Food and how we eat it by Jerry

Continuing my theme of updating the day-to-day normality of life on a sub-Antarctic research station, here's a blog all about our food.

Bird Island has no permanent chef, instead we take it in turns to cook. We try to make Saturday nights formal (or dressing up) with a three-course meal. Other trends develop through the year too; Sunday roasts, Friday chip shop night, snacks for film nights.

We have limited fresh produce, only arriving when the ships come by, so may be as few as three times a year. And by fresh I mean may have been at sea for a month. So we tend to go for long-lasting root vegetables, chopping and freezing them as needed. Thankfully the ship chefs often take pity on us and send over a box of crunchy, fresh stuff.

Fresh tomatoes! Sian and Lucy can't hide their excitement (photo by Alastair Wilson).

All fresh produce has to undergo a rigorous bio-security check, searching leaves for any invading alien species. Broccoli and lettuce, veg with lots of hiding places, has recently been banned from our order list.

The cool shed that serves as our vegetable cupboard. Everything is checked on a weekly basis for mould. It's amazing how long eggs will last if they're turned over each week (so long as you don't look back into the shell after breaking it).

Everything else that comes in is either frozen, dried or tinned. As it's just after resupply our shelves are full so here's a few pics and notes:

Tea, coffee, milk powder (you get used to it) and jaffa cakes. Yeah, essentials.

A whole shelf of herbs and spices for livening up any meal.

Poppadaums, pickles and coconut milk. Starting point for one of our many epic curry nights.

Fruit juice, pasta, crisps and huge amounts of flour.

Freezer 1. Cheese, butter and loads of veggie foods.

Freezer 2. Non-veggie stuff. We do have another freezer almost exclusively full of frozen veg, and a small area of ice cream.

The kitchen is not huge but easily big enough for one or two people to work in and is very well stocked with everything one could possibly need to whip up an exciting meal.

Tim, hard at work peeling potatoes, modelling the kitchen.

Amongst the well-stocking is a super bread-mixer. Baking bread is a duty of the daily chef and coming in to fresh bread is one of the joys of living here. People take great pride in their bread, whether it's the consistent quality of theirs or a specific recipe they use (I like making one with a bit of apple, sultanas, pistachio nuts, ginger and cinnamon in it).

Ordering food is a difficult task for the winter station leader. You'll always run low on something, whether because you don't order enough or you get a tech that eats an unexpectedly large amount of ketchup. We had to ration certain things in each of my winters - jars of olives, fruit juice concentrate, tins of tomatoes. It can make cooking interesting when you have to start improvising and working in so many substitutes a simple recipe becomes something completely different. One of my more successful experiments was blitzing and tin of baked beans in the blender to make a tomato topping for pizzas.

It's always pleasing seeing the efforts people go to with their cooking, whether they're confident and trying something extravagant or hating the whole process but unwilling to let people down. And every meal concludes with a round of thanks for the chef, who then has the joy of watching everyone else doing the washing up and tidying away.

Wine, beer and gin.

Magazines by Jerry

We got back to Bird Island on 24th November, since when life has been pretty hectic. It is fantastic to be back and I will try and write a post about how that feels in the coming weeks. In the meantime our internet bandwidth has been increased since I was last down, so I'll try and make the effort to put up more frequent, though probably shorter, blogs.

As everyone has seen photos of penguins and seals before I promised I would post a few more updates of general station life this year.

In an effort to keep a degree of normality and ensure we aren't too out of touch we get a daily newspaper emailed through, which is good although it has it's faults (you can ask me anything about what the royal family are wearing or how Adele's career is going, but not about the rest of the world). We also get a selection of magazines at the start of each month.

These all came in at first call so I was splitting them into type to ensure an equal distribution throughout the year. As you can see we get a good range covering science, wildlife, travel, hobbies and fashion – gutting when you realise you're looking at styles from 12 months ago.

Jerry.

Science and Whales by Jerry

21st November

Travelling with us are a large number of marine scientists with a disparate array of equipment for sampling everything about the ocean. Probes and nets to measure temperature, salinity, currents and the abundance and biometrics of microscopic life. Far too much for me to explain here,

www.seaweeddownsouth.wordpress.com

 is a good start though.

Just before lunchtime on 21st we reached one of the sampling locations and paused to allow the scientists to do their thing. Getting a few bits together to go out on deck and observe I noticed, through my cabin window, a distant whale spurt. Outside we realised we were surrounded by them and as we waited, roughly stationary for about an hour, we got some amazing views of these humpbacks feeding all around the ship. Close enough to hear their exhalations, feeling like we could reach out and touch them. Truly thrilling, these photos and videos (

https://vimeo.com/148031681

) will sum it up better than I can.

Team talk before launching the net.

Harnessed up, standing at the very back of the ship ensuring a smooth launch.

Humpback whales!

Incredible views so close to the ship.

Pulling in a mooring buoy containing dozens of measuring devices.

Jerry

Signy by Jerry

16th to 19th November

Unlike the other British Antarctic survey stations, Signy operates for the summer only. Sitting just south of 60 degrees it endures a full Antarctic winter and upon arrival the base staff never quite know what to expect. Six of them got ashore that first day, cutting through the choppy sea on the small RIBs, to check it out, returning to the ship in the evening with tales of snowdrifts and flooded stores.

The following day was calm and sunny, suitable for a larger group of twenty or more of us to get ashore and get working. First up were the important people: the station staff and the technicians looking at getting all the generator, boiler and water systems up and running. Afterwards the manual labour, including me, got our jolly ashore.

With the bay full of ice the tender couldn't get to the jetty so we were unloading at a point on the shore around 100m from the station. From there the cargo was lifted onto large sledges and towed by skidoo over to wherever it was needed, whether for immediate use and installation or stacked up to be sorted through later.

Station damage over the winter was minimal as everything had been well secured before departure. Much of our work involved digging away at the snow; uncovering buried equipment and clearing it from where it had drifted up against the buildings, opening walkways and reducing the chances of flooding once it starts to melt. This last necessity was exemplified by the state of one of the store rooms. Marks on the doors and walls showed it had flooded to an impressive 30cm at one point, but we were greeted with a solid 10cm of ice on the floor. A team of ice breakers, shovelers and moppers were deployed and had largely cleared it by lunch time. Enough to restart one of the big freezers which happily worked, cooling itself and melting much of the remaining ice in the room.

Perched on the jetty eating chips sent over from the ship, we reflected on how nice a day it was. Piles of clothing littered the site, evidence of shed layers from people expecting the worse now working in single layer thermals and passing round the sun cream. The brilliant white of the ice-packed bay was broken only by lounging elephant seals, while the glaciers, cliffs and peaks all around us were a reminder of what a potentially inhospitable place we were in, despite temporary comforts.

Normally if the weather is good at relief we would work until dusk but we were called back to the ship mid afternoon, leaving the Signy crew to enjoy their first night on station. The reason was the sea ice. That big barrier we'd sailed through had been pushed south by the winds and had crept up on our current location. When we left it before it had taken another hour to get to Signy, a distance of maybe ten miles. This time it was a couple of hundred meters, just the distance back to the ship that was sat right at the edge of the pack, ready to cut off though it to find a larger area of open water suitable for spending the night.

The wind picked up the following day, pushing a barrier of ice across the entrance to the bay and preventing us from getting ashore. It was touch and go after that but we managed to get a tender in and unload the remaining cargo; the fresh and frozen food as well as the all important bond. Once everyone was happy the base was up and running properly, with all systems checked and approved, we were heading back through the ice on our way north.

The first humbers brave the conditions to take station staff ashore for an initial inspection.

Better weather for our visit ashore on the tender, full of food (in the blue boxes) and an array of science, domestic, technical, engineering and personal kit.

The RRS James Clark Ross sitting smartly in the bay.

Shovelling snow. A popular pastime on Antarctic bases.

Transporting goods from the landing site to the station. A long way man-hauling or a short way by skidoo.

Breaking for lunch on the jetty.

Vital early job; attaching the sewage pipe.

More digging.

Directing the tender in to the improvised landing site.

Happy station staff, left for another summer.

Signy station.

Jerry

Enter the Ice by Jerry

15th and 16th November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the first really spectacular icebergs.

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

Eerie towers rising through the broken surface.

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

Crabeater Seal.

Adelie penguins, pushing themselves along on their bellies.

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

Meanwhile... inside the ship.

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

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

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

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

Adelie penguins, up to no good.

Love those little white rings around the eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One cheeky adelie hanging out with the chinstrap penguins.

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

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

Jerry

The Falkland Islands by Jerry

7th to 12th November

Having been through the Falklands before I was keen to explore some new parts, specifically some of the hills to the west of Stanley. Saturday was clear and sunny so the ship's doctor and I headed that way, through the town and all the way to the end of the inlet upon which the harbour and town is based. That in itself took about an hour and a half. Striking off across the moorland which makes up the majority of the island terrain we headed in a fairly straight line for the top of Mount Tumbledown. The exposed rock, reaching out of the grass at the top, belies a series of ridges running across the northern part of east Falkland. 

Views from the top of Mt Tumbledown.

Scrambling though this we got spectacular views back down to the ship and west across the rest of the island. As we sat and ate our lunch we were approached by a confident turkey vulture watching us with interest.

Turkey vulture in the foreground, cloud rolling over Stanley in the background.

Further along we came to a memorial to those killed on the mountain in the 1982 war. While we were enjoying scrambling round in shorts and t-shirt on a sunny day, with minimal kit and provisions, it was difficult to imagine it any different. Yet it was impossible not to try and imagine being up there cold and wet, sleep-deprived, desperate and under fire. Whatever your thoughts on the conflict itself, the horrors those on Mt Tumbledown and the surrounding peaks endured is quite a thing and should not be forgotten.

The memorial cross on Mt Tumbledown.

As we arrived back at the ship a few hours later we met the rest of the station staff and marine scientists who had travelled down on the long, long flight via Chile. Understandably everyone was in need of a good shower and long sleep, but that didn't prevent us exploring and enjoying the rest of our time around Stanley.

I managed to paddle in the sea at surf bay and two trips round to gypsy cove, seeing a total of five Magellanic penguins and a few Peale's dolphins as well as the smaller Falkland songbirds. One of those trips was called short due to heavy rain while the second needed a quick March to get back to the ship just two minutes before shore leave was cancelled. 

An informative sign at Surf Bay.

I managed more paddling in the sea at berthas beach while the ship was refueling. Commerson’s dolphins were surfing back and forth along breaking waves, their little black and white bodies showing up in the clear blue waters.

Dramatic clouds over Bertha's Beach.

Further along the beach a small colony of Gentoo penguins walked up the sandy beach and through a grassy field, dodging sheep to get to their nests. The combination of penguins and sheep is an amusing and confusing sight.

Gentoo penguins amongst the sheep.

Before our proper departure we had to return once again to Stanley to pick up a replacement crew member, covering for illness, before we could properly set off south on Thursday evening.

Off to sea!

Waving goodbye to Stanley and the Falkland Islands,

Jerry

Traveling South by Jerry

4th to 6th November

We're on our way south. Three years ago, when first starting with the British Antarctic survey, it was only once I was actually on the ship and leaving the Falkland Islands that I felt it was really going to happen. Until that point it all felt a bit like a dream or a mistake. This time it's equally exciting though feels a lot more familiar, like returning home.

Our epic journey started on Wednesday with an immediate hold-up. Severe weather in the Falklands meant our flight got delayed by nine hours so we were put up in the basic hotel at Brize Norton for the night, rising by five the next morning for an early check in. I'd travelled down from Cambridge with another ten, mostly bound for the science cruise that the ship will undertake around dropping summer staff on the islands (or we'll get dropped off around the science cruise, relative importance of each depends on who you are talking to). Between us we had a huge amount of extra luggage; massive bags and boxes full of personal gear and science equipment that hadn't been ready to put on board when the ship left the UK in September. With all the extras I'd accepted I checked in my own body weight in luggage.

The journey down to the Falkland Islands is two nine-hour flights with a short stop off at Ascension Island to refuel. This is the first time I've been through Ascension when it's not been dark or foggy and even though we were not allowed to leave the departure area, 'the cage', I could enjoy the strange views over the bleak lowlands and artificial cloud forest higher up.

The view from the cage out at Ascension Island.

It was midnight by the time we arrived in the Falklands and three by the time we'd retrieved our mountain of luggage, loaded it onto the minibus and got to our B&Bs in Stanley. That night in a comfy bed was luxury.

The next day we moved onto the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross. With a crew change as well as us arriving it was a hive of activity. Luckily I had no duties so wandered into town to enjoy an ice cream in the sun.

A military band playing under the whalebone arch in Stanley.

Jerry

See you in spring by Jerry

Last minute things: check I've got my passport. Check I've got my travel documents. Check I've got my... ah, I'm sure it'll be fine. The main job now is to pack it all into a couple of bags and fill any remaining space and luggage allowance with luxuries (not necessarily those defined as such by UK tax).

I've done some saying goodbye to people, but others get missed as proposed last-minute get-togethers fall through, so a 'bye' email or text will have to do.

My final few bits of training and meetings have been carried out these last few days at work and I'm pretty confident I've done everything on my list (though I have lost the list so can't be 100%). The last few weeks at BAS HQ have been a little strange as the building gets less and less busy with people departing southwards. The most frequently asked question around the canteen is 'when are you off?' as people get impatient, seeing photos and updates from friends already down there.

The next few days will see me get a minibus from Cambridge to Brize Norton, plane via Ascension down to the Falklands, then join the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross. My previous experience on the JCR is a happy one with minimal sea-sickness. However other travels have indicated that this may have been a fluke, so I'll be taking myself a sea survival kit; scopoderm patches, bottle of water, packet of biscuits, plenty to read, watch and listen to. Fingers crossed I'll be able to get out on deck, looking out for albatrosses and whales, but I'll be prepared for spending a lot of time lying in my bunk.

On previous trips down I've been straight in to Bird Island, a three day crossing, but this time I'm excited to be going via Signy, the British Antarctic Survey's station on the South Orkney Islands. It'll be as far south as I've been and I'm hoping to see loads of ice and some new penguins. The base there is summer-only so we'll hang around while they get it all up and running again, which will hopefully give us some time to experience the area a little.

Then it'll be up to Bird Island, maybe calling in at King Edward Point, South Georgia on the way to say hello to a few friends.

I've been spending the last weeks before departing doing all the stuff I won't be able to over the austral summer; running and mountain biking in the hills (https://vimeo.com/143548558), getting my culture on (galleries, gigs, plays) and eating fresh fruit and veg.

Jerry

Back at BAS by Jerry

I started back at the British Antarctic Survey a month ago in my new role as Station Leader for Bird Island. Life has been pretty hectic since then as the other new SLs and I have found our days full of training courses, document reading and planning for the upcoming season. A whole range of topics have been covered from people-managing skills to the computing systems to managing major incidents. The latter has tested our responses to some pretty daunting scenarios; buildings on fire, planes falling out the sky and major oil slicks. While slightly terrifying they’ve also been extremely valuable in increasing understanding and confidence in what we can do to mitigate problems, how to deal with them and how to manage the station and personnel through the good times and hard times.

Three years ago I arrived at the pre-deployment training week at Girton College with little idea of what to expect and spent my time trying to absorb as much information as possible, trying to work out how much was relevant for my job and my destination. This year I turned up as the go-to guy for questions on Bird Island, feeling much more confident in my role due to experience down south and the training in Cambridge. I tagged along to most of the lectures and discussion groups as there’s so much I still don’t know, especially about life on the bases further south, and I was also able to pick out a few of the most relevant points and reiterate them to my team.

Oil spill response and fire safety were followed by the first aid training. I’m up to date with this so popped back into the office for a few more bits of paperwork before heading back to watch the riotous scenarios the teams are expected to deal with, complete with very enthusiastic acting by the victims. As in my first year the great thing about having everyone together is that you get to meet people from so many different backgrounds, with a large range of jobs, all excited about heading to Antarctica.

The official pre-deployment staff photo 2015

At the end of the week everyone departed and I accompanied the folk who will be heading south for the whole year as they went up to Derbyshire for winter teams training week. I last did this in the year termed ‘rainageddon’, such was the apocalyptic level of mud generated. It now takes place in an outdoor centre that is a pretty good representation of a station in that it requires everyone to pitch in cooking, eating and cleaning together.

Pitching a tent. In the rain.

True to form we did get a bit of drizzle but were able to get a bit of shelter to talk about navigation, campcraft, search techniques and basic ropework. 

Replicating blizzard visibility with the bucket-on-head technique. The aim was to find the second bucket.

Making a pulley from simple climbing kit.

Testing the effectiveness of the above pulley.

There’s only so much that can be taught indoors though so we managed to get people out to navigate around the campsite and the moors above Curbar Edge before testing their skills on the high ropes course. As has happened a few times recently I played the casualty in a rescue exercise, this one involved me being lowered down and then hauled back up a steep slope on a stretcher.

Putting together a stretcher and anchor system.

The view from the stretcher as we headed off down the slope.

With the sun out we headed up to the moors above Curbar Edge for more navigation practice.

Lunch break.

Learning rope ascending techniques with a couple of jumars on the high ropes course.

Taking advantage of the high ropes course.

Just hanging about.

All roped up for ascending and descending.

Bare feet or wellies... a test of optimal climbing footwear.

Following the excitement of all these group bonding exercises it’s kind of down to earth with a bump as everyone goes their separate ways and I head back to the office for more courses. I can’t wait to head off south again in a little over a month, but still feel I’ve a lot of preparation work to cram in before then.

Relaxing on one of the climbing walls.

The hugely enjoyable end-of-course barbecue.

How to get a job in conservation. by Jerry

I have worked in conservation for about ten years now and have often been asked about the best ways to get a job in the field. 

This blog is an attempt to answer some familiar questions and provide some guidance for others wishing to pursue a career in this sector, based on my personal experiences and from chatting to colleagues. It is by no means the be all and end all of ‘getting a job in conservation’ and no doubt you will get different advice from many other sources. I will try to respond to any questions and welcome comments from anyone wishing to contribute their own advice.


What do you want to do?

It is important to say that ‘working in conservation’ can cover a large range of career opportunities, and many colleagues I know have switched from one to another. Here are just a few:

Academia – carrying out novel research to promote our understanding of a species or system in order to more effectively preserve them. Usually associated with a university and PhD work.

Research assistant – often the person that does the fieldwork for the above academic. Involves more time getting dirty in the field, close to the species or ecosystem being studied. Less involved in the writing up and will frequently be on a short contract. Often requires a postdoc or significant experience.

Estate worker – carries out important manual work on reserves. Could be anything like path maintenance, reed-bed transplanting, pond creation, woodland management. A good, practical, muddy job with the rewarding aspect that you can often see your work directly benefiting wildlife.

Wardening – will generally involve a huge range of duties from dealing with the public and special interest groups, to manual work on your reserve, to wildlife monitoring. Many reserves have seasonal wardens to coincide with peak times for visitors and wildlife.

Public relations – could involve promoting a particular reserve or company, or focus on public interactions such as educational activities with school groups.

Policy - You want to make a real difference? Get into policy. The thankless task of assessing all the science and then presenting a plan to someone who doesn't understand or has a different agenda. I have nothing but respect for the activists and policy-formers trying to influence change on large scale.


My conservation career

Here is a brief review of the path I took to get to where I am now:
I have always had an interest in wildlife and the outdoors and was sure I wanted a job relating to that but didn’t know quite what. After school I took biology, chemistry and geography A-levels and then studied straight biology at university, with mediocre success. Following a research masters in science of the environment I was ready to move out of academia and into the real world.
After what felt like a long time volunteering I got my first conservation job as a seasonal warden on the Farne Islands, Northumberland and fell in love with islands and seabirds there. After a few years I continued the wardening work down in south Wales, to Skomer and then Skokholm islands, being responsible for overall running of the latter. In 2012 I got a dream job with the British Antarctic Survey to work as a zoological field assistant, collecting data on penguins and petrels on Bird Island, South Georgia.


Qualifications

Take a look at environmental recruitment websites such as countryside jobs service, environment jobs or stopdodo and you will see many asking for a degree in a relevant subject; ecology, environmental management, conservation science or such like. I studied straight biology as I was unsure of the career I wanted and thought (probably rightly) that a mainstream science would offer plenty of alternatives at a later date.
Prior to entering university I would say biology is an essential A-level subject and that one or both of chemistry and maths in support would be highly advantageous.

If university is not for you that shouldn't rule out any but the jobs in academia. There are many institutions offering courses in land management that will often give you a variety of practical skills to go alongside the theory.

Having said this, I have worked with people who have arrived in conservation from many different backgrounds: art school, accountancy and bus driving are three that spring to mind, and that leads me to my next point...


Volunteering - the most important thing!

It is an unfortunate fact that it is very difficult to get a job in conservation without some volunteering experience. I say unfortunate as this can be a disadvantage to those who are perhaps limited by location or finances, however for others it can somewhat level the playing field and filter the great from the mediocre.

Regular volunteering has huge benefits:
  • Increase your knowledge. Spending time with experts on birds, mammals, plants, insects etc. will enhance your ID skills and knowledge. There are a lot of people graduating from university with a degree in ecology or conservation science whose knowledge of British species is surprisingly poor. Spending a bit of time with an expert will really make you stand out from the crowd.
  • Learn new skills. As well as ID skills you may get the chance to learn new practical tasks as some organisations will put their most valued volunteers through courses; first aid, brushcutter use, bat identification. There are other skills you can learn just from hanging around with the right people and groups – bird ringing, vegetation classification. Any of these will make you more employable.
  • Deciding what you want to do. As stated above there are many aspects to working in conservation. If possible spend some time shadowing a few different people on a local reserve. You might find you most enjoy the practical aspect of woodland management or get a real kick out of taking school groups round.
  • Shows dedication. This is where it levels the playing field. While the rich kids are off playing at saving orangutans in Borneo you may be getting covered in mud and rain, moving large chunks of reed-bed from one boggy field to another. But believe me, when employers are looking through CVs, wondering who will work well in their team it is the latter that stands out.
  • Making contacts. As in every single area of employment there is an element of who you know. Working in the seabird & UK islands scene it is rare that I meet someone in the same sphere of employment who I either haven't heard of or don't have friends in common.

I was relatively lucky in that I went through university with the first round of tuition fees, which seem fairly modest now. Although I have since accrued more interest on my student loan than I have paid it back (no one goes into conservation for the money) it was not the financially crippling burden it could be today. I would heartily recommend a few months volunteering in different areas to decide which aspect, if any, of conservation is for you before committing to it as a career.


Who can you volunteer with?

The vast majority of conservation bodies are charities who rely on volunteers to carry out their essential work. The best thing is to get in touch with your local reserve and ask about work parties they run. Purely a personal thing but I always found the Wildlife Trusts most grateful for volunteers and most likely to help develop your skills and employment potential, the RSPB pay their employees a laughably small amount but will often put long term volunteers through extremely useful training courses. The National Trust and John Muir Trust run a variety of work parties in some extremely exciting places.

Volunteering opportunities broadly fit into four categories:
  1. Local, ongoing work. Regular, seasonal maintenance work at a local reserve. I volunteered like this a lot while studying for my masters and while working part time. I would join the local Wildlife Trust group for one or two days a week for whatever maintenance or management tasks were required on the local reserves.
  2. A week away. A longer stint, usually with a group where accommodation and sometimes food will generally be provided. A charge may be asked for to cover housing and travel but bursaries are sometimes available for students and unemployed. When I worked on Skomer we asked for a small amount to cover maintenance and improvements of the volunteer accommodation. Groups of up to six would assist with visitor management, wildlife recording, footpath or building repairs. Whatever was needed that week or whatever relevant skills they possessed.
  3. Long term volunteering. On Skokholm I was assisted by two long term volunteers who would be present for two or three months, learning and taking part in all aspects of wardening and island life. As well as these experiences we provided accommodation and would put them through a first aid course. There were some very competent people who passed through that programme and I am pleased to say have gone on to have a variety of interesting jobs in conservation. Both the RSPB and National Trust run similar programmes aimed at developing the next generation of reserve wardens. Competition for these places can be fierce so previous volunteering experience, knowledge and personal connections can be important.
  4. The high-cost, exotic location. There are some good volunteer programmes abroad; I did one in the Seychelles for a few months, recording hawksbill turtle breeding success. For that I think they paid half my flights and provided basic accommodation. However, many of them charge a lot of money and I would try and contact someone else who has volunteered with them to find out what they got out of it. Did they genuinely get some important skills and experiences or did they just have a fun holiday while the company only wanted them for their money?
Many of these are now advertised as full jobs would be on sites such as countryside jobs service.


It can be tough...

Conservation is a growing interest as people recognise the value of the natural world, however that interest is not necessarily shared by government, particularly this current one, who will always cut environmental funding rather than investing in it. Hence conservation bodies are squeezed further and further, many operating on a skeleton staff. Jobs, certainly the ones I have been doing, tend to be short-contract, heavily contested and low paid (although I have done ok as usually I have had my accommodation provided).


But it's worth it.

That first job is difficult to get but keep volunteering, keep expanding your knowledge, skills and contacts and it will come. Once you get your first job it becomes so much easier and all sorts of options open up. I'm of the opinion that you never appreciate nature so much as when you really spend time amongst it, and that is equally true of a huge penguin colony as the small woodland at the end of your road. Working in any size reserve you find all sorts of life you never realised was there, get to see it change through the seasons and take pride when something you've done improves conditions.

And who knows what amazing sights, species and places you'll end up seeing.

The Shiants by Jerry


Arrival on the Shiant Isles
The welcoming sign on the bothy door.

I arrived on the Shiant Isles on 5th June, after a long journey up from Cambridge via Flamborough Head, Inverness, Ullapool and Stornoway. Early that morning we did a last-minute shop for fresh food and loaded our provisions onto the boat; six big plastic boxes full of camping gear, tagging technology and office supplies, three large barrels of food, four big water tanks, two rucksacks loaded with rope access equipment, a portable generator and large quantities of personal gear, all tightly dry-bagged.

As we sped across the Minch the excitement levels were rising as we were finally getting out to the real fieldwork. The chance to spend some time on the Shiants was one of the main reasons I went for this job. Flocks of seabirds sat on the water and watched us pass, while porpoise and a minke whale surfaced close by. It was a calm day but dominated by mist and drizzle that had steadily increased to a persistent rain by the time the Shiants loomed out of the grey; the tall, imposing, sheer cliffs surrounded by puffins, razorbills and guillemots filling the sea and the sky.

My first view of the Shiants.

It was a wet arrival (partly the rain, partly ending up thigh-deep in the sea while loading and unloading) but before long we were drinking tea in the bothy with the LIFE monitoring team and by early afternoon the sun was out, giving us time to set up our tents before the storms of that evening drew in.

What would become a familiar sight; thermals on the washing line.


The Islands

The Shiants are owned by the Nicholson family and a passionate biography of the islands can be found in Adam's book. They are located roughly half way between Stornoway and the Isle of Skye, in the middle of the turbulent Minch. They consist of three main islands and an assortment of smaller outcrops and rocks. We have been working on Eilean an Tighe (House Island) and the larger, steeper Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), joined at all but the highest tide by a narrow shingle isthmus, crossing of which can dictate time spent in the field.

Looking south across House Island; the smaller, lower and boggier of the two main islands. On the near right side you can just make out the bothy. 
Looking north to Rough Island across the isthmus, boulder field and arch.
The imposing Rough Island. The zigzag route up this steep edge takes you from sea level to 135m without much mercy. Down on the causeway the LIFE team are returning late to find a challenging dash across between the waves.

Our base is beside the bothy on Eilean an Tighe. A small but comfortable, dry building with a lovely open fire and nearby water source, we were extremely grateful for its presence in the poor weather that dominated our stay.

The bothy. Due for a re-roof, it did keep us dry and warm.
Sitting round the table for food, drink, warmth and conversation in the evening.
The west-facing bothy catching a superb sunset. Our tents are off on the right and the small spring where we got our fresh water is just behind me.

Around the camp are nesting oystercatchers, pied wagtails and meadow pipits while a small crèche of eider ducks was regularly seen around the isthmus. 

Female eider ducks and ducklings.

Further up the slope, defending their nests with the aggression one would expect, are the bonxies, the great skuas, often competing with the large gulls and ravens for territorial dominance. 

Bonxie calling out a warning.
You get too close to the nest you're going to know about it.

The cliffs are teeming with kittiwakes and auks, fulmars cackle loudly from patches among them and puffins cover the grassy slopes like discarded confetti.

Slopes full of puffins.
More obligatory puffin photos.
Carrying fresh nesting material. With such a wet summer this was a common sight, as were filthy, muddy birds.

The mixture of upland, marshland and coastal plants and flowers means there is quite a diversity of colour amongst the well-grazed grasses, with bright yellow irises and pink/purple orchids the showpieces.

Common spotted orchid, I believe.
Flag iris.

A highlight for me has been regular sightings of eagles; a pair of golden eagles can regularly seen circling the nearest peak of Garbh Eilean, while the mighty white tailed eagles dominate the other side.

A poor photo of a rather tatty golden eagle. Still, you can see that amazing eagle face.

The real star of the Shiants though is the boulder field, Carnach Mhor, surely one of the most amazing places in the world for sheer density of seabirds. 

Looking down at the boulder field. I'm sure it was never this sunny.

It really is like a crowded city as every square meter is packed with birds, eggs, chicks, noise and smell. In little pockets on flat rocks the guillemots huddle together. Down in the cracks and gaps the razorbills make their home while further down still, in the smaller crevices, puffins peer out at you in their inimitable way. Every so often a loud honking reverberates around the enclosed rocks as a shag makes its presence felt.

Shag on the nest among the boulders.

The sky above is filled with thousands of birds wheeling around, wings beating rapidly as they circle their landing sites. At times, such as when a predator flies over or when large numbers are returning with food at dusk, the sky looks so full it feels like a biblical swarm.

Looking upwards from within the boulder field, there's lookouts on every rock and more coming in all the time.


STAR work

See my previous blog for the background to the work I was doing on the Shiants. We were focussing on gathering track data from the larger auks; razorbills and guillemots. 

Razorbill.
Guillemot.

After a few initial teething problems with the devices we are very happy with the data we got back. The tracks are to be properly analysed and published but I’ll try and get an example of the sort of thing we found.

Working late into the evening sealing tags in their waterproof cases.


Additional work

It’s been a busy time on the normally isolated islands as work gears up towards the rat eradication project. The Shiants have been identified as one of the most important sites for seabirds and for seabird potential should the black rats, accidentally introduced years ago through shipwrecks, be removed. This is a large scale project that will commence over winter, though we had a few traps around our camp to keep our food and bedding safe and rodent-free.

The warning sign within the bothy.
A poor, unfortunate, extremely cute eco-terrorist who came too close to our food. That long tail they have is amazing.

One of the key hopes is that the removal of rats will see the return of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels; vulnerable burrow-nesting species who have increased in numbers on other islands (such as Ramsey) where rodents have been eradicated. Happily on our journey back to the mainland I spotted a couple of shearwaters cutting the waves of the Minch, so they are around.

Fulmar.

Along with the RSPB’s LIFE team, who are attempting to record all the vegetation, vertebrate and invertebrate life present on the island, we have been joined at times by a small film crew documenting human-seabird interactions and by Scottish Natural Heritage, carrying out additional monitoring. In particular they have been counting the huge numbers of seabirds, something we got involved with, marking out areas of known active burrows on the puffin slopes then retiring and counting the hundreds of individuals standing out beside them.


Reflections

The above is a lightly edited version of a blog I wrote for the RSPB’s own website (hence the confused tenses) but with better photos. We left the Shiants on 28th June, heading off through rough seas on a nice big boat after helping the large ringing group unload their huge amounts of kit onto the shore.

Though we had reduced the size and weight of our kit, mainly by eating the food but also by losing a few things, I had an extra two bin bags full of plastic bottles, all collected from a short stretch of beach near the bothy. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last few years somewhere truly remote where I collected and recorded any debris found, but I was shocked by the amount of rubbish along the shore. Mostly marine debris and fishing gear – buoys, ropes, nets and crates – but so many bottles, lumps of polystyrene and assorted broken plastics. These are a huge problem, not just aesthetically but in terms of being ingested by marine life. It was so depressing to see a remote, isolated, beautiful, wild island so obviously polluted by sheer human laziness.

I just didn't have enough time to build a huge sculpture / wicker man out of it all.

I was sad to leave the islands but looking forward to comforts like a comfy bed, shower (rather than the cold sea) and a toilet (rather than a wave-bashed rock). Time there had been tougher than I imagined, largely the result of a) continual damp, especially boots, and b) a constantly whistling companion. Still, when it was good it was magnificent. I’ve fond memories of sitting round the fire in the bothy in the evenings, chatting with the others who generously shared their wine, whisky and food.

Razorbill preparing to depart.

The afternoons when the sun was out brought out the blue of the sky and sea, the green of the hills and the yellow lichen on the rocks. When it was clear enough you could see all along the Outer Hebrides and down to Skye. Having time to observe the seabirds in such huge numbers, behaving naturally, oblivious to my presence was always a joy and long may it continue to be.

A glorious sunset over the western isles.


Jerry 

A new job by Jerry

Just 36 hours after landing back at Brize Norton Jess and I boarded the sleeper train up to Inverness, ready to start work for the RSPB. That hectic weekend took in a day of first aid revision and a nice day on the Aberdeenshire coast expanding our rope work skills as well as all the contract signing and paperwork. This was all as part of our new jobs as research assistants for the Seabird Tracking And Research (STAR) project. This is the final year of work that has been ongoing for a few summers now, formerly known as Future of Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME), that a number of my friends and colleagues have participated in.


While not indulging in any climbing or abseiling, we will be working on the edges of some cliffs and steep slopes. Places where you'd much rather be properly roped up.


STAR

The aim of STAR, if the title didn’t make clear, is researching seabird behavior - specifically through tracking individuals during the breeding season. The study focuses on five main species (fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and shag) at a large number of sites around the UK and Ireland. A range of lightweight devices that can record a birds global position, dive depth and movement have been deployed and a huge amount of data recovered.

The first view of this data shows where the birds are spending the majority of their time away from the nest during egg incubation and chick rearing. We can see key feeding areas at different times of year, stages of development and between years. Already this has shown how some birds travel much further than was previously thought common or even possible. Further analysis can link this to weather and marine conditions and how these link to poor or successful breeding seasons. Perhaps the most important reason for identifying the key feeding areas is for conservation and protection. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a big issue at the moment and this data will hopefully mean they can be sited in the best places. Similarly offshore windfarms have a large potential for supplying clean, green energy, but they can cause problems for wildlife if built in the wrong location.


In the office

While Jess and Jodie headed up to Fair Isle to start their summer work, Emily and I drove back down to Cambridge, from where we could work in the RSPB office at The Lodge. The journey back was interesting, lets just say that after nearly three years without driving I wouldn't have chosen a 10 hour journey in a van with no rear view mirror and very sensitive brakes.

Most of my time down here was spent getting to grips with the new Mataki tags. Unlike those that have been used previously, the key advantage of these cutting-edge new tags is that the gps data they collect is downloaded remotely to a base station, rather than having to recapture the bird to collect the device back. This means significantly less disturbance to the individual and the colony. Depending on how often you want to record gps points the batteries can last from two days to a week, while a combination of immersion in the sea and picking at it by the bird means tag will fall off in 10 days or so.

Mataki tag (top) and base station (bottom). The only real difference is the size of the battery. As it's vital to keep these devices as light as possible they are often just a circuit board attached to a battery, sealed in heat-shrink. The tag here is under 20g, less than 3% of the birds body-weight.
As with any new technology this required a fair amount of testing; learning how the programming works, checking battery life and downloading range. The best way to do this is to set the tags up and attach them to the back of your rucksack when cycling to and from home each day.

Cambridgeshire: flat. You don't need a bike with a large number of gears.

After my time on Bird Island, getting used to spending every day in an office was a strange adjustment. Although I often had office work there I would generally do it first thing in the morning or late afternoon, saving the best part of the day to head out and do my monitoring work. At The Lodge I usually broke up the day by heading out into the reserve over lunchtime. Being among woodland made a nice change as I reacquainted myself with species I’d not seen in years (butterflies, tits and finches) and a few new ones (hobby).

Peacock butterfly.

Distant hobby.


Flamborough Head

At the end of May we got our first real taste of field work, heading up to the reserves at Bempton and Flamborough on the Yorkshire coast. The huge, seabird-covered cliffs are spectacular. Seeing gannets at such close range was fantastic, though it wasn’t them we were there for.

Cliffs packed with auks and kittiwakes. Bempton and Flamborough looking busy.

Early in the morning (extremely early in the morning, like 3am early) we awoke and headed to the cliffs. To reduce disturbance we wanted to complete our work before the coast path got busy. When handling the birds we try and stay as quiet as possible and aim to release them in within 6 minutes, studies have shown when these conditions are met the impact on the birds are minimal. 

Sunrise on the white cliffs at Flamborough.

Roped up and sat on the edge of the cliffs at that time in the morning was great. I saw a barn owl casually hunting back and forth along the edge, at one point swooping past me with an unfortunate rodent in its beak. With the full moon dropping over the horizon to my right as a deep orange sun rose on my left I felt like was in the perfect location for something dramatic to happen. You know when you look up at a star-filled sky sometimes you feel a small and insignificant part of the universe? Well at that time and place I felt the opposite. Like Zaphod beating the total perspective vortex.

Jerry

The return journey, part two. by Jerry

The Shackleton pulled into Stanley on the Falkland Islands and as soon as we were allowed we headed ashore and into town.

Harsh weather on the FIPASS as we arrived. We headed out but got driven back by the wind and rain before reaching the adjacent HMS Clyde.
I'm thankful we weren't dropped anywhere busier as our first taste of civilisation as Jess, Cian and I were a little bemused and cautious; when crossing roads we waited patiently for approaching vehicles however slow and far away they were. Entering the supermarket we were thrown by a cat running in past us and then the vast array of goods on the shelves. I had to remind myself that unlike the Bird Island stores you can't just take something off the shelf, sample it and then walk off with in in a pocket.

Is this normal supermarket goods now? No longer hundreds and thousands but billions and trillions?
That evening us six returning islanders went for a fancy meal, a celebration of being back on dry land. The next evening we joined the ship's crew and rat team in a busy pub. Being in a crowded, loud environment didn't seem as alien as I thought it might. I thought back to first call at the beginning of December when I'd had a mild panic attack after coming into our lounge and finding it full of people. I think the difference was that was after nine months of just four of us in that place.

Soon enough our wintering team had to be split further as Cian remained in Stanley while Jess and I (plus Adam and Mick) headed off to Darwin. Cian's off travelling in South America (volcanoes permitting) and saying goodbye to him wasn't actually as hard as others. I guess we were all tired of emotional farewells and I'm sure we'll see him again in a few months.

Accommodation in Stanley was full so we'd been sent off to the tiny, remote settlement of Darwin. Our initial misgivings were abated when we saw the plush place we would be staying and by the time we'd had a cup of tea and seen a tame steamer duck waddle through the lounge we were completely sold on the place. We've always eaten exceedingly well on Bird Island and the chefs on the ship do an amazing job, but the food at Darwin House was outrageously good. The hospitality of the couple running the place was superb and we spent a thoroughly relaxing couple of days there.

Shags hanging around, making use of the odd shipwreck.
Darwin House, what a setting.
Exploring the surroundings.
As we had no real agenda we spent our time reading in the conservatory and going for short walks, caracaras, red-backed hawks and Commerson's dolphins were all seen within a few hundred meters of the house. Deciding I needed to exercise off some of the food I ran down past Goose Green and onward along the heavily rutted fields that count for roads this far out of the way. I finally reached what is said to be the worlds most southerly suspension bridge (clearly no one has actually checked) across Bodie Creek. The planks across were looking a bit worse for wear and the sign on the gate had worn away enough to make it unclear whether it was safe for vehicles and pedestrians or very unsafe. It was only when getting back and checking that I found it had been closed in 1997 and access was prohibited.

Bodie Creek bridge, worth the run.
Goose Green residents amazed at seeing a person.
Following a long, long flight I arrived back in the UK to be met by my parents as said my last goodbyes to the rest of the team. By the afternoon we were back in the Lake District, out walking in the sun, smelling the lovely gorse, observing the lambs and watching and listening out for small, elusive British wildlife.

Back in the UK.
24 hours later I'd met back up with Jess and we were heading off for our next seabird-related jobs, but that's for another blog post...

The return journey, part one. by Jerry

And so the day came when I had to leave Bird Island. In the end it was quick but incredibly hard. One tender-load of incoming goods (fresh veg, technical parts, post) and one going out (waste and recycling, us and our luggage). We waved goodbye to the four new winterers, our last view was of them in a big group hug before teared eyes and heavy fog hid the base from view.

Goodbye Bird Island, look after it for us.
Heartbreaking as it was we had to pull ourselves together quickly to climb up the ladder onto the side of the ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton.

Up the ladder, knowing that a fall will either land you between ships or on all the waste & recycling.
Onboard we tried to distract our sorrows with a coffee on the bridge, rescuing a disorientated diving petrel and then down to lunch. Specifically the colours, variety and freshness of the salad bar.

Remembering the upsides of the real world.
We had hoped for clear views of the island as we set off but as we stood out on deck we laughed at how infuriating the place can be as only the tips of the lowest headlands projected from the grey clouds.

So much for farewell views of the island.
Thankfully in the preceding days we'd had some beautiful clear skies and sun. We'd finished off the ringing of the southern giant petrel and grey-headed albatross chicks, I'd completed a long-held ambition to walk the length of the island along the spine, taking in the five major hills, and we'd popped down to the bottom of the macaroni penguin colony. Even after two and a half years there were still new experiences and sitting at the base of Big Mac while all the penguins charged past and leapt into the sea felt significantly different to past experiences watching them all pile out onto the land. Maybe it was pondering my own departure.

Macaroni penguins heading off to sea.

The view of Bird Island from the very top, looking across Bird Sound to South Georgia mainland and, off to the right, Willis Islands.
We had expected a slow trip round to King Edward Point on the South Georgia mainland, but within a few hours, just after darkness had fallen, we were there. That meant a reunion with various friends but most excitingly Steph, the B.I. albatross assistant from my first year and a half. It was great to see her, now working there as the predator scientist, and the next morning she took around the coast to Penguin River where there was a small group of king penguins with a few large, fluffy, brown chicks. It was a beautifully sunny and warm day and we got great views of the mountainous interior of the island as well as the wildlife yet to depart for the winter.

King penguin chick looking much too warm in all that gear.
The chick getting a careful preen from an attentive parent.
Curious about my rucksack which, as I've used for work, no doubt smells of penguin already.
The true king of South Georgia.
In the afternoon we got further chance to explore the pass over to Myviken and Grytviken, the museum, the church and Shackleton's grave.

Petrel had, in earlier times, been used to deliver supplies to some of the first teams to set up a base on Bird Island.
Abandoned whale processing plant.
Does whale oil have a sell-by date?
So different from Bird Island; we took a path (a path!) up the tussack-free slope (walking is so much easier here).
We could not believe how clear the skies were. Compare to the earlier photos looking back at Bird Island.
One of this years fur seal pups reclaiming whale-bone relics outside the museum.
The mirror-calm waters of Gull Lake.
That evening there was a big barbecue celebrating the beginning of winter for the K.E.P. staff. Departing along with us were around 40 others; summer staff from the museum and representatives of the South Georgia government, builders and the restoration project team that had completed the (hopefully) final stage of the rat eradication project.

Loading up the helicopters.
King Edward Point the following morning, taken from the cross Shackleton's men erected in honour of The Boss. Beyond the K.E.P. accommodation towers the ship that bears his name.
Before departing the following day we managed an amazing excursion as one of the boatmen kindly took us out across the bay to the base of the nearest glacier. We approached carefully, creeping through the broken chunks of ice, getting ever closer to the huge wall of blue-white slabs and cracks. Stopping the required safe distance from it we bobbed around for a while admiring its size, worrying about the extent to which it has retreated in the last decade and waiting for chunks to fall off.

Cian, Steph and Jess - family day out!
Approaching the glacier; the boatman's view.
A pair of shags skirting the edge.
Too large and impressive for a photo to do it justice.
It was a great way to end our time on South Georgia and as we headed off that evening, waving to the small team of eleven left ashore, we had all decided to enquire about jobs down there.

Looking back to the jetty and a colourful goodbye.
There were some rough seas on the way back but by now I know how to deal with them to avoid seasickness: make sure you've a bottle of water and plenty to read or listen to and stay in bed. By then end of the second day I was able to make it down to grab a very quick bit of food and by the third, when the swell had calmed down a bit, I was able to help out cleaning in the kitchen and get out on deck where we saw a couple of distant whales and some dolphins swim right under the pointy end.

End of part one.



BAS webdiary by Jerry

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

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

Jerry

Penguin counting by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry