fur seal

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.


Penguin counting by Jerry

This has been a busy month with the penguins. Al and I, with plenty of assistance from the others on base, have been out counting and weighing chicks across the whole island.

First up came the gentoos. There are 7 separate colonies containing between 200 and 1500 nests (counted at the end of October). The beauty of counting nests is that they don’t move around, whereas young penguins do. Especially once they’re large enough for their parents to leave them and head off to sea to feed. While awaiting their return the young ones crèche together in large, noisy and smelly (though undeniably cute) groups. The largest of these groups can contain several hundred chicks and require some co-ordination of counters.

We’ll try and position ourselves so we’ve a good view of a group, but also so we’re preventing them from running off or mingling with other groups. Then everyone counts as accurately as they are able. Chicks do move around but you do your best and hope that those missed are made up for by any double-counted. When done everyone calls out their figure, like a chaotic bingo hall, and if close enough we’ll move on to the next group. In most cases we aim to have at least six counts, with no more than 5% variation.
Assembled to count a group of gentoo chicks.

As we know how many occupied nests there were from the October counts we can say how many chicks have survived per nest. Gentoos lay two eggs though of course not all survive. A productivity of 1.2 to 1.5 would indicate a good year.
Stopping for lunch at the edge of the colony, it soon becomes the centre of the colony as the chicks head over to investigate.

Similar counts are carried out with the macaroni penguins, although with only one chick per year their productivity is naturally lower. This may be a product of their different behaviour, specifically foraging further from the colony for food. When entering the smaller colony, Little Mac, penguins cross a gateway that can identify and weigh them. An individual can typically leave the colony in the morning 500g lighter than it arrived the previous night – all food passed on to the chick, not bad for a 4kg bird!

We also weigh the penguin chicks at a specific age each year. Weight is a good indicator of general health and many birds are weighed prior to fledging. For the penguins this requires a team of volunteers willing to get muddy and smelly as the chicks have to be caught in a net, put in a strong bag and weighed on a spring balance. It takes less than a minute before they’re running back into the mass of fluffy compatriots.
Still a bit fluffy, young gentoo chicks taking their first steps into the sea.

The penguin chicks are now starting to leave. The macaronis clear the colony within a week, disappearing off to sea while their parents will return in a week or two to moult their feathers before spending another winter in the ocean. The gentoo chicks spend more time familiarising themselves with the water; wading in and putting their faces below the surface then getting freaked out and running back onto the beach when they get knocked over by a wave. Gradually they get more accomplished and start swimming, though often are too fat to dive underwater properly, needing to lose some weight as they develop their swimming muscles.

Not only are there waves, the young penguins also have to deal with over-playful fur seal pups, themselves just getting used to the water and inquisitive about anything near them.

As they lose their downy feathers and a little fat they become more streamlined and start to look like proper penguins. They spend more time in the water and start heading further from the shore.


Fur Seals by Jerry

Apologies it's been so long since the last update. We've been hectic busy here with the spring arrival of the penguins, petrels and albatrosses as well as the summer staff – the returning base commander, new technician, a couple of senior scientists and our replacement field assistants. We'll be spending the next few months here working with and handing over to them.

As I was away at this time last year I missed one of the unique experiences of Bird Island; the fur seal season. This started seriously around the beginning of November when the big males started establishing territories on the beach. At 2m long and weighing around 150kg they are by no means the largest seals in the sub-Antarctic but they will not give ground to anyone. As they are more like sea lions than the phocids (elephant and leopard seals as well as the grey and common found around the UK) they are very quick and agile on land.

Charging up river, a male Antarctic Fur Seal.
A male arriving at a crowded beach will have to charge up the river (where no one holds territory) fighting off other males from either side. If cornered he will try and be repelled by a demonstration of superior size, but it won't take much for them to start fighting – biting and thrashing – and the majority have scars somewhere on their upper body.

The males are holding out for the return of the females. They face an equally difficult charge up the beach as they will try and be herded into harems. The largest males with the best locations will have the best chance of attracting and keeping them, outside our window one big guy is keeping his eye on 31 ladies and their pups.
The males can weigh as much as five times the weight of a female. They will typically hold their breeding territory for 20 to 40 days, during which time they will largely rely on the food reserves stored in their body fat.
The pups are born within a few days of their mothers returning from the ocean. Cast an eye over the colony at the right time and it won't be long until you see a female writhing round and giving birth to a little puppy that quickly shakes off its birth sack, opens its eyes and starts crying for food. There's a lot of calling as the mums and pups bond with each other as it's not long (about a week) before the former head back to sea to feed and when they return they need to recognise their young by call and by smell.
Female and newly-born pup taking its first look at the world. 
A female working out which of these two attention-seeking puppies is actually hers.
Once left alone the pups start to interact with one another, climbing, sniffing and play fighting. If there's no one else around they will happily play with their own flippers.

Dreaming of milk, a content pup.

Less than 1% of the pups are born blonde. With very few natural predators (the occasional leopard seal or orca) they tend to survive as well as the more typical black ones though they stand out more.

A stand off between a pair of puppies enjoying the chance to play while their mums are away.

A definite winner in this little battle, though the loser was straight back up for another bout.

95% of the world population of Antarctic Fur Seals Arctocephalus gazella is based around South Georgia with population estimates of 1.5 to 4 million. This has hugely increased in the last 50 years, by which point they were nearly hunted to extinction. Bird Island, being largely inaccessible, was one of their last strongholds.

Much of the science and research being done on these species focuses on finding out where they feed, what they're feeding on and how keeping track of how healthy the population is. Other projects have focused on their genetics and learning more about mother-pup interactions. I've been helping out over on the special study beach where the pups are weighed and samples of their umbilical cords are taken for genetic analysis.  

While some pups put up much more of a struggle than one would expect of their 5kg frame, others fall asleep in your arms.


Race Across Antarctica by Jerry

After Bird Island's triumph in the Rebel Race last winter we were looking forward to this year's fitness challenge with a degree of trepidation, knowing we had something to live up to and would be without the influential Craig.

This year sees the return of the official race, organised by those in Cambridge with teams from there, the ships and the bases completing a distance of either 2,840km (Scott's Terra Nova route from Cape Evans to the pole and back again), 6,000km (across the continent from Cape Hope to Cape Adare) or a monumental 12,000km (a 'grand tour' that takes in many of the research stations). We've a ten week window to complete our chosen distance and, like most of the 26 teams entering, we will be going for the 6,000km trek.

We've put together our team of six – the four of us on base plus the other two field assistants who have just got back to the UK and are keen to retain their Bird Island fitness in the presence of such mainland luxuries as take-away food.

Activities have been weighted with different scores based around world record speeds, hence 1km cycling = 2.5km running / walking = 3km rowing = 10km swimming. We have machines for all but the latter, which sadly is off the list of events until I get somewhere warmer. With less outdoor work to do and with the nights drawing in we've plenty of time to get moving.

Here's a few pictures of what else has been happening recently:

Wandering Albatross are starting to head off to spend the winter at sea.
The last few unpaired ones are still dancing round like the singles left in a club at 2am.
A possible last opportunity for established pairs to spend time together before spending all their time feeding and bringing back food for their tubby, fluffy chick who will otherwise be left alone for the next six months,
While the Macaroni Penguins have headed out to sea and won't return to land before October, the Gentoos stay closer and often come ashore in large numbers in the evening.
Grey-headed Albatross are continuing to feed their chicks, although it won't be long before they follow the Black-brows in starting to fledge and head off themselves.
As the days get shorter there's more of a chance of being out to see a sunset. Though there won't be many like this, with a clear sky.
Clear skies also mean good opportunities for stargazing.
With the majority of Giant Petrel chicks having fledged the adults gather together to discuss the breeding season. 
Great views across the South Georgia mainland from near the tip of La Roche.
Testing the ice on the frozen ponds.
On a final note, congratulations to my previous workplace Skokholm, on it's official re-opening as a UK BirdObservatory. An amazing amount of hard work and changes have happened there in the last five years.


Riding the waves; tough weather for penguins by Jerry

The Macaroni Penguins are hanging round the colonies in smaller and smaller numbers - today only 115 in Little Mac where at peak breeding there would be 350+ pairs. There's still birds coming in and out of the colony mind, and with a stiff northerly wind creating some big waves it's not easy.

Here's some photos of these tough little buggers getting in and out of the water:

Spot the penguin, going over the penguin equivalent of the penguin Niagara Falls.

When the swell drops it looks a long way down. Rest assured 2 seconds later these penguins will be trading places. 
This isn't the best photo but is worth looking at to see the penguin that has most mistimed its leap out the sea.

Amongst the penguin action a group of Fur Seals headed past, leaping high over the crashing waves.
Up on dry land the Macs did a bit of nest building. Why? They'll be gone in a few weeks, headed out to sea until October. Perhaps inbuilt territorial behaviour, perhaps trying to impress a potential mate.

Although they are incredibly noisy and violent I'll really miss these little guys. They're so charismatic and how can you not be impressed by those eyebrows.

An intimate moment as one has a scratch, lifting a foot to the scratch the side of it's head, wobbling endearingly as it does so.

Wildlife update 4: Seals by Jerry

The Fur Seal pups were starting to be born as I departed for my enforced break, so I missed a good amount of seeing them small and cuddly. When I returned they'd started to shed their black puppy hair and develop the sleek grey fur that will keep them warm in the water. They'd also begun to be left alone more as their mums headed out to sea to feed, returning full of milk to help their pups grow big. Before leaving many of the mums take their pups up the slopes, finding somewhere safe to leave them and somewhere they can return to find them again.

Curious young pup,

Grumpy blondie pup.

That's the theory anyway. It seems as soon as many of the mums leave the pups go exploring, heading back down to the beaches to meet up with other pups for playing and fighting (often indistinguishable) and later on heading into the shallow waters and rock pools to have a go at swimming.

Splashing down the stream in heady anticipation of some fun in the sea.

Seeing them charging round the small pools, chasing each other or wrestling with bits of kelp is hugely entertaining. It's like they've just discovered what their flippers are for, discovered what it is to be a seal. At this time they're both very curious and a bit nervous, so will come and investigate anything unfamiliar, such as a person or a camera, but will quickly turn and swim off once they feel unsafe, usually returning a minute later for another look.

Fighting with a bit of kelp.

Fighting a friend over a feather.

The goal; to be so good at swimming you can lie on your back, scratch and yawn while doing it.

Investigating the underwater camera in a small pool.

As with the birds, weighing the pups on specific dates is a simple way to get an idea of the health of the population that can be compared to previous years. This is done three times through the year and by the third occasion they're pretty big, quick and feisty. With the heaviest nearly 20kg it can be quite a task, but a good one that ensures everyone gets muddy together.

Three mud-spattered puppy-weighers.

Quiet on the Blog Front... by Jerry

...but not in real life. Quite the opposite in fact, and the two are linked. Since my return to Bird Island in late January I have been busy as anything, but I finally have a bit of time to write up the last couple of months. An update on the wildlife will follow but first - what's been happening on base?

Travelling down with me were a few technicians (Alun, Dale and Barry) who had been employed to fit a fancy new bulk fuel system to the base. This will eliminate our need to refuel with barrels every year and all the associated risk of spills posed when moving them around. Along with Rob and Paul, who were already here, they worked some long, long hours in some very wet and dirty conditions to create a very fancy looking and, as far as I understand it, efficient and failsafe system. With time against them as boat schedules changed they got it all fitted in time to walk us through how it'll work and give it a test fuel pump.

They haven't been the only hard workers though as the Base Commander, Adam, was also out in all weather packaging up a seemingly endless supply of scrap metal and wood that is being sent off for reuse and recycling.

The other Zoological Field Assistants and I have been working non-stop too, but I'll cover that in further blogs. Instead I'll mention here some of the exciting events and relaxing evenings we've enjoyed.

Darts match

Following last year's close game against Signy we accepted a rematch despite not putting in any practice in the intervening 12 months. Instead we had a few ringers in the shape of Dale, Cous and Alun. With all the internet activities on base turned off except one computer we were able to get text updates and the occasional video stream from their base further south. As with last year the losers were to buy the winners a case of beer, and as with last year it was a close 2-1, though victory to us this year!

Darts night, with the competition on the big screen.

BBC visit

A BBC team filming Deadly Pole to Pole with Steve Backshall visited in mid-February for a few days. We accompanied them looking for some of Bird Island's deadliest wildlife, although unfortunately it wasn't quite the right time of year for the angriest male Fur Seals. The skuas too are surprisingly relaxed at the moment. They got some great footage of a Giant Petrel feeding on a seal carcass, the Wandering Albatross displaying and the Macaroni colony at night so I hope they can do the island justice. It was interesting having them around and they were a really nice team. We celebrated the end of filming with a big barbeque on the beach.

Deadly / Bird Island team photo. (Adam's photo).

Nights off base

When the weather's settled it's nice to get away from base and I've done this more in the last month than at any other time. Whether it's camping out near the Wanderers so we can watch them displaying late into the evening and then get woken up by Geeps trying to eat the tent, staying in Fairy Point Hut with incoming or departing winter teams or finding a dry patch on a misty night in the cave they all feel like great experiences. The hut especially has been very cosy since the heater was fixed and staying there we got some good views of the stars and of the burrowing Prions and Petrels returning at night.

The Love Shack with a rare clear sky and either aurora australis or high clouds.

Swimming with puppies

One of the most funnest things I've done while here was to don one of the thick wetsuits and get in the sea with the Fur Seal Puppies. They seem to be having so much fun learning to swim, chasing each other around in the shallows and fighting with kelp that we wanted to be a part of it. With us bobbing around they came over to investigate. A bold one would come closer than the others, have a bit of a sniff, decide we weren't worth eating or fighting and dive away, swimming back to its friends. We weren't in long before the cold got the better of us but it was a lovely sunny day and we rushed back to find the others eating sandwiches on the back step, so joined them with a big mug of tea.

Fur Seals. Less interested in us than we are of them. (Steph's photo).

Arrivals / departure by Jerry

1st December

Although it's not been too long since I last updated quite a lot has happened. The fact that I'm writing this while looking out of a ships cabin window over King Edward Point, South Georgia will attest to that.

A lovely sunset looking out to the JCR anchored off the bay during first call.

The first major change was first call. Thankfully a few days late which gave us the time to complete tidying, cleaning and paperwork for outgoing items the RRS James Clark Ross arrived at Bird Island and before we knew it out home of four people for the last eight months was full of 30 or so folk, many of them known to us from our time in Cambridge or from the journey down last year. Over two days of dubious weather they brought in all our fuel, food, kit and equipment for the next season. Several tons of timber also came ashore for infrastructure rebuilding later in the year. But of course the main change has been in the base personnel; Cian and Jess, the new seal and albatross assistants, Rob the new tech, Manos, who's in to upgrade the computer servers and Adam the new base commander. While Hannah and Steph will have a few months to pass over their expertise in the animal monitoring, Craig had two days to tell Rob everything he knows about keeping the base running – the generators, the electrics, the plumbing and a hundred quirks and tips to keep everything working. Craig headed off on the JCR for an exciting few months helping open the base at Signy then heading down to carry out some work at Rothera. It was sad seeing our winter team break up as it's been such a great time.

The ship returns on the nicest day ever.
A rising wind meant the last trip for the tender back to the ship was a bit hairy and they headed off to unload cargo at South Georgia. They were back a few days later though to pick up all our outgoing waste and recycling and they picked one of the nicest days Bird Island has ever witnessed. Blue skies, sun and flat calm waters meant everything went smooth and quick and after a morning rolling empty fuel drums we were able to get out up the hill and enjoy the spectacular views and the chance to carry out work unhindered by rain, although I soon learnt that shorts are not suitable attire when monitoring White-Chinned Petrels due to their velociraptor-like claws.

The RRS James Clark Ross just before heading away for another year.
Enjoy the view toward Willis, it's not like this very often.
As I'm staying down south for another year the BAS doctors decided it was necessary for me to take a break. Partly to go and see a dentist again, after last years trip, and partly to stop me going mad. I wasn't sure what sort of break they had in mind; a while on South Georgia or the Falklands? Turns out I'm heading all the way back home.

I'm obviously looking forward to seeing friends and family, catching up on things I've missed like live music and sport, and non-stop eating of fresh food. I am sad to be leaving Bird Island, especially at such an exciting stage in the breeding season – the first Gentoo chicks were born two days before I left, Wandering Albatross are courting and Fur Seal puppies are starting to cover the beach – but I'll be back before everything departs. I've been spending the last week or so racing round to get as much done as possible and showing the others how to carry out bits of monitoring I'm leaving with them.

Gentoo penguin with fat little chick.
Giant Petrel chick enjoying some sunshine from underneath its mum.
Wandering Albatross pair cuddling up. 
Fur seal puppy chewing on its own flipper while cuddling up to its mother.

As might be expected it's not an easy, short trip. I was picked up by the the fisheries patrol vessel Pharos a few days ago and spent a few days lying in my bunk feeling seasick before we pulled in to King Edward Point.

More to come soon.


Begin the spring by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the seals?

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

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

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

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

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


Ice Ice Baby by Jerry

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

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

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

Ice forming on the sea and the jetty.

Frozen seaweed washed up on the shore.

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

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

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