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

Life On Base

This entry is part 16 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

Scene of quiz nights, film nights and all social occasions
Scene of quiz nights, film nights and all social occasions

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.

Note the view, can't be many labs with better!
Note the view – can’t be many labs with better!

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!

Not the cleanest but an insight into a king edward point biologist's office
Not the cleanest or tidiest room in the world but a sneak view into a King Edward Point biologist’s office!

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.

Our two ribs on the left and two jet boats in the water on the right.
Our two RIBs on the left and two jet boats in the water on the right.

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!

King Edward Point boat shed prepped for a round of team circuits
King Edward Point boat shed prepped for a round of team circuits