Once Signy research station is up and running it is time to start some real work. My first job is to head across to Gourlay, which is a rocky peninsula about a hours walk from the station. Here, large numbers of Adelie and Chinstrap penguins nest, and this is where I do a large amount of my work.
First job is to transport my numbered bricks from their winter storage in the hut out to my selected colonies. For this, a plastic sledge is handy (which also sometimes doubles up as my taxi to work).
The numbered bricks are laid out throughout the colony, each marking a nest, and a map is drawn. 100 nests of each species are chosen. The contents of these nests are then checked every couple of days throughout the season, giving me very detailed dates and information about eggs laid, chicks hatched, nest failure dates etc.
Although the birds all look the same, if you use a bit of imagination, you can see lines of nests through the colonies, which combined with the helpfully numbered bricks, makes it relatively easy to keep an eye on who is who. When the birds are incubating, the colonies are neatly ordered, with one bird per nest, and each nest located just out of pecking distance of its neighbour. The photo below shows this quite well.
Penguins constantly modify their nest mounds, stealing stones from their less observant neighbours to make their own pile bigger and neater. This means my nest markers have to be quite substantial, to prevent them from being stolen and moved around the colony by the more ambitious penguins.
My work is part of a long term study to monitor penguin breeding success. There are around 85,000 pairs of penguins at Signy in total- counting all of these every year would be impossible. Instead I count the contents of a number of smaller colonies. By counting the same colonies each year, we can see what the population trends are without having to count the whole island. For each of these colonies, I count three times during the season- an egg count, a chick count and a fledgling count. This tells us how the birds are doing through the season (for example, if they only lay one egg instead of two, they may be in poor condition upon arrival, probably as a result of poor feeding over the winter; if lots of the eggs do not hatch, this may show poor weather during incubation, where eggs are left exposed; if not many chicks fledge it may represent poor food supplies during chick rearing).
The timing of breeding, varies quite a lot from year to year- if there is a lot of sea ice the birds may arrive late and the timing of the whole season shifts backwards. This is where my nests with marker bricks come into play- by collecting such detailed information about a small group of birds, I can ensure the counts are done at the same stage each year. For example, the egg count is done 7 days after all of my study birds have at least 1 egg.