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Bird Island Diary — December 2009

December tends to be the month when everyone thinks of Christmas and a time to kick back and spend time with family and friends. But down here on the little rock in the sea, December falls during the middle of the summer which also means the busy season for everyone.

It was my second month here as the new albatross field assistant, and Derren and I were busy monitoring the four breeding albatross species. Since wandering albatross only breed every second year, the adults who had not bred last year had returned to the island, ready to attempt the lengthy process of raising a chick. The chicks from last year’s breeders were looking big and healthy and were eager and ready to head to sea. I was lucky enough to see one fledge! The chick looked surprisingly stable when it took its first flight — a bit of a wobble when it first jumped into the air, and then a nice glide towards the water as if it had been flying for years. For Derren and I, the return of the adults meant starting the process of marking every wanderer nest on the island as well as weighing and recording fledge dates for the chicks. We were also busy with hatch checks for the grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses as their chicks began hatching towards the end of the month. The smaller albatrosses do not take as long to raise a chick as the wandering albatross — they can finish their breeding cycle in one summer whereas the wanderer chicks stay here to grow all winter.

The wandering albatross chick preparing for its first flight shortly before I saw it fledge (Photo: C Mischler)
The wandering albatross chick preparing for its first flight shortly before I saw it fledge (Photo: C Mischler)

Ewan and Mick were busy with their daily fur seal work on the Special Study Beach (SSB). The female seals were returning from sea to give birth to pups while the males were already on the beach holding territory. The seal boys (assisted by Encarna) kept track of which males were holding territory, and of which tagged females were returning to breed. The newborn pups grew fast due to their diet of rich milk from their mothers, and we even had a few blonde pups born around the beaches!

A blonde pup born in front of the base (Photo: C Mischler)
A blonde pup born in front of the base (Photo: C Mischler)
A 'normal' dark pup calling for its mother (Photo: C Mischler)
A 'normal' dark pup calling for its mother (Photo: C Mischler)
A big male defending his territory while waiting for the females to return from sea (Photo: C Mischler)
A big male defending his territory while waiting for the females to return from sea (Photo: C Mischler)
The beach in front of the base covered in seals of all shapes and sizes (Photo: C Mischler)
The beach in front of the base covered in seals of all shapes and sizes (Photo: C Mischler)

Stacey was busy monitoring lay dates for macaroni and gentoo penguins. We carried out an all-island count of gentoo nests, and transects were counted at Big Mac to calculate the number of breeding macaroni penguins. The northern giant petrel chicks were starting to hatch thereby keeping her busy with monitoring hatch dates, while the southern giant petrels were in the middle of the egg laying period.

Big Mac filled with thousands of breeding macaroni penguins (Photo: C Mischler)
Big Mac filled with thousands of breeding macaroni penguins (Photo: C Mischler)
A pair of gentoos with a nest built out of bones (Photo: C Mischler)
A pair of gentoos with a nest built out of bones (Photo: C Mischler)

Sam kept things running smoothly on base, including getting us all in the Christmas spirit by putting up Christmas decorations. Joe made sure nothing was broken, and both Sam and Joe were busy helping out whenever the field assistants needed help. Encarna continued with her seal PhD project, and two visiting scientists, Norman Ratcliffe and Richard Phillips, joined us here to do their own work. Norman focused on penguin work with Stacey while Richard worked with Derren and me on white-chinned petrels as well as light-mantled sooty, wandering, black-browed, and grey-headed albatrosses.

Richard Phillips enjoying the view of Top Meadow after finishing his white-chinned petrel work for the day (Photo: C Mischler)
Richard Phillips enjoying the view of Top Meadow after finishing his white-chinned petrel work for the day (Photo: C Mischler)
Mick admiring our pretty Christmas tree (Photo: C Mischler)
Mick admiring our pretty Christmas tree (Photo: C Mischler)

We also celebrated three birthdays this month — Ewan, Norman, and Richard all received a cake and were forced to listen to the rest of us singing the Happy Birthday tune. Santa sent us 70 knot winds on Christmas Day, but this did not spoil the mood and we all enjoyed a very tasty Christmas meal to which everyone contributed. Even though we were all very busy with work, we all got into the spirit and celebrated the holidays. It’s hard to believe another year is already over. Season’s greetings and all the best for 2010 to my family and friends! Claudia

Ewan enjoying his birthday cake (Photo: C Mischler)
Ewan enjoying his birthday cake (Photo: C Mischler)
A close-up of Ewan's amazing birthday cake - a mini model of SSB, with a bit of effort contributed by everyone (Photo: C Mischler)
A close-up of Ewan's amazing birthday cake - a mini model of SSB, with a bit of effort contributed by everyone (Photo: C Mischler)
Our tasty Christmas dinner (Photo: C Mischler)
Our tasty Christmas dinner (Photo: C Mischler)
The Bird Island team on Christmas morning - from the left: Mick Mackey, Stacey Adlard, Ewan Edwards, Claudia Mischler, Norman Ratcliffe, Encarna Gomez Campos, Richard Phillips, Sam Shelley, Joe Corner, and Derren Fox (Photo: D Fox)
The Bird Island team on Christmas morning - from the left: Mick Mackey, Stacey Adlard, Ewan Edwards, Claudia Mischler, Norman Ratcliffe, Encarna Gomez Campos, Richard Phillips, Sam Shelley, Joe Corner, and Derren Fox (Photo: D Fox)