Tuesday, 22 April 2014

First call

By mid November it was time for the summer season to officially begin (although I'd already been doing my summer work since the start of September). The James Clark Ross arrived to bring the new winterers and summer staff to the island.

After spending over 8 months on the island just the four of us, we were considerably nervous about having new people on the island. Before first call could start we had to seal proof the base. The male Antarctic fur seals had already started returning to claim a territory and await the females. Our raised walk ways seem a particularly attractive territory, which does not help us when we are trying to bring cargo up and down them. So a couple of weeks before first call we had to put up barricades to try to deter the seals from making territories in inconvenient places. We lined up empty due drums all the way from the jetty towards the base, and put heavy rocks on top of weigh them down. Some of the seals did not seem to understand that this meant that they were not supposed to go in that area, and kept climbing over (yes climbing over) the drums. They are insanely strong and use their front flips to hoist themselves up and over. You then had the difficult task of removing them from the area, which isn't easy to do with a 300kg, stubborn, and aggressive animal. It was stressful all round, but by the time first call came we only had one problem seal, which isn't too bad considering the numbers on the beach. 

On the morning of first call we waited on the jetty for the first boat to come in with what seemed like a hundred people on it. Suddenly our quiet little house was rammed with people and we all felt way out of our comfort zone. The newbies arrived on the second boat and we did our best to make them feel at home as we know how overwhelming it is arriving on the island. Jess is my replacement working on albatross, Cian to work on seals, Rob the new tech, Manos IT specialist and Adam the summer base commander. 

After an exhausting day shifting cargo, sorting vegetables for invasive species, and fitting in a few tours to show off the Wandering albatross the boat finally left for the day. I quickly knocked together some pasta (a lot of pasta compared to normal as we had 10 on base compared to the usual 4) and started getting to know our new housemates. It took another couple of days to get all of the cargo ashore and we were delighted to have some new fresh food, as well as post and parcels from home. 

Lost, lost Weddell seal

One September afternoon sitting in the lounge and looking across the bay we noticed a strange looking lump lying on the shore. It definitely wasn't a fur seal and didn't look right to be an elephant or leopard seal. On further investigation it turned out to be a Weddell seal!

This is a fairly rare visitor to Bird Island as they are normally found much further south hanging out on the ice. We were all obviously very excited and rushed around the bay to take a closer look. It looked like a fairly young seal and it spent all afternoon sleeping on the shore.

A snotty looking Weddell seal chilling on the beach

Return of the albatross

Grey head awaiting the return of its partner
September is the month when the winter finally feels like it is coming to an end. After months of deserted colonies the albatross finally start to return. From the 1st September I started visiting the Grey-headed albatross colonies to await the first bird coming back. The first bird was a female seen back on the 13th September in colony E. She was first observed on the island in 1989 as an adult making her over 30 years old! Since then she has raised three successful chicks out of 17 breeding attempts. Hopefully the 2014 season will see her fourth success.
Grey head coming in to land

Within a couple of week the grey heads had returned in force and the colonies are noisy once again. They have been making renovations to the nests and are getting reacquainted with the partners that they haven’t seen for almost two years since they last bred. I have been visiting the main study colonies every day and recording which individuals are back. This is fairly easy to do, but very time consuming, as most of the birds have plastic darvic rings that can easily be read at a distance. 
Any birds returning without darvics tend to be young birds returning for the first time. Chicks do not receive darvics only a metal ring as the mortality rate is too high to justify the expense of the darvics. I've been doing my best to catch as many young birds as possible and put a darvic on them. This only takes a couple of minutes but it very valuable to do, as it reduces future disturbance trying to read the metal ring. 
Grey head pair preening each other to renew their bond after a couple of years apart
The Black-browed albatross are slightly later to return as their breeding season is shorter than the grey heads so they don't have to get started quite as soon. It wasn't long though before they were home and their loud distinctive call was filling the air. It's definitely a noise I'd missed over winter.

 Before the eggs are laid I had to put nest tags in every nest that might possibly be used so that once the birds start breeding I'll be able to keep track of each nest and can record lay dates, and both adults ring numbers. This was a pretty big task as the colonies are spread out across the island, and I needed to put in hundreds of tags. I had a pretty heavy bag for a couple of days!
Black browed albatross pair on their nest site

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Elephant seal pups

This year turned out to be a lucky one for Bird Island residents with two elephant seal pups born on Landing beach, which is the next beach over from us. One morning when Craig was heading over to SSB (the seal study beach) to do some work on the infrastructure there, when we got an excited call over the radio. For a few days there had been a couple of fat females lying on the beach next to one of the colossal males. On this particular morning Craig had spotted a black lump lying next to one of the females, and on closer inspection it turned out to be a pup!

Elephant seal mother protecting her new born pup from a brown skua that fancied a taste of umbilical cord
We all rushed over to take a look from a distance at the newborn. Elephant seal mothers are quite nervous, so we didn’t want to get too close in case we scared her and she abandoned the pup. Mother and pup were being harassed by a pair of brown skuas that saw the pups birth as a hearty meal opportunity. The skuas kept grabbing at the pups umbilical cord trying to rip bits off. The mother was getting very agitated with them and tried to protect her pup as best she could. It had  been slim pickings for the skuas since they arrived back on the island after winter, so they weren’t giving up without a fight. 

Over the next couple of days the pup was joined by a second pup, born to an adjacent female. The pups then spent most of their time sleeping, or suckling the extremely fatty milk from their mothers. They had a lot growing to do before their mothers left them after only a couple of weeks of nursing. The pups seemed to grow at a huge rate (up to 3.6kg per day), and then began moulting their black thick fur, to reveal the typical brown elephant seal fur below. 

I think this one was a bit surprised about being born onto a busy, noisy beach
The mothers left the pups when they still looked far too young to us, but the pups seemed content enough, and the smaller of the two was often seen attempting to suckle from the other pup. Eventually they began to explore their surroundings and paddle in the water. Recently one of them swam around to Freshwater Beach where the base is located. Hannah and Cian (our two seal biologists) had a close encounter with it when it decided they looked interesting and came over to investigate them. 
Ele pup taking a rest

Now they are fully moulted they are ready to venture out to sea to begin feeding themselves as they have lost a lot of weight since their mothers left. Let’s hope that in a few years they return to Bird Island to breed, rather than heading to the South Georgia mainland.
The two pups once their mums had gone back to sea. The male fur seal in the background seemed to think that they were female fur seals not two week old ele pups!

Friday, 27 September 2013

That's a big rock.... wait.... that's a huge elephant seal!

Throughout the year we get the occasional elephant seal (or smell-a-phant as they are known here) lazing on the beaches. They seem to spend most of their time sleeping, and lying in piles of rotten kelp, which gives them a particularly pungent aroma. Most of the individuals are small juveniles or females, which has made the last couple of weeks particularly exciting when adult males began cluttering the place up. Adult males have the distinctive elephant like nose and are absolutely colossal. It is coming into elephant seal breeding time so the males have begun to claim territory in the hopes that females will come ashore to give birth to the pups that they were conceived 49-50 weeks earlier. So far there aren’t many females, but fingers crossed that we will get a couple of pups. They have already started being born on mainland South Georgia and look absolutely adorable. Bird Island isn’t a major breeding area for them, I can’t imagine why as it seems a pretty cool place to me, but there are usually a few pups. 
My whay a big nostril you have!

Here are a few facts about the Southern elephant seal to make you go “wow!” Males can grow to between 4.5-6.5 metres and can weigh up to 3700kg!! That is around 57 times as much as I weigh, a second good reason they are named after elephants. The females are smaller at between 2.5-4.0 metres, and weighing a measly 359-800kg. The pups are around 1.3m long when born and weighing 36-50kg (so less than me). However they put on up to 3.6kg per day and after less than a month can weigh 110-160kg with a length of 1.6m. The massive weight increase and fairly small increase in length means that they become extremely round and look close to exploding.  They need to go on this massive milk gorge as at only 3 weeks old their mothers leave them to fend for themselves. 

Male elephant seal yawning.
Another cool “ele” fact is that when at sea they have been recorded diving up to 1444m and for almost two hours underwater. As a scuba diver who can only go down a few measly tens of metres, this is pretty astounding. 

An ele and me. He doesn't actually look very big in this picture, but believe me he is.
One of our resident males has taken up “singing” at all hours of the night, and had me confused the first time it woke me up as it sounded like a bit like a tiger roaring but a bit lower in frequency. Luckily for me I was pretty confident that a tiger hadn’t gotten loose on the island so I could sleep on in peace. Hopefully he will find himself a girlfriend soon and we might have ourselves a pup to fawn over.

Is that a big rock? Nope, just an ele using a rock as a pillow.

A male ele with a male fur seal for size comparison.

Wandering albatross chick ringing- they're so grown up!

It seems a long time ago that I was visiting the Wanderer study area every day awaiting the arrival of the first Wandering albatross egg, which finally arrived on the 12th December 2012. The eggs are extremely hefty weighing in at around 500g, so not surprisingly the birds that emerge from them turn out to be very large indeed. The chicks spend the winter months being battered by snow, wind and rain hunkering down on their nests, awaiting the next meal brought back by one of their devoted parents.  By mid August the chicks are large enough to be ringed and receive their very own metal ring with a unique seven digit number that will identify them for life. The chicks in the main study area also receive a darvic, which is a plastic coloured ring with three digits on it. The reason for this is that at fledging time I have to visit the study area daily to see when each chick fledges. With the darvic rings I don’t have to get too close to be able to see who is who, thereby minimising disturbance to the birds. They live up to their name of wandering albatross, as just before fledging they leave the nest and can walk fairly big distances to find the best spot for takeoff. It really helps to have the darvic rings to avoid confusion. 
A friendly chick sporting a metal ring and a darvic

In mid-August I got out the ringing pliers and what looked like far too many rings and began. There are just fewer than 500 chicks to ring this year, which does sound a lot, but 20 years ago there were at least double this number.  Ringing can only be done on dry days, which on Bird Island aren’t all too common, so although it is now approaching the end of September I still haven’t quite finished. Ringing an albatross chick is a whole different ball game to ringing the smaller birds I was used to before I came to the island, but you soon get used to it. The chicks definitely have their own personalities, with some being very placid and barely batting an eyelid, whereas others are feistier and peck you in the legs/bum while you are getting the ring on. However once the ring is on most of them have a little shake and flap and settle back down on the nest. Every single chick on the island gets a ring, so Jerry (penguin man) has been helping me ring chicks in the further away areas of the island.

Chick showing off his new darvic

A Giant Petrel "helping" me whilst out ringing.

I’m saving a few chicks for when my replacement Jess arrives in just under seven weeks. I will need to train her in how to handle these big chicks ready for her to do it all again next year.

Another of my favourite chicks showing off his brand new feathers.
The chicks are now losing their fluffy white down, and their dark grey body feathers and white faces are coming through. Over the next few years they will become as white as their parents. They will spend the next few years at sea, wandering the oceans going as far away as Australia, South Africa, and South America. Some have even been known to make full circumnavigations of the globe, which we have learned from putting geolocators on them. Hopefully I’ll get a few more back this year so we can see where they have been.
Chick practicing flapping to strengthen the wing muscles.

Film making Antarctic style

For one August weekend the wintering Antarctic community are all doing the same thing, making films for the annual Antarctic Film Festival. On Friday evening each base is emailed a list of five elements that have to be included in the film, which these year were; the sound of a real sneeze, a bathtub (problematic for us as we don’t have one), a gingerbread man, the phrase “Voulez vous couche avec moi ce soir” and a ping pong ball. We were all excited about making the film and came up with a general Star Wars theme, as we had watched the films earlier in the winter. On Friday night the script was written and we started getting the costumes together, as there are only four of us on the island we each had to play a few different characters.  Saturday was the filming day and we had one of the most fun days we’ve had in the whole winter. A lot of time was spent laughing at the bloopers and just the script in general, which we all thought was pretty funny, but I’ll leave that up to you to judge! As we live on Bird Island we decided we needed to get as many animal extras in as possible including; Gentoo penguins (jabbas), a male fur seal as Chewbacca, some Sheathbills, and a wandering albatross chick as the emperor (who put in a sterling performance). 

The general story of the film is that Han Solo, Leia and Luke have headed to Bird Island to hide out after the destruction of the Death Star in the first film or number four if you want to be pedantic. Unfortunately Darth Vader finds them and heads to the island with a couple of Stormtroopers to capture them.  The goodies then have to fight the baddies and try to escape.

If you are interested in seeing more then you can check the film out on Youtube.

We completed filming on Saturday and spent Sunday editing the film, and I made a little sequence with R2D2 and C3PO. By the end of Sunday we were done and then had the task of attempting to upload our film on our terrible internet connection. We managed to do it eventually by turning off any other internet seeking equipment. 

It was then time to vote. Slowly we downloaded videos from the other bases and had an evening of watching them. We made our choices best film, best acting, best screenplay, best use of elements, and best cinematography and sent them off. We still haven’t had final confirmation of the results but surprisingly for us Bird Island is doing pretty well being in the top 3 for four categories. So fingers crossed I’ll be able to confirm the results soon. Not bad for the smallest base in Antarctica.