The life of birds

When approaching Antarctic stations by sea or air it is clearly evident just how small a hold we have on the great white continent. The stations first come into view as a cluster of colourful specks on a small outcrop of land; dwarfed by the vast expanse of ice and snow. Once on station, the purpose-built infrastructure and multi-skilled team provides a safe haven that quickly settles the mind, and you feel surprisingly comfortable in an otherwise hostile land. But whenever you venture away from these already remote outposts the feelings of isolation and solitude can be overwhelming.

I spent six weeks completely isolated from Mawson station, with my colleague Darren Southwell, working on penguins and flying seabirds on nearby Béchervaise Island. Each summer the sea ice connecting the island to the continent melts, so that the only access is via small boats. Despite initially feeling daunted by the vastness of the landscape and the extremity of our isolation, over time I became very comfortable with our situation.

Béchervaise Island is the site of a long-term monitoring program on Adélie penguins (Australian Antarctic Magazine 17: 6–8, 2009), and has been visited each summer for the past 20 years by a small team of field biologists. The camp consists of one ‘apple’ hut, and two larger ‘googies', or round pods, which are well designed to provide shelter from the Antarctic weather. These huts provide basic living facilities, are powered by wind and solar electricity, and have gas for heating and cooking.

Our six-week stay was required to closely monitor the breeding performance of the resident penguin and snow petrel colonies. This enabled us to witness eggs hatch and chicks grow, till they were nearly old enough to leave. Daily duties involved long walks around the island checking on nests and counting birds. We regularly encountered other avian residents such as south polar skuas and Wilson’s storm petrels. Weddell seals were abundant and often hauled out on passing icebergs and remnant patches of snow around the coast. Less regular visitors included southern giant petrels and emperor penguins.

Interaction with the skuas was unavoidable as they aggressively defended their breeding territories around our camp site and the penguin colonies. They showed no fear of humans and would dive bomb us with great speed, sometimes whacking us in the back of the head. Despite my best efforts to sleep in, most mornings a pair of skuas would land on my hut and roll pebbles from the top. Seemingly the only purpose of such a habit was to stir a response from me.

Living in tiny huts and spending most of our time outdoors meant we were very conscious of the weather and the subtle differences in the surrounding environment. The sea ice we walked across to access the island took weeks to break up at first, but then drifted off within a number of days. We noticed substantial changes in day length during the course of our stay; from 24 hour sunlight in early January, to extended night time by mid-February. The low trajectory of the sun at this time of year provided spectacular sunsets that blended with sunrise, lasting many hours.

Our research kept us very busy and we created routines around work, cooking, leisure activities and fitness sessions. But after numerous weeks you cannot help slipping in to a rather leisurely pace, as if the silence and solitude of the surrounding environment slowly takes over. Many times I found myself engrossed by the dynamic state of the sea ice, as bergs moved to and fro with the tide and wind. I also spent hours at the edge of the penguin colony watching their daily activities and becoming well attuned to the many subtleties of their social behaviour. The constant arrival and departure of adults somewhat resembled that of busy airports, with an endless procession of greetings and farewells. Some individuals met their partners or chicks with little emotion, while others performed elaborate and extended displays with evident endearment and respect. The range of behaviours employed by different chicks also provided an insight into their individualism. Some were highly inquisitive and adventurous, endlessly exploring the boundaries of the colony, and regularly causing a ruckus. Others stayed very close to their nest, seemingly in fear of everything.

Our location off the coast provided panoramic views of the massive ice cap over the Antarctic continent, which rises rapidly from the coast to a height of a kilometre or more. Several mountain ranges were also visible, disappearing over the skyline as they ran southwards. High winds commonly blew snow off the peaks, creating clouds of snow on the lee side of mountains.

Upon departure I couldn’t help but feel that our brief stay on the island had given us only a glimpse of what is a grand and ancient land. While I felt we had got to know the island, I am sure we still seemed quite alien to the many animals who call it home. But after six weeks without a shower, we probably blended in with the crowd quite well.


Field biologist, Australian Antarctic Division