Introduction to Bird Island

As I have mentioned before (and you can probably guess from the name) there are a few birds calling this place home!

There may not be a huge amount of diversity here but the species and sheer numbers of birds present are spectacular.

We don’t get many sunsets here but when we do …!

The island is quite large (4km long) but there isn’t a huge number of birds obvious on the ground; that’s because most prefer to nest under it, thanks to the high density of predatory birds above.

Giant Petrels at battle over food

To live and work on this island has been my dream for years, but the real pulling factor for coming back to South Georgia wasn’t, believe it or not, the penguins …

… as great as penguins are!

Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.

A plateau of wandering albatross

Sadly, I won’t be here for the entire year, which means I won’t get to see the entire breeding cycle of the Wandering Albatross, since they can take 13 months from laying to fledging.

These majestic birds can take 13 months from laying to fledging …

So, unlike most species which were here at the beginning of the breeding season when we arrived, the Wandering Albatross were finishing up. The fledglings were beginning to leave the island, having spent the entire winter on the nest alone, only being visited by their parents to be fed before they disappear back on another several thousand km foraging trip.

When the parents come back, the chicks can be pretty persistent in their begging

Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.

Still fluffy!

When they are approaching the right age, they actually weigh more than their parents and just before fledging, they regurgitate all the hard parts of there diet (squid beaks, fish bones and sometimes plastic) and head for sea.

First flights aren’t always graceful!
But if at first you don’t succeed …

Wandering albatross breed every other year so, despite the fact that last year’s birds were fledging, the new birds were also beginning to arrive, ready for the present breeding season.

Not a bad place to set up for the year

Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “furries”).

Full of furries

Considering that a hundred years ago, these animals were hunted to economical extinction on the island, it’s mind-blowing to consider their numbers are now in the region of 4 million.

About 1 in 800 fur seals are born blonde and given the imaginative nickname of “blondies”
And where there are blonde adults …

There aren’t many success stories like this that I can think of but seemingly Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are on a similar path, based on the quantity of animals being seen from shore this year.

I may or may have not taken this in Antarctica last February

Unfortunately, food was less plentiful this winter and the seals are paying for it. From looking at the diets of the seals throughout the year, we can see how well they are eating and what prey items are available. After poor winters, breeding numbers are often low.

Apparently fur seals like the taste of rock! Who knew?

However, even in poor seasons, the beaches are absolutely covered in fur seals. From looking at the diets of those that have bred this year, we can see that the krill have returned and as a result, the pups are fat and doing well.

Grumpy but content

Nevertheless, I couldn’t write a blog from South Georgia without a penguin picture or two. One of the many great things about Bird Island is how accessible the wildlife is and with a Gentoo Penguin colony just a few hundred metres from base, it’s been easy to keep tabs on how they are doing.

Just hatching

A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.

Gentoo chick already begging
Siblings waiting to be fed

A little further away (but also a little more spectacular) is Big Mac, home to 80,000 Macaroni penguins. These are obligate reducers, meaning they lay two eggs but only one will hatch – and that’s what they are starting to do!

Fat macaronis making their way back to the chicks

In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.

Black-browed albatross taking off
Grey headed albatross are truly stunning specimens
Northern Giant Petrel Chicks are also well on their way, having started earlier than most breeders.

That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed

Giant Birds!

This entry is part 42 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings
Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings

Last month I made the short voyage up the coast of South Georgia to The Bay Of Isles and Prion Island to check up on the Wandering Albatross. These are the world’s largest seabird and they nest in numerous colonies around the South Georgia coastline.

Sitting tight
Sitting tight

Working the vocal cords
Working the vocal cords

A few years back when I saw my first ever albatross on The Galapagos, I put ‘seeing wanderers on the nest’ top of my bucket list.

Bucket list complete!
Bucket list complete! – me for size comparison

I didn’t think for a second that I would be able to cross it off so soon. To be allowed to get up close and personal with such incredible birds was a privilege and a pleasure, but now I need something else to take top spot …. maybe diving with leopard seals!

At this stage of the development adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit
At this stage of the development, adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit

Begging chick
Begging chick

Bracing from the snow
Bracing from the snow

The trip was a success but with the weather window being very narrow, there was much concern that we may not manage to get the work done. However, after a dawn wake-up, we managed to get landed.

Prion at sunrise
Prion at sunrise

Of the birds present, when I last monitored Prion back in April, 100% had successfully made it through the winter and all should hopefully be fledging before the end of the year.

Albatross on the snow
Albatross on the snow

Huge wingspan
Huge wingspan

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Another chick
Another chick

The island is also home to a number of other species which have been able to thrive without the presence of rats. Two colonies of Gentoo penguins were all sitting on freshly laid eggs, Giant Petrels were courting and laying, Pipit chicks were calling from nests all over the island, Light Mantled Albatross were sitting on nest bowls and White Chin Petrels were singing from their underground burrows. Also, the first few male Fur Seals were taking up residence on the beach.

Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff
Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff

Gentoo colony
Gentoo colony

Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach
Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach

Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel
Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel

 

Wandering Albatross

This entry is part 33 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

My latest South Georgian adventure involved a cruise up the coast on board our Fisheries Patrol Vessel to the Bay of Isles. More specifically to Prion Island, in order to see its feathery inhabitants.

Wanderer chick and my big red taxi
Wanderer chick and my big red taxi

Prion Island is home to a small population of the world’s largest seabird, the Wandering Albatross. With a spectacular wingspan of 3.7 metres, a large adult wanderer is roughly the same length as a small car.

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Approximately 30 wanderers return to Prion Island every year in December.  They lay a single egg each which will eventually hatch and be cared for by both parents over the year, before hopefully fledging.  Because of the large investment needed to fledge a wandering albatross chick, parents breed monogamously, every two years. This means that the breeding population of the island is roughly 60 pairs.

Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island
Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island

My job, this visit, was simply to check up on the downy chicks as well as record a number of parameters, such as snow cover and fur seal disturbance, which may effect the success of these giants.

Wandering Albatross Family Portrait
Wandering Albatross Family Portrait

By the time chicks are this developed, both parents can leave the chick in order to forage so I was incredibly fortunate to see a number of adult birds on the colony..

Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows
Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows

Albatross species forage at sea and are often caught accidentally by long lining fishermen around the world. South Georgia has one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, with vessels forced to use particular preventative practices that reduce the risk of bycatch of seabirds (seabird bycatch was 0 in 2015). However, as a result of their spectacular size and effortless flying abilities, Wandering Albatross forage for thousands of miles, meaning birds breeding on the islands will be affected by less well managed fisheries across the Southern Ocean. Sadly, as a result of this and also consuming plastic waste, Wandering Albatross populations are falling and they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

Chick begging for food
Chick begging for food

Still begging
Still begging!

Once chicks fledge at the end of the year, they will roam the southern oceans in search of cephalopods (squid), crustacean (krill) and small fish until they are old enough to breed, covering up to 120,000 km in a year.

Dinner time for the chick
Dinner time for the chick

The island is also home to breeding Giant Petrels and Gentoo penguins. With this year’s Giant Petrel fledglings still covering the island, next year’s breeders had already arrived and were already courting and building nests.

Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Pair of courting Giant Petrels

Giant petrel running in front of the happy couple
Giant petrel getting in the way of my Wandering Albatross picture

Gentoo penguins tend to return to their colonies every evening to roost rather than remaining at sea. As we awaited a pick up on the beach, I was able to put my GoPro in the water and get a glimpse of them in their more natural habitat.

Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins

Before rats were successfully eradicated from South Georgia, islands provided the only safe haven for South Georgian Pipits. These small areas of refuge allowed populations to survive allowing recolonisation of the mainland, post rats

South Georgia Pipit in the snow
South Georgia Pipit in the snow

Postcards By Royal Delivery

This entry is part 18 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Well, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel made a visit this week and made two incredibly important deliveries to the base! First of all was Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne and her accompanying party of VIPs. A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all and thanks to the planning of our Government Officers we managed to make it through without any mishaps! It is always very exciting to discuss the work we do here with people who are knowledgeable and interested.

Talking science with Princess Anne - Thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for picture
Talking science with HRH Princess Anne – thanks to Jen Lee of South Georgia Government for the picture

The second important “delivery” for me, though, came in the form of an amazing batch of handmade postcards from Wood Farm Primary School in Oxford. Firstly, thank you all for the remarkable effort you have put into the making of the postcards. I don’t know who you got to take the pictures but they must be very talented. Secondly, I hear you all had a very successful performance of Robin Hood over the Christmas period, so congratulations!

Collage of my recent delivery of postcards
Collage of my recent delivery of postcards

I will do my best to reply to your postcards when I can. But for now I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to you guys and your questions. I’d also like to compliment you all on your phenomenal handwriting and interesting questions. So here goes …

David, Neha, Zidane and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – How have you been doing in the Antarctic?

I am doing really well down here. It is very weird living on an island where the animals outnumber the humans by so many but I absolutely love it. I originally came down here to get away from my mum’s nagging to do the washing up but my base commander is just as persistant.

Poppy – How was your journey?

My journey down here was amazing. It was calm on the whole and we saw thousands of birds, including lots of Albatross.  We also saw dolphins and the blow of lots of whales.

A wandering albatross - I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! -They have a wingspan of 3.5m!
A wandering albatross – I have wanted to see one of these since I was your age and now I have! they have a wingspan of 3.5m.

Alfie (archer) – Have you seen any whales, sharks or fish?

We have indeed. We saw a number of whale blows on the journey down here and have had humpback whales in the bay. Unfortunately, we don’t get any shark sightings down here but if you see later, I have uploaded a picture I took whilst in the Galapagos of a Hammerhead. The sea here is full of fish and as a result is home to one of the most sustainably run fisheries in the world.

Thomas – Did you see a baby seal come out of its egg?

Sorry, no, Thomas. The main reason for this is that seals are mammals and therefore give birth to live baby seals rather than laying eggs. Here is a short video I put together of the baby seals (only a few weeks old) practicing to swim in the shallow waters of Maiviken.

Billy – Do you take any breaks on the 14km walk to Maiviken?

Not always, but there is a lovely hut on the way which overlooks a lake and sometimes I stop there for a cup of tea and a chocolate bar!

 

My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)
My little hut where I stop for tea on my way to Maiviken (my study site)

Kenzie, George (the archer in the school play) and Liam – Have you seen any new animals?

Almost all of the animals I have seen here are new for me. I have always wanted to see a Wandering Albatross and now I have!

Danny – What is the weather like there?

The weather should be warm here now as it is summer. However this season, conditions have been poor with strong winds (70mph), heavy snow (nearly a foot in a day) and temperatures rarely making it above 0 degrees.

Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – What is it like when you meet a blondie?

It’s great when you see a blondie. It is always great to see something rare and unexpected. Because they are so uncommon, you get to know each of their personalities.

A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup! Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old.
A picture for Dajah – here is a baby elephant seal pup. Did you know that they are 1.3m and weigh 50kg when they are born? And after this they put on 4kg a day until they are 3 weeks old. The adult males can weigh up to 4.5tonnes and are made up of 40% fat!

Blake – How cold is the water and can the animals feel it?

The water temperature varies between 0 and 5 degrees around the islands but a lot of the animals will go even further south and be feeding in -2 degrees. They have many adaptations that allow them to stay warm in the water such as thick fur or feathers and lots of fat. Large amounts of fat also make it easier for the animals to float making swimming easier.

Reece – Have there been any injuries yet?

There most definitely have! Unfortunately, we have had five medical evacuations so far this season (4 tourists, 1 staff). One suffered such a severe seal bite that the helicopter had to meet the boat to get the casualty back to hospital in time

Jenilsia – What is your favourite place and food?

My three favourite places in the world apart from here are the Farne Islands in Northumberland, The Galapagos, and The Pantanal in Brazil. My favourite food is Nutella!

A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos
A pair of Waved Albatross on one of my favourite places in the world, The Galapagos

Savannah – Which Part of Antarctica are you in?

I am on South Georgia, a Sub-Antarctic Island in the Southern Ocean.

Ayesha (soldier) Do common dolphins swim where you stay?

We have many species of marine mammals around the islands but common dolphins tend to be found in warmer waters, north of here. However, there may be some sightings in the Southern Ocean from time to time.

Maariah – Have you seen any Pandas?

Just like you, I love Pandas, and I wish there were some here. However, there is unfortunately no bamboo here for them to feed on. Pandas tend to live in the mountain ranges of Eastern Asia.

Eugenia – Do you like living there?

I love living here. It is very different from England. There is no traffic to wake you up in the morning (although the seals do just as good a job!)

As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin! Hope he is cute enough for you
As requested by Thomas, here is a picture of a baby penguin!

Poppy (narrator of the school play) – Have you seen Santa’s workshop?

I haven’t, I’m afraid. I haven’t been in touch with Santa recently but last I heard he was living in Lapland which is in the Arctic. I hear you were all very good and he brought you presents to school!

Ellie, Zidane, Danny, Elliot and Kieran– What is your favourite animal you have seen? And why?

Every day here, my favourite animal changes. I think that Snow Petrels are stunning birds and very mysterious in the way they appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish. But I love the personality and aggression of the Antarctic Fur Seals the most. Working with these guys every day is an absolute pleasure.

Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim
Fur Seal drying itself after a refreshing swim

Kyle – Have you been doing anything exciting?

Every day I do something exciting here! My work is amazing, I get to be outdoors most of the time and see lots of really cool animals. And if I get bored of the animals, then I just start a snow fight! In the winter when I have more free time and there is more snow then I can ski right out from base.

Wuraola – Is there any food?

Fortunately, we have lots of food here. When we first arrived a huge ship came in full of lots of supplies for the year. We also get the Fisheries Patrol Vessel every 6 weeks which brings us supplies of fresh fruit and veg. We are however restricted to 3 chocolate bars a month and the milk is powdered so the tea tastes horrible!

Lleyton – Could you send me a picture of you next to a seal? – Could I have your autograph?

I will see if I can sort a postcard just for you mate!

As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus
As requested by Kieran here is a picture of a Dolphin. This is a Peale’s dolphin. These guys feed close to the shore and eat mainly fish squid and octopus

Alexzandra – How many species of animal did you see in your entire life?

Too many to count. I have been very lucky to visit lots of incredible places for work and pleasure during my life and have encountered thousands of different species in Africa, Europe, Central and South America and now here.

Tanvir, Joel (one of the outlaws) and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – Have you found any interesting animals?

All the animals are interesting in their own right. When you work with animals every day, you see more and more interesting behaviours. Yesterday I spent almost 2 hours watching the fur seal pups chasing the Gentoo Penguins around the beach!

Another time, I spent an entire day in a Macaroni Penguin colony and don’t think I could get bored of watching these feisty penguins scrapping with each other!

 

Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jumo at any excuse for a fight
Macaroni Penguins are so angry, they jump at any excuse for a fight

Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – Can you  put a picture of a shark on your blog?

Here is a picture of a shark. It is not taken around South Georgia as we have very few species here and they are only found in the deep sea.  Also we can’t dive here, so we would have to catch them to see them.

 

No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!
No shark sightings here unfortunately. But I hope this picture of Hammerheads I took last year will do!

Sumayah – Did you sail or fly on an aeroplane there?

To arrive here, I had to take a plane to the Falklands Islands before sailing for 5 days on a ship.

Charlene – What are you bursting to see next?

The animals I would love to see more than anything down here are Orcas and Leopard Seals. Sightings of both are much more frequent during the winter here so I have all my fingers and toes crossed that, before I leave, I will have seen these.

Eugenia, Aaliyah and Dajah –How many species of animal did you see during work?

I have seen three species of seal, four species of penguin, two species of dolphin, two of whale, four species of albatross and lots and lots of bird species.

Ayesha – Can you post a picture of a Leopard Seal?

Unfortunately, I have not seen a Leopard Seal yet. They tend to spend our winter around the islands feeding on penguins and young seals. During the summer, they breed on the main Antarctic Peninsula on the pack ice.

Elliot – Have you seen any icebergs yet?

Yes, although so far they have been small. By April, we should be seeing much larger bergs off the continent. Some of these are as wide as the island (40km) and can be seen from space.

A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay
A small Iceberg floating in Cumberland Bay

Maariah – Are you home yet?

I am still on South Georgia but I will come and see you guys when I am back.

Liam – Have you seen any icebergs falling down?

I have been lucky enough to see glaciers falling down (or “calving”) here. It is a spectacular sight with so much noise.

Jenilsia – Do you really love penguins?

How could I not love penguins?! They are unbelievably agile and efficient in the water and so comical and aggressive out of it.

Macaroni Penguins playing in the water
Macaroni Penguins playing in the water

Poppy – What happened to the baby Elephant Seal?

We successfully managed to lift the rock and rubble from on top of the seal. It had a few scrapes but he was soon sitting happily back in the shallows.

Billy – When you go near the animals, do any of them run away?

It is extremely important that we don’t cause the animals to run away. At this time of year especially, when the animals are breeding, it is important that the animals don’t exert any more energy than is necessary. Animals are scared of us so we must not approach them too close unless we really have to (like with the baby elephant seal in Poppy’s question).

Kenzie – Is it really cold there because it doesn’t look like it in the pictures?

It is very cold, especially at night. I try not to take my camera out when the weather is really bad in case it breaks, and I take lots of pictures when the weather is nice. It is not uncommon in the winter for temperaturs to be below -15 degrees and it is very rare for winds to be calm, so far the strongwest winds I have experienced have been 70mph. If both of these happen at the same time the wind chill would reduce the temperature to below -35.

Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow
Not all my pictures are taken in the sun! Antarctic Fur Seals in the snow – and this is in the middle of our summer!

 

More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins
More lovely summer weather on base, this time with King Penguins

Reece – Have you been chased by any animals?

Both the elephant seals and the Antarctic Fur seals have hareems, which they are very defensive of.  A hareem is a group of females that the male is in charge of protecting. In Antarcitic Fur Seals this is usually between 5-15. For Elephant Seals, the dominant male (AKA Beachmaster) can have up to 100 females in his hareem. Sometimes for my work, it is necessary for me to walk through the hareems and the males will often chase me out the other side!

Savannah – Have you seen many animals?

I have seen thousands of animals. The islands are very different to England, though. In England, you have high species diversity (lots of different species) with often low abundance (fewer individuals). In South Georgia, we have only a few species but we have thousands of them. There are approximately 4 million Antarctic Fur Seals alone here!

This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondie’s. Also for Sumayah who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off!
This picture is for Ellie whose favourite animals are the Blondies. Also for Sumayah, who asks if I can send a picture of a baby Polar Bear? Unfortunately, Polar Bears are only found in the Arctic but this isn’t far off, is it?!

 Neha – Have you seen any interesting birds?

I have seen lots of amazing birds. Did you know that we only have one songbird (garden bird that sings) here? All of the others live most of the time at sea and only come to land to breed. Because the weather is very cold and windy here, all of the birds have to have lots of adaptations to help them survive The Brown Skuas in particular are extremely interesting. Everywhere you see them, they occupy a slightly different niche based on their surroundings. They are extremely intelligent animals.

Definately one of the most intelligent species we have here - Brown Skuas over a penguin chick
Definitely one of the most intelligent species we have here – Brown Skuas over a penguin chick

Kyle – Are you coming back for Christmas?

It takes me a long time to get any post (like your cards) here, so we’re way past Christmas now and, as you are probably aware, still down in the Antarctic. What is worse is that I had to work all through Christmas. Science never sleeps!

Wuraola – Where are you living at the moment?

If you look at my Life on Base blog, you can see what my base looks like. I am living on a small sub-Antarctic island in the middle of the Southern Ocean called South Georgia!

Aaliyah – Would you please put a picture up of you?

Since you asked so nicely!

Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier
Me in front of the Neumayer Glacier

Thank you again for all your interesting and thoughtful postcards. Reading them really has put a smile on everyone’s face here in the Antarctic. We would love to hear more from you guys! In the mean time keep on working hard and behaving for your teachers or you will end up on the naughty step …

Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step
Gentoo Penguin on the naughty step

Jamie