Help save albatross (quickly and easily) by Jerry Gillham

I'm backing and promoting this appeal from my friend who is working hard to save albatrosses  through cheap, innovative technology that is simple to use and will benefit everyone involved.

Wandering albatross

Wandering albatross

In her words:

"I've recently started working for the Albatross Task Force, which is part of the RPSB and acts to stop albatrosses and other seabirds being killed in fisheries around the world. There are approximately 300,000 seabirds killed every year by fisheries! It’s a MASSIVE problem, and many species are becoming endangered, especially albatross. It would be so sad if these amazing birds went extinct because of this. After spending 2 years with them on South Georgia they became so close to my heart. I think they are incredible creatures. They have the biggest wing span in the world, they circumnavigate the globe, they can stay at sea for years on end, and can live for over 60 years. Most of them mate for life and it is heartbreaking to see them waiting for a mate that doesn’t come back because it’s probably been killed in a fishery. I’ve seen birds waiting for months, just hoping for their partner to return. Some birds won’t breed for years with another partner in the hope their mate will return. It would be an absolute tragedy if we lost them, especially for a reason we can do something about!

Black=browed albatross.

The Albatross Task Force has been working for 10 years to stop albatross dying and have had some huge success, but we still have a lot to do. We want to test out some new technology called a Hookpod, which basically encloses the hook as it goes into the water, stopping the birds grabbing it and then being pulled under the water, and drowned. It’s a really cool piece of technology and if we can prove it cuts down on bird deaths, and it’s a benefit to fishermen, then we hope to see the fleets adopt it. It would make such a difference to these birds.
The other part of the project is testing reusable LED lights to replace disposable light sticks. Fishermen use these to attract fish to the hooks, and we estimate that 6 MILLION are thrown into the ocean every year just in Brazil!!!!! It makes me feel ill to think of that amount of plastic and batteries ending up in the ocean. It would be amazing if we could prove to the fishermen that reusable LED lights are just as effective at attracting fish, better for the environment and in the long run cheaper.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

Grey-headed albatross chick.

To start this project we need funds to buy the Hookpods and lights and ship them to Brazil. We already have £15,000 but we need another £5000. We have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise this money. If we don’t hit the target then we receive nothing and the backers don’t get charged anything. We are determined to get this project going, as it could save so many albatrosses lives. I would be so grateful if you could donate anything towards this project, and share the word about it. We only have three weeks to do it in. As a backer you will get updates of how the project is going and lots of pictures of lovely albatross.
Thanks for reading this (I know it’s a bit long) and I hope you’ll be able to help either through donating or by spreading the word. See the link for the project and a video I made to explain it all a bit better.

I hope you can help me save albatrosses from extinction!"

Courting wandering albatross.

Courting wandering albatross.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Spring into Summer by Jerry

Here's a few photos to bring you up to date with what's been happening apart form the seal work (see last post).

First call brought the summer team, and one lonely King Penguin. 

Left to right: Cian (old seal assistant), Al (new penguin & petrel assistant), Robbie (new tech), Sian (new seal assistant), Lucy (new albatross assistant), Jaume (senior seal scientist), Richard (senior seabird scientist), Jess (old albatross assistant), Adam (base commander) and me (old penguin and petrel assistant).

Over the summer we'll be passing on all our knowledge and experience of the long term monitoring duties.

The Gentoo Penguin chicks are almost all hatched now and some are almost large enough to be left alone while the parents head off to sea to feed.

The first Northern Giant Petrel chicks are being left alone, at just two weeks old and not much bigger than a handful, as both parents forage for food. Our daily rounds, checking on breeding adults has finished now and we're just doing weekly checks looking for failures.


 The Brown / Subantarctic Skuas are mostly sitting on eggs, though a few now have very cute chicks. We've been checking on ringed birds in the study area, making a map of their nests and recording which adults are present.

Blue-eyed Shags are another bird that are hatching chicks, these ones sadly not so cute as they're born bald and blind. We've been counting colonies on the outskirts of the island - a great excuse to get out to some of the less-well-visited spots on good weather days.

White-chinned Petrels are occupying their burrows. Later in the season we'll be attaching tiny tracking devices to a few, so have been going round checking for occupied burrows - lying in the tussac and reaching down into these dark holes, expecting a sharp bite for our intrusions.

The Wandering Albatross are starting to lay eggs. From Christmas Eve we'll spend a week intensively covering every patch of the island, recording the location and identity of each breeding pair.

Many that aren't yet breeding are loudly displaying, impressing each other with their calls and their amazing 3m wingspan.


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 2 by Jerry

The second half of midwinter week has been full of games, fun and relaxation.

The blood-red sky one morning over base and La Roche.

 With a week off and a big snow drift in front of base what was the most obvious thing to do? Cian and Jess were half way through building a snowman, or snowmaiden, when I went out to help them. She was meant to be a female companion for Jess, although Cian seemed to be making early moves on her. I was shovelling more snow for them when I realised it was coming out in large, compact blocks... would it be possible to build an igloo?

Cian and his Ice Bride

 Starting out with low expectations, I was half way through before putting some real thought and effort into it, hence the with problems with the final result. I managed to get a roof on it but it was very cramped – every time I moved I risked dropping more snow on myself. The other problem was the low entrance that meant crawling in dragged in more snow.

The interior roof of my igloo - pretty and more secure than it looks.

Despite these problems I decided to try and sleep there that night. I stayed up late reading indoors and taking photos in the dark until feeling tired enough I crawled in, trying not to drop snow into my sleeping bag.

Sitting outside my igloo, waiting for bedtime. A carefree sleep wasn't helped by the presence of the weeping angel just outside.

Lying there I was comfortable (so long as I didn't move) and warm enough but the problem was I just wasn't tired. It took over an hour of listening to the sea, the occasional distant seal and the worryingly close scavenging sheathbills but I did eventually drift off. All too soon after that I rolled over and woke up with a face-full of snow. By this point I needed to get up and do a wee. After the rigmarole of getting out my bag and crawling through the icy entrance I was once again wide awake. I'm afraid the temptation of going indoors for a hot drink and a comfy duvet was too much and I slept the rest of the night in my own bed.

The illuminated igloo.

One of the big traditions of Bird Island midwinter is the highland games. All suitably dressed we gathered outside where Cian and I had set up a few events; caber tossing, welly wanging, throwing the ball in the snow-hole, triple jump, obstacle frisbee and the free-for-all that was the potato and spoon slalom.

Rob holding his caber.

Cian having a good toss.

Jess giving a welly a good wanging.

We finished off the Highland Games with a ceremonial smashing of the snow-maiden and the igloo.

We rounded off the week with a long day out exploring. Over the hill to Johnson Beach then around to Burton Cove to investigate the cave there. Some of these are spots we can't go in the summer, either because of too much work or because the density of Fur Seals puts the shore out of bounds. Although there are seals about at the moment they are easily bypassed.

Johnson Beach, once pristine white snow, now a Jackson Pollock mess in a limited colour scheme depending on what the Gentoos have been eating.

The big but not deep cave at Burton Cove.

Before returning to base we did a quick check on one of the Wandering Albatross areas, making sure the chicks are doing okay. They are really big and fluffy at the moment, as they need to be what with sitting here all through the winter. Happily they have survived their most vulnerable stage – when they are first left alone by the parents – and through these months there are very few failures.

Wandering Albatross chick in front of Tonk and the cloud rolling in.

Greeting a friendly Wandering Albatross chick. We go past this one every time we walk up the hill and it has got quite used to me sitting beside it and chatting. It is yet to respond though, which I find a bit rude. Jess's photo.

The final part of a great day was a slow walk back along the beaches. While keeping an eye out for Leopard Seals I was held up by a group of Gentoo Penguins who consistently come out of the water at the gentle, sandy slope at one end of the beach then walk all the way along past the rocks to their congregation areas at the far end. The sharp claws on the end of their feet are good for walking up frozen streams, but not so good for cutting across or going down the thin sheets of ice now stretching across parts of the shore and seeing them regularly slip and slide makes me feel better about my own stability inadequacies.
Gentoo Penguins heading home across a frozen stream.

Wandering Albatross by Jerry

While the onset of winter marks the departure of most of Bird Island's wildlife, there's one iconic resident who stays with us through the cold, dark months.

The Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, are truly amazing birds. They look unreal sometimes, like a huge relic of a prehistoric age as the adults stand well over a meter tall and can weigh more than 10kg. Their wingspan is the largest of any living bird, at up to 3.5 meters. That means they can soar above the oceans for hours at a time without expending any energy flapping, searching for food in the vastness beneath.

They mainly eat cephalopods but will readily take crustaceans, small fish and carrion. We regularly find regurgitated piles of squid beaks beside their nests which can be collected for measuring and identification to enhance our understanding of their diet – small changes may be indicative of greater changes to the marine ecosystem.
Wandering albatross are frequently seen from ships in the Southern Ocean. Described as a 'bird of good omen' by Coleridge, they can follow them for days, often feeding off any scraps thrown overboard. Unfortunately this has been hugely detrimental to their health as they can get caught, tangled up and drowned by the long-line fisheries boats. Advances are being made with deterrents and legislation about operating procedure, particularly around South Georgia where by-catch has been hugely reduced, but it continues to be a problem in less well regulated parts of the ocean.

Copulating pair, an infrequent October sight.
They build a nest out of mud, moss and tussack grass that will be used year after year and stands around 40cm high. These are spread in loose colonies across the island. In mid to late December a single egg, white and 10cm long is laid and incubated by both parents.

Chick on the nest with both parents present.
Between Christmas and New Year the albatross assistants, with as much help as is available, cover the whole island counting and marking each nest with a numbered stake and GPS plot point so we can map them. Where possible we'll record ring numbers of both birds – this often means repeated return visits as each one can be away from the nest for well over a week. There is a ridge behind the base where the birds are studied more intensively; they carry coloured darvic rings so they can be identified with minimum disturbance and at times the area is visited daily to get precise laying and hatching dates.

Checking for eggs. The clipboard is useful not only for making notes but also as a bit of protection. The birds are not particularly aggressive but those beaks are big and sharp.
With this simple long-term monitoring we can build up a life history of the population, looking at changing trends in survival rates, life expectancy and breeding success. With such long-lived birds, over 50 years, it's important to have consistent monitoring techniques so we can draw comparisons over time and with other locations.

While the established pairs are alternating time between egg-sitting and fishing the younger, unpaired birds are searching for partners. Wanderers are monogamous and generally mate for life but there's always single birds trying to impress others. They gather in groups and show off by spreading their wings, throwing their heads back and uttering a variety of gurgles, screams, whistles, grunts and snapping. Later on they may tap their bills together and mutually preen each other. These rituals are repeated by long-term pairs re-establishing their bonds.

Young male (front) spreading his wings and skycalling to impress the female on the right. Behind him another copies his obviously impressive chat-up techniques.
A long-term pair preening each other to re-affirm their partnership.
Incubation takes the best part of three months. Once the egg hatches the adults continue taking turns looking after the chick for another few weeks. By the time it's old enough to be left alone, early April, they've got a deep layer of downy feathers over an inch thick and the ability to vomit oily, plumage-ruining sick on anyone they perceive to be a danger. Despite this defence many Wanderer nest sites have been decimated by introduced land predators such as cats, rats and mice. One of the reasons Bird Island is so important is that it has never hosted these predators and it is hoped that the rat eradication on the South Georgia mainland will re-open historic breeding grounds.

Young chick being preened and cared for by a parent.
Poking a head out from under a leg for a view of the outside world.
As the winter approaches and the island gets covered with snow and ice the chicks sit tight on their nests, islands of warmth amongst the inhospitable cold. During the harshest storms they sit tight, curled up asleep with their heads tucked down. During this time they are visited roughly once a week by each parent, returning with a belly full of rich food that they regurgitate straight into the hungry chicks.

When snow covers the island all that stands out are these small balls of warmth.
Young chick getting a delicious, oily snack.
Throughout the season the nests are visited at the start of every month to check which ones have hatched, how the chicks are progressing and to record any failures. In late August, with the chicks still mostly fluffy but with dark adult feathers showing through, we go out and fit them all with unique identification rings. Before coming south the largest bird I'd ringed was a Greater Black-backed Gull. At the time that seemed pretty big, especially compared to the Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs I was used to, but although the techniques are pretty similar there's some major differences in how to hold these birds.
Data retrieved from birds with rings, and more recently those carrying tiny geolocators, was told us all sort of information about their range, routes and feeding areas. It helps to know these things when trying to protect them and their key habitats.

Engaging in some friendly chat with a healthy looking chick.
An unconventional approach to ringing. This strange position keeps the chicks passive and safe, allowing a quick squeeze to apply a unique ring.
Around November, after about nine months on the nest, with the weather warming a little in the Antarctic spring the chicks start to fledge. By this time they've lost their down and have a complete covering of dark adult feathers. For a long time they get off the nests and walk around, investigating their surroundings. On windy days they'll hold out their wings, feeling the breeze rushing through their feathers and trying a bit of flapping, building up those flight muscles. This increases the older they get and late in the season you can see these huge birds facing into the strong winds, jumping and flapping, getting 6ft in the air but wobbling in a rather uncontrolled manner as they try to master the balance and timing it takes to move in a straight line. It takes a lot of practice to make flight as easy as the adults manage.

An almost fully developed chick getting a  visit from both parents. It's rare to see both adults together, particularly at this stage in the season when they are both continually heading out and returning with food.
Letting the breeze blow through your wings must be a great feeling. 
Not far off departure, looking for a launch spot.

Once they fledge the young will probably spend at least the next five years at sea before returning to their breeding sites, though they don't usually start mating and laying eggs until they are 10 - 15 years old. During this 'teenage' period they will follow the circumpolar winds and currents, travelling clockwise around the whole Antarctic continent. A successful pair will not breed for another year and instead will return to the ocean where they are most at home, soaring effortlessly over the waves on huge, unflapping wings.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses by Jerry

This weekend we were out monitoring the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross chicks. These are the least common of Bird Island's four albatross species and the least rigorously studied. The main reason for this is the inaccessibility of their nesting sites – usually on narrow ledges half way down the cliffs, either alone or with a few others.

There is a section of the island though where the coast can fairly easily be walked, where long-term studies of nesting and fledging rates have been carried out. One calm day last October we split into two pairs and headed along this bit of coast, mapping any nest we could see. Finding them seven months later can be difficult so we'd planted numbered stakes, taken GPS waypoints, photos and written descriptions.
A happy bird, sitting on a nest that can't be reached.
Where nests are accessible we look for ring numbers, although the majority are unringed. Sooties are often more nervous than other species so approaching them can take a long time, with slow, calm movements. As with the other albatrosses (and pretty much all seabirds) earlier studies have shown them to be incredibly long lived, forming long-term pair bonds and returning to the same nest site year after year.

Slowly edging closer to a nesting bird. (Hannah's photo).
A middle-aged chick, still wearing it's downy collar.
They breed every other year, laying a single egg that they take turns incubating for over two months. Chicks then take roughly another five months to fledge, during which time the parents will travel up to 1000km on foraging trips, returning every few days with crops full of mainly crustaceans and krill (but also fish and carrion depending on availability).

Returning home through the snow.
Once fledged the chicks can spend between 8 and 15 years circling the oceans before settling down to raise young themselves. During winter the adults feed anywhere between the pack ice and up to about 40 degrees south.

One of the first LMSAs we saw from the ship.
One of the things the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses are known for are their aerial abilities. During courtship or while reaffirming pair bonds a couple will fly along the edge of the cliffs in an amazingly synchronised, close control display. Barely flapping their wings they glide, parallel to each other, around their nesting areas.

Territorial calls can be heard across the island; a high-pitched trumpet-like sound blasted out as they throw their heads back, defying anyone to challenge them to their nest.

The Sooties have had a tough few years in terms of breeding success, so we were pleased to see some healthy-looking chicks on our round this year. The species is classified as 'Near Threatened', with all the usual problems seabirds are facing – nest predation from terrestrial alien species is being addressed by projects like the South Georgia rat eradication, but by-catch from poor fishing practices, plastic ingestion and food availability in a changing ocean are still problems.

A young chick not far off fledging.


Wildlife update 2: Albatrosses by Jerry

 Wandering Albatrosses

The huge Wanderers did most of their laying while I was away. Jess and Steph, with help from the others, covered the whole island mapping nests and trying to get ring numbers of the adults. This is a huge job that we are only just finishing off now as we go around checking on how many of the nests contain chicks. The eggs are roughly hand-sized and when checking them you occasionally hear a few peeps or get lucky enough to see a small hole with a beak poking through as they try and break for freedom. At only a few days old the chicks sit under the adults, white, fluffy, kitten-sized with an overly-long beak.

While half the breeding birds are sat with their eggs or chicks the other half are out at sea, travelling hundreds of miles in search of squid, crustaceans, krill and fish to sustain thmselves and feed their youngster. Meanwhile the non-breeding birds, maybe young ones who have travelled round the globe for five to eight years or maybe birds whose partners haven't returned, are performing some spectacular dances on the ridges and meadows in the hope of attracting new partners and claiming nest sites.

They face off against each other, spread their wings to their full 3m+ span and throw back their head, calling to the sky and anyone close enough. Sometimes males will chase other males away, sometimes the females just aren't interested but often a pair will walk round and round each other, hopefully seeing something in the other they like.

Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses

The mollymawks, the smaller albatrosses (how to tell you've been here too long part 1; you start thinking of these birds as small – with their only 2m wingspan), are also nesting, although their chicks develop far quicker than the Wanderers. They are just getting past the completely fluffy, skittle-shaped phase and are developing proper adult feathers on their wings and chests. Soon they'll be jumping up and down and flapping like crazy.

Jess's work with them has mainly been checking on the success of several colonies round the island, but she will soon start weighing the chicks at dedicated ages. As with the penguins, weighing is a simple way to assess the health of the species and if it is done a specific number of days after hatching it can easily be compared with previous years.

Last days of solitude. by Jerry

With about a week to go until the new staff arrive on Bird Island I thought I'd try and squeeze in a quick blog while our internet isn't too busy. With first call imminent we've been rushing round cleaning and tidying, making space for deliveries and packing up waste and recycling to go off. Rooms and kit have been prepared so the incoming guys can get straight up to speed and we're enjoying the last few days of just the four of us. Craig will have a two-day changeover with the new technician and then head off down to Rothera, so this really is time to enjoy on the island.

Typically this business coincides with my busiest few weeks of the whole year, although I have now managed to get a bit of breathing space. In the last week I have finished off the nesting count of Gentoo penguins – two or more of us have been out to all the different colonies and counted the number of active nests, that is those containing penguins sitting on eggs. There's some small sections which are quite simple, and some areas of several hundred where we've had to agree on imaginary bisecting lines to split them into more manageable chunks. Then repeatedly count the nests within until we agree on a figure.

Wading through mud and crap to count Gentoos at Square Pond.

The other penguins, the Macaronis, are back in full force and can be heard all over that side of the island, arguing away over nesting territories. We've been weighing individuals as they come ashore, a simple test of how well they've been feeding over the winter.

Sleek-looking Macaroni Penguin, fresh from the sea.

Observations being made by both parties.

Standard Bird Island weather - a million shades of grey with penguins as far as you can see.

My work with the Giant Petrels continues. The Northerns have all laid and the Southerns, who operate about a month behind them, are in the middle of doing so. I've met a few calm old birds who were ringed as chicks before I was born, which is always a little humbling.

There's two of these rare white-morph Southern Giant Petrels in my study area of around 140 pairs.

A more normal plumaged pair of Southern Giant Petrels with the female sitting proudly in her mossy nest.

Many of the smaller petrels have also started returning and I've started checking their burrows, looking for individuals who have been carrying tiny geolocator devices over the winter. These have been tracking the birds movements and will help identify key feeding areas, hopefully leading to greater protection for them.

While most White-chinned Petrels land and head straight for a burrow, this one sat up on the tussoc, calling away.

Retrieving a GLS from a returning White-chinned Petrel while trying to avoid it's ripping beak and tearing claws (Craig's photo).

Blue-eyed Shags are starting to build their nests so I've started keeping an eye on the small colony near base.

Very smart looking Blue-eyed Shag. Like shags in the UK that crest is only prominent at the beginning of the breeding season.

We've all been out helping Steph with some albatross surveys. First up was the ten-year census of the Grey-heads, which took us all over the island counting some huge and some tiny colonies of these beautiful birds. Soon we'll have to repeat our rounds of the areas counting the far more numerous Black-brows and the much rarer Light-mantled Sooties.

Black-browed Albatross colony on one of the more remote 

The Wandering Albatross chicks are close to fledging, with the best developed individuals now carrying very few downy chick feathers. I gave Steph a hand finishing off the ringing of them, barring a few left for the new albatross assistant.

Will this be the last time this Wandering Albatross family all see each other together?

The beaches are quickly becoming dangerous places to go as the male fur seals haul their way up and pick a spot where they will try and get a harem of females together. It's still early so there's been no fighting yet, just a few growls. The majority of the big guys are just sleeping, well aware that there are hard times coming up with a few scraps and little time for napping or feeding. Over on Landing Beach the two elephant seal pups are enjoying each others company as their mums head out to sea.

The younger Elephant Seal pup enthusiastically shouting in his neighbours ear.


Wanderer chick ringing by Jerry

The Wandering Albatross chicks that hatched around the start of March have been sitting tight all winter, protected from the blizzards by huge amounts of fluffy down. Showing through that down now are good numbers of adult feathers, particularly on the wings, head and chest. Although they're still a few months off fledging many of them are able to stand up properly and will soon start walking, exploring the area around their nests.  

Wandering Albatross chick overlooking Bird Sound.
So this is the time for ringing them all. I've been out helping Steph as she covers the whole island, seeing to every one of the 500 chicks. The information we get back from these rings will provide information on survival rates, distribution, migration and breeding success of these huge, magnificent but endangered birds.

A sign of things to come...

I'd been out doing this and checking on the chick at the far end of the island on August 31st. I'd been told not to be back too late and when I returned I was allowed a quick cup of tea and shower before Hannah suggested we go for a walk up the hill. We headed up and over to the hut at Fairy Point from where I do the majority of my Macaroni Penguin work. There, Craig and Steph had decorated and warmed up some food and carried over a few beers – it was my surprise birthday meal! We had a good laugh and fought off the cold with tilley lamps and numerous cups of tea.  

Crammed together around the table awaiting dinner.
Over night it snowed heavily, so once we'd wiped the condensation from the window we could see white all around us. The skies had cleared for the journey back so we got some great views of the snow-covered island.

Cabin in the snow. Behind the 'Love Shack' is Big Mac, where about 40,000 pairs of Macaroni Penguins will soon return to breed. In front of it is Little Mac, where about 500 will.
Chating to the Geeps on the way back.
I returned for some beautifully made presents (framed picture, photo-book, knitted penguin) before we had a hot-tub and huge pizza. Brilliant.

Here's a few more photos of what's happening:

Antarctic Tern fishing in the bay. There's been quite a lot of terns about recently and with some low tides they're regularly seen fishing just off the beach, going for the tiny crustaceans and fish.

Average day of a Gentoo penguin; jump up on a rock, eat some snow, get confused how to get down from the rock.

Chinstrap penguin; an occasional visitor from a bit further south.

Pair of adult Wandering Albatrosses taking advantage of the rare opportunity when they both return to feed their chick at the same time to indulge in a bit of mutual preening and pair-bonding.

Leopard Seal hauled out on the brash ice for a rest.

Taking advantage of the super-low tide to do a bit of rockpooling.
Amongst the seaweed, sponges and anemones are lots of tiny crustaceans, hanging on among the swirling waves.
Always a pleasure to see - a nudibranch!

Please support our work by visiting Hannah and Steph's blogs too.

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.

The onset of winter. by Jerry

Though the work-load has now decreased a bit the last few weeks still seem to have flown past; we've been on our own 6 weeks now and it feels more like two or three.

Winter is kicking in as the streams are now frequently frozen and the dusting if snow on the tops looks like it might stay.

Steph checking on a Wandering Albatross chick.

Frozen Flagstone Pond and a dusting of snow on the mountains.
We've had our first real storm, the most impressive result of which was the sheer volume of kelp and other seaweed thrown up onto the beach. It's out past the length of the jetty, looking like a weird, moving snake-covered jungle floor or something.

The view down to base from near the top of Tonk. 
With it came a good amount of se life, most of which we'd never otherwise see: starfish, bivalves and large crustaceans amongst other unidentified bits. We've given it all the generic name 'aliens'. Part of my winter task involves recording marine litter so I've a good excuse for beachcombing.

A variety of starfish washed up during the storm.

Penguins and Seals

The number of penguins at Big Mac has dropped quickly from 80,000 to about 10 as they all head off to sea, having spent the last few weeks moulting into their winter plumage. Gentoos are still present in small numbers.
The seals are leaving us too, with only a few puppies found around the beaches and fewer and fewer adults up in the tussoc grass. It can be a strange time of year as the joy of seeing independent puppies swimming off on their own is tempered by those who remain, too weak and skinny to head off. It's always the way with nature.

Giant Petrels

My main work season begins and ends with the Geeps. When I arrived in November I was doing a daily round of the study area, looking for newly nesting Southern Giant Petrels. In the last few weeks I've been around all their chicks, ringing them and attaching tiny geolocators to a select number. They will soon fledge (as the Northern Geeps have already done) and head off for several years to explore and mature. Little is known about where they travel in this time but many return to their place of birth to mate and nest. Hopefully whoever is here then can retrieve a few of these devices and shed some light on the mystery. As always this data will help us understand their lifestyle and hopefully enable us to better protect them.

Southern Geep chick ready to fledge having lost all its downy feathers.


The albatross chicks are all getting bigger and the Black-brows have started to fledge. Not many mind, and the colonies are still full of mature-looking birds jumping up and down and madly flapping their wings, getting the feel of the wind blowing through them before they take that first plunge. I've been helping Steph with some of the chick-weighing so know from first hand experience how much bigger and more aggressive they're getting.

Black-browed Albatross chick exercising those wings.
The Wanderer chicks are looking fat and fluffy, with almost all of them left on their own now.

Wandering Albatross chick getting used to the view.

Around base

With a little more free time, and some horrible weather, thoughts turned to our midwinter presents. This is a south tradition, like a secret santa, when each person randomly picks someone else on base to make a gift for. A tremendous amount of effort and care has gone into gifts in previous years and I'm keen to get working on something.
Craig showed us round a few of the tools in his workshop in a basic woodworking class, should we wish to use any of them. As part of his demonstrations we tried making a load of equal-sized and smooth blocks which just happened to turn out ideal for giant jenga.

Safety first with giant jenga.


First Winter Blog by Jerry

All change at Bird Island

I arrived back on 14th March. Later than planned due to bad weather, but that meant I had a chance to see KEP again, this time in the snow, a lot of which had fallen while I was out feeling rough at sea. There was a decent amount of snow remaining when I got back to Bird Island and I had time to race up the valleys to play in it and appreciate being back while it was sunny and the ship's crew were deciding on a plan of action for last call.

The snowy La Roche and South Georgia from the top of Gazella.
Ruth, Jen, Jon, Tamsin and Iain (who I'd only briefly crossed over with) headed off later that afternoon. A strange and emotional departure; we weren't sure if they'd return the next day or if that was it. To go from living and working so closely with people and then having half of them suddenly leave is a bit daunting, particularly when they know so much about the place and the work.

Our last view of the others as they are shipped off to the RSS Ernest Shackleton  and return to the UK (via a trip down to the peninsula).
They didn't return, just a few of the crew came back in the RIBs to pick up outgoing cargo and waste as well as dropping off a few bits of cargo, fresh veg and what post they had for us.

It's taken a bit of getting used to running the base with just four people – cooking comes around twice as often, there are more cleaning jobs each, the place can easily feel a lot quieter if a few are out working. We've not been able to properly settle into the more relaxed winter regime yet as there's still a lot of work going on:

Penguins / Geeps

The Northern Giant Petrels are fledging, while the Southerns are not too far behind. I'm carrying out weekly rounds to check on them and will soon be out ringing the Southerns and sending a few on their way with tiny GLSs so we can find out where they travel to and feed in those important few juvenile years.

Large Southern Geep chick in the snow.
There's not too much penguin work at the moment as all their chicks have fledged. Gentoos are finishing their annual moult spread sparsely around the beaches, while the Macaroni colonies are full as the adults moult before heading out to sea for the winter. We managed to take advantage of a clear evening to head down to the bottom of Big Mac to watch them arriving and departing, riding in on the breaking waves and struggling through the kelp.

Macaroni penguins emerging through the breaking waves onto the rocks.
Following the confident one on their way back up through the colony.
Big Mac at sunset.


Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatross chicks are getting pretty big now, not far off fledging. I've been out helping Steph weigh and ring them. By weighing on specific days after hatching we can study how they progress and how healthy the population as a whole is. It is also very useful data for predicting how future changes to food supply will affect these species.

Black-browed Albatross chick looking angry, as they all do.
The Wandering Albatross eggs have hatched and the first chicks are starting to be left unattended, their parents heading off to sea and only returning to feed them. It was the monthly census on 1st April and I headed over to Farewell Point on the east end of the island, checking nests on the way. It was a cold but clear day and I took advantage of this and the early start to head back via the ridge at the top of north cliffs. This tiring and walk and occasional scramble was well worth it, offering some magnificent views across Bird Island and South Georgia. I finished up with my first ascent of La Roche, at 356m the highest point on the island by some distance.

Wandering Albatross without parental support.

Views along the ridge - steep and spectacular.


The seal work continues to fill days, with the team of three dropping to one with the rest of us drafted in to try and fill their place. The beach is a lot quieter as adults and puppies alike spend more time out at sea and Hannah spends all day walking up and down the valleys looking for specific puppies to weigh.

Back on base

It's starting to feel like winter as the nights draw in – it doesn't get light until about 9 and is dark by the same time in the evening. As we've all still got loads of work to do we only manage the odd evening off. The best one so far was Craig's birthday. He decided on a Hawaiian theme, complete with barbeque and hot tub: a great way to kick off our winter celebrations.

Not BAS-issue winter clothing.
"If I keep telling myself it's tropical it will be."
An unexpected and lost visitor - Cattle Egrets aren't unknown here, in fact one a year is about average, but they still look very out of place amongst the penguins and seals.

A rare clear sky offering amazing views of the Milky Way.

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