bird island

Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

We've had a good week for wildlife, with spectacular visits from whales and seals.

Southern Right Whale

Early Monday evening we were raised over the radio by James declaring he had a whale in the entrance to the bay. Quickly throwing on insulated boiler suit, jacket, boots, hat and gloves (I've learned from experience that it's far better to be a minute later and prepared than the first one there who has to leave after a few minutes to put on more layers) we rushed out to join him.

We'd had a couple of whales close in the previous few days so weren't too surprised, until we saw it blow from just behind the rocky point in front of base. This one was close in. Taking advantage of the low tide we scrambled out across the rocks until we were on one side of the narrow entrance to the bay, the other side less than 30 meters away. In between us this whale repeatedly raised it's head then dropped below the surface.

That day there had been huge numbers of gulls, terns, duck and petrels feeding in the shallows. In places you could see the pink mist where krill and other marine crustaceans had washed up close. I guess a current had a brought a swarm our direction and those that depend on it, including this whale, had followed.

It seemed such a small space for it to be feeding it we were a little worried it had swum in and got caught as the tide dropped, and were even considering what we would do if we found it lying on one of the beaches the following day.

Leopard Seal

It has been a good winter for leopard seals with several familiar individuals returning, some of them after long absences, and a number of new records. Most of the sightings have been of animals sleeping in the water, just nostrils above the surface. When we're lucky they haul out on the beaches and occasionally we see them feeding.

A leopard seal eating is one of the most exciting wildlife spectacles I have witnessed. We never see them catch their prey but if you're lucky you catch them at the point when they're pushing a penguin or small seal round on the surface, after the kill but before the feed.

Again we were alerted by James, running across the beach to where he'd seen a gathering of scavengers - skuas, gulls, giant petrels - all hovering over one point, then a big splash in the water as the thrashing began.

Leopard seals grip their prey, in this case an unfortunate fur seal, in their incredible teeth then whip them through the air, slamming them down against the sea surface. This flaying is reminiscent of the way crocodiles throw their prey around. It's brutal but compelling and an impressive show of strength.

Walk out to winter by Jerry Gillham

After a few weeks with the temperature hovering around zero, with the snow slowly melting, getting slushy and freezing into vast sheets of ice that made getting around quite problematic, we got a fresh dump of snow followed by a few days of clear weather.

Precisely what I'd been hoping for as it gave me the chance for a few good days out up the hills; picking different routes, revisiting favourite views and generally enjoying the cold weather, before I once again have to leave Bird Island.

Only a few weeks off midwinter, the sun only hits the peaks at about 11:00, so you don't need an especially early start in order to see the shadows dropping away. This wandering albatross had an early morning visit from both parents, a relatively rare occurrence at this time of year as they're off fishing independently. It was nice to see them stick around together for a few hours.

The view from Molly Hill. When working with the giant petrel and penguins I would rarely go up here as it was always a bit out the way, however I've become fond of it this season. It's a tough climb through big tussack grass but worth it for the views.

From left to right we have the sugar-loaf-like Tonk, La Roche with the station and local bays below it, the mountains of South Georgia across Bird Sound, and down to the right the snow-covered Round How.

One of my rambles was to the field hut to check supplies over there. Our water situation wasn't particularly useful as these nalgene bottles had frozen solid (though I was impressed they hadn't broken). Luckily I had a bottle of fresh water with which to make a cup of tea.

One day in particular the snow was lying thick and the wind had dropped. It was a clear morning so Ian and I decided to scale one of the peaks. There's nothing too large on Bird Island; La Roche is 356m and Gandalf just 290m. But when you consider the island itself is no more than 1km wide that means a pretty steep ascent in places.

Early morning light catching the South Georgia mainland as we make footprints in the fresh snow.

Pausing to admire the scenery.

The north ridge rises and falls in thin wedges, like the plates on a a stegosaurus's back. While the north side drops almost vertically into the sea the safe routes up the accessible south often look perilous from a distance, but once on them are pretty safe.

It feels a different world up here. Thanks to Ian for the photo.

Wondering if there's a simple route up La Roche from here, one that avoids 300m drops into the sea, corniced ridges, solid ice and loose snow. Turns out there wasn't.

Still, there were some good patches for practicing ascents and descents with crampons and axe. This photo may have been tilted to add drama to the situation. Thanks to Ian for the photo again.

Ian's photo again, of me basically crawling up the slope as we searched for a good route outside of the out-of-bounds areas.

The west side of Bird Island from part way up La Roche.

From where we were it wasn't too dramatic but from where James was, on station, it's difficult to differentiate what's cliff and what's not. Thanks to him for this photo.

Finally, the more common way of descending the slopes in winter. Tim, just up and right of centre, making rapid progress back to base at the end of his albatross checks.

The Saturdays by Jerry Gillham

During the summer season we crowd around the dinner table at meal times, discussing our day, points of interest and news from home. In winter however, when it's dark from early evening and there's only four of us, things get more informal. TV dinners become a regular thing and meal times vary depending on when people fancy eating. Routine though is the best way to stay sane so we keep up our formal three-course meals on Saturdays.

It's nice to be able to put more thought into what you're making, maybe try something new for starter, put aside a day to preparing a memorable evening. Here's the menu from my most recent Saturday cook:

Starter: Italian-style spring rolls.

Slightly odd, they were inspired by a Gino D'Acampo recipe and by the fact that I had some spring roll casings that I'd managed to bring from the Falklands (I've never seen them anywhere else but there, they sounded like a good idea for something different).

They didn't necessarily turn out as I'd intended. One of the problems was that when dropped into the fryer the air inside them expanded rapidly and burst them open.

A few exploded spring rolls.

A few exploded spring rolls.

One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

Main course: Gnocci roasted pumpkin and tomato sauce and chorizo (or chorizo-style quorn). Garlic bread.

This was a course I had much higher hopes for. I've made my own gnocci before but only about once a year because of the huge faff it is, despite taking as many short cuts as I can (mash tinned potatoes in the blender, mix with flour in the bread maker). Nevertheless it does allow you the joy of brightening up the meal with food colouring.

Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Ok, I was pleased with how this course turned out.

Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Dessert: Double chocolate brownie in white-Russian ice cream.

We've been experimenting a bit with our ice-cream maker this season, and what is more natural to make into ice cream than The Dude's drink of choice? Like many of our attempts I didn't leave it long enough to freeze properly so it was better the next day, that that was left over. The brownie recipe is heart-stoppingly calorific, so just a small chunk is enough, and it makes a great snack for taking into the field on subsequent days.

You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

 

Entertainments

It is the responsibility of the chef to come up with the entertainments for the night too. Often this will be a board game or a quiz... something to bring everyone together having a laugh. We have variously appropriated Monopoly, Cluedo and Guess who to give them more Bird Island relevance.

Recently Tim hosted a Saturday Nintendo night, with a set of challenges based around wii games and costumes essential.

Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

Happy Birthday David Attenborough by Jerry

Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday was celebrated down here on Bird Island with a cake, a raised glass and a few episodes of Life In The Freezer. The second one in particular, 'The Ice Retreats', contains a large amount of footage from Bird Island; all the albatross and penguin shots are familiar.

Here's a few screenshots of David Attenborough on Bird Island, standing in the middle of Big Mac, one of my key work locations when I was Zoological Field Assistant for the penguins, rather than the tourist I go over there as now. In this sequence he described Macaronis as the loudest and most bad-tempered of all the penguins. At times I have described them in similar, but less eloquent, ways.

All copyright owned by the BBC and photos used without permission. Check out their series Life In The Freezer or the more recent Frozen Planet for the best impression you can get of Antarctica.

Obviously much has been said regarding David Attenborough's work and life but it is probably worth repeating that, outside of immediate family, he has probably been the biggest influence on me and many others down here. Not just the scientists studying the charismatic megafauna but anyone who grew up wanting to travel, explore and witness all the amazing sights the Earth has to offer.

Bird Island folklore says that the old jetty bog was his favourite toilet in the world. Unfortunately when the jetty was rebuilt this had to be removed from the end and placed near the main base, but it is a mark of respect that it is still standing, admittedly only used as a store currently but no one can bring themselves to tear it down. You can't destroy David Attenborough's favourite toilet!

Time is getting the better of it however and this season we have started working on preserving the unique features. On the ceiling was a painting done by a previous Station Leader, Sam, in 2010. A recreation of the roof of the Cistine Chapel with a few Bird Island natives splashed across it, my favourite being the gentoo penguin chick on Adam's lap. The painting has been taken down, cleaned up and framed, ready to take pride of place on the wall in the lounge.

Jerry

More ice than we could ever have gin for. by Jerry

Since the ship called a few weeks ago we've seen winter close its icy grip on the island. Normally a Bird Island autumn is damp (like the rest of the year) with slowly dropping temperatures, but this year as the nights close in the island has frozen and become covered in snow already.

We awoke one day last week to find our bay filled with ice. With not so much on the hills and little in some of the other bays it became apparent that these were all chunks of a smashed up 'berg, destroyed by the rough weather and funnelled straight at us.

Looking back from the end of the now surrounded jetty.

The amount of ice on top of, as well as surrounding, the jetty was impressive. It's very rare the waves even crash over the top of it so to dump all this there it must have been pretty severe.

It was more obvious to identify the edge of the jetty than it seems from this photo.

As may be expected, van-sized chunks of ice being repeatedly battered against the jetty didn't do it much good. It took a few days to clear enough to be able to carry out a proper investigation. Aside from a bit of buckling of the scaffold planks and the odd pole less straight than before it's stood up pretty well. The biggest relief was the lack of real damage to the grey water pipe.

Over the next few days the snow fell a bit more and we had some excellent opportunities to get out and enjoy it.

Walking in these conditions is so much different from summer. The streams are frozen so you need chains or spikes to safely get up them, the meadows and bogs are frozen too so you can walk straight across them without sinking in. However some of the muddiest bogs amongst the tussack grass don't freeze over properly, just hide themselves beneath a tempting layer of flat snow.

Watching the wildlife cope with the new conditions is always interesting. The fur seals generally love the snow, pushing themselves along, rolling over and rubbing it into their fur. But the route to and from the sea has become difficult for some.

The skuas were largely relying on carrion on the beaches for their meals. With that all buried they face a tough time.

The wandering albatross chicks are fully prepared for winter, their thick down layer will protect them through anything.

The penguins love it of course, although this gentoo looks confused about the high tide.

It's rare you can get photos of penguins stood on clean, white snow. It doesn't take long for them to mess it up. So I've enjoyed watching the evening arrival of the gentoos heading up the beach to their nesting grounds.

Although far outside of the breeding season the gentoos still gather at their nesting sites in the evenings, although attendance varies hugely depending on things like weather and food availability. They can still be very territorial, building up their nests and fighting with others who get too close.

Having a bit of fun with the larger bits of ice.

Jerry.

Albatrosses, rain and birthdays by Jerry

A few photos of the work we've been up to in the last couple of weeks before the ship call, particularly those days in between when we were expecting them and when they actually arrived (the weather was too rough to call so, with all the cargo being ready, I had a few relaxing days before starting all my post-call work).

Checking wandering albatross on the ridge. This pair were the last to lay and so the last ones to be checked for signs of hatching.

Making friends with the locals. This albatross is sat in particularly scenic spot and I already have plenty of photos of it, though not too many with me in too.

Black-browed albatross chicks, as mean-looking as their parents.

Grey=headed albatross chicks, slightly less angry-looking.

When the chicks yawn they open their mouths so wide you can almost see the squid in their bellies.

It's time of year to get ringing the chicks, unfortunately the first day we were defeated by wind and rain. It's not safe for us in the colonies and not good for the chicks who aren't as waterproof as the adults so really shouldn't be disturbed in the wet.

Poa annua is an invasive grass species that crops up on several sub-Antarctic islands. We're largely free of it, though Al found this patch this season. Removal is best done by spade, though I did pick the first day the ground froze to try it.

Young elephants seal apparently attacked by a sea monster,

Lucy, on her birthday, adopting a heroic pose under our first good icicles of the season.

The icicles didn't last too long, not least because they got broke off to make a birthday G&T extra special.

Jerry

Cargo by Jerry

Most of my work over the past month or so has been the preparation of cargo for exporting off the island. The bulk of this is waste, the vast majority of which is shipped back to the UK for recycling. Then there are scientific samples sent back to the scientists who requested them, scientific and technical equipment that gets returned for servicing, use elsewhere or sold on. Not forgetting personal cargo for those sadly leaving.

All this needs to be properly recorded; unique ID numbers, contents, size, weight, destination need to be easily identifiable for each bit. For some, such as the hazardous shipping goods (biological samples in ethanol, used aerosols, batteries) there is additional paperwork and strict rules about packaging.

This has taken a long time but it is extremely pleasing to walk round the station now and see it looking clear, right in time for stocktaking and cleaning.

Colour coded drums containing waste glass, scrap metal and fuels.

Each room had cargo for a different destination - UK, Falklands, other bases - to make backloading easier.

Hazardous packages with a whole host of appropriate labels.

FIBC bags of recyclable plastics, cardboard and cans, dragged round the front of the building the day before the ship call. The large buoys, dragged up from beaches around the island, will be found a new home.

Basic waterproofing with tarpaulins, no need to weigh them down when the seals are still looking for comfort spots.

The ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, approached Bird Island early in the week, took one look at the swell and turned round. They returned a few days later and were able to run the tender in, unloading a few bits of food, post and technical equipment with us and taking everything away.

Pulling away from the jetty with our last load of outgoing cargo.

 Before the ship departed properly though we were able to get a large group of passengers ashore. These were other BAS staff, most of whom had been enjoying the cruise up from Rothera and have seen a few sights on their way. While some were found jobs to do we tried to ensure all got up to see the wandering albatrosses and a few penguins. After a summer with six other people it was a bit of a shock to be up this hill with over 20, but I hope I hid my trauma.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to those whose time to go had arrived. Waving people off from the jetty is by far the hardest thing that one has to do on Bird Island. The walk back up to station is a jumble of emotions - sad and subdued as folk leave mixed with anticipation and excitement at what's to come.

The penultimate rib heading back to the ship, just visible in the fog.

As has been pointed out to me, when I left at this time last season I didn't think I'd be here doing this again. But I'm here for another two months during which time I'll make a start on all the stocktaking...

...but in the meantime I'll just check all the wandering albatross chicks are ok.

Wandering Albatross work by Jerry

Here's a few photos on our work with one of the most iconic Bird Island species; the magnificent wandering albatross.

Lucy, the albatross assistant, recording ring numbers for non-breeding individuals. All those in the study area, about 100 pairs, have light plastic darvic rings on their legs with a unique colour and code so we can record their presence without getting too close.

Knowing the life history of individuals means we can understand the variation in the population, an important factor when looking at how their survival and productivity will cope in differing climactic conditions.

Unpaired birds display to each other, showing off their huge wingspan (over 3m) and calling loudly to the sky.

It takes a full year to raise a chick, it's a big investment with with both parents putting in equal shifts sitting on the egg then collecting food. So picking a reliable and compatible partner is a process that can take a long time, especially if there are multiple suitors.

Eggs are laid around Christmas and start to hatch at the beginning of March. At first you just see a little hole in the egg and hear a high-pitched pipping coming from within. It can take them three days to hatch completely.

A long wait beside a bird is often rewarded with a glimpse of a tiny chick fresh out of the egg as the adult stands up. This was the first one hatched this season on Bird Island and got named Dumbledore in a competition held on the BAS facebook page.

The chicks quickly get bigger and poke their heads out. On sunny days you're more likely to see adults standing and letting them have a good look around.

By the end of the month the earliest hatchers, here's Dumbledore again, get left alone as both parents head off to find food. They may look vulnerable at this stage but they can repel any threat with a mouthful of oily vomit that will ruin a predators plumage.

Meanwhile the non-breeders continue looking for mates, showing off heir nest-building capabilities as well and size.

Jerry

Search and Rescue practice by Jerry

Bird Island Research Station has a small staff team; no more than 10 in summer and just four over winter. We have no doctor on station though all staff receives excellent pre-deployment first aid training from the BAS Medical Unit, with one or two individuals spending a few days on the front line in an A&E department to broaden their experience.

However well skills are taught they can be quickly forgotten so we try and have a training session once a week, on an otherwise quiet evening, where we go over some aspect of rescue, recovery or medical skills. One week it could be a discussion about hypothermia, then practicing putting a stretcher together, then CPR practice with our own dummy.

Learning how to put someone in the spinal board and set up the stretcher in the comfort of the lounge.

Earlier in the season we sat around the table and had a serious discussion about what we would do if someone severely injured themselves in the field. Bird Island has some steep, slippery terrain and people frequently work alone. The importance of regular radio contact is hammered home, as is the necessity of always carrying spare warm clothing and an emergency aid kit. During our table-top exercise I sat down with the Emergency Action Plan and talked through the extremely useful flow chart it contains, detailing priority actions and who to contact.

With field-work calming down a bit in the last few weeks I have been on the look-out for a good occasion to put this formerly into practice. So last Friday everyone was told to be available for the afternoon, while one of the departing staff went round the beach and lay at an awkward angle at the base of a cliff. I was able to sit back and observe the response and was pleased at the calm, organised and efficient way at which those on station, particularly the upcoming winter team, dealt with the incident. A fast search party took the emergency medical bags and warm clothing and quickly located the casualty, reporting back enough detail for a second party to head out with stretcher, spinal board and other necessary equipment. On station we had someone consulting the doctor at King Edward Point and talking to Cambridge, relaying important information to those in the field.

Assembling the stretcher and other kit upon reaching the incident.

Despite apparently serious injuries our casualty was soon back indoors, after a short stretcher ride to demonstrate how tiring it can be for those struggling along the uneven terrain. Around a cup tea we debriefed and reviewed the incident, with everyone happy and more confident in their abilities to respond to any problems, but also more aware of how difficult it can be and how self-aware they need to be in any situation.

Casualty on the spinal board. Last minute checks before transferring to the stretcher.

Jerry

Questions from schoolchildren by Jerry

A short while ago I got asked some questions from some year 6 schoolchildren (that's what? 10 or 11 year olds?) taught by a friend's mum. I was interested in the sort of thing they would ask me, what their impressions, excitement or concerns would be. It turned out they had some really good questions covering a range of topics, not all of which were that easy to answer. Here are the highlights:




Traveling to Bird Island

How did you get there and how long did it take?
How do you get there?

It’s a long journey down to Bird Island. I started from Cambridge on 4th November and flew down from Brize Norton, which is an RAF airport, though we were on a comfy commercial plane. After a 9 hour flight we stopped at Ascension Island (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator) to refuel and then had another 9 hour flight down to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. There we joined a ship, the RSS James Clark Ross.

The crossing to Bird Island is normally three days but we had drop some people off further south first, then do some marine science on the way back north, so it was actually 24th November when I arrived – a three week journey!


Have you travelled into the Antarctic?
Have you gone to the Antarctica and if you have please can you tell me what you have done there and if you have gone to Antarctica please can you send me some pictures of Antarctica?

I’m afraid I have not set foot on the Antarctic continent yet; it is something I hope to do in the future. However the official Antarctic Circle is at 60° south and I crossed that on my journey down. We dropped a number of scientists and other staff at another station, one that was covered in snow and surrounded by miles and miles of ice.

It was amazing being on the ship, slowly moving through a sea of ice as far as you could see. Most of it quite flat, small chunks that made a bumping and grinding noise as the ship pushed them aside, but frequently we would see huge icebergs in the middle of it all, standing like blue hills. It was all quiet apart from small numbers of seals, penguins and small birds following the ship.


What were your first impressions when you arrived?

The weather was grey and cloudy as we approached Bird Island so instead of seeing it on the horizon and getting gradually closer it suddenly appeared out of the mist looking huge and inhospitable. The cliffs and steep slopes had a thin layer of snow on them so you couldn’t see any colour; it was all just grey and white with waves crashing at the shore. I didn’t think I’d made a mistake in coming but I did wonder if I had underestimated how difficult it would be. Luckily later that day the sun came out, the snow melted and it looked much nicer and welcoming.



 Life on station

Where do you stay and what's it like?

The station is located on a small beach beside a sheltered cove. During summer the beach becomes covered in fur seals that can be noisy, smelly and quite aggressive but are also very cute and fascinating to watch.

We have a few different buildings but the one we live in is called Prince House. There are 5 bedrooms so sometimes people have to share but you get your own for most of the time. We have a large kitchen with lots of modern appliances and a dining room / lounge area with comfy seats and a big screen for watching films on. There are offices and laboratories for our work and a very warm porch for leaving our wet outdoor clothes in. We have a laundry, medical room and large food stores too. In the other buildings we have further store rooms, a workshop for any building work and a big shed housing the generators that provide us with power.

Our station is quite small but it is modern, clean and warm, most of the time we just wear t-shirt and shorts when indoors. Every Friday we have scrubout, where we are assigned a room or two that we are responsible for cleaning.


Is it ever warm in the summer?
What kind of clothes do you wear?

You get used to it being cold so when the temperature gets over 5°C in the summer it feels warm, especially if you are somewhere sheltered from the wind. Walking up and down the hills can be very warming with no wind to cool you down and there are a few occasions when I’ve done it just in a t-shirt.

Most of the time we wear thermal undergarments, a thin jumper, then good quality waterproof salapets and jackets. During winter a thicker jumper or extra layer is often needed, especially if you’re not moving about much. The ground is often very wet so we have big walking boots that keep the water out and thick socks to keep our feet warm. Feet, heads and hands can easily get cold so I always carry thick gloves and hat with me even if wearing thin ones. Finally, sunglasses and suncream are sometimes essential if it is very bright, with sunlight reflecting off the snow or coming through more powerfully due to the hole in the ozone layer.


What other people are on the island?
Have you made any good friends?

This season (November to April) there are seven of us on Bird Island. Five are scientists recording data on the penguins, seals, albatrosses and other birds. A technician, who is a cross between a plumber, electrician, mechanic and builder, keeps the station running, ensuring we always have electricity and water as well as fixing all the things the scientists have broken. And I am here as the station leader, responsible for overseeing the smooth running and safe working of the station and team.

During the winter this will drop down to just four people – the technician and three scientists. I have spent two winters down here and have made some amazingly good friends. When you spend over six months with just three other people you really get to know them, to love their good sides and tolerate their bad sides, like you do your family. In such a small group everyone has to be responsible for their actions and be aware of their role in the group. So you help each other out and you know you can trust each other. I’m looking forward to having some group reunions and seeing those people in what we call ‘the real world’, the world outside of Bird Island.


What do you eat?
How can you cope without eating fresh food?

We actually eat very well down here with plenty of variety of food. With no permanent chef on station like some of the larger bases have we take it in turns cooking each night. We try and make Saturdays a special occasion with a three course meal and sometimes dressing up. Chef for the day also has to make fresh bread, so there is always a delicious smell when you get back in from the hills.
We have a few rooms full of food; mostly tinned, dried or frozen as well as a limited supply of fresh ingredients. Things like potatoes, onions, carrots will last a long time in a cool, dark place but they aren’t quite as fresh as the ones you find in the supermarkets.
There is very little we can’t make with our ingredients, a cookbook and a little improvisation. Pizzas, curries and chips are always very popular but we will always appreciate someone experimenting with something a little different. Ingredients do start to run down over winter so sometimes have to be rationed, or used in unusual ways (for instance you can make a decent pizza topping out of baked beans if you run out of tomato paste).

One of the things we miss the most is fresh fruit and salad; when I returned home last year I would sit and eat a box of cherry tomatoes like other people eat crisps. We remain healthy and get our vitamins from other food, but it is something I look forward to about getting back.


Did you spend Christmas on the Island? What did you do?

I have spent three Christmases on Bird Island and they are often strange days. It is a very busy period for work; lots of seals giving birth, albatross nesting and penguin chicks hatching so we all have jobs to do. We try and fit our Christmas around them so we will bring out our decorations the week before and put up the plastic Christmas tree. Then on Christmas day someone will cook a big breakfast before we all go out to do our jobs for the day. Whoever has free time will dip into the kitchen throughout the day to help with the main meal or make a cake. Then we dress smartly for our big evening meal, a traditional Christmas dinner with crackers and party hats. After food we may play a game or have a party but we have to be up early the next day to carry on with more science work.

We give each other cards and open the few small presents we may have been sent from home but it’s not a big present-giving time. The main celebration in Antarctica is midwinter, June 21st, which marks the point at which the days start getting longer again. Further south, where the sun never rises in the winter, this marks the point at which they start counting down to seeing it again. Midwinter parties can last all week with many games, competitions and challenges. On the British bases we do a sort of secret Santa where everyone makes a present, often spending months over it, for one other person. There are some amazing examples of arts and crafts that get handed over and they are treasured for what they mean as well as a gift.


Do you miss your family? How often do you contact them?

Yes I do miss my family, and my friends, especially at times like Christmas and birthdays. Sometimes it feels like we are a family down here as we have to live so closely with one another and at times, if someone is feeling down, we depend on each other like a good family would. I am lucky though that, although we have very slow and internet no mobile phone signal, our communications are good; I can easily phone home on a land-line and I try to send a short email or photo to my parents each week.


What would happen if one of you gets ill?

Good question. We don’t have a doctor on station like they do on some of the larger bases. Instead we have all been through some quite intensive medical training and do regular training sessions on how to deal with injuries. We have a cupboard full of medicines and several doctors always available at the end of a telephone for advice. The biggest problem here is dental; one year I had to have a three week, 2,000 mile trip to the dentist to get a tooth pulled out. That was a long time to be in pain. Make sure you brush your teeth properly.


What do you do in your spare time?

Working hours are often dictated by the animals’ behaviour so we can busy every day for weeks at a time and then suddenly more relaxed. If we have a day off and the weather is nice I like to go out with my camera to photograph the wildlife, or explore areas we don’t normally get to see. If the weather is poor I can write to people, practice a musical instrument, try some painting or woodwork or just relax with a book or TV show.

We have regular film evenings and sometimes people give talks or show photos of holidays. We have a draw full of games that are really good for relaxing and enjoying time with other people.



Working on Bird Island

How do you get around the island?
Have you ever got lost on the island?

We get everywhere by walking round the island. It is not very big (about 5km long by 1km wide) but it is steep and the terrain is difficult to walk across. There are paths that we try to stick to to avoid causing unnecessary damage or erosion but they are not easy to follow and frequently lead through mud, ponds and lumpy tussac grass. Imagine walking up slippery steps of different heights, some of which are hidden under overhanging grass. And some of them have seals hiding amongst them.
Often we walk up the slope by following the streams. These are only shallow and rocky so give good grip. During winter you can put spikes on your boots and walk straight across the frozen marshes.

Sometimes the fog comes in very thick and if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the island it can be very disorientating. I have never got properly lost but I have headed in what I thought was the correct direction only to emerge where I thought there would be a path and instead there was a cliff.


Have you discovered any new species of animals? What?

Sadly I haven’t, though I think if I collected a lot of the insects that live deep within the soil I may have a chance to. The most exciting discoveries I and others have made are when you see a bit of animal behaviour that you haven’t heard about anywhere else.
Seeing a pair of birds working together to steal an egg out from under a larger, more dangerous bird was one such thing, as was seeing a leopard seal with a penguin it had killed and was apparently saving for later rather than eating straight away.


Do you have any weapons to protect yourself from animals and if so which weapons?

I’m sorry, we don’t get any weapons, but you are right in thinking that some of the animals we work with can be dangerous and we have several different bits of equipment for defending ourselves. The fur seals are probably most dangerous as they are fast, heavy and the big males regularly injure each other while fighting. We spend a lot of time training people how to walk around them without disturbing them to remain safe, but we also carry long broom handles known as bodgers. These are never for hitting them with but it is something to hold in front of you so if you do get it wrong and one does try to bite it will only get the stick.

The albatross and other birds can also give some nasty injuries if you get it wrong while working with them. They are not being aggressive but have such large, powerful beaks that a quick peck can draw blood and easily bruise. Think of a welly boot with the foot cut off – we often use something like that over our arms to give an extra layer of protection.


Do you have any pets and what are they called?

We have to be very careful about what comes onto Bird Island as any non-native species could disturb the ones that live here. So we don’t have any usual house pets. Also we try not to disturb the local wildlife outside of what is required for science so we’re not allowed to take the seal pups or penguins as pets, no matter how cute they look.
However there are some individual animals that we get to know and they do get names. There is a skua (a bird like a large, brown seagull) with a broken wing who has lived near the station for a few years now. She is called Scratchy because she scratched the scientist who caught her to see if she could do anything to fix the wing.
As the wandering albatross chicks are sat on the same nest for around eight months and are one of the few wildlife around in the winter some of them get names, especially if you walk past them every day. One this year, known as Christopher, got his development regularly updated on Twitter.


Have you ever dug down beneath the surface?

At times I have, yes. Usually what you find is rock or smelly mud. I was collecting old bits of penguin eggshell from years past by excavating some of the stony ground where they breed and I was surprised by the large numbers of insects living under the rocks, surviving off dropped food, dead penguins and droppings.



My job


What do you do in your job?
What do you do on a day to day basis?

As station leader I am responsible for ensuring everyone is able to do their jobs efficiently, safely and correctly. If anyone has a problem they usually come to me to try and sort it out. I am the main point of communication between the station and our bosses in Cambridge, the ships and other bases so I can organise getting any supplies that are needed.
A large part of my job is managing cargo; the incoming deliveries and preparing waste for appropriate shipping and recycling. Recently I have been working on emergency evacuation plans – ensuring we have enough supplies to survive comfortably if the base burned down and we had to live in a hut or tents. I also organise training for the others, whether it’s refreshing medical knowledge or what to do in an emergency.


Do you like your job and why?

Yes, I enjoy my job for several reasons. Firstly I get to live in an amazing place. I have always liked wildlife and the outdoors and here I feel like I am in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

I enjoy the lifestyle; working with a small group of people who all help each other, no worries about money, travel, fashion. Almost everything I need to be happy is here.
The job itself is also very varied which keeps it interesting. I could spend one day in the office going through health and safety forms, then the next helping count albatrosses, then boxing up recycling, then out repairing footpaths.


What was your job before, was it anything to do with the job you do now?

I previously worked on small islands around the UK – the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Skomer and Skokholm in Pembrokeshire and the Shiants in western Scotland. Many parts were similar to what I do now. Although there were no penguins or albatrosses I did a lot of science work monitoring and recording British seabirds such as puffins. In those jobs I would often work with volunteers or visiting members of the public, something that we don’t get on Bird Island, but one thing about living on remote islands is that you have to learn to get on with the people around you. You also have to be resourceful and adaptable – if you need something it may not be able to be delivered straight away so you have to learn to deal without or make do with what you have. I think learning that set me up well for living down here.


Do you like living in the cold?

I still get excited when it snows and enjoy crunching through it when freshly fallen, seeing ice on the ponds and feeling well wrapped up when you can see your breath in the air. So yes, I do like living in the cold. Although I am very happy that we have a warm base where I can relax in just a t-shirt, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much without that.
There are things I miss about the warmth though – swimming in the sea, sitting outside eating an ice cream, being able to go for a walk without having to spend 10 minutes putting on several layers and big boots.



Bird Island and the wider world
 
Does global warming affect Bird Island?

Good question, though a complex one. I will try and answer it as clearly as I can.
One of our jobs here is counting the numbers of seals and birds breeding each year. This has been done for the last few decades so we can look at how populations have changed since the 1960s. As most of these are long-lived species (some albatross can live to over 50 years) it takes this long to be able to say whether there are any trends in terms of more or less of a species. Over this time period albatross numbers have drastically reduced, dropping to roughly half the numbers there used to be.
Proving that this is due to climate change is very difficult because the way the atmosphere, ice sheets, ocean and wildlife interact is very, very complicated. There are many other factors too, for instance fur seal numbers have increased massively in that time, but that is because humans stopped hunting them.

However what we think is happening is that with the earth’s temperature, especially the sea temperature, rising this is causing the ice sheets to melt and break apart quicker. The underside of those ice sheets is the main place where krill breed and grow. Krill are tiny shrimps that are the basis of the Antarctic food web. Everything that lives here – whales, seals, albatross, penguins – either eats krill or eats something that eats krill, everything depends on it. So if there is less ice there will be less krill and less food for everything else.
  

Have there ever been any earthquakes or natural disasters on the island?

The South Sandwich Islands are about 500 miles south west of Bird Island and sit on a geological fault so do experience earthquakes from time to time. We are a bit far away to feel their effects but we do have the possibility of tsunamis, tidal waves.
In my first winter we got a phone call in the early morning telling us there had been a tsunami warning and we had 20 minutes to get up the hill. So we quickly pulled on lots of warm clothes, grabbed the emergency satellite phone and headed up the icy stream in the dark. Luckily nothing happened; we just had to wait an hour before we were allowed back down. But it is something we prepare for with emergency drills and supplies located away from the main base.


I would like to know what it is like to live with penguins around you?

It’s brilliant. You can never be bored or unhappy while watching penguins as they’re so entertaining. Sometimes if I have been working with them for a few days I have to make sure I don’t get complacent about it so I spend a bit of time just sitting, watching and enjoying them. Instead of watching the soaps we will frequently sit around the window on base watching the penguins and seals.

There are down sides to being surrounded by penguins though. With a fishy diet their colonies do smell pretty bad and if you’re working there it can be a difficult smell to get rid of. The macaronis especially are particularly noisy and aggressive. You can’t be friends with them.
  

What's it like living there? Please send pictures?

I love living here. There’s something different to see or do every day, the people are friendly and helpful, the wildlife is entertaining and the views are spectacular. Hope you like the photos.
  

Rat boxes by Jerry

One of the reasons Bird Island is so important for wildlife is that it has never been populated by rats or mice. On the South Georgia mainland rats have decimated populations of the burrowing birds - the small petrels and prions - as well as terns and pipits. With the

rat eradication programme

it is hoped these species will recover, indeed the first nesting pipits have already been discovered.

There are several measures in place to combat the threat of rats. Firstly landings on the island are very restricted, provided only with special permission by the South Georgia government. The BAS ships that bring us our supplies are very rigorous about preventing rats and as everything we have comes ashore on small boxes from the tender there are plenty of opportunities for spotting rodents.

Poison-baited boxes will be around the jetty whenever we have a ship in but around the rest of the island there are a series of other rat boxes. These contain a block of chocolate wax made by melting together candles and cocoa powder then letting it harden in an ice-cube tray.

Location of rat boxes on Bird Island

As you see they are quite spread out across the island. One of my jobs is to travel round checking on them, specifically looking for gnawing marks in the wax block that would indicate the presence of rats or mice. Thankfully there have been none.

It is a good opportunity and excuse to get out to a variety of parts of the island I wouldn't necessarily travel to. 

The rat box just up from Main Bay, with nice views back toward base and La Roche.

We have other biosecurity measures to prevent more invasive species. Prior to leaving their ship and on arrival at the jetty all visitors are required to wash their footwear to remove any possible insects or seeds. Fresh fruit and vegetables are thoroughly checked, each and every potato, to remove insects, soil and mould.

Jerry.

Emergency boxes by Jerry

One of my jobs this season is to ensure that all the emergency supplies are up to date and in good condition. The biggest risk to station would be a fire or tsunami (there's a bit of geological activity in the South Sandwich islands so it's a threat, however remote). We have several systems in place to warn us about this and a good fire-suppression system, but good planning means we have to take into account the worst case scenario.

In this photo Lucy is sorting through the emergency medical box, ensuring all our supplies are in date, well sealed and we know how to use them. There are further boxes containing cooking equipment, water purification, warm clothing and shelters.

One of the other key features in an emergency would be communication so I have also been checking batteries for and testing our iridium field phones and working out ways we could charge them if we lost all power. We do have a small back-up generator offsite but having recently read The Martian I keep thinking of how we could adapt the solar chargers used to power some of the science equipment.

Of course this is all something we hope is never used, but thinking it through and putting precautions in place is very useful and really interesting.

Xmas on BI by Jerry

This is a piece written for the BAS internal newsletter that I thought I'd recreate here with a few more photos.

While others were either busy with work or taking time off to celebrate over Christmas, we at Bird Island tried our best to do both. The wildlife doesn’t stop but the occasion must be celebrated. 

Hence the morning of the 25

th

found everyone up bright and early, enjoying croissants and salmon before the seal team headed over to the study beach to record adults present and pups born that day. Bird team headed up the hill to map wandering albatross nests while back on station Ian continued to drive himself mad, counting screws for the tech indent. I worked through a few waste management chores before hitting the kitchen. 

Although I had volunteered to cook the main meal of the day I was grateful to Al and Siân for doing the meat and puddings respectively. Some may say that’s the vast bulk of the xmas dinner but they’d be forgetting about roast potatoes. And err... laying the table.

With everyone back early enough to shower and smarten up we tucked into South Georgia reindeer and all the trimmings. Later on, with bellies full, we slumped back in our chairs and played games like ‘spot the tune being murdered on kazoo and stylophone’. While that taking care of the digestive process we were soon fit for more active games, like ‘pick the ever-shrinking box of cereal of the floor with no hands’, then dancing into the small hours.

Not quite so bright but equally early people were up the following day, back to the seal beach, back up the hill, back in the tech store and office. We’re currently planning new year and the thinking is... same again.

Decorating the world's most horrible Christmas tree.

Awaiting permission to sit down.

Tim using his full height advantage to win the box game. He beat Ian and I on a flat-piece-of-cardboard-on-the-floor decider.

I don't know the name of this game but the object is to get a wine bottle as far as possible away from a line with no feet touching the floor.

The morning after? Partying too hard? No, just an evenings training on splints and stretchers in the middle of the xmas / new year period.

Food and how we eat it by Jerry

Continuing my theme of updating the day-to-day normality of life on a sub-Antarctic research station, here's a blog all about our food.

Bird Island has no permanent chef, instead we take it in turns to cook. We try to make Saturday nights formal (or dressing up) with a three-course meal. Other trends develop through the year too; Sunday roasts, Friday chip shop night, snacks for film nights.

We have limited fresh produce, only arriving when the ships come by, so may be as few as three times a year. And by fresh I mean may have been at sea for a month. So we tend to go for long-lasting root vegetables, chopping and freezing them as needed. Thankfully the ship chefs often take pity on us and send over a box of crunchy, fresh stuff.

Fresh tomatoes! Sian and Lucy can't hide their excitement (photo by Alastair Wilson).

All fresh produce has to undergo a rigorous bio-security check, searching leaves for any invading alien species. Broccoli and lettuce, veg with lots of hiding places, has recently been banned from our order list.

The cool shed that serves as our vegetable cupboard. Everything is checked on a weekly basis for mould. It's amazing how long eggs will last if they're turned over each week (so long as you don't look back into the shell after breaking it).

Everything else that comes in is either frozen, dried or tinned. As it's just after resupply our shelves are full so here's a few pics and notes:

Tea, coffee, milk powder (you get used to it) and jaffa cakes. Yeah, essentials.

A whole shelf of herbs and spices for livening up any meal.

Poppadaums, pickles and coconut milk. Starting point for one of our many epic curry nights.

Fruit juice, pasta, crisps and huge amounts of flour.

Freezer 1. Cheese, butter and loads of veggie foods.

Freezer 2. Non-veggie stuff. We do have another freezer almost exclusively full of frozen veg, and a small area of ice cream.

The kitchen is not huge but easily big enough for one or two people to work in and is very well stocked with everything one could possibly need to whip up an exciting meal.

Tim, hard at work peeling potatoes, modelling the kitchen.

Amongst the well-stocking is a super bread-mixer. Baking bread is a duty of the daily chef and coming in to fresh bread is one of the joys of living here. People take great pride in their bread, whether it's the consistent quality of theirs or a specific recipe they use (I like making one with a bit of apple, sultanas, pistachio nuts, ginger and cinnamon in it).

Ordering food is a difficult task for the winter station leader. You'll always run low on something, whether because you don't order enough or you get a tech that eats an unexpectedly large amount of ketchup. We had to ration certain things in each of my winters - jars of olives, fruit juice concentrate, tins of tomatoes. It can make cooking interesting when you have to start improvising and working in so many substitutes a simple recipe becomes something completely different. One of my more successful experiments was blitzing and tin of baked beans in the blender to make a tomato topping for pizzas.

It's always pleasing seeing the efforts people go to with their cooking, whether they're confident and trying something extravagant or hating the whole process but unwilling to let people down. And every meal concludes with a round of thanks for the chef, who then has the joy of watching everyone else doing the washing up and tidying away.

Wine, beer and gin.

Magazines by Jerry

We got back to Bird Island on 24th November, since when life has been pretty hectic. It is fantastic to be back and I will try and write a post about how that feels in the coming weeks. In the meantime our internet bandwidth has been increased since I was last down, so I'll try and make the effort to put up more frequent, though probably shorter, blogs.

As everyone has seen photos of penguins and seals before I promised I would post a few more updates of general station life this year.

In an effort to keep a degree of normality and ensure we aren't too out of touch we get a daily newspaper emailed through, which is good although it has it's faults (you can ask me anything about what the royal family are wearing or how Adele's career is going, but not about the rest of the world). We also get a selection of magazines at the start of each month.

These all came in at first call so I was splitting them into type to ensure an equal distribution throughout the year. As you can see we get a good range covering science, wildlife, travel, hobbies and fashion – gutting when you realise you're looking at styles from 12 months ago.

Jerry.