This week at Macquarie Island: 4 December 2015

Macquarie Island tackles field science including albatross research, looks back at November’s weather, chats to scientist Helena and shares squeal worthy weaner elephant seal pics. The fabulous cartoon by Nick Cartwright completes another great issue.

Station update

Another eventful week here at Macca, with our station population swelling and shrinking on a daily basis as people ventured down island for both work and play. Of our community of 25 there were 14 people in the field last week with all huts being utilised.

Margi and Kate are finally out in the field now. An early morning boating party took advantage of some light winds last Thursday to deliver their cargo of an automatic weather station and other project equipment to Green Gorge Hut. They then hiked out to the hut along with Dom, and FTO Ian to undertake field training en-route. Margi and Kate will continue to be based between Green Gorge and Waterfall Bay huts through until Christmas, working on their project which is collecting data to inform prediction of vegetation community composition changes under climate change scenarios.

Newly arrived Supply Officer Dom spent this week out in the field completing field familiarisation training. Dom already has big plans under way for streamlining and organising the Macca stores, right after he recovers from his four day hike with FTO Ian.

The whole community turned out for the annual ‘weaner wade’ last week. With spotters on the lookout for rogue waves and large marine mammals, and lifeguards in place, we all donned dry suits and entered knee deep into the water as the weaner elephant seals went for their evening dip. With most of their lives to date being spent on land, they are now starting to explore their aquatic environment, and are very curious. It was a pleasure to see these creatures who appear so clumsy on land, gliding effortlessly in the shallows.

Chef Jimmy has been out and about completing his whole of island hut supplies stocktake. Our huts are resupplied by helicopter with pre-packed pods of food each year in April. Having fully stocked huts negates the need for expeditioners to carry out food from station, and helps keep our loads lighter!

Early this week our plumber, Ben, led a team to Gadgets Gully for the annual dam de-silting. Our water supply is comprised of a small weir which collects surface water from the plateau, and conveys it to station via a water main to our storage tanks where it is treated by filtration, chlorination and UV. Throughout the season the dam slowly fills with sediment which builds up in the shallow pond around the intake structure. Ben, Nick, Robbie, Terry, and Paul all spent the morning in pouring rain and heavy winds to dig the silt out of our water supply — a great team effort on an exceptionally wet Macca day.

This week we also experienced the largest swells on the east coast of the season. The swell was actually from the northeast, but was wrapping around the northern head of the island to produce these spectacular waves. It did not seem to bother the penguins and weaners, who proceeded to head in and out of the water, albeit with the odd spectacular wipe out!

Breaking wave
Surf on the east coast
(Photo: Lionel Whitehorn)
Breaking wave
Not a good day for boating!
(Photo: Lionel Whitehorn)
Ben opening a valve at the dam
Ben at the dam
(Photo: Paul Helleman)
Robbie, Terry and Nick clearing the silt using shovels in the dam
Robbie, Terry and Nick clearing the silt in the dam
(Photo: Paul Helleman)

Team Alby — First trip down island

Globally, almost all albatross and petrel species are threatened. Macquarie Island provides critical breeding habitat for four species of albatross and two giant petrels, which makes the green sponge a hugely important site for the conservation of these species. Since 1994, summer expeditioners working on DPIPWE’s Conservation of Albatross and Giant Petrel Program have traversed the island slopes monitoring the survival and population trends and demographics of these six species fulfilling obligations under the national recovery plan for albatrosses and giant petrels.

The first trip out following the team’s arrival in spring each year is usually a bit epic, and this one definitely lived up to expectations! After spending over three weeks walking the island and living in the various field huts dotted around the Macca coast, we have just returned to station for a few days of rest and data consolidation before heading out again to revisit our study sites. Highlights for Kim (aside from pretty much everything!) included working with albatross and seeing the amazing Macca wildlife and, of course, so many penguins! Kris was super excited to see the regenerating tussock growth on many of the island slopes, and to be back amongst the elephant seals. We also enjoyed some fantastic assistance and company from Chris — field raining officer (FTO) — for the first ten days. 

As will be the case for the rest of the season, the majority of our time was spent at Hurd Point, the closest hut to the steep southern slopes where the wandering, grey-headed and black-browed albatross nest. The hut very quickly became home as we settled in to a nightly routine of hot drinks, hurried showers, sock washing and gear drying. In the rare moments of down-time, the big window in the hut is an incredible spot for wildlife watching with elephant seals, royal, king and gentoo penguins, giant petrels, skuas and light-mantled albatross all doing their thing literally right outside the door.

On a work front, the trip was a great success. Assisted by our trusty FTO, our first task and definitely one of the highlights was to apply identification bands to the handful of huge wandering albatross chicks that hatched last year on the southern slopes. The bands will enable these birds to be recognised if and when they return to Macquarie Island after four to five years to think about breeding themselves. 

Our main study site on Petrel Peak was also set up successfully, with every grey-headed and black-browed albatross nest mapped and described providing this season’s estimate of breeding effort to add to the long-term dataset showing population trends. This year we have also deployed a number of GPS loggers on grey-headed albatross to investigate their foraging activity during the critical incubation period. These tiny units log the position of the bird every ten minutes and we can’t wait to retrieve them to discover where our feathered friends have been travelling when not tied to the nest.

A census of nesting skuas and southern giant petrels was also conducted down south, before we began making our way slowly north towards station while setting up a number of long-term study sites for light-mantled albatross. While living and working in the field is incredible, it was great to walk back into a station full of friendly faces. That first shower, immediately followed by that first beer, was easily as good as we imagined!

So, we’re feeling pretty lucky that we get to now head out to do it all again before Christmas. Special thanks to Chris for all his help and stories on the first trip (and for keeping us safe) — we had some pretty good adventures.

Kim and Kris

Chris negotiating a jungle of drying gear in the Hurd Point hut after a particularly wet day on the slopes
Chris negotiating a jungle of drying gear in the Hurd Point hut after a particularly wet day on the slopes
(Photo: K. Carlyon)
Grey-headed and light-mantled albatross in the study area on Petrel Peak
Grey-headed and light-mantled albatross in the study area on Petrel Peak
(Photo: K. Carlyon)
A simple hut amongst grass on a hill is flanked to the left with royal penguins
Hurd Point hut — home for many an albatross researcher
(Photo: K. Carlyon)
Hurd Point sunset with a riot of colours in the sky and penguins silhouetted below
Hurd Point sunset — the view from the hut
(Photo: Kim Kliska)
Happy team (Kris, Kim and Chris on West Rock after completing work at this site
Happy team (Kris, Kim and Chris on West Rock after completing work at this site
(Photo: Kim Kliska)
Heading out for a day’s work at Cape Star
Heading out for a day’s work at Cape Star
(Photo: Chris Gallagher)
Wandering albatross chick following banding as part of long-term population monitoring
Wandering albatross chick following banding as part of long-term population monitoring
(Photo: Chris Gallagher)

November weather summary

After surviving the windy weather of October, November has been a welcome change for the Macca crew with the majority of measurements being more pleasurable as far as we were concerned.

Temperatures for November continued the trend of being slightly colder than the long term means with the maximum being 0.2°C less at 6.3°C and the minimum 0.6°C less at 2.1°C. But with sunrise moving before 0500 in the morning and sunset after 1900, it definitely felt warmer with average daily sunshine of 4.8 hours a day and six days with more than ten hours. This was more than double the October average and 1.2 hours above the long term mean. With the clearer skies, night owls were searching for auroras and spotted them on eight nights.

Despite the glorious sunshine 87.2 mm of precipitation fell during the month with snow on 14 days. This was higher than the average for the month of 71.7 mm.

While winds were not as high as last month strong winds (≥22 knots) were recorded on 29 days and gale winds (≥34 knots) on 14 days, both being more than the long term means. Our maximum gust for the month was 58 knots on 13 November with the average daily wind run of 983 km being almost 300 km more than the long term average.

Duncan Bullock

Beautiful Macca day with both sunshine and cumulonimbus cloud with nesting gentoo penguins
Beautiful Macca day with both sunshine and cumulonimbus cloud with nesting gentoo penguins
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)
North head from Razorback lookout
North head from Razorback lookout
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)
Aurora above Bauer Bay hut
Aurora above Bauer Bay hut
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)
Balloon release in front of many weaners
Crowded balloon release
(Photo: Anna Lashko)

The Green Sponge interviews: summer series one with Helena

Name: Helena Baird

Nicknames:. H, Laney, H-Bomb

From: Melbourne (but Tassie has my heart now)

Previous seasons? Two summers at Casey and a summer at Davis

Job: I’m usually a marine scientist, but this season I’m knee-deep in soil. I've joined the Australian Antarctic Division’s remediation team, working to monitor and remediate fuel-contaminated sites on the island.

Hobbies: Surfing, swimming, bush-walking, snorkelling, writing, playing fiddle, singing & dancing.

How does Macca compare to your previous seasons down south?

The wildlife is vastly more abundant, the ground soggier, the colours richer, and the bar quieter!

Given the smaller community at Macca the station has a lovely intimate, laid-back feel. I love the rich history in the buildings and all the hills are a killer workout for the thighs! Dodging curious elephant seal weaners on the way to work is pretty unique too. Nothing beats it.

What is your favourite part of your job here at Macca?

Knowing I am, in some tiny way, contributing to the protection of this amazing place!

If you were exiled to Bishop and Clerk Islands to the south of Macca, what four things would you take with you?

My surfboard, my partner, good music and red wine. In that order (he knows this).

What song sums up your Macquarie Island experience so far?

“Hey Now” by London Grammar. Moves you to tears, just like the island can.

Favourite element of the Macca weather?

There’s something about having hailstones pelted into your face at 35 knots that makes you feel alive.

What actor would play you in a film version of our 68th ANARE season here at Macca?

Magda Szubanski if I keep eating this much smoko

Favourite hut or walking route?

So far, Bauer Bay. Something about being in a cosy hut on a wild, windswept, west-facing beach.

If you were not a chef, what would be your dream job?

Fortunately I am not a chef. My dream job is my job! Work combining science and adventure will always keep me fulfilled.

(JC: Nice one H. Sorry about the typo!)

Favourite piece of AAD/TASPAWS kit?

Easy: the ‘Frillneck’ legionnaire’s-cap-on-steroids. That thing is so daggy, no one ever wears it, yet it could go full-circle and be cool by the next century.

It is the year 2115 on Macca. What is the coolest thing we have on station and why?

An endless supply of Frillneck legionnaire caps (see above)

Please name the Royal Penguin on our 68th ANARE logo.

Wayne.

What is your typical 'Slushy FM' genre? A particular favourite?

A carefully hand-picked playlist cultivated over four seasons of slushing! Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ is definitely up there for songs to wash dishes to.

Describe your Macca experience with: a sight, a smell, a sound, a feeling and a taste.

Killer whales pack-hunting an elephant seal, the funk of too many wet gumboots in the cold porch, the human/monkey/dog-like squawk-bark of a grumpy elephant seal weaner, elation when I reach the top of Doctors Track and look back over the isthmus, hut desserts made with canned fruit.

Settlers of Catan, or Darts?

Neither. A guitar and some good conversation at the bar.

Female expeditioner climbing Doctors track with North Head in background — water flanks either side of the isthmus and station behind
Climbing Doctors track
(Photo: Robbie Kilpatrick)
Helena on Sandy Bay beach with King Penguins to the rear
Helena on Sandy Bay beach
(Photo: Robbie Kilpatrick)
Helena sitting on rocky beach with pH probe
Measuring pH of water samples in front of the fuel farm
(Photo: Robbie Kilpatrick)
Helena in halloween costume
Helena all dressed up at Halloween!
(Photo: Lionel Whitehorn)

Photo Gallery: weaners!

Weaners outside of the comms building
Weaners outside of the comms building
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)
Weaner on the porch of Bauer Bay hut
Weaner visiting Bauer Bay hut
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)
Weaner elephant seal approaches a camera on the sand, it’s huge eyes looking curiously at it
Weaner
(Photo: Rich Youd)
A small weaner elephant seal gazes at a camera positioned on the ground, seeming to roll over like a cat
Weaner
(Photo: Rich Youd)
Weaner stretching so that it’s back flipper is upright but its face stares straight at camera
Weaner stretching
(Photo: Rich Youd)
Weaners on east beach
Weaners on east beach
(Photo: Lionel Whitehorn)
A close up of just the face of a clean elephant seal weaner — very cute
Weaner
(Photo: Louise Carroll)
A somewhat dark and dirty weaner elephant seal looks contemplative on the sand at Macquarie Island
Weaner
(Photo: Duncan Bullock)

The last word

A cartoon of an out of the office sign
Out of the office
(Photo: Nick Cartwright)