Saturday, 5 November 2011

“Remember remember the 5th of November…” bonfire, BBQ and rum – hot! Then again...possibly not :/

What was I saying about Sod’s Law?!  Apparently I hadn’t experienced enough bad luck, so last week my laptop died on me, taking my newly written (and obviously very witty, interesting and funny) blog with it L  I have to admit I lost all enthusiasm for anything computer-related at that point and even enjoyed the three days or so that I had to spend without one (albeit after much cursing and foot-stamping!).  

As it’s been so long since I wrote the last blog, I’m feeling the pressure to write something good!  So much has been happening over the last two weeks but I have no idea where to start.  Actually I’ll start with the really good bit: the Lovely Boyfriend, Jason, finally arrived!  The helicopters remained broken for much longer than we could ever have imagined and the backlog of tasking that the military were left with meant we were pushed down the priority line…a looonnnng way down.  Positioning an aircraft carrier in the harbour and getting Jason flown in by Typhoon euro fighter and speed-boated ashore seemed more likely to happen than getting a helicopter flight, and a Typhoon is only 1-seater…!  Ten days waiting for a chopper is definitely the record so far. 

So, it’s the evening of  November 5th  - Guy Fawkes, “gunpowder, treason and plot” and all that…we were planning to have a big (ok, little!) bonfire on the beach tonight and maybe a few hot rums to keep the insides warm, but in true Falklands style the wind has got up and it’s forecast to be a gale-force Northerly later!  X-factor and pasta it is then. 

The next excitement on the island will be the arrival of Maudann.  I haven’t met Maudann yet, but plenty of other people in town have and she seems, how shall I put it, “interesting”?!  We will see…!  An American lady of 66, Maudann will spend the next 3 ½ - 4 months with us on New Island, helping one of our biologists with a long-term project which involves the monitoring of Rockhopper penguins via an electronic weigh-bridge which registers penguins with a ‘bleep’ as they jump through.  Never mind Maudann, that sounds pretty weird and interesting, doesn’t it?!  Well it is, I suppose! 
A small portion of our population of Rockhopper penguins have been the subject of study for French biologist, Dr Maud Poisbleau.  She spent about four years looking at their breeding success, their foraging patterns (via short-term GPS tagging), and, through more complex technology, the penguins’ maternal investment in their eggs, as well as gathering information about their diet via “stable isotope analysis” -  feathers collected at the moult stage are taken back to the lab in Europe and by reading the carbon & nitrogen levels it’s possible to determine what fish/squid species the birds are eating (yes, really!). 

The penguins in this study group were tagged with tiny little devices under the skin in their flippers (no more harmful than having your cat chipped at the vet’s).  These little tags can then be read with an electronic “stick” (fondly known amongst the scientists as the “jedi sword”!) or they can be read by the electronic weighbridge, which is set up on the rocks below the colony in an area where the penguins pass to come and go from the sea.  As they pass over the platform, the machine registers which penguin passes and how much he/she weighs as they pass.  This information can be downloaded onto a computer and used to assess how many birds come and go, how much they weighed when they left for sea and how much they weighed when they came back from foraging (hence a rough idea of how much food they have obtained on that trip).  It also allows the scientists to follow a particular penguin (such as one that has been equipped with a fancy ‘back-pack’ – a GPS logger – and whether it has left for sea or has come back to the colony with precious information on its back [and a very expensive piece of equipment which needs to be retrieved too!]). 

Right now, those feisty little Rockhoppers are sitting on newly-laid eggs.  They will incubate them for the next month or so, fiercely defending their nest-site from anyone who tries to go too close – especially the predatory Skuas who have now returned from their winter migration, perfectly timed with the penguins’ egg-laying. 

Our ‘pet’ skua has returned too J - any food scraps left over from meals are put in a bucket which is emptied into the sea off the end of the jetty.  The birds (mainly skuas and gulls) cottoned-on to this free meal a long time ago, and ever since I was a kid, emptying the scrap bucket was an opportunity to make friends with the hungry scavengers!  One or two skuas in particular were always bolder than others, bullying the shier ones away and loudly defending the jetty as their patch (so busy defending in fact, that they often missed out on the food…!!).  Two of those very tame skuas were named Henry and Henrietta by my then-8-year-old nephew Matthew, and Henry and Henrietta returned every summer for about 11 years!  We trained them to come when you whistled (true!) and they would get extra-special treats now and then, like fresh raw mutton or off-cuts of lamb – the most spoilt skuas in the Southern Hemisphere I’m sure!  Henry and Henrietta were not immortal of course, and sadly they’ve now disappeared, but the jetty territory has been happily adopted by another friendly pirate.  This skua is a male, and he has been ringed with a red leg-ring so as we can identify him in his breeding territory (across the water, with a nice view of the houses so he can keep an eye on when the bucket is taken to be emptied!).  He has been bringing a mate with him for a while now, but only he himself comes to the house for the special treats (no sharing with the missus!).  He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, and usually crash lands on his beak, but he does occasionally come when you whistle… which is the coolest part J  I suspect that he will also be highly disappointed that we are only having pasta for dinner tonight and not something deliciously meaty cooked up on the BBQ.  He did take a nibble of Jason’s toe the other day before I had time to warn him that skuas will eat (or at least try) pretty much anything!  Must remember to tell Maudann when she arrives… the wildlife can be dangerous, you know.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Albatross and Sod's Law

Three and a half weeks have flown by since we arrived on the island to re-open everything after the winter.  Today, the Black-browed Albatross more or less came to the end of their egg-laying.  They returned to the island around mid September, after nearly 6 months at sea.  They return on almost precisely the same day every year, to the same nest – a carefully crafted lump of mud in a sea of…well, mud!  It amazes me how they do it.  Such majestic birds on the wing, albatross unfortunately shift gear when they hit land, crashing clumsily into Tussac bogs or landing beak-first on their neighbours and then desperately trying to regain some dignity, all whilst loudly proclaiming that they meant to land upside-down.  

Miguel, our friendly Portuguese seabird biologist who has been visiting us to work with these beautiful creatures for many years now, has been monitoring the Settlement Rookery’s population of albatross for the last couple of weeks.  He will check daily around 300 nesting albatross, keeping an eye on when they lay their eggs, (and if they lose their eggs), when they hatch and how the chicks grow, amongst other things.  This population study has been carried out every season for the last ten years or so and lets us see how these amazing birds are doing, amidst global concerns that albatross numbers declining. 

On New Island, Black-browed albatross are definitely not in decline – at the start of every season I have the exciting pleasure of being the one who gets to hang out of the door of a helicopter and take photographs of the nesting albatross on our cliffs!  It’s the most awesome experience – leaning out into the icy wind as you buzz by 600ft vertical sea cliffs; thousands of little white dots evenly spread out along the ledges – the precarious location that these birds choose for their nests.  Photographing the albatross nests means counting them… all 15,000 of them!  That’s nothing compared to the 140,000 or so pairs nesting on another offshore island, Steeple Jason!  My father, Ian, has over 30 years experience of albatross populations in the Falklands (and of counting them!) Together we have carried out aerial photographic surveys of all of the albatross nesting sites in the Islands – not too far off half a million pairs (PAIRS!) of Black-brows call the Falklands home!     

Thousands of Upland Geese also live on New Island and this is the time of year when lots of little goslings are appearing everywhere.  A few pairs live around the settlement and they’re quite used to people - as I’m writing this blog, 6 fat little bundles of fluffy down with legs are drinking from a bowl of water I’ve put down outside my front steps, under the watchful eye of mother goose.  The gander is standing watch too, on the corner of the little stone wall, angrily declaring his patch of grass to the neighbouring gander up the track and taking it all out on an unsuspecting rabbit who happens to get too close.  The goslings are probably about 3 weeks old now, and as they seem to have taken a liking to the ‘lawn’ in front of my house, I will be lucky enough to see them growing every day, and the best part; I will see them fly for the first time! 

Amidst the magic of being surrounded by nature every day, there’s still the daily grind and the unwanted interruptions: answering a ton of emails; checking the power level is ok before the day gets going; doing the washing and five minutes after neatly hanging it on the line, watching it fly away into the spiky gorse bushes in the wind; finding that the screw top of the 40 gallon fuel drum won’t open no matter what you throw at it, whilst the level of diesel in the tank slowly but surely reaches critical level and then your heating cuts out…and when you boil the kettle for that relaxing cup of coffee to help you through the day, the gas runs out!  A fight with an unwieldy 50kg bottle of gas ensues and I have to call the friendly Portuguese biologist to help me win – eventually we do!  I think it’s called Sod’s Law…that my lovely boyfriend (and handyman for the summer), Jason, was due to arrive today by helicopter, until the helicopter broke down. L  Hence, everything that requires a good, strong man happens now!  Sigh. 

Ah well, never mind – I’ll upload my blog now and perhaps put some photos up on the new Facebook page and then give said lovely boyfriend a call…
What’s that?  The phone’s dead?  The internet’s not working?  Of course.

(After an hour or so, someone nice must have decided I’d had enough of Sod’s Law for one day and communications with the rest of the world came back to life!) 

A life less ordinary

:: Summer 2011...An introduction ::
What a gorgeous day!  A breezy west-nor-westerly and not a single cloud in the sky.  BFBS radio (the British Forces Broadcasting Station, for the 1,000 troops still based here in the Falklands) warns of a very high sunburn risk today, and a high of about 11ºC.  The temperature on my doorstep, out of the wind, feels more like 20ºC – bliss!

From where I’m sitting, outside my white and red tin-clad camp house, all I can hear are the sounds of nature: Upland geese shout out their territorial calls; a Pied oystercatcher calls alone as it flies along the shoreline; Falkland Thrushes squabble angrily in the grass behind the house; and the Long-tailed meadowlark with it’s spectacular bright red breast sings out at the top of his voice from a high point of the flowering Gorse bush.  The wind whistles under the house and little waves lap at the jetty and along the rocky shore just below me.  The wind turbine behind the settlement has stopped spinning for a moment… the battery bank must be fully charged.

There won’t be any human disturbance to this peaceful chorus of nature – at least not for a few days.  For now, I am one of only two people on this tiny, wild island on the far western edge of the Falkland Islands’ archipelago.  New Island is a nature reserve, owned by the New Island Conservation Trust – a non-profit charity set up to preserve this very special wildlife sanctuary.  Here, on this rugged little piece of the Falklands, we carry out important research on the many populations of breeding seabirds, and we host small numbers of tourists from passing cruise ships bound for Antarctica.  I have grown up on this island, spending my school days in the main town of Stanley, about 150 miles to the East.  During the spring/summer season (September/October to March/April), I live here and manage the reserve, often with only one or two other people for company!  I do everything from counting pairs of nesting Black-browed Albatross and organising visiting film crews, to ordering frozen peas and emptying sewage tanks… every day is a surprise, and not always a pleasant one!

New Island has no roads, no shops, no airport (only a currently-inoperative grass airstrip) and sits surrounded by nothing but the wild southern ocean and a scattering of tiny, uninhabited islands.  We make our own power (a wind turbine and small solar panel array, and an inverter and battery bank), we tap our own water supply from the hillside (lovely and fresh and no need to be treated in any way) and we do all our own building/repairs/mechanics etc – anything that needs sorting, we have to sort it ourselves!  We have great telecommunications with the outside world; I have broadband internet and I can pick up the phone and dial anywhere in the world, but I can’t call a plumber if the boiler stops working – we’re a £911 helicopter ride away from town...and that’s just one way.  For that same reason, once I am here, there’s no nipping back to town for a quick weekend visit to my friends or a trip to the shops!  The local supply ship calls once every 6 weeks and brings us everything we need, including fuel and gas. 

During the winter months, New Island is deserted and left to the hardy animals who stay here all year round like the Fur seals and the Gentoo penguins.  Right now, winter seems a wonderfully long way off.  6 months on a small, isolated island with only a few people to talk to and no chance to take off for a break… “She must be a little bit crazy!” some of you might say!  It’s not for everyone, but New Island has a curious magic which captures you and doesn’t let go.  Some days things don’t go your way, but it’s a dream job in an incredible little corner of the world and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.