Back on Bird Island (with photos)!

I’ll try that again, hopefully with some photos this time!

I’m back on Bird Island for another season working as the Station Leader of the worst-smelling BAS research station. That’s not a slur on the poor hygiene habits of the human residents, but a result of the pong created by the thousands of penguins, albatrosses and fur seals that live on our doorstep.

Right now we are in the middle of the fur-seal breeding season, so with the station located slap-bang in the middle of the seal colony, I have a David-Attenborough-quality view out of my office window of male seals fighting to the death, females giving birth, and the adorably angry little seal pups chewing on each other’s flippers. Here are a couple of them that happened to wander in front of my camera (and yes, the puppy is growling).

Last night we were treated to a spectacular sub-Antarctic sunset which lit up the sea and sky in shades of pink and orange. Here is a skua picking his way through a seal carcass (not all of them make it!) and a king penguin pondering life in the dusk.

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Back on Bird Island!

I’m back on Bird Island for another season working as the Station Leader of the worst-smelling BAS research station. That’s not a slur on the poor hygiene habits of the human residents, but a result of the pong created by the thousands of penguins, albatrosses and fur seals that live on our doorstep.

Right now we are in the middle of the fur-seal breeding season, so with the station located slap-bang in the middle of the seal colony, I have a David-Attenborough-quality view out of my office window of male seals fighting to the death, females giving birth, and the adorably angry little seal pups chewing on each other’s flippers. Here are a couple of them that happened to wander in front of my camera (and yes, the puppy is growling).

Seal pup 1

Male fur seal

Last night we were treated to a spectacular sub-Antarctic sunset which lit up the sea and sky in shades of pink and orange. Here is a skua picking his way through a seal carcass (not all of them make it!) and a king penguin pondering life in the dusk.

Skua and seal carcass

King penguin sunset

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Gentoo penguins

Gentoo penguin nest

You start off with a few rocks and a lot of ribs (and the odd bit of pelvis, for the anatomists out there) and then you sit very still in the middle of a stinking mire for a few weeks…

Gentoo penguin chick

Then one day a couple of these appear…

Penguin feeding chick.

You have to do a lot of this… that looks like a squid passing beaks there.

Penguin chicks

…and before you know it they’ve become dumpy little teenagers…

Penguin chicks

…always demanding something.

It’s time that I featured some of our other dwarvish neighbours – the gentoo penguins. There are a few small gentoo breeding colonies dotted around the base, which (apart from the eye-watering stench) can be brilliant places to sit and watch these little birds go about their daily lives. This mainly consists of squabbling and goading each other. The highlight in any gentoo’s day is when a fellow bird decides to leave the colony to go fishing, because this gives all of the others carte blanche to peck at its head and flippers as it waddles frantically past. Of course, the long walk to the sea suddenly seems less appealing when it is the neighbours mauling you.

Second highest in the gentoo’s favourite things to do is collecting objects. They covet anything that is solid and can be easily lifted by beak, be it a nicely shaped pebble or a departed seal’s rib. Even now, when the nesting season is nearly over, the birds will wander around in search of a choice rock to add to their mound. To the observer, a gentoo’s nest is an unappealingly muddy pile of stones and bones, but its owner would argue otherwise – it has taken weeks of careful maintenance to get it looking that way, and what does it matter if a stray rib pokes you in the bum every time you sit down?

We have kept a close eye on the progress of the gentoo chicks. The tiny, grey balls of fluff that only occasionally peek out from under their parents’ brood patch have now become stocky youngsters, nearly as tall as their parents, though still with the tell-tale downy coat. Each adult couple does its best to raise a pair of chicks, so by this stage  the youngsters’ demand for fish and krill is enormous. However, soon will come the happy day when the chicks take their first waddle down to the beach and dip a toe in the water.

Sad penguin chick

Sometimes life as a teenage penguin chick can get you down…

Penguin chick

…but sometimes you dream that you can fly (scientific note – it’s more likely that this chick was actually in the process of overheating in the warm sunshine).

Fur seal in peguin colony

And sometimes there’s a new visitor that you can peck. Even the big male fur-seals are terrified of the angry little penguins with their angry little beaks.

Gentoo penguins on nests

The sum total of the IQ in this photo is best counted on the fingers of one hand.

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Merry Christmas from Bird Island

Bird Island team

A very merry Christmas from the Bird Island team. From left to right: Rob, Cian, Manos, Jess, Hannah, Steph, Me and Simon the seal.

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More birds

Brown skua.

Skuas hovering in attack formation. One of these two tried to land on my head shortly after I took this photo (see his talons – he gave my hair a much-needed comb). They’re not normally agressive birds, but are very defensive if their nest is nearby – this display was accompanied by constant, ear-splitting squawks.

Black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross lining up for final approach. An albatross landing is quite a hit-or-miss affair – they usually have several aborted approaches and then pile into the deck with legs and wings akimbo, so he understandably looks a bit nervous.

Black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross over Bird Island base. Just underneath him you can see a red blob. That is Hannah and Cian threading their way between the seals as they head off to work for the afternoon.

Black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross colony above the base. A very neat nest.

Brown skua

Getting attacked by an angry skua, just below the peak of Gazella. It’s only when they fly straight at your head that you realise what big birds they are!

Wandering albatross

Wandering albatross stretching his wings (or is it a her?). South Georgia is in the background, just across the water.

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Albatrosses

Macaroni penguins may be cute and geeps may be entertainingly disgusting, but the real stars of the show on Bird Island are the albatrosses. Everything about them is an extreme: for a start, they’re vast – the wanderers weigh in at around 15kg, with wingspans of 3-4 metres to support their enormous bulk. A wanderer’s foot is similar in size to my outstretched hand. They can live for over 50 years. They can soar for several hours without flapping. On the ground, they bear a striking resemblance to a plumped-up pillow with a head.

Sadly, the wanderers are deemed to be a vulnerable species and their numbers, already low, are in consistent decline year on year. This is thought to be due to them getting snagged on the long-lines of fishing trawlers which were, ironically, only introduced to reduce the by-catch of net-trawling. For years they have been intensively monitored by our scientists, with every wanderer on the island known, logged and checked on a regular basis – it was this long-term data-set that originally highlighted the decline in population. You can see that some of the birds in the photographs are ringed, no mean feat on a bird this big and strong!

The story is no more positive for the other albatross species. They grey-heads, which have to be one of the most beautiful birds that I’ve ever seen, are similarly in decline. The sooties, with their white-ringed eyes giving them a constantly surprised look, fare no better. The haughty-looking black-brows have suffered a devastating 67% decline over the last 64 years, with numbers still falling.

One of the privileges of working here is being able to see these birds nesting in their natural habitat and soaring above the cliffs around the island. Due to the complete absence of predators here (unlike on South Georgia, where introduced rats have devastated bird populations), they are surprisingly unconcerned at the presence of humans nearby – on a sunny, calm day, there’s nothing quite like sitting quietly on the edge of a colony and watching these birds go about their daily business.

Black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross soaring above the Bird Island golf-course.

Grey-headed albatross

Grey headed albatross – the most beautiful creature on the island.

Light mantled sooty albatross

Light mantled sooty albatross coming in for a high-speed landing, with eighty thousand macaroni penguins looking on in bemusement.

Grey-headed albatross

Grey-headed albatross over ‘Big’ Mac’ penguin colony.

Wandering albatross

Wandering albatross doing some much-needed procreation. You never seem to catch them trying missionary.

wandering albatross

Wandering albatross feeding chick.

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Bloody geeps

Are you feeling squeamish? Then read on…

The next group of our neighbours that I’d like to introduce are a rowdy bunch, with appalling table manners. Giant petrels (known as geeps [pronounced ‘jeeps’] in the local vernacular) can be generously described as the recyclers of the bird world, happy to selflessly plough into any carcass that happens to be left lying around. They don’t particularly mind if one end of the carcass is still twitching.

The bunch shown below waded into a seal carcass in full view of our kitchen window this evening, just before dinner. Whilst they were evidently delighted at having found such a tasty treat, we found it difficult to share their rampant enthusiasm for the meal.

Giant petrel

Geep, with his beautiful shiny red head plumage.

Giant petrel

Being particularly proud of his appearance, he strikes a pose.

Giant petrel

Dirty bird. Having bits of seal gut hanging from your chin is not very attractive.

Giant petrel

…and this is why.

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