing a few species of birds, gentoos being the only regular penguins and peaceful evenings. By the end of the month the fur seals have begun to assert their dominance over the waterfront, evenings are filled with the cries of the burrowing petrels, black-browed albatrosses bray to their eggs, macaroni penguins cover their rocky colonised hillsides, and the mosses and tussock grass begin to emerge from the icy hillsides.

The end of winter tends to hold the most settled weather patterns and the first two weeks of October were generally clear, blue skied and crispy days, something of a rarity when 70+ knot winds, snow and, in summer, rain regularly batter the island. Despite Tommo’s reluctance to devote his precious Sundays to island sightseeing (last winter he was in the Flatlands of Halley, the Bird Island terrain is a little more vertical) the weather couldn’t be wasted. On the 1st of the month an expedition to Natural Arch occurred, as the name suggests a notable terrain feature, to see how the Gentoo Penguins were getting on with their nest building. Stones are the major currency for these guys and regular fisticuffs break out whenever some over extravagant ‘borrowing’ occurs. Natural Arch beach also commonly contains some elephant seals, who seem to like sleeping in the shade provided by the rock. Despite the benign appearance of the area in the picture this beach is virtually impassable during summer because of the density of fur-seals, another reason to appreciate the scenery whilst you can!

Speaking of elephant seals, these beasts provide plenty of entertainment during October, their main breeding month. Whilst this year hasn’t been the most productive on Bird Island, only five pups have been born, their mere presence is a welcome addition to the sights. They are pretty amazing creatures; males can weigh up to 4000kg, the maximum depth recorded in a dive is 1430m and the maximum recorded dive duration is 2 hours. They breed in harems, one beachmaster male can have 100+ females exclusively for himself. One of the by-products of this is the less successful males are rather possessive of any female who is yet to join in a breeding group.

The technique is pretty simple, if one of your girls tries to get away, you simply sit on her, and hey when you weigh in at over 2 tonnes it’s a pretty reasonable strategy to employ. With the shortage of females this year one of the young bulls has taken a distinct liking to our orange waste bags, regularly snuggling up to them and providing a free compacting service!

Ellies do take some appreciating, but I think everyone agrees that their pups are damn cute. Initially they resemble nothing more than a loose bag of floppy fur with an oversize head and eyes, however as they only suckle for approximately three weeks before weaning they rapidly expand into little butterballs whist their mothers shrink by approximately the same margin!

Along with the elephant seals the most iconic returnees are the Grey-headed, Black-browed and Light Mantled Sooty albatrosses. The Grey-heads come home a little earlier than the other two with nest-building and courtship beginning in late September; egg laying for all three species is spread over October and into November. The Grey-heads are clearly the zen buddists of the three, very little seems to bother them and they often sit in contemplative meditation. Black-brows by contrast are vocal and more aggressive, constantly braying and bickering with their neighbours. The Sooties are perhaps the most unique with their appearance, paired flying formation courtship displays, and their eerie wild two note calls that echo off the cliffs they prefer to nest on.

Ringing of the Wandering Albatross chicks is completed in October, and whilst it is always pleasing to see the youngsters shedding their coats of down for sleek black feathers, fewer and fewer line the hillsides every year. Hearing statistics of albatross deaths and the dangers of longline fishing is common nowadays; on Bird Island we experience the effects first hand. This summer is the third in a row I have ringed Wanderers and the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

Year Nests Chicks survived
2003 1,006 747
2004 948 711
2005 927 690

If you would like to learn more about the plight facing all Albatrosses and what you can do to help, go to

Bird Island’s most numerous penguin make their reappearance in the second half of October, the male Macaroni penguins begin their march up the rocky hillsides to stake out their nest area and await the arrival of the females who come in about a week later. Macaronis are incredibly precise about their arrival. The island’s biggest colony has around 20,000 males that appear within a week of each other:

Date Number in colony
17/10/2005 3
18/10/2005 21
19/10/2005 42
20/10/2005 53
21/10/2005 227
22/10/2005 500+
23/10/2005 800+
24/10/2005 1,500+
25/10/2005 4000+

We have an annual weighing day for 50 males and females, this is to obtain an idea of whether conditions are good or poor for the penguins. It’s always a fun day, especially if the weather is accommodating as it was this year. Before reaching the eager arms of the humans the penguins have to run the gauntlet of waves and rocks, and the jaws of some hungry leopard seals. Whilst this isn’t much fun for the Macs it provides a great spectacle for the people.

Ah, yes the people, I’ve almost forgotten to mention them in the sea of animal life. Well as this was the final month of being just the four of us we devoted as much of it as possible to appreciating the peace and quiet! We did manage a spa in one of the old water tanks as a last evening together, the first bath that some of us have had for around 12 months.

Then before you know it the ship was sitting on the horizon and the landing craft was ferrying people and supplies back and forth. Only beginning on the 21st of June and ending on the 29th of October it has been a short but very enjoyable winter.

Love to Family and Friends,