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Bird Island Diary — September 2012

Well spring seems to have officially sprung here on Bird Island. We celebrated the spring equinox on September 22nd by making cider with the remnants of our apples (I use the term ‘apple’ in the loosest sense of the word as they have now been in the store room for nearly 6 months). September also marks two other important dates; my big sister’s birthday on the 9th (Happy birthday (soon to be Dr.) Ann Fitzpatrick) and on the 29th I have officially been on Bird Island for one year. Time has raced by and I treasure the time I’ve spent here and am looking forward to by next 6 months on this beautiful island.

Bird Island guide to making cider:

Stage 1 — Scrump some apples and chop them up

Scrumped apples (Photo: Jenny James)
Scrumped apples (Photo: Jenny James)
Chopped scrumped apples (Photo: Jenny James)
Chopped scrumped apples (Photo: Jenny James)

Stage 2 — Put the pieces through the mincer and catcCollect the delicious juice, add brewing yeast and wait several monthsh the pulp in a pan balanced on a stool balanced on a chair

Mincing to a pulp (Photo: Jenny James)
Mincing to a pulp (Photo: Jenny James)

Stage 3 — Put the pulp in a pillow case and squeeze out the juice

A pillow case full of pulp (Photo: Jenny James)
A pillow case full of pulp (Photo: Jenny James)

Stage 4 — Collect the delicious juice, add brewing yeast and wait several months

Juice ready to ferment (Photo: Jenny James)
Juice ready to ferment (Photo: Jenny James)

With spring comes the new breeding season and already Ruth has been monitoring the progress of the northern giant petrel nests in her study area, marking all those with eggs and recording the parents ring numbers. The gentoo penguins have also begun to gather and prepare for the breeding season, building nests out of rocks and any other debris they can find (bits of seal carcass seem to be a firm favourite). Ruth is also tasked with monitoring the progress of two of the island’s gentoo colonies, recording the date of the first egg laid and counting the total number of nests when laying is complete. To our great astonishment the first egg this year was seen on 22nd September — a record early start to the gentoo breeding season.

Isabelline moult penguin (paler bird) with its partner on a nest of stones and bones (Photo: Jenny James)
Isabelline moult penguin (paler bird) with its partner on a nest of stones and bones (Photo: Jenny James)

As of the 1st of September I began my daily rounds of the colonies looking for mollymawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) returning from their winter at sea. The grey-headed albatross return to the island slightly earlier then the black-brows as their breeding season is slightly longer. Evidently the mollymawks didn’t get that memo because the first molly seen, on September 11th, was a black-brow flying around Colony K. The next day however, to my great delight, the first grey-headed albatross pitched up in Colony B. The mollymawks will not begin laying until next month so until then I record all the birds present which have rings so as to keep tabs on who has returned to the island.

 The ‘Ring Year’ column is blank because she was ringed as an adult so her exact age is unknown, but she is likely to be at least 30.

Grey-headed albatross in Colony E (Photo: Jenny James)
Grey-headed albatross in Colony E (Photo: Jenny James)

Another huge task which was completed this month was the ringing of all the wandering albatross chicks on the island. This amounts to just shy of 600 birds covering the entire island. Thankfully Ruth was on hand to help me and between us we managed to ring all but nine of the chicks which have been left so the new albatross assistant can see how it‘s done when she arrives. The wanderer chicks are now about 7 months old and still have several months before they begin to fledge. They are now beginning to lose their downy white fluff and grow dark feathers in its place. They have also begun trying out their wings; stretching and flapping them, especially on windy days.

Six-month old wandering albatross chick trying out its wings (Photo: Jenny James)
Six-month old wandering albatross chick trying out its wings (Photo: Jenny James)

On the phocid front Jon is still doing his daily lep rounds, recording and photographing all leopard seals seen on the island. Although the numbers seem to have dropped off, probably due to inordinately warm air temperatures in August, there are still regular sightings. Although they don’t breed here, elephant seals occasionally come to the island for a snooze and in the past few weeks some big males have been spotted snoring and burping while they sleep.

Elephant seal - this chap keeps hauling out in front of base and tends to be very vocal at about 3am (Photo: Jenny James)
Elephant seal - this chap keeps hauling out in front of base and tends to be very vocal at about 3am (Photo: Jenny James)

On the technical front Rob has been busy ‘balancing the phases’ which I believe is a very important task in order to prevent the generators over loading and cutting out. Another of Rob’s favourite jobs is cleaning out the water tanks. Rainwater and water from the stream behind base is collected and stored in a 4000l tank. This water is then cleaned using ceramic filters and sterilised with UV light so that we can drink it. However over time debris builds up in the tank which can clog the filters and contaminate our lovely drinking water. To prevent this Rob has the delightful task of cleaning out the tanks every few months. To do this he drains the tanks, climbs in and starts scrubbing. He then uses a water vacuum cleaner to hoover up the remaining water and dirt from the bottom of the tank and sterilises it with chlorine tablets. As well as his regular weekly tasks (fire alarm tests, refuelling, servicing the generators) Rob also fixed the light in the boot room (which I did not break) and the blender (which I did). More important than all of this is the barbeque he has been working on which promises to be the mother of all barbeques. We hope to christen it soon.

Rob's home-made barbeque (Photo: Jenny James)
Rob's home-made barbeque (Photo: Jenny James)

Jenny James
Bird Island Zoological Field Assistant