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Bird Island Diary - June 2012

June is the time when island and its inhabitants get fully settled into the winter; the majority of the summer breeding animals have now left, and our little island is starting to feel strangely quiet. This is a gradual process and not really something you notice, until someone asks when you last saw a skua, or you realise it has been over a month since more than a couple of penguins have been seen together, and for me at least, that the fur seal poo which we use for diet analysis is getting increasingly hard to find… This is not a sad time, just another side to this fantastic little rock which we are lucky enough to call our home, and there are still a good few animals around, including some magnificent winter visitors, but more on them later!

The month started as usual with the wandering albatross chick census, the wanderer chicks will not fledge until December, and on the first of each month we check every chick on the island in order to monitor the breeding success. The census brought great news, only 2 failures in over 700 chicks… This is amazing when you think of the conditions they have to survive; perched on their exposed nests enduring the harshest weather the island has to offer, with nothing but their down to protect them from the elements. They are growing incredibly fast too, back in April I could hold a wanderer chick in my hand, but now they are starting to spill out of their nests!

A wandering albatross chick sitting out a cold winter's day (Jon Ashburner)
A wandering albatross chick sitting out a cold winter's day (Jon Ashburner)

The last of the summer breeding birds to leave is the grey headed albatross, and in early June Jen was kept busy with the fledging rounds. These are daily visits to the study colonies to check for failed chicks, and note when the luckier ones have fledged. On the 9th of June Jen came bouncing back into base after her rounds with the news that the last of her study chicks had fledged! The reason for her excitement is that it meant for the first time since arriving on the Island back in October, she will no longer have a daily field work requirement and can finally take a well earned rest!

A grey-headed albatross chick tests its wings before taking its first flight (Jon Ashburner)
A grey-headed albatross chick tests its wings before taking its first flight (Jon Ashburner)

My month has been dominated by those magnificent winter visitors – which are of course the leopard seals. Each day throughout the winter I patrol a selection of beaches known to be leopard seal hot spots, taking photos of any leps I encounter. We use these photos to identify the animals, as they have unique patterns of spots rather like a finger print. Another part of this project is to deploy a small number of GLSs (tiny tracking tags) on the seals to see where these little-studied creatures disperse to during the summer months. This month I was lucky enough to retrieve a GLS from a lep that was tagged by Mick last winter, it is very rare that we manage to retrieve these tags, and so we are very excited to be able to see where the seal has been!

A leopard seal thrashing its kill, a juvenile Antarctic fur seal (Jon Ashburner)
A leopard seal thrashing its kill, a juvenile Antarctic fur seal (Jon Ashburner)
A leopard seal gives me a suspicious look (Jon Ashburner)
A leopard seal gives me a suspicious look (Jon Ashburner)

While June is a quiet month in terms of the wildlife, it is the highpoint in the Antarctic social calendar – being home to the Mid Winter Celebrations… Bases across the continent take time off to celebrate the shortest day of the year, and for those bases further south, the slow return of the sun. We do not experience 24hr darkness here — even in the height of winter we get 7hr of light, but Mid-Winters day still marks the start of the countdown to the hustle and bustle of summer, and it’s a great excuse to have a good party, eat too much, and have a couple of drinks! This year was also the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and we very lucky to get a very rare crystal clear night so we celebrated with drinks on the jetty and took a long-exposure photo with light painting to commemorate the event!

Jon, Jen, Rob and Ruth celebrate the Diamond Jubilee (Ruth Brown)
Jon, Jen, Rob and Ruth celebrate the Diamond Jubilee (Ruth Brown)

We started our celebrations on Mid-Winters day itself, as is the tradition here the day began with the Base Commanders breakfast; Ruth excelled herself with a continental platter of croissants, pain au chocolat, and homemade raspberry jam! I then went off to do my lep rounds, and thankfully there were no leps in the bay as the next item on the agenda was the Mid-Winter swim… Now when I say swim I mean a very quick dash in and out of the sea (owing to the brisk 1°C water temperature) followed by a hasty retreat to our hot-tub, where we supped brandy and enjoyed a celebratory cigar! We live a hard life here… After a couple of hours the tub was beginning to cool so we moved inside, donned the glad rags and toasted the shortest day with a glass of Champagne before sitting down to our feast! We kept things simple this year with a smoked salmon terrine, followed by a side of roast beef with all the trimmings, and topped off with a fantastic cake made by Ruth and decorated with a leopard seal ‘Marzipanimal’! With our bellies full it was then time for the eagerly anticipated exchange of Mid-Winter presents.

The four of us recovering from the swim in the hot tub! (Ruth Brown)
The four of us recovering from the swim in the hot tub! (Ruth Brown)
All dressed up and about to enjoy our Mid-Winter Feast (Ruth Brown)
All dressed up and about to enjoy our Mid-Winter Feast (Ruth Brown)

Back in April all the base members drew names from a hat to decide who each of us will be making a present for — like a secret Santa. Since then it has all been very cloak and dagger with everyone scurrying around base crafting their gifts in upmost secrecy! During the run up to Mid-Winter the base was like a ghost town with every spare moment being spent in our respective working areas trying to get the presents finished in time… It was well worth it though, as the quality of the gifts was outstanding — the hidden creative talents of my fellow winterers never ceases to amaze me! I was given a set of 3 hand drawn maps by Ruth, one of Bird Island, one of South Georgia and one of the area around King Edward Point where I spent 30 months before coming here. The maps are framed in old wood from SSB (the gantry we use to study fur seals during the summer), it is a beautiful gift — thank you Ruth! Ruth received a wonderful carving of a macaroni penguin from Rob, and Jen gave Rob a fantastic trunk, decorated with a map of Bird Island that she cast from metal herself. My gift was to Jen; I carved her a sculpture of a wandering albatross in flight that is designed to hang on the wall. With the presents exchanged the music was turned up and we proceeded to dance the night away until the wee hours — it was a truly wonderful day!

Our Mid-Winter presents (Ruth Brown & Jon Ashburner)
Our Mid-Winter presents (Ruth Brown & Jon Ashburner)
Testing the strength of Jen’s present to Rob! Rob, Ruth (Back), Jen (Front) and Jon (Ruth Brown)
Testing the strength of Jen’s present to Rob! Rob, Ruth (Back), Jen (Front) and Jon (Ruth Brown)

The next stage of our celebrations was the Bird Island Highland games, so we got dressed up in tartan and headed out for a series of events designed to test both strength and skill… The first test was 10 pin bowling, using an old buoy salvaged from the beach and a set of inflatable skittles. I somehow managed to dominate the bowling, I think more through luck than judgement as I have rarely hit the pins in previous experience. This was followed by the more traditional caber toss using a piece of driftwood, which again I managed to win although I was hotly contested by Rob and aided by a fortunate slide of my caber on some ice…. Speed and agility were to be tried next, with the egg and spoon race, in which there was a photo finish between Jen and Rob decided only by egg condition, with Jen sneaking the victory. A second test of strength followed with the welly wang, Rob produced a gargantuan wang to win the event, hurling his welly 10m clear of the next best effort! We then headed in for a half time dram to warm up and prepare ourselves for a test of coordination — the spoon dangle! Here competitors race to a wine bottle, lower the handle of a wooden spoon tied round their waist into the bottle before running back to the start. This event was dominated by the girls with Jen winning, and Ruth coming in a close second. The penultimate round was curling (or throwing rocks at a target in the snow), Jen was triumphant once again in this event with me coming in a distant second after sneakily knocking one of Ruth’s stones out of the points… We finished with crossbow shooting, trying to hit a large target depicting various animals that gave different points based on their size. I pipped Rob to the post in this event, although I do have an unfair advantage with using the crossbow for my work… With the games complete we headed inside for an awards ceremony accompanied by some delicious mulled cider, winning the crossbow gave me the win with a narrow 2pt margin over Rob, and I was awarded with a prize of finest Scottish Boilings courtesy of Ruth’s Mum! Thanks Primrose!

The Highland Games, left to right, top to bottom; Me tossing the caber, Jen wanging her welly, Dead-Eye-Jen with the crossbow, a group photo around the target (Ruth Brown)
The Highland Games, left to right, top to bottom; Me tossing the caber, Jen wanging her welly, Dead-Eye-Jen with the crossbow, a group photo around the target (Ruth Brown)
To the victor got the spoils! (Ruth Brown)
To the victor got the spoils! (Ruth Brown)

We finished the week with pub crawl around the base, with each of us converting a room into a themed bar! Jen was the first host with a Hawaiian Beach bar in the laundry room where we dressed up in grass skirts and garlands, and sipped a fruity cocktail while gazing out onto a beautiful tropical beach view! After lapping up the rays we moved to the ‘Seal Lounge’ where I had converted the spare bedroom into a lounge bar, with sofas made from mattresses (we don’t have sofas here and miss them dearly) and serving Long Island Iced Tea with a selection of nuts and nibbles… After enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of the Seal Lounge we migrated to Ruth’s Biohazard Cocktail Bar to enjoy a bespoke collection of delicious BI themed cocktails including ‘The Bloody Placenta’, ‘The Stomach Contents Sour’ and ‘The Diet Sample Daiquiri’! The final venue was a step down from the high end cocktail bars, with Rob’s pub, ‘The Dive Inn’. At first we were a little concerned by the chalk outlines on the floor, and notices about ongoing murder investigations… However our fears were quickly put to rest by a pint of Rob’s finest (and not watered down in the slightest) ale, and with the DJ playing some great tunes we soon got to dancing the night away once again! A great night was had by all, and we wearily retreated to bed in the early hours of the morning.

The Pubs and Clubs of Bird Island, left to right, top to bottom; Ruth soaking up the rays in the Hawaiian Bar, Rob and I chilling in the Seal Lounge, the delicious drinks of the Bo
The Pubs and Clubs of Bird Island, left to right, top to bottom; Ruth soaking up the rays in the Hawaiian Bar, Rob and I chilling in the Seal Lounge, the delicious drinks of the Bo

Well that all from our little rock this month, so I would just like to say hello to everyone back home, and lots of love to my parents Bill and Jean!

Until next time,

Jon Ashburner
Seal Assistant