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Bird Island Diary — August 2010

August. The month that marks the mad scramble to the finish line — the end of winter. Or maybe it marks the mad scramble to the starting line — the start of summer and hence a new season. For me, it means I must finish all indoor work — organizing and preparing for the field season ahead! I have spent most of the month in the lab, analyzing diet samples from black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses. This involves identifying and measuring krill, squid beaks, and otoliths (fish earbones). It is tedious but rewarding work to figure out exactly what they have been eating. In addition to the lab work, there is still wandering albatross field work to do, lab cupboards to organize, and various things to take care of before the birds’ return in September. It is very exciting to know that the first grey-headed albatross will show up any day, and the black-browed albatrosses won’t be far behind! The island will feel crowded and noisy with the colonies full of chatter and activity!

A wandering albatross chick with South Georgia in the background (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A wandering albatross chick with South Georgia in the background (Photo: Claudia Mischler)

Stacey was also busy in the lab indentifying and measuring krill and otoliths from macaroni and gentoo penguin diet samples. Since this is her last winter and summer, she is also preparing and organizing everything to hand over to the new penguin and giant petrel zoological field assistant starting in mid-October. The giant petrel field season starts about a week after the albatross field season, so her outside busyness won’t be far behind mine. Joe has been occupying his time with re-bolting the raised walkway amongst numerous other projects that need doing. The wood store tarp had suffered through its share of bad weather and needed replacing, and the water tanks also needed a good scrub. Mick continues the chase of trying to spot and identify leopard seals. The numbers fluctuate greatly depending on the weather — cold temperatures and snow or ice on the beaches nearly always guarantee a sighting, whereas they are usually nowhere to be seen on wet and warm days. Many afternoons have also been spent over at Johnston Beach and Pearson Point hoping for the chance to be able to see a lep kill a gentoo, but so far no one has had any luck.

A white giant petrel stretching its wings (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A white giant petrel stretching its wings (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
An isabelline gentoo penguin spending time with the other gentoos (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
An isabelline gentoo penguin spending time with the other gentoos (Photo: Claudia Mischler)

Besides work, August also had a couple of surprises in store for us. Mick had to be picked up from the island and was taken to our nearest neighbouring station at King Edward Point (KEP) due to medical reasons. This left only three of us behind. It was an interesting change, to say the least. We are now all responsible for taking turns doing the leopard seal round and collecting fur seal faeces for Mick, and the cooking rota now looks a bit different with only three instead of four people on it. For the less enthusiastic cooks among us, this was not the most welcome of changes. But we have all adjusted well and are making the most out of the situation. Mick will be fine and will return to the island soon.

A content and oh-so-sleepy leopard seal (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A content and oh-so-sleepy leopard seal (Photo: Claudia Mischler)

The second surprise this month was the coldest temperatures we’ve had since I arrived here last November. In the middle of the month, we had a chilly −5°C for most of the day. With winds straight from the south, it was not a day for sitting still for very long. Stacey and I had planned on going camping, but changed our minds as we weren’t keen to turn into two icicles overnight. The next morning, we checked the temperatures, and it had dropped to a crisp −8°C overnight! This is by far the coldest it has been this winter, and left us with no regrets whatsoever about not camping. There was a thin layer of ice in the bay in front of base, and the South Georgia pintail ducks also had ice on their feathers. So we tried camping another night, and stayed in Cave Crag (an actual cave, as the name suggests). With Mick still gone, Joe had to stay behind as someone needs to be on base at all times. Stacey and I had the most fantastic night — the moon and stars were shining bright, and there wasn’t a breeze in the air. We were pleasantly surprised when we heard diving petrels fluttering around the outside of the cave, and they ended up chatting the night away. In the morning, we were greeted with a light dusting of snow, no wind, and a thin layer of ice on Main Bay. The diving petrels were nowhere to be seen. It was a crisp −3°C for most of the night, but the peace and beauty of the night kept us warm in thought.

South Georgia pintail ducks with ice on their back (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
South Georgia pintail ducks with ice on their back (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
A thin layer of ice in Freshwater Bay (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A thin layer of ice in Freshwater Bay (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
Claudia sitting inside Cave Crag (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Claudia sitting inside Cave Crag (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The view in the morning from inside the cave (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The view in the morning from inside the cave (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The view in the morning from outside the cave (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The view in the morning from outside the cave (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

Hard to believe that this was our last full month of just the four of us together. In a few weeks, Andy Wood will arrive to do some work, and the main ship bringing food, supplies, and lots of people won’t be far behind. I find great comfort knowing that I get to spend another winter here − this last winter went by far too quickly, and I feel as though I blinked and missed it.

A couple of calm days made the ocean look like a lake (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A couple of calm days made the ocean look like a lake (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A beautiful sunset from North Cliffs (Photo: Claudia Mischler)
A beautiful sunset from North Cliffs (Photo: Claudia Mischler)

Best wishes to my family and friends!
Claudia Mischler, Albatross Zoological Field Assistant