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Bird Island Diary — May 2011

Life on Bird Island was made a little more interesting with the onset of an unforeseen blizzard which impacted smack-bang in the middle of the monthly Wanderer chick survey. The strength of the blizzard was such that it caused a cessation of the survey until the following day when conditions allowed us to walk in an upright position. Storms like these gives you some level of appreciation of what riggers the chicks must overcome even before they even leave the safety of their solid, egg-cup nests.

Chick on the Top Meadow with parent in close view (Photo: Mick Mackey)
Chick on the Top Meadow with parent in close view (Photo: Mick Mackey)

The Wanderer blizzard was just a taste of what was to come for the four Winter residents, for just a few days later on May 5th the island was hit by a huge swell from the south-southwest direction. The base itself is well protected within Jordan Cove from swells of most magnitudes from most directions. However, only a stone’s throw from the base is the Special Study Beach (SSB) platform, from which the lion’s share of the island’s Antarctic Fur Seal summer research is conducted. This scaffolding platform is no stranger to poor weather conditions and is frequently exposed to Mother Nature’s wrath. Unfortunately, it was no match for the ceaseless battering it experienced from that Southern Ocean onslaught. From a safe position on the cliffs above SSB, we witnessed, and photographed, the partial destruction of the SSB platform that had only been refurbished weeks before. Plans are afoot to reconstruct the platform at the end of next summer. This summer’s research plan, potentially, has been severely impacted.

The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)
The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)
The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)
The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)
The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)
The partial destruction of the Special Study Beach research platform (Photo: Mick Mackey)

Although the weather conditions on the island have been relatively mild, we have been lucky enough to encounter this winter’s first Leopard Seals. The first individual, a male christened Paddy Boy, was observed on Main Bay on May 7th — a good five to six weeks earlier than last year’s first encounter. During the following weeks we have had the pleasure of five different Leopard Seals, which can be identified by the characteristic patterns on the luxuriously smooth pelage. Dietary analysis of their scats indicate that our winter visitor have been dining on gentoo penguins and young fur seals, which are in no short supply on Bird Island. Geo-locator tags have been deployed on two of the animals so that some idea of their annual offshore movements can be obtained.

'Stephanie' the adult Leopard Seal gets comfortable on Johnson Cove (Photo: Mick Mackey)
'Stephanie' the adult Leopard Seal gets comfortable on Johnson Cove (Photo: Mick Mackey)

In other biological news, the Black-brow Albatross chicks continue to fledge, while the Grey-head Albatross chicks have also started to flee their nests for an oceanic lifestyle. Not all chicks are successful in their quest to reach the sea, however, and those that don’t quite make it keep the island’s Skua, Giant Petrel and Snowy Sheatbill populations in drumsticks during these lean early-winter months.

A Black-browed Albatross chick at home amongst the tussac grass (Photo: Mick Mackey)
A Black-browed Albatross chick at home amongst the tussac grass (Photo: Mick Mackey)

Mick Mackey
Seal Assistant