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.


Spring into Summer by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Crazy spring work by Jerry

Crazy spring work

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

Giant Petrels

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

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

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

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

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

A cold day on the geep round.


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

Gentoos returning from the ocean to their breeding grounds.

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

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


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

Cosy pair of grey-headed albatross.

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

White-chinned petrels

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


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

Gill thrashing an unfortunate king penguin.

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

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

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

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

Bellowing male elephant seal.


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

Jerry Gillham

Midwinter part 2 by Jerry

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

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

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

Cian and his Ice Bride

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

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

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

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

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

The illuminated igloo.

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

Rob holding his caber.

Cian having a good toss.

Jess giving a welly a good wanging.

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

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

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

The big but not deep cave at Burton Cove.

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

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

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

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

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.

Puppies and eggs – a sunny day in October. by Jerry

Craig had set off early to carry out some repair work on the little hut at the Seal Study Beach. Just as I was about to head out he called us on the radio with news that there was an Elephant Seal pup born on Landing Beach, so we all excitedly headed over there.

Huge numbers of Elephant Seals give birth and breed all over the beaches of South Georgia, but up on Bird Island we generally only get smaller, younger ones hauling out and only a few occasionally pupping. There's been a couple of big females on the beaches the last week or so though and we had our fingers crossed for a pup.

It was looking pretty healthy and calling to the mother, who was responding which is always a good sign, although it took it a long time to suckle.

The skuas have been looking pretty desperate for food recently, picking up scraps of old bone and feather and taking risks they wouldn't normally. There was a pair hanging round the pup, taking their chances to grab a bit of afterbirth or try and rip off a bit of umbilical cord. Understandably this was causing a little upset, and the mother was furiously shouting at the pesky birds.

Further up the beach the Gentoo Penguins are well underway with their nest building. Some have huge piles of stones with a nice little well in the centre to form a big bowl shape, some just have piles of stones, some have piles of bones and some just have a shallow scrape in the ground.

I headed off up the hill to check on the Giant Petrels. The Northerns have mostly all laid now but there was a few more nests to mark and a quick check on those already sat there. The Southerns haven't started laying yet but are on with mating, nest building and a bit of fighting.

Pair of Southern Geeps scrapping over nesting space...
... before splitting up and declaring themselves masters of their own space. They then moved a short distance apart and settled back down on their own nests.

The sun burnt off a lot of the mist by early afternoon so I sat and had a bite of lunch while watching the returned Grey-headed Albatrosses. Steph has been checking on the colonies daily and found the first egg a few days ago.

The Black-browed Albatrosses are back as well now, as are the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses who are circling in pairs as part of their courtship.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses almost colliding.

A gloriously sunny day, looking over towards the South Georgia mainland and down to Jordan Cove with the base tucked in below La Roche.
With it now warm and sunny I dropped down to check on another penguin colony but despite some more impressive nests and a bit of copulation there were no eggs.

Not-so-happy neighbours.

An hour or so later though Hannah walked past the same area on the Leopard Seal round and radioed back to let me know that there was a penguin that had done an egg, our first one for the year.

So a good day with loads happening.


An abundance of wildlife by Jerry

Saturday started off a bit grey and was written off as one of those days to finish reports, cleaning and maybe a bit of relaxing reading or artwork. Yet by lunchtime the sun had burnt off the mist and we saw the first blue skies in what feels like weeks. It looked an ideal day for heading up the hill, checking on what was happening on the meadows and further away beaches.

In the tussoc the Geeps are starting to assemble in their nesting locations. Many of them have been here, paired up, through the winter but they're now showing a bit more affection, mating and starting to refresh their nests with greener grasses and moss.

Pair of Northern Giant Petrels tapping at each other with their beaks in a display of affection.

Further across the island we looked down on Johnson Beach and saw it full of penguins. Over 2,000 pairs nested here last season and something approaching that number was present again (based on a very rough count from high above the beach). 

Johnson Beach, covered with Penguins.
As with the Northern Giant Petrels, it'll be another months until they're properly egg-laying and these ones weren't showing much sign of nest building apart from the odd one picking up pebbles, but Gentoos tend to do that all the time anyway out of sheer curiosity.

Gentoos in the sun.

There was a young Leopard Seal on Johnson too, with some Gentoos walking alarminly close to it, but that wasn't the end of the seal excitement for the day.

Not the best creature for a penguin to try and be friends with.
Leave only footprints.

We continued our journey round, enjoying the late afternoon sun and enjoying the fact that it's now light until about 8pm.

The view back to base and La Roche, with the narrow Bird Sound between us and South Georgia mainland.

As we dropped down into the next cove there was a head in the water. We expected it to be a Leopard Seal but the shape was all wrong. Perhaps an Elephant Seal, but I've not seen them floating upright in the water like that. I hurridly pulled out my camera and binoculars, handing the latter to Hannah who described it as an obese Harbour Seal, reluctant with such a brief view to call what we hoped – a Weddell Seal. When it came closer to check us out though there was no doubting this was what it was.

Big body, tiny face - it's a Weddell Seal.
Weddell Seals are seen here occasionally in the winter, but they're the most southerly breeding seal species, hauling out onto the pack ice to raise their young.

Following a celebratory three-course dinner to which everyone bar me had contributed (I did the majority of the washing up) we popped out to enjoy the clear evening that was brighter than many of the days have been recently.


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.


Penguins and petrels by Jerry

I meant to write this blog over a week ago, so it's already out of date. I'll summarise my main photos and get on with writing a new one.

Gentoo Penguins

The Gentoo chicks are rapidly approaching fledging time, with very few left sporting many fluffy, downy feathers. They're fatter than the trimmed-down adults yet still chasing them up and down the beaches in their relentless quest for food. 

I've had some fun evenings watching them investigating the surf over on Landing Beach. They're quite nervous entering the water and when they do decide to swim they usually find their excess fat means diving below the surface is impossible.
The chicks are also quite fearless and curious - as I lay still one came over to investigate and found the elasticated toggle of my jacket very interesting.


We had a second night camping on Molly Meadows, looking for Blue Petrels on which to deploy tiny GPSs that will tell us where they are feeding. It was another fun night, sitting round drinking tea, eating crisps and getting up every 15 minutes to check on our study burrows.

We've done similar work with the White-chinned Petrels, which are significantly bigger and angrier. The first stage is to identify and mark occupied burrows - those with both adults and chicks. The latter are at the incredibly fluffy stage, where they appear to be all downy feathers with a beak and feet but no eyes.


The end of each month sees everyone on base take part in the Wandering Albatross survey. At this stage we're looking for new nests, failed nests and the ring numbers of some birds. We split the island up and I volunteered for the big walk off to Farewell Point. There's only one nest there and we need the ring number of one of the birds, though of course it was the partner sitting there that day. 
I sat having a drink and watching a group of petrels and prions feeding in Bird Sound when a whale appeared in the middle of them - a single Southern Right Whale to be precise, moving slowly against the tide and occasionally diving, lifting its tail high as it did so.

Back on base

Any excuse for a celebratory dinner really, and with two genuine Scottishers here we weren't going to let Burns Night pass without a haggis, neeps, tatties, deep-fried Mars bar and whisky. To complete the scene we arrived for dinner in the traditional Jimmy Hat and two plaid shirts tied around the waist as a makeshift kilt.


Counting and camping by Jerry


It's been a busy week for us penguinologists. We've been out several days this week carrying out counts of Gentoo chicks in every colony on the island. It is 100 days after 75% of marked nests had eggs laid in them and some of the chicks are large and fully moulted, although not yet independent. It seems to have been a good year, with over 4,500 – just over one chick per nest.

Everyone on base got involved with different bits of the work; the more eyes counting groups of between 12 and 250 penguin chicks the better. We aim to get within 5% of each other, which can be difficult when there's lots of chicks moving round, never mind the different eyesight and vantage points of the observers, but with several people counting we can pretty sure our average counts are accurate. It is important counting techniques are repeated each year to ensure the data is comparable.

Two days after counting all the chicks on Johnson Beach we were back there catching and weighing 100 of them. This was a messy job for the whole team. The average chick weight is just over 5kgs, although a couple of particularly large individuals were over 7kgs. Comparing fledging weights between years allows us to compare how good the feeding is and assess the likely survival chances of a particular generation.

Away from the penguins other work continues, with the albatrologists still marking new Wanderer nests and regularly checking on the Black-browed, Grey-headed and Sooty-mantled Albatrosses. The seal team have completed their work on the Special Study Beach (and enjoyed a lie-in after being up early every morning since early November) and are now tracking the movement of puppies around base and further up the streams.

A bright, sunny day. Ideal for counting penguins at Natural Arch. Looking east through Bird Sound with South Georgia on the right and icebergs in the distance.

 Hannah, armed only with clicker, counting Gentoo chicks.

Chinstrap Penguin. An occasional visitor, breeding further south. This one, the first I've seen, was hanging around on Johnson Beach while we were counting Gentoo chicks.

Bird Island by Night

As well as the penguins, Ruth and I also work a bit with the petrels, not just the Giant ones but some of the estimated 700,000 burrowing pairs. Recently we've been collecting feather samples from some of these and deploying tiny GPS devices onto others. These will track where the birds are feeding – an important step in understanding their lifestyle and hopefully contributory step in helping protect them when away from their breeding grounds.

Although most of our petrel work can be done during the day some does have to be done at night, so last week Jon and Jen joined us to go camping on Molly Meadows. We were looking for specific Blue Petrels returning to their burrows and, although we didn't get as many as we'd hoped, we had a great night, working from about midnight until 5am with enough time in between checking burrows to sit round a small stove and have cups of coffee and a good laugh.

Then later in the week we went out after dinner up Gazella, the hill behind base, to catch a few South Georgian Diving Petrels. These are tiny and squat, a little like Little Auks, with beautiful blue legs and are very rarely seen during the day. It was another good night, although very cold up there and we were glad to be back by 3am.

 South-Georgian Diving Petrel.

Ruth and Jen working by torchlight.


When not out working I've still been busy. Possibly the most stressful part of the week was my first Saturday cook, for Saturday means a full three course meal (spicy pumpkin soup, risotto and chocolate bread & butter pudding for those interested), but I took my time about it and was still able to have a little time outside appreciating the wildlife.

 Pleased looking puppy taking a break from testing the water. It's great seeing them splashing around in the shallows, properly beginning to use their flippers.

 Wilson's Storm Petrel. Plenty breeding further up the slopes but they're not often seen during the day. Apart from the occasional day when there's a small group feeding near the jetty.

 Giant Petrels disposing of a dead seal puppy.

 Antarctic Tern, a regular visitor.

The first seal to climb on to our close iceberg was reluctant to give up it's spot, growling aggressively at the second one.


Gentoo chicks. by Jerry

With a few days or nice, sunny weather on Bird Island we've been trying to cram in as much outdoor work as possible. In particular plotting all the Brown Skua nests. This has involved trekking backward and forward over every patch of the island, marking nest sites with a GPS. The skuas look very much like Scottish Bonxies, but in general they don't dive bomb you so much. Instead they will sit tight on the nest shrieking.

Like the searching for shag colonies, this has been a good excuse to explore more bits of the island. Yesterday I volunteered to walk the high level route up near where the grass becomes moss banks then scree. There were a few snow patches but it was too soft to sledge down properly. Today has been sunny enough I've been out for the first time in shorts with no salapets over the top.

The season seems well underway, with Wanderers joining the other albatrosses on eggs, Gentoo chicks getting big enough to run around in pursuit of their parents and Fur Seal puppies being left on the beach to form little gangs as their mothers go off to sea to feed.

As someone who generally dislikes the run-up to Christmas it's been great having so much work on and such great weather to concentrate on, but I did help decorate our tree (or decorate one small patch of it with all the baubles I could find).

Jen with our Christmas tree.

 Gentoo Penguin feeding chick.

 Fat, self-satisfied Gentoo chick.

Smart King Penguin that had wandered up the wrong beach.


more photos at

Apologies to anyone annoyed at how many times I posted the last blog. It's a fault with using blogger on very little internet.