jerry gillham

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.


The Empire Strikes Bird Island by Jerry

This weekend saw the annual Antarctic 48 hour film festival. Across the continent and outlying islands bases of various nationalities put aside their work (although we still managed things like the daily Leopard Seal round) and became writers, directors, actors and editors.

Late on Friday we got sent a list of five elements, picked by last year's winners, that we were required to put in our film. These were; a ping-pong ball, a bathtub, the line 'voulez vous couche avec moi, ce soir?', the character of 'the gingerbread man' and the sound effect of an actual sneeze. Steph bravely supplied the latter by selflessly standing with a dictaphone and throwing pepper in her own face. The others required some creative thinking and alternatives (no, we don't have a bath tub).

We had a few Star Wars costumes hanging around from a fancy dress evening and thought it'd be fun to put them on and play around. So we quickly knocked up a story, recruited some animal extras and built some props.

Steph and Craig filming the opening sequence with a home-made Tie fighter.
 There was loads of snow over the weekend and with temperatures below -5C we were well wrapped up, usually with costumes over the top. The wind has now changed direction and just four days later it's back up to summer temperatures of 4C.

Gingerbread Star Wars characters.
Friday evening was spent writing the script and putting together costumes. Then on Saturday we got up early, got dressed up and started running round like fools. By the evening we were done with our filming and moved to the arduous task of editing. This took up most of the following day too, with everyone getting involved with certain scenes, but by tea time on Sunday we were done. One group viewing on the big screen and I started uploading it to the competition site.

I think you can see how much fun we had making it by the barely suppressed grins and giggles. A good number of blooper scenes made it into the final edit and, despite how many times I've seen certain scenes during the editing, there are bits that continue to make me laugh.

I hope you enjoy it too.


First Winter Blog by Jerry

All change at Bird Island

I arrived back on 14th March. Later than planned due to bad weather, but that meant I had a chance to see KEP again, this time in the snow, a lot of which had fallen while I was out feeling rough at sea. There was a decent amount of snow remaining when I got back to Bird Island and I had time to race up the valleys to play in it and appreciate being back while it was sunny and the ship's crew were deciding on a plan of action for last call.

The snowy La Roche and South Georgia from the top of Gazella.
Ruth, Jen, Jon, Tamsin and Iain (who I'd only briefly crossed over with) headed off later that afternoon. A strange and emotional departure; we weren't sure if they'd return the next day or if that was it. To go from living and working so closely with people and then having half of them suddenly leave is a bit daunting, particularly when they know so much about the place and the work.

Our last view of the others as they are shipped off to the RSS Ernest Shackleton  and return to the UK (via a trip down to the peninsula).
They didn't return, just a few of the crew came back in the RIBs to pick up outgoing cargo and waste as well as dropping off a few bits of cargo, fresh veg and what post they had for us.

It's taken a bit of getting used to running the base with just four people – cooking comes around twice as often, there are more cleaning jobs each, the place can easily feel a lot quieter if a few are out working. We've not been able to properly settle into the more relaxed winter regime yet as there's still a lot of work going on:

Penguins / Geeps

The Northern Giant Petrels are fledging, while the Southerns are not too far behind. I'm carrying out weekly rounds to check on them and will soon be out ringing the Southerns and sending a few on their way with tiny GLSs so we can find out where they travel to and feed in those important few juvenile years.

Large Southern Geep chick in the snow.
There's not too much penguin work at the moment as all their chicks have fledged. Gentoos are finishing their annual moult spread sparsely around the beaches, while the Macaroni colonies are full as the adults moult before heading out to sea for the winter. We managed to take advantage of a clear evening to head down to the bottom of Big Mac to watch them arriving and departing, riding in on the breaking waves and struggling through the kelp.

Macaroni penguins emerging through the breaking waves onto the rocks.
Following the confident one on their way back up through the colony.
Big Mac at sunset.


Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatross chicks are getting pretty big now, not far off fledging. I've been out helping Steph weigh and ring them. By weighing on specific days after hatching we can study how they progress and how healthy the population as a whole is. It is also very useful data for predicting how future changes to food supply will affect these species.

Black-browed Albatross chick looking angry, as they all do.
The Wandering Albatross eggs have hatched and the first chicks are starting to be left unattended, their parents heading off to sea and only returning to feed them. It was the monthly census on 1st April and I headed over to Farewell Point on the east end of the island, checking nests on the way. It was a cold but clear day and I took advantage of this and the early start to head back via the ridge at the top of north cliffs. This tiring and walk and occasional scramble was well worth it, offering some magnificent views across Bird Island and South Georgia. I finished up with my first ascent of La Roche, at 356m the highest point on the island by some distance.

Wandering Albatross without parental support.

Views along the ridge - steep and spectacular.


The seal work continues to fill days, with the team of three dropping to one with the rest of us drafted in to try and fill their place. The beach is a lot quieter as adults and puppies alike spend more time out at sea and Hannah spends all day walking up and down the valleys looking for specific puppies to weigh.

Back on base

It's starting to feel like winter as the nights draw in – it doesn't get light until about 9 and is dark by the same time in the evening. As we've all still got loads of work to do we only manage the odd evening off. The best one so far was Craig's birthday. He decided on a Hawaiian theme, complete with barbeque and hot tub: a great way to kick off our winter celebrations.

Not BAS-issue winter clothing.
"If I keep telling myself it's tropical it will be."
An unexpected and lost visitor - Cattle Egrets aren't unknown here, in fact one a year is about average, but they still look very out of place amongst the penguins and seals.

A rare clear sky offering amazing views of the Milky Way.

More regular photos and updates at:


Training continued. by Jerry

A month to go now before I depart. We got the disappointing news the other day that our flights have been put back from the 7th to the 11th November. The ship is due to leave the Falklands on 13th and we were looking forward to a few days exploring there, but I doubt we'll get to do that now. We'll be taking the quickest and most direct route possible; flying from Brize Norton to the Falklands via Ascension Island, then on the RRS James Clark Ross to Bird Island. That'll take us five days (if the sea's calm enough to get straight in to BI, if not we may get to see a bit of King Edward Point and Grytviken on South Georgia as she unloads there).
After the excitement of conference and field course it was a bit frustrating to be back in the office when we really just wanted to get going, especially as others have already departed, at least on their pre-deployment holidays. But we've had quite a variety of other courses to keep us busy, mainly introductions to lab, biosample and data record management and identifying squid beaks and otoliths (fish ear bones) so we can work out what our animals are eating.

We had interesting tours yesterday of the aquarium and ice-core store. In the latter we got to play with some 20,000 year old ice while in the former we saw a range of weird creatures - bright sea lemons, large sea spiders and an old fish.

The weather's generally been pretty good in Cambridge, though there's a noticeable chill and darkness when I leave and return to the house. I've been jogging to work fairly regularly to try and ensure I'll be fit enough to keep up with the guys already down there when we have to stride out over the notoriously difficult tussock grass.

One of the stupidly ostentatious Cambridge colleges I go past on my journey to work.

It's been a few years since I was on the mainland at this time of year so I'm rediscovering the spectacular autumn colours as the trees turn yellow and red. On Skomer and Skokholm the few trees that there are tend to lose their leaves all in one go with the first severe autumn storm, over here I can collect conkers and kick big piles of leaves.

Enjoying time in the woods before I leave for another treeless island.