Bird Island Diary — September 2007

30 September, 2007

Well the 1st of September marks the beginning of spring in the Southern Hemisphere and we have definitely seen the change of the season here at Bird Island in more ways than one over the last month. The first few weeks of the month had us experience a good bout of those amazing clear crisp wintry days, with calm and still beautiful blue skies and seas with icebergs dotted all over the horizon. An ace covering of dazzling white crispy snow, and the odd wandering albatross chick sits looking very big, if a bit scruffy, as it loses its down and adult plumage starts to show through. All in all it is still relatively peaceful and quiet before the animal invasion begins in earnest!

These sort of days never fail to make me awe struck at what a special place Bird Island is, something that anyone who has wintered here in the past I am sure will be able to relate to, and for those that are lucky enough to have it ahead of them I can’t wax lyrically enough about these type of days! Us four appreciated them all the more after a previous month when these sort of days were such a rarity, with most days during August having the rock and all its inhabitants getting buffered by very unpleasant wind and rain! This sort of weather provided some most excellent conditions for ripping it up gnarly style at our respective winter sports, me on my board, Robbo and Rob on the skis and Fabrice on his self designed and home-made sledge, although the manner he throws himself head first down on it kamikaze style it more like he’s taking up the luge!!

By the middle of the month though there was quite a change, the temperature coming right up and bringing on a big melt of the snow and ice that covered the place and turning it from a pure clean white to more of a dirty brown and dark green as the tussock appears from under its white winter blanket, and the infamous BI mud and bogs start to resurface with a vengeance! This melt and rise in temperature has provided a lot of tit bits to come out for animals to feast on after having it tough over the last few months. The rise in temperature brings out more of the insects which the hardy wee pipits have been gobbling on, buzzing about between the tussock singing away seeming as happy as Larry, as they fatten up in preparation for raising up to 4 clutches of chicks in the upcoming summer period. These wee birds deserve some respect, they tough out the winter months. On days when it can be below minus 10 and a hellish wind chill and snow pelting in your face, I have layers of clothing on and I still feel brass monkeys and I am only outside for as short a period as possible, but you see the wee pipits seeming perfectly fine perched on snow drifts seemingly oblivious to it all, even give you a cheerful friendly hello chirp, not a problem for them! And then to raise not one clutch of chicks, but as many as they do during the short summer period, you’ve got to take your hats off to them, well maybe not when its -10! They are smart little things as well, Fabrice has been trying to catch and ring individuals so we can learn more about their territory size, breeding behaviour, movement and other behaviour, but although he has been on quite a few night missions over last month to try and trap them, he has not been having much success as the agile wee flyers tend to out fox his best thought out plans! We’ve still been having a few terns about and also got more and more shags appearing round the coast which are always ace to see.

The melt has also brought up some nigh on year old bits of rotting seal carcasses that the freshly arrived back skuas have been fighting on, tasty indeed I am sure, maybe just like the Inuit delicacy of whale that they bury and let rot for a few months before digging it up and eating it, so maybe we are not that different than the animals! The skuas have been the first of the birds that leave us for most of the winter to return, we spotted the first one, that wasn’t our good companion Rex, in the first week of the month. At first we thought Rex had made a miraculous recovery from his broken wing and was flying again but we soon realised it wasn’t him but new arrivals! Wasn’t long till there were gangs of over twenty off them grouped outside in front of base, squabbling over whatever morsels they able to find, I had forgotten how noisy they could be!! Have to say we’ve been worried they may be looking at Rex and thinking of a bit of cannibalism, I think Rex may have been worried as well as he has been heard tapping away on the front door with his beak and trying to get in when its ajar to take refuge!! But so far he has been able to hold his own and although he’s been in a few scraps glad to report he is still going strong!

The next returns to the island were the Grey heads in the second week of the month, and in few weeks the colonies that had been empty since May were quickly filling up with much squabbling over nest sites! The majority of these individuals had last been here in the summer of 2005/06, the same time that me and Robbo had arrived, although unlike us they have left the island since then! They are the same as the wanderers and sooties in only being able to raise a chick every second year, which makes it harder for both these species to cope with high levels of fishing mortality that all albatross species have to deal with. It is lovely to see them back again, they must be up there as some of the most spectacular birds in the world I reckon, true we are spoiled and happen to have a lot of the most spectacular birds of the feathered variety in the world resident here!! With the bright yellow streak in their beak contrasting with their greyhead and a lovely fleck of white under their eyes, and cooing away too each other as couples lovingly tapping beaks to re-establish bonds (they tend to be monogamous), it is impossible to walk past their colonies and not resist the temptation to snap away a few shots on the camera. Around 10 days later the first black brows were spotted returning again, although these lot arrive later than the greyheads they are still able to raise their chicks in quicker time and so able to breed every year. Maybe they are a bit more focused and aggressive in the manner they bring up their young compared to the slightly more relaxed approach of the grey heads. I think anyone who has worked with these species will most definitely agree with this interpretation, seem to be a lot more angry individuals the black brows! Although they are slightly more serious looking than the grey heads, still amazing looking birds with a lovely black dash on their pure white faces, it almost looks like been applied with eyeliner and any Goth would be proud of the look!!

These returning birds have been keeping Robbo busy both checking which individuals are back using identification rings, and putting a heap of these out on new individuals as this summer we are starting two new study colonies, one for the black brows and one for the grey heads, this involves ringing nigh on 3000 birds!! Luckily Robbo hasn’t been left to do this all by himself, the “ringing A-team” have been shipped in to help out the strong wintering team, they were dropped off by the Fishery Patrol Vessel Pharos in the last week off the month, this was our first ship call since April and although a bit of an early end to the winter period, it brought with it much welcome fresh faces and food to us winterers!! While we four lads have been dreaming of 4 dancing girls from Buenos Aires getting dropped into us for the last 6 months, it wasn’t to be, the number of people was right, just not the gender we had been hoping for, being another 4 blokes shipped in on the Pharos rib!! So the BI-YMCA numbers have doubled, what other stupid customs can we think of!!

The “A-team” included some familiar faces, some that know the place extremely well, and one who is visiting for his first time but in for quite a long stay! Lets start with the new blood and the BI rookie, Derren Fox is the new bird man and will be taking on the reins for the next two and a half years from Robbo once he finishes his tour of duty come April next year. “The Fox” has taken to the place like a duck to water (a South Georgia Pintail of course), striding over the ground with the ease that is required for the birdman role here at BI. He seems perfectly suited to the assignment, after spending the last 6 years seeing frontline field-op action up in Orkney operating for the RSPB unit there, so he knows his birdies, the ones here are a wee bit bigger than what he used to but not a problem for him, size doesn’t matter does it!! And as they say up that way, he is a grand fine beuy and great bloke to have around the place for a peerie yarn!!

The Hannibal of the team has to be Andy Wood, a man with a wealth of experience of BI action after regular deployments to the island throughout the last 20 years! This is his first visit since the construction of the new base, but he has fitted in like the old pro he is, showing ace adaptable skills in everything from bread making to darts! And he is like a veteran in the field, using a combination of stealth, agility, speed and a rapid-fire ringing finger with the birds, sure by time he leaves there won’t be many birds not sporting a ring!

Next member of the unit is Jaume Forcada, part of my team of BI BAS SEALS, he is on his 6th straight year tour of duty to front line action at BI, it is the sort of battleground that drags men back in!! He has been drafted in a lot earlier than is usual for him, he is normally deployed to give much needed support in the heat of the action of the busy fur seal breeding season, during November and December time. He is the brains of the operation, being a population biologist, so the man that models all the info we collect, and able to make accurate predictions on future changes in the animal populations and show trends over time in response to all sort of things from El Nino climate changes to altering sea ice, krill availability and predator-prey relationships. As well as being able to help out with the ringing assignment being carried out at this time, getting in early has also allowed Jaume get hands on involvement in the operations that he has been directing on leopard seals. All the pictures and data that I have been collecting of individuals spotted here over the last two winters I have been sending to him, strictly classified of course, so it been good for him to be able to see some off these individuals in the flesh after getting to know them so well from pictures!! So he has been prowling the beaches always alert for any lep action, and any word on a lep being spotted and he is up as quick as lighting and legging it to the incident site camera at the ready to fire off many rounds, the team of BI BAS SEALS are always on call and ready for action!! Luckily he has already been able to enjoy a good bit of face to face, eyeball to eyeball action with the amazing beasts that are still hanging around the beaches, before they soon all head south into the ice to breed and spend the summer months there, before hopefully regrouping and returning to BI in the future as we carry on discovering more and more about these little understood but magnificent beasts.

Last member of this newly arrived crack commando team is Chris Hill; he is in charge of comms and the technical aspect of the team, ably assisted by the wintering tech member Rob. First priority for Chris is to fix the radio repeater to allow us complete radio coverage of the island, after it was taken out of action by a covert enemy strike (I am sure it was the gentoos, but no firm proof to allow a retaliation attack!), and he has been instructed to not return to HQ until this task is done. Once this mission is completed he has lots of other technical things to carry out that I don’t really understand, but it all sounds very hi-tech indeed, we are going wireless on BI don’t you know!! He is also going to be fixing up the fancy bit of monitoring equipment over at the Loveshack that is the penguin gateway, so this season the Macaroni penguins coming and going into little Mac will all be monitored so we know who’s there and who’s not at all times, and we will be able to spy on what they are up to the whole time even when no man-power presence is stationed there, thanks to cameras he’s setting up to film what these sneaky little penguins are up to when we not there to watch them as they pass through the gateway into the colony. Chris’s last tour of duty to BI was when me and Robbo where drafted in back in 2005 on RRS JCR, when he put in his shiny dome that’s been giving us such ace comms and support to Cambridge and the outside world and loved ones away from the frontline since then. He has been very kind and hardly seems to take any notice of the nervous twitches and manic rambling that me and Robbo have developed since then, he has been with BAS a long time and seen what can happen to even the strongest recruits on long tours of duty, so thinks we are both bearing up remarkably well!!

Geep love and the end result!The start of spring is of course the time of year when hormones are supposed to kick in and traditionally the time of year when the “Birds & Bees do what they do!” While we don’t have many bees at BI, the birds are most definitely making up for it, especially the Giant petrels (Geeps), seems to be on any trip up the hill this month cant help but spot a few of them getting it on!! Geep love is something to behold, not only by us, is always a few other male geeps surrounding the randy pair, maybe this is the bird equivalent to a peep show! It involves the male sitting rather awkwardly on top of the female, head bent over so their beaks touching and as the intensity and passion of the act increases they start shaking their heads more and more vigorously so their beaks are clacking together like hammer and tongs, the end off the act is signalled by him throwing his head back and her legging it out from under him leaving him to fall back in bit of a undignified crumpled heap, as she makes a sharp exit away from the scene of the act and any of the watching males that have been getting ideas themselves! As we all learnt in education classes back at school, if you don’t take precautions a bit of hanky panky can lead to a pizza in the oven so to speak!! And sure enough during his regular and ever increasing in length rounds, checking on nesting eggs in the study area for giant petrels Fabrice has been lucky enough to witness the site of a female squeezing out an egg, we all concurred after looking at his pictures and having him describe the contorted look of discomfort on her face during the act, that we were all pretty glad sometimes to be males, and so not have to endure such things as the amazing experience of child birth, but big respect to all the mamas out there we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to!! Our member of the French Foreign Legion has been enduring long days in the field carrying out his checks, it looks like its going be a bit of bumper year for the Northern Giant Petrels with the amount of nests he has found so far, with him often tramping back to base just in time for dinner!

September has also seen a few other returnees to the island after leave, we have been getting the massive big bull elephant seals haul out on the beaches, such amusing dudes with the way they lift their heads look at you in a puzzled way and maybe scratch their heads Laurel & Hardy style, before letting out a bellowing burping roar and then letting their head slump to the ground again realising we are not worth the effort. Not many females have been spotted about yet but we’ve still got our fingers crossed we might get a few yapping pups to enjoy. I heard the other animal before I spotted it, when on the walkway kitting up before heading out, suddenly the silence was broken by that very distinctive trumpet of a king penguin heralding his arrival that we hadn’t heard for a few months, and sure enough I looked up to see a solitary individual looking very regal waddling up the beach, he then proceeded to head up Wanderer Valley and was last seen attempting to climb Bandersnatch, we have no idea what his mission was or who he was operating for, I think he may have been working for those gentoos and so up to no good I imagine!! Over the rest of the month more and more of these mainly solitary operatives, but sometimes in pairs or threes, have been spotted along the beaches infiltrating with the gentoos, always looking very grand if little bit puzzled about what they doing here!

This month has also seen the sporting calendar kick of earnest again, which being a bit of a sport fanatic I have been very pleased with after trying to get by the last few months on meagre rations of cricket, got question the logic of any sport that can go on for 5 days and still end in a draw I think, and golf, isn’t it just a walk carrying about a bunch of clubs! But September has seen the real sports of football and rugby start up again in earnest!! I have had the women’s football world cup in China, the rugby world cup in France, the club football season get into full swing along with international football European championship qualifiers all taking place over the last month to follow and get a tad excited over!! Not everyone on base has enjoyed all this sport as much as me, a bad sporting week for Fabrice begun with the kicking off of the Rugby world cup with his home nation opening the tournament as hosts by taking on Argentina in Paris and then suffering a very unexpected defeat! Later in the same week the BI auld alliance between Scotland and France was put to one side for the evening, as Scotland took on France at the same stadium but this time in football for the important qualifying game for next’s summer European championships. Truth be told I never expected wee Scotland to have a chance to defeat one of the best teams in the world twice in the same year (see BI October 2006 newsletter) these things are only supposed to happen once in your lifetime if you a Scottish fan, so like most Scots I was tuning into the game in more hope than anything else! But me and Fabrice were both following the game intently on the radio commentary through the internet, true we had to listen to it in separate rooms as he couldn’t understand a word the Scottish commentators where saying, and my understanding of the French commentary stretched to understanding oh la la when the screamer of a goal hit the back of the net! And low and behold lighting strikes twice, and that goal was from James McFadden the Scottish striker to give the mighty Bravehearts an amazing 1-0 victory prompting me and all other Scottish footie fans over the world to go absolutely pure mental man, as they say in Glasgow!! Felt sorry for Fabrice that evening, and the following few weeks, of all the luck to be stuck on a rock in the sub-Antarctic with only 3 other folk one of who happens to be Scottish fan just going nuts couldn’t been the best experience, so sorry Fabrice I just couldn’t control myself!

My ace sporting month continued when wee BI dished out an all mighty thumping to our BAS friends at the Halley base on the Brunt Ice shelf at web darts, it was just too easy am afraid we have to say Halley, yet again BI proves it motto “always out numbered, never outgunned!! But cheers for a wicked evening, was nice for us all to see some familiar faces and get the crack with some fellow winterers, we ended up serenading each other with some dodgy musical acts over the web camera and phones, but I got to admit Halley definitely won there as our efforts where ropey to say the least!

Well that about summarises another month of eventful action from the Bird Island front line, morale is good, new recruits settled in well, and we all looking forward and well prepared for the jacking up of action over the upcoming months, and looking forward to the reinforcements and re-supplies arriving soon! Just left for me to pass on my biggest congratulations to Stephen (aka Milldogg) and Adele on your recent engagement, I am over the moon for you both and can’t wait for the big day next summer back in the bonnie homeland. Only question is how many good men will we lose on operation Stag, I am envisaging a high number of casualties on such a fraught dangerous mission!! Big love to all my friends and family, I am on the home straight now and getting so excited about seeing you all next summer, take care everyone.

This is Donaldo signing out from greatest wee place in world, over and out troops!!

Gentoo all around, Gentoo all around, repeat Gentoo all around, Gentoo all around!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!