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.