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.

Fur Seals by Jerry

Apologies it's been so long since the last update. We've been hectic busy here with the spring arrival of the penguins, petrels and albatrosses as well as the summer staff – the returning base commander, new technician, a couple of senior scientists and our replacement field assistants. We'll be spending the next few months here working with and handing over to them.

As I was away at this time last year I missed one of the unique experiences of Bird Island; the fur seal season. This started seriously around the beginning of November when the big males started establishing territories on the beach. At 2m long and weighing around 150kg they are by no means the largest seals in the sub-Antarctic but they will not give ground to anyone. As they are more like sea lions than the phocids (elephant and leopard seals as well as the grey and common found around the UK) they are very quick and agile on land.

Charging up river, a male Antarctic Fur Seal.
A male arriving at a crowded beach will have to charge up the river (where no one holds territory) fighting off other males from either side. If cornered he will try and be repelled by a demonstration of superior size, but it won't take much for them to start fighting – biting and thrashing – and the majority have scars somewhere on their upper body.

The males are holding out for the return of the females. They face an equally difficult charge up the beach as they will try and be herded into harems. The largest males with the best locations will have the best chance of attracting and keeping them, outside our window one big guy is keeping his eye on 31 ladies and their pups.
The males can weigh as much as five times the weight of a female. They will typically hold their breeding territory for 20 to 40 days, during which time they will largely rely on the food reserves stored in their body fat.
The pups are born within a few days of their mothers returning from the ocean. Cast an eye over the colony at the right time and it won't be long until you see a female writhing round and giving birth to a little puppy that quickly shakes off its birth sack, opens its eyes and starts crying for food. There's a lot of calling as the mums and pups bond with each other as it's not long (about a week) before the former head back to sea to feed and when they return they need to recognise their young by call and by smell.
Female and newly-born pup taking its first look at the world. 
A female working out which of these two attention-seeking puppies is actually hers.
Once left alone the pups start to interact with one another, climbing, sniffing and play fighting. If there's no one else around they will happily play with their own flippers.

Dreaming of milk, a content pup.

Less than 1% of the pups are born blonde. With very few natural predators (the occasional leopard seal or orca) they tend to survive as well as the more typical black ones though they stand out more.

A stand off between a pair of puppies enjoying the chance to play while their mums are away.

A definite winner in this little battle, though the loser was straight back up for another bout.


95% of the world population of Antarctic Fur Seals Arctocephalus gazella is based around South Georgia with population estimates of 1.5 to 4 million. This has hugely increased in the last 50 years, by which point they were nearly hunted to extinction. Bird Island, being largely inaccessible, was one of their last strongholds.

Much of the science and research being done on these species focuses on finding out where they feed, what they're feeding on and how keeping track of how healthy the population is. Other projects have focused on their genetics and learning more about mother-pup interactions. I've been helping out over on the special study beach where the pups are weighed and samples of their umbilical cords are taken for genetic analysis.  

While some pups put up much more of a struggle than one would expect of their 5kg frame, others fall asleep in your arms.


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

I come from the land of ice and snow. by Jerry


 The last week has brought us the coldest weather I've so far experienced down south with it touching -10C. Add to that the 30 knot winds and it's been pretty chilly. Normally I head out just wearing a t-shirt under my paramo jacket but yesterday I had a thermal, thin jumper and fleece under there. I was plenty warm enough, except on the fingers when photographing the ice and snow.

Using the bridge on one of the few times it's fine not to.
Looking across the bay to base, with ice forming everywhere.

It tends to move through in blizzards, some lasting all day, some just a few minutes, punctuated by moments of sunshine. I chose one of these bright moments to carry a load of path-marking stakes up the hill (though it's clearly too frozen to drive them in so they're in a pile waiting for it to thaw), by the time I'd reached the top it was clear and the sun was bouncing off the snow, but within a few minutes I was in the middle of a snowstorm. By the time I'd made my way down it was again clear, though the clouds over South Georgia indicated this wouldn't be for long.

Sun on base but some ominous clouds approaching. 
Wonderful clear views across Bird Island and South Georgia.

As the temperature really began to drop we got ice forming in the bay. Just mush at first and a bit of pancake ice, but the really impressive bits are the rocks and seaweed that get covered with hard ice where the sea's been washing over them.

The incoming tide rising over ice-covered rocks.

Pancake ice forming around the jetty.

A highlight of the winter was the appearance in the bay of three snow petrels. These breed high up on the South Georgia mainland and are infrequently seen here on Bird Island, usually fleeting glimpses of them high over the peaks. But there they were, along with dozens of terns, picking morsels out of the ocean – crustaceans or possibly carrion from a leopard seal dinner.

Terns coping with the polar ground.

Antarctic Tern fishing in the forming ice.

Beautiful Snow Petrel.


When the weather allows we've been out ringing wandering albatross chicks. This a major part of the long term monitoring of this vulnerable species. They travel so far they can pitch up anywhere across the southern ocean, though many of them will (hopefully) return to breed on Bird Island in around eight years time.

Wandering Albatross chicks.

Lord of the Bird Rings by Jerry

The past weekend saw the annual Antarctic 48-hour Film Festival.

I wrote about this last year and our 2013 entry is available here.

Every base on the continent and the sub-Antarctic islands is invited to make and submit a short film, shot entirely on location and over a two-day period. To keep things fair and fresh there are five elements given out on the Friday that have to be included in every film; two objects (this year a swimsuit and a swing), a sound effect (a pig squeal), a character (Wal Footrot – a New Zealand cartoon character who was fairly simple to google) and a line of dialogue. As we'd been voted best screenplay for our condensed Star Wars tribute last year we got to supply the latter, and after much sorting through Smiths lyrics and favourite movie quotes submitted the following, from possibly my favourite ever film; 'it'll be dark soon and the mostly come at night... mostly'. I'll where it's from as a kind of quiz.

After having such fun filming Star Wars we thought we'd try and condense another epic into around five minutes. This time Lord of the Rings.

So we came up with a basic storyline; three or four short scenes, and fleshed that out into a basic script fairly simply. The tough part was costumes and props. Luckily we have a dressing up box left by many previous residents, so a healthy supply of wigs and waistcoats. Legolas's cloak was a cleverly folded tablecloth while Gimli's axe was forged from a broom handle, cardboard and tin foil.

The weather for Saturday looked a bit grim but nothing compared to what was forecast for Sunday, so we rose early and, while Cian went off on the leopard seal round, the rest of us climbed up to the nearby cave to shoot some uncomfortable scenes with Frodo and Sam. You can see in the film how cold we are as everyone's breath is clearly visible.


After a return and a cup of tea we headed up the valley to record a bit of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli running around. The low mist meant visibility wasn't good enough to do any real long shots, as the entire of the second film seems to consist of, but we still had fun running round with capes trailing.


A battle scene on the beach with a horde of (very similar-looking) orcs was probably the most fun to film as it basically involved more running round and shouting, swinging swords and axes about. When it came to editing this bit it was all a little quiet so I got all the others into the office and recorded a voiceover of them shouting, screaming, grunting and banding a few spoons together to represent sword clashes.


The final bit of filming was of Merry and Pippin meeting Gandalf. We weren't going to be beaten by the other Hobbits filming a scene barefoot but you can see how cold we are by our pink faces. By this point the mist was getting very wet so it looks like everything is in soft focus. Still, the scenery is somewhat reminiscent of Middle Earth.


As promised, Sunday lashed it down with rain so we were grateful we didn't need any reshoots. Instead I spent most of the day editing and finally was able to show it to the others on a big screen in the lounge. Twice – so I guess that means we are pretty pleased with it.




***UPDATE***

The results are in and we came in third for cinematography, second for best film and first for acting!!

Giant Petrels by Jerry

The giant petrels, commonly known as 'geeps', are one of my key study species. They're split into two species – the Northern and Southern, differentiated by the colour of their bill tip. Red for Northern and green for Southern. The sexes are basically the same, with the males being marginally bulkier and with longer beaks.
Northern Giant Petrel. Check out that lovely eye and the impressive beak - the salt gland on top to enable filtration of sea water and the huge pointed tip for ripping through carcasses.
The geeps get a bit of a raw deal. The only time you'll see them in any sort of nature documentary is when they're scavenging dead seals or waiting patiently for defenceless young pups and penguins. They'll be fighting with each other for rights to the kill, then shoving their heads right inside these big dead seals, pulling out covered in blood.

No waste on Bird Island. A recently deceased Fur Seal will quickly be reduced to a pile of bones and the geeps are the first ones in there.
They're not as eye-catching as the penguins or as elegant as the albatrosses, but once you start spending some time with them you get captivated by their charisma.

Describing them is a bit like describing a Frankingstein. They're the largest of the procelleria family of petrels and prions. Normally when you think of these birds you'd think of petite Storm Petrels or the elegant shearwaters soaring over the waves, perfectly adapted for a life at sea but a little ungainly on land. Unlike the smaller members of the family the geeps have strong legs that enable them to stalk the beach like dinosaurs. When they fight over food their tails are up, like turkeys, and their wings outstretched as they run at each other, shrieking like banshees.

A beach-master pose as this geep challenges anyone else to try taking his food away from him.
Like most wildlife, it's when you see them with their partners and young that you really warm to them. Giant Petrels are monogamous with long-term pair bonds and often nest in the same place, frequently the same area they were born, year after year. Many of them hang around, with their partners, through the winter.

A pair circling and calling together.
They're amongst the earliest nesters on Bird Island as the Northerns start laying eggs in mid-September with the Southerns about a month later. The nest can be a simple scrape on the ground but is usually a turret built from mud, moss and tussac grass. An ambitious pair may try to use an old Wandering Albatross nest.

The pair will take turns sitting on the egg for around a week at a time while their partner is off feeding. The egg takes about two months to incubate and during this time the birds have to put up with whatever the weather throws at them – wind, rain and snow. There's no ground-based predators here, no rats or cats or mice (which is one of the reasons Bird Island is so important), so there's little threat to the geeps from other life. With a bill like that they're not worth messing with, although there's the occasional territorial squabble between adults.

Geep scrap. These two males were fighting over a nest. The female sat by passively and then left with the loser. Like with most animals the fights are mainly posturing, establishing who is bigger, but then can lead to the interlocking of beaks and with those very sharp tips it's not unlikely that some blood will be spilt. This usually seems to signal the end of the fight.
Each of the approximately 500 nests in my study area gets a number and I'll take a GPS reference so I can plot them on a map later. The majority of the birds here carry rings and darvics. I'll take the numbers down and enter them onto an existing database, from that we'll know whether each individual has stuck with the same partner, changed location, been seen before and many other things. Throughout the season I'll visit about once a week to check on the progress of the egg and chick, ultimately recording whether the pair have bred successfully or not.

Writing down nest number, location and ring numbers of a particularly unconcerned pair. (Hannah's photo).
This is all part of an ongoing, long-term study collecting data on these species to find out all sorts of things like population and population changes, breeding success and survival rates.

Giant Petrels are scavengers as well as predators and can often be seen following boats in the south seas, waiting for any scraps.
Amongst the Southern geep population there's the occasional all-white individual. It's not an albino, it's just a morphological difference. They interbreed with the more usual coloured birds. There's two females like this in my study population of approximately 300 Southern Giant Petrels.

A white morph chick, pretty much full grown and ready for departure.
Two months after being laid a little white chick pokes its way out the egg with this big clunking beak. It's parents stay with it, continuing their regular change-overs for another few weeks, after which time it is left alone. Like most birds of it's kind it defends itself with a snapping bill and the threat of regurgitation – viscous vomit that could ruin an assailant's plumage, fur or jacket.

A week-old geep chick getting it's first rays of sunshine, yawning or calling for food.
As they get older the young birds lose their downy fluff and grow a layer of sleek, black adult feathers. They start to wander away from the nest, but not too far as you never know when a parent will return with food.

Half way through chick development, when they've grown to a decent size but are still covered with down, keeping them warm as the adult feathers develop beneath.
By March the Northern chicks are three to four months old. I'll head round the study area and take weight and bill-length measurements from all of them, also giving them a unique ring so they can be identified in the future. All that remains then is for them to lose their remaining chick feathers, stretch out their wings and head off to sea. By mid-April they'll all be gone with the Southern geeps about a month behind them.

Ready to go. This was the first egg laid last season, in mid-September. By mid-March she was looking beautifully slick and smart and was soon to depart.
They're long-lived birds. I've not seen any figures for ages but there's ones here breeding that are older than me and it wouldn't surprise me if they can get to double that age. Many of these chicks will return to the same areas of their birth to breed, but it'll be a few years before that happens. I was finding apparent first-time breeders this season that were ringed here as chicks in 2005 and 2006. Ongoing experiments using tiny geolocator devices are trying to work out where the young birds go during their teenage years. Ringing recoveries have shown that within a few months of leaving these young birds can be found as far away as Australia. Similar such work has shown a difference in feeding strategies, with females more likely to feed out at sea while males patrol the beaches. As with all good science, the answers are sure to throw up many more questions.

Southern Giant Petrel. Their presence on the island during the winter is one of the highlights of going for a walk.

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.



Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses by Jerry

This weekend we were out monitoring the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross chicks. These are the least common of Bird Island's four albatross species and the least rigorously studied. The main reason for this is the inaccessibility of their nesting sites – usually on narrow ledges half way down the cliffs, either alone or with a few others.



There is a section of the island though where the coast can fairly easily be walked, where long-term studies of nesting and fledging rates have been carried out. One calm day last October we split into two pairs and headed along this bit of coast, mapping any nest we could see. Finding them seven months later can be difficult so we'd planted numbered stakes, taken GPS waypoints, photos and written descriptions.
A happy bird, sitting on a nest that can't be reached.
Where nests are accessible we look for ring numbers, although the majority are unringed. Sooties are often more nervous than other species so approaching them can take a long time, with slow, calm movements. As with the other albatrosses (and pretty much all seabirds) earlier studies have shown them to be incredibly long lived, forming long-term pair bonds and returning to the same nest site year after year.

Slowly edging closer to a nesting bird. (Hannah's photo).
A middle-aged chick, still wearing it's downy collar.
They breed every other year, laying a single egg that they take turns incubating for over two months. Chicks then take roughly another five months to fledge, during which time the parents will travel up to 1000km on foraging trips, returning every few days with crops full of mainly crustaceans and krill (but also fish and carrion depending on availability).

Returning home through the snow.
Once fledged the chicks can spend between 8 and 15 years circling the oceans before settling down to raise young themselves. During winter the adults feed anywhere between the pack ice and up to about 40 degrees south.

One of the first LMSAs we saw from the ship.
One of the things the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses are known for are their aerial abilities. During courtship or while reaffirming pair bonds a couple will fly along the edge of the cliffs in an amazingly synchronised, close control display. Barely flapping their wings they glide, parallel to each other, around their nesting areas.




Territorial calls can be heard across the island; a high-pitched trumpet-like sound blasted out as they throw their heads back, defying anyone to challenge them to their nest.



The Sooties have had a tough few years in terms of breeding success, so we were pleased to see some healthy-looking chicks on our round this year. The species is classified as 'Near Threatened', with all the usual problems seabirds are facing – nest predation from terrestrial alien species is being addressed by projects like the South Georgia rat eradication, but by-catch from poor fishing practices, plastic ingestion and food availability in a changing ocean are still problems.

A young chick not far off fledging.

Jerry.

Up above the clouds. by Jerry

Here's a few picture updates of what's been happening:

The Southern Giant Petrels are just starting to fledge.
The white morph was still there today but who knows about tomorrow.

Visitors from colder waters... the return of the Leopard Seals.

And visitors from warmer climes... a few lost Cattle Egrets.

More Elephant Seals hauled out.

Weird weather; low clouds rolling across the sea and engulfing the peaks and ridges.

A rare opportunity to get up above the clouds and look down on base.

May 4th be with us for Star Wars Day.
I attached this picture to a few emails to friends and have not heard from any of them since.

Jerry.





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.

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.

Winter arrives. by Jerry


In the last week we've had an early taste of what winter promises. An icy wind has blown up from the continent, covering the island in a layer of snow, making skating rinks of the ponds and making the streams a lot more interesting to climb.
We have managed a few clear days through which to appreciate this weather so here are a few photos:

The view from Gazella, looking down to the base and the cove. Tonk and Molly Hill make up the ridge on this side of the island.
Another blizzard approaching across the sea. It's nice to see them coming so you can check you've got hat, goggles, shelter etc.
Fur Seals love the snow, sliding around and rolling over and over in it.
The view from Tonk, looking down toward base and across to the South Georgia mainland.
More seals enjoying the snow. These were pretty far up the slopes, I suspect planning on sliding all the way down to the sea on their bellies.
Macaroni Penguins, not particularly bothered by the snow. In fact they were raising their beaks skyward to catch flakes, then scooping mouthfuls off their backs when it built up.
Wandering Albatross with small chick, enjoying a respite from the constant wind.
The dangerous and reckless sport of danger walking. Not quite so reckless when you know the pond in question is only 6 inches deep. 
Cold days can mean clear nights, though with a bright moon about we're still waiting for the best star-spotting nights. 


Wildlife update 4: Seals by Jerry


The Fur Seal pups were starting to be born as I departed for my enforced break, so I missed a good amount of seeing them small and cuddly. When I returned they'd started to shed their black puppy hair and develop the sleek grey fur that will keep them warm in the water. They'd also begun to be left alone more as their mums headed out to sea to feed, returning full of milk to help their pups grow big. Before leaving many of the mums take their pups up the slopes, finding somewhere safe to leave them and somewhere they can return to find them again.

Curious young pup,

Grumpy blondie pup.

That's the theory anyway. It seems as soon as many of the mums leave the pups go exploring, heading back down to the beaches to meet up with other pups for playing and fighting (often indistinguishable) and later on heading into the shallow waters and rock pools to have a go at swimming.

Splashing down the stream in heady anticipation of some fun in the sea.

Seeing them charging round the small pools, chasing each other or wrestling with bits of kelp is hugely entertaining. It's like they've just discovered what their flippers are for, discovered what it is to be a seal. At this time they're both very curious and a bit nervous, so will come and investigate anything unfamiliar, such as a person or a camera, but will quickly turn and swim off once they feel unsafe, usually returning a minute later for another look.

Fighting with a bit of kelp.

Fighting a friend over a feather.

The goal; to be so good at swimming you can lie on your back, scratch and yawn while doing it.

Investigating the underwater camera in a small pool.

As with the birds, weighing the pups on specific dates is a simple way to get an idea of the health of the population that can be compared to previous years. This is done three times through the year and by the third occasion they're pretty big, quick and feisty. With the heaviest nearly 20kg it can be quite a task, but a good one that ensures everyone gets muddy together.

Three mud-spattered puppy-weighers.



Wildlife update 3: Petrels and prions by Jerry

When penguin work wasn't pressing I've been concentrating on many of the Island's other birds, mainly the smaller flying ones.

Giant Petrels

The Northern Giant Petrel chicks had started to hatch just before I departed and were looking pretty big upon my return. They were all sat alone on their nests, spending their time snapping and threatening to vomit on anyone who walked past (most of the birds use this effective defence mechanism) and waiting for their parents to return with food. As they lose their downy grey feathers their adult ones start to show through, at this young age they're all sleek and shiny grey-black. It's about this time they start exploring – walking away from their nest to fight with bits of tussock.

At about a month old the chicks start getting left on their own.
I'd been doing weekly checks of the study area, checking on their progress, as several volunteers had been doing while I was away. Then in early March I spent a few days going round weighing, measuring and ringing all the chicks. As with the other species, weighing gives a simple impression of general health, how successful a season it's been and how it compares to previous years as well as being a useful marker when it comes to looking at survival rates and long-term changes. There were a few monsters among the chicks, ones over 7kg with beaks over 10cm long.

At about two months old they're still downy but much bigger and with adult feathers on the way.

Now they're starting to fledge. I'm still doing weekly checks but more often I'll come across an empty nest and then have to search around to see if the chick has genuinely flown off or just gone on an extended exploration.
Three months old; patches of down revealing dark juvenile feathers. At this stage they are regularly visited by parents returning with food.
The Southern Giant Petrels breed and nest about a month later than the Northerns so there's still some big fluffy ones about, though I'll be weighing and ringing them soon.

About four months old and they're ready to fledge. This was the very first egg to be laid in my study area this season, back in mid-September.


White-chin Petrels, Blue Petrels and Antarctic Prions

There's not too much long-term monitoring of these species, but there are a small number of burrows that needed to be checked for chicks. Although it can be a cold, wet and muddy job it is one I enjoy as I feel really privileged to be seeing these young birds looking so fat and fluffy. However of all the wildlife I work with it is probably the White-chins that inflict the most injuries. Not because they're particularly aggressive (although there's always the odd one that wants to kill you) but because they've got incredibly sharp claws. They'd usually use them for climbing tussock and digging burrows but if you can remember Sam Neill talking about velociraptors at the start of Jurassic Park, that's what they can do.

Young White-chinned Petrel starting to develop adult feathers around the face.
The adults are rarely seen on land as they usually come in at night to avoid predatory skuas and head straight to their burrows, this is particularly true of the Blue Petrels and Antarctic Prions that are about the size of a large thrush while the White-chins are like small gulls. They're often seen at sea, where they congregate behind the ship, and at night, particularly stormy, overcast nights where their calls echo through the dark.

Big, fluffy Antarctic Prion chick - really just a ball of fluff with a beak.


Skuas


I missed seeing the skua chicks when they were tiny and cute, but instead had the responsibility of measuring, weighing and ringing them once they were old enough to fight back. Thankfully our adult birds aren't as aggressive as other skuas, I'm thinking about the Bonxies in Shetland here, so the adults usually complain but standing loudly beside you and shrieking. Most of the juveniles are flying now and are congregating on the beaches to fight over scraps before they'll head to the mainland or out to sea for the winter.

Adult Brown Skua issuing a warning.

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.


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.





Last Call by Jerry

One of the reasons I've now got the time and resources to update my blog a bit is because in this week we've been through the traumatic experience that is Last Call. Traumatic is a stupidly hyperbolic word to use but saying goodbye to everyone was very difficult. Particularly with Hannah and Steph, with whom I've spent almost every day for the last 16 months. I couldn't have asked for better company for my time down here. They now get to travel, with the rest of the departing staff, on the Ernest Shackleton down to King Edward Point on South Georgia, Signy and down to Rothera on the peninsula. It should be an amazing trip and I hope I get to go that way this time next year.

As well as waving goodbye to friends we sent off all our waste and recycling from the summer season, a few boxes of scientific samples and all the kit from the building project. It added up to a significant amount of lifting and took a day and a half. In return we got a load of food to help us through the long months ahead – frozen, fresh veg and beer.

As the others sailed away on on flat seas, with the mist parting to let the sun through, the base began to feel strangely empty. We changed a few things around immediately – spreading myself over the whole room and two desks while Rob took a few chairs out the dining room and lounge to make it feel comfy for four rather than feel like everyone's missing.


We kicked off the winter celebrations with Jess serving our dinner for that night; sausage and chips, wrapped in newspaper and at the end of the jetty. The following evening Cian treated us to a house-warming dinner in his new room. Invention and creativity are key to surviving the winter, so the early signs are that this will be a great one.

Honestly, the youth of today seem to spend all their time sitting on benches eating chips.

Quiet on the Blog Front... by Jerry

...but not in real life. Quite the opposite in fact, and the two are linked. Since my return to Bird Island in late January I have been busy as anything, but I finally have a bit of time to write up the last couple of months. An update on the wildlife will follow but first - what's been happening on base?

Travelling down with me were a few technicians (Alun, Dale and Barry) who had been employed to fit a fancy new bulk fuel system to the base. This will eliminate our need to refuel with barrels every year and all the associated risk of spills posed when moving them around. Along with Rob and Paul, who were already here, they worked some long, long hours in some very wet and dirty conditions to create a very fancy looking and, as far as I understand it, efficient and failsafe system. With time against them as boat schedules changed they got it all fitted in time to walk us through how it'll work and give it a test fuel pump.

They haven't been the only hard workers though as the Base Commander, Adam, was also out in all weather packaging up a seemingly endless supply of scrap metal and wood that is being sent off for reuse and recycling.

The other Zoological Field Assistants and I have been working non-stop too, but I'll cover that in further blogs. Instead I'll mention here some of the exciting events and relaxing evenings we've enjoyed.

Darts match

Following last year's close game against Signy we accepted a rematch despite not putting in any practice in the intervening 12 months. Instead we had a few ringers in the shape of Dale, Cous and Alun. With all the internet activities on base turned off except one computer we were able to get text updates and the occasional video stream from their base further south. As with last year the losers were to buy the winners a case of beer, and as with last year it was a close 2-1, though victory to us this year!

Darts night, with the competition on the big screen.

BBC visit

A BBC team filming Deadly Pole to Pole with Steve Backshall visited in mid-February for a few days. We accompanied them looking for some of Bird Island's deadliest wildlife, although unfortunately it wasn't quite the right time of year for the angriest male Fur Seals. The skuas too are surprisingly relaxed at the moment. They got some great footage of a Giant Petrel feeding on a seal carcass, the Wandering Albatross displaying and the Macaroni colony at night so I hope they can do the island justice. It was interesting having them around and they were a really nice team. We celebrated the end of filming with a big barbeque on the beach.

Deadly / Bird Island team photo. (Adam's photo).

Nights off base

When the weather's settled it's nice to get away from base and I've done this more in the last month than at any other time. Whether it's camping out near the Wanderers so we can watch them displaying late into the evening and then get woken up by Geeps trying to eat the tent, staying in Fairy Point Hut with incoming or departing winter teams or finding a dry patch on a misty night in the cave they all feel like great experiences. The hut especially has been very cosy since the heater was fixed and staying there we got some good views of the stars and of the burrowing Prions and Petrels returning at night.

The Love Shack with a rare clear sky and either aurora australis or high clouds.

Swimming with puppies


One of the most funnest things I've done while here was to don one of the thick wetsuits and get in the sea with the Fur Seal Puppies. They seem to be having so much fun learning to swim, chasing each other around in the shallows and fighting with kelp that we wanted to be a part of it. With us bobbing around they came over to investigate. A bold one would come closer than the others, have a bit of a sniff, decide we weren't worth eating or fighting and dive away, swimming back to its friends. We weren't in long before the cold got the better of us but it was a lovely sunny day and we rushed back to find the others eating sandwiches on the back step, so joined them with a big mug of tea.

Fur Seals. Less interested in us than we are of them. (Steph's photo).