Bird Island Research Station, Bird Island, South Georgia
- Lat. 54°0'0"S, Long. 38°2'59"W
- 1957 to 1982 (intermittently); continuously 22 Sep 1982 to present
- Summer: 10, Winter: 4
Bird Island Research Station is an important centre for research into bird and seal biology. Lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia, Bird Island is one of the richest wildlife sites in the world. The research station, active since 1957, was completely redeveloped in 2005 and today provides accommodation for 10 staff.
Bird Island lies off the north-west tip of South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It is separated by a 500-metre channel, Bird Sound, from the South Georgia mainland. It is approximately 1000km south-east of the Falkland Islands and is accessible only ship.
The station operates all year and has capacity for up to 10 personnel with two extra bunks for short-stay visitors.
There are usually three zoological assistants plus one technical support staff member on station during the winter. Assistants spend 18 months on Bird Island specialising in seals, penguins or albatross. The technician typically spends a year on station. The Station Leader is typically on station throughout most of the summer months and the island station Facilities Engineer may spend between a week and two months ashore at Bird Island each year.
In the austral summer, between October to April, numbers rise to around 10, including zoological assistants, and visiting scientists from BAS and international scientific institutions.
Administration and status
As part of South Georgia, Bird Island is administered by the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), which issues permits to BAS researchers and other visitors. A Government Officer is stationed at King Edward Point, South Georgia. The King Edward Point Station Leader acts as Magistrate.
A subantarctic island south of the Polar Front, Bird Island has little protection against Antarctic storms from the south-west. Weather is significantly colder, cloudier and wetter on Bird Island than at the old whaling stations on South Georgia’s northern coast.
Temperatures vary from -10°C to 10°C, hovering around 0°C in winter and 4°C in summer. Damp, misty, low cloud conditions prevail during summer, and gale-force winds can occur all year.
There is no permanent snow or ice on the island, though it is typically snow covered from July to October. Icebergs are often visible from the station throughout the year. Brash ice collects in the bays and occasionally freezes in during winter months.
One of the world’s richest wildlife sites, Bird Island has large, diverse populations of seabirds and fur seals, and is home to 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins and 65,000 pairs of fur seals, whose numbers are now returning to pre-sealing levels.
Importantly, Bird Island is rat-free, so has large numbers of small burrowing birds such as petrels and prions. However, many seabird species are listed as endangered, threatened or near-threatened, with albatross numbers on the island declining rapidly.
Only 12 flowering plants have been reported from Bird Island, including prickly burr, Antarctic water-starwort, Antarctic pearlwort, Emerald bog, Antarctic hair grass, tussock grass and Antarctic buttercup. In 2006, one specimen of annual meadow-grass (probably carried from the South Georgia mainland by birds) and patches of Water blink were reported for the first time. Bird Island has many mosses, fungi, liverworts, including the Ceph liverwort and Marchantia.
BAS policy is to minimise our impact on the environment in which we work. We take this responsibility especially seriously at Bird Island. We control the number of visitors coming ashore through the GSGSSI permitting system, and by keeping the station size relatively small.
Part of the reason for its special environmental status is that Bird Island is free from rats, which on mainland South Georgia have devastated populations of burrowing birds and taken eggs from albatross nests.
Because rats would decimate local wildlife, strict precautions are taken to prevent their introduction: baited rat boxes are situated throughout the island and all incoming cargo is inspected on arrival.
It has diverse and concentrated populations of sea birds and fur seals, amounting to one bird or seal for every 1.5m². There are 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins and 65,000 breeding fur seals. Fur seal numbers are now thought to be returning to a similar population size to that before sealing in the early 20th century.
Because the island has no rats, there are large numbers of small burrowing birds such as petrels (700,000 of them) and prions.
However, many sea bird species at Bird Island are listed as endangered, threatened or near-threatened. Numbers of albatross on the island are declining rapidly, at around 14,000.
Preventing invasion of other non-native species
At Bird Island, every care is taken ensure we reduce the risk of introducing new species to the island. Fresh produce is inspected and washed on delivery, and any non-native species found are sent to BAS in Cambridge for identification. New protocols ensure that on arrival, visitors scrub their footwear and inspect their clothing, particularly velcro in waterproofs to remove any visual signs of seeds and soils.
To conduct our scientific research, we must be able to travel around the island. After 50 years of scientists walking similar routes to albatross and penguin colonies, there are several well-defined paths around the island. We monitor the frequency of use of each route, and stake routes where paths are not obvious to avoid excessive damage spreading to local habitats.
With no doctors or field guides on Bird Island, BAS provides comprehensive training in advanced first aid, medical response, navigation, and search and rescue, particularly to wintering staff. Remote medical support is available immediately upon request at all times.
Staff take turns to cook evening meals and make bread. Saturdays are kept formal, with three course meals, and birthdays and other celebrations are special events.
Leisure activities include film nights, games and quizzes and the station has a collection of music, instruments and exercise machines.
The station is usually re-supplied twice a year, at the beginning and end of summer, by BAS ships RRS Ernest Shackleton and RRS James Clark Ross. Food, fuel and other supplies are brought ashore by tender and waste removed to the Falkland Islands and the UK for recycling.
For science staff, working hours depend on their study species. Work at the penguin colony – which is 35 minutes walk from the station – is often around dawn and dusk when the birds forage.
Fur seal science is intense from late November to January, when pups are born. The seal study beach is a five-minute walk from the station through thousands of unpredictable seals – not a job for the faint-hearted.
Albatross and petrel science is busy all year, and involves a daily hike around the island over heavy-going terrain, so bird assistants are usually the fittest of the bunch.
While science assistants help in routine maintenance of water systems and generators, the technician is responsible for keeping station facilities running smoothly, as well as doing more challenging repairs and improvements throughout the winter.
Field huts and hides have existed at one time or other at the following sites, close to breeding seabird and seal colonies:
- Gazella Peak
- Molly Hill
- Wanderer Ridge
- Johnson Gentoo Colony
- Top Meadows (two locations)
- Colony B
- Special Study Beach
- Colony J
- Fairy Point
The last four are used regularly, with the hut at Fairy Point large enough to provide basic offsite accommodation.
The BAS scientific research at Bird Island focuses on seabird and seal population dynamics, feeding ecology and reproductive performance.
Population numbers, breeding success, diet and feeding grounds of seabirds and seals have been collected on Bird Island for decades. These long-term datasets are crucial to understanding the Southern Ocean ecosystem.
Much of this data is used by Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Programme. This aims to establish conservation policy and management to protect the current diversity of the southern oceans.
BAS conservation biology research on Bird Island includes monitoring white-chinned petrel, the most commonly reported bird species recorded as fisheries bycatch in the Southern Ocean.
Long-term monitoring of this species showed a decline in nest burrow occupancy of 28% between the 1970s and 1990s. In 2015, with funding from South Georgia fisheries licence fees, 13 chicks were satellite tagged and tracked in near real-time via the Argos system.
BAS biologists have also come up with innovative electronic tagging systems to monitor macaroni penguins, whose population has declined on South Georgia has declined by 70% since the 1980s.
At one colony on Bird Island Research Station, they developed and installed a ‘penguin gateway’. For 10 years, as tagged birds passed between the colony and the sea, the ‘gateway’ recorded the tag number and the time and direction of travel, providing vital information about their survival.
Annual reports including the Bird and Mammal report, Beach Litter Study, and Seal Disentanglements report have been prepared by Bird Island staff for many years.
Collaborative programs with UK universities and overseas establishments – including the University of Texas – have resulted in several scientists visiting Bird Island most field seasons, with BAS logistic support.
Other conservation visitors have included Dame Ellen MacArthur supporting Birdlife International’s Save the Albatross campaign, and scientists conducting bird counting surveys for the Government of South Georgia within the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
Before they can go ahead, any studies involving animals must satisfy an Ethics Review Committee.
20 April, 2017 by Paul Fox
Paul Fox, Senior Responsible Officer for RRS Sir David Attenborough, has written a guest blog for a behind-the-scenes look at NERC’s commission of a new polar research ship for Britain and the associated Antarctic infrastructure modernisation programme.
10 June, 2016 by Timothy Morley
Tim Morley, Zoological Field Assistant at Bird Island, shares a typical week at Bird Island Research Station as he prepares for midwinter…. With many of our species finishing breeding for …
2 February, 2016 by James Robbins
Bird Island has undergone several changes since the last diary entry in November. The summer breeding season is in full swing, and in some cases is starting to quieten down …
10 November, 2015 by Alastair Wilson
October is another busy month for bird work, with the feathered residents of Bird Island all returning and starting to breed. Almost all of the Northern giant petrels are now …
27 October, 2015 by Sian Tarrant
Leopard seal peak The penultimate month of the lep round has been by far the most exciting. September has been the busiest month yet for leopard seal sightings. It has …
22 September, 2015 by Lucy Quinn
When I last wrote a web diary, back in April, it was at the end of the summer season and the first few intrepid weeks of winter. It’s hard to …
21 January, 2019
The population of Antarctic krill, the favourite food of many whales, penguins, fish and seals, shifted southward during a recent period of warming in their key habitat, new research shows. …
21 January, 2019
British Antarctic Survey scientist Professor Richard Phillips has been awarded funding to use newly developed radar-detecting tags to track the interactions between wandering albatrosses and fishing vessels in the South …
22 October, 2018
BAS marine researchers join nearly 300 international delegates at the annual meeting of the Convention on the Conservation or Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) beginning in Hobart today. For the …
23 October, 2017
Blue Planet II – the nature documentary that explores the deepest and darkest realms of the world’s oceans – is back on the BBC some 16 years after it was …
15 February, 2017
The longest and most comprehensive study to date of what penguins eat is published this month. The study, published in the journal Marine Biology, examines the diets of gentoo penguins …
11 January, 2017
The UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands is this week launching an ambitious conservation effort to help protect the albatross. South Georgia is a globally important …
4 January, 2017
Construction expert BAM has been chosen to partner with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to modernise UK Antarctic and other research facilities, enabling British scientists to continue delivering world class research …
25 December, 2016
Dr Lucy Quinn is zoological field assistant at the British Antarctic Survey research station on Bird Island, South Georgia – a job which involves daily expeditions come rain or shine …
29 November, 2016
As spring returns to the southern hemisphere British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has started another research season which will take them over land, sea and ice in search of answers to …
26 August, 2016
Technical advisor appointment
1 August, 2016
A review of breeding distributions, population trends, threats and key priorities for conservation actions on land and at sea for the 29 species covered by the Agreement on the Conservation …
25 July, 2016
A new study of the movements of sub-Antarctic albatrosses tracked from two remote islands some 5,000 km apart, shows that although the birds from each breeding site take similar routes around the Southern Ocean, they forage in different areas for the majority of the time. The results are published this month in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.
12 January, 2016
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is recruiting now. The smooth operation and maintenance of our research stations depends on skilled technical support teams. Check out our latest vacancies!
8 January, 2016
Two British Antarctic Survey (BAS) personnel, and one former member of staff, have been awarded the Polar Medal. The announcement was made today (Fri. 8th Jan 2016) in the London …
7 October, 2015
Antarctic seabird community structure remains unaffected by changes in food availability A new study of sub-Antarctic seabirds shows that their community structure (how they co-exist and share resources) is unaffected …
18 August, 2015
Bird tracking technology reveals future climate may affect seabird feeding behaviour A two year study of shags on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve in Scotland reveals that when …
10 August, 2015
Antarctic fur seals have unique ‘scent profile’ to recognise their pups Researchers studying Antarctic fur seals have discovered their scent has a unique ‘profile’ which enables them to recognise their …
14 July, 2015
New study uncovers how petrels in sub-Antarctic co-exist during the winter For the first time, scientists understand more clearly how birds living on the remote sub-Antarctic island of Bird Island …
1 April, 2015
New study tracks feeding behaviour of Antarctic fur seals in winter During the Antarctic Summer female fur seals feed in the waters around their breeding breaches. In winter, when their …
26 March, 2015
WWF’s Earth Hour is a global annual event where hundreds of millions of people switch off their lights for one hour to show they care about the planet.
16 February, 2015
Does age matter? Maybe not if you’re a wandering albatross A new study of the wandering albatrosses breeding on the sub-antarctic island of Bird Island (off South Georgia) reveals that …
19 December, 2014
British Antarctic Survey staff prepare to celebrate Christmas far away from home As you make the last preparations for the festive period, spare a thought for those who will be …
23 July, 2014
Genetic study shows major impact of climate change on Antarctic fur seals Genetic analysis of Antarctic fur seals, alongside decades of in-depth monitoring,* has provided unique insights into the effect …
20 June, 2014
Midwinter’s Day celebrations take place at Antarctic Research Stations Staff at the British Antarctic Survey are celebrating Midwinter’s Day in Antarctica. In a tradition which began in the days of …
28 May, 2014
We caught up with Bird Island Research Station Leader Adam Bradley who was living and working on the island when the BBC crew came to film Deadly Pole to Pole. …
27 May, 2014
Deadly Pole to Pole at Bird Island Tune in to CBBC today at 5:25pm to see adventurer Steve Backshall on Bird Island as part of the BBC’s Deadly Pole to …
21 May, 2014
Electronic tags provide 10 years worth of penguin data A team of scientists, led by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, has used tiny electronic tags to study the decline …
24 December, 2013
Christmas messages from Antarctic staff Many British Antarctic Survey scientists and support staff will be spending this Christmas thousands of miles from home on the frozen continent. BAS has five …
20 December, 2013
British Antarctic Survey field season is underway On the eve of the centenary year of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition the ship which bears his name is playing a crucial role …
12 March, 2013
Saving the best for last – wandering albatrosses” last push for successful parenting Romanticised in poetry, the wandering albatross is famed for its enormous wing-span and long life. The bird …
30 April, 2012
Antarctic albatross displays shift in breeding habits A new study of the wandering albatross – one of the largest birds on Earth – has shown that some of the birds …
21 November, 2011
On the eve of the centenary of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) 20011/12 field season is underway. The start of the season …
15 November, 2011
This week on Frozen Planet (BBC1 Wednesday 16 November at 21.00, repeated Sunday at 16.10) the programme explores autumn in the polar regions. As life cools down in the Antarctic, …
7 November, 2011
This week on Frozen Planet (BBC1 Wednesday 9 November at 21.00, repeated Sunday at 16.10) the programme explores Summer in the Polar Regions. As life thrives in the Antarctic, viewers …
31 October, 2011
This week on Frozen Planet (BBC1 Wednesday 2 November at 21.00, repeated Sunday at 16.10) the programme explores Spring in the Polar Regions and how life begins the race to …
20 October, 2011
Series starts Wednesday 26 October, BBC1 at 9.00pm, repeated on Sundays at 4.10pm. Embark on the trip of a lifetime, as the award-winning BBC team behind Planet Earth takes you …
21 June, 2011
Staff at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) celebrate Midwinter’s Day today. Celebrated as the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere, Midwinter’s day is the shortest and darkest day for the …
7 October, 2009
Albatross camera reveals fascinating feeding interaction with killer whale Scientists from British Antarctic Survey, National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR), Tokyo, and Hokkaido University, Japan, have recorded the first observations …
A new jetty and logistics facilities for Bird Island
Building data resources for managing the South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area
The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) Marine Protected Area (MPA) was established by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in 2012, to ensure the …
Wandering albatrosses at South Georgia have declined catastrophically since the 1960s due to incidental mortality (bycatch) in fisheries (Pardo et al. 2017) . This led to the development of the …
The grey-headed albatross is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of a decline since the 1970s of the largest global breeding population, which is …
The British Antarctic Survey carries out Long Term Science that measures changes in Antarctic ecosystems and seeks to understand the underlying drivers and processes. Marine predators are sensitive to changes …
An estimated 75% of all the litter in our oceans is plastic, and around 5 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean annually. Observations of a significant concentration of …
This long-term study monitors the impact of marine plastics and other debris on breeding seabirds at Bird Island. Researchers have monitored the levels of marine plastics and other material from …
Virtual Antarctica ... journey beyond
The white-chinned petrel is the most common bird species recorded as fisheries bycatch in the Southern Ocean . Although currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, limited population trend data …