Thursday, 26 May 2016

Directions to my new website

Many thanks for visiting and reading my blog.

I have now upgraded to a fancy new website hosting a few of my photos as well as the continued blog. I hope you enjoy it.


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Happy Birthday David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday was celebrated down here on Bird Island with a cake, a raised glass and a few episodes of Life In The Freezer. The second one in particular, 'The Ice Retreats', contains a large amount of footage from Bird Island; all the albatross and penguin shots are familiar.

Here's a few screenshots of David Attenborough on Bird Island, standing in the middle of Big Mac, one of my key work locations when I was Zoological Field Assistant for the penguins, rather than the tourist I go over there as now. In this sequence he described Macaronis as the loudest and most bad-tempered of all the penguins. At times I have described them in similar, but less eloquent, ways.

All copyright owned by the BBC and photos used without permission. Check out their series Life In The Freezer or the more recent Frozen Planet for the best impression you can get of Antarctica.

Obviously much has been said regarding David Attenborough's work and life but it is probably worth repeating that, outside of immediate family, he has probably been the biggest influence on me and many others down here. Not just the scientists studying the charismatic megafauna but anyone who grew up wanting to travel, explore and witness all the amazing sights the Earth has to offer.

Bird Island folklore says that the old jetty bog was his favourite toilet in the world. Unfortunately when the jetty was rebuilt this had to be removed from the end and placed near the main base, but it is a mark of respect that it is still standing, admittedly only used as a store currently but no one can bring themselves to tear it down. You can't destroy David Attenborough's favourite toilet!

Time is getting the better of it however and this season we have started working on preserving the unique features. On the ceiling was a painting done by a previous Station Leader, Sam, in 2010. A recreation of the roof of the Cistine Chapel with a few Bird Island natives splashed across it, my favourite being the gentoo penguin chick on Adam's lap. The painting has been taken down, cleaned up and framed, ready to take pride of place on the wall in the lounge.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

More ice than we could ever have gin for.

Since the ship called a few weeks ago we've seen winter close its icy grip on the island. Normally a Bird Island autumn is damp (like the rest of the year) with slowly dropping temperatures, but this year as the nights close in the island has frozen and become covered in snow already.

We awoke one day last week to find our bay filled with ice. With not so much on the hills and little in some of the other bays it became apparent that these were all chunks of a smashed up 'berg, destroyed by the rough weather and funnelled straight at us.

Looking back from the end of the now surrounded jetty.

The amount of ice on top of, as well as surrounding, the jetty was impressive. It's very rare the waves even crash over the top of it so to dump all this there it must have been pretty severe.

It was more obvious to identify the edge of the jetty than it seems from this photo.

As may be expected, van-sized chunks of ice being repeatedly battered against the jetty didn't do it much good. It took a few days to clear enough to be able to carry out a proper investigation. Aside from a bit of buckling of the scaffold planks and the odd pole less straight than before it's stood up pretty well. The biggest relief was the lack of real damage to the grey water pipe.

Over the next few days the snow fell a bit more and we had some excellent opportunities to get out and enjoy it.

Walking in these conditions is so much different from summer. The streams are frozen so you need chains or spikes to safely get up them, the meadows and bogs are frozen too so you can walk straight across them without sinking in. However some of the muddiest bogs amongst the tussack grass don't freeze over properly, just hide themselves beneath a tempting layer of flat snow.

Watching the wildlife cope with the new conditions is always interesting. The fur seals generally love the snow, pushing themselves along, rolling over and rubbing it into their fur. But the route to and from the sea has become difficult for some.

The skuas were largely relying on carrion on the beaches for their meals. With that all buried they face a tough time.

The wandering albatross chicks are fully prepared for winter, their thick down layer will protect them through anything.

The penguins love it of course, although this gentoo looks confused about the high tide.

It's rare you can get photos of penguins stood on clean, white snow. It doesn't take long for them to mess it up. So I've enjoyed watching the evening arrival of the gentoos heading up the beach to their nesting grounds.

Although far outside of the breeding season the gentoos still gather at their nesting sites in the evenings, although attendance varies hugely depending on things like weather and food availability. They can still be very territorial, building up their nests and fighting with others who get too close.

Having a bit of fun with the larger bits of ice.


Thursday, 14 April 2016

Albatrosses, rain and birthdays

A few photos of the work we've been up to in the last couple of weeks before the ship call, particularly those days in between when we were expecting them and when they actually arrived (the weather was too rough to call so, with all the cargo being ready, I had a few relaxing days before starting all my post-call work).

Checking wandering albatross on the ridge. This pair were the last to lay and so the last ones to be checked for signs of hatching.

Making friends with the locals. This albatross is sat in particularly scenic spot and I already have plenty of photos of it, though not too many with me in too.

Black-browed albatross chicks, as mean-looking as their parents.

Grey=headed albatross chicks, slightly less angry-looking.

When the chicks yawn they open their mouths so wide you can almost see the squid in their bellies.

It's time of year to get ringing the chicks, unfortunately the first day we were defeated by wind and rain. It's not safe for us in the colonies and not good for the chicks who aren't as waterproof as the adults so really shouldn't be disturbed in the wet.

Poa annua is an invasive grass species that crops up on several sub-Antarctic islands. We're largely free of it, though Al found this patch this season. Removal is best done by spade, though I did pick the first day the ground froze to try it.

Young elephants seal apparently attacked by a sea monster,

Lucy, on her birthday, adopting a heroic pose under our first good icicles of the season.

The icicles didn't last too long, not least because they got broke off to make a birthday G&T extra special.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016


Most of my work over the past month or so has been the preparation of cargo for exporting off the island. The bulk of this is waste, the vast majority of which is shipped back to the UK for recycling. Then there are scientific samples sent back to the scientists who requested them, scientific and technical equipment that gets returned for servicing, use elsewhere or sold on. Not forgetting personal cargo for those sadly leaving.

All this needs to be properly recorded; unique ID numbers, contents, size, weight, destination need to be easily identifiable for each bit. For some, such as the hazardous shipping goods (biological samples in ethanol, used aerosols, batteries) there is additional paperwork and strict rules about packaging.

This has taken a long time but it is extremely pleasing to walk round the station now and see it looking clear, right in time for stocktaking and cleaning.

Colour coded drums containing waste glass, scrap metal and fuels.
Each room had cargo for a different destination - UK, Falklands, other bases - to make backloading easier.
Hazardous packages with a whole host of appropriate labels.
FIBC bags of recyclable plastics, cardboard and cans, dragged round the front of the building the day before the ship call. The large buoys, dragged up from beaches around the island, will be found a new home.
Basic waterproofing with tarpaulins, no need to weigh them down when the seals are still looking for comfort spots.

The ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, approached Bird Island early in the week, took one look at the swell and turned round. They returned a few days later and were able to run the tender in, unloading a few bits of food, post and technical equipment with us and taking everything away.

Pulling away from the jetty with our last load of outgoing cargo.
 Before the ship departed properly though we were able to get a large group of passengers ashore. These were other BAS staff, most of whom had been enjoying the cruise up from Rothera and have seen a few sights on their way. While some were found jobs to do we tried to ensure all got up to see the wandering albatrosses and a few penguins. After a summer with six other people it was a bit of a shock to be up this hill with over 20, but I hope I hid my trauma.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to those whose time to go had arrived. Waving people off from the jetty is by far the hardest thing that one has to do on Bird Island. The walk back up to station is a jumble of emotions - sad and subdued as folk leave mixed with anticipation and excitement at what's to come.

The penultimate rib heading back to the ship, just visible in the fog.
As has been pointed out to me, when I left at this time last season I didn't think I'd be here doing this again. But I'm here for another two months during which time I'll make a start on all the stocktaking...

...but in the meantime I'll just check all the wandering albatross chicks are ok.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Wandering Albatross work

Here's a few photos on our work with one of the most iconic Bird Island species; the magnificent wandering albatross.

Lucy, the albatross assistant, recording ring numbers for non-breeding individuals. All those in the study area, about 100 pairs, have light plastic darvic rings on their legs with a unique colour and code so we can record their presence without getting too close.

Knowing the life history of individuals means we can understand the variation in the population, an important factor when looking at how their survival and productivity will cope in differing climactic conditions.

Unpaired birds display to each other, showing off their huge wingspan (over 3m) and calling loudly to the sky.

It takes a full year to raise a chick, it's a big investment with with both parents putting in equal shifts sitting on the egg then collecting food. So picking a reliable and compatible partner is a process that can take a long time, especially if there are multiple suitors.

Eggs are laid around Christmas and start to hatch at the beginning of March. At first you just see a little hole in the egg and hear a high-pitched pipping coming from within. It can take them three days to hatch completely.

A long wait beside a bird is often rewarded with a glimpse of a tiny chick fresh out of the egg as the adult stands up. This was the first one hatched this season on Bird Island and got named Dumbledore in a competition held on the BAS facebook page.

The chicks quickly get bigger and poke their heads out. On sunny days you're more likely to see adults standing and letting them have a good look around.

By the end of the month the earliest hatchers, here's Dumbledore again, get left alone as both parents head off to find food. They may look vulnerable at this stage but they can repel any threat with a mouthful of oily vomit that will ruin a predators plumage.

Meanwhile the non-breeders continue looking for mates, showing off heir nest-building capabilities as well and size.


Saturday, 20 February 2016

Search and Rescue practice

Bird Island Research Station has a small staff team; no more than 10 in summer and just four over winter. We have no doctor on station though all staff receives excellent pre-deployment first aid training from the BAS Medical Unit, with one or two individuals spending a few days on the front line in an A&E department to broaden their experience.

However well skills are taught they can be quickly forgotten so we try and have a training session once a week, on an otherwise quiet evening, where we go over some aspect of rescue, recovery or medical skills. One week it could be a discussion about hypothermia, then practicing putting a stretcher together, then CPR practice with our own dummy.
Learning how to put someone in the spinal board and set up the stretcher in the comfort of the lounge.

Earlier in the season we sat around the table and had a serious discussion about what we would do if someone severely injured themselves in the field. Bird Island has some steep, slippery terrain and people frequently work alone. The importance of regular radio contact is hammered home, as is the necessity of always carrying spare warm clothing and an emergency aid kit. During our table-top exercise I sat down with the Emergency Action Plan and talked through the extremely useful flow chart it contains, detailing priority actions and who to contact.

With field-work calming down a bit in the last few weeks I have been on the look-out for a good occasion to put this formerly into practice. So last Friday everyone was told to be available for the afternoon, while one of the departing staff went round the beach and lay at an awkward angle at the base of a cliff. I was able to sit back and observe the response and was pleased at the calm, organised and efficient way at which those on station, particularly the upcoming winter team, dealt with the incident. A fast search party took the emergency medical bags and warm clothing and quickly located the casualty, reporting back enough detail for a second party to head out with stretcher, spinal board and other necessary equipment. On station we had someone consulting the doctor at King Edward Point and talking to Cambridge, relaying important information to those in the field.
Assembling the stretcher and other kit upon reaching the incident.

Despite apparently serious injuries our casualty was soon back indoors, after a short stretcher ride to demonstrate how tiring it can be for those struggling along the uneven terrain. Around a cup tea we debriefed and reviewed the incident, with everyone happy and more confident in their abilities to respond to any problems, but also more aware of how difficult it can be and how self-aware they need to be in any situation.
Casualty on the spinal board. Last minute checks before transferring to the stretcher.