Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.
With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.
Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.
If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.
Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.
Welcome to another week in the life of a British Antarctic Survey scientist! This week’s events include Oil Spill and X Ray training and, with it being an international weekend in the football calendar, I have news from the South Georgian national team’s latest outing.
Living in South Georgia involves all sorts of weird and wonderful training. Part of living in such a small team in such an isolated location involves being prepared for everything, including tsunamis, shipwrecks and fires.
We also play an important role as first responders to any spillages of potentially hazardous chemicals within a manageable size. Obviously, it is necessary for all the team to be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan and know how to deploy all the equipment. So, this month we rolled out all the equipment in order to first control and then clear up a mock oil spill around the King Edward Point wharf.
We are lucky to have a doctor and surgery here on South Georgia. However, there is only so much that Doc can do alone so it is therefore necessary that we are all trained with some level of medical care in order to assist her or, God forbid, treat her if she hurts herself.
This involves intensive training in the UK before deployment, followed by weekly Doc School once down south. On this week’s agenda was X-Raying. Equipment is limited here so our X Ray machine uses film and we must be able to develop the pictures. Our subject for this practice is an old, frozen Gentoo Penguin from the freezer! You’ll be glad to know it had no broken bones.
The final piece of training for this month also involved a Major Incident Drill for which the Royal Navy provided the mock, unco-operative casualties. The scenario was a shipwrecked fishing vessel full of conveniently non-English speaking fisherman.
After we had saved the lives of all the people worth saving, we took advantage of the good weather to have another game of football.
The game was strongly contended and this Navy team represented a much greater challenge than previous games. Meteorological conditions were perfect in contrast to the pitch, which is made up of mire, bog and rock. This didn’t affect the level of the play, though, with both teams doing what only the true greats can do by adapting their style of play to the conditions.
With the wind behind them, the home side settled into the conditions more quickly and were soon peppering the Navy goal with shots. Fortunately for the away team, their keeper possessed many cat-like qualities, pulling out some blinding saves for the cameras.
Tackles were flying in all over the pitch, some timed to perfection but mostly horribly late. Less out of maliciousness but more as a result of the bobbly terrain and low fitness levels.
Not even The Cat in goal could put a stop to the “tica taca” passing which lead to the opening goal. The home team’s passing, which can only be compared to Barcelona, tore through the away defence with Cowie eventually finishing the move and slotting the ball under the helpless keeper.
With the first half approaching its climax, the game was interrupted by an almighty scream. Many dived for cover, concluding that the only possible cause of a scream like that could be a shooting and that maybe we were under attack. However, we eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but it was almost as bad – the away team’s right back had been tackled by a tuft of grass.
With the casualty carried off, the half drew to an uneventful close, allowing the away team to compose themselves.
Revitalised by their half time oranges and cigarettes, the away team came out a changed team and with the help of the wind, restricted South Georgia to their own half. So relaxed was The Cat about the threat to his goal, after a few minutes he opted to have a cuppa. With the help of some valiant defending and some truly abysmal finishing, the home team hung on and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory.
But with the clock ticking away, the home team did what British Teams do so well and crumbled. With what can only be described as a howler by the keeper (who had been kindly donated by the Navy due to uneven numbers) gifting the equaliser to the Navy by fumbling a shot, which probably wouldn’t have reached the goal, to the feet of their striker to tap in.
With only seconds left, the Navy sensed blood. No sooner had the game kicked off again, the ball was rolling out for an away corner. The Navy piled men forward and after an overhit corner was caught wickedly by the wind and thrown on to the crossbar, it dropped into the six yard box. Tired from their intrepid second-half efforts, South Georgia were slow to react and the ball was scrambled into the net.
It is always good fun to see people from the outside world even when they beat you at football. The HMS Clyde team were no exception to this and we were happy to invite them into the bar for drinks after the big game.
We look forward to their next visit and hopefully a rematch!
This blog has been a long time coming, many of the pictures you have probably already seen but it’s too good a trip not to write a blog about. As I have mentioned many times before, one of the perks of my job is that I get outdoors a lot and visit many peninsulas to carry out science.
Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Barff peninsula, where I was needed to carry out maintenance on an SM2 for an Oxford University project. An SM2 is a sound meter which can be programmed to pick up specific frequencies of sound. We have a number of these around the island which have been set up to record the songs of South Georgia Pipits. This should hopefully allow the rate of recovery of South Georgian Pipits, post rat eradication, to be monitored.
Fortunately, the SM2 is located 50 metres from a rookery of Macaroni Penguins. Last time this colony was counted, there were approximately 7000 of them, so the colony is a substantial size. Once we had finished with the SM2, we were able to head down to the shoreline and watch the Macaroni Penguins come in from their fishing trips. It is absolutely incredible to watch these guys porpoising through the water and surfing their way up the rocks.
Once they have surfed the white water ashore, you start to observe their aggression. They are very territorial and are definitely suffering from a bit of “little man’s syndrome”. Any excuse possible and they will be pecking, chasing and pushing each other.
Considering their small size, it is astonishing watching these guys making the small commute up to the colony. Once they have washed the salt off themselves, they ‘fly’ up the rocks, jumping over crevices and scrambling through the tussock.
Once up the hill, the Macaronis have to safely navigate their way through the colonies, avoiding the angry territorial swipes and pecks of their neighbours, to their nest. Once alongside, their mate couples perform an incredible display, simultaneously dancing and calling to each other!
It’s not all easy nature spotting though as the walk back to the boating pick-up point was a good 3 hours hiking over deep snow and high mountain passes. Visibility, unfortunately, wasn’t great as a result of low cloud. However, we were accompanied for much of the route by Antarctic Terns commuting back from fishing trips. I have these birds to thank for making me feel so at home from day one here. Hearing their courting calls and being mobbed from the sky took me right back to the Farne Islands and living within the Arctic Tern colony there. Even the acrid smell of seabird colonies gives me a slightly homely feel!
For those of you who were wondering what base is like here at King Edward Point, I am going to take you on a small tour of what we have here.
I think that it’s only right that we start in the most social (and definitely most important) place … the bar!
This is home to a fine range of spirits, wines and beers, which are all drunk responsibly, of course. It’s also where most things happen: there’s a projector, so we have bi-weekly film nights; a darts board, which we use to compete against other Antarctic bases, and it’s also the venue for quizzes and other team activities.
Next up is my lab, which I share with the fisheries biologist. This is where I carry out my diet analysis studies and dissections . I’m pretty sure there aren’t many labs in the world with a view like ours. Highlights from the window include both elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal fights, the king penguin roost and the occasional snow petrel.
We then have the scientist’s office: note once again the incredible view (which is the same as from my bedroom)! If I am not out in the field, here and the lab are where I spend most of my time, with brief breaks for sleep, tea and food!
With the nature of the work we carry out here, it is necessary that we have marine transport. This comes in the form of two jet boats and a two RIBs, which stands for Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats. In a working capacity, they enable us to carry out science in areas of the island which aren’t accessible by foot.
On top of this they are used by the two Government Officers here at King Edward Point to ferry them to visiting tourist and fishing vessels in order to check they are meeting all the strict guidelines necessary to use these waters. Most importantly, the boats allow us to explore other peninsulas during our holidays. One such place, which I am hoping to visit in March, is St Andrews Bay, which is home to 500,000 King Penguins.
Finally, we have a sauna for warming us up after our midwinter’s swim. And the boat shed doubles up as just about everything you can imagine. It has a table tennis table, gym and badminton court, hosts great parties and also has a chippy and metal workshop.
So, although we are very isolated we aren’t that hard done by. We even have a football pitch, although half of it is a swamp! The only thing missing that would make this place perfect is a bath!
The currents and bathymetry (sea floor) of the seas surrounding South Georgia have resulted in large amounts of nutrients upwelling from the deeper oceans, causing an incredible richness in marine life. As with most rich biological resources around the world, there are great profits to be made from exploiting these. South Georgia has a history of extreme over-exploitation of these resources – especially sealing and later, whaling – from the beginning of the 20th century and Captain Cook first claimed it for Britain in 1775. After this, fish populations were heavily hit by overfishing during the 1970s.
A large proportion of South Georgia’s income is still from fishing with its only other income coming from tourism so they have realised it is in their interest to ensure that that the fish populations are conserved.
Cold water species tend to have very long life cycles, grow slowly, have relatively low fecundity (the ability to produce large numbers of young) and reach sexual maturity very late. This means that fishing irresponsibly for one year could easily result in the loss of the fishery for the next 50 years, with recovery rates being very slow and sometimes irreversible.
In order to prevent this happening, the South Georgia Government have invested large amounts of money and research into the setting up of self-sustaining fishery, where the ecosystem is managed and researched as a whole, and where money made from the fishery is used to invest in the policing of fishing as well as research into the broader effects of fishing on the environment.
Food chains are extremely complex things and hard to fully understand. However, monitoring of key predators within them can give a good indication as to the health of lower levels in the same food chain. This is why, in South Georgia, the fisheries are researched and overseen, as well as the higher predators. This is where I come in: I work intensively with the Antarctic Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins because they feed almost exclusively on krill, which is at the centre of most Antarctic food chains. I also observe the behaviour of giant petrel and albatross.
The main focus of my job is to work with these top predators at an area of the island called Maiviken. I have to visit my study site every other day during the summer period here and take pictures of the fur seal colonies. The aim of this is to allow us to understand more about the build up of the colonies during the breeding season and also understand how successful the colonies are.
On top of this, we also look closely at the development of the pups and chicks by weighing them at various stages because growth rates relate back to how successfully the adults are fishing, which in turn indicates the health of the ecosystem.
We also study the diet of these predators through analysing their scats (poo) as this gives us a good indication as to what species in the food chain are thriving and which species may be struggling. For example, if we only find adult krill in the seal’s scats then this suggests that there has been no recruitment of young krill into the population and that there could be a problem in the ecosystem.
Before the British Antarctic Survey allow me to go to South Georgia; I have an intensive schedule of courses in just about every corner of the country to attend.
First up was conference, in Cambridge, which involved a series of lectures and workshops ran by British Antarctic Survey personnel. This aimed to give us a better idea of what to expect when we get down south and also allow us to better understand the breadth of work carried out by the British Antarctic Survey. It was great to meet the 8 people that are going to be stuck with me in South Georgia and also talk to people that have been their previously and hear about how incredible it is.
Since there is such a small group of us going and we will be working in very isolated conditions, as well as our designated job roles we have a number of other responsibilities whilst we are south which we need to be trained for. As a result conference also involved Oil Spill Response Training, First Aid Training and Fire Training.
Having successfully managed to get the P box sorted it was time for my first day. I was told that an important part of this was getting to know people that I would be working with down south and also the support staff in Cambridge. So much of my first day was spent drinking coffee and looking over spectacular images of staff who have been lucky to visit King Edward Point in the past.
On one of my brief breaks from a tea break I was given some useful reading for heading south. The first three titles read ‘Working with seals’, ‘working with penguins’ and ‘Giant Petrel Monitoring’. What a job!
However probably, even better than this reading was being sent down to the kit room. I was given a huge branded BAS bag full of gear for me to try on! I don’t think I really believed that I was actually going until I got on my big orange BAS jumpsuit and looked in the mirror. Also provided were some walking boots, thermals, work trousers, hat, gloves, fleeces, wellies and sunglasses!
I am delighted to say that I will be the new higher predator scientist for the British Antarctic Survey in South Georgia working at King Edward Point! It is an absolutely incredible opportunity, I will be working amongst the seal and penguin colonies mostly but also doing some fisheries, albatross and giant petrel work as well if all goes to plan.
I was very late to receive the news of the position and as a result, planning and organisation for my trip south has been fairly mental. Although I will be flying down to the Falklands, a large part of my luggage has gone already in a ‘P’ box. This is a box of personal belongings that is shipped down upon BAS’s research vessel. I had very little time to buy things for this box, before the boat departed, so settled on sweets predominantly as I am told these will make good bargaining tools once south. There was also a little room for fancy dress which is also a necessity apparently!
In order to get the most out of my experience as possible when I head south, I have invested in some fairly expensive equipment. This includes some skis and bindings, ski boots, some outdoor gear and a new camera and lens. One of the most frustrating things I have found since getting the news is that once I have brought these I have not been able to play with them and especially with the skis, its unlikely I will get a chance to until winter. Sounds stupid but when I get a new toy I want to play with it.
Getting the job is an absolute dream. However it does come with sacrifices, life in the Antarctic is a very long way from the people I love and have grown to rely on! And without a doubt I am sure there is going to be some brief spells of homesickness!
Frequently Asked Questions As A Farne Island Warden
As with every line of public engagement work, staff are questioned about their roles by the public. One of the perks of the job is that you are paid to enthuse about this incredible life and the amazing wildlife that the islands offer. However, when you work day in day out, some of these questions can be a little bit repetitive. My idea here is to answer these questions in case you never get the chance to ask a warden yourself. Secondly, I want to make you aware of all of the questions, now that I no longer work on the islands so that the next time you visit, you can take the list with you, make sure you don’t miss any out and take bets on which warden breaks down in tears first.
Where are the puffins?
If visiting the islands April-August the answer is very simple, everywhere! The Farnes are home to c40,000 puffins, When you consider the small amount of land mass that makes up the islands, the density in which they live there is ridiculous.
Your best opportunity to see puffins well, are on either the cliff tops, where birds often line up before flying out to fish. Alternatively, if you find a relatively flat open area, where the vegetation is made up of lower standing species such as orache and sea campion, you will often see puffins making their way into and out of their burrows.
Puffins arrive back around the islands in March/April. However, until they have eggs in burrows, birds will often disappear out to sea for a few days, especially if bad weather is forecast.
If you are visiting in August or later, although you may see small numbers on the sea, I am sad to say that most of the puffins are bobbing around the north North Sea and Atlantic far away from British land masses.
Do you really live here? How long are you here for?
A team of 10 wardens live on Inner Farne and Brownsman island from March through to late September. In October this number falls to 5 people who live exclusively on Brownsman and work within the seal colonies.
Seal Pup in front of Brownsman Cottage
Where do you live?
Wardens living on Inner Farne occupy the 13th century Pele tower and the lighthouse. Those living on Brownsman island inhabit the old beacon house. Buildings rely on solar and generator electricity, both are erratic at best but do allow enough energy to charge phones and watch some TV.
Are you students?
Wardens on the Farnes are either employed on a paid or voluntary basis by the National Trust. although a small number of students do live on the islands for periods of the year. They deal with the seabirds and seals, and are not tasked with any visitor work or other warden responsibilities other than making tea.
Do you have showers here?
No, hence why wardens don’t always smell so great! However, both inner and outer group teams have access to small speed boats which, on a calm day, allow them to travel to the mainland to stock up on food and have showers. Whether wardens utilise these calm days is completely up to them. During the winter season when no visitor boats land on the islands and the sea is seldom calm, wardens have been known to go three weeks or more without a shower. Even the notoriously smelly seals give them a wide berth.
What are the penguin like birds covering the cliffs?
Guillemots and also maybe Razorbills. There are 50,000 of these black and white auks nesting around the cliffs of the Farne Islands.
Why do some of the Guillemots have white markings on their faces?
This is an example of dimorphism within a species. These individuals are referred to as bridled guillemots but are not considered a separate sub-species. They seem to occur more frequently within colonies the further north you go.
Why are the puffins smaller than I imagined?
Your imagination is too big.
Why are the shags panting?
Shags pant as a means of thermoregulation as they are unable to sweat
What are the painted stones and garden canes everywhere?
The painted, numbered, stones are for monitoring. Wardens mark nests using the stones and then check on the development of the eggs/chicks. This allows the breeding success of species to be calculated.
The garden canes have two uses. Some are used similarly to the coloured stones – to mark nests within the longer grass of more elusive species such as eiders. They also can be used to disrupt flight lines of less agile predators such as gulls, which will often attempt to enter colonies to take eggs and chicks.