Diary of a Rothera Boatman

May Diary: Bird life at Rothera as winter deepens

May 1997


Down here we're getting deeper and deeper into winter. May seems to bringing us fairly constant bad weather. Yesterday had to be the worst - the winds weren't the strongest that they've been, but still fairly bad, but it warmed up enough for the snowfall to turn into sleet and then rain. It's almost embarrassing having to admit to rain from the Antarctic winter. The sun's leaving us as well. At present - early May - it's shortly after 1000 before we see the sun and by 1700 it's well and truly gone.(By the way we keep a time zone that's four behind British Summer Time.). As Rothera is south of the Antarctic circle, we will lose the sun completely for a while. The days won't be completely dark as the night will give way to a twilight period through the middle of the day. As Rothera is ringed to the north by ridges and mountains the darkness lasts for a little longer than it would if we could get a straight look at the sun.

With all this poor weather we are pushing ahead with any tasks that can be completed inside. The resourcefulness of people here for keeping the rest entertained seems to know no bounds. Each Friday evening there's usually something going on. This ranges from a fairly straight quiz, slide shows, a darts match over the radio with the other British wintering base - Halley, to well the really ridiculous. Perhaps the less said the better. The hangar is well used as a badminton court, the gym is popular too and the dark rooms are always busy. Everyone is busy working away in private to produce a present. During our midwinter celebrations everyone receives a present that has been made by another base member. We try to keep what we're making a secret but it's obvious that there's a lot of effort being put in all around the base. I will tell you more about midwinter in the future.

This time I'd like to talk a bit about the birdlife around Rothera. Before we even start, I have to say that most of the words and certainly all of the wisdom that follows is that of our cook Nigel. As well as responsible for our ever expanding waist lines ("I'm the cooking department not the willpower department" is one of his favourite lines) Nige has put an incredible amount of effort into producing a comprehensive study of the wildlife around Rothera. It has to be a day of appalling conditions if Nige does not set off to walk around the Rother Point and see what's about. What follows is taken from a letter he wrote back to his local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds group at home in Stockport - so many thanks Nigel!

I'll start the account with the South Polar (or McCormicks) Skua. It is a bird with which every visitor here is soon acquainted. Everyone is met at the front door by "George" who, if more than his cheeky, distinctive habits were required is easily identified by a missing web on his right foot. Further to the north of us at Palmer Station on Anvers Island, American scientists have done much work to discover that fish is the main diet of South Polar Skuas. A similar survey here would almost certainly conclude that George's main diet is sausages and bacon! Feeding the wildlife is not something that is encouraged at all. In fact we normally go to great lengths to ensure that our food waste, or indeed any waste, does not enter the environment. It is, however, known that this particular bird has exploited this food supply for at least ten years and it would appear to be very important to him and his mate over the summer months judging by the time he spends sitting on the doorstep and driving rivals from it. For the last two years Nigel has been doing a breeding survey of the skuas and gulls on Rothera Point, and sadly it appears that fish after all may be a better diet to stimulate breeding. George and his mate "Mildred" have held a territory but have yet to hatch an egg. Maybe it's the diet, or maybe they realise that sitting outside our front door eating sausages makes for an easier life than looking after a demanding youngster.

George and Mildred are relatively tame and quite relaxed around humans. Most adult skuas, however, are nothing like that. Those with territories will dive bomb (and sometimes hit!) anyone that they consider is too close. It can be quite off putting with these birds, very roughly similar in size to a small gull, swooping out of the sky at you. This and other habits, such as eating younger brothers and sisters when food is scarce, cause people to find them objectionable, but the skua is worthy of admiration. It's the one bird that has adapted well to the human invasion of Antarctica and is determined to exploit it. It's also the only bird to have reached the actual South Pole. In the Antarctic winter they head north and have been recorded as far away as Greenland, although much remains unknown about their migrations.

With thirteen pairs (or thereabouts) of skuas, the commonest breeding species at Rothera is not a bird but the Weddell Seal. Last year around 30 pups were born on the sea ice close to Rothera along with a couple of Crabeater Seals. The latter species is supposedly the commonest large mammal on Earth after humans. It would be interesting to know how an animal that spends virtually all it's life on and around the Antarctic pack ice is accurately counted. Pups, particularly Weddells are definitely classed as cute. Small, downy balls of a fawny colour, with large, round black eyes. On a sunny day with a couple of shapely icebergs for a backdrop frame after frame of photographic film can be burnt off.

Asked to think of real Antarctic birds many people would think of penguins. At Signy Station well to the north of us in the South Orkney Islands more than 120,000 pairs of one sort or another breed. Here at Rothera, more than 20 visitors at a time would be a large number. We do have Adelie Penguins with us throughout the year or at least until the sea ice becomes very thick. These are the real comics of the Antarctic. They always seem to be charging around with great urgency but no real purpose. With a bit of luck during winter we may see an Emperor Penguin. At approaching 4 feet it's the tallest living penguin. That's just over half the size of its largest extinct ancestor, but they are still a very impressive sight. The other occasional penguin visitor is the Chinstrap. We don't get them in the same numbers as the 80,000 breeding pairs at Signy Station but the first two months of 1997 shattered all previous records with a total of eight.

Kelp Gulls and Wilson's Storm Petrels breed along with the skuas on Rothera Point. Snow Petrels, Antarctic Turns and Blue Eyed Shags breed not too far away. Antarctic Petrels and Southern Fulmars breed further to the south but pass by in reasonable numbers in spring and autumn. Southern Giant Petrels drift by in ones and twos throughout the year. Cape Pigeons and Sheathbills are rare but at least annual visitors from further north, the former sometimes following visiting ships. If we're really lucky, we might be able to add to the tally of three Black - browed Albatross that have been seen here.

It may not seem like an extensive list of birdlife but the beauty of the wildlife down here is it is so approachable and so obvious. Even those of us who previously had nothing more than a passing interest in wildlife keep a close eye on things. Nigel's enthusiasm rubs off on the whole of the base and he can often be heard answering questions on why or what a certain bird is. It's tempting for me to try and add a layman's description of the birds but I won't get too carried away. Bird books document well the Antarctic birds: from the little Wilson's Storm Petrels that seem to dance across the waves on a choppy day, through the long necked Blue Eyed Shags that fly around low and fast with their very distinctive eyes to the pure white, inquisitive Snow Petrels and large brown Giant Petrels.

Hope you've enjoyed this letter.

Take care, best wishes,


Stuart Wallace, Rothera Station, Rothera Point, Adelaide Island, Antarctica.