Signy Diary February 2004

28 February, 2004

Leaving the Nest Feb : 2004

February had almost gone before we realised that it had arrived. It has been immensely busy with a steady flow of scientific and base work which has barely left us time for anything else. We’ve even got to the stage where we are beginning to think about packing up and heading home.

The first signs of the tour drawing to a close have come with a steady cooling in the weather. We are certainly getting more cold days than mild and have benefited from a few heavy falls of snow, each of which has left its signature of a few patches around the island. Signy is now bare of adelies: the first of the penguins to fledge, the nests and crèches are now reduced to nothing more than sprawling purple stains on the rocks. Walking in the silence that has immersed these scenes of erstwhile cacophony makes us feel as if we’ve gone deaf. Before their departure Mike had one last task to fulfil – the catching and weighing of 300 or so chicks to analyse how successful a breeding season the birds have had. The chicks are touchingly naïve about the whole process – netting them is a straightforward affair as most of them don’t realise that they are supposed to run away. In fact one or two elected to follow the penguin catchers around afterwards, presumably hopeful of some regurgitated krill. This is more understandable than you might think: wallowing around in the guano swamps means that anyone or anything soon starts to smell like a penguin.

It’s hard not to start feeling faintly responsible for the penguin chicks. We’ve all been able to watch some of them learn to swim. In my innocence, it struck me as odd that the young birds wouldn’t take to the water like . . . well like ducks, but their first experiments are more like the ones that I remember from my youth. They seem to waddle down in small gangs from the crèches and then inspect various perfectly adequate beaches and rocks without summoning up enough courage to take the metaphorical and physical plunge. You can almost hear the “I’ll go in if you go in first” dialogue. Eventually, and often by accident, one of them tumbles into the water and begins to thrash around gripped with panic as it feels the cold water for the first time. Head held desperately high and limbs working like whisks, the chick speeds randomly around the shallows until it hits rock again. This is often the cue for a rapid sprint back to the nesting areas and the safety of a parental bosom. However, many of the parents had already gone, leaving their offspring to their own devices. In time, the chicks hop back down to the shore and they quickly begin to feel comfortable in the water. The next shock is putting their heads under the surface but from there the metamorphosis into effortless aquatic gymnasts is virtually immediate. Often they will head straight out to sea and our contact with them is broken until next year. These first swims are a hazardous business, though. The leopard seals patrol the ice looking for easy meals and the skuas and giant petrels bob about off shore with an unconvincing aura of innocence. This is about the only time that the giant petrels prey on live penguins. They will try to grab any new chicks and hold them under until they drown. The tactic will be successful if the victim hasn’t yet realised that it can hold its breath and swim so freely underwater. Often the chick will learn from this harshest of instructors that it can dive with ease, which means a lucky escape for the penguin and a frustrating loss for the petrel. These small battles are fought almost constantly in the bays and offer desperate, compulsive viewing for those of us working there.

The only penguins now left on Signy in number are the chinstraps. They and a number of gentoos are sitting in many of the coastal nooks and crannies silent, morose and moulting. The birds present a miserable picture as they hunch in a cloud of whirling feathers. During the moult they are no longer waterproof and so have three or four weeks of no swimming, no fun and no food. The chinstrap chicks are on the threshold of heading out to sea themselves. In general it has been a better season for the chinstraps than the adelies and so the chicks are looking much plumper, much healthier and much readier for the challenges of the Southern Ocean.

Signy’s fur seals came into sharp focus at the end of February. Each season the station is asked to carry out a complete census of all the seals on the island over two consecutive days. This means calling everyone to arms and gives us a great opportunity to wander around little-visited corners of the coast. It also means running the gauntlet of the notoriously bad tempered fur seals. Many of the fur seals on Signy are males who have been unsuccessful in the fight for mates on places like Bird Island. You can understand them being grumpy about that, but most of them seem to want to vent their spleen on us. They regard Signy as a pleasant resting place with the added bonus of a small complement of monkeys upon which to practise combat skills.

There is a fair number of elephant seals around again and to be honest it’s nice to see them back. They, in marked contrast to the furries, have got to the stage where they actually quite like sleeping on the boardwalks criss-crossing the base and have given up making even vague shows of aggression when we walk past. One regular visitor doesn’t even go to the trouble of waking up any more, safe in the knowledge that we’re not worth the effort. This is in some respects something of a compliment, but it’s hard to view it that way when the elephant seals eventually move: their look of benign contentment largely stems from the fact that they’ve been using the base as a toilet.

The airborne birdlife has been pretty active, too. The cape, snowy and storm petrels have all reared chicks and sent them off into the world to fend for themselves, although the skuas have done what they can to reduce the size of the field. The Friendlies – a skua pair who have dominated the territory around the station for over twenty years – have reared two healthy chicks. The giant petrels have also had a good season and Mike and Jude laboured to obtain a few feathers from several different chicks to assist with a genetic sampling programme. This is dirty work – the petrel chicks have a novel means of self defence involving several different forms of vomit. The full range from small gobbets to blanket sprays is on tap, and none of them smells very nice. Top prize for avian efficiency goes to a blue eyed shag spotted off Gourlay Peninsula which caught what I am assured was a yellow bellied rock cod. Not a big fish, it was nonetheless at least three times the size of the shag’s head. Undaunted, the shag still managed to swallow the fish whole (albeit after several attempts) before lumbering to a nearby rock to begin several days of hard digestion.

Around the base David has been laying an impressive new boardwalk to the jetty, Richard has been engaged in the constant round of mechanical and electrical maintenance and I have been digging lots of holes of various depths and girths, some of which have even been in the right place. Jude has been working on numerous projects ranging from installing snow sensors to sampling water. Incredibly, we have also begun to dismantle some of the myriad experiments dotting the island. There will be a lot of packing up to do at the end of our stay here and in some respects it is good to be able to make a start on it now, but it is still an odd feeling to realise that some of the work we are doing has run its course. In little more than six weeks we will be on our way home.

A timely reminder that there is life outside the station came to us in the last week of the month. A sailing ship arrived unannounced with a crew of ten (including two kids under nine who must be having one of the best childhoods you can get). They comprised a film crew and some scientists from Germany and South America making a documentary about glaciers. Signy was the last of their principal destinations before they headed home and so there was something of a party atmosphere whilst they were anchored in the bay. The boat stayed for just over two days and we once again enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with some new people. In all probability our next visitors will be aboard the RSS James Clark Rosswhen it arrives to take us to the Falklands. No doubt the few weeks left to us will evaporate as fast as the last four months.