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.


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