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Bird Island Diary — June 2009

As the island and its inhabitants settle further into winters icy grip (well, more slush than ice I’m afraid!) the last of the summer breeding birds vacates the island, leaving the meadows and cliffs eerily quiet. The last few grey-headed albatrosses left their colonies on the ridges and cliffs in the first half of the month. Whilst doing my failure rounds of the colonies to check for any failed chicks, I was lucky enough to see one fledge. The chick was prompted by a giant petrel tucking into its less successful neighbour, but that’s as good a reason as any to finally set off on a trip that will see it not return to the island for at least three years. You would have thought that with so many chicks fledging the island this would be a common occurrence, but this was the first one I have seen in two seasons here, and most likely the last as I will have left the island this time next season. The last few southern giant petrels also managed to escape the island before the winter, making their long run-ups for take off on the meadows.

Wandering albatross feeding chick (Photo by Derren Fox)
Wandering albatross feeding chick (Photo by Derren Fox)

Our year round breeding resident, the wandering albatross, was keeping busy. The adults are making increasingly long foraging trips to bring food to the ever expanding chicks that are now amply filling their nests. At the moment all the chicks’ energy is going into growing their body and keeping warm, the wings have yet to develop beyond small down-covered stubby limbs. They are beginning to flap them in a very comical manner at the moment and not getting far off the ground, as you can imagine. The monthly census of all the chicks on the island on the 1st June revealed a few losses but no more than is expected so that is encouraging.

Around the coast, the endemic South Georgia pintails were forming larger flocks after the summer scattered around the island in sparse pairs. They feed during the winter along the shore on vegetation and any small crustaceans that are washed in, as well as the carrion that they are renowned for. The pintails have been joined on many occasions by flocks of up to 50 cape petrels and on a few days there have been two snow petrels present, dancing on the water, much like the storm petrels do whilst feeding.

A few winter sightings of brown skuas have occurred around the island, with up to three birds seen together on here on Freshwater Beach in front of the base and around the rest of the shoreline, whilst the rest of the skuas spend the winter feeding at sea.

Leopard seal on Main Bay beach (Photo by Derren Fox)
Leopard seal on Main Bay beach (Photo by Derren Fox)
Another lep on Main Bay beach (Photo by Derren Fox)
Another lep on Main Bay beach (Photo by Derren Fox)

Our winter visiting highlight has got to be the magnificent leopard seals. After a bumper year in 2008, sightings have been few and far between with only a handful of animals seen this month. Those that have been sighted have been photographed by Ewan as part of the identification project to match them up with any previous records from the database. Part of this project is also to deploy GLSs on the seals to see where these little-studied creatures disperse to during the summer months. Many of the ones we get here are regular visitors that have come back here many times since the project started tracking them in the early 1990s.

Wanderer in flight (Photo by Derren Fox)
Wanderer in flight (Photo by Derren Fox)

José and I have been busy deploying and retrieving GPS loggers and stomach temperature probes on the wandering albatross adults on Top Meadows. Diet samples taken from these and a few chicks will help José to work out where these birds travel to whilst feeding their young chicks and also what they have been catching. Stacey and José have been carrying out gentoo diet sampling on a number of birds from Landing Beach and José has been analysing scats from them. This will hopefully give him a good overview part of the Antarctic ecosystem around our waters over this critical period.

View of base, returning home late one evening (Photo by Derren Fox)
View of base, returning home late one evening (Photo by Derren Fox)

June may be a relatively quiet month for the wildlife here but the social side of winter life hits a high with Midwinter’s week being a big traditional festival down here, akin to Christmas celebrations back home, albeit with a Bird Island twist. This year’s celebrations were a little dampened by the sad but necessary departure of one of our wintering team. Dave has had to be shipped back to the UK for medical reasons so we spent a few days awaiting suitable conditions for the Pharos SG to be able to pick him up. It was a sad farewell for all concerned and we will miss him. Get well soon Dave!!! As a result of Dave we did get a very welcome bonus visitor in the form of Angharad Jones the KEP doc. She was even more welcome after a phone call before she left base to see if we needed any essential supplies that they might be able to provide. In true BI style these included the much needed and ‘can’t live without’ ingredients for a number of cakes including some condensed milk for Stacey’s legendary lime cheesecake and some sultanas for the odd fruit cake or two!

Midwinter's presents. Clockwise from top left - Dave and his book from Ewan, Stacey and her Island from me, Jose with his clock from Stacey, Ewan and his seal photo and centre, the whole gang on my picnic table from Dave. (Photo by Derren Fox)
Midwinter's presents. Clockwise from top left - Dave and his book from Ewan, Stacey and her Island from me, Jose with his clock from Stacey, Ewan and his seal photo and centre, the whole gang on my picnic table from Dave. (Photo by Derren Fox)
Derren, Dave, Ewan, Stacey and José at the Games (Photo: José Xavier)
Derren, Dave, Ewan, Stacey and José at the Games (Photo: José Xavier)

The week of Midwinter involves a number of traditional events here on the island and this year was no exception. Midwinter’s day itself started with the traditional breakfast cooked for all by the Base Commander. Ewan did a sterling job and everyone was soon too full to move very far. This was followed by preparations for the highland-style games involving events such as tossing the caber, welly wanging (throwing an old welly boot using your teeth!), haggis hurling and archery. A good games was had by all, helped along by lashings of mulled wine and mince pies with brandy butter. The day progressed in the style it had started with a large turkey roast for the main meal. After dinner it was time for the presentation of the much-awaited presents. At the start of winter names were drawn from a hat to decide who would make presents for whom. From that point on there were secret scurrying around and furtive rummaging through the wood store and around base for materials and ideas. Presentations proceeded in chronological order with Ewan being the youngest presenting Dave with a beautiful hand-made book filled with photos of his time here. Next Stacey presented José with an exquisite clock with a scene of Freshwater Bay as the backdrop. I then had to proceed outside to collect my present from Dave of a magnificent picnic table. Not sure how I am going to get that home next April but it will see a lot of use here during the summer barbeque season! Back inside José gave his very original fur seal shaped picture collage to Ewan showing images of his time here and finally I presented Stacey with a scale model of Bird Island, made from drift wood collected from the nearby beaches.

The week progressed with a brief Midwinter’s swim, this year in shorts and swimming costumes, much to Stacey’s relief! It was much warmer (well a bit warmer!) than last year’s as there was no ice in the bay, the water being a balmy +1.5°C, compared to last years −1.8°C. This was followed by much needed warm-up in the hot tub and a glass of celebratory champagne all round.

Dave heading home... :-( (Photo by Derren Fox)
Dave heading home... :-( (Photo by Derren Fox)

Towards the end of the week the inevitable happened, the Pharos finally managed to get good enough conditions to be able to get in safely and take Dave off on the 26th. A sad end to a good Midwinter’s week but at least Dave had a good last week. That night we played KEP at darts via web cam. A fine evening getting to know a few more of our neighbours, many of which we had never met. As has become expected of us Bird Island managed to pull a few tricks out of the bag at the last minute and pipped our opponents at the post (or was it thrashed them 3–0?!!! Better luck next time eh KEP!!) to win the match for the night. We look forward to a rematch (if they think they can handle another defeat that is!!)

The last day of Midwinter saw another new leopard seal on Main Bay and the evening’s festivities involved a pub-crawl around the base. Each of us took over a room of the base and made a themed bar for the other’s to visit, whilst I made fast food for the three bars to keep us all well fed on our long excursions!

That’s all from our little rock in the south for this month. Until next month best wishes to all my friends and family.

Derren