Back home (via a few more penguins) by Jerry

14th December

It's grey and wet outside so I'm sat in drinking mug after mug of tea. It's almost like being back on Bird Island. No, I can't fool myself. I'm finally back home after over two weeks of travel.

My final day in Stanley was terrific. After a morning stroll into town the weather cleared up and I headed out for a walk toward Gypsy Cove. As I headed toward the coast it got warmer and sunnier, until I was more worried about getting burnt than rained on.

The Lady Elizabeth, still fairly intact but kinda rusty.
Heading round past a variety of wrecks, some historic some not so much, I crossed over a headland and saw the vast expanses of white sand. Delightful as it looks though it's all out of bounds. Although it has been cleared of mines there remains a danger that those on the beach could have been washed out and could return at any time. The little bay at Gypsy Cove looked beautiful, with pristine beach and amazing sea, but I was quite happy with the lack of access as it enabled a group of Magellanic Penguins to relax their undisturbed.

The stunning Gypsy Cove.
Yeah, I probably won't be going to play in the dunes then.
Magellanic Penguins enjoying the sun.
With the large penguin group resting on the sand and several joining a few Gentoos in the shallows, there were still a few up near the path heading for their burrows where they will be incubating eggs out of the glare of the sun. For a long time I was the only human there and as I sat and ate my lunch of a fresh apple and some salad (still enjoying the novelty of crunchy green rather than soggy brown lettuce) I thought about the differences between these penguins and the ones I've been studying.

Unlike the Gentoos and Macaronis I'm studying, the Magellanics nest in burrows.
Enjoying the shade of a burrow. I don't normally photograph birds like this (I've seen far too many photographers shoving lenses down the burrows of stressed puffins) but this one, taken with a long lens, was sat there for ages seemingly enjoying being out of the hot sun.
Although fairly calm today, these ones had had to learn to deal with people and many more dangerous land predators while the BI ones have the odd skua or geep to fear. They duck nervously down their burrows while those in my study areas have to barge their way into the colony past a crowd of snapping beaks.

Snipe hiding in the grass.
Two-banded Plover.
Heading back I felt happy that I'd seen a few beaches and a few birds and I was looking forward to being back home. Before that though I had a whole day of flying to get through – a 5.30am start then a seven hour followed by a nine hour flight. This was broken up by an hour in 'the cage' at Ascension Island. That was great though – over 20C at night, sitting out in t-shirt and shorts, eating an ice cream in the dark. I was tempted to try and leg it off into the night and try and stay there awhile.

Eventually we got back to the UK. Under-slept and over-full of cheese toasties I was met by my parents and driven home for a cup of tea in the grey and wet north west. It's nice to be back and I'm trying not to think of all the excitement I'm missing on Bird Island.

This is something I've not had on Bird Island - crunchy, fresh veg and bursting cherry tomatoes.


Jerry.

Falkland Sun by Jerry

12th December

I'm on the Falkland Islands now, we arrived here three days ago following a four day crossing from South Georgia. There were some rough seas – being woken up as I was thrown across the bed, walking down the corridor feeling like that fight scene in Inception – but I survived and even managed to make it to most of the meals.

We fly tomorrow morning so have had a few days to relax and manage a bit of exploring. There's about half a dozen of us here, some with office work to do while others, like me, content to wander around enjoying the sun, birdsong and vegetation that I've not seen in a year. Stanley isn't the most obviously spectacular place for plant life but just seeing and smelling the gorse in full bloom has been most welcome.

One of the ever-present Turkey Vultures soaring over Stanley.
A vulture making a meal of a goose, probably.
I took a wander up to the museum which has an interesting diversity of displays, at one point you can turn right to see specimens of the native fauna or left to see a range of guns used in the conflict. After that I browsed a few shops, picking up a few treats I've missed (milkshake).

The lighthouse at Cape Pembroke.
We managed to borrow a land rover (there's no other type of vehicle here) and headed out to Surf Bay then walked along to Cape Pembroke lighthouse. Although there were no dolphins or sea lions around it was a very nice walk with some smaller birds of interest to me, singing and flitting between low bushes.

Rufous-chested Dotterel. 
A Grass Wren that was singing in (and maybe about) the long grass.
It was a lovely, clear day with the sun out, although it was only when we climbed the lighthouse we realised how windy it was. By the time we got back to Surf Bay there were a lot more white-topped waves crashing onto the white sand.

Surf Bay looking amazing.
I couldn't resist the chance to get my shoes off and walk bare-foot through it, remembering the joys of getting freezing numb feet by the time the water gets above your ankles. That and being able to go for a walk in shorts for only the second time this year have been the highlights of my stay. That was when I really started to feel like I was on holiday.

It felt a little early in my real worl rehabilitation to visit a fancy restaurant but, along with others from the BAS and government offices and we had an excellent meal at the Malvinas Hotel. I usually feel a bit out of place in such venues but here I was able to reduce the impact of my awful hairstyle by sitting beside Ernie, whose long beard was plaited the previous night by a Pharos crew member.



The wall by Jerry

6th December

I'm back on the ship and currently feeling okay. I saw the KEP doc and was given a couple of those magic little patches you stick behind your ears. I'll reserve my judgement on them until we get a bit further out into the true open ocean.

After extreme sun and lashing rain the first two days we got them alternating every few hours the next two. I spent my time exploring the old whaling station at Grytviken and the surrounding area. It was a good opportunity to experiment with new camera equipment and now I've time on the ship to edit photos and video I'll try and put something together.

Here's the result of that.

The highlight of my day was watching a young elephant seal climbing up onto a tiny wall, shuffling around and then getting down.





You can see it's moulting its fur so is probably all itchy and struggling to get comfortable. I went past it again about ten minutes later and it was back up on the wall.

Cumberland Bay, with Grytviken on the left and the BAS base on King Edward Point, the spit on the right.

Ellie rescue. by Jerry

3rd December

A complete contrast to yesterday weather-wise, as the rain and cloud made the place seem a lot more like being back on Bird Island. With good waterproofs on I set off for a walk anyway but soon got distracted just past Grytviken by a seal rescue team. A drainage ditch that runs around the cemetery had become a bit eroded with the rain and meltwater and an Elephant Seal had managed to fall in and get stuck. Not a small one, it was wallowing like an unhappy hippo when we got there. I joined Rod, Sue and Daniel in digging out a wide channel to act as a slipway for it to climb up and escape. What I thought might be a big job was fairly simple, for as soon as it could see a route out the ellie started trying to climb, desperate to get its weight on firm ground. It was rewarding to see this mud-covered monster shuffling its way down to the sea.

One unhappy elephant seal.
Team seal rescue.
One relieved seal.
I continued on my way past many more sleeping ellies and small groups of Fur Seals, several with small puppies. I was continually interested by the number and variety of whale bones strewn over the narrow stretch of pebbles. I find the old whaling stations, such as Grytviken, both fascinating and horrific and the casual way all these treasures were scattered along the shore only gives a small sense of the scale of such an industry. I can't help but contrast it to the excitement and happiness we felt when seeing a small group of possible Sperm Whales way out at sea from the cliffs of Bird Island.

A whale vertebra. A bit big and probably illegal to bring back, however good a Christmas present it would make for my mum.

Wet from the feet up from stepping in bogs, rather than top down from all the rain, I arrived at Penguin River in time to eat my lunch watching a group of King Penguins in different moult stages huddle together while around them more young Elephant Seals wrestled in the water and male Fur Seal chased their ladies around, trying to round them up into harems.

King Penguins moulting in the well-named Penguin River.



Over the hills and far away. by Jerry

2nd December

An absolutely gloriously sunny day and I had the good fortune to be invited out by Ella, the KEP boating officer who I met back in Cambridge, as she was showing Chris, here to run the museum, a great day-walk out over the mountains.

The terrain and landscape felt so much different from Bird Island. There when I go uphill it's almost all through tussac and mud, with seals hiding in the gaps. Here it was across scree slopes and up soft snow fields. None of them are easy walking but it's nice to have the variety. 



The views were just stunning; clear blue skies over turquoise waters, bisected by mountain ranges that, although not huge by the standards of continental ones, look as impressive and daunting as anywhere in the world. I've heard South Georgia described as a slice of the Alps chopped off and dumped in the ocean and that sounds pretty accurate to me.



As we sat eating our lunch beside a Papua Lake Ella was able to point out one of the glaciers in the distance and the alarming amount it has retreated in the last ten years. Recent enough that many of the maps still in use here are inaccurate for that area.


Near the lake we were berated by Terns, while on top of the ridges we had a few pristine Snow Petrels fly past us, but the place felt so quiet compared to Bird Island where Geeps whine and albatross mutter while there's a constant background throb and wail of Macaronis and seals.


It felt a priviledge to see such a place on such a day and, happy and sunburnt, I went out after dinner to watch the young Elephant Seals. It's been so nice to see so many little weiners; freshly moulted pups sleeping all over the shore, often lying alongside their buddies. The most fun to be had though is in watching the young ones play fighting in the shallows – raising themselves up then slamming into each others necks before one looks too far up, gets distracted by the sky and is then surprised by its combatant. It's a playful recreation of the brutal fights the males get themselves into when establishing dominance over a harem of females, except those guys stand taller than me and can do some real damage.




Jerry.

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

Last days of solitude. by Jerry

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

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

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

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

Sleek-looking Macaroni Penguin, fresh from the sea.

Observations being made by both parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-browed Albatross colony on one of the more remote 

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

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

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

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


Jerry.






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.


Begin the spring by Jerry

As autumn draws on back home the days are getting longer on Bird Island. The last week has seen snow, rain, mist and blue skies, though with tremendous wind speeds we pass through each of them several times a day.

Brown Skua taking advantage of a warmer spell when the stream melted to have a good wash. The skuas have returned in their dozens in the last fortnight.

As the island wakes up from winter my main field-work begins again.  

With the ground still too frozen to build nests the Gentoos spend their time preening, resting and quarrelling. 
In my last blog I talked about the returning penguins. Large numbers of Gentoos are now regularly on the nesting beaches, but there has been relatively little nest-building activity. With temperatures still regularly below 0C they can't pick up pebbles, sticks or bones from the frozen mud so they've had to be satisfied with longer courtship rituals (mainly bowing to each other) and wandering around getting distracted by snow and each others tail feathers.

Northern Giant Petrel. The proud owner of a new egg.
The bulk of my work now is with the Giant Petrels, the Geeps. There's a study area over the Meadows and each day I have to wander around looking for new nests and checking for any failures. I mark each nest with a stake and give it a number and record the location on GPS so I can create a map later.  

Southern Giant Petrels trying to create their own egg.
I try and get ring numbers for the birds and ring any unringed individuals, depending on how calm they are – with a beak superbly well adapted for ripping up dead seals and cetaceans they can and have inflicted some serious cuts and bruises to my hands and arms. The best protection during this sort of encounter is the leg of a welly (with the boot cut off) slid over the arm to act as a makeshift gauntlet. The ringed birds give us all sorts of long-term data including population changes, survival rates, chick-rearing success and long-term fidelity. One of the new nesters today was ringed as a chick in 1979, making her older than me. The old birds are generally more calm and relaxed and it's a privilege to sit near them eating lunch and counting how much we have in common (not that much was my conclusion).

Wandering Albatross chick sporting that 'mutton chop' look.
 Meanwhile, over with the albatrosses...

With their adult feathers showing through the down the Wandering Albatross chicks are keen to feel the wind blowing through their wings, even though it'll be a bit of time before they can fly.
As Steph's work ringing all the Wanderer chicks nears completion the first of the mollymawks, the smaller albatrosses, have returned and daily counts of them, along with more ring checking, have begun. The Grey-heads were first, followed by the Black-brows and the Light-mantled Sooties won't be too far off.

One of the first Grey-headed Albatrosses back at the colony.

And the seals?

The smelliest bean-bag you've ever seen.
As the craziness of the Fur Seal pupping season approaches Hannah is still recording Leopard Seal activity and desperately hoping for an Elephant Seal pup on Bird Island. There's a handful of enormous males on the beaches and a couple of females. We've got our fingers crossed.

Count the chins.
The Elephant Seals are amazing. They look like the sort of thing that used to exist a hundred years ago, before the Victorians wiped them out so we could just look at poorly-drawn sketches and think 'nah... as if'. As they don't really breed here we're not going to get to see any of those spectacular fights between males but seeing the sheer size of them, and of their mouths when they're bellowing across the bay, gives the place a sense of pre-human wilderness.

Deserving the name elephant.
In the midst of the Leopard / Elephant / Fur Seal watching there was even more exciting seal action with a second Weddell of the season. And this one was hauled out on Main Bay, far from home but enjoying the bitter weather.

Lovely small-faced Weddell Seal
Longer days mean heading out earlier is possible, and getting work done quickly meant we could be done in time to create cakes and costumes for Hannah's birthday.

New superheroes and villains: Lord Caveman, Jesus riding an Orca, Dr Hogface and Super Binman.


Jerry.


Penguins Strike Back by Jerry

The freezing cold gales bely the fact that spring is approaching in the south. Gentoo penguins have been around in small numbers all winter, but the breeding season is on its way and they need to find their partners and build up their nests. The last week has seen a huge increase in numbers coming ashore in the evenings to spend the night on their chosen beaches.


Out to sea there's an increased amount of splashing and black shapes are seen jumping between the waves.



They disappear from view and then, in an instant, there's an almighty splash and dozens of them emerge from the sea. Some leaping straight out, others scrambling, others slipping on the wet stones.


Once on the rocks they pause for breath and to check they're in the right place. One of the penguins in the above photo certainly is not.


One brave individual decides they're in the right place and starts off across the slippery rocks. There is an easier route, straight up onto the beach but it may be harder access under the water and it means finding a way past the fur seals. While they're not really a genuine threat to the gentoos, it's probably in their best interests not to antagonise them.



Negotiating some of those rocks is not so easy, particularly the slippery, algae-covered ones. This individual was pretty capable but more than one fell over and then climbed up slowly using their beaks for support.


Once the rocks are crossed there's the mass rush up the beach.


A few get delayed by the line of kelp - a confusing trap.


But all manage to head up to the nest site near the top of the beach.


Reunited at their nest. Gentoos are monogamous but pair-bonds rarely last more than a few seasons so there's plenty of courtship - birds bowing to each other individually or symmetrically - and starting to build up their nests.

It's still early in the season and there's ice all over the beach. That'll soon melt, giving them access to the nesting materials and they'll start to get underway seriously.

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.

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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.

The Empire Strikes Bird Island by Jerry

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


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

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

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

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


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

I hope you enjoy it too.


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.

Winter fitness by Jerry

After a hectic summer which left me at probably the lightest weight I've been in my adult life I, like the others, was determined not to let the winter be a time of piling on the pounds while lazing in my dressing gown in front of the TV. Or, more likely, in front of a pile of krill.

The weekly weigh-in

So we re-instigated the 'Fat Knacker' award for the person who puts on the most weight. Consistency being key to any good science, every Wednesday we dress up in our special costumes for the weigh-in. I've fluctuated each week since late March, but while I'm still significantly less than my pre-Bird Island weight I appear to have put on more than the others. Disappointingly no one has got anywhere near actual fat though and we're more like models worrying about half a kilogram because someone ate more cake than was recommended.

Shaun T

We started off following the set of fitness DVDs left by the previous winterers. A 45-minute routine of being shouted at by an over-enthusiastic American while jumping about ridiculously. Unfortunately, without the complete set of exercises and stretches we started injuring ourselves and had to call a stop to the stupidity.

Race Across Antarctica

Following the midwinter week we took part in the Race Across Antarctica, put together by the Halley doc, James. He'd measured out the following distances; Bird Island to King Edward Point (102km), KEP to Rothera (2222km) and Rothera to Halley (1668km). This gave a daunting total of 3992km. So it was halved to a target distance of 1996km.

Race route: BI --> KEP --> R --> Z. 
All the bases have a variety of gym equipment and different scales were attached to different activities so that rowing was worth more than running or x-country skiing, which were worth more than cycling or walking.
Hannah and Steph working out the distances of daily walking routes. Every little counts (although we didn't include walking up and down the corridor and trips to the toilet).
As an act of fairness to us at the tiny base, only 4 people's distances could be entered per day. This still left us at a disadvantage as we couldn't afford to have any days off. But with that handicap came the incentive to win, or at least push the bigger bases all the way. And guess what... we won! It was close, but some monumental cycle and rowing sessions, particularly from Craig, saw us over the imaginary line.

Keeping track of daily distances.
It's now about a month until I have to start regular checks of the penguin nesting beaches all over the island so I just need to keep the fitness levels up so it's not too much of a shock to the system.


Jerry.

Midwinter by Jerry


Well the smallest day of the year has been and gone. The winter solstice; a major celebration in Antarctica. At the continental bases it marks the turning point when they can count down until when they see the sun rise again. Here in the higher latitudes it marks the halfway point of our winter.

We now start looking forward to the next breeding season and new arrivals. It feels like a proper demarkation between the season just passed an the one to come.

We've had a week of activities, kicking off Thursday 20th when we started receiving greetings from all the other bases across the continent. Here's some photographic highlights:

Out on the ridge in sunny weather to get a nice picture with a Wandering Albatross chick for our Midwinter Greetings card (Craig's photos).
WBC cooks a big breakfast for all on base (Craig's photo).
A matinee viewing of Antarctic horror movie 'The Thing' (Craig's photo).

 Sitting down for the Midwinter meal (Craig's photo).


 The exchange of gifts (Craig's photos).

 Knife set made by Craig for Jerry.

 Seal photos and map made by Steph for Hannah.

 Steph's painting by Jerry.

Craig's playing card set from Hannah.
Winter work continues through the week, despite a big storm bringing waves all the way over the seal beach,.
An unexpected predator, Cassin's Falcon we think, harassing the pipits and also the gulls.
A huge snow fall overnight left the place looking like a proper Christmas scene.
Gentoo investigating the snow.
Looking across the bay to the base, a rare snowy and sunny day.
Leopard seals still patrolling the area.
The Highland Games; tossing a small caber.
Crazy golf in the Generator Shed...


... and the corridor...


...and the lab...


... and the boot room.
Relaxing in the Boot Room Beach Bar.


Our campsite for the Glastonbury recreation.


Playing in the big lake that's formed as all the run-off snow and rain has been trapped by an enormous dam of shingle and kelp.


Jerry.

Last of the Geeps by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

Riding out the snow, an adult Southern Giant Petrel.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Big winds = big waves.

Changeable weather also means rainbows. 

 Jerry.



Quantum Lep! by Jerry

It's been an exciting few days as we've had our first Leopard Seal. These huge (up to 4m long) predators breed on the pack ice but head off following their prey (cephalopods, krill, fish, penguins, and other seals) through the winter. A few are seen around Bird Island most winters and it is the job of the seal assistant to monitor their presence.


My first view of a Leopard Seal. Compare the sizes of him, Hannah and the huge Tussoc grass on the slopes.
A happily sleeping Leopard Seal. We waited at a distance for ages until he was snoring peacefully.
Hannah retrieving the GLS from Max's flipper tag while he sleeps.

Many follow the same routes year upon year and that is true of this individual, known as Max. Much work has gone into photographing visiting Leopard Seals and a large database exists with records of their distinctive coat patterns, so specific individuals can be identified. This one also carried a small tag and geolocator which Hannah was able to retrieve, so fingers crossed we will be able to download the data and see where this seal has travelled since it was last here. As always this information builds up our knowledge of these species which will allow us to better protect them and their environment.



This Leopard Seal had a big cut on his back, caused by what we don't know,  but it was causing him trouble. Mainly because the brave / stupid Sheathbills kept pecking at it, winding him up while he was trying to sleep. These photos of him growling are results of disturbed sleep.

This seal is dwarfing the resident Fur Seals, the largest of whom just about reach 2m but none of those big boys are around at the moment. There are often one or two Elephant Seals around too but again none of the massive males. There is a huge difference in appearance between the seal species; the Furries have quite fuzzy faces, a bit like dogs or bears. The Ellies have huge bowling-ball heads with gigantic dark eyes and the Lep looks more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. While the Fur Seals can stand up and run around on their front flippers, like sea lions, the Elephants and Leps move by shuffling their whole bodies, like Grey and Harbour seals seen in the UK. The front flippers on the Ellies look so small in comparison it's difficult to imagine them being very effective, but then you see the size of their back flippers.
Fur Seal yawning aggressively. 
T-Rex head: Leopard Seal reacts poorly to shit-chicken disturbance.
The huge, wobbly Elephant Seal with it's spherical head and gigantic eyes.

There's been a few days of calmish, clearish weather and when we get conditions like that it's always worth looking out for whales. So the prior to Max arriving the Lep round delivered great views of a couple of Southern Right Whales circling and diving not far from the base.

Southern Right Whale diving.
A few other jobs have cropped up that have involved walking round the beaches. Through the winter I carry out a collection and record of marine debris on the Main Bay. Very little washes up but it gives me a good excuse to be out with the camera with time to take photos of some of Bird Island's less-appreciated avian life.

Pair of South Georgian Pintail; the cute, carnivorous ducks.
South Georgia Pipit; the world's most southerly songbird.

At spring high tides through the winter we will also be counting the number of Pintail and Sheathbills over a set transect. Very little work is done on these species but this is a simple way of recording population changes.
Wandering Albatrosses displaying behind a chick.
Albatross work continues, although almost all the Black-brows have now fledged and many of the Grey-heads are looking ready to depart. Wandering Albatross still dot the hills, valleys and meadows, whether fat chicks sitting in their nests waiting for food or adults courting they are always fascinating.

Grey-headed Albatross chick. Still a fluffy one but many are far more developed than this.
Wandering Albatrosses courting on Bottom Meadow.
Jerry.




'Do a force and that', like it says in your film. by Jerry

Star Wars Day

The 'any reason to celebrate' theme continued on May 4th, being International Star Wars Day. After a day out setting up a camera at an albatross colony, taking in electronics from a penguin colony and checking on fledged geeps I returned with little time to work on my costume.

A Tusken Raider, Darth Vader, Darth Maul and Porkins celebrate Star Wars day. 
I never fail to be amazed at the creativity of people when properly getting into the swing of fancy dress. Unfortunately, Darth Vader, Porkins and I were all rather warm and facially challenged when it came to eating, so the costumes didn't stay on too long.
'Don't play with your food'.
'But it's pasta Jedi knights'.
Amazingly, Craig had cooked a Star Wars themed meal - pasta in the shape of Jedi knights, TIE fighters, Millenium Falcons and Death Stars (alright, that's an easy one).

Darth Maul playing detective in a respectable English country mansion.
Following a game of Cluedo we sat down to watch Star Wars Uncut - the brillian fan remake. 


Some actual work

As usual, the first of the month saw the Wandering Albatross nesting survey. Again I headed east to the end of the island and meandered back again checking on chicks. Happily almost all of them are still alive and looking fat and fluffy enough to give encouragement for their winter chances.

Wandering Albatross chicks appreciating the good weather.
Adult Wandering Albatrosses overlooking Bird Sound. 
Albatross not yet decided whether to creep past or take off.
While out and about I was also checking on rat-boxes. These are specially designed boxes with bait balls that I have to check for any signs of nibbling to ensure we keep the island rat-free. It's well documented how much chaos and devestation rats can cause to ground-nesting birds and Bird Island is lucky in its inaccessibility that it's never been home to rats. Well one of these rat boxes made a good nesting spot for a pair of Storm Petrels, whose fluffy chick is growing up nicely in there.

Fluffy Storm Petrel chick in a rat-box.
I also managed a bit of exploring - down to the coast by Mountain Cwm which is open now the seals have mainly departed.

Find of the day; a good quality volleyball. Made in China, shipped to Argentina, played with by beautiful South Americans on a beach (I assume), lost at sea, washed up on Bird Island.
Interestingly the O has been pecked out in each spot, geeps trying to peck out its eyes perhaps?
Natural Arch, still home to a few seals.
Gentoo Penguin playing with rocks. They've been engaging in a bit of nest-building. Not seriously, but just keeping their spots looking smart and owned.
Skua washing itself.

Jerry.