giant petrel

Back working with the Giant Petrels by Jerry Gillham

Working with the giant petrels was my favourite part of the job on Bird Island. Now I'm management and there's not so many of them nesting in the vicinity of King Edward Point it's rare I get to enjoy their aggressive / serene / maniacal / ridiculous behaviour. So when it got to the time of year for Kieran, the higher predator scientist, to go through their nesting grounds weighing and measuring the chicks I of course volunteered to help.

As well as getting up close with the birds it's a good excuse to get across to a a few less-well-travelled parts of the island.

Kieran approaching a giant petrel chick. Hopefully by this size and age they're past the point of vomiting to defend themselves, instead relying on their massive beak with which to bite you, but that's by no means a rule true to every bird. The trick is to approach and grab it quickly, minimising stress and ensuring minimal handling time.

Me in front of the Lyell glacier. These photos were taken at Harpon, a bay and hut over the other side of the peninsula from King Edward Point. It's about a two hour walk and the first time I'd been over that direction. It was also one of the first really snowy days we had though for most of it I wasn't as cold as I was here. Once down at sea level however we had the cold winds coming in off the ocean mixing with other cold winds coming down off the glacier.

With the boats in the water I was able to swap Kieran for Vicki (fisheries biologist) for the walk back. Away from the coast it warmed up again and as the sun dropped we got some great views down on the Lyell glacier. Normally this is all covered in debris, a dirty brown colour, but with a fresh fall of snow it looked dramatically white.

A sunnier day on the Greene Peninsula and I got hands-on with the birds again. I'm not putting any weight on the bird, merely using my legs to keep it still so I can measure the beak and then weigh it. These chicks aren't far off fledging and getting the weight of chicks at the same stage each year is a good indicator of the general health of the population, obviously in a summer of abundant food they'll be heavier and more likely to survive that first winter.

As with much of the work I used to do the predators at the top of the food chain are studied because it is a simple way of getting an idea of the health of the whole food web, but these measurements will only form a data point on a long term (decades-long) study into trends.

Bill measurements are used to determine sex with males having longer ones, in some cases over 100mm. 

Another day, a cold one again, heading out to the Greene Peninsula. It's only a short journey across by boat and up a fjord with a very shallow moraine entrance, so only suitable for the RHIB. The first job of the day was to get ashore and retrieve a VHF that one of the team had left on the beach the previous week.

Down the end of the fjord we took the opportunity to have a closer look at the Hamberg Glacier, unlike the Lyell which is large, dirty and sprawling through a valley this one is jagged, white, bleak and squeezed between a couple of rocky peaks.



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

Giant Petrels by Jerry

The giant petrels, commonly known as 'geeps', are one of my key study species. They're split into two species – the Northern and Southern, differentiated by the colour of their bill tip. Red for Northern and green for Southern. The sexes are basically the same, with the males being marginally bulkier and with longer beaks.
Northern Giant Petrel. Check out that lovely eye and the impressive beak - the salt gland on top to enable filtration of sea water and the huge pointed tip for ripping through carcasses.
The geeps get a bit of a raw deal. The only time you'll see them in any sort of nature documentary is when they're scavenging dead seals or waiting patiently for defenceless young pups and penguins. They'll be fighting with each other for rights to the kill, then shoving their heads right inside these big dead seals, pulling out covered in blood.

No waste on Bird Island. A recently deceased Fur Seal will quickly be reduced to a pile of bones and the geeps are the first ones in there.
They're not as eye-catching as the penguins or as elegant as the albatrosses, but once you start spending some time with them you get captivated by their charisma.

Describing them is a bit like describing a Frankingstein. They're the largest of the procelleria family of petrels and prions. Normally when you think of these birds you'd think of petite Storm Petrels or the elegant shearwaters soaring over the waves, perfectly adapted for a life at sea but a little ungainly on land. Unlike the smaller members of the family the geeps have strong legs that enable them to stalk the beach like dinosaurs. When they fight over food their tails are up, like turkeys, and their wings outstretched as they run at each other, shrieking like banshees.

A beach-master pose as this geep challenges anyone else to try taking his food away from him.
Like most wildlife, it's when you see them with their partners and young that you really warm to them. Giant Petrels are monogamous with long-term pair bonds and often nest in the same place, frequently the same area they were born, year after year. Many of them hang around, with their partners, through the winter.

A pair circling and calling together.
They're amongst the earliest nesters on Bird Island as the Northerns start laying eggs in mid-September with the Southerns about a month later. The nest can be a simple scrape on the ground but is usually a turret built from mud, moss and tussac grass. An ambitious pair may try to use an old Wandering Albatross nest.

The pair will take turns sitting on the egg for around a week at a time while their partner is off feeding. The egg takes about two months to incubate and during this time the birds have to put up with whatever the weather throws at them – wind, rain and snow. There's no ground-based predators here, no rats or cats or mice (which is one of the reasons Bird Island is so important), so there's little threat to the geeps from other life. With a bill like that they're not worth messing with, although there's the occasional territorial squabble between adults.

Geep scrap. These two males were fighting over a nest. The female sat by passively and then left with the loser. Like with most animals the fights are mainly posturing, establishing who is bigger, but then can lead to the interlocking of beaks and with those very sharp tips it's not unlikely that some blood will be spilt. This usually seems to signal the end of the fight.
Each of the approximately 500 nests in my study area gets a number and I'll take a GPS reference so I can plot them on a map later. The majority of the birds here carry rings and darvics. I'll take the numbers down and enter them onto an existing database, from that we'll know whether each individual has stuck with the same partner, changed location, been seen before and many other things. Throughout the season I'll visit about once a week to check on the progress of the egg and chick, ultimately recording whether the pair have bred successfully or not.

Writing down nest number, location and ring numbers of a particularly unconcerned pair. (Hannah's photo).
This is all part of an ongoing, long-term study collecting data on these species to find out all sorts of things like population and population changes, breeding success and survival rates.

Giant Petrels are scavengers as well as predators and can often be seen following boats in the south seas, waiting for any scraps.
Amongst the Southern geep population there's the occasional all-white individual. It's not an albino, it's just a morphological difference. They interbreed with the more usual coloured birds. There's two females like this in my study population of approximately 300 Southern Giant Petrels.

A white morph chick, pretty much full grown and ready for departure.
Two months after being laid a little white chick pokes its way out the egg with this big clunking beak. It's parents stay with it, continuing their regular change-overs for another few weeks, after which time it is left alone. Like most birds of it's kind it defends itself with a snapping bill and the threat of regurgitation – viscous vomit that could ruin an assailant's plumage, fur or jacket.

A week-old geep chick getting it's first rays of sunshine, yawning or calling for food.
As they get older the young birds lose their downy fluff and grow a layer of sleek, black adult feathers. They start to wander away from the nest, but not too far as you never know when a parent will return with food.

Half way through chick development, when they've grown to a decent size but are still covered with down, keeping them warm as the adult feathers develop beneath.
By March the Northern chicks are three to four months old. I'll head round the study area and take weight and bill-length measurements from all of them, also giving them a unique ring so they can be identified in the future. All that remains then is for them to lose their remaining chick feathers, stretch out their wings and head off to sea. By mid-April they'll all be gone with the Southern geeps about a month behind them.

Ready to go. This was the first egg laid last season, in mid-September. By mid-March she was looking beautifully slick and smart and was soon to depart.
They're long-lived birds. I've not seen any figures for ages but there's ones here breeding that are older than me and it wouldn't surprise me if they can get to double that age. Many of these chicks will return to the same areas of their birth to breed, but it'll be a few years before that happens. I was finding apparent first-time breeders this season that were ringed here as chicks in 2005 and 2006. Ongoing experiments using tiny geolocator devices are trying to work out where the young birds go during their teenage years. Ringing recoveries have shown that within a few months of leaving these young birds can be found as far away as Australia. Similar such work has shown a difference in feeding strategies, with females more likely to feed out at sea while males patrol the beaches. As with all good science, the answers are sure to throw up many more questions.

Southern Giant Petrel. Their presence on the island during the winter is one of the highlights of going for a walk.

Up above the clouds. by Jerry

Here's a few picture updates of what's been happening:

The Southern Giant Petrels are just starting to fledge.
The white morph was still there today but who knows about tomorrow.

Visitors from colder waters... the return of the Leopard Seals.

And visitors from warmer climes... a few lost Cattle Egrets.

More Elephant Seals hauled out.

Weird weather; low clouds rolling across the sea and engulfing the peaks and ridges.

A rare opportunity to get up above the clouds and look down on base.

May 4th be with us for Star Wars Day.
I attached this picture to a few emails to friends and have not heard from any of them since.


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.


Wildlife update 3: Petrels and prions by Jerry

When penguin work wasn't pressing I've been concentrating on many of the Island's other birds, mainly the smaller flying ones.

Giant Petrels

The Northern Giant Petrel chicks had started to hatch just before I departed and were looking pretty big upon my return. They were all sat alone on their nests, spending their time snapping and threatening to vomit on anyone who walked past (most of the birds use this effective defence mechanism) and waiting for their parents to return with food. As they lose their downy grey feathers their adult ones start to show through, at this young age they're all sleek and shiny grey-black. It's about this time they start exploring – walking away from their nest to fight with bits of tussock.

At about a month old the chicks start getting left on their own.
I'd been doing weekly checks of the study area, checking on their progress, as several volunteers had been doing while I was away. Then in early March I spent a few days going round weighing, measuring and ringing all the chicks. As with the other species, weighing gives a simple impression of general health, how successful a season it's been and how it compares to previous years as well as being a useful marker when it comes to looking at survival rates and long-term changes. There were a few monsters among the chicks, ones over 7kg with beaks over 10cm long.

At about two months old they're still downy but much bigger and with adult feathers on the way.

Now they're starting to fledge. I'm still doing weekly checks but more often I'll come across an empty nest and then have to search around to see if the chick has genuinely flown off or just gone on an extended exploration.
Three months old; patches of down revealing dark juvenile feathers. At this stage they are regularly visited by parents returning with food.
The Southern Giant Petrels breed and nest about a month later than the Northerns so there's still some big fluffy ones about, though I'll be weighing and ringing them soon.

About four months old and they're ready to fledge. This was the very first egg to be laid in my study area this season, back in mid-September.

White-chin Petrels, Blue Petrels and Antarctic Prions

There's not too much long-term monitoring of these species, but there are a small number of burrows that needed to be checked for chicks. Although it can be a cold, wet and muddy job it is one I enjoy as I feel really privileged to be seeing these young birds looking so fat and fluffy. However of all the wildlife I work with it is probably the White-chins that inflict the most injuries. Not because they're particularly aggressive (although there's always the odd one that wants to kill you) but because they've got incredibly sharp claws. They'd usually use them for climbing tussock and digging burrows but if you can remember Sam Neill talking about velociraptors at the start of Jurassic Park, that's what they can do.

Young White-chinned Petrel starting to develop adult feathers around the face.
The adults are rarely seen on land as they usually come in at night to avoid predatory skuas and head straight to their burrows, this is particularly true of the Blue Petrels and Antarctic Prions that are about the size of a large thrush while the White-chins are like small gulls. They're often seen at sea, where they congregate behind the ship, and at night, particularly stormy, overcast nights where their calls echo through the dark.

Big, fluffy Antarctic Prion chick - really just a ball of fluff with a beak.


I missed seeing the skua chicks when they were tiny and cute, but instead had the responsibility of measuring, weighing and ringing them once they were old enough to fight back. Thankfully our adult birds aren't as aggressive as other skuas, I'm thinking about the Bonxies in Shetland here, so the adults usually complain but standing loudly beside you and shrieking. Most of the juveniles are flying now and are congregating on the beaches to fight over scraps before they'll head to the mainland or out to sea for the winter.

Adult Brown Skua issuing a warning.

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.


Last days of solitude. by Jerry

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

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

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

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

Sleek-looking Macaroni Penguin, fresh from the sea.

Observations being made by both parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-browed Albatross colony on one of the more remote 

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.


Last of the Geeps by Jerry

With the wildlife leaving I've more free time to explore the island or carry out little projects of my own. One is my midwinter present - the old Antarctic secret-Santa-like tradition that has led to quiet evenings hiding in my room and the workshop.

Another project involved setting a timelapse camera up on the top of Tonk to catch what I hoped would be an impressive sunset. As it turned out it was only an average sunset, but there's plenty more time to try again.
Me on the top of Tonk, with colony J hut in the foreground (Steph's photo).
The view from the top of Tonk, looking north across Top and Bottom Meadows to the Willis Islands and impending snow-storm. On the right of the picture you can see the now empty Big Mac and on the left Johnson Beach.

Experimenting with cameras has been good fun. I left my little GoPro up in one of the Grey-headed Albatross colonies and got some good shots of their life at the moment.

Feeding time.
Stretching and practicing with those big wings.
Screaming for food as an adult, not necessarily on of its parents, lands nearby.

 Tuesday saw the departure of the final Giant Petrel chick from my study area. It's great to see them off successfully. I'll miss working with them as they're really charismatic, although it's only a couple of months until I'll be out every day recording the new nesting adults.

Riding out the snow, an adult Southern Giant Petrel.

Walking a regular route past the geeps and grey-heads means you get to know certain birds on the way. Some are more aggressive than others, some more timid and some just seem to have something about them. The Wandering Albatrosses are currently the main occupants of the island, with both chicks and adults livening up the Meadows.

My favourite Wanderer chick. It's got particularly chubby cheeks and always stands up as if to say 'hello' when I walk past, but doesn't shy away or snap at me.
A cosy Wanderer pair keeping warm and sheltering down in the tussoc.

The beaches are like the savannah with Leopards and Elephants jostling for space with the usual Fur (er... Seals).
Young Elephant Seal, foaming at the mouth. At least it makes a change from the others with big snotty noses.
Big Leopard Seal hauled out on the snow, fast asleep.

 As I was lying in the snow helping Hannah photograph this latest Leopard Seal a lonely Gentoo Penguin was wandering around us, honking and pecking at my rucksack. Happily he was joined by another two Gentoos who came ashore for a group preening session.

Gentoo Penguins, safe on the land, preening with a total lack of concern as to the giant predator behind them.

We were hoping for an opportunistic boat call this weekend bringing over vital generator bits as well as any mail and fresh veg. We're running dramatically low on potatoes and things are started to be rationed with midwinter approaching. The weather has been highly changeable and particularly windy recently though so it'll be a case of fingers crossed, wait and hope.

Big winds = big waves.

Changeable weather also means rainbows.