Bird Island Diary — October 2013

31 October, 2013

I have been challenged to write something different for this month’s web diary, and rather than being completely biased and simply writing a long-winded essay on how great seals are I am going to simply run through the events of a single day from this month.

The chosen date is the 12th of October and it began much like any other as we all started to go about our daily routines. I got ready for the lep round, Craig headed over to SSB to do some maintenance on the Wendy House which has been used and abused by seal assistants for many years and needed a bit of TLC, Jerry was preparing for a day up on the hills looking for Northern Giant Petrel eggs and Steph was going to head out to check for Grey Headed Albatross eggs, the first of which was found 4 days earlier.

Our plans were quickly put on hold however due to the discovery of something we had been hoping for over the past week. Two heavily pregnant elephant seals had been seen on Landing Beach for a while and now, finally, one of them had given birth to a small furry sausage. Needless to say the day’s work was delayed as we all spent half an hour or so watching the small pup interacting with its mother and getting used to its environment. There was a lot of noise as the mother and pup ‘chatted’ away to each other and the female tried to defend her offspring from the hungry skuas which had gathered in the hope of an easy meal and were constantly pecking at the newborn’s umbilicus.

After the excitement of our new arrival we headed off in our separate directions to get on with the day’s tasks. I began the daily Leopard Seal Rounds which start from the cliffs above the Special Study Beach where the majority of the fur seal work is conducted. The cliffs are a nice place to begin the round as they offer a good vantage point for not only seal spotting but also whale and bird watching. The Southern right whales have not yet returned from their migration north over the winter, but the recent influx of birds means that the cliff tops are now surrounded by wheeling and soaring giant and white chinned petrels, Black-browed, grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. I was particularly happy to see the sooty albatrosses as they are the least numerous albatross species on Bird Island and their nesting is dispersed and restricted to sheer cliffs, making them harder to spot than the mollies in their large, more accessible colonies.

Coming down from the cliffs I passed Craig fixing up a bench in the Wendy House before he headed back to base for a morning of generator servicing (without which we would all be in big trouble!) and an afternoon removing and painting all the doors of the stores and workshops. My rounds then took me down onto the beaches which is always a good time to look for the smaller, less publicised wildlife including the “butter-wouldn’t melt” South Georgia Pintail ducks (which in summer can be observed scavenging on fur seal placentas!) feeding along the strand line, and the noisy little Antarctic terns which dart around picking nearly-invisible crustaceans from the water in high speed dives. A couple of days ago the first couple of Pipits were seen collecting nesting material and they are always around busily flitting about and singing from the tussock lumps.

After a little while I spot one small leopard seal in the water scouting for a place to haul out. He almost comes out on the beach in front of me, but seems to decide that the beach is too steep to belly-flop up and shuffles back out into deeper water, disappearing for the rest of the day.

The rest of the beaches and cliff tops on the round don’t offer any more leopard seal sightings but on my way to the final cove I stop in at the large gentoo penguin colony at Square Pond and discover a muddy penguin sitting on the first egg of the season. Jerry also checked the area earlier in the day and found no eggs, so this one must be freshly laid and only a couple of hours old. All around the first egg a few hundred penguins are busy courting, mating, nest building and defending territory. Occasionally scuffles break out and a penguin is furiously ‘flippered’ by another or chased at top speed through the colony, dodging nests and being pecked at by disturbed inhabitants. Others have paired up and can be seen ‘bobbing’ in synchrony, mimicking each other’s movements and tidying their nests up.

I radio Jerry with the news because it means he will now have to come and map out a sub-section of nests in the colony in order to monitor the egg build-up. He has just finished the Giant Petrel round and arrived home for a cup of tea, but it will have to wait! The Geep rounds today were fairly quiet as almost all the Northern petrels in the study area have finished laying since they began a month ago. He only found 3 new eggs today (bringing the total up to around 300), 2 from regular breeders and 1 from an unknown bird which required a shiny new ring and darvic. It will be another few weeks until the Southern geeps begin to lay their eggs, giving Jerry a bit of a break (but not really).

It’s just as well that the Northern geeps have quietened down as Jerry now has daily checks of the selected gentoo nests to do , as well as trips to the major gentoo colony on Johnson to record the first eggs there. In addition he has been to Big Mac and Little Mac to see whether the other species of breeding penguin here, the macaronis, have started to return. There were no macaronis today, but 5 days later we spot one while doing some maintenance on transect markers in the colony. A week later and the place is crammed with the returning males who are fighting over nest space.

From my position down on the beaches I can look up at the huge black-browed albatross colonies which are full of noisily calling birds. Precariously balanced among the nests in the tussock is Steph, monitoring the return of ringed birds. Colony H on the steep slopes above Main Bay is one of the longest monitored breeding sites on the island and today Steph has recorded 39 birds in this small but important location. The birds are reuniting with their partners and can be seen bill-tapping and displaying to each other, the females perched on nests and the males calling loudly and splaying their tail feathers. In another of the colonies Steph has already observed couples mating and so there should be eggs soon enough.

The grey-headed albatrosses have already started laying and today there were 8 new eggs discovered in Colony E which is home to over 300 birds and checked daily. Up in the hills Steph also takes the opportunity to ring a few more of the wanderer chicks which are losing their downy chick feathers at a rapid rate and will soon be ready to fledge.

I finish up the lep round and head back for a cup of tea, a bit of data entry and some odd tasks before a long stint in the kitchen because it’s Saturday, which means a 3 course dinner, and it’s my turn to cook…

Hannah Wood

Bird Island Zoological Field Assistant