The wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) chick, on the left, is about six months old, with another two or three before it is ready to fledge. Adult feathers are starting to show through on the wings but head and chest are still covered with down that has insulated it through the sub-Antarctic winter.
Throughout this long growth period the chick will be visited roughly once a week by each parent, returning from their trips of several hundred miles with a stomach full of squid, krill, fish and scavenged bits of carrion. This oily meal is regurgitated up for the hungry chick who calls incessantly for more.
Usually the adult will depart again straight away but occasionally on our rounds we would see one spending a little bit of time preening the chick or, as in the case of this female, moving far enough away to not be disturbed and, I like to imagine, taking a break and enjoying the view.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 5th September 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with Tokina 11-16mm lens @11mm; 1/320sec, f/9.0, ISO 100
Just up the hill from station, a ten to fifteen minute walk, is the main wandering albatross study area; Wanderer Ridge. On a clear evening, with work done and dinner wolfed down, there was nothing better than heading up there to sit calmly and quietly amongst the displaying, calling, showing off, attraction and rejection that is the wandering albatross courtship ritual.
With paired adults sitting on eggs the younger birds, or maybe those that have divorced or lost partners, gather together on the bits of open ground to strut around and try and impress someone new. Wings are spread, chests are puffed out and heads thrown back while loud calls are issued forth.
With each chick taking over a year to fledge from laying, it's a huge and risky investment. Choosing a compatible partner is serious business and is not rushed.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 14th January 2015. Camera: Canon 7D with Sigma 17-70mm lens @25mm; 1/1600sec, f/4.5, ISO 320
Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).
The albatross beak is around 20cm long, pale pink and with a sharp hooked end. Although not aggressive birds you need to take great care when getting near them (for monitoring purposes we sometimes need to check if they are on eggs or read ring numbers). The hook is useful when catching squid and fish, or digging into carrion and offal.
Like petrels and shearwaters the albatrosses are tubenoses; true ocean-living species that can survive on seawater, filtering out salt and excreting it through the large nostrils on top of the beak.
It is thought the tubenoses have an excellent sense of smell, helping them locate food and their nesting grounds. With their ranges of hundreds of miles during the breeding season and the entire southern ocean outside of it navigation is a key skill of this species.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 15th March 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens at 17mm. 1/400sec, f/10, ISO 100
Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) chick sitting out the depths of the sub-Antarctic winter.
Their turret-like nests, around 50cm tall, hopefully keep the chicks well clear of the snow. This chick is approximately 5 months old, with another three months before it will be ready to fledge. It's still covered in the downy feather which keep it warm through the temperatures which can drop to -10C and winds up to 50kt. During this long winter its parents will return around once a week each to feed the growing chick who otherwise spends the entire time sleeping, shuffling round, arranging bits of grass in the nest and, I hope (but doubt), appreciating the views over Bird Sound to the northern mountains of the South Georgia mainland.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 29th August 2013. Camera: Canon 7D with 11-16mm Tokina lens at 16mm. 1/3200sec, f/22, ISO 100
Light-mantled albatross, formerly light-mantled sooty albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) nest alone or in small groups on the cliffs and ledges around South Georgia.
They are extremely graceful flyers and this was one of a pair that circled round, checking me out as I climbed one of the Bird Island hills, enjoying the last sunshine of winter before the relief boat arrived and the summer work began.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 28th November 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with Sigma 17-70mm lens @70mm. 1/5000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 400
Light-mantled albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata), formerly known as light-mantled sooty albatross, nest on the cliffs and grassy slopes on the edge of South Georgia.
Partly because of the difficulty in accessing their nesting locations and partly because they are particularly sensitive to disturbance they are not intensively studied on Bird Island. Instead a stretch of coastline is walked three times a year to count the numbers on eggs, small chicks and large chicks ready to fledge.
Sadly they have not been doing well in recent years. Although they are long-lived birds (over 50 years is not uncommon) they only breed every other year and we have had enough unsuccessful years recently that recruitment into the breeding population is becoming a problem. They are classified as near threatened on the IUCN list.
This was taken in mid-January, on the monitoring walk looking for young chicks. There was a previously occupied nest just below this outcrop that had failed and what was possibly the pair from there (or maybe younger, unpaired individuals) were bonding in front of me; mirroring each others movements and throwing their heads up to the sky and calling, when a third bird dropped out the sky in the middle of them. The bird on the right was not happy about this and it caused a bit of a squabble which resulted in one of the original birds, the one on the left, leaving. At that point the remaining two settled down. I wish I knew their history and relationship.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 15th January 2015. Camera: Canon 7D with Sigma 17-70mm lens at 17mm. 1/2000 sec, f/4.5, ISO 250
Gliding through the falling snow, this light-mantled albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) circled in front of me a few times before coming in to land at it's nest on the cliff below.
During the pre- and early breeding season pairs perform an amazing synchronised flight, barely flapping their wings, just gliding back and forth, tip to tip. This was still the end of winter though and this individual was reclaiming his nest; checking out the surroundings before landing and loudly proclaiming his territory.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 14th October 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.
Grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) nest in colonies on steep grassy slopes. Here they build their turret-like nests out of mud and grass with a depression in the middle that will hold the egg and chick.
This is Colony B on Bird Island which is one of the more intensively studied areas. Each nest is marked with a small tag and the ring number of each adult is recorded so we can build up, over decades, a complete life history of the breeding success of many, many individuals.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 31st December 2015. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens @ 17mm and ND4 grad filter. 1/2500 sec, f/3.2, ISO 160.
Grey-headed albatrosses (Thalassarche chrysostoma) arrive back at the colonies in September to re-establish pairs and nest sites. They lay a single egg in October which takes around 70 days to hatch and then a further 140 for the chick to fledge in May or June. With the exception of the wandering albatross chicks which are resident all winter they are the last to depart the island.
If the parents have successfully raised a chick it will be another year until they breed again.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 13th February 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-700mm Sigma lens @ 70mm. 1/400 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.
Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) nest in large colonies on steep grassy slopes. Prior to landing they will often circle the site a few times, checking the surrounding area and wind variables. I was monitoring one of the colonies when this bird was circling round past me, each time slowing and hanging in the air for a few seconds, checking me out.
Realising I was maybe in his patch, or close enough to engender caution, I moved further up the hill and after a couple more circuits he dropped down and fed his chick.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 9th January 2016. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens @ 17mm. 1/2000 sec, f/4.5, ISO 125.