30 Mar 2020

Living with albatross: Bird Island human stars – Part Two

Wandering albatross on South Georgia
© Alex Dodds
By Samuel Wrobel


We continue our conversation with Alex Dodds, one of British Antarctic Survey’s albatross field assistants based on the frontline of albatross conservation, Bird Island in South Georgia. You can read part one here, where Alex explained what it was like sharing your neighbourhood with albatrosses, penguins and seals!

In part two we learn more about the challenges of working there and also the challenges facing albatrosses, highlighting the importance of albatross conservation and what we can all do to help!


Do you have any particularly memorable albatross moments or special albatross individuals that you’ve got to know?

When you spend every day visiting the albatross colonies you get to know a range of characters, from quiet and obliging to loud and angry. It’s interesting learning how the birds’ temperaments vary between species.

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Visiting the colonies every day, especially if there’s particularly wild weather, you can become focused on getting the day’s work done and recording each nest and bird – but there are moments that remind you of how special it is to be on an islands covered in birds.

The other day I was going through one of the Grey-headed albatross colonies and came to a bird who I needed to carefully approach to read their identifying metal ring. The bird responded well to my calm approach and after successfully reading the ring number the bird just stayed next to me for a while doing some inquisitive head-bobbing. That was a very special little moment for me! I’m looking forward to the next 18 months for more special wildlife moments around the island.


What do you find challenging about the work that you do, and/or where you do it?

For our albatross fieldwork the initial challenge is getting your ‘island legs’ when first arriving.  As albatross zoological field assistants, we cover a lot of ground to reach the different colonies each day and it can be a steep (pun intended) learning curve for your legs.

The fur seals have begun to descend on Bird Island now and their range extends up parts of the hills and amongst the tussock grass, so we have to keep an eye out for any that are hidden and always take a walking stick or ‘bodger’ with us just in case we have to warn any off.

With any work on a remote island there is always the potential challenge of something breaking and having no spares or way to fix it – or, if we run out of supplies for our scientific work, then being reliant upon the next ship calling to resolve the issue. Although, as Plato said, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and it’s amazing how true that phrase is when you live and/or work in remote places!

Grey headed albatross pair together

As a scientist on-the-ground, you see any change that’s taking place in real time. What do you see that we might not notice from over here? How has your work and the lives of albatross species changed over the time you have been there?

As I’ve only been on the island a couple of weeks I’m still getting to grips with what the current status quo is for the #BirdIsland albatross populations. The things I might see from being ‘on-the-ground’ compared to folks back home is the amount of litter or debris that ends up in the nesting colonies, usually from birds removing it from their digestive system in the form of a pellet or bolus. Any debris we find across the island is brought back to base, catalogued and sent back to the UK.

My work is highly focused on the breeding cycles of each of the four albatross species nesting on the island so I will be seeing first-hand the parent birds who succeed in rearing their chick along with those nests that unfortunately fail. Once the annual censuses of the mollymawks (grey-heads, black-brows and light-mantleds) are complete then I will be able to see how this season compares to previous years’ and the overall population trends on the island.


As a voice from the frontline, what can our followers do for albatross conservation from their homes?

When buying seafood, try to only buy products known to be from sustainable fisheries.  An online guide is handy, along with trying to buy products with the blue MSC approval label.

Campaign for your government to improve their fisheries policy.

Support the #AlbatrossStories social media campaign and share the Instagramstweets, and Facebook posts with your friends and family to raise awareness.

Reduce the amount of single-use plastics you get through, which therefore reduces the amount of pollution entering the marine environment. Albatrosses and other seabirds ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in human debris is a growing problem which can cause fatal damage to the adult bird – or the chick, who are often fed the plastic by their parents.

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.


Albatross Stories is funded by the Darwin Initiative, South Georgia Heritage Trust, and Friends of South Georgia Island.