Counting and camping / by Jerry


It's been a busy week for us penguinologists. We've been out several days this week carrying out counts of Gentoo chicks in every colony on the island. It is 100 days after 75% of marked nests had eggs laid in them and some of the chicks are large and fully moulted, although not yet independent. It seems to have been a good year, with over 4,500 – just over one chick per nest.

Everyone on base got involved with different bits of the work; the more eyes counting groups of between 12 and 250 penguin chicks the better. We aim to get within 5% of each other, which can be difficult when there's lots of chicks moving round, never mind the different eyesight and vantage points of the observers, but with several people counting we can pretty sure our average counts are accurate. It is important counting techniques are repeated each year to ensure the data is comparable.

Two days after counting all the chicks on Johnson Beach we were back there catching and weighing 100 of them. This was a messy job for the whole team. The average chick weight is just over 5kgs, although a couple of particularly large individuals were over 7kgs. Comparing fledging weights between years allows us to compare how good the feeding is and assess the likely survival chances of a particular generation.

Away from the penguins other work continues, with the albatrologists still marking new Wanderer nests and regularly checking on the Black-browed, Grey-headed and Sooty-mantled Albatrosses. The seal team have completed their work on the Special Study Beach (and enjoyed a lie-in after being up early every morning since early November) and are now tracking the movement of puppies around base and further up the streams.

A bright, sunny day. Ideal for counting penguins at Natural Arch. Looking east through Bird Sound with South Georgia on the right and icebergs in the distance.

 Hannah, armed only with clicker, counting Gentoo chicks.

Chinstrap Penguin. An occasional visitor, breeding further south. This one, the first I've seen, was hanging around on Johnson Beach while we were counting Gentoo chicks.

Bird Island by Night

As well as the penguins, Ruth and I also work a bit with the petrels, not just the Giant ones but some of the estimated 700,000 burrowing pairs. Recently we've been collecting feather samples from some of these and deploying tiny GPS devices onto others. These will track where the birds are feeding – an important step in understanding their lifestyle and hopefully contributory step in helping protect them when away from their breeding grounds.

Although most of our petrel work can be done during the day some does have to be done at night, so last week Jon and Jen joined us to go camping on Molly Meadows. We were looking for specific Blue Petrels returning to their burrows and, although we didn't get as many as we'd hoped, we had a great night, working from about midnight until 5am with enough time in between checking burrows to sit round a small stove and have cups of coffee and a good laugh.

Then later in the week we went out after dinner up Gazella, the hill behind base, to catch a few South Georgian Diving Petrels. These are tiny and squat, a little like Little Auks, with beautiful blue legs and are very rarely seen during the day. It was another good night, although very cold up there and we were glad to be back by 3am.

 South-Georgian Diving Petrel.

Ruth and Jen working by torchlight.


When not out working I've still been busy. Possibly the most stressful part of the week was my first Saturday cook, for Saturday means a full three course meal (spicy pumpkin soup, risotto and chocolate bread & butter pudding for those interested), but I took my time about it and was still able to have a little time outside appreciating the wildlife.

 Pleased looking puppy taking a break from testing the water. It's great seeing them splashing around in the shallows, properly beginning to use their flippers.

 Wilson's Storm Petrel. Plenty breeding further up the slopes but they're not often seen during the day. Apart from the occasional day when there's a small group feeding near the jetty.

 Giant Petrels disposing of a dead seal puppy.

 Antarctic Tern, a regular visitor.

The first seal to climb on to our close iceberg was reluctant to give up it's spot, growling aggressively at the second one.