Bird Island Diary — September 2006

30 September, 2006

Sunshine and snow on Bird Island

September has to be my favourite month of the winter. The days are getting significantly longer and the weather is just the best – either glorious sunshine and blue skies or good snowfalls and persistent cold temperatures. It also sees the return of birds, and it seems as if this year they are all starting early. Robbo is checking the arrival of the Grey Headed Albatrosses on a daily basis and the Giant Petrels are working hard to melt out or excavate their nest from beneath large drifts.

The first Geep egg was laid 5 days earlier than expected and signalled the start of the second year of intensive Geep monitoring. I’ll be marking nests and recording the laying dates of all of the birds in the study area every other day and the results will help Sally Poncet, who is co-ordinating the South Georgia-wide census, to calibrate her figures and accurately calculate the population size. South Georgia is a hugely important site, holding the largest Northern and the third largest Southern Giant Petrel population in the world with an estimated 10,000 pairs breeding every year.

The start of the month saw Robin and myself ringing the wanderer chicks, who have now abandoned their nests due to the heavy snowfall. Some favourable weather ensured that we had finished one of my favourite jobs on the island by mid September, though matching the now mobile chicks up to their respective nest markers could sometimes be a challenge!

The wanderer chicks seem to be having a good year and we are heading towards one of the best fledging success rates on record. Although this is great news, the number of adults returning to breed on the island continues to decline at a worrying rate so overall, the number of chicks produced each year on the island is now only just over half of the original – not a great statistic for the long term survival of the species…

As a stark reminder of the consequences of unregulated longline fishing, I came across a fishing hook in the nest of one of the chicks I was ringing, highlighting that not only do they pose a threat to the foraging adults, but the birds can unintentionally bring back harmful debris to their chick. Fortunately, this chap had managed to regurgitate the hook and was looking very well!

It’s difficult not to know the wanderers as individuals, and one of my favourite chicks is growing nicely, and can often be spotted given his now huge wings a good stretch and a flap.

In other ringing successes, we are celebrating having put all of the available rings onto the South Georgia Pintails, so the movements of just fewer than 300 ducks can be monitored throughout the season enabling us to understand more about these charismatic little birds. This work will hopefully help with the proposed rat eradication scheme on parts of mainland South Georgia that will increase the safe habitat available for all ground nesting birds, including the ducks.

The penguin season is starting to hot up by September, with the Gentoos having some minor neighbourhood disputes over the best nesting spots and who exactly the stone used for nest building (as the majority are still covered in ice) belongs to. Fortunately, these quarrels rarely escalate and at the very extreme, a good flipper whack tends to resolve the issue! Pairs are forming with the bowing and braying courtship displays and eggs will follow in October.

Johnson beach is consequently busy with penguins coming home to roost in the evening and the Gentoos have certainly been braving some rough seas recently.

The leopard seals have continued to keep the fur seals and Don on their toes, with plenty still around enjoying the frozen temperatures and abundance of bergy bits in the bay. I’m not sure if its pure stupidity on the fur seals’ part, or whether they are clever enough to realise a lep is as agile as a slug when hauled out on the beach, but they sure love to tease their enemy whilst he is trying to rest.

A good days sleep can only be assured by hauling out onto a bergy bit just big enough for one!

The first few big nose elephant seal bulls have been cruising the local bays, checking for the presence of females about to pup. I’m hoping for a much more productive ellie season this year, as last year was rather disappointing with only 5 pups born on the island.

From the very largest to the very smallest – the South Georgia Pipits continue to amaze me with their ability to survive over winter. Weighing in at only around 30g, these tiny songbirds can be seen foraging along the shoreline and flitting between the brash ice in search of tiny morsels of food in all weathers and temperatures.

The fine weather has made for plenty of BBQs – all of which were referred to as the last of the winter, just in case we don’t get chance to have another, and the end of the month brought with it the infamous ‘Bird Island Folk Night’.

Matt’s off cuts make for good BBQ fuel

Matt repeated the tradition from his previous winter here and proposed a BI folk night, with entertainment being provided by each of the BI locals. Don prepared some traditional Scottish poetry with a mention of his beloved fur seals; I practiced some dodgy magic tricks (hmmm, more foolery than trickery!) and Matt and Robbo put in some high class songs accompanied by their fine guitar playing. The surprise guest for the evening was no other than Dolly Parton who serenaded us with classic songs such as ‘Stand by you Man’ and ‘Joelene’. I was totally amazed, believing myself to be the only girl on the island and to be honest, rather envious of the great set of legs that Ms Parton was showing off all evening in those fish net stockings.

Donald however, was understandably suspicious that a lady could have possibly been stowing away on the island without him knowing…he has being doing a daily leopard seal round after all.

It was with such horror that this beautiful woman was exposed to be, in fact, a man!; and so Matt’s alter-ego was exposed in the last few days of his 5th winter! (sorry Karen!).

Poor Don was inconsolable at this discovery and despite Matt (now without the lipstick) and Robbo’s hardest efforts to cheer him up, Don couldn’t hide his disappointment!

So here ends a fantastic winter for me, shared with three 3 lovely, fun people. Next month sees the James Clarke Ross arriving with new faces and fresh supplies so I’m sure there will be plenty to tell…

Congratulations Pete and Tina, Pippa and Tristram – hope you all had fantastic days – and nice one Alipali – looking forward to the reception already!

Muchos love to all back home