Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) lay their eggs in December. They start hatching in March and the chicks are present on Bird Island all through the austral winter until fledging in November. While the other breeding species are either present in only small numbers or absent completely, the wanderer chicks are residents almost year-round.
Under the direction of the albatross assistant, monitoring them is a task for everyone on station as we record every individual on the island, that's 600 to 900 nests. In the week Christmas Eve to New Years Eve we'll be out every day making a note of every occupied nest; noting down adult bird ring numbers, labeling the nest with a stake and taking a GPS fix so we can map out.
There is a study area containing around 100 nests that is studied more intensively (recording egg sizes, hatching dates, chick weights) but for most of the island the monitoring consists of visits at the start of each month to check the chicks are still alive. Over winter, when time in the field is superseded by laboratory work, I would really look forward to these days. Especially as it felt I had my patch of island with my chicks in it. After a few checks I would get to know a few of the characters; which ones were in the most picturesque spots, which ones were growing the fastest, who would greet me aggressively and who would pose nicely for photos.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 23rd May 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens @ 25mm. 1/250 sec, f/9.0, ISO 100.
The gentoo penguin study colony on the South Georgia mainland is located at Maiviken, an hours walk away from station. At the start of summer the zoologist (assisted by a few others) counts every nest. The spread-out colony covers a variety of difficult areas including those hiding in tussack grass and those on the top of hills with no vantage point.
Location: Maiviken, South Georgia. Date: 6th December 2016. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens @ 19mm. 1/200 sec, f/7.1, ISO 100.
Active gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) nests are counted at peak egg-laying time, usually some time in October. The largest colony on Bird Island is just over 1,000 pairs so it can be quite a job but thankfully the nests don't move around so checking your count is simple.
The same can not be said of gentoo chick counting. There can be up to two raised per nest so already numbers are higher, plus they move around. Counts take place 100 days later, by which time the majority of adult penguins are out at sea feeding (they generally return in the evening to regurgitate it up for the chicks). The young birds gather together in creches, which offer them protection in numbers from skuas and giant petrels.
Counting them requires three or four people working away quickly with their clickers, trying to count as accurately as they can. Numbers are compared and if need be counts are repeated until they're within 5% of each other. The chicks shuffle around in the group so you just have to hope those that you miss are compensated for by the ones you count twice. As with much of our long term monitoring getting the exact number is desirable but it's more important to make sure the methodology is repeated year upon year to ensure comparable figures.
An extra problem with the gentoo chicks is the tendency of the adventurous few to try and change groups; moving from one creche to another. This makes things especially problematic if a recount is needed. So often the counters have to make a human barrier between groups, herding stray chicks back into their collective and keeping an eye out for escapees while trying to remember where they've counted up to.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 15th January 2013. Camera: Pentax Optio W10. 6.3mm, 1/640 sec, f/6.6, ISO 64.
Big Mac is the largest of the three macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) colonies on Bird Island with approximately 36,000 pairs of birds packed onto a steep, rocky slope. They build nests on the ground out of small stones, just out of pecking distance of their neighbours. Through the middle of all this is an open corridor, known as 'the motorway' because it is the main route up and down and in the height of the season is packed with penguins going back and forth between nest and sea. It is a useful access point, meaning we can get down to the bottom of the colony without disturbing them on their nests.
At the start of the season the penguins, 50 of each sex, are weighed as they return to the colony. This gives us a good idea of their general health; how successfully they have been feeding over the winter and how productive they may be in the coming season.
Weighing sessions generally take place late in the day (when more are coming back to land, we don't take them off their nests) and ideally when it's not too cold or windy. Unfortunately those conditions often mean low clouds, obscuring the view. This particular evening though the fog was so thick we couldn't see either end of the colony Our whole world was penguins; they were everywhere you looked, as far as they eye could see, and their territorial, raucous calls filled the air almost as thickly as the mist.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 7th November 2013. Camera: GoPro Hero2. 2.5mm, 1/900 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.