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

Friday, 7 November 2008

07.11.2008 - Macaroni penguins

The macaroni penguins have returned after their winter at sea. Here are some photos.

Penguins 'porpoising' on their way to climb out of the water

A leopard seal, lying offshore in wait for an easy snack

The macaronis have to contend with some huge waves - a washing machine at the foot of the colony

It can take several attempts before they make a successful landing on solid rock

All wet and sleek, recently emerged from the sea

They are called macaroni penguins because of their gold crest...

...it is a reference to the 'dandies' of the 18th century, who would go to Italy on travels and return with fashionable blonde streaks in their hair...

The colony fills up fast - only two weeks ago this was a bare scree slope - now the noise and smell of the busy penguin colony is incredible

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Re: 06.11.2008 - Jetty Bog

Contrary to the belief of some, the seal under the toilet photo from the post below was NOT Photoshopped! It is a real photograph!

06.11.2008 - Full circle

Having arrived on Bird Island on November 4th 2007, I have now been here a full year - not quite halfway through my time South, but then again I don't want to make it sound like I am longing to come home. In fact, quite the opposite. I feel quite at home here on our little rock in the Southern Ocean. It has been fascinating to see the island go 'full-circle'. Last November I arrived at the same time as the first bull fur seals, and seeing their return to the beaches in the last few days has brought to completion a fascinating years cycle.

Adult male Antarctic fur seal beside the fuel drums

Over the next few weeks, as the short summer peaks and then fades at these southern latitudes, we shall witness once again the explosion of life that makes Bird Island so special - the first eggs have already been laid around the island (northern giant petrels, gentoo penguins, grey-headed albatrosses and the tiny South Georgia pipits are the first breeders) and soon these will be hatching. The first fur seal pups are expected from the middle of November, making the beaches inaccessible except to the bravest of folk.

Some juvenile fur seals play-fight at the shore

It will be a few weeks yet before the wandering albatrosses return to their nest sites, two years since they last bred, to begin another year-long task of raising a single chick, which will hopefully help halt the decline in numbers of wanderers, that have been so badly hit by irresponsible fishing practices. This years chicks are starting to look more like birds, after waiting on their nests throughout the winter, insulated by a thick coat of down that they are now shedding, making way for feathers. By Christmas, most will have fledged.

After our quiet winter with only four on base from mid-April until mid-September, our numbers swelled, first to six, then to eight, before dropping back to six again with the departure of the BBC crew. It is always nice to see new faces, which always bring a new dynamic to life on the island. The arrival of the BAS ship on November 22nd will bring numbers on base back up again, including the arrival of two of next years wintering team, who we are keen to meet! Derren and I by that stage will be the 'old hands' on BI, as Fabrice will have departed.

An adult male fur seal guards the main door into the base

The weather has turned altogether more summery, with melting snow and ice except on the craggy slopes of La Roche above us. Summery, however, does not necessarily mean warm, and it is possible to have flurries of snow at any time throughout the year. However during the long, light evenings of the midsummer period it is sometimes easy to forget the gnarly extremes of the winter, which already seem long ago. The weather in summer is apparently more changable - whereas in winter we could have several days of settled weather, summer is a time for the proverbial 'four seasons in a day'.
The gentoo penguins have returned to the kitchen door this year - we are waiting to see whether nest building attempts lead to eggs and eventually chicks on our doorstep!

06.11.2008 - SSB

The Special Study Beach fur seal population study began once again on November 1st. It has been running continuously in its present form since the 1980s and is one of the most complete demographic studies of seals anywhere in the world.

SSB November 1st - no seals yet...

It is comprised of three main parts: giving the territory-holding male animals individual paint marks so that they can be tracked throughout the season, as well as taking genetics samples; counting and identifying (through the use of flipper tags and implanted microchips) the females as they arrive to pup; and counting, marking with flipper tags and microchips and taking birth weights and genetic samples from the newborn pups. We also post-mortem any pups that die, to ascertain a cause of death.
A newly returned bull fur seal has a big shake as he emerges from the sea

The seal team (this season, myself and Jaume) visit the beach every day at 09:00, and twice-daily (09:00 and 17:00) once the first pup is born, and this continues until a week after the last pup is born on the beach - usually the first week of January. It is a short but very intense season - during the peak period (Dec 1 - Dec 15) we can be on the beach for as much as 8 hours per day.

Thus far only a few bull seals have returned. The females will start to arrive by the middle of the month, with pups very soon after. The number of animals on the beach each day builds to a peak around Dec 10th and by 15th the hardest period is over and things start to calm down. By then, many of the mothers are at sea on foraging trips, the males are starting to disappear after six weeks fighting for territories, and the older pups have started to explore further from their birthplaces!

SSB November 6th - the first few territory holders, with individual paint marks

The beach is about 1.5x the size of a tennis court, but incredibly is the birthplace of over 700 pups each year. It is almost impossibly crowded, and the only way we can work there is by means of an aerial gantry constructed of scaffolding, allowing us to work close to but at a safe distance from the seals. There is a small wendy house for storage of the kit, and to allow us the opportunity to get out of the worst of the weather.

Last year was the third-most successful year (in terms of numbers of pups) for a decade, with 736 pups born (769 was the recent record). If this year approaches that number of births, then it will be the third 'good' year in a row. This suggests that the at-sea foraging conditions for the Bird Island predators are very good at this time.

It is a lovely bit of work - hard on the body and mind (physically strenuous work and long hours) but wonderful spending time in such close proximity to the seals. Although the endangered wandering albatrosses steal the show on Bird Island, surely most people's memories, especially of visitors during the height of the summer, will be filled with the antics of the handsome, intelligent and beautiful fur seals.

06.11.2008 - The jetty bog

Dunny, outhouse, cludgie, bog, john... whatever your name for it, the lavatory is an important facility in anyones home. Although we have indoor toilets on Bird Island these days, a relic remains from the days when running water was a rare commodity in the hut...

The jetty bog in winter

The 'jetty bog', as it is known, is the only toilet on Bird Island with a window. As the name suggests, is located at the end of the scaffolding jetty, and the convenience of indoor WCs means that it doesn't get as much use these days as in the past. During peak seal season, getting to the end of the jetty is requires considerable effort and concentration, as the fur seals congregate, pup and viciously defend territories on the walkway itself.

Seal in the surf by the jetty

But it is worth it. Going to the loo becomes a real accomplishment, and you are treated to the incredible sights, sounds and smells of the wildlife as you go about your business...!

View from the loo, looking right...

...and looking left

And then, now and again, the effort is rewarded by the kind of experience that no one would ever believe if you told them...

A young male elephant seal comes to have a look
at what is going on above his head!