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Mairi Nicolson's Antarctic Pages

February 2002  - Letter From Mairi

This may have to be my last e-mail from Antarctica as Iím due to fly out on the 21st of February. Itís going to be a day of very mixed emotions for me. As you can imagine after sixteen months away from home I cannot wait to see my family again. There will be some celebrating on the 25th when I finally make it to Inverness airport after six flights in four days.

Until then Iím going to really make the most of my time whilst at the station. I have been working a lot this last month on the local islands, helping visiting scientists and preparing equipment for the winter months. The best job I have had though is helping the divers test their new dry suits! This of course meant spending a very pleasant morning snorkelling in the bay (see picture). The diving program will be resuming shortly much to the relief of the marine biologists. The loss of the Bonner lab has had a big impact on their work but after some very fast work from our UK office (based in Cambridge), a new decompression chamber and dive facility has already been bought, packed and shipped to Rothera.

I am very fortunate to be able to work away from the station during the summer months and travel to many beautiful places. I do however have some very interesting jobs on base including the monitoring of the breeding population of the South Polar Skuas (Catharacta maccormicki) nesting on Rothera point.

       Jenny Island

Skuas are large, brown gull-like birds and are the most southern-living bird in the world (one has even been spotted at the South Pole). They nest along the entire coast of the Antarctic continent, including the peninsula where our station is situated. Their nests are simple scrapes in the ground with the more nest-proud birds using what little vegetation of mosses and lichens that they can find. When threatened they display to one another by puffing out their breast and holding their wings high over their backs. People intruding into their nest sites are greeted with shrieks and threatening dives, which can lead to a few well placed strikes on the head.

Breeding territories are claimed with the males protecting the same general location year after year. Being such good opportunistic feeders they have learnt to visit bases throughout the Antarctic to receive handouts. Their individuality makes some of them favoured pets. Unfortunately for the first time in over seventeen years George, our base Skua, did not return to Rothera this summer.

We have eighteen nests on Rothera point and so far this year twenty-eight eggs were laid and fifteen chicks have hatched. The survey is undertaken weekly and the information from the last fourteen years can help us to look at any effects, positive or negative, that the base is having on the population. I have become very familiar with each pair and my favourite has to be ĎHamishí, who likes to sit on my hand when I enter his nesting area. I donít know why he does this and sometimes he even steals my hat (see picture)!

Hamish - A Wild Skua

For the first time in several months I noticed it was beginning to get dark last night. The sun barely sets in the summer months but now the seasons are changing and in the middle of winter the sun barely rises. The view from the station can be amazing at this time of year as the sun sets behind Jenny Island (see picture). I am going to thoroughly enjoy these last few weeks and I must go now and get in some last minute skiing practise.

All the best