Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Winter on Bird Island

It’s been quite a long time since my last blog post. Updating my website is virtually impossible with the limited bandwidth we have available down here, and it makes blog posts pretty difficult too. I have however been managing to tweet regularly, although viewing other peoples tweets, especially photos and anything they link to is almost impossible. I only started using twitter when I got this job with the British Antarctic Survey, and I have been enjoying the experience. Communicating with people that have similar interests, and sharing the incredible experiences I get to enjoy here. If you want to follow me then my twitter handle is @_amwphotos

As so much has happened over the winter since my last post I’ll split it up a bit. This section will briefly cover the period up to mid winter. Thankfully it’s mostly photograph based, so you don’t have to read too much of my rambling!

20150504-DSC_6605As soon as the summer team had departed we raided the fancy dress cupboard for Star Wars day, May the fourth be with you. Fancy dress has been a bit of a theme this winter, I’ve lost count of all the themed evenings we’ve had!

There’s a bit of a break after the fur seals leave for the Seal ZFA, but then the leopard seals arrive. A study walk is completed every day to look for them on the beaches and in the sea, photographs are taking for identification.

This Northern giant petrel likes sitting on the kitchen doorstep!

In early May the light-mantled sooty albatross chicks are getting quite big and we go round to check how many have made it through the breeding season. The parents seem to be a bit hopeless so productivity is usually quite low.

Snow provided the perfect background for a photo of this kelp gull.

20150511-DSC_7014This black-browed albatross chick was one of the last to fledge.

The wandering albatross chicks have been growing well. Here one of it’s parents had returned and the chick was begging to be fed. The fishy, squidy slop didn’t look very appetising, but the chick enjoyed it!

20150604-DSC_7226Unlike the macaroni penguins which stay at sea over winter the gentoos come to shore every night to roost. They will often come ashore in different places, and sometimes they appear on the beach in front of base. It’s always great to see them, and here it was a bright moonlit night.

Ice on the inside of an outside water tank.

A wanderer chick on a day that the sun was shining.

Playing around with the light and another wanderer chick.

The iceberg on the horizon is probably bigger than a large house.

Brown skua with snow as the background and some fill in flash.

In the run up to midwinter everyone makes a present for one of the other people on base. We drew names out of a hat at the end of the summer season. I started off with the idea of making a three legged stool. I got a bit carried away though, especially with the router, and ended up making a small coffee table instead!

Large chunks of ice were breaking off some icebergs in the area, they made a great feature when they decided to drift into the bay and strand on freshwater beach in front of the base.

Next time round it’ll be midwinter, the biggest celebration in the Southern hemisphere!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Not seabirds!

I was wondering what to do for my next blog post and thought why not have some photos about the non-seabirds of Bird Island. It’s a pretty short list, South Georgia Pintail, South Georgia Pipit, and Snowy Sheathbill. If you count vagrants, then this year we have also had 2 Barn Swallows and a Cattle Egret.

South Georgia Pintail

South Georgia pintail (Anas georgica). Population 6,000 pairs. Often treated as a subspecies of the Yellow-billed Pintail (Anas g. georgica), however differences in plumage, measurements, the number of tail feathers and geographical isolation are taken by many to suggest it is a separate species.

Feeding in the shallow pools behind base

Pintail feed mostly in the intertidal zone, in streams, puddles, and damp areas between tussac bogs. Some people claim this is the only carnivorous duck, about as menacing as they get is when three of them follow you along the coast, I haven’t yet seen one hunt down anything bigger than a bug, so maybe carnivorous is pushing it a bit, they are however known to eat the occasional bit of carrion. The chicks are only occasionally seen, little balls of fluff, speeding away through the tussac, while the female runs away flapping as a distraction.


The South Georgia Pipit (Anthus antarcticus), the most Southerly passerine/songbird. Population 3,000 pairs. Like most pipits they sing in flight, and is the only true birdsong we get here. They nest in amongst the tussac grass and lay up to 5 speckled eggs. In the summer they feed amongst the tussac, but in winter when there is ice and snow around they move down to the shoreline.


Surfing on kelp to catch insects

Pipits have been very much restricted in distribution to a few offshore islands due to predation by rats. However, now that the SGHT habitat restoration project has completed its rat eradication they should be able to recolonize other areas and become more widespread.



Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis albus). SG population of 2,000 pairs. An old nickname ‘mutt’ comes from the noise of the calls they make. They are often seen running around, rather than flying. When standing still they will often be on one leg, and happily hop around to move short distances. Sheathbills often get a lot of abuse for their habit of scavenging in penguin colonies and on beaches where they eat food scraps and poo. On the Antarctic peninsula this is the only species of bird without webbed feet!

Running away from a breaking wave

Sheathbills nest in a crevice or space underneath a big rock. The nest is pretty basic, some stems of tussac to form a slight bowl and occasionally your glove if you don’t keep an eye on it!

Sheathbill eggs are very pretty

Friday, 15 May 2015

Macaroni Penguins

When I started this blog it was Lucy’s turn to cook, macaroni cheese, a good reminder that I hadn’t done a blog post on Macaroni Penguins still! It smelt delicious Smile. I’ve only just finished the post though, several weeks later as It’s been a busy time on base. We have counted everything, cleaning products, kitchenware, toilet roll, sausages… all so that we can get next years order right, fingers crossed! Well, it’s done now so here you are:

20141204-DSC_2239 Panorama
Big Mac, home to tens of thousands of Macaroni Penguins

On Bird Island there are three Macaroni colonies, Big Mac, Middle Mac, and Little Mac! Within sight of Big Mac is Mega Mac on Willis Island, as you can guess this is an even bigger colony, the biggest Macaroni colony in South Georgia. Males return in mid October, and females at the end of October. In the third week of November the first egg is laid, this seldom survives beyond early incubation, and a second egg is laid in the 4th week of November.

Little Mac, one of the study colonies

20141231-DSC_3383This egg is pipping

The first incubation shift is carried out as a pair, followed by a female only shift, then a male only shift after which the chick hatches and the female returns. Males then carry out a hatching and brood guard until the chicks are big enough to form a crèche.

A small Macaroni chick

An adult shelters its chick from the driving snow

Macaroni adult with an unusually speckled belly

Once the chicks are big enough to form a crèche both adults can take part in foraging trips to feed their chick. It takes 60 days for the chicks to fledge, at which point they will have lost their brown fluffy down, and will look similar to the adults, but without the impressive gold crest.

Once the chicks have fledged towards the end of February the adults head out to sea to feed before returning in early March to moult.


20141231-DSC_3351-Edit Panorama
An impressive sun halo

Fighting through the kelp and surf to get ashore

The long cue to get to the colony from the landing strip

Sunset at Little Mac and Willis Islands


Willis Islands (home to Mega Mac) behind Big Mac

The colony is full of moulting adults in mid March. They make a lot of noise about it too, and will spend around a month looking very scruffy, moulting their old feathers and growing a fresh new set to protect them through the winter.

20150411-DSC_6422Moulting mac

Fresh plumage post moult

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Ringing plier modification

Sorry Macaroni Penguins, you’ve been bumped again!

On Bird Island we us quite a lot of large bird rings. Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross and Giant Petrels (Geeps) take size K (16mm dia) with particularly large Geeps taking an L (19mm dia). Wandering Albatross are even bigger, and take an L+ (22mm dia) ring.

20150202_1003052000 K rings!

With these big rings reaching both handles of the No2 pliers with enough strength for the “second squeeze” can be a bit of a struggle, this is especially the case for anyone with small or not so strong hands. Having just opened a pack of Stainless Steel K’s, I can also say that they are much tougher to close than the Incoloy rings of the same size we were using, and more effort is required to get them to close nicely too. You might notice our pliers look old, well they are! We have a good number of old pliers, and some brand new ones from the BTO made by Porzana, but having used those a few times I found they were spiralling the rings annoyingly, and didn’t allow the ring ends to pop together on the second squeeze either.

To help with this problem the pliers of one of the outgoing Zoologists (Jess) were modified to include a sort of easy reach handle on the inside of the standard handles. Holes were drilled through the handles, the stainless tube fitted, and then welded in place. The current Albatross zoologist (Lucy) wanted the modification too so the base tech (Robbie) and I got together to look into the issue. The following is what we did, please bear in mind that these modified pliers haven’t been used much so we are seeing if there is much adverse impact through drilling the handles, at the end I’ll mention another solution.

Robbie suggested tapping the stainless tube and bolting it through the handle, and that’s what we did!

20150228_131655Cut the plastic handle coating off by slitting lengthways up the inside of the handle. In a bench drill, drill the handle to accept an M5 countersunk bolt, and countersink the hole a little bit too.

20150228_132422Bend, cut and file a piece of stainless tube to fit, making sure the pliers can still close properly.

20150228_132445The stainless tube is tapped to accept M5 thread.

20150228_132831Countersunk bolts are cut and filed to the right length to fit through the handle and into the tube.

20150228_165544The plastic handle coating is slipped back onto the handle and glued in place, or you could use heatshrink or self amalgamating tape.

We were worried that the handle would be really hard to drill into, but it wasn’t! It’s worth clamping it really well and drilling carefully to make sure you don’t wander off at an angle.

We had thought about welding the tube into the handle, which is how Jess’ pliers are done. But Robbie and I are not skilled welders, so we were worried about blowing holes through the stainless pipe and the weld not fusing to the handles. This is why we did the tap and bolt method. If the bolt method doesn’t prove to be durable, or the handle is weakened by the hole, we can still weld the pipe into the handle, with a section of bolt in the tapped pipe to make it thicker for welding.

I’m sure a local metal fabrication workshop would no doubt be able to weld the pipe into the handle beautifully in 10 seconds.

P1080161Here is Jess’ ‘pink’ No2 pliers with the tube welded into the handle. Everything about these pliers is substantial so the bigger hole drilled to accept the outside diameter of the tube rather than a bolt matching the tube inside diameter is OK. These are nice pliers, it’s a shame they changed the design.

**Request** If anyone is a keen toolmaker, or knows of a toolmaker that would like a challenge then some custom K, L, L+ pliers would be incredible!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Bird Island night sky

This next post was supposed to have been about Macaroni Penguins, but the miracle of a clear night happened, so I dashed out to take photos of the stars. It was breezy, cold, but pitch black and clear. The moon was at a minimum, and wasn’t visible in our sky, so the sky was as dark as it could be in the summer. Perfect for photographing the Milky Way.

Since last being in South Georgia I bought a new full frame Nikon D600 camera, and a 17-35f/2.8 lens. This combination produces much less ‘noise’ than my trusty D300, has good high ISO settings, and f/2.8 is a step up in brightness compared to my sigma 10-20mm on f/4.

20150218-DSC_4609-Edit PanoramaThe base has very effective blackout blinds

Because of the seabirds coming in to their burrows at night the base has blackout blinds on all the windows and outside lights that are kept switched off in the summer. The base is very dark, making the night sky even better! In the image above Jupiter has just risen over Gazella peak, and there is a clear ‘air glow’ giving the green tint, which is different to aurora.

20150218-DSC_4593A 360 degree panorama from the jetty

From the end of the jetty you get a clear view of the island, and the night sky. I used this as the point from which to do a 360 degree panorama to view the whole night sky. I took 10 images which were carefully stitched together to preserve the constellations. The British flag was flying well in the wind, and I could feel the jetty vibrating too, thankfully though it didn’t ruin the images.

20150218-DSC_4593 Panorama_roundThe night sky

This round projection of the night sky uses the same images as the previous panorama, but displayed differently so that the sky appears as you would see it by looking straight up. If you look carefully you should be able to find the following features: Orion (upside-down), the Southern Cross, Jupiter, the Large and Small Magellanic clouds and several satellite trails.

20150218-DSC_4616Reach for the stars

Lots has been happening over the last week with my photographs. I was very excited to hear that BBC Earth wanted to do a gallery of my South Georgia night sky photographs. The next thing I know and there’s an email saying they’re going to be featured on the main homepage too! Very exciting.

Screenshot_2015-02-26-06-29-50[1]Top of the mobile homepage!

It’s been lovely to hear people saying lots of nice things about my photographs, and one of the best feelings to see them all over a website such as the BBC. Hopefully this might be the start of getting more of my photos seen by the public.