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Bird Island Diary — October 2012

When I last spoke to you, back in June, the theme of my entry was of animals leaving the island for the winter, so it seems apt that I now get to write about them coming back for spring. Before I spoke of the animals disappearing without you really noticing, but after the quiet months of winter their return has been conspicuous to say the least! Over a period of just 4 weeks nearly 4000 gentoo eggs have been laid, the cliffs become dotted with many thousands of nesting mollies, the once bare slopes of the macaroni colonies are now full with the males returning to claim their territories, and the first male furries have taken up residence on the beaches. Oh and in case any of the avid readers are wondering, the fur seal poo is now much easier to come by!

A grey-headed albatross sits on her nest in Colony B (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A grey-headed albatross sits on her nest in Colony B (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

October has been a busy month for Jen with the Mollies (a collective term the grey-head, black-brow and light mantled sooty albatross) returning to the colonies and re-establish their pair bonds and start laying eggs. Jen has to visit the study colonies every day to record which birds are breeding where, with whom, and the date every egg is laid — it is a huge task with around 1600 nests to monitor in total. The first of the mollies to start laying are Jen’s favourites, the grey-heads which are generally much gentler and easier to work with than the more churlish black-brows. The first eggs were seen early in the month, and they have now all but finished laying giving a few days reprieve for Jen before the black brows get going in earnest.

A churlish black-browed albatross in Colony J (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A churlish black-browed albatross in Colony J (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

The Black-brows return to the island a little later, marked by their fog-horn like call echoing across the meadows, and the first eggs were seen towards the middle of the month, they are now approaching peak laying and will not finish until early November. After that it will be a long wait until December when the chicks start to hatch.

October also sees the return of light-mantled sooty albatross; it is wonderful to see them return, as part of their courtship ritual is spectacular displays of synchronised flying with their partners. Unlike the grey-heads and black-brows the sooties do not nest in colonies and instead perch their nests on steep cliffs making next month’s task of finding their nests all the more challenging!

A pair of light-mantled-sooty albatross perform their synchronised flying routine (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A pair of light-mantled-sooty albatross perform their synchronised flying routine (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

In other bird news Ruth has been kept busy by the giant petrels (geeps), there are two species of geep, northerns and southerns. The northern geeps started laying last month but continued well into October, so Ruth has been out scouring every inch of the meadows for new nests, and making sure she knows who is breeding with who. There is an exciting bit of geep gossip this year as a hybrid geep (a cross between a northern and a southern) has once again returned to breed. He is the only hybrid geep known to have successfully reared a chick and so is proof that the two species can successfully interbreed, in fact Ruth is in the process of writing a paper about him so he is soon to be famous! The northerns have finished laying now, so Ruth is enjoying the respite before the southerns start next month.

The hybrid giant petrel, see the red flecks at the tip of the beak which result from the combination of the green beak of the southerns and the red of the northerns (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The hybrid giant petrel, see the red flecks at the tip of the beak which result from the combination of the green beak of the southerns and the red of the northerns (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A northern giant petrel hunkers down on the nest (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A northern giant petrel hunkers down on the nest (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

When I say Ruth has had a respite, this is not strictly true as she also has two penguin species to look after. The gentoos stay on the island all year round, and there is always a lot of variation in when they start to breed, but this year they got going particularly early and have now finished laying. One of our annual tasks is to count every gentoo nest on the island which is a big task completed over a couple of days. Counting penguins is a bit of a dark art as is it incredibly difficult to work out who is actually on an egg, and who is just having a lie down, and also to keep track of where you have got to, and generally involves lots of descriptions involving ‘that stone next to the penguin…’!

Ruth and Rob counting the gentoos at Natural Arch (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
Ruth and Rob counting the gentoos at Natural Arch (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

Unlike the gentoos the comical looking macaroni penguins with their bushy yellow ‘eyebrows’ head to sea for the winter, leaving behind vast empty swathes of hillside where there colonies used to be. Since they left back in April not a single one has been seen until the 17th of the month when we saw the first few males returning to Big Mac to claim their territories. Over the following two weeks the rest of the males have returned and the colonies are now full of thousands of macs defending their territories and awaiting their mates, it is amazing to see such a rapid influx of penguins!

A very small section of Big Mac, this is only the males so the density will double in the next fortnight! (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A very small section of Big Mac, this is only the males so the density will double in the next fortnight! (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A lone mac crosses the weigh bridge on the way to Little Mac, soon there will be a constant stream of penguins across here (Photo: Ruth Brown)
A lone mac crosses the weigh bridge on the way to Little Mac, soon there will be a constant stream of penguins across here (Photo: Ruth Brown)

We also had an unusual visit from another member of the penguin kingdom this month, when an Adélie was seen mingling with the gentoos at Square Pond. Adélies are generally restricted to Antarctic waters, only very rarely being sighted around South Georgia. It was great to see one, this is the first I have seen in 4 years of working on South Georgia. He was a fine chap, and very amenable to the paparazzi style photography he inevitably received from all on base, although he might have chosen a better backdrop than muddy tussock!

The Adelie penguin in his muddy scene (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The Adelie penguin in his muddy scene (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

From my point of view this has been a pretty quiet month, which is nice since the 1st of November sees the start of the intensive fur seal work which will keep me very busy until I leave in March. The majority of the leopard seals seem to have headed south for the summer again, and I have had very few encounters this month. Instead the beaches were taken over by the southern elephant seals, and while we don’t see that many here, they more than make up for their low numbers with size and volume! They are impressive beasts, with the males weighing in at up to 4 tonnes and producing an amazing array of flatulent rumbling roars, which have reverberated constantly around the beaches. Very few pups are born here, but this year we are very lucky to have one very close to the base on Landing Beach. The pups are amazing things, their mothers will nurse them for around 3 weeks, during which time they will triple their body weight to around 100kg. After 3 weeks the mothers will leave and the pup will have to fend for itself.

A male fur seal in fine condition after returning from his winter feed (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A male fur seal in fine condition after returning from his winter feed (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The new born elly pup suckling on the fat rich milk (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The new born elly pup suckling on the fat rich milk (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

Last but not least the fur seals have started to return, with the first magnificent adult males coming to take up residence on the beaches. It is wonderful to see them at this time of year, they are in such fantastic condition, carrying huge reserves of fat, and sporting thick fur coats. They won’t stay this way for long though, and will soon start to look battle torn and malnourished as the combination of weeks of fasting and constant brutal fighting for territory takes its toll. It won’t be long now until the females start to arrive and the beaches will be impassable until the New Year… Earlier in the month we had a visit from a very handsome brindle morph juvenile male fur seal, this is very rare genetic trait which results in a tabby like coat. He is only the second brindle I have ever seen, and we are hoping to see him again over the summer.

A male fur seal in fine condition after returning from his winter feed (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
A male fur seal in fine condition after returning from his winter feed (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The brindle morph fur seal (Photo: Jon Ashburner)
The brindle morph fur seal (Photo: Jon Ashburner)

I think that about covers it for the animals activities this month, so I suppose I should mention a little of what us humans got up to! We celebrated Jen’s birthday on the 10th, with a night of Margaritas and Profiteroles, she received a fantastic haul of presents too with a framed picture of a grey-head (photo by Ruth, frame by me), a key fob made from a BTO ring once worn by a wandering albatross that was ringed here in 1979, a model motorbike from Rob! The motorbike was amazing, a scale model of a Norton Commando made from pieces of copper pipe, wood, bird rings and assorted other fittings, it really is a work of art! There have been a couple of Bird Island Anniversaries this month as well, with Rob and I reaching the 1 year mark, and Ruth celebrating the end of her second year on the Island.

Jen's haul of birthday presents (Photo: Jenny James)
Jen's haul of birthday presents (Photo: Jenny James)
The fantastic model motorbike made for Jen by Rob (Jenny James)
The fantastic model motorbike made for Jen by Rob (Jenny James)

I guess winter officially came to an end this month as well, with our first ship call, and the arrival of the first member of the summer team, Jaume Focada. Jaume is a BAS seal biologist, and comes down most years to help run the seal programme here. It is great to have a fresh face around base, and particularly in the kitchen — with only four of us the menu became a little repetitive over the winter, so when Jaume prepared a fantastic Tapas night on Saturday it was a real treat. With the ship call also came the first fresh fruit and vegetables we have seen since April, so the first few days after were spent gorging on salad, but perhaps the most exciting item was the bananas, which have been fantasising about for months now!

Ok I think that just about ties things up for this month, except for saying congratulations to Jen’s sister Dr Ann, who recently finished her PhD and started her new job at MIT — best of luck with the new job and all the lasers Ann!

I would usually sign of with ‘Until next time’ but unfortunately I will be leaving this fantastic island at the end of the summer and so this will probably be my last entry. So I’ll just say hello to all my friends back home, and lots of love to my parents.

All the best,

Jon Ashburner
Seal Assistant