wandering albatross

Albatrosses, rain and birthdays by Jerry

A few photos of the work we've been up to in the last couple of weeks before the ship call, particularly those days in between when we were expecting them and when they actually arrived (the weather was too rough to call so, with all the cargo being ready, I had a few relaxing days before starting all my post-call work).

Checking wandering albatross on the ridge. This pair were the last to lay and so the last ones to be checked for signs of hatching.

Making friends with the locals. This albatross is sat in particularly scenic spot and I already have plenty of photos of it, though not too many with me in too.

Black-browed albatross chicks, as mean-looking as their parents.

Grey=headed albatross chicks, slightly less angry-looking.

When the chicks yawn they open their mouths so wide you can almost see the squid in their bellies.

It's time of year to get ringing the chicks, unfortunately the first day we were defeated by wind and rain. It's not safe for us in the colonies and not good for the chicks who aren't as waterproof as the adults so really shouldn't be disturbed in the wet.

Poa annua is an invasive grass species that crops up on several sub-Antarctic islands. We're largely free of it, though Al found this patch this season. Removal is best done by spade, though I did pick the first day the ground froze to try it.

Young elephants seal apparently attacked by a sea monster,

Lucy, on her birthday, adopting a heroic pose under our first good icicles of the season.

The icicles didn't last too long, not least because they got broke off to make a birthday G&T extra special.

Jerry

Wandering Albatross work by Jerry

Here's a few photos on our work with one of the most iconic Bird Island species; the magnificent wandering albatross.

Lucy, the albatross assistant, recording ring numbers for non-breeding individuals. All those in the study area, about 100 pairs, have light plastic darvic rings on their legs with a unique colour and code so we can record their presence without getting too close.

Knowing the life history of individuals means we can understand the variation in the population, an important factor when looking at how their survival and productivity will cope in differing climactic conditions.

Unpaired birds display to each other, showing off their huge wingspan (over 3m) and calling loudly to the sky.

It takes a full year to raise a chick, it's a big investment with with both parents putting in equal shifts sitting on the egg then collecting food. So picking a reliable and compatible partner is a process that can take a long time, especially if there are multiple suitors.

Eggs are laid around Christmas and start to hatch at the beginning of March. At first you just see a little hole in the egg and hear a high-pitched pipping coming from within. It can take them three days to hatch completely.

A long wait beside a bird is often rewarded with a glimpse of a tiny chick fresh out of the egg as the adult stands up. This was the first one hatched this season on Bird Island and got named Dumbledore in a competition held on the BAS facebook page.

The chicks quickly get bigger and poke their heads out. On sunny days you're more likely to see adults standing and letting them have a good look around.

By the end of the month the earliest hatchers, here's Dumbledore again, get left alone as both parents head off to find food. They may look vulnerable at this stage but they can repel any threat with a mouthful of oily vomit that will ruin a predators plumage.

Meanwhile the non-breeders continue looking for mates, showing off heir nest-building capabilities as well and size.

Jerry

BAS webdiary by Jerry

I'll try and post more photos and a post-script when I return to the UK, but with just two weeks left on Bird Island I am busy making the most of my time, packing, and trying not to think about leaving.

I wrote the March web diary for the BAS site that sums up what we have been up to this last month and many of my feelings about leaving. Click here for that.

Jerry

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.



Midwinter part 1 by Jerry

The past weekend saw us through midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica. For the bases further south than us it marks the middle of the long months of darkness and they can start looking forward to the return of the sun. For those of us in sub-Antarctica it means the days will start getting longer - it will begin getting light before 11 and we'll be able to stay out after 6.


Dressing up for the photos we sent out to the other bases. These go out, not only to the other 40 BAS over-winter staff but to all the other bases on the continent and sub-Antarctic islands.

The day started with me, as winter base commander, making breakfast for the others. A big fry-up is a rarity but it was worth using up some of our limited supply of eggs and mushrooms along with the almost limitless beans and sausages. I didn't go as far as serving them in bed as no one wanted their room smelling of burnt bacon.

A healthy start to a long day of excess (the glass of orange juice is the healthy bit).

Despite it being a holiday there's some jobs that just needed doing. Rob had his checks or the generators and boilers to ensure the base is still running smoothly while Cian had the daily round in search of Leopard Seals. I headed out to help him with that while Rob and Jess made a start with the preparations for dinner. I say made a start but for a few days previously Jess had been making cakes and enough meringue to build an igloo out of.

Midwinter cake cooked by Jess. The Leopard Seal decoration was by Cian.

Warming up we settled down to watch the The Thing. A chance to compare my facial hair to that of Kurt Russell and, predictably, be disappointed at the lack of similarity between us.

At the start of winter we'd drawn names, like a secret santa, to see who would be making gifts for who. This is a tradition that goes back to Scott and Shackleton's times, when they had to improvise with what resources and tools they had available. Our materials may be less limited but the creativity is still there and the results are always amazing. The amount of effort that goes in is incredible as people find skills they never knew they had.

Proudly displaying our gifts.

The clock that Jess made me using retrieved bird rings and seal tags, with an illustrated history of each one.

The model I made her of a Wandering Albatross family.

Following a long, drawn-out dinner we collapsed into the comfy chairs and listened to the midwinter broadcast put together by BAS and the BBC. We were delighted to hear greetings from, amongst others, comedians Adam Buxton and Bill Bailey, spaceman Tim Peake and explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Sitting down for an excellent dinner.

Games, snacks and drinks took us into the small hours.

The next day was supposed to be one of nothing but relaxation, slobbing out in front of a few movies. Yet the presence of two leopards and one Weddell Seal meant we were running around excitedly outside for far more of it than planned.

Weddell Seal. One of the few occasions it acknowledged our presence before collapsing back down to sleep.
The week continues to be both fun and relaxing. Coming up we've a few plans for days out and the traditional midwinter games, but yesterday we created a 12 hole crazy golf course around the base which was great fun.

Par 1 across the masking-tape bridge.

A couple of holes down the corridor.

A beautifully decorated generator room course. 

Wandering Albatross by Jerry

While the onset of winter marks the departure of most of Bird Island's wildlife, there's one iconic resident who stays with us through the cold, dark months.


The Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, are truly amazing birds. They look unreal sometimes, like a huge relic of a prehistoric age as the adults stand well over a meter tall and can weigh more than 10kg. Their wingspan is the largest of any living bird, at up to 3.5 meters. That means they can soar above the oceans for hours at a time without expending any energy flapping, searching for food in the vastness beneath.



They mainly eat cephalopods but will readily take crustaceans, small fish and carrion. We regularly find regurgitated piles of squid beaks beside their nests which can be collected for measuring and identification to enhance our understanding of their diet – small changes may be indicative of greater changes to the marine ecosystem.
Wandering albatross are frequently seen from ships in the Southern Ocean. Described as a 'bird of good omen' by Coleridge, they can follow them for days, often feeding off any scraps thrown overboard. Unfortunately this has been hugely detrimental to their health as they can get caught, tangled up and drowned by the long-line fisheries boats. Advances are being made with deterrents and legislation about operating procedure, particularly around South Georgia where by-catch has been hugely reduced, but it continues to be a problem in less well regulated parts of the ocean.

Copulating pair, an infrequent October sight.
They build a nest out of mud, moss and tussack grass that will be used year after year and stands around 40cm high. These are spread in loose colonies across the island. In mid to late December a single egg, white and 10cm long is laid and incubated by both parents.

Chick on the nest with both parents present.
Between Christmas and New Year the albatross assistants, with as much help as is available, cover the whole island counting and marking each nest with a numbered stake and GPS plot point so we can map them. Where possible we'll record ring numbers of both birds – this often means repeated return visits as each one can be away from the nest for well over a week. There is a ridge behind the base where the birds are studied more intensively; they carry coloured darvic rings so they can be identified with minimum disturbance and at times the area is visited daily to get precise laying and hatching dates.

Checking for eggs. The clipboard is useful not only for making notes but also as a bit of protection. The birds are not particularly aggressive but those beaks are big and sharp.
With this simple long-term monitoring we can build up a life history of the population, looking at changing trends in survival rates, life expectancy and breeding success. With such long-lived birds, over 50 years, it's important to have consistent monitoring techniques so we can draw comparisons over time and with other locations.

While the established pairs are alternating time between egg-sitting and fishing the younger, unpaired birds are searching for partners. Wanderers are monogamous and generally mate for life but there's always single birds trying to impress others. They gather in groups and show off by spreading their wings, throwing their heads back and uttering a variety of gurgles, screams, whistles, grunts and snapping. Later on they may tap their bills together and mutually preen each other. These rituals are repeated by long-term pairs re-establishing their bonds.

Young male (front) spreading his wings and skycalling to impress the female on the right. Behind him another copies his obviously impressive chat-up techniques.
A long-term pair preening each other to re-affirm their partnership.
Incubation takes the best part of three months. Once the egg hatches the adults continue taking turns looking after the chick for another few weeks. By the time it's old enough to be left alone, early April, they've got a deep layer of downy feathers over an inch thick and the ability to vomit oily, plumage-ruining sick on anyone they perceive to be a danger. Despite this defence many Wanderer nest sites have been decimated by introduced land predators such as cats, rats and mice. One of the reasons Bird Island is so important is that it has never hosted these predators and it is hoped that the rat eradication on the South Georgia mainland will re-open historic breeding grounds.

Young chick being preened and cared for by a parent.
Poking a head out from under a leg for a view of the outside world.
As the winter approaches and the island gets covered with snow and ice the chicks sit tight on their nests, islands of warmth amongst the inhospitable cold. During the harshest storms they sit tight, curled up asleep with their heads tucked down. During this time they are visited roughly once a week by each parent, returning with a belly full of rich food that they regurgitate straight into the hungry chicks.

When snow covers the island all that stands out are these small balls of warmth.
Young chick getting a delicious, oily snack.
Throughout the season the nests are visited at the start of every month to check which ones have hatched, how the chicks are progressing and to record any failures. In late August, with the chicks still mostly fluffy but with dark adult feathers showing through, we go out and fit them all with unique identification rings. Before coming south the largest bird I'd ringed was a Greater Black-backed Gull. At the time that seemed pretty big, especially compared to the Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs I was used to, but although the techniques are pretty similar there's some major differences in how to hold these birds.
Data retrieved from birds with rings, and more recently those carrying tiny geolocators, was told us all sort of information about their range, routes and feeding areas. It helps to know these things when trying to protect them and their key habitats.

Engaging in some friendly chat with a healthy looking chick.
An unconventional approach to ringing. This strange position keeps the chicks passive and safe, allowing a quick squeeze to apply a unique ring.
Around November, after about nine months on the nest, with the weather warming a little in the Antarctic spring the chicks start to fledge. By this time they've lost their down and have a complete covering of dark adult feathers. For a long time they get off the nests and walk around, investigating their surroundings. On windy days they'll hold out their wings, feeling the breeze rushing through their feathers and trying a bit of flapping, building up those flight muscles. This increases the older they get and late in the season you can see these huge birds facing into the strong winds, jumping and flapping, getting 6ft in the air but wobbling in a rather uncontrolled manner as they try to master the balance and timing it takes to move in a straight line. It takes a lot of practice to make flight as easy as the adults manage.

An almost fully developed chick getting a  visit from both parents. It's rare to see both adults together, particularly at this stage in the season when they are both continually heading out and returning with food.
Letting the breeze blow through your wings must be a great feeling. 
Not far off departure, looking for a launch spot.

Once they fledge the young will probably spend at least the next five years at sea before returning to their breeding sites, though they don't usually start mating and laying eggs until they are 10 - 15 years old. During this 'teenage' period they will follow the circumpolar winds and currents, travelling clockwise around the whole Antarctic continent. A successful pair will not breed for another year and instead will return to the ocean where they are most at home, soaring effortlessly over the waves on huge, unflapping wings.



Race Across Antarctica by Jerry

After Bird Island's triumph in the Rebel Race last winter we were looking forward to this year's fitness challenge with a degree of trepidation, knowing we had something to live up to and would be without the influential Craig.

This year sees the return of the official race, organised by those in Cambridge with teams from there, the ships and the bases completing a distance of either 2,840km (Scott's Terra Nova route from Cape Evans to the pole and back again), 6,000km (across the continent from Cape Hope to Cape Adare) or a monumental 12,000km (a 'grand tour' that takes in many of the research stations). We've a ten week window to complete our chosen distance and, like most of the 26 teams entering, we will be going for the 6,000km trek.

We've put together our team of six – the four of us on base plus the other two field assistants who have just got back to the UK and are keen to retain their Bird Island fitness in the presence of such mainland luxuries as take-away food.

Activities have been weighted with different scores based around world record speeds, hence 1km cycling = 2.5km running / walking = 3km rowing = 10km swimming. We have machines for all but the latter, which sadly is off the list of events until I get somewhere warmer. With less outdoor work to do and with the nights drawing in we've plenty of time to get moving.

Here's a few pictures of what else has been happening recently:

Wandering Albatross are starting to head off to spend the winter at sea.
The last few unpaired ones are still dancing round like the singles left in a club at 2am.
A possible last opportunity for established pairs to spend time together before spending all their time feeding and bringing back food for their tubby, fluffy chick who will otherwise be left alone for the next six months,
While the Macaroni Penguins have headed out to sea and won't return to land before October, the Gentoos stay closer and often come ashore in large numbers in the evening.
Grey-headed Albatross are continuing to feed their chicks, although it won't be long before they follow the Black-brows in starting to fledge and head off themselves.
As the days get shorter there's more of a chance of being out to see a sunset. Though there won't be many like this, with a clear sky.
Clear skies also mean good opportunities for stargazing.
With the majority of Giant Petrel chicks having fledged the adults gather together to discuss the breeding season. 
Great views across the South Georgia mainland from near the tip of La Roche.
Testing the ice on the frozen ponds.
On a final note, congratulations to my previous workplace Skokholm, on it's official re-opening as a UK BirdObservatory. An amazing amount of hard work and changes have happened there in the last five years.


Jerry.

Wildlife update 2: Albatrosses by Jerry

 Wandering Albatrosses

The huge Wanderers did most of their laying while I was away. Jess and Steph, with help from the others, covered the whole island mapping nests and trying to get ring numbers of the adults. This is a huge job that we are only just finishing off now as we go around checking on how many of the nests contain chicks. The eggs are roughly hand-sized and when checking them you occasionally hear a few peeps or get lucky enough to see a small hole with a beak poking through as they try and break for freedom. At only a few days old the chicks sit under the adults, white, fluffy, kitten-sized with an overly-long beak.


While half the breeding birds are sat with their eggs or chicks the other half are out at sea, travelling hundreds of miles in search of squid, crustaceans, krill and fish to sustain thmselves and feed their youngster. Meanwhile the non-breeding birds, maybe young ones who have travelled round the globe for five to eight years or maybe birds whose partners haven't returned, are performing some spectacular dances on the ridges and meadows in the hope of attracting new partners and claiming nest sites.


They face off against each other, spread their wings to their full 3m+ span and throw back their head, calling to the sky and anyone close enough. Sometimes males will chase other males away, sometimes the females just aren't interested but often a pair will walk round and round each other, hopefully seeing something in the other they like.





Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses

The mollymawks, the smaller albatrosses (how to tell you've been here too long part 1; you start thinking of these birds as small – with their only 2m wingspan), are also nesting, although their chicks develop far quicker than the Wanderers. They are just getting past the completely fluffy, skittle-shaped phase and are developing proper adult feathers on their wings and chests. Soon they'll be jumping up and down and flapping like crazy.



Jess's work with them has mainly been checking on the success of several colonies round the island, but she will soon start weighing the chicks at dedicated ages. As with the penguins, weighing is a simple way to assess the health of the species and if it is done a specific number of days after hatching it can easily be compared with previous years.


Arrivals / departure by Jerry

1st December

Although it's not been too long since I last updated quite a lot has happened. The fact that I'm writing this while looking out of a ships cabin window over King Edward Point, South Georgia will attest to that.

A lovely sunset looking out to the JCR anchored off the bay during first call.

The first major change was first call. Thankfully a few days late which gave us the time to complete tidying, cleaning and paperwork for outgoing items the RRS James Clark Ross arrived at Bird Island and before we knew it out home of four people for the last eight months was full of 30 or so folk, many of them known to us from our time in Cambridge or from the journey down last year. Over two days of dubious weather they brought in all our fuel, food, kit and equipment for the next season. Several tons of timber also came ashore for infrastructure rebuilding later in the year. But of course the main change has been in the base personnel; Cian and Jess, the new seal and albatross assistants, Rob the new tech, Manos, who's in to upgrade the computer servers and Adam the new base commander. While Hannah and Steph will have a few months to pass over their expertise in the animal monitoring, Craig had two days to tell Rob everything he knows about keeping the base running – the generators, the electrics, the plumbing and a hundred quirks and tips to keep everything working. Craig headed off on the JCR for an exciting few months helping open the base at Signy then heading down to carry out some work at Rothera. It was sad seeing our winter team break up as it's been such a great time.

The ship returns on the nicest day ever.
A rising wind meant the last trip for the tender back to the ship was a bit hairy and they headed off to unload cargo at South Georgia. They were back a few days later though to pick up all our outgoing waste and recycling and they picked one of the nicest days Bird Island has ever witnessed. Blue skies, sun and flat calm waters meant everything went smooth and quick and after a morning rolling empty fuel drums we were able to get out up the hill and enjoy the spectacular views and the chance to carry out work unhindered by rain, although I soon learnt that shorts are not suitable attire when monitoring White-Chinned Petrels due to their velociraptor-like claws.

The RRS James Clark Ross just before heading away for another year.
Enjoy the view toward Willis, it's not like this very often.
As I'm staying down south for another year the BAS doctors decided it was necessary for me to take a break. Partly to go and see a dentist again, after last years trip, and partly to stop me going mad. I wasn't sure what sort of break they had in mind; a while on South Georgia or the Falklands? Turns out I'm heading all the way back home.

I'm obviously looking forward to seeing friends and family, catching up on things I've missed like live music and sport, and non-stop eating of fresh food. I am sad to be leaving Bird Island, especially at such an exciting stage in the breeding season – the first Gentoo chicks were born two days before I left, Wandering Albatross are courting and Fur Seal puppies are starting to cover the beach – but I'll be back before everything departs. I've been spending the last week or so racing round to get as much done as possible and showing the others how to carry out bits of monitoring I'm leaving with them.

Gentoo penguin with fat little chick.
Giant Petrel chick enjoying some sunshine from underneath its mum.
Wandering Albatross pair cuddling up. 
Fur seal puppy chewing on its own flipper while cuddling up to its mother.

As might be expected it's not an easy, short trip. I was picked up by the the fisheries patrol vessel Pharos a few days ago and spent a few days lying in my bunk feeling seasick before we pulled in to King Edward Point.

More to come soon.

Jerry