Signy Island Diary — January/February 2005

15 February, 2005

New Year / Jan

Christmas was celebrated in style with nine course feast. Everyone had a hand in preparing a dish. Before dinner, party poppers were popped and added to the fanfare and to the decorations. In the morning a few flakes of snow fell, but the fantasy of a white Christmas eluded us. Snow petrels, nesting in the rocks above base and akin to the white dove of peace, were a fitting sight over the festive period. We planned to have a barbeque for New Year and were fortunate to have a dingle day (sunny, windless day) on old years day for the event. Season greetings were sent out to and received from various Antarctic and sub-Antarctic bases.

Since the summer solstice, we have observed the rapid shortening of day light hours and the lengthening of the nights. Snow falling has turned to rain, snow and ice on the ground has all but melted down to slush and water flowing into streams and lakes. Steep pressure gradients have intensified wind speeds to between force 6 and force 8 (26 – 41 knots) around Signy island has now become the norm.

Penguin work:

During January the CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) programme continued unabated with Mike Dunn and Helen Taylor extending their work to North Point to monitor chick and fledgling counts of the adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies. The satellite-tagging programme got underway with Dirk Briggs heading the research at North Point. Sixty geolocator devices were deployed on adélie penguins at Gourlay. The penguins tagged with satellite tags, initially to determine foraging distances and routes, made an early departure from North Point and have last been located at approximately 72 degrees South.

During February the CCAMLR penguin monitoring programme has continued successfully, in the form of regular adélie and chinstrap diet sampling, adélie, gentoo and blue eyed shag fledgling counts, adélie fledgling weighing and chinstrap chick counts. The adélie and chinstrap breeding chronology studies have continued at Gourlay, whilst litter surveys were carried out on all three monitoring beaches around the island. The planned brown skua chick blood-sampling programme was also accomplished with complete success.

Our visiting scientists thoroughly enjoyed their stay at Signy. The Italian collaborators, Mauro Gugliemin and Davide Boschi are glaciologists and were involved in permafrost studies. Cores were drilled near Spindrift Col and on the hill above base, where a weather station has been erected for continuous monitoring of various core parameters throughout the winter period. Marelijn Jansenns and Stef Bokhorst are the Dutch collaborators studying mosses along the slopes above base.

Stef is studying the effects of environmental change on C and N fluxes in Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems. To test the possible effects of environmental change (i.e. higher temperatures), Open Top Chambers (OTC’s) have been placed along a latitudinal gradient from the Falklands (52° S) at Signy Island (61° S) and at Rothera station (68° S) (along the Antarctic Peninsula). The OTC’s raise the air and soil temperature during the summer by 2-3°C.

Within the OTC’s, Stef is looking at the changes in vegetation, soil arthropod community (mites and springtails), soil respiration and decomposition. Stable isotope analysis (13C and 15N ) of the different components should show links in the food web. By comparing the possible changes in ecosystem functioning along the latitudinal gradient, it may be possible to predict the effects of environmental change in the future.

The Ernest Shackleton arrived on the 5th January, a week earlier than planned to collect the five visiting scientists. We were more fortunate with the weather during this call by the Shack. We bid everyone farewell after and enjoyable meal aboard the Shackleton. We were down to four base personnel for the remainder of the summer season.

The elephant seals had invaded the base board walks. At one time we had twenty two ellies on base. We accommodated them as much as possible as they are not aggressive and spend their days sleeping whilst moulting. They provided us with endless entertainment with their playful antics in the water. At night they would be noisy, grunting, snoring beside the base and wallowing in the water. Elephant flats is always interesting to visit with numerous elephant seals sprawled all over, lying close up against one another in pods of approximately twenty seals.

February has seen an invasion of the fur seals all over Signy. Around base, we have counted up to five hundred and forty furries in a single day. Although very playful and near harmless whilst in water, on land they are more menacing and one has to watch them closely and be sure to carry protection against mock charges at you.

Two visiting macaroni penguins were spotted at Gourlay and an injured king penguin was spotted by Helen and brought back to base for treatment, recouperation and later released. Having run out of fish to feed the king, we appealed to the MS Bremen for a small supply of frozen fish and they gladly assisted during their visit to Signy on the 28th January. The visit was a welcome change for us and a chance to speak with new people. Five groups of approximately thirty visitors came ashore during the course of the morning for an introductory lecture and a wander through the base and a chance to purchase Signy memorabilia. After an exhilarating yet exhausting morning, we were rewarded with fresh salad ingredients which at this time was a very welcome and lasted for a week.

Most of the gentoo and adélie chicks have fledged and taken to the water to start migrating to happy hunting grounds. The chinstrap penguin chicks are fledging at the moment and will be on their adventures by the first week in March. The skua chicks are getting large and will soon be fledging. The base friendly’s (very tame skuas) have had a busy season warding off would be invaders on their territory. The “friendly’s ” have a pair of healthy chicks, growing by the day and will soon be fledging and booted from the nest to make their own way in life. The snow petrels and Cape petrels nesting in the cliffs behind base, will soon be coming to the end of their breeding cycle as the base members will soon be migrating north as the summer season on Signy island draws to a close in march.

Steve Worth

Signy Base Commander