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Bird Island Diary — December 2008

December was a busy month on Bird Island. With the breeding season in full swing, the field assistants were out at all hours monitoring, counting, checking, tagging and weighing various bits of the ever progressing breeding season that makes Bird Island so special. With one bird or mammal for every 1.5m2 of the island, in December, Bird Island was looking pretty full. Despite the intense workload, we celebrated Christmas and a few other social occasions in style.

Life on Base

The BBC film crew, some of whom had been living on base, others moored offshore on the Golden Fleece, left Bird Island on 13th December. They had been filming the wildlife on Bird Island for the new “Frozen Planet” series. We were sorry to see them go, as it had been good having such a cheerful team working around the island. We had several nice social evenings both on base and on the Golden Fleece. Despite their departure, John’s legendary syrup sponge pudding recipe still remains as a reminder of their visit; and the frequency of its use means they will not be forgotten!

The BBC film crew's temporary home, the Golden Fleece, leaves Bird Island
The BBC film crew's temporary home, the Golden Fleece, leaves Bird Island

Towards the end of the month we started to think about Christmas. The dusty box of trimmings and balloons was dug out of the cupboard, and we spent the evening like excited children making our home look festive. On Christmas Eve we had mince pies and mulled wine with the seals at Ewan’s study beach. Pups on this beach are marked with blonde hair dye for identification; in festive recognition the Christmas Day puppies were marked with halos or crosses instead of the usual blonde splodge.

Christmas Day itself started with the usual work; short trips to the seals, penguins and albatrosses that are checked daily as part of long term demographic studies. This was done is a slightly more light-hearted way than usual, and Father Christmas was seen visiting the young penguins at Big Mac.

Father Christmas visits the newly hatched Macaroni penguin chicks
Father Christmas visits the newly hatched Macaroni penguin chicks

Afterwards, everyone returned to base to cook and eat a massive Christmas dinner, with many courses and Christmas goodies. It is lovely to have people from a variety of countries on base as everyone has their own slightly different typical Christmas dish… it seemed a good excuse to cook them all so everyone felt at home. This resulted in an enormous meal that lasted several hours — a few breaks were needed between courses.

All on base settle down for a Christmas feast.
All on base settle down for a Christmas feast.

On 31st December, the Pharos visited, taking away Jaume, our seal expert, and delivering Takashi, Aki and Ken, three summer visiting scientists. It also brought mail and fresh fruit and vegetables, which were very welcome. We gave the three new arrivals only a few hours to settle into base before starting New Year celebrations. These began with a drink up at Cave Crag, and continued through the night with midnight celebrations on the jetty. Things finally drew to a halt once the sun was fully up on new years day.

Wildlife

December saw vast numbers of young appearing on Bird Island, as pupping and hatching continued in earnest.

Penguins

On the 19th December the first Macaroni penguin eggs started to hatch in the study plot we were visiting daily. Soon the 80,000 strong colony at Big Mac was filled with the hungry calls of the tiny black and white chicks and the mothers started the endless streaming in and out of the colony to fetch food from the sea.

Macaroni chick
Macaroni chick

The Gentoo penguins continued to feed their rapidly growing chicks. Gentoos often have two chicks, but this season, the adults seem to be struggling to find enough food to support such numbers, and survival rates are much lower than usual.

Gentoo Penguin with chick
Gentoo Penguin with chick

Giant Petrels

The first Northern Giant Petrels started hatching this month. The tiny cute balls of fluff look so vulnerable sitting alone in their big nests, but despite this innocent illusion, they are eager to vomit stinking fishy oil on anyone who passes too close. The Southern Giant petrels started breeding about a month later so will have to sit patiently for a while longer before they have their own chicks to feed.

Northern Giant petrel chick with its father
Northern Giant petrel chick with its father

Seals

Ewan was busy this month as the fur seals continued to pup. On the Special Study Beach, the greatest numbers of pups were born on 10th December; 58 pups were born on this date. The beaches were full of harems of females, each guarded by a protective large male, waiting to mate with her a few days after she produced her pup. Fights regularly broke out when new males came ashore and attempted to take over territories, and young/inexperienced males could often be seen dripping with blood from the fights. The base echoed day and night with the constant calls of mum and pup and the walkways were covered with heaps of small sleeping black puppies.

Fur seal pups at the back door
Fur seal pups at the back door

Albatrosses

Last years Wandering albatross chicks continued to fledge this month, regularly being found trying out their wings, taxiing down the meadows like aeroplanes, only to fail to take off at the end, and land in an undignified heap. They would then get up and shake out their feathers, before heading resolutely back up the hill to try again.

Wandering albatross learning to fly
Wandering albatross learning to fly

Meanwhile, the adult Wanderers were busy laying eggs to produce the chicks that will stay with us until next December, and Derren was kept busy trying to keep track of the eggs as they appeared.

The Black-browed and Grey headed albatross chicks started to hatch this month. The adults were kept occupied foraging at sea to feed their tiny new chicks waiting in their nests.

Black-browed albatross with chick
Black-browed albatross with chick

I think that’s all for this month so I’ll sign off here. Greetings to everyone back at home; I hope you all had a nice Christmas and New Year.

Stacey.