Bird Island Diary – September 2014

9 September, 2014 Bird Island

September started with a celebration – Jerry’s birthday on the 1st! It is hard to keep secrets and plan surprises on a small base where everyone knows what everyone else is doing pretty much all of the time. We each have our routines and it can be quite easy to tell when something different is happening but that just makes planning birthday surprises even more fun. This is Jerry’s second season on Bird Island so the ‘standard’ present of a framed photograph or picture was not going to be original enough so we had to think outside the box. This winter many a Saturday night has been filled playing monopoly so we decided to make Jerry his very own Bird Island version of the game. Rob, Cian and I spent several weeks working on it while Jerry was otherwise occupied and in the end it was complete with Bird Island money, island themed chance and community chest cards, and a board where all the properties, stations and utilities were locations on the island, visiting ships, and base infrastructure. Thankfully Jerry didn’t suspect a thing and was pleased with his gift.

We even managed to surprise the birthday boy with some birthday decorations and a big pile of birthday cards in the morning. In the evening, after carrying out a final wanderer chick census across the whole island, we went on a moonlit walk and some stars even made a rare appearance through the clouds before we returned to base for big bowls of birthday apple crumble and blue custard!

September marks the official start of spring for the bird ZFA’s, myself and Jerry. On the 1st of September I started checking a study colony of Grey-headed albatross daily for the first returning birds. Each day I approached the colony with mounting anticipation hoping to see the first adult grey-heads since early June when they stopped returning to the island to feed their fully-grown chicks. After a week of disappointment I finally arrived at the colony in the second week and was greeted by a keen grey-head back a day or two ahead of its counterparts. It is brilliant to see the birds again with fresh eyes. After working with them daily last summer their absence has made me appreciate their stunning plumage and distinctive brightly coloured beaks anew. A couple of weeks later I saw the first black-browed albatrosses return to the skies above the island too.

Meanwhile Jerry has also been busy surveying part of the island for nesting Northern giant petrels. “Any eggs yet?” became the standard greeting when Jerry returned from his rounds until the first egg was laid mid-month. He is now very busy recording new nests daily and identifying the parent birds by their numbered coloured rings. Being the photo-wizz he is, Jerry also set up a number of camera traps at giant petrel nests he suspected to be susceptible to predation by brown skuas, who also returned to the island this month. Amazingly he captured video footage of skuas working in pairs to distract, the considerably larger, incubating petrels, pull them off their nests by the tips of their wings and steel their egg from right under them, literally.

Throughout the month, we have had increasing numbers of large male elephant seals hauling out on the beaches around the base. Elephant seal adults are not nearly as common a sight here as they are at King Edward Point so their appearance creates some excitement. We have even seen a couple of males exchange blows as they come face to face in the shallows of the bay, an impressive sight and a first for all of us. We are now desperately hoping that at least one or two females haul out to pup in the coming weeks.

Rob has had a busy month with services and utility repairs around base, always a challenge when it is cold outside and there are limited replacement parts on the island. Thankfully you can always rely on the base tech to keep things running smoothly. It was all hands on deck for a good ‘spring clean’ this month too, spurred on in part by the planned arrival of some geological scientists from the American ship the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer. With everywhere looking shiny and ship-shape, and a plethora of baked goods prepared for our guests who were to be the first new faces we would see in 204 days, we were a little disappointed when poor weather scuppered the plans to bring people ashore. Thankfully, we could ease any feelings of disappointment by eating all the cakes I had made!

Jess Walkup

Bird Island Albatross Zoological Field Assistant