Bird Island Diary — October 2006

31 October, 2006

October has been a month of new arrivals, and some farewells on both the animal and human side of things. This month has also seen the winter period, when there was just the four of us on the island, come to end. The arrival of the James Clark Ross, brought some people who had visited the island throughout the years and some who where completely new to this special wee rock.

The JCR was initially due to call on the first Friday of the month, so the first week of the month saw the wintering contingent of Helen, Robbo, Matt and myself all donning marigolds and enjoying the pleasure of the ultimate scrub out to get the place looking spic and span for the new arrivals!! After getting the place gleaming and having cleared all the walkways clear of snow, the weather decided to take a turn for the worst come Friday, after having been gorgeous and flat calm for the previous week, we had a blast of the gnarliest weather we had seen all winter!! Gales that were blowing us off our feet, a huge dump of snow covering the walkways that we had spent the previous week clearing and visibility down to a few metres made us think that the ship might not get in on this day. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to receive the radio call from the captain saying it wasn’t going to happen on this day, and they would head down to our neighbours at King Edward Point and try to get to us in few days time. I was starting to see why the ships crew are never mad keen on doing relief here at Bird island with our very changeable conditions!!

Although it was a little disappointing not to get to see some new faces and receive post and parcels from out family and friends, it was quite nice to be able to relax after bit of a manic previous week of tidying!! It also meant I was able to tune into the heroic victory of the Scottish football team against mighty France, supposedly one of the best teams in the world at the moment, apologies to Fabrice, a Frenchman who is on his way to spend his two and half years here, you may have to endure watching this game on numerous occasions during the next winter, once I manage to get a tape of it sent down!!

The James Clark Ross arrived back with us the following Tuesday, and we where actually able to see her this time, no matter how many times I have clapped eyes on her I am always amazed at what an outstanding looking vessel she is. Although not ideal conditions, the captain felt it was possible to get the RIBs in the water to bring people ashore, so soon enough the four of us that had been here for the previous six months where soon joined by our new ‘housemates’. There where a few familiar faces that it was great to see again, Vicky our Base Commander who had been here the previous two summers, and Iain Staniland who did ‘his time’ on the rock a few years back now and has been coming back many times since. It doesn’t seem to have affected him in any adverse way, although he does seem to feel the Gentoo penguins are out to get us, one dreads to think what they did to him in the past to instill such a fear!!

Also brought in were those we refer to as ‘Team America’ made up of Randall, Bill and Kiersten, a great bunch they are to have around. They are here to try to attach very fancy devices to the back of male fur seals, the main aim of these is to film the diving behaviour of these amazing beasts as they go to depths of up to 300 metres on occasions. However these high tech bits of equipment are not just cameras, they will monitor almost everything you can possibly think of; these seals are not going be able to pass wind without us knowing about it!! While this was Bill and Kirsten’s first vist to South Georgia and Bird Island, Randall had actually been here back in the 1970s and 1980s, carrying out deployments of instruments to measure diving behaviour of both female fur seals and penguins. Causing him to comment on how much both the technology used in these instruments and the base itself had advanced over the years.

The next day the seas calmed enough for the ships tender to start transporting supplies and cargo ashore. So a busy few days ensued with everyone helping out, many thanks to all those from the James Clark Ross for all their help with everything from unpacking food, rewiring weather stations to rolling oil drums!! All the help was much appreciated, so thanks heaps. Also a big thanks to the crew of the JCR for all their hard work in getting everything to us, and taking away our six months waste in what where not ideal conditions, they really did perform miracles.

The next few days involved much unpacking of everything, us four winterers also had the joy of our personal boxes from our families which where great to get, as well as some much appreciated fresh food and many other little luxuries. Almost before we knew it the James Clark Ross was back again, just like buses these ship calls, wait ages for one then they all come at once!! This time it was dropping of Ali Dean who had been Base Commander down at King Edward Point for the last two years, and who was coming up here to take over Vicky’s position for the summer, who sadly we are losing to Rothera in early November. We will all be gutted to say goodbye to Vicky, who is a great person to have around base, but couldn’t have asked for a better replacement than Ali who appears to be from the exact same mould as Vic, proving that great things do come in small packages!! We have all been very amused by Ali’s regular call of ‘Pippit’, as she spots yet another of these wee songbirds. She is not used to seeing so many of them as they are a much less common sight down at KEP then up here at Bird Island, as a result of the rats on the South Georgia Mainland.

Sadly this ship call also saw us lose Matt; I speak for Robbo, Helen and myself when I say it was an honour to spend our winter with the Antarctic legend that is Jobbo. Thanks from all of us mate for everything, from showing us how to play bridge, to how to use a router!! All the best at Signy, looking forward to hooking up over few G&Ts and recalling all the good times come 2008!!

On the 20th we had the yacht Le Sourire sail into Jordan Cove. Aboard where a film crew making a documentary for Channel Five on the arrival of Spring in South Georgia, due to be aired the week before Christmas. They had quite a rough sail from the Falklands so where glad to get into sheltered water and onto dry land. They were a real nice bunch of folk as where the family that skippered the yacht, and we had a great Saturday night with around 20 of us in the lounge. Definitely felt a bit strange after only being the 4 of us two weeks previous!! They spent 4 days coming ashore trying to cram in as much filming as possible, so Vicky, Helen and Ali where kept busy showing them around the island, and although they had a few technical hiccups to deal with it looks like they managed to get some great footage, with all the animals being very obliging.

Well that about deals with the human side of things, but it has been a busy month on the animal front as well. Helen has been busy this month, first she had been noting laying dates and locations of the Northern Giant Petrels in the study area, and after an early start looks like it could be a bumper year for them with more eggs laid than in the previous year, still some that have got a bit to learn though, laying an egg in what will soon become fur seal breeding territory is not the best move!! After a break of just over a week from the end of the Northern Giant Petrels laying period, the Southern Giant Petrals then started, so Helen is diligently up there noting location and laying dates for them now!!

Helen has also been keeping a close eye on what the gentoo penguins are up to, she has been busy counting eggs laid at the different colonies over the island. Again it looks like another big year for them, with over 3000 nests over the island. It has been a busy month all round on the penguin front, with the Macaroni penguin also arriving back after being away all winter. Around the middle of the month the first individual appeared at Big Mac, the next day there were around 10, and in just over a week there are around 40, 000 males awaiting for the females to arrive back, its amazing how they all seem to realise its time to get back!! Helen led a group of willing volunteers to carry out weighing of some of them after their winter away to gain an idea of their state of health, the unsuspecting helpers soon found out what feisty critters these wee chaps are.

No one is quite sure where the Mac’s go during the winter but we are hoping to gain an insight by using a fancy wee bit of kit called a GLS (Global Location System), these are finger nail sized bit of electronics encased in plastic that can figure out location using light levels and store it till they are retrieved and downloaded. Helen deployed these on some penguins while they where up moulting back in March time before heading off for the winter and is now hoping to locate the same individuals to get these GLS back off them, no easy task in a colony of 40,000 pairs!!

Groups of King penguins have also started to appear again during this month after being missing during the winter period; very regal they have been looking as well. Even had the odd chinstrap penguin make an appearance as, although I am sure some penguins suffer an identity crisis and not quite sure what species they are!!

Gentoo & Chinstrap

King Penguin & Gentoo’s

Robbo has also been busy counting eggs during this month, with his Greyhead albatrosses all paired up and finishing their laying during this month. These have been quickly followed by the Black browed albatrosses, which start their laying a few weeks later but are still able to get there chicks to the fledgling stage before the Greyheads and thus breed every year rather than every second as is the case with the Greyheads. Robbo has been busy covering the ground monitoring what has been happening up at colonies J, E and H daily.

The wanderer chicks that hatched back in March and have been with us all winter are now starting to lose their fluff and to look very sleek and will soon be heading off for a few years of cruising the Southern Oceans before hopefully arriving back here. This month we have seen many practising, stretching out their huge wings for a practice flap, they still get a bit of a shock when they get a gust off wind that picks them up unexpectedly though!!

October has seen a lot of the other birds arrive back as well, the white chin burrowing petrels have arrived back and the night is alive with their constant chirrup, reminding me of the sound of a bat colony. Sooty albatrosses have been regularly spotted swooping over the cliffs they are such elegant flyers. And the skua numbers have steadily increased picking up little morsels off the beach as the last of the ice melts away.

On the seal front we had the last few leopard seals of the winter haul out, been a good year for leopard seals sightings with the number of different individuals hauled out being up from the previous year and the photo identification work has proved to be very successful. We have managed to attach a GLS to one of the flipper tags given to one of the last individuals seen, so fingers crossed the same guy will decided to come back next winter and hopefully we will get idea an of where in the ice further south these guys go during the summer months.

This month has seen more and more of the big territorial male fur seals arriving back on the island, each day they just seem to get bigger and bigger with some of them nearing 200kg!! While Bill has been working all out on last minute technical adjustments to the cameras, we have been deploying satellite transmitters on some of the male fur seals. These are going be left on till the animals moult them off and with bit off luck they may stay on a year giving us an idea of where these guys go and forage. Already, with the few we have deployed, we are seeing differences in their foraging behaviour with some going North and some South; trip duration has also varied with some undertaking long trips while other individuals are opting for shorter length trips.

We have had more American visitors as well this month; two fur seals that had been born and tagged in previous seasons by the Americans working on the South Shetland Islands off the tip off the Antarctic Peninsula were spotted hauled out on beaches here.

On a sour note this month also saw 10 more fur seals spotted that had become entangled in discarded fishing gear. We managed to cut them free but some were obviously in a lot of pain and suffering horrible gashes and it makes you wonder how many get entangled that are unable to make it to land alive and suffer a needlessly slow and painful death. We have also found fishing gear around birds nests during this month that has been regurgitated. These findings only highlight the need for the proper disposal of fishing gear by ships at sea to prevent this senseless animal suffering.

October has also seen the first new births of the season, with around ten elephant seal pups being born over the island, great looking rolls of fat they are as well!! They soon fill out these rolls of fat though as they clamp on to their mums and suckle away for the few weeks before mum leave’s them to fend for themselves. They carry out much barking when not attached to mum, and combined with some of the roaring by the adult males make quite noisey family units all in all!!

The end of October is of course Halloween, and so a bit of impromptu dressing up took place and we got some men dressed as women (any excuse for some guys!), a cow, a pumpkin, and bank robber (who looked more like Groucho Marx!!), and a galaxy far far away!! And some of us just representing the 70’s and 80’s decades!!


After an ace meal prepared by Vicky, if blood and guts taste that good going to start eating them more often!! We had a bit of blind folded pi’ata bashing followed by a mad scramble for the sweets once they fell out to stop the skuas nicking them all. Then we had the traditional Halloween game of apple bobbing, finding sweets in flour followed by biting treacle scones, all very messy but much fun!!

Well that about sums up another busy month on this wee rock. Much love to my family and friends missing you all heaps. Also congratulations to Malc and Meron on your wedding, gutted I couldn’t be there for the special day but sure it was a storming success looking forward to seeing the photos of you all in your swinging sixties outfits!!

Loads love Donald

(Thanks to all on base for letting me nick their photos!!)