island

Football on South Georgia by Jerry Gillham

One of the highlights of this last summer has been the number of football games we fitted in. Behind Grytviken there's a pitch, with proper goals, that was built by the whalers when the station was operational. There's a few idiosyncrasies about the pitch; although there's a ditch around it that keeps fur seals away one does have to get used to the other pitfalls; the gravel end, the boggy end, the actual mudbath, the bit where the vegetation is so deep you have to really get under the ball and hook it up. As I was playing I wasn't able to get any photographs. All these are by other people who I hope I have credited correctly, please let me know if not.

Jump straight to the video.

After a few kickabouts our season started properly when Thies and Kicki mentioned to a friend, an expedition leader on the German cruise ship Bremen, that they would like a game. He promised to bring a few of the crew along but when the day arrived he sadly slipped and injured himself in the warm up. Like Glenn McGrath in the 2005 ashes, we took inspiration from this and put aside pre-conceptions about the Germans beating us on penalties.

Stunning location for the pitch.

Stunning location for the pitch.

Josh powering through the burnet. We have our own white Grytviken kit with king penguins on the front like they're sponsoring us.

Josh powering through the burnet. We have our own white Grytviken kit with king penguins on the front like they're sponsoring us.

As they were a person down Kicki went on their side for the first half. As we built up a lead she swapped with Thies, giving them one of our best players. Her first action as part of our team was to nullify his threat by barging him to the floor and clinging on so he couldn't move.

As they were a person down Kicki went on their side for the first half. As we built up a lead she swapped with Thies, giving them one of our best players. Her first action as part of our team was to nullify his threat by barging him to the floor and clinging on so he couldn't move.

She wasn't the only person to give Thies a hard time for defecting.

She wasn't the only person to give Thies a hard time for defecting.

One of the problems with playing on burnet; it tends to stick. Several of us chose to wear old pairs of socks and just throw them away rather than pick out all the burrs at the end.

One of the problems with playing on burnet; it tends to stick. Several of us chose to wear old pairs of socks and just throw them away rather than pick out all the burrs at the end.

KEP 7 - 1 Bremen, and happy faces all around.

KEP 7 - 1 Bremen, and happy faces all around.

Next up came the crew of the HMS Clyde. This time we were up to 10-a-side and the full pitch, which meant the quagmire end. I sprinted through that in the first few minutes and spent the rest of the first half thinking my lungs were going to burn through my chest.

Some spectators heading off for a walk while the rest line up for a corner.

Some spectators heading off for a walk while the rest line up for a corner.

KEP 4 - 0 HMS Clyde. A tough game.

KEP 4 - 0 HMS Clyde. A tough game.

Word of our victories had got around and the crew of the Pharos fancied their chances, thinking their mixture of British steel and South American flair would lay waste to our British / Irish / Kiwi / German / Swedish journeymen. Upping the ante they arrived in full warpaint.

This game started to get physical pretty early on. Tommy and Chris blocking well here while Kieran and Paula could be relied on to put in a agricultural tackle on anyone getting too close to goal.

This game started to get physical pretty early on. Tommy and Chris blocking well here while Kieran and Paula could be relied on to put in a agricultural tackle on anyone getting too close to goal.

Zac, adding a bit more pace to our attack, while the whale-oil tanks mean you can never forget the unusual context of our location.

Zac, adding a bit more pace to our attack, while the whale-oil tanks mean you can never forget the unusual context of our location.

As many have found out this season, you'll not find a way past Jim.

As many have found out this season, you'll not find a way past Jim.

Joining the two spectators were Miriam's two rodent-monitoring dogs, watching on while their handler didn't let playing in wellies hold her back.

Joining the two spectators were Miriam's two rodent-monitoring dogs, watching on while their handler didn't let playing in wellies hold her back.

Once again Thies managed to spend quite a lot of time on the ground.

Once again Thies managed to spend quite a lot of time on the ground.

Dale, one of our star players, thumping a header into George's goal.

Dale, one of our star players, thumping a header into George's goal.

You know you're not under much pressure when your 'keeper is able to take time out to relieve himself mid-match.

You know you're not under much pressure when your 'keeper is able to take time out to relieve himself mid-match.

KEP 9 - 0 Pharos. A comprehensive victory.

KEP 9 - 0 Pharos. A comprehensive victory.

Our final game of the season was against the crew of the Ernest Shackleton. I'd sent them a cocky email about us being unbeaten, though that hubris quickly dropped as they arrived when we were missing Thies, Kicki, Zac, Tommy and Paula. Going on board I found a younger, healthier crew than I was expecting with a sheet on their noticeboard detailing positions, while they'd made their own kit too.

They didn't seem to buy my explanation of our tactics or formation; it's quite fluid, basically the person with the most energy chases after the ball, the person with second most tries to keep up with them and those too tired hold back in defence.

We started off both playing in white, with the first few minutes being an utterly chaotic mess before they removed their tops and played in their black thermals.

We started off both playing in white, with the first few minutes being an utterly chaotic mess before they removed their tops and played in their black thermals.

Oli and Dale, scorers of five goals between them, celebrating the first.

Oli and Dale, scorers of five goals between them, celebrating the first.

One of my favourite things about the matches has been Jamie's coaching. Of Josh. Turning up to the match like an underachieving dad taking it out on his son. Every time Josh touched the ball or advanced slightly up the pitch there would be a loud 'JOSH! GET BACK'.

One of my favourite things about the matches has been Jamie's coaching. Of Josh. Turning up to the match like an underachieving dad taking it out on his son. Every time Josh touched the ball or advanced slightly up the pitch there would be a loud 'JOSH! GET BACK'.

KEP 5 - 1 Shackleton. I think our hardest game of the year and the only time we conceded a legitimate, and very well taken, goal.   See the video of this game in all its brutal, skilful glory.

KEP 5 - 1 Shackleton. I think our hardest game of the year and the only time we conceded a legitimate, and very well taken, goal.

See the video of this game in all its brutal, skilful glory.

So at the time of writing this KEP team is unbeaten. We won't have the same personnel available next season but we'll welcome any challengers.

August - movie making & more skiing by Jerry Gillham

August started with the annual Antarctic 48-hour Film Festival. I've had great fun in the past parodying Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but this year we went for something a bit more original; a fun satire of Brexit based on the idea of South Georgia trying to leave Antarctica.

It's available to view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StB1ftK6wcM

Neil and Dave ill-equipped to deal with the cold in the old whaling station.

Fraser taking a break with some personal reading material. I like the straight lines and symmetry in this photo, I'd be happy with making this the new South Georgia flag.

Fraser, Neil and Bob preparing for filming in the surgery.

Unfortunately our UK-centric storyline, combined with a scattering of in-jokes and oblique references, together with dodgy sound quality on the original edit, meant we were never going to score highly amongst the wide range of stations of various nationalities that did the judging, though I hope some of the European stations appreciated the point we were making. 

Congratulations to Rothera and Bird Island, the other UK stations, who made some highly entertaining movies, the latter performing very well in the voting.

I ended up spending several weeks going back through the footage and improving the sound quality, cutting and adding until I was properly happy with it. Reviews so far have included 'it looks like you had fun making it', 'you had a hard act to follow' and 'your acting hasn't improved', while several friends have avoided speaking to me since I sent them the link.

 

August also gave us some of the best days skiing of the winter. One weekend especially, after a particularly heavy snow-fall on the Friday, was spectacular.

Fraser on the slopes of Brown Mountain. The flat area below is the snow-covered Gull Lake. Visibility was often poor but where the snow was deep enough it was so easy to turn it didn't matter what the slope was like.

Clouds clearing as we returned to Grytviken. As it was just so good we ended up heading up Deadman's Pass to continue skiing instead of returning to base as planned.

Shameless skiing selfie. It's not light-weight skiing here; you never know where there's going to be rocks poking through the slopes and while we take every care to avoid potential avalanches you can never guarantee anything, so each time we've been out I've carried avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel as well as helmet and, because I've become a bit paranoid, spine-guard. The result is that I look much more extreme-sport than is justified.

The next day Fraser and I set off early while everyone else was enjoying a lazy (hungover?) Sunday. Our initial smugness took a dent as the visibility was pretty shocking.

It cleared however as we ascended toward Echo Pas and then an un-named peak beside it.

From the summit we had great views down to station as well as most of the travel limits of the peninsula, and then an awesome time heading back down.

When the snow's not been too deep to make walking difficult we've had some good days out hiking too. Although looking toward Petrel here, Vicki and I got up Narval, just out of shot. It's one Fraser and I went up early in the summer via a ridiculous route. This time we did the simple one but with the snow, ice and strong winds about it was just as rewarding.

On a better day we headed back over to Stenhouse, possibly the most spectacular peak in the local area. That ascent up what looks like a vertical gully above and right of Vicki is a proper challenge. It's been good to do a few days needing crampons and ice axe for their intended purpose rather than just carrying them as extra safety gear.

Those two days out counted towards the 2017 Race Antarctica. In previous years this has been organised from Cambridge to get BAS folk competing as teams to rack up distance equivalent to crossing the continent. With people moving on I took on the challenge of organising this years event, but only for those South. We had seven teams of 4 trying to complete the distance from Falklands to Bird Island, to KEP, to Rothera, to Halley and the Pole. That was about 7,000km - in 5 weeks! A bit much, most teams managed 30 to 40% of the distance but the BI team absolutely smashed it.

Activities were weighted so spending an hour on the exercise bike, rowing machine or running would be worth equal amounts. Skiing, cardio exercise and ascent gained also counted towards the total. Hopefully it gave people a chance to get rid of a bit of midwinter weight and get a bit of a routine going in the gym.

 

Finally, one of the most exciting events in August has no photographs to corroborate it; heading back from dropping people off for a holiday on the Barff Peninsula I was driving the jet boat when some way in front of me I noticed a black line rise and fall. It didn't take long before I realised it was either an orca or another whale maybe waving a flipper. I chose to shout the first and ran to alert Paddy and steer from the raised platform outside the cabin. I was correct, it was a big male orca though it only appeared once or twice more and never very close. Kieran and Bob in the RHIB noticed a second, a female, further off behind us so we slowly turned around and keeping revs low hung around the same place looking out for them. 

I guess they were feeding as we only got a couple of brief views, and always far from us and the spot they'd last surfaced. The final view we got was the best, both surfacing together in front of the sunlit glacier before disappearing for good. No photos but happy memories.

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.

 

Jerry

Days out over Christmas by Jerry Gillham

A few photos from South Georgia taken over Christmas and New Year

Christmas Day was amazing. The weather was just unbelievable. We'd had a bit of a party the night before with a carol service at the old whaling station church, then a traditional meal with everyone enjoying themselves.

On the 25th three of us headed up Mount Duse, just behind the station (that you can see with the red roofs. To the right of the bay is Grytviken and the museum and post office were open that day as cruise ship Le Soleal was in, unloading passengers to look around the whaling station.

Fraser, Kieran and me on the top of Mt Duse.

No one really knows why Fraser was dressed as Neil Buchanan, but it did give us this excellent photo opportunity.

We returned in time for the builders' barbecue - a fabulous affair that went on all afternoon. The blue containers were dropped in to give shelter from the wind while the white container is a permanent fixture as it contains our sauna.

Boxing day wasn't quite as sunny but was still clear so this time we headed up Mt Hodges, detouring slightly to Orca on the way. Here Grytviken sits directly below us while King Edward Point is on the spit further out. The path over to Maiviken is on the left and the Gull Lake on the right powers out hydroelectricity generator.

The weather deteriorated slightly as we reached the top of Hodges. Again you can see a large cruise ship in the bay - it was a busy time of year for the museum and post office staff.

Coffee envy at the summit.

Part of the on-site training has been learning to crew and cox the RIBs and jet boat. There are two of each and the jets, seen here, are used primarily as the harbour launches. This day we'd picked up people from their holiday and were doing a bit of familiarisation around the local area. This included getting up to the Nordenskjold Glacier and taking GPS readings near the edge, tracking it's retreat.

With a bus weekend ahead Fraser and I headed out on a Friday to stretch our legs before more work took over. We didn't pick the nicest of days; what should have been amazing views were shrouded in cloud, but it did mean we occasionally stumbled across treasures, like this tiny glacier up near one of the cols (Glacier Col in fact).

Elephant Seals are forming their big wallows as they moult. Noisy, stinking places they are nevertheless very amusing to watch.

Following that slightly miserable day we awoke to several inches of fresh snow and glorious sunshine. It was so warm that by mid-afternoon there was barely any left.

The first bit of snow shovelling of the season to clear the walkway.

Matthew clearing the snow off the jet boats. That day we had a cruise ship, a ship bringing new people and cargo, and the auxillary fleet's Gold Rover who had personnel wanting to be ferried ashore. So there was plenty going on. The following day the HMS Portland was in, in atrocious weather, and he racked up over 60 nautical miles moving passengers between the ship and Grytviken.

Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

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

Southern Right Whale

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

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

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

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

Leopard Seal

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

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

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

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

Walk out to winter by Jerry Gillham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pausing to admire the scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday David Attenborough by Jerry

Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday was celebrated down here on Bird Island with a cake, a raised glass and a few episodes of Life In The Freezer. The second one in particular, 'The Ice Retreats', contains a large amount of footage from Bird Island; all the albatross and penguin shots are familiar.

Here's a few screenshots of David Attenborough on Bird Island, standing in the middle of Big Mac, one of my key work locations when I was Zoological Field Assistant for the penguins, rather than the tourist I go over there as now. In this sequence he described Macaronis as the loudest and most bad-tempered of all the penguins. At times I have described them in similar, but less eloquent, ways.

All copyright owned by the BBC and photos used without permission. Check out their series Life In The Freezer or the more recent Frozen Planet for the best impression you can get of Antarctica.

Obviously much has been said regarding David Attenborough's work and life but it is probably worth repeating that, outside of immediate family, he has probably been the biggest influence on me and many others down here. Not just the scientists studying the charismatic megafauna but anyone who grew up wanting to travel, explore and witness all the amazing sights the Earth has to offer.

Bird Island folklore says that the old jetty bog was his favourite toilet in the world. Unfortunately when the jetty was rebuilt this had to be removed from the end and placed near the main base, but it is a mark of respect that it is still standing, admittedly only used as a store currently but no one can bring themselves to tear it down. You can't destroy David Attenborough's favourite toilet!

Time is getting the better of it however and this season we have started working on preserving the unique features. On the ceiling was a painting done by a previous Station Leader, Sam, in 2010. A recreation of the roof of the Cistine Chapel with a few Bird Island natives splashed across it, my favourite being the gentoo penguin chick on Adam's lap. The painting has been taken down, cleaned up and framed, ready to take pride of place on the wall in the lounge.

Jerry

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.

Jerry.

The Shiants by Jerry


Arrival on the Shiant Isles
The welcoming sign on the bothy door.

I arrived on the Shiant Isles on 5th June, after a long journey up from Cambridge via Flamborough Head, Inverness, Ullapool and Stornoway. Early that morning we did a last-minute shop for fresh food and loaded our provisions onto the boat; six big plastic boxes full of camping gear, tagging technology and office supplies, three large barrels of food, four big water tanks, two rucksacks loaded with rope access equipment, a portable generator and large quantities of personal gear, all tightly dry-bagged.

As we sped across the Minch the excitement levels were rising as we were finally getting out to the real fieldwork. The chance to spend some time on the Shiants was one of the main reasons I went for this job. Flocks of seabirds sat on the water and watched us pass, while porpoise and a minke whale surfaced close by. It was a calm day but dominated by mist and drizzle that had steadily increased to a persistent rain by the time the Shiants loomed out of the grey; the tall, imposing, sheer cliffs surrounded by puffins, razorbills and guillemots filling the sea and the sky.

My first view of the Shiants.

It was a wet arrival (partly the rain, partly ending up thigh-deep in the sea while loading and unloading) but before long we were drinking tea in the bothy with the LIFE monitoring team and by early afternoon the sun was out, giving us time to set up our tents before the storms of that evening drew in.

What would become a familiar sight; thermals on the washing line.


The Islands

The Shiants are owned by the Nicholson family and a passionate biography of the islands can be found in Adam's book. They are located roughly half way between Stornoway and the Isle of Skye, in the middle of the turbulent Minch. They consist of three main islands and an assortment of smaller outcrops and rocks. We have been working on Eilean an Tighe (House Island) and the larger, steeper Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), joined at all but the highest tide by a narrow shingle isthmus, crossing of which can dictate time spent in the field.

Looking south across House Island; the smaller, lower and boggier of the two main islands. On the near right side you can just make out the bothy. 
Looking north to Rough Island across the isthmus, boulder field and arch.
The imposing Rough Island. The zigzag route up this steep edge takes you from sea level to 135m without much mercy. Down on the causeway the LIFE team are returning late to find a challenging dash across between the waves.

Our base is beside the bothy on Eilean an Tighe. A small but comfortable, dry building with a lovely open fire and nearby water source, we were extremely grateful for its presence in the poor weather that dominated our stay.

The bothy. Due for a re-roof, it did keep us dry and warm.
Sitting round the table for food, drink, warmth and conversation in the evening.
The west-facing bothy catching a superb sunset. Our tents are off on the right and the small spring where we got our fresh water is just behind me.

Around the camp are nesting oystercatchers, pied wagtails and meadow pipits while a small crèche of eider ducks was regularly seen around the isthmus. 

Female eider ducks and ducklings.

Further up the slope, defending their nests with the aggression one would expect, are the bonxies, the great skuas, often competing with the large gulls and ravens for territorial dominance. 

Bonxie calling out a warning.
You get too close to the nest you're going to know about it.

The cliffs are teeming with kittiwakes and auks, fulmars cackle loudly from patches among them and puffins cover the grassy slopes like discarded confetti.

Slopes full of puffins.
More obligatory puffin photos.
Carrying fresh nesting material. With such a wet summer this was a common sight, as were filthy, muddy birds.

The mixture of upland, marshland and coastal plants and flowers means there is quite a diversity of colour amongst the well-grazed grasses, with bright yellow irises and pink/purple orchids the showpieces.

Common spotted orchid, I believe.
Flag iris.

A highlight for me has been regular sightings of eagles; a pair of golden eagles can regularly seen circling the nearest peak of Garbh Eilean, while the mighty white tailed eagles dominate the other side.

A poor photo of a rather tatty golden eagle. Still, you can see that amazing eagle face.

The real star of the Shiants though is the boulder field, Carnach Mhor, surely one of the most amazing places in the world for sheer density of seabirds. 

Looking down at the boulder field. I'm sure it was never this sunny.

It really is like a crowded city as every square meter is packed with birds, eggs, chicks, noise and smell. In little pockets on flat rocks the guillemots huddle together. Down in the cracks and gaps the razorbills make their home while further down still, in the smaller crevices, puffins peer out at you in their inimitable way. Every so often a loud honking reverberates around the enclosed rocks as a shag makes its presence felt.

Shag on the nest among the boulders.

The sky above is filled with thousands of birds wheeling around, wings beating rapidly as they circle their landing sites. At times, such as when a predator flies over or when large numbers are returning with food at dusk, the sky looks so full it feels like a biblical swarm.

Looking upwards from within the boulder field, there's lookouts on every rock and more coming in all the time.


STAR work

See my previous blog for the background to the work I was doing on the Shiants. We were focussing on gathering track data from the larger auks; razorbills and guillemots. 

Razorbill.
Guillemot.

After a few initial teething problems with the devices we are very happy with the data we got back. The tracks are to be properly analysed and published but I’ll try and get an example of the sort of thing we found.

Working late into the evening sealing tags in their waterproof cases.


Additional work

It’s been a busy time on the normally isolated islands as work gears up towards the rat eradication project. The Shiants have been identified as one of the most important sites for seabirds and for seabird potential should the black rats, accidentally introduced years ago through shipwrecks, be removed. This is a large scale project that will commence over winter, though we had a few traps around our camp to keep our food and bedding safe and rodent-free.

The warning sign within the bothy.
A poor, unfortunate, extremely cute eco-terrorist who came too close to our food. That long tail they have is amazing.

One of the key hopes is that the removal of rats will see the return of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels; vulnerable burrow-nesting species who have increased in numbers on other islands (such as Ramsey) where rodents have been eradicated. Happily on our journey back to the mainland I spotted a couple of shearwaters cutting the waves of the Minch, so they are around.

Fulmar.

Along with the RSPB’s LIFE team, who are attempting to record all the vegetation, vertebrate and invertebrate life present on the island, we have been joined at times by a small film crew documenting human-seabird interactions and by Scottish Natural Heritage, carrying out additional monitoring. In particular they have been counting the huge numbers of seabirds, something we got involved with, marking out areas of known active burrows on the puffin slopes then retiring and counting the hundreds of individuals standing out beside them.


Reflections

The above is a lightly edited version of a blog I wrote for the RSPB’s own website (hence the confused tenses) but with better photos. We left the Shiants on 28th June, heading off through rough seas on a nice big boat after helping the large ringing group unload their huge amounts of kit onto the shore.

Though we had reduced the size and weight of our kit, mainly by eating the food but also by losing a few things, I had an extra two bin bags full of plastic bottles, all collected from a short stretch of beach near the bothy. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last few years somewhere truly remote where I collected and recorded any debris found, but I was shocked by the amount of rubbish along the shore. Mostly marine debris and fishing gear – buoys, ropes, nets and crates – but so many bottles, lumps of polystyrene and assorted broken plastics. These are a huge problem, not just aesthetically but in terms of being ingested by marine life. It was so depressing to see a remote, isolated, beautiful, wild island so obviously polluted by sheer human laziness.

I just didn't have enough time to build a huge sculpture / wicker man out of it all.

I was sad to leave the islands but looking forward to comforts like a comfy bed, shower (rather than the cold sea) and a toilet (rather than a wave-bashed rock). Time there had been tougher than I imagined, largely the result of a) continual damp, especially boots, and b) a constantly whistling companion. Still, when it was good it was magnificent. I’ve fond memories of sitting round the fire in the bothy in the evenings, chatting with the others who generously shared their wine, whisky and food.

Razorbill preparing to depart.

The afternoons when the sun was out brought out the blue of the sky and sea, the green of the hills and the yellow lichen on the rocks. When it was clear enough you could see all along the Outer Hebrides and down to Skye. Having time to observe the seabirds in such huge numbers, behaving naturally, oblivious to my presence was always a joy and long may it continue to be.

A glorious sunset over the western isles.


Jerry 

A new job by Jerry

Just 36 hours after landing back at Brize Norton Jess and I boarded the sleeper train up to Inverness, ready to start work for the RSPB. That hectic weekend took in a day of first aid revision and a nice day on the Aberdeenshire coast expanding our rope work skills as well as all the contract signing and paperwork. This was all as part of our new jobs as research assistants for the Seabird Tracking And Research (STAR) project. This is the final year of work that has been ongoing for a few summers now, formerly known as Future of Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME), that a number of my friends and colleagues have participated in.


While not indulging in any climbing or abseiling, we will be working on the edges of some cliffs and steep slopes. Places where you'd much rather be properly roped up.


STAR

The aim of STAR, if the title didn’t make clear, is researching seabird behavior - specifically through tracking individuals during the breeding season. The study focuses on five main species (fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and shag) at a large number of sites around the UK and Ireland. A range of lightweight devices that can record a birds global position, dive depth and movement have been deployed and a huge amount of data recovered.

The first view of this data shows where the birds are spending the majority of their time away from the nest during egg incubation and chick rearing. We can see key feeding areas at different times of year, stages of development and between years. Already this has shown how some birds travel much further than was previously thought common or even possible. Further analysis can link this to weather and marine conditions and how these link to poor or successful breeding seasons. Perhaps the most important reason for identifying the key feeding areas is for conservation and protection. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a big issue at the moment and this data will hopefully mean they can be sited in the best places. Similarly offshore windfarms have a large potential for supplying clean, green energy, but they can cause problems for wildlife if built in the wrong location.


In the office

While Jess and Jodie headed up to Fair Isle to start their summer work, Emily and I drove back down to Cambridge, from where we could work in the RSPB office at The Lodge. The journey back was interesting, lets just say that after nearly three years without driving I wouldn't have chosen a 10 hour journey in a van with no rear view mirror and very sensitive brakes.

Most of my time down here was spent getting to grips with the new Mataki tags. Unlike those that have been used previously, the key advantage of these cutting-edge new tags is that the gps data they collect is downloaded remotely to a base station, rather than having to recapture the bird to collect the device back. This means significantly less disturbance to the individual and the colony. Depending on how often you want to record gps points the batteries can last from two days to a week, while a combination of immersion in the sea and picking at it by the bird means tag will fall off in 10 days or so.

Mataki tag (top) and base station (bottom). The only real difference is the size of the battery. As it's vital to keep these devices as light as possible they are often just a circuit board attached to a battery, sealed in heat-shrink. The tag here is under 20g, less than 3% of the birds body-weight.
As with any new technology this required a fair amount of testing; learning how the programming works, checking battery life and downloading range. The best way to do this is to set the tags up and attach them to the back of your rucksack when cycling to and from home each day.

Cambridgeshire: flat. You don't need a bike with a large number of gears.

After my time on Bird Island, getting used to spending every day in an office was a strange adjustment. Although I often had office work there I would generally do it first thing in the morning or late afternoon, saving the best part of the day to head out and do my monitoring work. At The Lodge I usually broke up the day by heading out into the reserve over lunchtime. Being among woodland made a nice change as I reacquainted myself with species I’d not seen in years (butterflies, tits and finches) and a few new ones (hobby).

Peacock butterfly.

Distant hobby.


Flamborough Head

At the end of May we got our first real taste of field work, heading up to the reserves at Bempton and Flamborough on the Yorkshire coast. The huge, seabird-covered cliffs are spectacular. Seeing gannets at such close range was fantastic, though it wasn’t them we were there for.

Cliffs packed with auks and kittiwakes. Bempton and Flamborough looking busy.

Early in the morning (extremely early in the morning, like 3am early) we awoke and headed to the cliffs. To reduce disturbance we wanted to complete our work before the coast path got busy. When handling the birds we try and stay as quiet as possible and aim to release them in within 6 minutes, studies have shown when these conditions are met the impact on the birds are minimal. 

Sunrise on the white cliffs at Flamborough.

Roped up and sat on the edge of the cliffs at that time in the morning was great. I saw a barn owl casually hunting back and forth along the edge, at one point swooping past me with an unfortunate rodent in its beak. With the full moon dropping over the horizon to my right as a deep orange sun rose on my left I felt like was in the perfect location for something dramatic to happen. You know when you look up at a star-filled sky sometimes you feel a small and insignificant part of the universe? Well at that time and place I felt the opposite. Like Zaphod beating the total perspective vortex.

Jerry

Giant Petrels by Jerry

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

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

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


 Northern Giant Petrel with chick.


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


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


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


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


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


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


Jerry.






The Journey South by Jerry


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

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

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

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

A broken bus in the Falklands

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

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

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

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

Black-browed Albatross

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

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

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

Jerry.

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