Saturday, 25 February 2012

Back to work

If anyone is still checking this blog with any sort of regularity then apologies for the lack of posts in recent months, and thankyou for your perseverance. Summer is upon us in the South, and with it comes a much increased workload and little time for idle web-based ramblings. Hopefully the following will give you a bit of a catch-up on Bird Island news from the last few months.

Giant petrels

On the 10th of September I was rudely awoken from my semi-comatose winter state by the start of the giant petrel rounds. Two species of giant petrels (or geeps as we affectionately know them) breed on Bird Island, and one of my jobs is to find and mark all nests within the Giant Petrel Study Area. Since we need to know the exact laying date of each egg this means patrolling the area every day to look for new arrivals. Unfortunately the giant petrels do not nest in nice, discrete, dense colonies like some of the other birds here, so the geep study area is necessarily large – around 28 hectares – and it takes a good five or six hours to cover on foot. So whereas on the 9th September I was happily lounging around stuffing my face with Quality Street, on the 10th I found myself trudging up and down hills through deep, snow-covered tussock for the better part of the day. Still, it was nice to be out and about again after the winter hiatus, and the daily geep round certainly helped me to shed some of the additional pounds I had gained through the aforementioned face-stuffing.

A pair of Northern giant petrels reinforce their relationship through mutual grumbling.

Room with a view: a geep nest on North Cliffs.

Daily checks of the geep study area continue until five days after the last egg is laid, which this year was the 27th November. After this the geep round is reduced to a more leisurely once-a-week check to see which nests have failed. At the time of writing all of the giant petrel eggs have hatched, meaning that there are a lot of small, angry, grey fluffballs on the island. Some people think that giant petrel chicks are ugly, but those people are raving lunatics one and all.

Who are you calling ugly?

Protective parents.

All by myself: after a couple of weeks chicks are left alone while both parents forage.

With so many hungry mouths to feed, every dead seal is a bonus.


Mmmmm, regurgitated dead seal.

First Call

At the end of October the James Clark Ross parked itself next to Bird Island and set about delivering all the stuff we need for the coming year, and also quite a lot of stuff we don’t really need and no-one remembers ordering. First Call was the usual barely controlled pandemonium, with semi-unpacked boxes on every surface and approximately 12 million people milling around in between them. Proceedings were enlivened this year by the delivery of the Bobcat, a small digger that will be used for various building projects that are happening later in the season, and a shipping container full of additional tools and supplies. Bird Island is not really equipped to handle deliveries of heavy plant, in fact the jetty can barely support the weight of more than two people at once, so transferring the Bobcat from ship to shore posed an interesting dilemma. In the end a kind of makeshift gangway was constructed using some metal tracks and pieces of wood, and the Bobcat was driven ashore by facilities engineer Graham, a man with nerves of steel. The operation went very smoothly, largely because BAS operate on the principle that if there are enough people standing around watching, and those people are wearing enough hi-visibility clothing, then nothing can possibly go wrong.

First assault on the beach.

Constructing the gangway.

The Bobcat comes ashore.

Unloading the container.

Winner of the 'Most Outstanding Use of Hi-Visibility Clothing' award 2011.

The all-new penguin weighbridge

During First Call we received delivery of Penguin Weighbridge 2.0, the sleek and shiny new replacement for the existing penguin weighbridge. Readers with very good memories may recall a description of the penguin weighbridge from an earlier post – it is essentially a machine the automatically weighs penguins as they walk across it (every home should have one) and also reads the electronic tags which are implanted under the skin of many of the penguins in our study colony. It allows us to gather a continuous stream of data throughout the season without bothering the penguins at all. The main improvement of the new system is that it uses much less power than the old one – requiring just three 12-volt batteries rather than nine. These batteries are charged by a solar panel, which means that the weighbridge will operate all season with almost zero maintenance.

Installing the new weighbridge. Step 1: RTFI.

Jiggling some wires.

The new system in place, with some customers waiting to try it out.

Team penguin weighbridge: Mark, Cat, me, Mike.


First Call also meant the arrival of some New People from the Outside World, and sadly the departure of two of our winterers, Paul and Jenn. In fact the first new people arrived about a month before First Call, when we welcomed Jaume (senior scientist, seals), Andy (the boss of Bird Island) and Jenny (field assistant, albatrosses) to the island. At First Call our numbers swelled further with the addition of Jon (field assistant, seals), Rob (tech services), Cat (PhD student, penguins) and Allan (Base Commander). Just before Christmas Jaume and Andy departed and were replaced by Richard (senior scientist, flying birds) and Hannah (PhD student, albatrosses).

After six months of living with the same three people you might think that a sudden influx of strangers would be unsettling, but in fact the change of pace was quite invigorating. On such a small base the group dynamic changes every time people come or go, but getting to know the newbies is always interesting. Also I now have to cook just once every eight days. Result!

Team Bird Island, spring 2011
back row: Rob, Jaume, Andy, me
middle row: Mick, Jen, Cat, Allan
front row: Jon

Macaroni penguins

This summer we have a PhD student with us who is working on the macaroni penguins, and I have been helping her collect her data. Cat is studying penguin foraging behaviour, which involves attaching small GPS tracking devices to individual penguins to find out where they go at sea. The devices are left on for a few days, then when the penguin returns to the colony the device is removed and a blood sample taken. Analysis of the blood sample will then tell Cat what the penguin has been eating.

Here on Bird Island we are lucky enough to have a penguin colony that is perfect for scientific studies of this nature. ‘Little Mac’, as it is known, is small (around 400 nests), easy to access and the same penguins come back to breed here year after year. The size of the colony means that it is easy to locate birds that you have previously attached devices to. This would be much harder at ‘Big Mac’, another colony on the island which contains around 40,000 nests. Another advantage of Little Mac is that there is a field hut next to it, into which one can retreat for a cup of tea if the weather turns nasty, which it frequently does. The hut is now also doubling as a laboratory, where Cat can process her blood samples straight away using a portable generator and centrifuge.

Little Mac colony and the Loveshack. Part of Big Mac is visible in the background.

Penguins as far as the eye can see at Big Mac.

Cat's laboratory in the Loveshack.

Extreme centrifuging.

A breeding pair of macs greet each other noisily.

Mac chicks hatch around Christmas time.

Happy Chrtistmas!

Christmas Day on Bird Island was celebrated in the traditional manner, with food, drink and silly paper hats.

Team Bird Island, Christmas 2011: Jen, Richard, Hannah, Allan, Jon, Mick, me, Cat, Rob.

Christmas dinner: the aftermath.

The most awesome Christmas cake ever made.

Mick entertains the ladies.

Burrowing petrels

Whenever I need a break from wrestling with penguins there are always some burrows to be checked. Last summer one of our visiting scientists put some very small tracking devices (and I mean seriously tiny – just a few grams in weight) onto various species of nocturnal burrowing petrel, and now it is my job to try and get the devices back. Burrowing petrels are tricky to work with compared to, say, wandering albatrosses. People who work on wandering albatrosses can see their study species from about half a mile away. People who work on burrowing petrels spend a lot of time fruitlessly sticking their arms down random holes in the ground and finding nothing in them. Luckily the petrels tend to come back to the same burrow each year, and the burrows containing the birds I am looking for are all marked with wooden stakes, which makes things a whole lot easier for me. So I have been spending a lot of time lately up to my armpit in soil, trying to grab hold of a tiny, angry seabird that is biting the ends of my fingertips. Never a dull moment here on BI!

Who lives in a burrow like this?

An Antarctic prion!

The first part of summer: in pictures

Freshwater Beach is covered in breeding fur seals again.

Big males are itching for a fight.

Anything goes in this ultimate fighting championship.

For the loser: nothing. For the winner: lots of lovely lady seals.

This puppy was born a few minutes earlier and is looking a bit confused, understandably.

Skuas perform their maternity service, removing the placenta from a newborn pup.

Playful puppies.

Come down here, I'll bite your arms off.

The walkway is awash with puppies.

I'm forever blowing bubbles.

Peeping puppy.

A rare treat for us on Bird Island - an elephant seal pup born on Johnson Beach!

Last year's wandering albatross chicks are almost ready to leave.

Attempting to get airborne.

A fledgling admires the view.

Meanwhile, wandering albatross adults begin courting again.

Mini! A recently hatched brown skua chick.

These parents took exception to me photographing their chick.

A light-mantled sooty albatross on its nest.

And a blue-eyed shag on its nest.

Grey-headed albatrosses are back...

...and courting.

Gentoo chicks start small.

But quickly get bigger.


We love each other. A pair of gentoo chicks, these two are probably siblings.


  1. Such great beauty. What a wonderful world. Thank You

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