Bird Island Diary — September 2013

30 September, 2013

The month of September has seen big changes to the amount of wildlife on the island especially the avian species. It is now most definitely spring. From the 1st September I was visiting the colonies on a daily basis eagerly awaiting the return of the first birds. After spending a few months seeing hardly any birds I couldn’t wait to see the mollies back (collective term for the smaller albatrosses). The first bird was a female seen back on the 13th September in colony E. She was first observed on the island in 1989 as an adult making her over 30 years old. Since then she has raised three successful chicks out of 17 breeding attempts. Hopefully the 2014 season will see her fourth success.

The Grey-headed albatross have now returned in force and the colonies are noisy once again. They have been making renovations to the nests and are getting reacquainted with the partners that they haven’t seen for almost two years since they last bred. I have been visiting the main study colonies every day and recording which individuals are back. This is fairly easy to do, but very time consuming, as most of the birds have plastic darvic rings that can easily be read at a distance. The Black-browed albatross have also started returning, but in smaller numbers. The colonies still look quite empty, but it won’t be long before that all changes!

I am still busy ringing the Wandering albatross chicks, which are getting ever bigger, and starting to look more “adult” as they are losing their fluffy white down to reveal new dark sleek feathers underneath. I’ve ringed over 400 now, so there are only around 80 to go which I will try to finish when we get some decent weather. The chicks can be seen flapping their wings on windy days, strengthening the muscles they will need to get off the island in a couple of months time. They have also begun leaving the nest mound and exploring their immediate surroundings. I don’t blame them as they must be getting bored sitting in the same place since they hatched in March!

Jerry has started getting very busy with the Giant Petrels with the first egg arriving on the 13th September, which was quickly followed by a further 159 during the rest of the month. Every day Jerry covers every square inch of the meadows checking each Giant Petrel for an egg and recording the ring numbers of the adults. So far it is only the Northern Giant Petrels that are laying eggs, but the Southern Giant Petrels should follow in around a month.

The number of Gentoo penguins has been steadily building all month but they don’t seem to be doing much nest building yet. Most evening’s decent sized groups can be seen jumping through the water towards the beach, before emerging all at once and waddling up to the nesting site for an overnight rest. Last year the first egg was laid on September 22nd but this year it is unlikely to be until mid October.

Hannah is still doing the daily Leopard seal round and also monitoring numbers of elephant seals seen on the beaches. The number of Leopard seal sightings this month has decreased, with only Max still being seen on a regular basis. Smaller individuals have begun turning up on the island, whilst the larger adults have started heading south for the breeding season. We did have one unusual visitor to Bird Island, a Weddell seal! Normally they aren’t found this far north, so it was exciting for us to see one. It spent the afternoon hauled out on the beach having a sleep whilst we took lots of photos.

Recently we have started hearing strange noises at night, roaring belching sounds, which can only mean one thing. The male Elephant seals have arrived! These huge creatures have started turning up on our beaches and lolling around in hope that some female elephant seals will join them on the beach. None of them seem to be having much luck yet, but it is nice to see these immense seals up close. We all have our fingers crossed that a few females will turn up and maybe have a pup. One was born last year on Landing Beach, just near the base, so we live in hope.

In tech news Craig has been busy getting the base ready for the new season, by painting all of the outside doors, and repairing the jetty that had been wrecked by one of our winter storms. It isn’t long now until he will be leaving the island, so he is trying to make the most of his time left to see and photograph all of the islands wildlife.

September was the birthday month of 50% of the Bird Island population, Jerry and Hannah, so we had a fair bit of fun this month as well as work. For Jerry’s birthday we all headed over to the Love Shack for a surprise evening out for Jerry. Craig and I went over early to put up decorations and get some food ready. We spent a couple of hours over there before heading back before it got dark and leaving Jerry and Hannah to spend a chilly night there. For both birthdays we had a hot tub session, followed by giant pizza (made on the lid of a 45 gallon drum) for Jerry, and pancakes for Hannah using up the last of the fresh eggs. Jerry received a photo frame made by Craig with my penguin picture in it, a homemade photo album from Hannah, and a hand knitted penguin from me (I was particularly proud of this as it is the first knitted item I have ever finished). Hannah did just as well with another frame a la Craig, this time with one of Jerry’s seal pup photos, a hand knitted dinosaur from me, and a painting of Storm petrels from Jerry.

Stephanie Winnard

Albatross field assistant.