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Bird Island Diary — May 2009

May is considered to be the month of change at Bird Island, between the mild summer and the Antarctic winter… and it is at Bird Island that those changes on the Antarctic can be beautifully seen. The weather is highly inconsistent which means you literally wake up in a new island every morning… one day covered with snow, another bright green, the following one cloudy and windy… it never stops in May!!!

View from the top of La Roche towards base in May 2009 (Photo by José Xavier)
View from the top of La Roche towards base in May 2009 (Photo by José Xavier)

And it is not just the weather… it is also reflected in the fauna. As it is the end of Summer, the Macaroni penguins are ready to leave, the black-browed albatross chicks are about to go, the grey-headed albatross chicks are starting, just to mention a few species… we still have the company of a few Antarctic fur seals but nothing compared to a fully packed beach in November–December times. In the winter the top areas of the island are mostly taken by the wandering albatross chicks and in May, still plenty of giant petrels around…

Wanderer chick in May from below Tonk, towards Bottom Meadows (Photo by José Xavier)
Wanderer chick in May from below Tonk, towards Bottom Meadows (Photo by José Xavier)

Like in every month during winter, it starts with the Wandering albatross census, organized by Derren Fox. In practice, this consists of verifying if all chicks of the wandering albatrosses are happy and alive. At this stage they are still pretty small. Their nest seems like a huge bowl in which a little chick is happily settled. It is an amazing opportunity for all of the scientists to visit another part of the island that usually you do not have the excuse to do so.

Scientifically, it was still a busy month. My two projects focused on the behavioural ecology of gentoo penguins, in which everyone on base worked amazingly as a team. I was studying the attendance patterns of gentoos to Landing beach (the closest colony at Bird Island from Base), which consisted on marking them and regularly assessing if they would return. This was particularly interesting as this year, many species struggled to breed, particularly the gentoos (approx. 4200 nests, 8400 eggs laid… only 40 chicks might have fledged). Also the marine food web was dominated by an amphipod crustacean (Themisto gaudichaudii) around South Georgia instead of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), as in most years… so how would their foraging ecology be affected by this change.

Gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua in Landing Beach, Bird Island... enjoying a sunny day. - Despite this winter 2009, gentoo penguins look ok, the summer was not the best for them. (Photo by José Xavier)
Gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua in Landing Beach, Bird Island... enjoying a sunny day. - Despite this winter 2009, gentoo penguins look ok, the summer was not the best for them. (Photo by José Xavier)

Parallel to this project, I and Stacey Adlard (with the help of all base members again), deployed some dummy satellite tracking devices on gentoo penguins, to assess if they would affect their behaviour and return back to the colony regularly. A third project on gentoos was also initiated, complementary to these projects, looking at gentoo feeding ecology. We wanted to know if their diet had effectively changed from krill to Themisto, using scats. Scats are a brilliant way to look at the diet of animals because we do not need to handle the penguins, giving us a good view of what they have been feeding on. However, the limitations are obvious… food is logically more digested, we cannot quantify the importance of the various diet components and everything is much harder to identify.

The other scientific project in May was the GPS tracking wandering albatrosses study. Early in May, Derren and I went to deploy these devices on both males and females on Top Meadow, arguably one of the most beautiful areas on Bird Island. I want to look at their foraging ecology and assess where they forage during the Antarctic winter, what do they feed on (in such a strange year, what is their foraging strategy?) and how can we provide additional evidence on foraging patterns in relation to fisheries. Wandering albatrosses suffer incidental mortality by longline fishing, being attracted to baited hooks, and consequently drown. As they are breeding, they are limited to a range of areas to where they can forage and as they need food not only to feed their chicks but themselves too, interactions with fisheries are likely to be higher during the Antarctic winter too…

Wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, the biggest seabird on Earth. GPS tracking took place this month from Top Meadow, Bird Island.(Photo by José Xavier)
Wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, the biggest seabird on Earth. GPS tracking took place this month from Top Meadow, Bird Island.(Photo by José Xavier)

During May, everyone on base has also been busy with the science. Ewan Edwards continued his quest for leopard seals (3 sightings) and had been busy in putting geolocator loggers on Antarctic fur seals Arctocephalus gazella. Dave Haynes and I had so much fun helping him. Stacey was pretty busy with the giant petrels, checking if their chicks were doing well. Derren finished weighing his grey-headed albatross chicks and regularly went to both black-browed and grey-headed albatross colonies to check how they were doing in terms of fledging. Jose remember spending long periods of time looking at the chicks waving their wings, ready to fledge… and catching one fledging is something on another world… can you imagine a bird of a few months old, that never flown before… taking its first flight? Derren saw one!!! He had a big smile that day!!!!

Living in such a beautiful island, it is important to show the world why we are here and why the science we do is relevant… from school children to University students, from the general public to our friends and family. I have been involved in various education and outreach activities this month, including interviews to newspapers, articles to various blogs, and direct contact to schools and conferences in various countries (UK, Portugal, Brazil…) by phone, video conference calls and by email.

Brazilian students with their teachers after a phone call with me to talk about polar science.
Brazilian students with their teachers after a phone call with me to talk about polar science.

Although being very busy, we also manage to squeeze some time for fun… and May was pretty good on it! In May, Stacey had the great fun to play the dentist of the month, by looking at Ewan´s tooth. She was great and Dave assisted during all operation… ok, it was just filling a tooth but we had lots of fun that day!

Stacey, Ewan (scared), Dave and I ready to check Ewanc24s tooth. (Photo by José Xavier)
Stacey, Ewan (scared), Dave and I ready to check Ewanc24s tooth. (Photo by José Xavier)

With snow coming strongly in some days, we had our first snowboarding and skiing trip of the year to the slope beneath La Roche. Ewan, Dave and I made the best of one afternoon in May… the snow was ideal and it was a day to remember. The exercise was ideal to manage our weight for the “Fat Knacker award”. This is a classic weekly entertainment activity during winter created by I, Dafydd Roberts and Mark Jessopp in the year 2000. It is reported that I arrived from the previous Bird Island Winter in unrecognizable “bitten by a bee” shape that even Dirk Briggs could not recognize him when I popped up in his room. To minimize further damage in the following winter, this award and weekly weighing was created. The rules are simple: all members of the winter team weigh themselves together every week…this year in fancy dress. Who puts more weight during winter… gets the award!!! May report: Ewan is well ahead after a month of weighing, putting 3 kg, Stacey, I and Derren holding on nicely and then Dave in the extreme opposite with 2.5 kg less. Well done all!

Ewan, Stacey and Derren at the top of La Roche with a Mars Bar - Combination of exercise, leisure and fun to avoid winning the 'Fat Knacker award'... we thought of Mark Jessopp at this stage. (Photo by José Xavier)
Ewan, Stacey and Derren at the top of La Roche with a Mars Bar - Combination of exercise, leisure and fun to avoid winning the 'Fat Knacker award'... we thought of Mark Jessopp at this stage. (Photo by José Xavier)

Another classic day was when Derren, Ewan, Stacey and I took the challenge and went up to La Roche (356 m high). Icy but manageable, there we went and it was simply breathtaking the view from there. South Georgia so close, Willis Island showing us of the West, the base down the hill… amazing day!

As sleeping away from base is not very easy, Ewan, Dave and I enjoyed a great night out with a clear sky to sleep outside on the jetty… it was such an experience, spending time watching the stars of the Southern Hemisphere at night, taking attention to the sounds of gentoos, giant petrels, fur seals around you… only possible in that amazing night in the month of May for a change…

Looking forward to June!

José Xavier, wintering predator biologist