Bird Island Diary — September 2000

30 September, 2000

The birds, the unrelenting wind, and a 19th century calm

Bird Island Diary

With winter and her easy pace almost through, September is a month of great transformation on Bird Island. After up to 16 months on the high seas, the start of the month heralded the first ‘wave’ of Grey-headed Albatrosses returning to patrol the windswept cliffs and slopes that are home to their colonial nesting sites. To be followed a week or so later by their ‘harder’ cousins – the Black-browed Albatross. Now dignified and docile these creatures may appear to be, but the patches of blood-stained snow all around the colonies testify to their intolerance of unwelcome birds who wander into their ‘home patch’, be it unwittingly or otherwise. And yet not 60 seconds later, the very same bird can be engaging in the most intimate and beautiful of mutual head-preening sessions with the bird, who barring mishap, will be its partner for the rest of its life. Superb birds!

Other giveaways that spring is here include the trilling, parachuting displays of the little pipits, and the appearance of Gentoo Penguin and Giant Petrel eggs. Such increased activity by the wildlife around the island has been mirrored by increased activity in several of the science projects, completing equipment preparation, recording ring numbers and laying dates etc. The Giant Petrel eggs can appear almost anywhere it would seem – Mark recently found one freshly laid, but below the high tide line. A few birds lay straight onto snow and within a day or two are incubating a stone cold egg and 3 inches of water. Doh! Most do give themselves a fighting chance at least, and they build fairly snug nests from the tussock grass and moss that pokes up increasingly through the snow.

Charlie, the Wandering Albatross chick is another month older and not looking much different (see Bird Island August diary). This month, Charlie has been subjected to some truly terrible winds and bad weather, but he/she seems to have weathered it well. I think we can appreciate why Wanderers build nice tall nests to keep the chick above the snow.

The same transformation from white to green that denotes the close of another season of Bird Island-style skiing and snow-boarding (mis!)adventure. How Maggie must have been amused (but too diplomatic to show it I think) by the various downhill techniques employed by Nik, Mark and myself when she arrived on the island recently. Maggie is an outdoor pursuits instructor/ field general assistant by trade, and is our inaugural full-time base commander – a new role into which she is evolving well and whose challenge she is obviously enjoying. A significant and important part of her work here so far has been the setting up of systems for search and rescue, and general emergency response. This has also involved training for the science team of three, consolidating and building on skills learnt on the pre-Antarctic field course in Derbyshire. The training has encompassed such things as abseiling (centered around the communications tower), setting anchors and pulleys, and stretcher mobilisation etc. A very useful and interesting product of these sessions has been the discourse prompted on such systems and the different perspectives expressed.

With José (aka Portugal)’s departure in August and Maggie’s arrival, the atmosphere of the base has changed subtly once more, as it does with every personnel movement on a base so small. I enjoy the way each person brings something new to the feel of the base. So surfing-video and football-induced champagne-popping sessions (thankyou José!) have now been complemented by some excellent slide shows of South America and a seemingly never-ending supply of un-put-downable sticky buns and treats, for which three sweet-tooths like Mark, Nik and myself are showing much appreciation. If we had fresh fruit and veg we’d eat them as well of course, but as of late, we haven’t been able to. Myriam who works for BAS at Stanley has been an absolute star at keeping us supplied with fresh goodies via the Falklands-based ships that resupply the garrison at South Georgia. Even she could do nothing about an incident that occurred to MV St. Brandan who was due down here recently and carrying our database whizz-kid Andy Wood however…………

The vessel (only small!) set off ‘into the teeth of a blizzard’, and literally limped back into Stanley five days later with storm damage. She’d come up against winds force 10, gusting 12, and 100 foot swell. All HF comms had been lost, the emergency services in the Falkland Islands had been put on standby, the rib was snapped in half, and her containers were lost overboard. Andy must have realised it was pretty serious when the captain got everyone out of their beds in the middle of the night because he was worried about the boat. So all in all, a pretty unpleasant experience, and a stark reminder to all of the power and ruthlessness of these open seas. All is not lost however as hopefully Andy will be able to land later on in the season to carry out his work, albeit a much curtailed version.

The winds since that unfortunate episode have been fairly unrelenting and have resulted in amazing strandings of krill and other marine crustaceans blown onto the beach in front of base. Both the sea and beach have been red with them, which have been major feeding focuses for thousands of Bird Island birds of virtually all denominations. Even the seemingly ever-hungry Antarctic Skuas must be satiated at the moment after the gluttony of recent days. These are birds that have caused quite an impression on me, and ones I will not easily forget. Bright-voiced and mischievous, cocky and gregarious, they are always up to something. Be it interfering with a frisbee game on the beach by trying to nab the disc, tugging or rummaging through any rucksack left unattended no matter how briefly, or pitting their wits against anything they think they can eat, they are nothing if not entertaining.

So apart from skua lampoonery, other main entertainments of late have been the usual rounds of Saturday night games and a couple of darts matches with Halley and South Georgia Fisheries at King Edward Point. Once again, we somehow got whipped both times in the singles, but managed to regroup just in time to save the day on the beer leg. Marvellous.

Anyway, just to let everyone know back home that the Bird Island team are in good spirits, rested-up and all well, and looking forward to the start of what promises to be an exciting season. I’ll finish with a poem by R S Thomas, whose just taken his last sleep, but whose stuff I’ve enjoyed this winter, and that I can relate to in these serene and wide open Bird Island landscapes.

A nineteenth century calm;
that is, a countryside
not fenced in
by cables and pylons
but open to thought to blow in
from as near as may be
to the truth.

Ta ta. Hwyl fawr i bawb adre a Samo. Cariad mawr,