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Bird Island Diary — November 2006

November Newsletter - by Iain Staniland

Gratuitous picture of very cute white pup, I mean who could dislike fur seals?
Gratuitous picture of very cute white pup, I mean who could dislike fur seals?

"Ah Remember remember the month of November
Albatross penguins and pups"
Anon.

Well something like that anyway. This month I get the chance to write the Bird Island Diary, courtesy of being in the Base commander's eye line at the wrong moment. I apologise for missing out most of the interesting things that happened during November. I would have taken copious notes full of witty and insightful thoughts everyday but I didn't. I will use the excuse that I was volunteered at the end of the month when Ali asked "who is writing the November Diary page?" So excuses over, get yourself a nice cup of Horlicks, put your feet up and, if we are all sitting comfortably, I will begin.

It all started on the 1st as we are nothing if not traditional here at BI. I rolled out of bed pulled back the curtains to reveal a beautiful sunny day. The birds were singing and the surf gently lapping at the golden sands of Freshwater Beach. And if you believe that you probably believe all the rubbish that they write in the JCR web diary.

Actually the 1st November has a major significance for the seal folk at BI (of which I am one) it heralds the start of SSB. The "Special Study Beach" is where we have a raised scaffold gantry allowing us to move about above maelstrom of fur, teeth and testosterone below. From such lofty safety we spend November to December recording the breeding behaviour of the seals, something we have been doing for over 20 years. So every morning we brave the harsh commute (almost 5 minutes of constant walking) past the nesting gentoo penguins, around the seals lounging lazily in the tussock until we descend the well-worn slope to SSB. There we identify, weigh, measure, mark and record the comings and going of over 1000 seals of various ages. From this data we have, amongst many things, shown links between South Georgia and the Pacific Ocean through El Nino events, and seen the recovery of this once endangered species. Such long-term studies are rare in biological work and along with the albatross studies, also here at Bird Island, we have some highly prized and incredibly valuable datasets.

Donald and Ali working above the seals at SSB
Donald and Ali working above the seals at SSB

That was not all that was going down in seal world. Team America was busy preparing their cameras for deployment on the big male fur seals. Sadly a few teething problems occurred including one male returning with an aquarium (minus the fish) on his back (still maybe we have found a new way to get water samples from the deep ocean). Poor Bill was locked away in the lab surrounded by a multitude of wires and flashing lights. Though he kept his Californian high spirits throughout and always had a smile and a joke despite the setbacks and gremlins (or was it gentoos?) messing with his equipment. However, we have managed to get a seal's eye view of the bay outside base so things are looking up and hopefully one of the current animals will reveal some of their eating habits to us when we get the new improved cameras back next month.

Two males fight for the right to hold territory
Two males fight for the right to hold territory

We are also tracking a number of male fur seals in an attempt to get their year round movement patterns. After the hubbub of breeding the males will leave Bird Island and it is this period we are most interested in. Male and female fur seals spend very little time together and, because of their vastly different sizes (males reach over four times the weight of females), they have very different diving abilities. Of course the males also take no part in the rearing of the pup and so once the "fun" on the beach is done and dusted they leave for high seas (insert your own snide comment about typical men here). Although we have tracked females at sea for the last ten years building up a picture of how and where they forage we know virtually nothing about the movements of the males. Grappling with these 200kg muscular, toothed, fighting machines is not for the faint hearted so it is only with recent advances in handling techniques and technology that we have we been able to do this work.

A male fur seal wearing a satellite tag
A male fur seal wearing a satellite tag

Foraging trip of a satellite tagged male fur seal
Foraging trip of a satellite tagged male fur seal

Well enough about the seals what is the rest of the wildlife up to I hear you cry. Ok I suppose we had better tell you about the penguins. Though I do have to state for the record, one of the best pieces of wisdom I have heard is "Seals smell but penguins Stink!" that is one thing Disney doesn't put in its films!

Big Mac continued to fill up and soon the female macaronis came ashore to join the males. First they had to run a gauntlet of leopard seals and tumbling surf but these are tough little critters and nothing will stop them. Not even the prospect of a 200m uphill walk through thousands of aggressive pecking neighbours. Not an easy task when you legs are only 5cm long. I pity the poor birds whose nests are so far from the sea, but then again you have question why don't they move! As for the other penguins, the first gentoo chicks are only days away and we have the usual scruffy mob of moulting king penguins clustered at the back of various beaches busily making new feathers and shedding old ones.

Gentoo penguin with chicks
Gentoo penguin with chicks

As befits spring, the flying birds are also busy though many are further down the line than the penguins. Indeed the first batch of pipit chicks is already taking to the air, well attempting to take to the air despite not fully grasping the rudiments of flight yet. There are some slightly larger fledglings on the island as well. Ok maybe "slightly larger" is the wrong phrase when you consider a wandering albatross fledgling can be over 350 times the weight of a pipit. But they too have to learn to fly and the high hills have witnessed young hopefuls spreading their wings to the winds and trying to control their 6ft of flapping feathers. Many have made it, soaring off into the Southern Ocean to patrol the skies for the next seven years before they will hopefully return to Bird Island to start breeding. Sadly the dangers facing them are all too apparent lying about on the meadows. In an attempt to lighten the load before their maiden flight the fledglings regurgitate the mass of squid beaks and other indigestible remains that accumulate in their stomachs over the long cold winter. Within these pellets Robin has found a large number of longline hooks that their parents have accidentally ingested whilst foraging behind the fishing vessels. And these birds are the lucky ones many do not get the chance to return with the meal as they are pulled underwater and drown. Don't forget to only eat albatross friendly fish and ask your supermarket to stock only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) toothfish (the kind so well regulated by South Georgia Government).

An adult wandering albatross with long-line hook protruding near eye
An adult wandering albatross with long-line hook protruding near eye

A sample of long-line hooks recovered from wandering albatross chicks
A sample of long-line hooks recovered from wandering albatross chicks

Right, I shall get off my soapbox now and relate the rest of the news. The other smaller albatross species are now incubating eggs and the whole base was involved in counting the study colonies dotted around the west end of the island. Robin attempted to get the worst jobs on the scrub-out (cleaning) rota by sending Don and Ali (the BC who makes up the rota) off to count colony K. Unknown to him, well actually unchecked by him, this colony contained over 1200 birds. Poor Don and Ali returned to base very late and only just in time for tea both frozen to the core and soaking wet. So far Ali has neglected to wreak her revenge but hopefully reading this will remind her. Anyway it is more encouraging news for both the Greyhead and Black-browed albatrosses in that their numbers were relatively stable this year, fingers crossed this continues.

Right enough of the wildlife what about the people!

So what exciting events happened amongst base members? Basically we lost a few people gained a few people and had a number of ship/yacht visits. In particular we had a number of visitations from Pharos S.G. the new fisheries patrol vessel. Vicky left on said ship early in November whereupon Alison Dean took up the reins and the unenviable task of looking after all of us. But I do have to say she has done an excellent job and we are in safe hands (Ali can I be excused scrub out next week?). Le Sourire returned with the Image Impact team who had spent the time since we last saw them filming on the mainland. They had managed to solve all the technical issues that had beset their equipment and got some great footage. If all has gone to plan you should be able to watch the results just before Christmas. They spent a few hectic days filming all the local residents of Bird Island including us. The working days were long and so were the nights. One night they filmed until the early hours at the Love Shack with Helen showing them the arrival of thousands of petrels and prions. There then followed an early morning handover to Ali who spent the next 14 hours with them at Big Mac watching the 80 000 penguins nest building, squabbling and generally being grumpy.

Donald Malone international media star - available for supermarket openings
Donald Malone international media star - available for supermarket openings

During this time Fabrice arrived on, you guessed it, Pharos SG. He is taking over from Helen and so is having an action packed few weeks learning the ropes of penguins and giant petrels. However, Fabrice is an old hand at this small island thang having spent time on both Kerguelen and Amsterdam Islands (plus many other remote places). Therefore he was straight out into the field and has already shown excellent duck nest spotting skills. He got to see a great deal of the island very quickly as, led by Helen, everyone mucked in for an all island giant petrel survey. No piece of tussock grass was left uncombed as GPS positions of all the nests were taken. Again we had good news in that numbers are up and both northern and southerns seem to be doing well this year. 23rd November was Thanksgiving and, as we were home to Team America, we found an excellent excuse to play Pilgrims and Indians. The Bird Island folk took on the roles of Native Americans and our transatlantic cousins were the pilgrims joined by Fabrice as a Hugonaut. We re-enacted the more 'civil' part of Americas early history by sitting down to an excellent (and as traditional as the food store would allow) meal. We toasted love ones back home and had a very pleasant evening including televised American football, Irish American music and lots of friendly banter. Sadly the film crew and yacht could not come over to join us as the island was buffeted by very strong winds so that even travel across the bay was impossible.

left to right: Fabrice, Iain, Helen,Ali ,Randy, Kiersten, Robin, Donald, Bill
left to right: Fabrice, Iain, Helen,Ali ,Randy, Kiersten, Robin, Donald, Bill

Soon after Le Sourire left taking advantage of a good weather window, wary of some tight deadlines for getting their footage back to Channel 5. This departure was closely followed by the break up of Team America as Randy and Bill caught the big red taxi (yes Pharos S.G. again) home; well at least to the Falklands. Now poor Kiersten has been left to keep the stars and stripes flying (metaphorically of course the Jetty flag pole is for the Union Jack).

Pharos SG splits up Team America
Pharos SG splits up Team America

So that's it, no more news. Well, loads more but I have the last of The League of Gentlemen to watch or else I will have no idea about the 'in' jokes and why it is so important to be LOCAL.

I shall just end this splurge of nonsense by sending my love to my family, Karen and all the folks back home. I am looking forward to seeing you all at Christmas, that is, if I don't get stuck on the beach in Rio. And finally a special thought to Grandma to wish you good luck in your new home.

Iain