Have you ever wondered what it must be like to live and work amongst the albatrosses on Bird Island, South Georgia? We caught up with Erin Taylor, Zoological Field Assistant for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who is currently spending 18-months living on Bird Island. Erin shares with us some of her favourite seabird sightings, job perks and hopes for the future of albatrosses. 

Hi Erin, can you tell us a bit about your role as a Zoological Field Assistant?

My role on Bird Island involves the year round monitoring of the island’s four albatross species, including Grey-headed, Black-browed, Wandering and Light-mantled Albatrosses. It is my role to regularly check the colonies and monitor egg laying, hatching and survival rates of the albatrosses on the island. 

As Bird Island is in the Southern Hemisphere, winter occurs during the typical summer months for the Northern Hemisphere. As winter approaches, my focus is almost entirely on Wandering Albatrosses, checking the nests every month to see which chicks have hatched and if any fail. Once the chicks hatched in March, I started a project tracking the foraging trips of their parents with GPS and immersion loggers, which will extend into July. I also work in the lab, identifying prey in diet samples collected last summer from Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses and checking everything is sorted for the next season of monitoring.

Really interesting! So, how did you become involved with this work?

My dad was the key reason for getting into this line of work, he took me out ringing/banding and birding from a young age, some of my earliest memories are of being carried round Skomer island, off the coast of Wales, in a backpack looking at puffins. Since university I have spent my time living and working at bird observatories around the UK and visiting islands in my spare time. Working for BAS on Bird Island was always a dream as it’s one of the ultimate seabird islands!

Those are some great memories! What do you like most about your role on Bird Island?

The 18-months you spend here allows you to follow the lives of the albatrosses from egg to fledging and obviously you develop a few favourites along the way. Recently we have had some flat calm days full of snow-capped mountains and Wandering Albatross chicks which takes some beating for a walk round your job. It’s amazing to be part of the long-term monitoring of species that are so directly impacted by human activities.

A family of Wandering Albatrosses on Bird Island. Photo taken by Erin Taylor.

Tell us, what is it like to live and work on Bird Island?

Living on Bird Island presents its own set of challenges. The first aspect people always comment on is the isolation. We are a team of up to 12 in the summer and just 4 throughout the winter. It is almost more important to be personable in small teams like this because we very much depend upon each other. Our team this year has been exceptionally lucky for how well we get on.

Bird Island itself is also a challenge with tussock covered hillsides interspersed with steep scree and some bottomless and foul-smelling bogs! Although it’s only 4.8km long, it takes a several hours to get from one end to the other. Life on the island is much like living in any small community, we all eat dinner together and have a rota for cooking and cleaning duties. Every Saturday we make a special effort for dinner with at least two courses and perhaps a glass of wine or two. We also have designated film nights to sit down together, and evenings are often full of games, chatter and a fair amount of knitting!

We have to ask, do you have a favourite species of albatross?

As unoriginal as it sounds, Wandering Albatrosses have to be my favourite. They have this reputation of being massive, majestic, and enigmatic, and while they are masters of the waves, when they return to land, they become something very different, and their incredibly goofy side emerges. They have huge feet which makes walking look like they’re wearing flippers, so to counteract this they must walk either with their 3-metres wingspan fully open or in a hunched over waddle, snaking their neck back and forth. As if this wasn’t entertaining enough, they then start dancing. A colleague once described this spectacle to me as “moving wardrobes”. Whilst throwing their heads back, screaming, bubbling, and clacking and its honestly one of the funniest and most enchanting things I’ve ever seen.

The chicks can’t be ignored either, tiny balls of fluff that grow into beautiful black and white teenagers who all have their own unique personalities - I’m looking at you, Number 25, the angriest Wandering Albatross in the world! When they start to practice flying, they let out wild squeals that sound like screams of unadulterated joy as the wind brushes through their overly large wings. 

A Wandering Albatross adult stretches its wings. Photo taken by Erin Taylor.

You must have seen a lot of seabirds, what is your top seabird sighting?

My favourite seabird memory happened before coming to Bird Island when we had to quarantine in the Falklands, and the timing of the ships meant we had a few days to explore before heading out. One day we arranged a trip out to Kidney Island, allowing us to see up close the colony of Southern Rockhopper Penguins, and then as the sun started to set tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters started coming to shore, skimming over orange waves and it was spectacular!

Have you witnessed any impacts of climate change on the albatrosses on Bird Island?

The long-term monitoring on Bird Island has allowed us to record the declines in all four of our study species here over the past thirty years. Although there is some evidence to suggest that the Wandering Albatrosses may be stabilising. This type of research is vital for attempting to view the impacts of something as far-reaching as climate change.

Some of our current projects involve GPS tracking, which allow us to identify important areas for the birds. It is becoming increasingly important to know how their foraging patterns, energetic expenditure and survival rates are affected by the changing wind patterns, temperatures and even rainfall.

What do you hope to see happen for albatrosses?

Hopefully future Zoological Field Assistants on Bird Island will be able to record an increase in the populations of these amazing birds rather than the harrowing declines we are currently witnessing. The development of tracking technology is helping to increase our knowledge of why these birds are struggling and hopefully what we can do to change that.

Kidney Island. Photo taken by Erin Taylor.

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