Bird Island Diary – September 2004

30 September, 2004 Bird Island


The Bird Island Castaways unchanged after 5 months of isolation…..

September is the beginning of spring on Bird Island; many of the migratory birds are beginning to return, a squadron of Skuas’ now escort the compost bin to the end of the jetty. The Leopard seals have perhaps started heading south towards the ice flows, the first elephant pup has been born and the Giant Petrels are beginning to lay their eggs.

Also noticeable, the weather has been less stable; we have had a few warm, still and very sunny days followed by some typical summer ‘mank’, i.e. warm days when the cloud base descends to sea level. More recently our weather has been dominated by a very deep depression (see image below) of nearly 940 millibars that as I write (on the 26th September) is causing gusts in excess of 98kts (over 110mph). Add snow and temperatures well below freezing and the conditions outside become quite uncomfortable! This storm coincides with exceptionally high tides and together the tides and waves have altered the beaches, big rocks and large quantities of shingle have been moved and there are huge piles of kelp and lumps of tussock grass on the beaches that have been uprooted by the rough seas.

At the beginning of the month Zac and I began the task of ringing all the Wandering Albatross chicks, a job that has continued through the month and involved all base members. Each chick has a small metal band loosely fitted around its left leg; the band is stamped with a unique number that identifies the bird throughout its life. On the first day we managed despite the cold wind to ring 100 chicks, there are currently 720 Wandering chicks on the island and now they all have numerical identities.

During the early part of the month we saw and heard many Leopard seals from the two local beaches of Jordan and Evermann cove. They appeared to be very active but still managed to find the time to pose for our photographs. On one afternoon Sarah counted 7 Leopard seals within an hour, there was also an iceberg that became a popular ‘haul out’ for the seals, conveniently grounded 10 meters or so from the jetty. Several seals were very vocal, the sounds do not seem loud but carry well on a calm day, quite musical and very hard to describe – so I will revert to ‘plan B’ and attach a recording made by Sarah from the jetty on the 14th of September.

Listen to the recording of the leopard seal:

Also on the 14th of September the first two Grey Headed Albatross arrived in their colony and over the next two weeks the colonies have filled. The males arrive first and tidy the nests and then settle down to wait for the females to arrive a week or two later. The first eggs are expected between the 10th and 15th of October.

The First Elephant seal pup was born the on the 24th September on Landing beach, the day before the really bad weather arrived. There have been quite a number of male Elephant seals, or ‘big noses’ hanging about for the last couple of weeks – very impressive animals; a fully grown male (around about 9 years old) is between 3.5 and 4.5 meters long, they live for up to 14 years and can weigh as much as 4 tonnes. The females are much smaller, up to 3 meters in length and weighing less than 1 tonne. Both the males and females can dive to extraordinary depths; dives of -1500 meters with duration in excess of an hour have been recorded.

Another event that marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring: The arrival of the fisheries patrol vessel ‘Sigma’, bringing with her Dr. Iain Staniland and several boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. After we had feasted on a selection of fruit we welcomed Iain, who has previously wintered at Bird Island and has returned to begin studies into the feeding habits of male fur seals. Obviously the night before the arrival we (Zac, Chris, Sarah and myself) felt the need to celebrate the end of winter, beginning of spring. We had a drink (or two…) whilst reminiscing about the events of the last 5 months.

But it hasn’t been all science, science, and science on Bird Island Research. The second generator engine has had a 2000hour service to ensure many more happy hours of electricity; ‘team generator’ rallied into action, Chris, Sarah and Zac each conditioning a cylinder head. The Generator is back on line and powering the computer on which I type. For anyone who is interested (namely my Dad) the base has 2 Lister Petter diesel generators – nice and simple, air-cooled, 3 cylinders and green in colour.

All our water is collected from the building roofs; runoff rainwater is collected in tanks and then passed through a number of strainers and filtration systems before use. The water tanks (in particular those that store unfiltered water) collect all the airborne debris landing on the roof, which means the tanks require regular cleaning. This month the feathers, tussock, seal hair and other unmentionables have been removed from all the tanks, which will prevent the water acquiring a slightly organic taste.

We have also completed an oil spill training exercise, cleaning up the imaginary oil spilt from an imaginary hole in a fuel drum. You’ll all be glad to hear the imaginary oil was quickly contained, before we imagined mopping it up. A very worthwhile exercise that ensures everyone knows how to respond if a real event were ever to occur.

Anyway, this will be my last news letter from Bird Island as I am due to depart aboard the RRSJames Clark Ross in November. All that remains is to send regards to all at home – see you all sometime before April 2005.