field assistant

Wandering Albatross work by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry

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.



Winter arrives. by Jerry


In the last week we've had an early taste of what winter promises. An icy wind has blown up from the continent, covering the island in a layer of snow, making skating rinks of the ponds and making the streams a lot more interesting to climb.
We have managed a few clear days through which to appreciate this weather so here are a few photos:

The view from Gazella, looking down to the base and the cove. Tonk and Molly Hill make up the ridge on this side of the island.
Another blizzard approaching across the sea. It's nice to see them coming so you can check you've got hat, goggles, shelter etc.
Fur Seals love the snow, sliding around and rolling over and over in it.
The view from Tonk, looking down toward base and across to the South Georgia mainland.
More seals enjoying the snow. These were pretty far up the slopes, I suspect planning on sliding all the way down to the sea on their bellies.
Macaroni Penguins, not particularly bothered by the snow. In fact they were raising their beaks skyward to catch flakes, then scooping mouthfuls off their backs when it built up.
Wandering Albatross with small chick, enjoying a respite from the constant wind.
The dangerous and reckless sport of danger walking. Not quite so reckless when you know the pond in question is only 6 inches deep. 
Cold days can mean clear nights, though with a bright moon about we're still waiting for the best star-spotting nights. 


Wildlife update 1: Penguins by Jerry

Gentoo Penguin

Having started to hatch just before I left, it was pleasing to return to see good numbers of large Gentoo chicks covered in dense down. This has been shed as their adult feathers poked through and by mid-February most of them had explored the edge of the sea. This tended to take the form of wading into the sea to about waist depth, falling forward and flapping wildly on the surface. They'd try a few dives but at first most are carrying too much body fat so just flail on the surface. That doesn't last long before they turn and run back onto the beach where their less adventurous pals stare at them like they're expecting tales of the wide ocean. With time the fat is replaced with muscle, helped by vigorous flapping on the beaches, and they start to venture a further and further into the water, diving and chasing each other around.

Taking a break during gentoo chick counting for a quick lie down. This curious chick, almost fully moulted but with a little down left on the back of the neck and the flips, was curious enough to wander over and try to remove my glasses.

Throughout all of this they are still being fed by their poor parents. The adult exits the water and walks up the beach calling. It doesn't take long before one or two chicks, frequently the same size as the parent and often fatter, come charging toward it. The adult turns and runs, often heading right down to the waters edge before allowing its young some food, hopefully a belly-full of regurgitated krill. The running away from the chicks draws them closer to the water, maybe an encouragement that they should be out feeding themselves. It also ensures the fitter, healthier chick, the one that can keep up, gets fed first; an important strategy to maximise the chances of success in a lean season.

Young penguins enjoying the wave pool - one of the more sheltered bays - before they head for the open sea,

My work with the Gentoos has mainly been to count the number of chicks in all the colonies. With approximately 4,000 on the island they have had a reasonable year. Chick health is roughly worked out by weighing them (not all 4,000). By comparing numbers and weights to those collected every year for the last few decades we can look at long-term trends in these species that are key indicators of the health of the whole Southern Oceans.

An adult being harasses for food by its two strapping chicks,

There is another, even more glamorous part to my job with the Gentoos. A few evenings after dinner I donned latex gloves, took some bags and a spoon and headed over to Landing Beach. There I positioned myself near the colony, with a good view over many adults.
I wait with baited breath for this one moment.
Over to the left! It happens! A penguin does a poo!
Brandishing my spoon I hurry over before the Sheathbills can get to it and scoop up as much of the poo as I can, putting it in a little bag which I seal and put in a larger bag.
Back in the lab I will label and freeze this before returning it to Cambridge.



Me barely able to contain my excitement at a particularly good bit of gentoo poo. (Hannah's photo).

Rather than some weird, long-range-mail based campaign of abuse, this is part of an experiment to try and determine Gentoo diet through isotope analysis.


Macaroni Penguins

Like the Gentoos the Mac chicks have also gone from small balls of fluff to fat balls of fluff to sleek swimming machines. Where the young Gentoos get to splash about a bit in the shallows that's not really an option for the Macs as, with big waves breaking against the steep rocks, getting in and out is an art form that the adults often fail, getting washed down the big beds of kelp.

A creche of fluffy young penguins with a few adults on guard around them.

A fairly young Mac (note the short eyebrows) wearing a sort of body warmer made out of its old, unmoulted feathers. 

Counting and weighing the chicks is again the priority in terms of monitoring but there's several non long-term projects that I've been getting up to. One recent one is observing behaviour during moulting, which is nice as I just sit and watch the colony for a while, recording how often the birds preen themselves and how often they preen their partner.

A whole load of jumping Macs heading back for the colony.


"You've got to fly like an eagle... leap like a salmon... etc..."

The scramble to get out when a good wave gives you a leg-up.

The one that mis-times it ends up frantically paddling upstream while moving down.





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.


Jerry.