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 research assistants plus one technical support staff member on station during the winter. Research 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 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, with 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. Government Officers are 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.
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 biosecurity 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 research 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:
Johnson Gentoo Colony
Top Meadows (two locations)
Special Study Beach
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.
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