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Bird Island Diary — October 2010

This month the diary is mainly penned by the “new arrival”. I arrived in late September heralding the start of spring (but somebody forgot to tell the weather man). A new arrival for the season I may be, but certainly not new to Bird Island. I was first here in the days when there was no internet connection, all communications were dictated over the radio to Signy, and then on to the UK over Inmarsat. 200 words a month was your allowance — who sends less than that in one email now? Well enough of the past, the month of October is nearly over, and the summer crowds are on their way South. This month has seen the temperatures creep a little higher, and the birds and seals have been doing what they usually do in this early spring period.

Winter retains its grip at Bird Island (Photo: Andy Wood)
Winter retains its grip at Bird Island (Photo: Andy Wood)

Claudia has been spending more and more time in the albatross colonies, as first the male birds come to expose and re-build the nest, and then the females a little later to add that final touch. She has first to deal with her favourites, the early birds, the grey-headed albatross, all calm and sophisticated (so I am told). But all too soon those brash noisy creatures the black-browed albatross are back, and the same process of catching unringed birds and recording who is nesting in study colonies, begins. Just prior to egg laying, each nest gets a numbered plastic tag, and trying to push a piece of wire into a frozen bird nest is not fun, especially when you have to do it 800 times (in a blizzard — of course)! It is a little disheartening to find that the bird has covered the tag with more nesting material a few days later.

Grey-headed Albatross sitting on a tagged nest (Photo: Andy Wood)
Grey-headed Albatross sitting on a tagged nest (Photo: Andy Wood)
Black-browed Albatross in flight (Photo: Andy Wood)
Black-browed Albatross in flight (Photo: Andy Wood)

Joe has continued in his unenviable duties of keeping this place in working order. The month has not given him many surprises; a few chosen words to a generator causing some grief is all that has been needed. As a scientist I have only a passing understanding of what is included in Joe’s day to day work. But the water keeps running, the showers are working, the heating is excellent and the electricity is just there when needed! I have yet to meet the house elves who must do all the hard work. One day we spent a happy few hours cleaning out one of the water supply tanks — I don’t think you want to know the details of this, but some strange things collect in the bottom of water tanks!

Pair of Light Mantled Sooty Albatross (Photo: Andy Wood)
Pair of Light Mantled Sooty Albatross (Photo: Andy Wood)

Mick has split his time between pounding the beaches looking for leopard seals, and sitting in a nice warm laboratory. The laboratory bit sounds like luxury, but when you realise it involves sorting seal poo the glamour goes right out of the window. Leopard seals tend to prefer waters where there is plenty of sea ice, and this winter (like many recently, so I am told) has been lacking in ice bergs floating past. Consequently, Mick has been a little disappointed in the numbers of animals he has encountered; some weeks it was the same old face, just a different bay. Fur seal numbers have been gradually increasing over the month, but the problem of not being able to take the short-cuts across the beaches has yet to materialise. This will be the subject for another day.

Leopard Seal yawning (Photo: Andy Wood)
Leopard Seal yawning (Photo: Andy Wood)

Stacey has been hard at work for a number of weeks trying to keep track of a proportion of the islands population of northern and southern giant petrels (geeps). First to start are the northerns, and unlike the albatrosses, the geeps get a nest stake to mark their home. The same problems arise with frozen ground though, you just cannot get those stakes into it just yet. Plan B is to push the stakes horizontally into a convenient patch of tussock grass. That worked until it snowed again! If you have any other solutions to this problem, send us your suggestions on a post card. For those who are keen to know how you go about a daily survey of giant petrel nests, we put a GPS tracker on Stacey, and the following map shows what she gets up to (blue/green line). All in a day’s work!

Map of daily geep survey. (Photo: Andy Wood)
Map of daily geep survey. (Photo: Andy Wood)

What have I been up to these past few weeks? Some might say I have been walking around with my head deep in the tussock, but when you are searching for burrowing birds, what else can you do? I will depart with a lot more knowledge on where these elusive birds hide themselves around the island, all for a new science project plan. Next time I will have to move to the night-shift to take this project further.

Bird Island on a sunny day (Photo: Andy Wood)
Bird Island on a sunny day (Photo: Andy Wood)

Well that is all from me. If you are an avid reader of these pages, we may meet again another year. Until then I have a bit more packing to do, a few more barrels of fuel to roll, and then a big red and white ship is coming to take me back home to a Cambridge winter. It was great to experience this southern spring one more time; both the wildlife and the winter BI team.

Andy Wood.
Marine Predator Ecologist.