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Bird Island Diary — October 2008

The month started out with Ewan, Felice and I assisting the BBC Frozen Planet Team for a few days. This was a welcome change from our regular work and a fascinating insight into how wildlife documentaries are filmed and produced.

Assisting the BBC
Assisting the BBC

October is a busy month in the Molly colonies (a collective term for the smaller albatrosses, which in our case is the grey-heads and black-brows) with the established breeders continuing to return to the colonies and re-establish pair bonds and start laying eggs. I had a busy few days marking 1600 nests in the study colonies and then trying to record which bird and partner were in attendance at each site. The first grey-head eggs of the season were noted in Colony E (the long-term study colony where I spend a lot of my time at the moment!) on 8th October and the rest soon followed with all 130 pairs having laid by the last day of the month. It’s then a long wait until late December when they will start to hatch.

Grey-headed albatross colony on the north coast
Grey-headed albatross colony on the north coast

The Black-brows return later to the island than the grey-heads (and finish the breeding cycle sooner) and breed annually rather than biannually. The first black-brows started laying on 18th October and carry on into the first week of November. The island again filling with their distinctive party-horn type call, echoing across the meadows.

October also sees the return of the fourth of our breeding albatross species, the light-mantled sooty albatross. These graceful cousins of the other species nest on the steeper and less accessible cliffs around the island, their displays more confined to sky calling and a spectacular synchronised display flight.

Light-mantled sooty albatross, sky-calling to it's passing mate.
Light-mantled sooty albatross, sky-calling to it's passing mate.

This month saw a few celebrations, with two birthdays and a fancy dress party in honour of the BBC. The first of these events was my birthday on the 5th and saw the cooks of the day Matt and Mark from the BBC rise to the BI cake-making challenge by a magnificent layered raspberry cheesecake, the likes of which has never been seen on the island before! I was also given a beautiful framed print by the guys of the view from the base on my first birthday here last year, this year, and a blank space for next year’s birthday. The evening of the 10th saw a fancy dress party on the island, with the theme being ‘Frozen’ in honour of the BBC. A wide and varied selection of costumes were on display, all cobbled together from bits of material scavenged from around the base. Everything from a well-stocked freezer, a walrus, a bag of carrots, to fantastic black-browed albatross appeared for drinks and dinner that night.

'Frozen' Fancy Dress Party
'Frozen' Fancy Dress Party

The final celebration this month was Fabrice’s second and final birthday on the island. He was presented later in the evening with a macaroni penguin cake (chocolate, of course!) and a framed picture of his study species, to remind him of his time here.

The 14th of the month saw a fly past by an RAF Hercules on its routine South Georgia patrol. It’s strange to see something man-made flying past after being used to quiet skies.

RAF Hercules flying over Willis Islands
RAF Hercules flying over Willis Islands

Back on the wildlife front, Fabrice’s friends returned to the island this month with the macaronis starting to appear in Big Mac, with a lonely bird there on the 14th which was joined by another a few days later. Within a week or so the whole colony of 40,000 pairs was completely full, quite a dramatic transformation after the quiet winter. Our only other regular breeding penguins (we still get the odd chinstrap here on occasions) the gentoos started nesting and the first eggs were noted at Johnson Beach on 11th and at the Square Pond colony a few days later.

Seal numbers on the island started to increase as the month progressed, with the beaches becoming increasingly difficult to navigate and almost impossible by the end of the month. It makes travel around the place a bit harder, but it’s great to have the growling, snarling and hoof-choofing beasties back with us after the winter. The smell takes some getting used to again and tens of thousands of males stink out the beaches with their distinctive musky scent. On one of my last trips back along the beaches I was lucky enough to see an adult tabby seal, which is a very unusual sight. About 1 in 1000 pups is born blonde and around 1 in 10,000 is born a tabby, a mottled mix of blonde and normal black puppy fur. So to see one of these rare pups grown to adulthood was luck indeed. Unfortunately, the seal turned tail and fled to the sea, not to be seen by the others on base! The last of our winter visiting leopard seals was seen on the 2nd November and the female elephant seal that was noted at Natural Arch last month pupped and as far as we know was the only one born on Bird Island this year.

A rare 'tabby' fur seal at Evermann Beach
A rare 'tabby' fur seal at Evermann Beach

Other returnees to the island in October included the graceful light-mantled sooty albatrosses, their haunting calls filling the steep sided coves and cliff lines. Whilst the sooties filled the coast with display calls the ground reverberated with the calls of the white-chinned petrels from their burrows and kept folk with bedrooms at the back of the base awake at nights as they filled the night with their chittering calls.

The White-capped albatross that has been coming to the island for six or seven years now and bred last year (unfortunately unsuccessfully) with a black-browed albatross has returned again this year and we are keeping our fingers crossed for a more successful season this time around. Fabrice has been kept busy all month with his regular giant petrel rounds and at the end of the month counting all the gentoo nests on the island with the help of other base members. A total of 4095 nests were counted over a two-day period.

The Gentoo colony at Johnson Beach
The Gentoo colony at Johnson Beach

Glenn has been carrying on his work on the black-brows and grey-headed albatrosses, trying to ascertain what hormones may cause different individuals to fail or succeed each season.

The first BBC team headed back to the Falklands on 13th of the month and we will miss their company, not too sure if Mark will miss the appalling weather we seem to have had since he arrived though (!), hopefully Matt will get some better views when he returns next month with another film crew to film some of the seals and other wildlife for Frozen Planet.

Well that’s all this month from our little island. Love and best wishes to all back home in the UK.
Derren