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Bird Island Diary - May 2012

I cannot believe it’s been over a month since the four of us were stood at the end of the jetty waving goodbye as the JCR sailed away for the last time until November. This month has raced by, but what a month! We began May with the all island Wanderer chick census to assess how many of the remaining chicks had failed during April. Covering the entire island with only four people is quite a challenge compared to during the summer months when there are twice as many willing volunteers. During the first two weeks of May the Grey-headed, Black-browed and Light-mantled sooty albatross chick censuses were completed adding to the long term dataset on breeding success for the three species.

Wandering albatross adult and chick (Photo: Jenny James)
Wandering albatross adult and chick (Photo: Jenny James)

Throughout May, my daily trips to Colonies E and J have allowed me to witness the Grey-headed and Black-browed albatross chicks gradually lose their downy fluff, begin to practice using their wings and eventually fledge. In addition the Southern giant petrel chicks with their striking dark plumage and pale pink beaks also fledged this month. The ‘geep’ chicks nests were dotted throughout the tussac across the flatter sections of the island and their absence is very noticeable when walking around. Over the past 6 years some of the giant petrel chicks have been given tiny tracking devices which are attached to their legs. Generally chicks return to the island for the first time in order to breed after 6 years away. Hopefully this coming summer we will be able to retrieve the first devices from returning birds and solve the mystery of where they spend those first 6 years of life.

Black-browed albatross chicks learning how to use their wings. (Photo: Jenny James)
Black-browed albatross chicks learning how to use their wings. (Photo: Jenny James)
A down covered Grey-headed albatross chick. (Photo: Jenny James)
A down covered Grey-headed albatross chick. (Photo: Jenny James)
Southern Giant petrel chick. (Photo: Jenny James)
Southern Giant petrel chick. (Photo: Jenny James)

Nearly all of the fur seals have now departed the island and the beaches seem remarkably quiet. Although with the disappearance of the furries, elephant seals have started turning up, using the island as a motel to haul out and rest for a while between hunting trips. Even more exciting was our first leopard seal sighting of the winter. Every day Jon walks along the coast from the Special Study Beach to Evermann Bay on the ‘Lep round’ in order to find and identify any Leopard seals that visit Bird Island. No surprises then that the first sighting of the year took place right outside base, where Maurice (a regular visitor to BI) killed and devoured a penguin, awarding us spectacular view from the living room window.

Resting elephant seal (Photo: Jenny James)
Resting elephant seal (Photo: Jenny James)
The fattest fur seal I've ever seen. (Photo: Jenny James)
The fattest fur seal I've ever seen. (Photo: Jenny James)

Before leaving the UK to come to BI, I remember people asking me ‘…but what will you do in the winter, won’t you get bored?’ Well I certainly haven’t been bored so far! In addition to the regular long term monitoring we do here all of us have also been hard at work making our mid-winter presents. We each make only one present for another member of the team, chosen via a Secret-Santa type draw. With there being only four of us it took more than a few attempts before we all managed to draw a name that wasn’t our own. Keeping the present a secret on such a small base is also a challenge, particularly with only one workshop.

Thankfully I have been spared of the task of indenting. Unfortunately for everyone else though this time of year means that the medical kit, food and communications kit all need to be checked and counted to assess what we need to order in at first call. Somehow I have escaped this duty however I like to think I have contributed by indenting all the albatross on the island.

Rather embarrassingly in order to try and keep our fitness up through the winter months we have all started doing a daily fitness DVD. I’m not talking Davina McCall’s fitness video here, this is more like military conditioning on DVD. We all thought we were pretty fit after spending our days climbing hills and battling tussac, but it turns out we were wrong. So it has become routine for us all to gather at 6pm and put ourselves through an hour of Shaun T and his Insanity work out. Highly recommended if you enjoy pain.

The four of us doing our daily 'Insanity' work out. Try doing these jumps for just 1 minute. (Photo: Jenny James)
The four of us doing our daily 'Insanity' work out. Try doing these jumps for just 1 minute. (Photo: Jenny James)

The nights have definitely started drawing in here and because we run on GMT it is now just beginning to get light at around 10.30am. On the bright side, the shorter days make it very easy to go out and watch the sun rise and set making for some spectacular photographs. Wintery weather has also hit the island meaning that we have all had to start wearing crampons when venturing around the island. The snow covered peaks of South Georgia and the Willis Isles also make for some picturesque landscape photographs.

View from the North cliffs with Willis in the background. (Photo: Jenny James)
View from the North cliffs with Willis in the background. (Photo: Jenny James)

Jenny James,
Zoological Field Assistant (albatrosses).