Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

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

Southern Right Whale

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

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

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

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

Leopard Seal

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

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

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

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

Walk out to winter by Jerry Gillham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pausing to admire the scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.


Shags and 'bergs. by Jerry

A really good day today as we went to explore the east side of the island – the far less studied side and with being so busy elsewhere I'd not had a chance to get over. We had our legitimate reasons though – I'm starting to map the Blue-eyed Shag colonies and Tamsin needed to check on the rat bait boxes (we have to be constantly vigilant about the possible presence of rats as they could totally devastate the bird life if they ever found a way over). So Ruth agreed to take us on an expedition to Farewell Point.

Whereas most of the walking on Bird Island is through very high Tussock Grass, on the way out we went quite high so were able to use the more mountainous tracks.

Toward the east point it started to snow, heavily. By this point we were looking for Shag colonies, and looking through binoculars was like peering up close at a snow globe. But the weather here is predictable in it's inconsistency and shortly afterwards the clouds moved over and we were able to climb onto the ridge and eat our lunch in glorious sunshine.

From up there we saw the most exciting thing of the day; icebergs! Two of them basically on the horizon but still looking huge, square, bright white things. Also out there was the JCR, the ship we'd come down on. It was completing it's return journey and science cruise after dropping others off at Signy.

The sun held as we returned closer to the coast where the walking was harder, like most of the rest of the island. Thankfully there were plenty of spots to rest and take photos of penguins and seals. The distance from us to South Georgia mainland looked minimal – 100m or so of clear blue water. Of course the water is freezing cold and with a powerful tide. Then if you wanted to get to civilization as it is on South Georgia it's another 50 miles over some huge, barely touched mountains.

So I think I'll stay here.


 Blue-eyed Shag; one of those of that which we was trying to see.

 After the brief blizzard the clouds lifting to give us ghostly views of South Georgia.

 A short time and a short climb and we're counting Shags from the ridge.

 That massive white thing on the horizon is an iceberg. Even with a zoom lens it would be tiny but with a 16mm it's just a collection of pixels.

Grey-headed Albatross in front of Middle Mac (more Macaroni Penguins than at Little Mac, but not as many as at Big Mac).

 Tamsin and Ruth heading out along a well-established path across the scree. So much easier than through the tussocks.

Gentoo Penguins with some chicks almost big enough to be left alone. South Georgia looking imposing again in the background.

Looking back on Mountain Cwm and South Georgia.

More photos here.

Giant Petrels by Jerry

I finished my last blog with us just arriving. So much has happened since then it would take me a few days to write it all up, but in summary:

We spent two long, hard days unloading all our supplies from the JCR. This ranged from food (all fresh veg to be checked for damage and invasive insects) to fuel (180 drums) to more general science kit, clothing, household objects (24 wine glasses). The biggest and most challenging bit was a load of big wooden timbers and three huge bulk fuel tanks that had to be landed directly onto the beach. It was a testing time but so many people put in hard shifts that it passed without too much incident. Since then we've been straight into work; trailing the winterers around, hoping some of their vast knowledge will rub off on us.

Most of my work thus far has been with the Giant Petrels, known here as Geeps. It's getting toward the end of their egg-laying period but we still need to do daily rounds to check for any new nests, any failures and trying to get the ring number of every breeding adult in the study area. Like most of the work here, this is a long-term monitoring project that has been going on for decades, looking at changing population dynamics.

 Northern Giant Petrel with chick.

The Geeps are really charismatic birds. Generally very calm when you're near them, they're the vultures of the area and can be quite brutal when you witness them ripping apart a dead seal or penguin.

 Giant Petrel in the snow, looking through rare clear skies to Willis Island

Going out doing the Geep round has allowed me to see a good chunk of the island in a whole variety of weather conditions, often within a few hours. It also leads me past several pairs of Wandering Albatross that are starting their amazing courtship dance and juveniles that are not far off fledging so are jumping and desperately flapping their huge wings.

 A rare view across to South Georgia, with one of the Fur Seals that has climbed really far up the slope in search of a bit of breeding space.

Other jobs have included preparing a set of geolocators for further science work, testing the penguin weighbridge and helping with a Black-browed Albatross census, but all that will have to wait for a different blog.

Wandering Albatross spreading it's wings in hope of getting a bit of air.


The Journey South by Jerry

Sunday 11th November, 4pm. Half the BI team (Tamsin, Hannah and I) gather in BAS HQ in Cambridge and get on the minibus. On the way we think it's really funny to send Steph a massive long list of things we've forgotten and ask her to pick them up (bread, cheese, balsamic vinegar, watermelon, socks, shower cap, fax machine, stepladder, bowling ball and shoes (x2), christmas tree... you get the idea).

By 8pm we're at Brize Norton where we meet up with Steph (who hasn't got our requests) and Craig, who we've only just met there and then. By 11 we're on the plane and heading South, enjoying their cheap and nasty drink and meals along with the handed out iPads.

Monday morning. Two hour stopover in Ascencion while the plane refuels. We spend this time standing around inside 'the cage', a fenced off bit of tarmac preventing us going anywhere while the low cloud prevents us from seeing much of anything. Still, we try and enjoy our last bit of warm weather.

Monday afternoon. Arrive in Falkland Islands and discover if anything it's even warmer here! Our journey Stanley is by another minibus, this time one that loses part of the side of it half way along the big dirt track. In Stanley we get straight onto our ship, the RSS James Clark Ross (JCR). The cabins are comfortable, there's three 3-course meals a day and the bar prices are incredibly low. After a meal onboard we head into town and find a pub full of British flags playing 80s tunes on the video jukebox.

A broken bus in the Falklands

Tuesday. We were due to depart in the morning but plans change and we get an extra day ashore while they test the lifeboats. After various safety and evacuation drills we again headed into Stanley. As with yesterday it takes us ages as we're stopping all the time to look at the gulls, vultures, ducks and a few dolphins. It was still really hot so we grabbed lunch from the supermarket and sat with an ice cream under the whale-bone arch. After a little gift shop browsing we were about to head off to find a penguin beach when a landrover pulled up and it's occupants informed us we had to be heading back to the JCR.
Looking towards Stanley

The whale-bone arch in Stanley, with us posing near it, thinking about ice cream.

The ship had to pull away from the jetty to allow another, with a medical emergency, to come in. So we went and sat in the bay for a while. From up on the top deck, the 'monkey deck' we could see everything around us – Fulmars and Giant Petrels especially. Just before tea we spotted the tiny, black and white, Commerson's Dolphins feeding very close in. Me running round and Hannah screaming was the first of our daily tellings-off for being over excited. The day signed off with a partial solar eclipse.
RSS James Clark Ross

Wednesday. After what seemed like an eternity of lifeboat drills we finally headed off. As we pulled out from Stanley we could see a group of penguins, probably Magellanic, on a distant beach. We were also joined by our first albatrosses – Black-browed – but all too soon ran into a big bank of wet fog. Later that evening we got our first Wandering Albatross, standing out as being absolutely massive, even amongst all the other huge birds.

Black-browed Albatross

Thursday and Friday. Daily life on the boat consisted of getting up for breakfast, going out on the monkey deck to look at the birds, tea break, birds, lunch, birds, tea break, play a game or something, birds, dinner, birds. It was a nice crossing with only a small feeling of sea-sickness mixed with the lethargy from taking anti-sickness pills. On the Friday evening, after having Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses flying close most of the day, we saw our first seals. Out on the moneky deck we looked down at increasing numbers until we came across a feeding frenzy that must have contained 300-400 individuals, all popping up, diving and porpoising through the water. Shortly after we passed them there was a distinctive whale-blow in the distance, followed by several more closer in and finally a (probably Minke) whale surfacing just in front of us.

Pair of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross in a brief synchronised display flight.

Saturday. We'd been up on deck in the morning looking out for land, but gave up because of snow, fog and cold. Then, about 11, someone came into the bar and announced 'we're there'. Bird Island looked ominous and intimidating – low cloud with steep, snow-covered slopes leading up into it. The five of us, plus our luggage, were taken ashore in the little Humber ribs to meet the current occupants, those who'd just over-wintered; Ruth, Jon, Jen and Rob, as well as Jaume who'd come down a month earlier. We were shown around base and tried to settle in as the excitement welled up at seeing the beach covered in male Fur Seals (a few females and even a few puppies close by the jetty), Gentoo Penguins (and one ill-looking King) standing around looking confused and various albatrosses circling overhead. The captain decided it was too rough to do any real unloading so were had the afternoon to get to grips with our new home, an afternoon during which the sun came out and we were able to enjoy and gin and tonic on the jetty.
Welcome to Bird Island: (l-r) Hannah, Jaume, Jen, Steph, Ruth, Craig, Rob, Jon.
(kneeling) me, (setting up her camera so absent) Tamsin.


It's a very small amount of internet we've got here so I won't be putting up too many pictures on the blog. Instead I'll try and regularly post some here.