About Me

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Bird Island, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands
I work as a Zoological Field Assistant, and am the 2009 Winter Base Commander, at Bird Island Research Station, one of the British Antarctic Survey's five research bases in Antarctica. The main remit of my job is seal fieldwork as part of BAS' Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme. Science has been carried out on Bird Island since 1958. I work with Antarctic fur seals and leopard seals, as well as assisting with the seabird fieldwork programme. Contact me on: ewanedwards at gmail dot com

Thursday, 17 January 2008

17.01.2008 - January update

Macaroni penguin

Fur seal in the tussac

Puppy in the kitchen

Sunset over Jordan Cove

Male fur seal at sunset

Male and female at sunset

Happy New Year from Bird Island!

Derren gets to know a puppy

Grey-headed albatross chick

Gentoo parent and month-old chick

Young seals in the tussac

My birthday

Male fur seal with a plastic packing band entanglement

Black-browed albatross coming in to land

The last official visit to SSB was made on January 4th 2008. This marked the end of an intense two months of daily visits, twice-daily since mid-November, and a bit of an end of an era for Donald, my predecessor, the outgoing seal fieldwork assistant. The rule is that once no new pups have been born on SSB for seven days, the daily visits can cease, as it is taken that no more pups will be born this season. The peak of the pupping was calculated to have been December 7th although the day upon which most pups were born was December 12th, with the arrival of 54 pups. It was nice for Don and I to be able to take some time off, although there has been little rest for us as there are many other jobs to keep us busy. We have been deploying geolocator tags, attached to flipper tags on some individuals, which are tiny devices, about the size of a slice of carrot that estimate location based on day length and the time of midday relative to GMT. The priority has been to get these tags out on young male animals, and this has led to some sporting action out on Freshwater Beach (in front of the base) of late, as the animals are strong and put up a good fight before they can be safely restrained for the attachment of the devices. The whole procedure seems to have no effect on the animals – when released from their restraint they scamper away as if nothing has happened.

Christmas was a low-key affair on Bird Island this year. We had some decorations that were put up around the base, and on the day we treated ourselves to an enormous dinner, which everyone helped to prepare. Of course, we had turkey and all the necessary accompaniments, including Brussels sprouts, but as well as that had a soup, a fish course, as well as cake, pudding and mince pies, and as is traditional at Christmas time, we all stuffed ourselves! During the day, everyone went across to SSB for a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie, and I was interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live about Christmas in such a remote location. The weather was breezy and drizzly, although the day did begin with a few snowflakes, which, according to bookmakers back home, is enough to constitute a white Christmas. But despite all the festivities, including staying up til past midnight on Christmas Eve to open presents early, the work did not stop, and Don and I still made two trips across to SSB, morning and evening. The thing with Christmas in the southern hemisphere when compared to Christmas in rural Aberdeenshire is the daylight. Bird Island is at the same latitude in the south as Leeds is in the north (54°) so we have comparable day length. That means that during our winter the days will be short and dull as the sun barely rises above the hills on the northern side of the island, but during this, the austral summer, the evenings are long and it isn't dark for very long at all at night.

December saw the arrival of Ben Tullis, an IT engineer from BAS HQ in Cambridge, who was visiting to install a new network server on Bird Island. Ben arrived in the midst of the seal chaos and fitted in quickly to life on base, by no means confined to barracks and stuck in front of a computer screen but having plenty of opportunities to get out and explore, and even assist with some of the science. His short visit was extended so as to allow more time to complete the project in hand, so our numbers swelled to a whopping eleven when Ewan Wakefield and Helen Peat arrived the day before Hogmanay. Ewan is a PhD student with BAS and the University of St Andrews, and is here to undertake research with black-browed albatrosses. Helen, her second time on at a BAS base, having previously visited Rothera on the peninsula, is here to work on the databasing of Long Term Monitoring and Survey project data, and to assist with the staking out of paths to protect the vegetation and burrowing birds from the effects of the base members tramping over the island. The two newcomers were excused cooking the next day, where we'd allocated each base member a continent/region of the world, from where they were to prepare a dish for a buffet meal before the coming of the New Year. I picked South America out of a hat, and made empanadas, something I had experienced in Argentina, a kind of pasty made with meat encased in pastry, not dissimilar to a Cornish pasty, although the filling tends to be a bit spicy. There were many tasty dishes prepared, from seafood chowder (representing North America) to vegetable samosas (Asia). We went down to the end of the jetty for 'the bells' and greeted the arrival of 2008 in the company of fur seals, on a light, calm but chilly evening. Needless to say, the night continued on into the the wee hours! The following day was slow to start but was not completely unproductive. Don and I had some seal work to do, including a visit to SSB to check the pups (although by this stage it was more checking for pups that had died than pups that had been born) but a beautiful evening was spent enjoying the warm sunshine sitting outside.

The slowing down of the work at SSB that had kept me busy since my arrival, and limited my excursions from the extended area of the base, meant that there was more time to get up the hills and see a bit more of the island. I spent two magical days out with the albatross team, Robbo and Derren, marking the nests of the wandering albatrosses, that began to return during December and that by now are mostly paired up and sitting on eggs. I love the seal work, but the bird boys have a wonderful job, getting so close to such beautiful, fascinating birds, some of which have been studied on Bird Island since the 1960s and continue to return to breed. The numbers of wandering albatrosses breeding on Bird Island has declined by almost half since the early days of research here, largely due to the birds taking the bait deployed by long-lining fishing boats, targeting valuable Southern Ocean fish. This unwanted bycatch is having a catastrophic effect on the bird numbers – all too frequently we are contacted by the British Trust for Ornithology, to say that one of our albatrosses ringed on Bird Island, has been caught by a fishing boat in the Southern Ocean. Bearing in mind, these are the ones that we are notified about – so many must go unaccounted for, and be discarded overboard in the hope that no one will find out. The well-regulated fishery around South Georgia has implemented very simple but effective measures that have reduced albatross bycatch to almost zero, however the birds do not know political and fishing limits, and are wide-ranging, routinely circumnavigating the globe in search of food, mainly squid. This means they are susceptible to being caught and drowned by fishing far further afield than South Georgia waters, where the fishing industry is not as well regulated. This problem must be stopped before we lose another species to our thoughtless actions.

Another problem that we encounter from time to time on Bird Island is that of seals entangled in man-made debris. Most of this rubbish comes off of ships, thoughtlessly discarded, in the form of packing bands and loops of rope. Some become caught round the neck of seals, and if tight enough this can remain in place to become a strangling noose or collar, which can, if tight enough, cut through into the skin and flesh of the animal. We try and remove all entanglements that we come across, yet this is another occurrence that would be so much more simple to reduce by more considerate disposal of waste at sea. So far since my arrival we have disentangled three seals, although these are the lucky ones, and countless more must die before they can be helped.

We had a sad occasion shortly before Christmas, when Robbo found an adult wandering albatross that had died after crash-landing in a stream on the island. The good news, if any can come of it, is that the bird will be returned to the UK to be stuffed at the end of the season, and will be put on display at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Not only is it a magnificent specimen of an adult bird, it has a lot of history behind it. It was ringed as an adult in 1983, which means it must have been at least 25 years old, but probably closer to 30. I will try and remember to post a reminder when the bird is on display, as it is hard to imagine an 11ft+ wingspan without actually seeing it.

We have been blessed with some beautiful weather thus far in January, enabling us to get out and enjoy Bird Island at its summery finest. Although the air temperature rarely gets above 6°C the strong sun here can make it feel quite balmy. We had a lovely barbecue outside, surrounded by seal pups and scavenging skuas, and took a walk one evening to admire the sunset from the summit of Tonk Peak, above the base to the west. Interspersed with some fine, settled days, we've had our fair share of stormy weather too, not least on Boxing Day, when we were battered by strong southerly winds gusting 60kts, or 65mph. This drove a lot of kelp (sea weed) into Jordan Cove, making it difficult for the boat from Fishery Patrol Vessel Pharos SG to get into our jetty to drop off Ewan and Helen! The cold and comparatively dry landscape that greeted us on our arrival at the beginning of November has been replaced by largely boggy terrain, although a couple of days of dry weather, when combined with a fresh breeze, and the tussac dries out somewhat – there will however always be muddy puddles and wallows where the seals can get to! The growth of the young tussac grass has given the island a green shimmer, especially on bright days, when the adult wandering albatrosses, with their brilliant white plumage, stand out clearly against the dark green backdrop.

Visit http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/living_and_working/diaries/bird_island/2007/11/index.php to see the web diary on the BAS website that i wrote for November 2007