Living with albatrosses: Bird Island human stars- Part one
If you have been following along with #AlbatrossStories and watching the nest cams of Greta, you will have seen the extreme changeability of sub-Antarctic weather. And whilst some of us sit in the comfort of our own homes, marvelling at these incredible birds, there is a team based on Bird Island, South Georgia, hard at work to get the much-needed data to help study, understand and protect our albatross.
We spoke with Alex Dodds, one of British Antarctic Survey’s albatross field assistants living and working on Bird Island, to get her story about living with albatrosses.
What is it like living in such a remote part of the planet?
It takes a day of flying and a few days sailing to get here so it seems a long way from anywhere when you first arrive, but you quickly become absorbed into the little world of the Bird Island bubble. Instead of the noise of traffic outside, we have the noise of fur seals and nocturnal seabirds through the night and no light pollution.
You quickly become part of the base community and get into a routine of daily life and fieldwork. There are times when everyone gets a little homesick or misses certain creature comforts, but we’ve all gone through or are going to go through the same thing so talking about it to someone who can relate really helps.
Your commute is very different from most people’s, let alone your workplace and the work you do there. What drew you to the sub-Antarctic and working with albatrosses?
Over the past few years I’ve definitely become somewhat of an isle-ophile, working on a variety of islands around the UK and our overseas territories. I love working in the coastal environment and seeing the dynamics of the aquatic and terrestrial systems interacting. Seabirds fit perfectly into this, relying on the ocean for their food source and relying on the land for raising their young.
Albatrosses have always been an animal that I’ve been in awe of, whether I saw one in a nature documentary or learnt about the mythology and superstitions surrounding them in the sailing world (particularly when reading ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in school). Working mostly in ‘on-the-ground’ conservation and ecology is my way of contributing to the natural world and trying to help in solving some of the issues it faces today.
Tell us about a typical day on Bird Island.
At the moment, a typical day for the albatross duo (myself and Rosie Hall, who I am currently receiving my albatross training from) is filled with checking on the grey-headed and black-browed albatross colonies for eggs being laid and finding out who both of the parents are.
The grey-heads are all pretty much finished laying now and we’ve established the identities of both parent birds using their identifying metal and colour rings. After we’ve recorded an individual on the nest we use stock marker spray paint (the same used on sheep) and spray a dot of blue on their breast – so the colony looks a bit of an odd colour at the moment! This acts as a ‘do not disturb’ sign so we don’t survey them again, and the paint washes off the next time the bird goes out to sea.
Since the 5th of November we’ve also been checking daily on the Wandering Albatross chicks in our study area to see if they’ve spread their enormous wings and fledged yet. It’s fun seeing them starting to wander away from their nests to the flat, open ‘runway’ area and practice flapping and taking their first little jumps off the ground and making little excited noises as they do.
Once back at the dry, warm base the day’s data is entered into various spreadsheets and databases, followed by printing out the maps and paperwork for the next day.
Most evenings at the base involve dinner at 8pm followed by socialising in the lounge in the form of watching a film, playing games or chatting. My first week on the island ended with Halloween, so the fancy dress and face paint/makeup boxes were pulled out into the lounge and everyone made their own costumes. We watched the Halloween classics ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Beetlejuice’, and even had a Jack-o'-lantern made from a washed-up orange buoy.
Although we’re heading towards winter in the northern hemisphere, Bird Island is rapidly approaching spring. What can we look forward to in the next ‘season’ on #BirdIsland?
Spring is definitely approaching here on #BirdIsland – we’ve started to hear the South Georgia pipits feeding their young this week! The Wandering Albatross chicks from last season, including #AlbatrossStories star Greta, have started fledging – they’ve shed most of their downy chick fluff now!
The grey-headed albatross are all settled onto eggs now and the black-browed albatross aren’t far behind, so hopefully we’ll have plenty of fluffball chicks this season. The island is getting noisier with the fur seals and many of the Macaroni penguins returning; as I walk over the hill to the albatross colonies I stop hearing seals on the beach and can hear the masses of penguins calling away in the Big Mac colony.
You can support the work of the Albatross Task Force to protect these extraordinary birds in the areas they need it the most by becoming a Friend of the Albatross and contributing a monthly donation of your choice.
Thanks to our funders Darwin Plus, South Georgia Heritage Trust and the Friends of South Georgia Island.