Since 2011, I have been spending November to April each year working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. I work as a Zoological Field Assistant on the penguin and seal long-term monitoring programme. Before this, I spent 2.5 years on the sub-Antarctic island of Bird Island, South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

This blog gives readers an insight into my day-to-day life in the Antarctic, from my first trip south in 2008 to the present day.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The end of the season

With the ship only 2 days away, we are now all busy getting ready to leave.  Fieldwork is complete, boxes are packed and we start thinking about closing down the station itself.

The weather has been beautiful this week which has made a lovely end to a season that has been largely mild, wet and windy.  It has really felt like summer.

Yesterdays sunrise over Coronation Island was well worth going out to see.  Specially as the sun now gets up around 7:15am so it is not even an early start!   

The moon over Coronation in the evening was just as pretty.

The ship is due on Friday and we expect to leave sometime on Sunday, bound for the Falklands.  The Signy webcam will be decomissioned with the services so will vanish shortly, but you can follow my progress home on the Ernest Shackleton ship webcam and ship tracker (links to both of these are under the "interesting links" on the right hand side of this page, although the ship tracker isn't always very good at updating).  We will be onboard until 6th April. 

We fly home on 6th April, from the Falkland Islands, arriving back into the UK on 7th.  I am looking forward to getting home in time for spring.   

Sunday, 18 March 2018

March

It is now March.  For us, March is the end of the season and time to start thinking about going home.  My chinstrap chicks have all fledged.  Unlike the Adelies, who travel south to moult, the chinstrap adults will stay at Signy to moult.  Many of them will stand with their partners on their nest site while they do this. 


Some of them look very scruffy as their new feathers grow and push out the old ones.  Sometimes the ground is littered with so many feathers it looks like it has been snowing.  It takes a suprisingly short time for the entire set of feathers to be replaced (only 2 weeks).  I always feel that this is the equivalent of going out and buying a brand new waterproof coat for the winter months. 


The fur seals also moult at Signy.  They also look scruffy, often looking like they need a good hoovering!

The elephant seal fur seems to peel off in layers rather than individual hairs falling out.  They always look very smart once they have moulted.  This youngster looked particularly nice. 


It always seems a shame to me that they grow into something like this!

My fieldwork is now complete.  Instead jobs now include things like giving my field huts at Gourlay a new coat of wood preserver (although this year we only had enough to do the hut on the right).

I've also just finished the job of washing my nest marker bricks.  This year the sun shone and it was a pleasant task.

Now they are all stacked in the hut ready for next season. 


The weather has improved slightly in recent weeks, becoming colder and clearer.   One evening we even had a sort-of sunset...


... followed by a dark night with millions of stars.  This is only the second night I've seen stars this year, due to a combination of it being summer and therefore light, and then being largely overcast.  It now gets dark quite early, giving us more opportunities to see the stars.

With very little snow left after a mild season, some areas of Signy look nothing like the Antarctic!  Some of the thawed lakes look particularly nice, with the water a deep greeny blue colour from the glacial sediments that drain into them. 



With 10 days to go now before the ship comes to pick us up, we turn to packing cargo and samples and starting to close down the station for the winter.    

Friday, 9 March 2018

Counting

A lot of my job involves counting and monitoring a variety of wildlife.  The counting part of this has been particularly noticeable over the last couple of weeks. 

First job was the whole island seal census.  This involved all personnel on station, and took two full days.  Every seal on the island, of every species, was counted.  Some areas have a lot of seals and many of the fur seals look remarkably rock-like! 

The beaches and low lying areas are particularly popular with the fur seals and elephant seals.

While the ice flows are much more popular with seals such as this leopard seal and weddell seals.

The seals have been counted almost every year, at the same time of year since 1977, allowing us to see the long term trends in their numbers.  We got to just over 9000 seals in total this year. 

Whilst out counting I came across this south polar skua. 

Only a few of these nest on the island here.  Most of the skuas here are the larger and darker, Brown skua.  This picture shows both for comparison.

We have had a mild and rainy season here this year.  When the sun finally decided to shine, everything on the lower slopes looked very green and un-Antarctic looking!  This is a combination of green algae, mosses and lichen.

I have been feeling rather envious of all of the lovely snowy pictures people have been sending me from home while I have been out in the rain.  The lack of snow turns everything dirty coloured- our beautiful snowy icecap has turned from this...

Into this...    

The snow algae which develops on the surface can be green or red.  The red algae can get very red!

With winter approaching, the temperatures this week have finally started dropping, allowing us to have some snow.

It was such a refreshing change from the rain and transformed Signy back into being an Antarctic winter wonderland.  The west coast, still with plenty of icebergs was looking particularly wintery.

 

The second big count that needed to be done was the whole island giant petrel chick count.  We had counted all of the nests earlier in the season, but need to know how many of these have survived.  Giant petrel chicks are not blessed with good looks, but they have a lot of character and I am very fond of them.

They come in a grey morph...

Or a white morph...

Both are very well camouflaged on a snowy day and despite their large size, they were tricky to spot in the grey and white snowy landscape.

Back on station, on a rainy sunday afternoon, we made penguin cookies...

We have only three weeks left here now til the end of the season.  My fieldwork is winding down and my focus switches to packing boxes and samples, counting things and tidying up from the season.  None of this is too arduous and it makes a change from being in the field almost every day.  There are still plenty of reasons to get outside, and it is nice to pick and chose the nicer days instead of having to be out in whatever weather Signy decides to throw at us!

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Signy Webcam

We have had a webcam running at Signy this year, and had been hoping to get it connected to the BAS website for everyone to see.  Unfortunately this is out of our hands, and has not yet happened so we have come up with an alternative from here.  The images from the webcam can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/keqdquv3zqa3zmz/AABE0o_5tCJXq3ZJbBNskgS6a?dl=0  There is a new image every 30 minutes.  It is worth noting this links to a large number of images so can take a while to load up.  The view is from the front of the station looking towards the generator shed and jetty.   

After a lot more mild wet weather, we finally had a nice sunny day earlier in the week and managed a trip to the west coast to do some maintenance work on the hut there.  There are some lovely icebergs grounded in the shallower waters along the west coast.  The smaller bits are often used by leopard seals as places to haul out for a snooze.

All of the Adelie penguins have now gone.  They will head south to the ice edge where the adults will moult and regrow a new set of feathers.  The chinstrap chicks are enormous.  The youngest look like this:

Those that are a bit older look like this:

And the ones that are only a week or so from fledging look like this:

One day this Macaroni penguin showed up.  In the past, a few of these have been known to breed at Signy, but I have never seen any breeding in my time here.  However, a few are seen each year, looking for a nesting site or a mate. 

The last few days I've noticed it is starting to get dark much earlier here now, and its still not fully light at 6am any longer.  Although this means winter is on its way here, it also means the opposite must be happening in the UK and it will therefore be spring when I get home in a couple of months.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Out into the Big Wide World

Firstly, BAS has developed a new virtual tour of Signy research station, which can be found on the BAS website at: https://www.bas.ac.uk/project/virtual-antarctica/virtual-antarctica-signy-demo-vr360/  The pictures for this were taken the day we arrived so there is a lot of cargo in the wrong places, but it does give the general idea of how things are.  I think it is likely to be quite good, as long as you have faster internet than we do here!  Enjoy!

The end of January sees my  Adelie chicks starting to fledge.  The adults leave too so in the space of about 10 days, the colonies go from being full of birds to strangely silent.  Here is the big colony at Gourlay at the start of the week: 

At this stage the Adelie chicks are fully feathered and have lost nearly all of their fluffy down (in this picture you can also see the younger chinstrap chicks behind):

This chick looks fat and healthy and probably weighs only slight less than its parent.  This is probably its final meal from its parents before heading out into the big wide world alone.  It will hopefully return to Signy to breed in a few years time. 

It always amazes me that the chicks somehow know the time is right to leave behind the safety of the shore and leap into the sea and swim away.  It only takes them a couple of seconds of bobbing and splashing on the surface like ducks before they realise they can dive under and vanish completely.  This is the last we see of them.  It is critical that they get this bit right as leopard seals and giant petrels cruise the shoreline, picking off any weaklings.

By the end of the week, the colony in the picture at the start of this blog was almost empty.  The birds around the edges are largely chinstraps, with just a couple of tiny clusters of adelie chicks remaining.   

My study colony has only 2 birds left in it, and the colony is now an empty space littered with numbered nest marker bricks.  All of the neat little nests of stones have turned into one big dirty mess.  One of my jobs in the coming weeks will be to clean the bricks up for next year, but I think I'll let the rain do a bit of the work for me first.

Meanwhile the chinstraps will be with us for a while yet. 

The smallest of these are still very cute.  But the majority are much bigger than this now.  They have about a month to go before they too will head for the sea.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Late January

By late January, everything is moving on.  We are past mid season which is a milestone mentally as it becomes necessary to start thinking about plans for once the season is over and writing job applications- until this point it is so far ahead that not much can be planned.  At Signy there is still a lot to do.  The weather has been pretty dismal in the last couple of weeks, with warm temperatures giving us several days of heavy rain, and frequent fog.  This hasn't been great for pictures so apologies that most of these are not very bright!
Last week we visited the gentoo penguins up at the North end of the island to count all of the chicks.  The chicks are getting quite big.


The gentoo chicks are lovely.  Unlike the Adelies, they seem to have the sense to move out of their guano-covered colonies as soon as they are big enough, so they manage to remain clean and tidy.


The shag chicks at North point are also getting quite large.  They are brown at present but will change colour when their feathers grow. 


The chinstrap chicks are also growing well.

On Friday the RRS Ernest Shackleton came to visit. 


It came to take away two of our scientists, Alex and JB, who have been with us since just before Christmas.  Alex has been working with me, flying a drone to conduct a whole island aerial surveys of chinstrap penguins. 



At this time of year the Antarctic fur seals turn up in large numbers.  They are usually sub-adult males who are not big enough to hold territories on the breeding beaches of South Georgia.


This one was special.  It has a red flipper tag, and the number on it tells us that it was tagged as a pup on Bird Island in the 2012/13 season!  What are the chances of him turning up on Signy in a place where I could spot his tags!

There are some strange creatures in the Antarctic waters. 


This crustacean (identified as the amphipod Paraceradocus) washed up on the beach one day and was brought in for a photograph before being released.