Bird Island Diary — September 2001

30 September, 2001

Visitors come to Bird Island

With only one month of winter left, September is most definitely a time when winterers concentrate lots of their spare energies on enjoying many of those things that once the busy summer work programme starts, there just isn’t much time in which to indulge. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, considering that we have snow for 5 months of the year (although disappearing very rapidly at present), there has never been a sledge on base other than a couple of old mattresses or dinner trays. So Mark put this to right one day by building us each a sledge on which we spent a couple of tremendous afternoons racing to be the first to exit onto the beach at the bottom of the run. We all had very sore bottoms by the end but that was a small price to pay for all the fun we’d had in the meantime. Other popular activities of late have been the last of the skiing, overnight stays in island caves and at the Loveshack field hut, and even sunbathing! Our friends the skuas have now started to return, and winter barbecues have been great fun watching these sharp and cock-sure birds up to their old tricks trying to steal the choicest steaks off the grill the moment our backs are turned!

For many of the returning birds, fresh and fit after a winter spent stocking up on the high seas, September is show time on Bird Island. Hard graft and not a little flamboyance at this time of the year can go a long way to attracting a partner with whom to propagate the species. The last week has been one of prolific copulations in the grey headed albatross colonies, with established pairs leading the way for less experienced pairs by very quickly getting down to business. If the birds get this bit right (and they do have lots of attempts just to make sure!) then there is a fighting chance that they will eventually raise a chick. There are many potential pitfalls to overcome though such as trampling of the egg by clumsy male and female birds of a pair when they swap over the incubation duties, unfavourable weather (which can flood a nest), possible shortage of food for the chick, not to mention predation by the bold and marauding gangs of skuas and giant petrels.

The end of the month saw an event that all three of us had been looking forward to. Our first proper visitors for six months in the form of a BBC film crew arrived on the Falkland Islands-based yacht Golden Fleece, skippered by Jérôme Poncet. So a big tidy-up was called for and soon we had the base all spick and span and shiny to welcome our guests (does the amount of mess three people can produce rise in direct proportion to the amount of time since the last visitors?!). The crew was the same team that produced the series Steve Leonard’s Ultimate Killers, and were here hoping to obtain some footage for the follow up series – Steve Leonard’s Extreme Animals. What could be a more worthy contender for a slot in this series than the wandering albatross? A bird that circumnavigates the Southern Ocean dozens and dozens of times in it’s life, and that relentlessly and almost effortlessly covers vast tracts of open ocean hoping to spot some fish and squid etc for it’s ever-hungry chick back on Bird Island. Steve was filmed helping put a satellite transmitter on a female wanderer (nicknamed Cerys – by way of saying a timely thanks to Ms Matthews for lots of good music down the years), and then filmed following the satellite track on the computer screen. Cerys could not have made a more classic trip. She promptly zoomed to the coast off Southern Brazil, worked her way down the rich feeding grounds of the Continental Shelf as far as the Falklands, and was back in 10 days with a stomach full of food for her chick. An astonishing round trip of 10,000km!

It was excellent to have such fun, enthusiastic and professional visitors, and especially good to see Jérôme and his son Leiv who are old friends of Bird Island and have been here many times down the years, helping to survey some of the more inaccessible seabird and seal colonies from their yacht. Everyone came ashore for a get-together one evening, and the next evening it was the turn of the three islanders to be guests on the yacht for a top-notch meal washed down with a few drinks.

Steve the vet arrived just a few days too late to be able to help with the latest wanderer needing attention. A male bird arrived back on the island with long-line fishing line protruding sadly from it’s mouth – one end of which was caught by a hook in the stomach of the bird. Often when commercial fishermen catch fish, they chop off the head of the fish and throw it overboard as waste offal, with the hook and part of the line still attached. The albatrosses readily take these ‘free’ meals, but do not seem to notice or register that often there is hook and line attached. All that could be done for our bird was to cut nearly a metre of line from it’s mouth, and hope that the hook and remaining line would be dislodged from the stomach and regurgitated soon.

No sooner did the boys from the Beeb depart in order to film elephant seals and king penguins on the South Georgia mainland, than our next visitors promptly arrived. This time it was the Lynx helicopter crew of HMS Edinburgh. On board too was Andrea from Falklands Conservation, so Jane our resident penguin girl was especially pleased to be able to compare notes on the penguins with her. They kindly called in with some fresh goodies, mail and the first newspapers that we had seen for nearly a year. Living as we do on a continent uniquely given over to scientific research and peaceful co-operation between nations, it was saddening indeed to see the graphic images of the atrocities in America that we had been hearing about on the BBC Worldservice. Sometimes the thought of going home is tinged with great sadness at the peace and relative simplicity that we will be leaving behind down here.

Very soon we shall be welcoming back the summer team and the pace of things will hotting up once more. Until then we shall continue to enjoy the last bit of winter, and send our love to family and friends. You are only as far away as our thoughts.

Hwyl fawr i bawb!