Bird Island Diary — September 2008

30 September, 2008

Like the previous months, September started with the all island wandering chick census; the last one of the winter but also the last one for this year; the chicks are big now and can be ringed. Ringing all the 677 chicks kept Derren busy for a few days. The chicks have started losing the white-grey down for new black feathers more useful to fly off the island in less than 3 months now for most of them. They’re getting some exercise to transform the rich oily food they had from the adults into muscles. It consists mainly of flapping their wings on windy days and exploring the few square metres around their nest.

Other Bird Island inhabitants are just coming back for a new breeding season. First to arrive, grey-headed albatrosses are slowly re-occupying their colonies and even sitting on the same nest as the previous years. Males, that arrives a few days earlier than females, will have time to renovate or rebuild the nest to welcome her. It could cause neighbourhood disputes. Again Derren had been busy monitoring bird arrival in colony E and ringing birds, with the help of a few of us, in colony B where 450 pairs are breeding this year.

Soon after the first few black-browed albatrosses were spotted in one of the biggest colonies where both species can be found breeding close to each other…

Skuas have also returned to the island at the beginning of the month and are now grouping together on the meadows or on the beaches… Probably relating to Rex (BI resident skua with its broken wing) the adventures they had during their epic journey to the Southern Ocean.

Northern giant petrels of which most of them stay around the island for the winter are the first to lay their eggs. Since the first nest was found on the 13th, I’ve spent most of my days on the meadows monitoring and mapping all the nests found in the demographic study area. Spending hours in the field gives you great opportunities to see such amazing things as birds laying eggs… After 7 to 10 minutes of intensive effort the egg pops out of the female and falls into the nest under the watchful eyes of the male. One of them will start incubating the white egg while the second one will be at sea foraging or on one of South Georgia beaches looking for carrion. They will take turns like that for the next 2 months until the chick hatches.

Following last month’s appearance of oiled penguins we all kept our eyes open… Another handful of gentoo and king penguins were seen along the south coast of the island. One morning, one of them came on the beach just at the front window of the dining room as if this king penguin would like to show us what happened. It was desperately trying to clean again and again that thick coat covering part of its feathers.

Ewan, our seal boy, is still doing his healthy walk along the beaches to monitor leopard seals using photo identification… lots of sightings this month again despite the low number of individuals. One of them has taken up residence in Johnson Cove where hundreds of gentoo penguins come ashore every evening. At some points that seal was seen everyday playing in the surf or waiting to catch a passing penguin which has been its main diet.

Ewan has also counted elephant seals that come to the island every year in low numbers, hoping for a better breeding season than last year. But so far only males have stayed on the beaches when the few females seem to come and go.

Earlier this month Felice, as Base Commander, had organized different training and exercises. On a Saturday morning we simulated an oil spill; during the weekly generator tank refuelling one of the 200 litre drums fell over and we had to contain the fuel with booms and collect the contaminated snow. On the same afternoon we took out of the field store and dusted off all the different kinds of stretcher and sledge that can be used to carry back to base injured people… I was the casualty and was tied into one of them before Felice, Derren and Ewan carried and dragged me back to base across the legendary BI tussock grass.

After what we all celebrated the last weekend of the winter as 4 around a good meal before we jumped into the hot tub where we spent one hour talking about winter like old veterans… it reminds me a little what we did on the first weekend of the winter early May.

In September we can still have heavy snowfalls on the island but not this year, it’s begun to melt in the early month and the icy snow on Freshwater beach had totally disappeared by the end of the month leaving the last signs of the winter on the meadows and LaRoche peak slopes where Ewan and Felice had their last few runs of the winter.

With the snow melting Bird Island also lost its winter tranquility before mid-September. The first visitors of the early summer, made up of 4 crew members plus 4 people from BBC Natural History Unit, arrived on the tenth on board the Golden Fleece. All four of us were very excited to see and meet new people after four and half months of isolation… but also to get fresh fruit, vegetables and post from friends and families.

That evening we all squeezed up around the table to enjoy a convivial meal with our guest telling stories of their summer and us of our winter. With only 6 on board, the Golden Fleece left the day after for KEP and St Andrews Bay leaving Matt and Mark with us to film wandering albatross chicks, leopard seals and the return of mollymawks, fur seals and other species. This is part of a new series about the Poles called Frozen Planet that should be released some time in 2011.

Before the end of the month the Pharos did a short stop at BI to drop off Jaume and Glenn. Jaume, well known from the readers after seven times on the island, is here to work with Ewan on leopard and fur seals. For Glenn it’s his first time on BI; he’s staying with us all the summer to study the physiology of several species of birds.

Also this month we celebrated Felice’s Birthday, the real one this time, with a big chocolate cake and had a barbecue at the end of the month around a nice, warm fire…

I think after all that, the snow melting, the first visitors, the return of albatrosses, the first eggs; we can say that the winter is over 😉 … and for my third and last summer here I will try to make the most of this fantastic island and all its wildlife…

I’ve still got a few things to see and a few place to go !!