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Bird Island Diary — December 2006

BIRD ISLAND DIARY - DECEMBER

I feel as if it is my duty to warn you that this edition of the Bird Island Diary is being written by an American, and as a result, there is the potential for me to stray from the wonderful “Queen’s English” that you are probably accustomed to reading in these journals. For this I apologize, but I hope that it will not deter you from reading about the wonderful things that have been happening on at Bird Island. So here goes…

December was a very busy month for both the residents of the Bird Island Research Station and the native wildlife. Spring-time on Bird Island is similar to spring time in the rest of the world and is filled with an explosion of new life! There were puppies and chicks being born everywhere you looked. Just take a look at our back porch in the picture below if you don’t believe me.

Robbo wading through a sea of puppies on the back porch!!!

The twice-daily trips to the Special Study Beach (SSB) have continued this month for Donald and his seal team helpers (this primarily consisted of Iain and Jaume, but also included a few fair-weather volunteers such as Ali and myself). These trips are part of BAS’ continued quest to identify, weigh, measure, and mark all of the males, females, and puppies that come and go on SSB. Monitoring an area of the beach that is the size of two tennis courts is not an easy task, especially as the season goes on and the beaches fill with more and more seals. Keeping track of over 700 puppies, and their moms and dads can be quite overwhelming, but Donald, Iain, and Jaume have had lots of practice and seem to have it down to an art form (literally – you can see one of Donald’s painted seals in the photo below).

Who knew you could use a fur seal as an art canvas?

Donald using the PIT-tag reader to determine if this female is “known” (i.e., previously given a PIT (Passive Implantable Transponder) -tag – similar to those used to identify dogs).

Donald and Iain’s “seal team activities” weren’t just confined to SSB. They were also busy helping me retrieve the final three cameras and data loggers that Team America put out on male fur seals last month. We must have crossed our fingers hard enough, because all of the seals that departed Bird Island on foraging trips have returned (even the individual that traveled all the way over to King Haakon Bay). We were also able to remotely release the instruments from the animals, which was very exciting for both the researchers and the seals (I think Donald and the seals almost had heart attacks when the units “popped” off). The cameras recorded several hours of video footage, but I’m afraid everyone will have to wait until I take them back to the States before we can find out what wonderful secret mysteries they might hold - sorry.

Seal with video camera, data logger, and satellite tag attached.

There are several other projects that are keeping the seal team members busy this month (e.g., population census using aerial photography, deployment of radio tags to track female foraging trips, etc.), but it’s probably time to move onto some of the other local wildlife.

December has been a busy month in the penguin world as well. The beginning of the month saw the arrival of the gentoo chicks. By the end of the month, the “newborns” were already too large to snuggle under their parents anymore for warmth.

Gentoo chicks that are just a few weeks old – they grow fast!!

December also meant that it was time for the first of two annual surveys of the macaroni penguin colony at Big Mac, and Ali and I were the lucky “volunteers” who got to help Helen and Fabrice with this mission. Our job was to walk along a marked transect and count penguins as we went. It sounded easy enough, and might have been, had we been doing the survey in nice weather. However, the constant rainfall, howling winds, and pecking penguins made it a bit more challenging than I had expected. We all survived, but I have to admit that I’m kind of glad I’m not going to be around for the second survey in January (sorry Fabrice).

Fabrice and Ali counting penguins along a transect at Big Mac.

Towards the end of the month as the macaroni chicks began to hatch, Fabrice started making multiple daily trips to the colony to check on a “special” group of eggs. Earlier in the season while the eggs were still being incubated, he had placed temperature loggers in about a dozen eggs located on the edge of the colony. Now that these eggs were finally hatching, he was busy checking on them daily (sometimes more than once) in order to retrieve the loggers. He wanted to be the first to arrive on the scene once the eggs had hatched so that none of the skuas were able run off with his shiny new instruments. So far he’s been very successful and the loggers seem to be working great.

Recently hatched macaroni penguin.

In addition to the macaronis and gentoos, there are still a few molting King penguins hanging around at the backs of the beaches, and we were even fortunate to have a pair of chinstraps show up at Big Mac for a few days.

Pair of chinstraps that stopped off for a few days at Big Mac.

The albatrosses didn’t want to be left out of the spring-time fun either. The first grey-head chicks hatched towards the end of the month, and the black-brows were not far behind.

Grey-headed albatross with chick.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

The biennially breeding wanderers have also been quite busy this month. Most of the healthy young chicks have fledged and the island is now littered with adults that have returned to the island to breed after a year off. Anywhere you walk on the island, you’re likely to see some wonderful displaying as the birds start to form large leks. Some of the partnered adults have already started to breed and lay eggs. Robin has been busy monitoring their nests on Wanderer Ridge, the main study colony, for new eggs. He found the first egg towards the end of the month, and will continue checking all the nests on a daily basis so that he can weigh any ones that are newly-laid. Soon, he will begin staking all the wandering albatross nests with eggs throughout the entire island (it will be a good chance for him to burn off any of those extra holiday pounds he may have put on).

Male and female albatross mating.

There are just too many birds on the island to mention all of them and their chicks, but here are a few photos of some of the other new Bird Island residents . . .

Northern giant petrel with chick.

Skua chick.

South Georgia Pintail chick (photo Helen Taylor).

In addition to the arrival the new puppies and chicks, we also had the arrival of several new people to the base. On December 2, Kevin Hughes, a member of the BAS Environmental and Information Division, was dropped off by HMS Endurance. Kevin had a nice welcoming committee of fur seals waiting on the jetty to meet him when he arrived, but with a little help from some of the senior base members, he managed to make it through the “gauntlet of seals” unharmed. The crew that brought Kevin ashore quickly changed their mind about coming in for a cup of tea after they saw what they’d have to go through in order to get there (for the uninitiated Antarctic fur seals can be an intimidating sight). Kevin stayed on Bird Island for the month of December and his main task while he was there was to assess the usage of paths around the island – this meant he had a lot of walking to do in a short period of time! His report will help BAS determine what physical impacts the research they conduct has on the island and how they can potentially reduce some of those impacts.

The beach during peak pupping season – notice how you can’t see the walkway to the jetty!

The Endurance returned on December 13 to drop off wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. Andy came ashore to photograph several of the albatross species and was particularly interested in getting some nice photos of the wanderers displaying. The weather was not extremely cooperative for his visit (which is no surprise to anyone that’s spent much time on Bird Island), but hopefully he was able to get some decent shots to use for his upcoming exhibition.

On December 15 the Endurance returned once again to pick up Andy and also Iain. We wish them both a safe voyage as they travel from Bird Island up to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and wish Iain extra good luck as he tries to make it home to see his family and friends in time for the holidays. Iain’s knowledge of Bird Island, animal impersonations, creative costumes, and overall good sense of humor will be greatly missed by the remaining residents of the island. For those of you that are worried that the seal team is now going to be short one number - don’t fret. In exchange for Iain, we got Jaume Forcada (another senior scientist from BAS), who will be here for the next few months to help out with the seal work.

We had yet another ship call a few weeks later when the RRS Shackleton arrived to take care of some of the yearly “up keep” and maintenance on the base. We had numerous waves of visitors coming ashore to do everything from fixing washing machines to putting in a new VHF repeater to cleaning the winterers teeth (apparently Fabrice makes quite a good dental assistant). It was a very active day for everyone on base and by the end of it all those involved were quite exhausted. We owe a huge thank you though to all those who came ashore and were willing to wade through the throngs of fur seals during the peak of their breeding season to help out.

After the Shackleton’s visit things settled down a bit, and before we knew it, it was time to get ready for the upcoming holidays. Helen, Ali, and I went to work putting up the strange hodge podge of Christmas decorations that had been given to the base. We also decided to make a few of our own decorations in order to help spruce things up a bit – who knew making snowflakes could be so fun and messy at the same time. All in the all, the base came out looking quite festive. We celebrated Christmas Eve by singing a few carols, drinking some mulled wine, and eating lots of Christmas treats. Christmas morning we gathered around to eat a nice traditional English breakfast and watch each other open presents. The next few hours were of course spent playing with all the new, fun goodies that everyone had received. Since everyone still had to work on Christmas day, our Christmas dinner was scheduled for late in the evening. It was a huge international feast that involved all the members of the base. Everyone contributed a course (or two), which resulted in a huge seven course meal (no exaggeration there). The first course was served at SSB and involved a nice holiday visit from Santa and some minced pies. Once all the puppies were weighed, painted, and counted we returned to the base for the remaining six courses. We took lots of breaks throughout the meal to talk to friends and family on the phone, and of course, to let our food digest. Once the meal was finished we managed to roll ourselves into the lounge to watch a nice holiday movie as a group. All in all it was a great holiday!!

Santa even made time to stop by SSB and visit with the Bird Islanders!

Just a few days later it was time for Helen, Kevin, and myself to depart on the JCR. For Helen it was the end of her two-year experience as penguin assistant on Bird Island. She’s not heading directly home though, and will be conducting research on King penguins on South Georgia for the next few months. For Kevin and I it was the end of a much shorter stay (although a very memorable one), and we both were headed straight home to the “real world.”

I can’t begin to thank the Bird Islanders enough for making my time on the island so memorable and enjoyable. I will truly miss all of you and look forward to keeping in touch with you and hopefully catching up with you all when you return home (whenever that may be). I wish you all the best of luck during the remainder of your stay (however long that might be) and hope you enjoy it to the fullest!

Oh yeah, there was 70’s dinner party in there somewhere as well, and I couldn’t resist the chance to throw in this picture. Disco is back baby!

I don’t even know what to say!

Kiersten Madden

Marine Science Institute
The University of Texas at Austin