ANTARCTIC BLOG: Life on Bird Island

1 June, 2015

Located at the Western end of South Georgia, Bird Island sits directly in the path of approaching weather, and is often enveloped in cloud and mist. My 3 year old niece, having seen the BI webcam a few times, has asked the question: “why does it always rain on Bird Island”! So when the weather is nice, we try and make the most of it. We were lucky to have a couple of days of good weather at the start of the month, so out I went to monitor the last of the southern  giant petrel chicks, and take a few photographs at the same time.

Wandering albatross chick sits on its nest on Bird Island, South Georgia
Wandering albatross chick sits on its nest on Bird Island, South Georgia

Monitoring the breeding seabirds has decreased dramatically for Lucy and me this month. The last southern giant petrels have fledged, as have the grey-headed albatross chicks, leaving only the wandering albatross chicks sitting proudly on their nests. It is with much pleasure that we all get involved with the monthly wanderer chick census, visiting every nest on the island to check whether it is still occupied. I particularly enjoyed the view from Molly Hill, with the sun breaking through the thick cloud.

The view from Molly Hill, Bird Island
The view from Molly Hill, Bird Island

Macaroni penguins, one of my main study species, spend the winter out at sea foraging, only returning to the island in the spring. Gentoo penguins however don’t venture as far, and come back to land to roost each night. Often they will roost at a breeding site, but occasionally they appear on other beaches too. It’s a lovely surprise when they all start appearing on the beach in front of base, wandering around, and often coming up to the base itself with a curious attitude.

Gentoo penguins and a moon halo on Bird Island, South Georgia
Gentoo penguins and a moon halo on Bird Island, South Georgia

The leopard seal round continues daily, and as part of midwinter week we took it in turns to do the route so that Siân could have a short break. We even spotted a few from the lounge and office windows, with late afternoon (just as it’s getting too dark to take photographs) seeming to be a particularly good time to spot them having their dinner.

A leopard seal and a giant petrel fighting over food
A leopard seal and a giant petrel fighting over food

Robbie has been kept busy this month carrying out a thorough electrical safety test of the whole base as well as his usual maintenance and repair tasks. With only one technician on the base he has had to turn his hand to being a mechanic and plumber in addition to his main profession as an electrician.

The main event this month has been the celebration of mid-winter. June the 21st, the solstice is a big celebration in for all nationalities across the continent, and on the sub-Antarctic islands.

The wintering Bird Island team on Midwinter's Day
The wintering Bird Island team on Midwinter’s Day

In the week leading up to midwinter all of the stations share mid winter greetings cards, emailing round a photograph and their best wishes. We even received letters thanking us for all our hard work from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the President of the USA, Barak Obama. It is interesting to see all the different people and stations scattered around the Antarctic, and to feel something of a community sharing in this celebration.

Around midwinter we try and take some time off to relax, enjoy ourselves, and do group activities that we usually wouldn’t have time to do. Our week of fun started with midwinter’s day on the Sunday.

Preparations started in earnest on the Saturday, with a hive of activity in the kitchen, making a variety of treats and dishes for the mid winter dinner the following day. I spent much of the day making croissants; if you are used to picking up pastries in the supermarket or a bakery then making your own really gives you an appreciation for french bakers! Rolling and folding, refrigerating for an hour, rolling and folding, over and over again, until the butter and pastry (like your patience) forms wafer thin layers.

Making croissants on Midwinter's Day
Making croissants on Midwinter’s Day

As station leader it was my treat to the rest of the base to deliver breakfast in bed, and a cooked brunch for the rest of station, not too bad with being a small station. Having made B&B style order slips I was ready to deliver breakfast when Siân appeared in the dining room. This turned out to be rather fortunate, croissants in the oven, I received a call from BBC6music, would I do a live interview with Cerys Matthews (one of our favourite presenters), as she was dedicating her whole show to midwinter! Of course I accepted, so whilst I chatted on the radio, Siân rescued my croissants from the oven. By the time the interview finished everyone was sitting around the table, so breakfast moved from beds to the table, and breakfast merged seamlessly into brunch, pancakes, bacon, maple syrup, croissants, bucks fizz, tea, coffee…perfect start to the day.

The middle of the day was spent in the kitchen, cooking up a feast, the menu for the evening (created by Siân,our culinary Queen) reading like that from a fancy restaurant. It is quite impressive the inventiveness that can go into creating a feast from the dried, frozen and tinned food we have on station.


Chilli devilled eggs

Bocconcini skewers

Squash frittatas, pea puree & sundried tomatoes

Potted crab


Baked camembert and a walnut dip

Served with breadsticks


Roasted reindeer

Jerk ham

Pear and blue cheese tart with walnut pastry

Served with roasted potatoes, honey and lemon thyme-roasted carrots, baked spiced sweet potato mash, stuffing cakes, garam masala roasted sprouts and a red wine jus


A trio of desserts:

Mango parfait with coconut sorbet

Salted caramel tart with praline macaroons, praline cream and vanilla ice cream

Chocolate fondant with nougatine biscuit and toffee sauce

Whilst eating the canapés we opened a great big box of presents from our predecessors. They had very kindly left us with a box of goodies as a surprise for midwinter. Then it was time to exchange midwinter presents. Earlier in the year we each drew a name out of a hat, and over the last couple of months we have been crafting and constructing a gift for one of the other winterers. As always a lot of thought, time and effort goes into making these presents for each other.

The home-made coffee table gifted to Sian on Midwinter's Day
The home-made coffee table gifted to Sian on Midwinter’s Day

After dinner it was time to listen to the BBC World Service midwinter broadcast. For many years the BBC has broadcast messages recorded by family or friends at home using their Short Wave transmission stations to the Antarctic stations. On BI we can’t tune in to SW so we got the broadcast transferred to us over the satellite link instead. It is always a moving and emotional occasion to hear messages from home, even in this day and age where the internet and telephone system allows much more regular contact with home.

Over the following week we did a variety of fun activities. Robbie made a Bird Island ‘snakes and ladders’ board, slippery tussac and being chased by angry seals were squares to avoid. I led a craft session making solarography cameras, a pinhole camera that creates a photograph over a period of several months so we’ll collect them in at midsummer. We had an afternoon of “high tea”, dainty sandwiches, salted caramel tart, lemon drizzle cake, scones jam and cream, and a selection of teas and coffee.

Unfortunately the vagaries of Bird Island’s weather scuppered some of our week’s activities; the midwinter Olympics were postponed due to all the snow melting, and the family outing was cancelled due to thick fog! It’s not often we all get the chance to go for a walk all together, so it’s something to look forward to for the next nice day. We did however have a FIDS (Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, the precursor to BAS) day, where we dressed up like old explorers. I even rigged up a makeshift tent in the lounge using sheets, where we sat to eat man-food rations (as opposed to dog-food), and hear about some Antarctic facts from Robbie, and a sledge dog story read by Lucy.

Spotting a wandering albatross chick on Bird Island, South Georgia
Spotting a wandering albatross chick on Bird Island, South Georgia

After such a lovely midwinter week there was only a week left of the month, just enough time to get the usual monthly reports and accounts done, and get on the exercise bike for Race Antarctica…more about that next month.