penguin

October - another St Andrews trip by Jerry Gillham

I'm writing this 6 months after it all happened (bandwidth availability dropped massively over summer) so it probably won't be that wordy, just a few captions to illustrate the photos from October.

Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish.   This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.  1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.  2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.  3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.  4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.  5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.  6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

Early in the month I took part in the Antarctic cooking challenge; like the movie competition this involved using 5 dedicated ingredients, chosen across a few stations, to create a culinary masterpiece. Some stations took it very seriously, I went a bit mad trying to get three of the ingredients (sausages, rice and cornflakes) into one dish. 

This is a tower of 'crispy risausages'.

1. Take frozen Quorn sausages down to the workshop. Wrap them in baking paper and put them in the vice. Using a CLEAN bit, drill a hole lengthways down the middle of them.

2. Make a nice bit of risotto, to suit yourself. Ensure it is not too liquid.

3. Funnel the risotto into the sausage holes. This is difficult and for some I ended up cutting them in two and then using the risotto to glue them back together again.

4. Use either some more sticky risotto, or egg, coat the sausages and cover them in cornflakes.

5. Cook them, I can't remember how long. About 30 mins at 180c probably.

6. They were quite nice, though I think it's very dependent on whether the risotto is any good.

Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Early in the month a lot of the snow had already disappeared. At least that, and the longer evenings, meant I could get out running a bit more. Brown Mountain was opened up as part of the single person travel limit - a great option to get you a bit further off station.

Fraser and I had been planning a trip to the Barff peninsula for a while, partly to check and update medical supplies in the huts, but also as a late holiday. We had grand ideas of skiing between huts but, as seen in the above photo, nowhere near enough snow remained.

Instead we concentrated on having a good walking holiday, fitting in a few peaks as well as huts and bays. We were dropped off one wet mid-afternoon at Sorling hut and straight away took the 2 hour tramp over to Hound Bay. There we warmed up with a large helping of Steve's chilli, which we'd scrounged earlier in the day, appearing at his house apologising that we wouldn't be there for dinner but hopefully holding out tupperware boxes.

Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

Heading from Hound Bay to St Andrews we headed straight up the hill and, as the weather was good, just kept going up Mount Fusilier. I think this is just below 800m, and is one of the largest peaks within our travel area. To do that straight from sea level is no mean feat but it was a relatively straightforward slog up, rewarding us with this great ridge along the top. You can just see Fraser on the peak, looking back towards the central spine of South Georgia's Allardyce Range.

Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.  Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

Looking the other way we were staring down on St Andrews bay. Tempting as it was we didn't just slide down a snow slope all the way onto the glacier, though couldn't help thinking what an amazing route down that would have been if we had brought skis.

Just where the river enters the ocean you can see a speck that is the Hans Hansson. There was a party on board of scientists and tourists. We showed them the hut and Dion, the skipper, kindly gave us a bottle of wine.

Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

Most of the king penguin chicks were a comparable size to the adults, though still wearing their big, fluffy brown coats that shone gloriously in the late afternoon light.

King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

King penguins returning to the colony in the evening. It was really dry there so lots of dust, sand and feathers being kicked up which gave a strange, almost other-worldly, feel to the place (though will admit I have altered the colour balance in this photo to make it appear a bit more Martian).

Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

Unlike my last visit, this time we were spot on for the big bull elephant seals defending their territories.

Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away.   I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.  Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

Sitting in one place for an extended amount of time I could start to pick out the boundaries of each bull's harem. They spent most of their time bellowing and sleeping but were actually very aware of what was going on. When another male approached slowly out of the sea, hoping to steal a chance at mating with one of the females in the harem it didn't take long for a good beachmaster to spot him and chase him away. 

I didn't see too many fights, and none that went on too long, though wait for next months blog if that's what you're after.

Often the females would call out when a new male approached. I guess from an evolutionary point of view it's in her interest that the males fight, or at least square up, as the biggest and strongest will get to impregnate her. If she has a male pup from a dominant adult he'd have a better chance at growing up and passing on her genes. As something like only 1 in 100 (and I've seen 1 in 1,000 quoted elsewhere!) male elephant seals manage to breed successfully that's a lot of incentive to only mate with the best.

As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

As we were doing a few peaks and quite a lot of walking we'd packed light. That means dehydrated meals. Thankfully we have a pretty good selection, topped up with a few drops of tabasco, couple of cubes of cheese and a few olives or jalapenos they're all you need.

As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.  The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

As well as updating the medical kit I was on a mission to clear out old food from the huts. There were a few bits in the army ration packs going off; tins going a bit dodgy on the inside, Rolos leaking caramel all over the place, dehydrated mutton I can't see ever being used.

The garrison left in 2001 so some of this food is pretty old. In fact I found a few soups older than Kieran.

Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

Amongst the gems, an old-style Double Decker and my favourite type of chocolate bar, a Milk Chocolate.

After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.  Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

After a morning amongst the seals and penguins we set off back for Sorling. It was a stunning day so we took a detour and went up the seldom visited Mt Skittle. This isn't a tall peak but was quite challenging in terms of scrambling and route-finding. It's off the main route and has probably only been climbed a handful of times.

Looking at this photo you can Mt Paget, the highest South Georgia peak, toward the left of the range. In front of it and a third the size is Mt Fusilier that we did the day before. Our route back is in between that mountain and the range cutting across from the right.

This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

This was a long afternoon; just over 20km, just shy of 1,000m ascent, just less than 5 1/2 hours. Upon reaching Hound Bay I couldn't be bothered walking up and down to find a shallow place to cross the river so just took my boots off and waded through.

We arrived at Sorling Hut as it was starting to get dark but still had enough time to sit in the sun and have a quick beer from the supply we'd stashed there on the way out. The next morning there was cloud sitting at about 400m. We headed for Ellerbeck, a peak we'd been told good stuff about but unfortunately the clouds never cleared. On reaching the lake and start of the ridge we decided it wasn't worth it as we wouldn't get any views and it would potentially get quite dangerous if we couldn't pick out a good route. So we dropped down toward the edge of the Nordenskjold glacier.

This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

This glacier is huge, standing out on all the aerial shots of South Georgia. We didn't approach too close in case a chuck calved off on top of us or, more likely, making a huge wave to wash us away. I don't know how recent maps Strava uses but I was tracking us on this walk out of interest and at this point it put us 1,500m up the glacier. That's how much it's retreated but unfortunately I can't say in how long.

St Andrews Holiday by Jerry Gillham

It's not too long now until the end of winter. It's only a couple of weeks until the first boatload of summer staff arrives. We've all been trying to fit in holidays before that, so early September Kieran (the higher predator scientist) and I headed off to St Andrews Bay for a few days. We were due to head out Monday to Friday but the long range forecast for the end of the week wasn't good, so we packed up quickly and the others were kind enough to drop us at Sorling Hut on the Saturday.

That afternoon we hiked over to Hound Bay and spent the night there. Sunday morning greeted us with rain, as Bob had warned us the night before, but it wasn't due to last so after we'd packed up early we sat around the hut waiting for it to pass. It did soon enough but left some low-lying clouds that gradually cleared in dramatic ways as we pushed up to the col. The melting snow had left the ground underfoot rather unpleasant; the grassy bits weren't too bad but above about 200m the vegetation ran out and we found ourselves hopping between big rocks to avoid the sticky mud. It was a relief when we hit the snow another 100m further up.

The view down on St Andrews Bay from a peak just a little further up from the col. The Heaney Glacier is the biggest of the three that flow down towards the beach, you can see the previous moraine lines it has left outlined by the snow. The penguin colony is the small (from this perspective) dark patch beside the beach, just this side of the frozen lake.

Kieran celebrating reaching the col. Though the descent wasn't easy we knew we weren't far from dropping our bags and getting a cup of tea at the hut.

One of reasons we'd come was to catch the elephant seals fighting over territory. Although there were several big old males around there weren't any ladies for them and they were happy waiting on their patches of beach, exerting energy only in throwing sand over themselves to stay cool.

When I'd visited with Paddy in April there had been a whole range of penguin chick sizes, this time there was a bit more uniform with very few small or nearly fledged ones. King Penguins have a strange 18 month breeding cycle so every three years (if they're successful) they'll lay eggs at the start of winter. Chicks hatched then have a real challenge growing up during the cold months and many don't make it, so these were pretty much all chicks from eggs laid the best part of a year ago. They were grouped together in a series of creches for warmth and protection, looking from this outcrop like a badly organised army batallion.

Adults returning to a creche have to push through hundreds of chicks in search of their own. They call out and I'm sure they're using other senses to locate them as the chicks don't mind who they get food off and will often chance their wing on any returning adult.

St Andrews faces east so it's always worth getting up for sunrise. Not only is the light right for more spectacular photographs but the penguins start their journey down to the sea at first light. Mind you they then stand there for hours staring at the sea, some walking back and forth along the beach all day.

They often seem reluctant to enter the water, almost like the ones at the front of the crowd are pushed in as the scrum gets too much. There is safety to be had in entering the water in numbers, though it's not unusual for a group to swim out then turn round and come back in on the next wave.

The beach is quite dynamic with wave action and rivers of meltwater altering it each day, so the penguins are always having to find new routes. I was waiting at the bottom of this bank on my own, looking out to sea when I felt the sand move behind me and turned round to see this procession marching down the slope.

Although cold that first full day we had was absolutely stunning weather. I spent my time heading into the colony for a few hours then going back to the hut for a warm drinks.

The hut warmed up nicely with the Tilley lamp going. In the evenings we ate dinner rapidly, reviewed our days photos and had a laugh over a few drams. I also got a fair bit of reading done - having thrown my kindle in my bag I got through three short stories by Philip K Dick, Philip Pullman and JG Ballard. 

The next day was overcast, windier and significantly colder. I didn't go as far from the hut and returned more frequently for warm drinks. I consequently spent more time on the rocks at the end of the beach and was able to enjoy the morning traffic jam of penguins at a different spot.

From here I could watch them jump into the water as a crowd and then, moments later, explode out in a mass of flapping and splashing as they crossed a little channel.

On this particular rocky outcrop there was no single place they'd emerge so I was waiting for long periods while they'd come up somewhere else. But my patience was rewarded when one huge group came out of the water right next to me, completely oblivious to my presence in the chaos of their own making.

The king penguins aren't great climbers unlike the macaronis for instance, that have large claws for gripping the rock and strong legs for jumping uphill. It's not uncommon to see the kings using their beak as a climbing tool, hooking it over any thing spot they can get a grip. They also use it as an extra limb to help push when standing up. It's always a little surprising to see as you think of them being quite delicate parts of the anatomy, if not the beak itself then the face anyway.

One of the reasons the penguins were so hesitant to enter the water and so keen to emerge in a big group. I saw at least two leopard seals hanging round this patch.

Some of the leopard seals are pretty fearless and equally curious. This one spent a few minutes checking me out from different angles before apparently deciding I wasn't food or going to steal its food and therefore of no interest. Even through I was quite safe on the rocks there's something thrilling about being evaluated by an apex predator.

The penguins weren't as safe as me though and we saw a few being thrown about as the leps had a good feed. Always looking for a meal, the giant petrels weren't far off, in fact at times they looked like mere centimetres from the lunging leopard seals huge mouths.

Having had two and a half excellent days at St Andrews, and with the weather due to turn we decided to pack up and depart, eager to get back to station before the wind picked up and stopped the boats coming out. Instead of stopping half way at Hound Bay we thought we'd push all the way through to Sorling so we'd be ready from that afternoon or early the next morning.

We decided on a different route back to avoid the steepest, iciest, potentially avalanchey slope. Crossing this one wasn't simple though, especially with the gusts blowing through, catching your big rucksack and knocking off balance.

It took 4hr 40min to get back, not too bad given the conditions but it wasn't a pleasant walk. We were heading into the wind the whole way so as well as carrying a big rucksack it felt like someone was in front, pushing you back with every step. Still, there was relief as we reached Sorling Hut and were able to sit down with a warm drink and some food.

That warm food was my last veggie ration pack. In the next couple of hours the sea refused to die down so we realised we were there for the night. Time to search through the stock of hut food to find what was on the menu. I made do with a packet of 'fresh' pasta (from 2011) supplemented with a couple of cup-a-soups. We were picked up the next morning, back for a shower and fresh bread.

St Andrew's Bay by Jerry Gillham

One of the best things about being at King Edward Point is that we get to go on holidays. Not too far - just away from station for a few days on one of the neighbouring peninsulas. After a busy end to the summer I was certainly ready for mine. I'd tried to get one in January but that was at the height of the comms blackout and I cut it short to try and fix that, though wasn't much use.

So at the end of March, Paddy (boating officer) and I headed out to St Andrew's Bay. This is one of the highlights of South Georgia, any time you've seen king penguins on a nature documentary there's a very good chance it'll have been filmed there.

It was an early start, just as the sun was rising, when we set out in the boats. Well wrapped up in our boat suits as the journey can take the best part of two hours. It's not too bad inside the jet boat but we'd volunteered to do this on the RHIB, mainly so whoever took it back wouldn't have to be in there the whole time. It was a calm enough journey round - any big swell or change in the weather and we'd have had to head for home or shelter in one of the bays as this journey took us outside of the safety of the local travel area and down the coast with nothing to our port side but the southern sea until you reach Africa.

It was shortly after 9:00 when we jumped off the boat and waded ashore, the others departing quickly to pick up a few field workers and head back before the weather changed. With a boat drop-off we'd been able to bring a few extra luxuries (pre-cooked dinner, crate of Guinness, loads of camera gear). It took a few runs to get it up to the hut but the sun was shining clearly as we sat and had a cup of tea.

It wasn't long before we got together our camera gear and headed over toward the king penguin colony.

With an estimated half a million birds here on undulating terrain it's impossible to get a photograph that truly does the place justice. For what must have been the first hour we just wandered round the edge of the colony, sitting where we got a good vantage point and just observing in genuine awe the spectacle. I'd heard all sorts of good stuff about St Andrew's and it truly lived up to the superlatives.

With so many penguins about it was difficult to know where to point the camera. I didn't have any specific photographs I wanted to take to for much of the time was just sitting watching the interactions between adults, chicks and each other.

The vast majority of king penguins I've seen before, especially those at Bird Island, were mainly moulting or lost. But these ones seemed more confident on their breeding ground. Sitting at the edge of the colony I'd be passed by streams of individuals who were unconcerned by my presence, though some did wander up to investigate.

Down the far end of the beach there were off cuts from one of the three glaciers that pour into St Andrew's Bay. It's long been an ambition to stand on an iceberg, but with them being slippery, usually surrounded by cold water and liable to tip over at any opportunity I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to do so. However this one was free of the last two issues and not so slippery I couldn't climb it.

The Mercer is one of the three big glaciers that roll down into the bay. I walked up to take a good look at it, though didn't have the kit, people or permission to clamber about on it.

Sometimes the colours and curves of the king penguin makes it impossible not to try and do arty photos.

The majority of the chicks were medium sized and forming little creches. King penguins lay an egg every 18 months, which may be unique in the bird world. Although those that are hatched at the start of winter have a very tough early life it means there's every stage of development on the beaches most of the year round, from eggs to nearly moulted chicks starting to enter the sea.

Although there's movement in and out the sea all day the early mornings and sunset were the best times to see trains of penguins walking down the beach, looking for the perfect place to enter the water - maybe somewhere safer form the risk of leopard seals, maybe somewhere easier to navigate in or out from, maybe a weird penguin tradition.

The hut is located about 500m away from the colony, far enough to avoid disturbance both to the birds and to the hut's residents as the colony can be quite noisy and smelly. In the way is this river which we crossed with ease on the first day but on every subsequent crossing it had risen a little higher as the warm (well, above freezing) weather melted the glaciers a bit more. By the end we'd tried so many places, boots, wellies and bare feet and none were truly satisfactory.

As with most of South Georgia you can't just look at one part - you focus on the penguins and before you know it you're staggered by the mountains behind them.

We quickly got into the habit of getting up at sunrise to catch the best light, having a few hours with the penguins, coming back for a late lunch, doing a bit of reading or a short nap, lunch, more penguins and then back for dinner before it got dark. Then a few drams and ready for an early night.

The hut at St Andrew's is fantastic - cosy for two people but with bunk beds, separate rooms for wellies and storage. It's rustic and full of character but clean and dry. I know that looks like mould on the walls but it isn't. Perhaps historically but not now. The visitor book makes reference to problems with rats stealing food and leaving a mess, thanks to the eradication it sounds a much more pleasant place to stay now.

Cooking is on a big old primus stove and light is from a tilley. It feels good to cook on them, like you're properly living the wild, hut-dwelling lifestyle. 

After two and a half days we had to start heading back. The first obstacle is getting out of the plain, up a very steep scree slope that just when you think is done turns into what at first glance appears to be a wall. Then you start scrambling up it.

We were well loaded down with kit, both carrying large rucksacks on our back and day-sack sized ones on our front. Partly because we had a fair amount of camera gear each but in these locations you have to carry a good amount of safety kit with you. If we'd got into trouble (weather, injury etc) on the hike back we could be a few hours away from a hut and, depending on the weather, several days away from a pick-up.

From the top of the pass looking down on St Andrews Bay and the Mercer glacier. The hut is toward the coast, bottom left of the green plain. The flat grey area above the green is all penguins.

We split up the walk back with a night in another hut, this one at Hound Bay is a lot newer than the St Andrew's hut, with four beds and a gas oven! We still cooked the rehydrated meal packs, livening them up with a bit of bread, cheese and spice.

The next day we walked back to one of the beaches from where we got picked up. It was nice to back on station where I could have a warm shower and something other than rehydrated food, but it was an excellent trip. I shall certainly be going back in the autumn when the elephant seals start fighting for control of the beaches and giving birth, while Paddy is going back next week.

Jerry.

First update from South Georgia by Jerry Gillham

After about three years on Bird Island I’ve moved on. Admittedly not very far - I’m now stationed a little further south at King Edward Point research station on the South Georgia mainland.

As is now tradition I left the UK in early November, travelling down to the Falklands on the MOD flight from Brize Norton via Ascension. We didn’t have long in Stanley this time and a few hours of that was spent meeting the government and getting me sworn in as a magistrate. That’s right, I now have an official piece of paper giving me (limited) magisterial powers. Part of the recognition of sovereignty claims relies on having a structured legal and judicial system so out on South Georgia the government officers double up as police and the station leader fulfils the role of magistrate.

We sailed across from Stanley to South Georgia on the fisheries patrol vessel; the government-funded ship that travels round the islands incognito in search of illegal fishing vessels. The ship and crew will be regular visitors during my year out here so it was good to get to know them early on.

I’s only about four months since I was on South Georgia so as we arrived into King Edward Point it felt like that time at home and in Cambridge had been the break from normal life rather than the return to it. The old team greeted us and were very welcoming, allowing a day off before getting down to the hurried hand over; attempting to pass over all their knowledge about the station and their jobs in just three weeks.

Toward the end of that period we had the RRS Ernest Shackleton arrive for relief, bringing all our food, fuel, building, science, medical, computing and domestic supplies. Unlike Bird Island, where all the cargo is manhandled across from the tender, down the jetty and into the buildings, here they were able to unload a few containers straight onto the wharf and from there we picked the crates and pallets up with the JCB. Everything coming in has to be fully biosecured to prevent invasive species; rats and mice are the obvious threats but insects and seeds are probably more likely so each piece of cargo has to be unpacked by hand in a secure room.

RRS Ernest Shackleton in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia.

We celebrated the end of relief and the last days of the old team with a big barbecue by the boat shed before waving them off.

The departing team all aboard the Shackleton.

Waving goodbye to the ship and the old team. The flare preceded a surprisingly incompetent Mexican wave.

King Edward Point is a significantly bigger and more complex station than Bird Island. There’s just eight British Antarctic Survey staff; two scientists, two boating officers, a mechanic, an electrician, a doctor and me. Alongside us we’ve two government officers, a postmaster, five museum staff working for South Georgia Heritage Trust and a team of six builders as well as a couple of visiting scientists. The base can hold a maximum of 50 people but we’ve maxed out at just over 30 so far. 

Our travel area is pretty big and includes some pretty gnarly peaks and ridges, I can’t wait to get out and explore it a bit more.

Ascending Mt Duse, just behind the station, the edge which is just about visible in the bottom right.

The views from the top of Mt Duse.

A few old staff, new staff, doctors, postmaster and visiting scientist atop Duse.

Jamie recreating one of the famous photographs Shackleton / Hurley from the Endurance expedition of 1914. Looking down on the whaling station at Grytviken and Gull Lake from an outcrop of Duse.

Marine scientist Vicki crossing Penguin River on route to monitor Giant Petrels.

The key wildlife differences between here and Bird Island are 1. no nesting albatrosses about (barring a few light-mantled on the cliffs) and 2. loads of elephant seals. As we pulled in to the bay Kieran, our new higher predator scientist, exclaimed in a high pitch voice ‘look at the size of them!’. Most of the big ones have departed now and the pups are independent for the first time. These weaners are forming their own little gangs, wallowing together in the shallows or mud, sleeping all cuddled up in a cacophony of burps, farts, snorts and growls.

Good size (but not enormous) bull Elephant Seal amongst the ice.

Elephant seal weaners relaxing around the remains of the old whaling station.

Discovery Point and a relatively recent shipwreck now populated by seals.

The death of one poor Elephant Seal put means a feast for the Giant Petrels.

Still my favourites, the Giant Petrels are so charismatic with their dinosaur / turkey / banshee poses, running and sounds.

Higher predator scientist Kieran and doctor Fraser counting chick-containg Gentoo Penguin nests over at the study site at Maiviken.

Healthy Gentoo chick - all belly with tiny head and wings at this age.

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.

Questions from schoolchildren by Jerry

A short while ago I got asked some questions from some year 6 schoolchildren (that's what? 10 or 11 year olds?) taught by a friend's mum. I was interested in the sort of thing they would ask me, what their impressions, excitement or concerns would be. It turned out they had some really good questions covering a range of topics, not all of which were that easy to answer. Here are the highlights:




Traveling to Bird Island

How did you get there and how long did it take?
How do you get there?

It’s a long journey down to Bird Island. I started from Cambridge on 4th November and flew down from Brize Norton, which is an RAF airport, though we were on a comfy commercial plane. After a 9 hour flight we stopped at Ascension Island (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator) to refuel and then had another 9 hour flight down to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. There we joined a ship, the RSS James Clark Ross.

The crossing to Bird Island is normally three days but we had drop some people off further south first, then do some marine science on the way back north, so it was actually 24th November when I arrived – a three week journey!


Have you travelled into the Antarctic?
Have you gone to the Antarctica and if you have please can you tell me what you have done there and if you have gone to Antarctica please can you send me some pictures of Antarctica?

I’m afraid I have not set foot on the Antarctic continent yet; it is something I hope to do in the future. However the official Antarctic Circle is at 60° south and I crossed that on my journey down. We dropped a number of scientists and other staff at another station, one that was covered in snow and surrounded by miles and miles of ice.

It was amazing being on the ship, slowly moving through a sea of ice as far as you could see. Most of it quite flat, small chunks that made a bumping and grinding noise as the ship pushed them aside, but frequently we would see huge icebergs in the middle of it all, standing like blue hills. It was all quiet apart from small numbers of seals, penguins and small birds following the ship.


What were your first impressions when you arrived?

The weather was grey and cloudy as we approached Bird Island so instead of seeing it on the horizon and getting gradually closer it suddenly appeared out of the mist looking huge and inhospitable. The cliffs and steep slopes had a thin layer of snow on them so you couldn’t see any colour; it was all just grey and white with waves crashing at the shore. I didn’t think I’d made a mistake in coming but I did wonder if I had underestimated how difficult it would be. Luckily later that day the sun came out, the snow melted and it looked much nicer and welcoming.



 Life on station

Where do you stay and what's it like?

The station is located on a small beach beside a sheltered cove. During summer the beach becomes covered in fur seals that can be noisy, smelly and quite aggressive but are also very cute and fascinating to watch.

We have a few different buildings but the one we live in is called Prince House. There are 5 bedrooms so sometimes people have to share but you get your own for most of the time. We have a large kitchen with lots of modern appliances and a dining room / lounge area with comfy seats and a big screen for watching films on. There are offices and laboratories for our work and a very warm porch for leaving our wet outdoor clothes in. We have a laundry, medical room and large food stores too. In the other buildings we have further store rooms, a workshop for any building work and a big shed housing the generators that provide us with power.

Our station is quite small but it is modern, clean and warm, most of the time we just wear t-shirt and shorts when indoors. Every Friday we have scrubout, where we are assigned a room or two that we are responsible for cleaning.


Is it ever warm in the summer?
What kind of clothes do you wear?

You get used to it being cold so when the temperature gets over 5°C in the summer it feels warm, especially if you are somewhere sheltered from the wind. Walking up and down the hills can be very warming with no wind to cool you down and there are a few occasions when I’ve done it just in a t-shirt.

Most of the time we wear thermal undergarments, a thin jumper, then good quality waterproof salapets and jackets. During winter a thicker jumper or extra layer is often needed, especially if you’re not moving about much. The ground is often very wet so we have big walking boots that keep the water out and thick socks to keep our feet warm. Feet, heads and hands can easily get cold so I always carry thick gloves and hat with me even if wearing thin ones. Finally, sunglasses and suncream are sometimes essential if it is very bright, with sunlight reflecting off the snow or coming through more powerfully due to the hole in the ozone layer.


What other people are on the island?
Have you made any good friends?

This season (November to April) there are seven of us on Bird Island. Five are scientists recording data on the penguins, seals, albatrosses and other birds. A technician, who is a cross between a plumber, electrician, mechanic and builder, keeps the station running, ensuring we always have electricity and water as well as fixing all the things the scientists have broken. And I am here as the station leader, responsible for overseeing the smooth running and safe working of the station and team.

During the winter this will drop down to just four people – the technician and three scientists. I have spent two winters down here and have made some amazingly good friends. When you spend over six months with just three other people you really get to know them, to love their good sides and tolerate their bad sides, like you do your family. In such a small group everyone has to be responsible for their actions and be aware of their role in the group. So you help each other out and you know you can trust each other. I’m looking forward to having some group reunions and seeing those people in what we call ‘the real world’, the world outside of Bird Island.


What do you eat?
How can you cope without eating fresh food?

We actually eat very well down here with plenty of variety of food. With no permanent chef on station like some of the larger bases have we take it in turns cooking each night. We try and make Saturdays a special occasion with a three course meal and sometimes dressing up. Chef for the day also has to make fresh bread, so there is always a delicious smell when you get back in from the hills.
We have a few rooms full of food; mostly tinned, dried or frozen as well as a limited supply of fresh ingredients. Things like potatoes, onions, carrots will last a long time in a cool, dark place but they aren’t quite as fresh as the ones you find in the supermarkets.
There is very little we can’t make with our ingredients, a cookbook and a little improvisation. Pizzas, curries and chips are always very popular but we will always appreciate someone experimenting with something a little different. Ingredients do start to run down over winter so sometimes have to be rationed, or used in unusual ways (for instance you can make a decent pizza topping out of baked beans if you run out of tomato paste).

One of the things we miss the most is fresh fruit and salad; when I returned home last year I would sit and eat a box of cherry tomatoes like other people eat crisps. We remain healthy and get our vitamins from other food, but it is something I look forward to about getting back.


Did you spend Christmas on the Island? What did you do?

I have spent three Christmases on Bird Island and they are often strange days. It is a very busy period for work; lots of seals giving birth, albatross nesting and penguin chicks hatching so we all have jobs to do. We try and fit our Christmas around them so we will bring out our decorations the week before and put up the plastic Christmas tree. Then on Christmas day someone will cook a big breakfast before we all go out to do our jobs for the day. Whoever has free time will dip into the kitchen throughout the day to help with the main meal or make a cake. Then we dress smartly for our big evening meal, a traditional Christmas dinner with crackers and party hats. After food we may play a game or have a party but we have to be up early the next day to carry on with more science work.

We give each other cards and open the few small presents we may have been sent from home but it’s not a big present-giving time. The main celebration in Antarctica is midwinter, June 21st, which marks the point at which the days start getting longer again. Further south, where the sun never rises in the winter, this marks the point at which they start counting down to seeing it again. Midwinter parties can last all week with many games, competitions and challenges. On the British bases we do a sort of secret Santa where everyone makes a present, often spending months over it, for one other person. There are some amazing examples of arts and crafts that get handed over and they are treasured for what they mean as well as a gift.


Do you miss your family? How often do you contact them?

Yes I do miss my family, and my friends, especially at times like Christmas and birthdays. Sometimes it feels like we are a family down here as we have to live so closely with one another and at times, if someone is feeling down, we depend on each other like a good family would. I am lucky though that, although we have very slow and internet no mobile phone signal, our communications are good; I can easily phone home on a land-line and I try to send a short email or photo to my parents each week.


What would happen if one of you gets ill?

Good question. We don’t have a doctor on station like they do on some of the larger bases. Instead we have all been through some quite intensive medical training and do regular training sessions on how to deal with injuries. We have a cupboard full of medicines and several doctors always available at the end of a telephone for advice. The biggest problem here is dental; one year I had to have a three week, 2,000 mile trip to the dentist to get a tooth pulled out. That was a long time to be in pain. Make sure you brush your teeth properly.


What do you do in your spare time?

Working hours are often dictated by the animals’ behaviour so we can busy every day for weeks at a time and then suddenly more relaxed. If we have a day off and the weather is nice I like to go out with my camera to photograph the wildlife, or explore areas we don’t normally get to see. If the weather is poor I can write to people, practice a musical instrument, try some painting or woodwork or just relax with a book or TV show.

We have regular film evenings and sometimes people give talks or show photos of holidays. We have a draw full of games that are really good for relaxing and enjoying time with other people.



Working on Bird Island

How do you get around the island?
Have you ever got lost on the island?

We get everywhere by walking round the island. It is not very big (about 5km long by 1km wide) but it is steep and the terrain is difficult to walk across. There are paths that we try to stick to to avoid causing unnecessary damage or erosion but they are not easy to follow and frequently lead through mud, ponds and lumpy tussac grass. Imagine walking up slippery steps of different heights, some of which are hidden under overhanging grass. And some of them have seals hiding amongst them.
Often we walk up the slope by following the streams. These are only shallow and rocky so give good grip. During winter you can put spikes on your boots and walk straight across the frozen marshes.

Sometimes the fog comes in very thick and if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the island it can be very disorientating. I have never got properly lost but I have headed in what I thought was the correct direction only to emerge where I thought there would be a path and instead there was a cliff.


Have you discovered any new species of animals? What?

Sadly I haven’t, though I think if I collected a lot of the insects that live deep within the soil I may have a chance to. The most exciting discoveries I and others have made are when you see a bit of animal behaviour that you haven’t heard about anywhere else.
Seeing a pair of birds working together to steal an egg out from under a larger, more dangerous bird was one such thing, as was seeing a leopard seal with a penguin it had killed and was apparently saving for later rather than eating straight away.


Do you have any weapons to protect yourself from animals and if so which weapons?

I’m sorry, we don’t get any weapons, but you are right in thinking that some of the animals we work with can be dangerous and we have several different bits of equipment for defending ourselves. The fur seals are probably most dangerous as they are fast, heavy and the big males regularly injure each other while fighting. We spend a lot of time training people how to walk around them without disturbing them to remain safe, but we also carry long broom handles known as bodgers. These are never for hitting them with but it is something to hold in front of you so if you do get it wrong and one does try to bite it will only get the stick.

The albatross and other birds can also give some nasty injuries if you get it wrong while working with them. They are not being aggressive but have such large, powerful beaks that a quick peck can draw blood and easily bruise. Think of a welly boot with the foot cut off – we often use something like that over our arms to give an extra layer of protection.


Do you have any pets and what are they called?

We have to be very careful about what comes onto Bird Island as any non-native species could disturb the ones that live here. So we don’t have any usual house pets. Also we try not to disturb the local wildlife outside of what is required for science so we’re not allowed to take the seal pups or penguins as pets, no matter how cute they look.
However there are some individual animals that we get to know and they do get names. There is a skua (a bird like a large, brown seagull) with a broken wing who has lived near the station for a few years now. She is called Scratchy because she scratched the scientist who caught her to see if she could do anything to fix the wing.
As the wandering albatross chicks are sat on the same nest for around eight months and are one of the few wildlife around in the winter some of them get names, especially if you walk past them every day. One this year, known as Christopher, got his development regularly updated on Twitter.


Have you ever dug down beneath the surface?

At times I have, yes. Usually what you find is rock or smelly mud. I was collecting old bits of penguin eggshell from years past by excavating some of the stony ground where they breed and I was surprised by the large numbers of insects living under the rocks, surviving off dropped food, dead penguins and droppings.



My job


What do you do in your job?
What do you do on a day to day basis?

As station leader I am responsible for ensuring everyone is able to do their jobs efficiently, safely and correctly. If anyone has a problem they usually come to me to try and sort it out. I am the main point of communication between the station and our bosses in Cambridge, the ships and other bases so I can organise getting any supplies that are needed.
A large part of my job is managing cargo; the incoming deliveries and preparing waste for appropriate shipping and recycling. Recently I have been working on emergency evacuation plans – ensuring we have enough supplies to survive comfortably if the base burned down and we had to live in a hut or tents. I also organise training for the others, whether it’s refreshing medical knowledge or what to do in an emergency.


Do you like your job and why?

Yes, I enjoy my job for several reasons. Firstly I get to live in an amazing place. I have always liked wildlife and the outdoors and here I feel like I am in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

I enjoy the lifestyle; working with a small group of people who all help each other, no worries about money, travel, fashion. Almost everything I need to be happy is here.
The job itself is also very varied which keeps it interesting. I could spend one day in the office going through health and safety forms, then the next helping count albatrosses, then boxing up recycling, then out repairing footpaths.


What was your job before, was it anything to do with the job you do now?

I previously worked on small islands around the UK – the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Skomer and Skokholm in Pembrokeshire and the Shiants in western Scotland. Many parts were similar to what I do now. Although there were no penguins or albatrosses I did a lot of science work monitoring and recording British seabirds such as puffins. In those jobs I would often work with volunteers or visiting members of the public, something that we don’t get on Bird Island, but one thing about living on remote islands is that you have to learn to get on with the people around you. You also have to be resourceful and adaptable – if you need something it may not be able to be delivered straight away so you have to learn to deal without or make do with what you have. I think learning that set me up well for living down here.


Do you like living in the cold?

I still get excited when it snows and enjoy crunching through it when freshly fallen, seeing ice on the ponds and feeling well wrapped up when you can see your breath in the air. So yes, I do like living in the cold. Although I am very happy that we have a warm base where I can relax in just a t-shirt, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much without that.
There are things I miss about the warmth though – swimming in the sea, sitting outside eating an ice cream, being able to go for a walk without having to spend 10 minutes putting on several layers and big boots.



Bird Island and the wider world
 
Does global warming affect Bird Island?

Good question, though a complex one. I will try and answer it as clearly as I can.
One of our jobs here is counting the numbers of seals and birds breeding each year. This has been done for the last few decades so we can look at how populations have changed since the 1960s. As most of these are long-lived species (some albatross can live to over 50 years) it takes this long to be able to say whether there are any trends in terms of more or less of a species. Over this time period albatross numbers have drastically reduced, dropping to roughly half the numbers there used to be.
Proving that this is due to climate change is very difficult because the way the atmosphere, ice sheets, ocean and wildlife interact is very, very complicated. There are many other factors too, for instance fur seal numbers have increased massively in that time, but that is because humans stopped hunting them.

However what we think is happening is that with the earth’s temperature, especially the sea temperature, rising this is causing the ice sheets to melt and break apart quicker. The underside of those ice sheets is the main place where krill breed and grow. Krill are tiny shrimps that are the basis of the Antarctic food web. Everything that lives here – whales, seals, albatross, penguins – either eats krill or eats something that eats krill, everything depends on it. So if there is less ice there will be less krill and less food for everything else.
  

Have there ever been any earthquakes or natural disasters on the island?

The South Sandwich Islands are about 500 miles south west of Bird Island and sit on a geological fault so do experience earthquakes from time to time. We are a bit far away to feel their effects but we do have the possibility of tsunamis, tidal waves.
In my first winter we got a phone call in the early morning telling us there had been a tsunami warning and we had 20 minutes to get up the hill. So we quickly pulled on lots of warm clothes, grabbed the emergency satellite phone and headed up the icy stream in the dark. Luckily nothing happened; we just had to wait an hour before we were allowed back down. But it is something we prepare for with emergency drills and supplies located away from the main base.


I would like to know what it is like to live with penguins around you?

It’s brilliant. You can never be bored or unhappy while watching penguins as they’re so entertaining. Sometimes if I have been working with them for a few days I have to make sure I don’t get complacent about it so I spend a bit of time just sitting, watching and enjoying them. Instead of watching the soaps we will frequently sit around the window on base watching the penguins and seals.

There are down sides to being surrounded by penguins though. With a fishy diet their colonies do smell pretty bad and if you’re working there it can be a difficult smell to get rid of. The macaronis especially are particularly noisy and aggressive. You can’t be friends with them.
  

What's it like living there? Please send pictures?

I love living here. There’s something different to see or do every day, the people are friendly and helpful, the wildlife is entertaining and the views are spectacular. Hope you like the photos.
  

Enter the Ice by Jerry

15th and 16th November

We hit the ice on 15th November. There were a few large 'bergs around the previous evening so many of us were up on deck early, excited at the increasing number and variety of sizes and shapes. Huge, flat-topped blocks, smaller amorphous chunks and the most dramatic ones with spires and turrets rising like something from a gothic fairy tale, evidence of where they'd been eroded by the waves and then rolled over. Dotted amongst these were the first bits of land we'd seen in three days. Bleak, dark islands. Just rocks in the ocean, perilously steep and ice-covered with emotive names like Inaccessible Island.

On the horizon what looked at first like a silvery line, possibly a reflection of the distant sun, resolved itself as the edge of the brash sea ice. It was a very definite line, before which there was open ocean carrying ice fragments and after which was compacted ice fragments with the occasional stretch of open water. There was tremendous excitement on deck as we all crowded round either the bow or the top deck viewing platform to enjoy the moment, around 11am, when we heard the first crunch of ice being pushed against ice as we edged our way into this new domain.

Irregularly shaped blocks of ice measuring ten to thirty meters across, standing just fifty centimetres clear of the water, dominated the surface. The gaps where they don't tessellate being filled in with the broken fragments that have been sheared off when they grind against each other. It's the gaps we want to aim for, slipping between the big blocks rather than trying to break them apart. As we got further in the gaps got smaller and the big blocks closer together. Progress slowed and by the afternoon it wasn't unusual for us to be stopping, reversing slightly and altering direction by a few degrees before pushing forward again. In our wake the open water marking the route we'd taken quickly closed up as the ice spread itself out again, possibly in smaller fragments carrying a little red paint.

An unanticipated but pleasing aspect to being in the ice is how smooth the journey feels. Gone are the nausea-inducing rolling seas, replaced by a smooth, slow glide interrupted by jolts that rock the ship like airplane turbulence. We made a maximum three knots through this, compared to the twelve we can do in open water.

The last hour in open water gave us our first views of whales on this trip. Distant spouts of, we think, minkes. Leaping clear alongside the ship, travelling in small groups were a few penguins; gentoos, chinstraps and, once we got into the ice, adelies. We saw more of them standing in small groups on the larger bergs or moving through the ice field like trains of ants crossing a particularly broken up patio. Dotted around too were crabeater seals, sleeping peacefully or putting their heads up to see this big red monster carving through their domain.

Twenty four hours later we broke free, back into open water. The way the ice has these very definite boundaries, controlled by wind and ocean currents, seems bizarre. There's no gradual change, it's an instant jump from one world to another.

The cloud-covered peaks of Coronation Island had been visible for some time but as we drew closer to Signy, our first port of call, the mountains seemed to get bigger as the cloud got heavier. Eventually we pulled up within reach of our destination, surrounded by spectacular steep slopes and glaciers plunging into the sea.

One of the first really spectacular icebergs.

A line of white on the horizon slowly resolving itself into the edge of the ice.

Eerie towers rising through the broken surface.

Pushing its way slowly through the ice, the RRS James Clark Ross.

Crabeater Seal.

Adelie penguins, pushing themselves along on their bellies.

Snow, reducing the visibility until it was nearly complete white.

Meanwhile... inside the ship.

While the cracks are useful for us to push our way through on the ship for some of the residents they provide more of an obstacle to a smooth journey.

The mountains of the South Orkneys near Signy. Spot the crabeater seal on the nearest ice.

Some of the 'bergs were large enough to have little lumps and valleys to hide in.

Looking over the pointy end of the ship to where it was breaking through the ice.

Adelie penguins, up to no good.

Love those little white rings around the eyes.

Snow petrels accompanied us the whole time we were in the ice, whizzing round and round the ship, looking for marine crustaceans near the surface where we'd disturbed it.

At times it looked like you could have got out and walked across the ice. I think if we were here at the end of autumn, rather than spring, I'd have been concerned (and secretly excited) at the prospect of getting stuck.

Amazing colours of the icebergs (mostly white and blue).

This is a long exposure photo of us edging through the pack at night. 

When traveling through the ice at night these two huge spotlights move around as the skipper picks out the smoothest route. This is a long exposure photo of us edging 

Nearer the edge of the pack the gaps between ice get bigger and the channels open up.

Groups of chinstrap penguins accompanied the ship heading through the narrow channels of open water.

One cheeky adelie hanging out with the chinstrap penguins.

Absolute mirror-calm seas gave the place a somewhat spooky air. I spent a long time thinking about Scott, Shackleton and the others, but also people like James Cook and James Clark Ross himself, after whom our ship is named. They were amongst the first people to sail these seas, back when whatever was over the horizon was truly unknown.

It's difficult to get into pictures just how it feels to be in this environment, with ice as far as you can see, Even in a big, modern comfy ship you feel a sense of vulnerability. Like, if the weather turned against you there is nothing you could do to prevent it.

Jerry

Penguin counting by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry

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.

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 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.

Jerry.

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.


Penguins

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.


Albatrosses

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.


Seals

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.


Visitors

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

Jerry Gillham

Midwinter part 2 by Jerry

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

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

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

Cian and his Ice Bride

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

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

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

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

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

The illuminated igloo.

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

Rob holding his caber.

Cian having a good toss.

Jess giving a welly a good wanging.

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

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

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

The big but not deep cave at Burton Cove.

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

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

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

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



Riding the waves; tough weather for penguins by Jerry


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

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

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





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


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

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

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

Wildlife update 1: Penguins by Jerry

Gentoo Penguin

Having started to hatch just before I left, it was pleasing to return to see good numbers of large Gentoo chicks covered in dense down. This has been shed as their adult feathers poked through and by mid-February most of them had explored the edge of the sea. This tended to take the form of wading into the sea to about waist depth, falling forward and flapping wildly on the surface. They'd try a few dives but at first most are carrying too much body fat so just flail on the surface. That doesn't last long before they turn and run back onto the beach where their less adventurous pals stare at them like they're expecting tales of the wide ocean. With time the fat is replaced with muscle, helped by vigorous flapping on the beaches, and they start to venture a further and further into the water, diving and chasing each other around.

Taking a break during gentoo chick counting for a quick lie down. This curious chick, almost fully moulted but with a little down left on the back of the neck and the flips, was curious enough to wander over and try to remove my glasses.

Throughout all of this they are still being fed by their poor parents. The adult exits the water and walks up the beach calling. It doesn't take long before one or two chicks, frequently the same size as the parent and often fatter, come charging toward it. The adult turns and runs, often heading right down to the waters edge before allowing its young some food, hopefully a belly-full of regurgitated krill. The running away from the chicks draws them closer to the water, maybe an encouragement that they should be out feeding themselves. It also ensures the fitter, healthier chick, the one that can keep up, gets fed first; an important strategy to maximise the chances of success in a lean season.

Young penguins enjoying the wave pool - one of the more sheltered bays - before they head for the open sea,

My work with the Gentoos has mainly been to count the number of chicks in all the colonies. With approximately 4,000 on the island they have had a reasonable year. Chick health is roughly worked out by weighing them (not all 4,000). By comparing numbers and weights to those collected every year for the last few decades we can look at long-term trends in these species that are key indicators of the health of the whole Southern Oceans.

An adult being harasses for food by its two strapping chicks,

There is another, even more glamorous part to my job with the Gentoos. A few evenings after dinner I donned latex gloves, took some bags and a spoon and headed over to Landing Beach. There I positioned myself near the colony, with a good view over many adults.
I wait with baited breath for this one moment.
Over to the left! It happens! A penguin does a poo!
Brandishing my spoon I hurry over before the Sheathbills can get to it and scoop up as much of the poo as I can, putting it in a little bag which I seal and put in a larger bag.
Back in the lab I will label and freeze this before returning it to Cambridge.



Me barely able to contain my excitement at a particularly good bit of gentoo poo. (Hannah's photo).

Rather than some weird, long-range-mail based campaign of abuse, this is part of an experiment to try and determine Gentoo diet through isotope analysis.


Macaroni Penguins

Like the Gentoos the Mac chicks have also gone from small balls of fluff to fat balls of fluff to sleek swimming machines. Where the young Gentoos get to splash about a bit in the shallows that's not really an option for the Macs as, with big waves breaking against the steep rocks, getting in and out is an art form that the adults often fail, getting washed down the big beds of kelp.

A creche of fluffy young penguins with a few adults on guard around them.

A fairly young Mac (note the short eyebrows) wearing a sort of body warmer made out of its old, unmoulted feathers. 

Counting and weighing the chicks is again the priority in terms of monitoring but there's several non long-term projects that I've been getting up to. One recent one is observing behaviour during moulting, which is nice as I just sit and watch the colony for a while, recording how often the birds preen themselves and how often they preen their partner.

A whole load of jumping Macs heading back for the colony.


"You've got to fly like an eagle... leap like a salmon... etc..."

The scramble to get out when a good wave gives you a leg-up.

The one that mis-times it ends up frantically paddling upstream while moving down.





Return of the Macs by Jerry

While the Gentoo Penguins have been around all winter, although in much larger numbers recently, the Macaronis have been out at sea since April.

I've been out preparing for their return - painting and measuring transect lines within the colony that we'll use to estimate numbers and setting up the gateway that weighs them as they return to feed young.

The return date of the Macs is pretty consistent year to year so I knew that when I was out doing some measuring there was a good chance I'd see the first one back. And so I did. There it was, standing half way up the colony looking nice and clean with big impressive eyebrows.

Numbers seemed to double each day for the next week until the colony was swarming and bustling with birds. These will be the males, returning first to establish sites and build nests. The females are out at sea still, feeding up so they've got the energy reserves to lay their eggs. They'll be back in the next fortnight though.

It's been pretty rough the last few days with some big swell and waves smashing over the rocks. That hasn't stopped the tough little Macs though. Neither has the Leopard Seal patrolling at the bottom of Big Mac. You have to admire their resilience as they ride the waves up the rocks, struggling to get a foothold before it ebbs back and drags them down past the kelp and into the danger zone.

Once up on the rocks they have a shake and a preen. Check their feathers are still in order and they're looking good and then start walking up the narrow route onto the wider 'motorway' up through the colony and back to their nest site where they can start shifting rocks around and arguing with the neighbours.

Shock at seeing the first Mac while out measuring the transect (Hannah's photo).

A late evening at Little Mac with the first 60 males back.

Looking over at the big waves crashing against Big Mac.

A group of Macs charging back home.

Getting washed up the rocks.

Spot the penguin struggling not to slide back down.

Made it!

Another group make the run.

Penguins crashing against each other in the maelstrom.

Once ashore meeting friends and preening,

Heading up to the colony.

One at a time in some places.

Trekking up into Big Mac.

Getting comfortable on it's nest site.

Little Mac with several hundred penguins back, but with many more still to come.


Jerry.

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.
Nest-building.


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.

Jerry.


Wanderer chick ringing by Jerry

The Wandering Albatross chicks that hatched around the start of March have been sitting tight all winter, protected from the blizzards by huge amounts of fluffy down. Showing through that down now are good numbers of adult feathers, particularly on the wings, head and chest. Although they're still a few months off fledging many of them are able to stand up properly and will soon start walking, exploring the area around their nests.  

Wandering Albatross chick overlooking Bird Sound.
So this is the time for ringing them all. I've been out helping Steph as she covers the whole island, seeing to every one of the 500 chicks. The information we get back from these rings will provide information on survival rates, distribution, migration and breeding success of these huge, magnificent but endangered birds.

A sign of things to come...

I'd been out doing this and checking on the chick at the far end of the island on August 31st. I'd been told not to be back too late and when I returned I was allowed a quick cup of tea and shower before Hannah suggested we go for a walk up the hill. We headed up and over to the hut at Fairy Point from where I do the majority of my Macaroni Penguin work. There, Craig and Steph had decorated and warmed up some food and carried over a few beers – it was my surprise birthday meal! We had a good laugh and fought off the cold with tilley lamps and numerous cups of tea.  

Crammed together around the table awaiting dinner.
Over night it snowed heavily, so once we'd wiped the condensation from the window we could see white all around us. The skies had cleared for the journey back so we got some great views of the snow-covered island.

Cabin in the snow. Behind the 'Love Shack' is Big Mac, where about 40,000 pairs of Macaroni Penguins will soon return to breed. In front of it is Little Mac, where about 500 will.
Chating to the Geeps on the way back.
I returned for some beautifully made presents (framed picture, photo-book, knitted penguin) before we had a hot-tub and huge pizza. Brilliant.

Here's a few more photos of what's happening:

Antarctic Tern fishing in the bay. There's been quite a lot of terns about recently and with some low tides they're regularly seen fishing just off the beach, going for the tiny crustaceans and fish.

Average day of a Gentoo penguin; jump up on a rock, eat some snow, get confused how to get down from the rock.

Chinstrap penguin; an occasional visitor from a bit further south.

Pair of adult Wandering Albatrosses taking advantage of the rare opportunity when they both return to feed their chick at the same time to indulge in a bit of mutual preening and pair-bonding.

Leopard Seal hauled out on the brash ice for a rest.

Taking advantage of the super-low tide to do a bit of rockpooling.
Amongst the seaweed, sponges and anemones are lots of tiny crustaceans, hanging on among the swirling waves.
Always a pleasure to see - a nudibranch!
Jerry.

Please support our work by visiting Hannah and Steph's blogs too.









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.



Jerry.

Ice Ice Baby by Jerry

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

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

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

Ice forming on the sea and the jetty.

Frozen seaweed washed up on the shore.

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

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

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


Jerry.

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.


Albatrons

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.

Seals

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: www.blipfoto.com/JerryATG

Jerry