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Bird Island Diary — November 2007

This month’s diary entry will have the distinctive mark of a new arrival on Bird Island: his head filled with the overwhelming sights and sounds of this amazing place – and the musky whiff of fur seals.

The James Clark Ross anchored to the north of Bird Sound, close to Elsehul, between the mainland of South Georgia and Bird Island, for its first call of the season on November 4th. In the midst of the chaotic base relief - transporting supplies from the ship to the base and the removal of waste in the opposite direction, dental checkups for the four winterers and the less-than-ideal weather conditions with which we were blessed, Bird Island bid farewell to Andy Wood, Chris Hill and Jaume Forcada, the ‘dream team’ of short-stay visitors that arrived a month previously on the first ship visit of the summer season, to assist with some science and solve some technical issues. It seems that all three are very well received visitors each time they come to Bird Island.

Bird Island Sunset
Bird Island Sunset

Andy, lived up to his reputation as a ‘ringing machine’, along with Robin and Derren, the team had been putting rings on a colony of black-browed albatrosses that is being added to the remit of the albatross assistant. This arises because the other long-term monitoring colonies have declined in numbers almost to the point where observing patterns in the population and breeding success of these birds has become unviable – a worrying trend, and one that must cease to safeguard the future of albatrosses. They are drowned by long-line fishing vessels targeting valuable Southern Ocean fish such as Patagonian toothfish, yet simple measures such as those implemented by vessels fishing under licence from the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (e.g. fishing at night rather than by day), can prevent this unwanted and devastating bycatch.

So as three departed on the JCR, three arrived: John Withers, the new BI Base Commander and a former Dive Officer at Rothera was one of the first ashore, to find his way around his new home and to assist with the arrival of cargo; Claire Waluda, a biologist from Cambridge visiting for the summer to carry out some penguin research; and myself, arriving on Bird Island to begin a thirty-month stint as the seal field assistant (eventually replacing Donald), once I’d assisted the dentist on the JCR with some checkups of winterers teeth!

Whilst the JCR remained in the vicinity, we had a couple of other visitors – Alan Roger, Head of Science Programmes with BAS, spent two nights on base, going out with the zoological field assistants to see what they do, and assisting with the inevitable sorting through the newly-arrived consignment of cargo; and Felice, known as Flea, who will be returning to us after a short stint at Signy as our resident electrician/technician for the year ahead and to replace Rob Dunn, who is shortly returning to the UK after spending time at three bases – Halley, Signy and Bird Island! Rob kept Flea extremely busy throughout his short visit, which will be useful, as they will not have much chance for a thorough handover when the JCR next visits. Indeed Rob has been working extremely hard throughout the last month, trying to get the base in as good a condition as possible to make life easier for us all, and not least Flea when he arrives.

The daily visits to the Special Study Beach (SSB) by the seal assistants began on November 1st, and Don and Jaume had begun to note the arrival of the early males, busy claiming and defending their territories on the small beach, that was to become ‘home’ for Don and I between the beginning of November and the end of December. This work again falls under the remit of the LTMS programme and forms part of a data set stretching back over many years. The first SSB female arrived on November 18th, and the first pup was born two days later. Ten pups per day are lifted on to the gantry at SSB, their birth weight measured, they are given a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag (which reveals a unique ID number when scanned), and are given an individual mark with blonde hair dye in their black fur each day from the birth of the first pup until no more pups are being born (usually the first week in January).

Fur seal pup
Fur seal pup

The use of this blonde hair dye lends itself to a bit of a base tradition – the annual hair dyeing night! One by one the willing volunteers took to the hairdresser’s chair, the dye was plastered on and heads were wrapped in cling film to ensure the best outcome... Two hours later and we were all sporting beautiful blonde locks – although Claire decided not to go for the whole deal but chose with some very professional-looking highlights, courtesy of Don and Robbo! There may be a new career lined up for them on his return to the UK!

Claire at the hairdressers
Claire at the hairdressers

The first two weeks of December will be the busiest time of the fur seal season, but by now Don has imparted much of the important information, techniques and tricks of the trade on to me, and we await the chaos with anticipation. However during this period there will be very little chance to see much of the island, other than SSB and the base, so it was good to get some opportunities to get out and about soon after our arrival.

The month began with a census of the breeding mollymawks, both grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses. It was a great opportunity to get out and explore some of the island for us new arrivals, and to get up close to some of these beautiful yet tragically threatened birds. The first of this year’s wandering albatross chicks, which hatched back in March, were stretching their wings in preparation for fledging, which will see them head off out to sea and not return for several years. After two years of fieldwork on Bird Island, Robbo sets a mean pace when marching across the difficult terrain to the west of Tonk, one of the hills above the base, leaping gracefully from one grassy mound to another, but advised us that even he occasionally falls in a muddy wallow hidden in the long grass, and says that you are allowed the occasional ‘tussac tantrum’ when having a bad day of it!

Fabrice was busy with the recent return of the macaroni penguins in huge numbers to the three major colonies on Bird Island. The largest colony, Big Mac, at the western end of the island, is home to more than 40,000 macaroni penguins, so there is plenty to keep the penguin assistant busy. Elsewhere, most of us assisted with the census of gentoo penguins in their pebbly rookeries at various locations on the island. It is quite a challenge counting hundreds of birds, their nests packed so closely together, from a low vantage point – but until the advent of some kind of airborne camera system (albatross-mounted, perhaps?), this remains the only way to do it!

Wandering albatross chick
Wandering albatross chick

The weather throughout November was, as always on Bird Island, changeable, but was not the relentless rain that some of us expected, from what we’d been told prior to our arrival. The month started with a period of cold and largely settled weather, with some snow, which allowed Derren, Flea and myself to get out with Phil (the Field Assistant going to Signy Island for the summer) for some winter mountaineering skills training. As the month progressed it turned milder and wetter, although on Bird Island one can truly experience the proverbial four seasons in a day, meaning that even if its wet and wintery in the morning, the evening can be sunny and calm. We even enjoyed a barbecue on the evening of Nov 16th, in the company of a flock of around thirty skuas, which tried their hardest to spoil our party and steal our food, but to no avail.

By the end of the month, the fur seals had returned in force. The beach in front of the base becomes an ocean of seals, and travel around the island requires a lot more consideration. Some of the males will chase you through the tussac if they believe you to be an intruder into their territory. A human can probably outrun a seal over flat ground under normal circumstances, however in the tussac grass this is a situation best avoided! As the ladies start to arrive, followed by the ensuing explosion of puppies, the beach becomes practically impassable, and even a trip to the end of the jetty becomes a real expedition.

Young elephant seal
Young elephant seal

At the end of the month, we celebrated St Andrews Day with the skirl of the bagpipes playing on the sound system in the dining room (courtesy of Rob Dunn, honorary Scotsman for the evening), as I battled Braveheart-style through the ocean of fur seals to raise the Saltire on the flagpole at the end of the jetty. Of course, as we are the British Antarctic Survey, the Union Jack was left in situ, with the Scottish flag below! Kilts were worn (or in some cases improvised, with tartan shirts tied around the waist) and dinner was washed down with a glass of the amber nectar – that’s right, Irn Bru!

Saint Andrews Day
Saint Andrews Day

Looking back, so much has happened since the JCR dropped us off on Bird Island on November 4th that the time has flown by. We are all settling into the routine nicely, although I use the word routine in the loosest sense, as life and work on Bird Island is anything but ‘routine’. I think I speak for the other new arrivals as well as myself, in saying that it is great to finally be here and finding our feet.

Lastly I would like to pass on my love and best wishes to everyone at home and to wish friends and families a very happy Christmas, and all the best in 2008.

Ewan Edwards
Zoological Field Assistant.