Leopard Seal

Crazy spring work by Jerry

Crazy spring work

It’s a very exciting but very busy time of year with all the breeding species returning, so here’s a quick update on what’s going on on Bird Island.

Giant Petrels

As detailed a few entries back, working with the giant petrels is one of my main tasks. From 10th September I’ve been out every day walking back and forth over the study area, looking for new nests and recording information on the breeding birds. The northern geeps have almost all laid now, over 300 nests marked and pairs recorded, and the southerns are about to start.

Not my favourite nest location to check, though I can’t fault the view.

It’s great to see such a range of personalities in these birds; from nervous young ones who defend their patch with extreme aggression to calm old ones who tolerate your presence. Some of the latter are older than me while there’s a few new breeders who, although 6 to 8 years old, are on their first egg.

The advantage of nesting early is that the chicks will be born when food is at its most abundant as there will be plenty of vulnerable young seals and penguins. The disadvantage is that there can still be a bit of snow.

Checking all these birds has meant a few long days in the field, especially when I’ve a few other bits and pieces to do. Up to seven hours with only a brief lunch break and then two hours of data entry in the evenings is not unusual. That’s the nature of the job – when the work’s there you do it, when it’s not you try and relax a little.

A cold day on the geep round.


Preparations for the return of the macaronis has focussed on setting up the weighbridge – the extremely clever system that weighs each and identifies each tagged individual on its way in and out of the colony. There’s a whole system of electronics that were taken in at the end of winter that needed to be reassembled and tested. After a few little issues that seems to be working and I’m excitedly waiting for the first birds due back this week.

Gentoos returning from the ocean to their breeding grounds.

The gentoos have been around in varying numbers all winter, often hanging round their nests and adding a few stones to it, but once the snow and ice disappeared they started building with real purpose. They collect as many pebbles as they can, supplemented by bits of bone and tussac and make a pile before pushing with their feet to hollow it out into a bowl in which they lay two large, white eggs. The first few are on eggs now and at two of the colonies I’ve mapped a combined 70 nests that I’ll follow the build up of. From this we’ll establish the peak laying date and hence when I need to do all the colony nest and chick counts.

Copulating pair of gentoos. There is a lot of bill-tapping and the male (on top) patting the female’s flanks with his wings.


The wanderer chicks are very well developed, with many showing only the remnants of their downy chick feathers. They’re stretching their wings out and flapping hard and it’ll not be long before they’re jumping up in the strong winds, getting a bit of a lift before fledging properly in a month or two.

Cosy pair of grey-headed albatross.

The smaller albatrosses – the grey heads, black brows and light mantled sooties - are all back around their colonies too with the former already on eggs. Jess, the albatross assistant, has been out every day recording ring numbers of the birds and marking each of the nests.

White-chinned petrels

One of the joys has been the return of sound to Bird Island – the singing pipits, honking albatross and chattering petrels. While it’s great to see the white chins soaring around the colonies during the day it’s hearing them through the open window when I go to bed at night that’s the real treat.


Cian’s daily leopard seal round continues and although there’s only one regularly seen lep around at the moment he’s given us a lot of special moments. Not least recently when he made a spectacular meal out of a king penguin.

Gill thrashing an unfortunate king penguin.

While we’ll be waiting another month for the first seal puppy we’ve got our first baby in the form of an elephant seal pup. Several in fact. They’re not regular Bird Island breeders but we’re lucky enough to have one very close to the base. We noticed it almost as soon as it was born, before the hungry skuas noticed in fact and started hanging around, trying to pinch the placenta and afterbirth. In a day or two the pups have put on so much weight already it’s incredible.

Shortly after being born the first puppy screams for attention while skuas and a giant petrel wait for anything worth scavenging.

An elephant seal family? Or a mum and pup trying to get away from a huge, randy male?

There have been a handful of large male elephant seals hanging round the last few weeks and we’ve seen a few confrontations and short fights in the water. Seeing them rear up and bellow is an amazing sight. When they utter their deep, bass roar it reverberates off the hills and seems to shake the whole base.

Bellowing male elephant seal.


The American ship the Nathaniel B. Palmer came by with a group installing a GPS station. This was on one of the wettest days of the year and they had to navigate round a huge male ellie seal that had taken up residence on the jetty. But everything went smoothly – we all pitched in with carrying scaffolding, batteries, electronics and tools up the hill. The route up, normally a stream, had turned into a bit of a torrent and despite the best efforts of our waterproofs there was no chance of staying dry. Those at the top did valiant work, staying up there all day until the job was done while we were able to show off a few penguins and albatrosses to the others.
Despite our initial reservations about talking to other people after seven months of the same three faces, communications proved easy and they were a very friendly bunch. They endeared themselves even more by bringing a few trays of fresh fruit, veg and eggs. Colourful, crunchy and tasty peppers, tomatoes and bananas! You know you’re missing out when celery is seen as a treat.

Jerry Gillham

Midwinter part 1 by Jerry

The past weekend saw us through midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica. For the bases further south than us it marks the middle of the long months of darkness and they can start looking forward to the return of the sun. For those of us in sub-Antarctica it means the days will start getting longer - it will begin getting light before 11 and we'll be able to stay out after 6.

Dressing up for the photos we sent out to the other bases. These go out, not only to the other 40 BAS over-winter staff but to all the other bases on the continent and sub-Antarctic islands.

The day started with me, as winter base commander, making breakfast for the others. A big fry-up is a rarity but it was worth using up some of our limited supply of eggs and mushrooms along with the almost limitless beans and sausages. I didn't go as far as serving them in bed as no one wanted their room smelling of burnt bacon.

A healthy start to a long day of excess (the glass of orange juice is the healthy bit).

Despite it being a holiday there's some jobs that just needed doing. Rob had his checks or the generators and boilers to ensure the base is still running smoothly while Cian had the daily round in search of Leopard Seals. I headed out to help him with that while Rob and Jess made a start with the preparations for dinner. I say made a start but for a few days previously Jess had been making cakes and enough meringue to build an igloo out of.

Midwinter cake cooked by Jess. The Leopard Seal decoration was by Cian.

Warming up we settled down to watch the The Thing. A chance to compare my facial hair to that of Kurt Russell and, predictably, be disappointed at the lack of similarity between us.

At the start of winter we'd drawn names, like a secret santa, to see who would be making gifts for who. This is a tradition that goes back to Scott and Shackleton's times, when they had to improvise with what resources and tools they had available. Our materials may be less limited but the creativity is still there and the results are always amazing. The amount of effort that goes in is incredible as people find skills they never knew they had.

Proudly displaying our gifts.

The clock that Jess made me using retrieved bird rings and seal tags, with an illustrated history of each one.

The model I made her of a Wandering Albatross family.

Following a long, drawn-out dinner we collapsed into the comfy chairs and listened to the midwinter broadcast put together by BAS and the BBC. We were delighted to hear greetings from, amongst others, comedians Adam Buxton and Bill Bailey, spaceman Tim Peake and explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Sitting down for an excellent dinner.

Games, snacks and drinks took us into the small hours.

The next day was supposed to be one of nothing but relaxation, slobbing out in front of a few movies. Yet the presence of two leopards and one Weddell Seal meant we were running around excitedly outside for far more of it than planned.

Weddell Seal. One of the few occasions it acknowledged our presence before collapsing back down to sleep.
The week continues to be both fun and relaxing. Coming up we've a few plans for days out and the traditional midwinter games, but yesterday we created a 12 hole crazy golf course around the base which was great fun.

Par 1 across the masking-tape bridge.

A couple of holes down the corridor.

A beautifully decorated generator room course. 

Up above the clouds. by Jerry

Here's a few picture updates of what's been happening:

The Southern Giant Petrels are just starting to fledge.
The white morph was still there today but who knows about tomorrow.

Visitors from colder waters... the return of the Leopard Seals.

And visitors from warmer climes... a few lost Cattle Egrets.

More Elephant Seals hauled out.

Weird weather; low clouds rolling across the sea and engulfing the peaks and ridges.

A rare opportunity to get up above the clouds and look down on base.

May 4th be with us for Star Wars Day.
I attached this picture to a few emails to friends and have not heard from any of them since.


Begin the spring by Jerry

As autumn draws on back home the days are getting longer on Bird Island. The last week has seen snow, rain, mist and blue skies, though with tremendous wind speeds we pass through each of them several times a day.

Brown Skua taking advantage of a warmer spell when the stream melted to have a good wash. The skuas have returned in their dozens in the last fortnight.

As the island wakes up from winter my main field-work begins again.  

With the ground still too frozen to build nests the Gentoos spend their time preening, resting and quarrelling. 
In my last blog I talked about the returning penguins. Large numbers of Gentoos are now regularly on the nesting beaches, but there has been relatively little nest-building activity. With temperatures still regularly below 0C they can't pick up pebbles, sticks or bones from the frozen mud so they've had to be satisfied with longer courtship rituals (mainly bowing to each other) and wandering around getting distracted by snow and each others tail feathers.

Northern Giant Petrel. The proud owner of a new egg.
The bulk of my work now is with the Giant Petrels, the Geeps. There's a study area over the Meadows and each day I have to wander around looking for new nests and checking for any failures. I mark each nest with a stake and give it a number and record the location on GPS so I can create a map later.  

Southern Giant Petrels trying to create their own egg.
I try and get ring numbers for the birds and ring any unringed individuals, depending on how calm they are – with a beak superbly well adapted for ripping up dead seals and cetaceans they can and have inflicted some serious cuts and bruises to my hands and arms. The best protection during this sort of encounter is the leg of a welly (with the boot cut off) slid over the arm to act as a makeshift gauntlet. The ringed birds give us all sorts of long-term data including population changes, survival rates, chick-rearing success and long-term fidelity. One of the new nesters today was ringed as a chick in 1979, making her older than me. The old birds are generally more calm and relaxed and it's a privilege to sit near them eating lunch and counting how much we have in common (not that much was my conclusion).

Wandering Albatross chick sporting that 'mutton chop' look.
 Meanwhile, over with the albatrosses...

With their adult feathers showing through the down the Wandering Albatross chicks are keen to feel the wind blowing through their wings, even though it'll be a bit of time before they can fly.
As Steph's work ringing all the Wanderer chicks nears completion the first of the mollymawks, the smaller albatrosses, have returned and daily counts of them, along with more ring checking, have begun. The Grey-heads were first, followed by the Black-brows and the Light-mantled Sooties won't be too far off.

One of the first Grey-headed Albatrosses back at the colony.

And the seals?

The smelliest bean-bag you've ever seen.
As the craziness of the Fur Seal pupping season approaches Hannah is still recording Leopard Seal activity and desperately hoping for an Elephant Seal pup on Bird Island. There's a handful of enormous males on the beaches and a couple of females. We've got our fingers crossed.

Count the chins.
The Elephant Seals are amazing. They look like the sort of thing that used to exist a hundred years ago, before the Victorians wiped them out so we could just look at poorly-drawn sketches and think 'nah... as if'. As they don't really breed here we're not going to get to see any of those spectacular fights between males but seeing the sheer size of them, and of their mouths when they're bellowing across the bay, gives the place a sense of pre-human wilderness.

Deserving the name elephant.
In the midst of the Leopard / Elephant / Fur Seal watching there was even more exciting seal action with a second Weddell of the season. And this one was hauled out on Main Bay, far from home but enjoying the bitter weather.

Lovely small-faced Weddell Seal
Longer days mean heading out earlier is possible, and getting work done quickly meant we could be done in time to create cakes and costumes for Hannah's birthday.

New superheroes and villains: Lord Caveman, Jesus riding an Orca, Dr Hogface and Super Binman.


Ice Ice Baby by Jerry

We've had a taste of what Antarctic weather should be this week as strong winds blew up off the continent and brought us piles of snow and ice. We've had fun mashing through snowdrifts, skidding about on the frozen ponds and climbing the frozen streams. Here's a few photos:

The view from my bedroom window. Rather more obscured than usual.

The back of the base. Probably the snowiest and sunniest picture I'll ever get.

Ice forming on the sea and the jetty.

Frozen seaweed washed up on the shore.

Gentoo penguin stomping through the soft snow.
Watching the Gentoos in the snow is hilarious as they constantly act like they've never come across it before, always bending over to investigate a beak-full or slipping on the ice.

The Fur Seals are less confused although they seem to love rolling about in the snow. This one was just sleeping through a blizzard that ended up disguising him as a sheep.
The South Georgia Pipits are less at home in the snow, although they don't let it bother them. Small groups were patrolling the thin stretch of seaweed between the ice and the sea, looking for invertebrates. This one kept hopping onto floating bits of mushy ice and managed to find some food.
Leopard Seal on the edge of the open water and slushy sea ice. This was the Lep known as Maurice, who has been hanging around for a while. We were out on the jetty when he came to check us out.

A lovely big Leopard Seal 'hello' from Big Mo. He swam round us a few times, looking up, before playing with some seaweed and performing a bit of seal singing.


Last of the Geeps by Jerry

With the wildlife leaving I've more free time to explore the island or carry out little projects of my own. One is my midwinter present - the old Antarctic secret-Santa-like tradition that has led to quiet evenings hiding in my room and the workshop.

Another project involved setting a timelapse camera up on the top of Tonk to catch what I hoped would be an impressive sunset. As it turned out it was only an average sunset, but there's plenty more time to try again.
Me on the top of Tonk, with colony J hut in the foreground (Steph's photo).
The view from the top of Tonk, looking north across Top and Bottom Meadows to the Willis Islands and impending snow-storm. On the right of the picture you can see the now empty Big Mac and on the left Johnson Beach.

Experimenting with cameras has been good fun. I left my little GoPro up in one of the Grey-headed Albatross colonies and got some good shots of their life at the moment.

Feeding time.
Stretching and practicing with those big wings.
Screaming for food as an adult, not necessarily on of its parents, lands nearby.

 Tuesday saw the departure of the final Giant Petrel chick from my study area. It's great to see them off successfully. I'll miss working with them as they're really charismatic, although it's only a couple of months until I'll be out every day recording the new nesting adults.

Riding out the snow, an adult Southern Giant Petrel.

Walking a regular route past the geeps and grey-heads means you get to know certain birds on the way. Some are more aggressive than others, some more timid and some just seem to have something about them. The Wandering Albatrosses are currently the main occupants of the island, with both chicks and adults livening up the Meadows.

My favourite Wanderer chick. It's got particularly chubby cheeks and always stands up as if to say 'hello' when I walk past, but doesn't shy away or snap at me.
A cosy Wanderer pair keeping warm and sheltering down in the tussoc.

The beaches are like the savannah with Leopards and Elephants jostling for space with the usual Fur (er... Seals).
Young Elephant Seal, foaming at the mouth. At least it makes a change from the others with big snotty noses.
Big Leopard Seal hauled out on the snow, fast asleep.

 As I was lying in the snow helping Hannah photograph this latest Leopard Seal a lonely Gentoo Penguin was wandering around us, honking and pecking at my rucksack. Happily he was joined by another two Gentoos who came ashore for a group preening session.

Gentoo Penguins, safe on the land, preening with a total lack of concern as to the giant predator behind them.

We were hoping for an opportunistic boat call this weekend bringing over vital generator bits as well as any mail and fresh veg. We're running dramatically low on potatoes and things are started to be rationed with midwinter approaching. The weather has been highly changeable and particularly windy recently though so it'll be a case of fingers crossed, wait and hope.

Big winds = big waves.

Changeable weather also means rainbows. 


Quantum Lep! by Jerry

It's been an exciting few days as we've had our first Leopard Seal. These huge (up to 4m long) predators breed on the pack ice but head off following their prey (cephalopods, krill, fish, penguins, and other seals) through the winter. A few are seen around Bird Island most winters and it is the job of the seal assistant to monitor their presence.

My first view of a Leopard Seal. Compare the sizes of him, Hannah and the huge Tussoc grass on the slopes.
A happily sleeping Leopard Seal. We waited at a distance for ages until he was snoring peacefully.
Hannah retrieving the GLS from Max's flipper tag while he sleeps.

Many follow the same routes year upon year and that is true of this individual, known as Max. Much work has gone into photographing visiting Leopard Seals and a large database exists with records of their distinctive coat patterns, so specific individuals can be identified. This one also carried a small tag and geolocator which Hannah was able to retrieve, so fingers crossed we will be able to download the data and see where this seal has travelled since it was last here. As always this information builds up our knowledge of these species which will allow us to better protect them and their environment.

This Leopard Seal had a big cut on his back, caused by what we don't know,  but it was causing him trouble. Mainly because the brave / stupid Sheathbills kept pecking at it, winding him up while he was trying to sleep. These photos of him growling are results of disturbed sleep.

This seal is dwarfing the resident Fur Seals, the largest of whom just about reach 2m but none of those big boys are around at the moment. There are often one or two Elephant Seals around too but again none of the massive males. There is a huge difference in appearance between the seal species; the Furries have quite fuzzy faces, a bit like dogs or bears. The Ellies have huge bowling-ball heads with gigantic dark eyes and the Lep looks more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. While the Fur Seals can stand up and run around on their front flippers, like sea lions, the Elephants and Leps move by shuffling their whole bodies, like Grey and Harbour seals seen in the UK. The front flippers on the Ellies look so small in comparison it's difficult to imagine them being very effective, but then you see the size of their back flippers.
Fur Seal yawning aggressively. 
T-Rex head: Leopard Seal reacts poorly to shit-chicken disturbance.
The huge, wobbly Elephant Seal with it's spherical head and gigantic eyes.

There's been a few days of calmish, clearish weather and when we get conditions like that it's always worth looking out for whales. So the prior to Max arriving the Lep round delivered great views of a couple of Southern Right Whales circling and diving not far from the base.

Southern Right Whale diving.
A few other jobs have cropped up that have involved walking round the beaches. Through the winter I carry out a collection and record of marine debris on the Main Bay. Very little washes up but it gives me a good excuse to be out with the camera with time to take photos of some of Bird Island's less-appreciated avian life.

Pair of South Georgian Pintail; the cute, carnivorous ducks.
South Georgia Pipit; the world's most southerly songbird.

At spring high tides through the winter we will also be counting the number of Pintail and Sheathbills over a set transect. Very little work is done on these species but this is a simple way of recording population changes.
Wandering Albatrosses displaying behind a chick.
Albatross work continues, although almost all the Black-brows have now fledged and many of the Grey-heads are looking ready to depart. Wandering Albatross still dot the hills, valleys and meadows, whether fat chicks sitting in their nests waiting for food or adults courting they are always fascinating.

Grey-headed Albatross chick. Still a fluffy one but many are far more developed than this.
Wandering Albatrosses courting on Bottom Meadow.