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Living and Working - Aurora Australis above Halley VI module
Home » Living & Working » Research Stations » Bird Island »
Lat. 54°00′S, Long. 38°03′W
Purpose: Seabird & seal biological research, southern ocean ecosystem dynamics, long term monitoring
Occupied: Intermittently 1957 to 1982, continuously 22 Sep 1982 to present.
Bird Island station, 2006
Bird Island lies off the north-west tip of South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It is separated by a 500m channel, Bird Sound, from the South Georgia mainland. It is approximately 1000km south east of the Falkland Islands and is accessible only by boat or ship supported helicopter.
Detailed map of Bird Island
As part of South Georgia, Bird Island is administered by the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands ( (External) GSGSSI ). A Government Officer is stationed at King Edward Point , South Georgia and acts as Magistrate for the whole of the island. Bird Island is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Falkland Island Dependencies Conservation Ordinance 1975. It is also designated a Specially Protected Area (SPA) within the latest South Georgia Environmental Management Plan. BAS require annual permits from the GSGSSI to operate their research station and conduct their scientific research at Bird Island. All other visitors need to apply for a Visitor’s Permit prior to arrival at the island.
Bird Island is a sub-antarctic island, lying south of the Polar Front, with little protection from Antarctic storms tracking in from the south-west. Weather is significantly colder, cloudier and wetter than the climates at the old whaling stations on the northern coast of South Georgia. Temperatures vary from −10°C to 10°C throughout the year, typically hovering around 0°C in winter and 4°C in summer. In summer, damp, misty, low cloud conditions often prevail. Strong gale force winds may occur every month and generally approach from the south/south west or north. 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.
seals on Freshwater Beach, Bird Island - view towards jetty from east, near peak seals The island is 4.8km long, up to 800m wide, with a superficial area of about 400 hectares. The island’s northern coast consists mainly of sheer cliffs and sea stacks, rising to its highest point, La Roche, at 356 metres. The southern coast is more accessible with numerous small bays, beaches and tidal rock platforms. Freshwater Beach and Main Bay, both within Jordan Cove, provide the only natural harbour with limited shelter. Below 150 metres vegetation is predominantly tussock grass, which has been extensively damaged by fur seal activity, particularly close to stream beds which offer them access up the hills. Flatter, higher ground is boggy meadowland dotted with small tarns. Steeper higher ground is rock and loose scree, covered mosses and lichens.
Lower plants of Bird Island
Flora of Bird Island
Jordan Cove, Bird Island - view from Tonk towards La Roch
The island has diverse and concentrated populations of sea birds and fur seals, amounting to one bird or seal for every 1.5m², making Bird Island one of the richest sites for wildlife anywhere in the world. Fur seal numbers have increased dramatically over the last decade and are now thought to be returning to a similar population size to that prior to sealing in the early twentieth century. Because the island has no rats, there are large numbers of small burrowing birds such as petrels and prions . Numbers of albatross on the island are declining rapidly and many sea bird species at Bird Island are listed as endangered, threatened or near threatened. It is home to about 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins , 14,000 pairs of albatrosses , 700,000 nocturnal petrels and 65,000 breeding fur seals.
Bull fur seal
BAS policy is to minimise our impact on the environment in which we work (see the BAS Environment Office ). We take this responsibility especially seriously at Bird Island due to its island wide status as a Special Protected Area. We control the number of visitors coming ashore on the island through the GSGSSI permitting system , and also by continuing to keep the station size relatively small.
Rat box, Bird Island - Helen Taylor displaying wooden rat box Part of the reason for its special environmental status is that there are currently no rats on Bird Island. Rats around mainland South Georgia have devastated populations of burrowing birds and taken eggs from albatross nests; their introduction to Bird Island would decimate local wildlife. Several precautions are taken to prevent the introduction of rats at Bird Island and contingency plans are in place. Baited rat boxes situated throughout the island are regularly checked and all incoming cargo is inspected for rats upon arrival.
The sub-Antarctic climate of Bird Island may be mild enough for several foreign plant and animal species to survive. There are several non-native plants such as dandelions and animals such as rats already populating South Georgia mainland. At Bird Island, we take every care to ensure we reduce the risk of introducing new species to the island. We aim to inspect and wash fresh produce upon delivery, any non-native species found are sent to our headquarters in Cambridge for sample identification. New protocols ensure that upon arrival, visitors scrub their footwear and inspect their clothing, particularly velcro in waterproofs to remove any visual signs of seeds and soils.
The Meadows, Bird Island - Fabrice Le Bouard, walking west to east on the Meadows showing mist and bog, Dec 2006
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 now monitor the frequency of use of each route, and are beginning to stake routes where paths are not obvious to avoid excessive broadening of damage to local habitats.
The BAS scientific research at Bird Island focuses on seabird and seal population dynamics, feeding ecology and reproductive performance. Zoological assistants collect long term datasets to detect trends in population numbers, mating partners, breeding success, diet quality and quantity, and seasonal feeding grounds with the aim of developing our understanding of the southern ocean ecosystem.
Much of this data is provided to Commission for the (External) Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Programme. This aims to establish conservation policy and management to maintain the current diversity of the southern oceans. 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 resultsed in several scientists visiting Bird Island most field seasons, with BAS logistic support. All research programmes supported by BAS have to satisfy an Ethics Review Committee before being allowed to proceed, if they involve working with animals.
Bird Island Wandering Albatross
Other recent science and conservation visitors have included Dame Ellen McArthur supporting Birdlife International’s (External) Save the Albatross campaign, and scientists conducting bird counting surveys for the Government of South Georgia within the (External) Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
Bird Island station & jetty - view from Jordan cove, 2006
Prince House provides living accommodation, offices and 2 laboratories for 10 people. Rooms are shared in summer, two or three to a room, with base-wide communal showers and toilet facilities. The building is protected with a full fire detection and suppression system. The station is powered by a diesel fuelled 20kW generator, with one in reserve for emergency. Generators are switched off at night to conserve fuel, and power is provided to essential services only by a battery bank that is charged during the day. Boilers provide heat throughout the day, and the hot water is circulated over night as it cools. Aviation turbine (Avtur) fuel is provided in 205l drums. Water is collected from the roofs and the local stream, and it is filtered and sterilised before use as potable water. Water and energy use are monitored closely and minimised where possible.
The generators, battery bank and fire pumps are stored in the generator shed. A further storage building, Beck House, provides a workshop, storage for technical, science, fieldwork and environmental management equipment, including waste management. The base area is surrounded by steel and wooden walkways that lead to a scaffold jetty, extending to approximately 0.5m depth at spring low water.
Bird Island winterers
Since 2005 the station has capacity for 10 personnel with an additional 2 bunks for short stay visitors. There are typically 4 personnel on station throughout winter, comprising of 3 zoological assistants and 1 person as technical support (e.g. an electrician, plumber or builder). The assistants currently complete 2.5 years on station (without leaving the island!) and specialise working with either seals, penguins or albatross. The technician typically spends around 5 to 8 months of the winter period on station.
In the austral summer, between October to April, numbers rise to around 10. These mostly comprise of overlapping zoological assistants and visiting scientists from BAS, Cambridge and international scientific institutions. The station Base Commander is typically on station throughout most of the summer months and the Island Bases Facilities Engineer may spend between a week and 2 months ashore at Bird Island each year. The Science Manager remotely manages the zoological assistants throughout the year and visits on occasional seasons to help ensure the smooth running of the science programs. A range of other personnel may arrive for short term visits on station to upgrade facilities, repair major technical faults, or conduct inspections and audits. Occasional visits are also received from media teams and VIPs such as the Commissioner of South Georgia.
There is no chef on site so everyone takes their turn to cook evening meals and make bread on a daily rota. There are no doctors or mountain leaders so we provide comprehensive training in advanced first aid and medical response, and in navigation and Search and Rescue techniques, particularly to the wintering staff. This training is provided prior to deployment to station and continued upon arrival and is essential in helping ensure the safety of station members. Remote medical support is available immediately upon request at all times.
Bird Island, working on generators - Rob Dunn, wintering tech support at work on generator
Bird Island seal assistant - walking back from special study beach, Donald Malone 2007
Science staff at Bird Island are by necessity, required to work hours that match their chosen study species. Penguin work maybe concentrated around dusk and dawn as the penguins embark and return from their forages, which can mean some particularly unsociable hours during the busy breeding season. The penguin study colony is approximately 35 minutes walk from base over rough ground. Fur seal science is intense throughout late November to January, during the pupping season. Most seal work is conducted on the local beach and the Seal Study beach is 5 minutes walk from base through thousands (literally) of unpredictable seals, not a job for the faint-hearted. Albatross and petrel science is busy throughout the year, and involves a daily hike around the island over heavy going terrain. The bird assistants are usually the fittest of the bunch. While each of the science assistants will take part in routine maintenance of water systems and generators, the technician takes on responsibility for keeping the base facilities running smoothly, and may also be tasked with challenging repairs and improvements throughout the winter. Want more info on living in Antarctica ?
Bird Island, helicopter relief - HMS Endurance helo, last call, April 2007
Bird Island, tender at jetty, JCR b/g - relief, personnel disembarking
The station is typically re-supplied twice a year, at the beginning and end of summer, using BAS ships RRS Ernest Shackleton and RRS James Clark Ross . Fully segregated waste is back loaded onto the ships during their visits for return to the Falklands and UK for recycling. A variety of other ships including Royal and Merchant Navy ships are used for personnel movements on and off base depending upon availability.
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