Why do ducks have blue wing flashes?

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 6 June 2021 Beds, UK. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Many types of dabbling ducks have iridescent wing patches called specula (singular: speculum). These flashes are usually blue or green, although the colour can vary somewhat according to the angle and the lighting conditions. Ducks can also control the extent to which these flashes are visible when their wings are folded (see below).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) male with wing flash partly hidden. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

In Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), which are probably the easiest duck to photograph in the UK, the flashes are blue in both males and females. The blue patches occur on the secondary feathers and are very apparent when the duck stretches its wings (below) and here.

Mallard speculum Rror, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The colours are structural rather than pigmentary. Structural colours are produced by the coherent scattering of light by highly ordered nanostructures. In this case the spectacular blue iridescence is produced by microscopic hexagonal lattices on the surfaces of the feathers. These which scatter the light in the blue part of the colour spectrum

“speculum colour is produced by a photonic heterostructure consisting of both a single thin-film of keratin and a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice of melanosomes in feather barbules” (Eliason and Shawkey, 2012).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) male with wing flash. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

The bright, iridescent green head feathers of the male are also produced by light interacting with nanostructures in the feather barbules (Stavenga et al., 2017).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) with iridescent head and neck feathers. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

During the breeding season, mallards carry out courtship displays. The detailed behaviour was first described of these displays were first accurately described by the famous German ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Three courtship displays are especially frequent and conspicuous and can be seen in these videos, here and here. These displays allow the female to observe the performance of males and to evaluate them as potential mates. Males also make choices, and the colour and brightness of the female’s flashes (below) is also thought to be be important in attracting the male in the first place (Legagneux et al., 2010).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) female displaying wing specula. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Mallard courtship displays

Head-Pumping: Males and females rhythmically bob their heads.

Head-Up-Tail-Up: The drake pulls his wings and tail up, shows off his purple-blue secondaries (specula) and compresses his body.

Nod-Swimming: A male or female swims rapidly for a short distance with its neck held low, just grazing the surface of the water. Females probably use this display to express that they are interested in courtship and stimulate the nearby males to display. Female Mallards and other female ducks often demonstrate (inciting displays) and call to provoke males to attack other males or females.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) female displaying wing specula. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Some studies have suggested that the female mallard makes her initial choice of a mate, based on the male’s plumage characteristics (Klint, 1980). Another study, which observed the courtship behaviour of mallard ducks breeding in a large pond for three successive years, came to the conclusion that females preferred males ‘with a high social display activity, a high plumage status, a small body size and of intermediate age’ (Holmberg et al. (1989). The suspected relevance of the plumage quality of drakes, for the choice of mates by ducks, has also been confirmed in a series of experiments by Weidmann (1990).

So plumage is important for mate selection, but what parts exactly? Surprisingly (to me at least) another experiment found that removing the iridescent specula had no effect on pairing success in male mallards (Omland, 1996). Does that mean that the blue flashes play no part in courtship? I think the jury may still be out.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) male preening and showing blue speculum. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Other work has suggested that the courtship performance of the male mallard is more important than his plumage colouration. One study showed that females paired with males who courted them ‘most intensively, regardless the colour type’ (Bossema and Kruijt, 1982). In other words, it’s not so much what you look like, but how you strut your stuff! The colour of the male’s bill – bright yellow (see below) – has also been shown to be a significant factor affecting female choice (Omland, 1996).

The bright green feathers of the male mallard are a  ‘superhydrophobic surface’ ( Khudiyev et al., 2014) which keeps them waterproof!

The blue specula are complex structures and may be a costly ornament – costly in terms of energy – for the duck to produce and maintain. Therefore, they may be an indication of the quality (health and vigour) of the animal, and research has shown that their brightness was ‘condition related’ (Legagneux et al., 2010). However, the flashes might be less important for mate choice, and more important for species recognition? It is very apparent that both sexes have these lively blue flashes, which might help them recognise their own kind?

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) male preening and showing blue speculum. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

In practice, animals – like people – make choices about partners based on the total package: behaviour, looks, age, quality and vigour! Male mallards (drakes) have a wonderful set of colours to choose from, or assess: their bright yellow bill, their iridescent green head and neck feathers, their bright blue speculum, and their overall appearance. Perhaps the female specula are more important to males because they do not have the other colours?

However, the final choice of a mate will probably be based on a combination of physical appearance and behaviour. Persistence and stamina can also be a good guide to how fit an animal is. As animals, we are all highly skilled at evaluating another individual of our species, especially a member of the opposite sex. Courtship is a way – albeit rather stereotyped in ducks – of showing ourselves off and allowing the opposite sex to assess whether we would make a good partner for them. Specula may not be the key factor in this process, but they are probably part of whole package that ducks use to recognise, attract and assess each other.



Bossema, I., & Kruijt, J. P. (1982). Male activity and female mate acceptance in the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Behaviour79(2-4), 313-323.

Eliason, C. M., & Shawkey, M. D. (2012). A photonic heterostructure produces diverse iridescent colours in duck wing patches. Journal of The Royal Society Interface9(74), 2279-2289.

Holmberg, K., Edsman, L., & Klint, T. (1989). Female mate preferences and male attributes in mallard ducks Anas platyrhynchos. Animal Behaviour38(1), 1-7.

Khudiyev, T., Dogan, T., & Bayindir, M. (2014). Biomimicry of multifunctional nanostructures in the neck feathers of mallard (Anas platyrhynchos L.) drakes. Scientific reports4(1), 1-6.

Klint, T. (1980). Influence of male nuptial plumage on mate selection in the female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Animal Behaviour28(4), 1230-1238.

Legagneux, P., Théry, M., Guillemain, M., Gomez, D., & Bretagnolle, V. (2010). Condition dependence of iridescent wing flash-marks in two species of dabbling ducks. Behavioural Processes83(3), 324-330.

Miller, D. B. (1977). Social displays of Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos): effects of domestication. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology91(2), 221.

Omland, K. (1996). Female mallard mating preferences for multiple male ornaments. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 39, 353–360 .

Stavenga, D. G., Van Der Kooi, C. J., & Wilts, B. D. (2017). Structural coloured feathers of mallards act by simple multilayer photonics. Journal of The Royal Society Interface14(133), 20170407.

Weidmann, U. (1990). Plumage quality and mate choice in mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). Behaviour115(1-2), 127-141.

Lockdown dreaming

I’ve always been a good dreamer; both awake and asleep! I love my dreams and have learnt how to capture them – keeping a dream diary – although many slip away, unremembered and unrecorded. They are ephemeral and elusive things, but they sometimes come back in idle moments, when your conscious mind slips up a little. Half-remembered dreams can sometimes be caught again, like slippery fish!

Dreaming of what?

I have not slept very well in lockdown, but I am good at catching up. Cat naps we call them in English. A short daytime snooze. I am also a light sleeper; waking up and going back to sleep during the night. But that’s good for catching dreams! If you really want to remember a dream, its best to write it down straight away, before it fades. As you do so, you might notice that some of its strangeness, its peculiar quality, starts to ebb away as it meets reality. Capturing its essence isn’t easy and is the work of artists. But scientists also dream!

Do birds dream?

If we can’t travel to actual places, we can at least dream about them. Some of my favourite places often appear in my dreams, although they are usually a little bit different from the real thing. I know, for example, when I have had a dream about being in Greece. I remember the feel of the place, the sun and the sea. But the Greece I create in my dream is slightly off kilter. It’s never an exact replica of somewhere I have been, or know well. It’s a recreated version. It has all the essential elements, but is a bit different. A different universe perhaps? There are supposed to be billions of parallel universes out there. Do we tap into them in our dreams? Probably not.

It took me a while to work out how we produce dreams in our minds. All that incredible detail! How do we create images and sequences – like a film – as good as reality? New things as well. The answer of course, is that we also create reality in our brains whilst we are awake. We create what we ‘see’ when we are awake in a similar way to when we dream. We take all of the sensory information gathered by our senses – eyes, ears, noses and so on – and make a so-called reality in our minds. We believe what we see to be reality, but it resides in our brains. In dreams we somehow recreate this reality.


There is no one reality which all organisms see in the same way. Insects have ultraviolet photoreceptors that allow them to see more of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do. Bats have exquisite hearing that enables them to hear a flying moth. Dogs (and moths!) have a fantastic sense of smell that enables them to detect things we are completely unaware of. People also differ in terms of what they perceive. I am great at spotting insects and finding coins on the street (head down!). Other people walk around looking up listening to bird song. And some write symphonies based on what they have heard: Messiaen.

Pigeon feathers. Birds see the world in a different way to us.

What we dream about depends on our moods, circumstances and predicaments. We worry about certain things at times and these worries appear in our dreams, although perhaps expressed in a different way. I often dream that I have lost my car. I can’t remember where I parked it, and wander round car parks looking for it. And I don’t even have a car! The lost car is just a substitute for a feeling of anxiety. Being late for meetings, or forgetting your homework is the same sort of mild anxiety we all experience at some time or another.

Roelandt Savery, KORTRIJK 1576 – 1639 UTRECHT

Another recurring dream I have now that I am retired, is that I am back at work, but have not been paid! In the dream, I try to raise the issue with my boss, that I have not received my salary, but I never get any satisfaction! This is just coming to terms with the reality of retirement: i.e. not having a job and salary!

I once dreamt that God took me on a tour of the universe. We were flying through galaxies and stellar clusters – all those wonderful images produced by the Hubble telescope. There weren’t any answers, alas. No ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’ as in the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Or if there was, I’d forgotten it by the time I woke up! But I did wake up with a profound sense of well-being, and I firmly believe that dreams can be healing. We may not have these restorative dreams exactly when we need them, but they do occur occasionally, and can provide a great comfort.

Pablo Picasso. Blind Minataor led by young girl at night.

However, sometimes dreams are nightmares. We wake up in a sweat; heart pounding. What happened? Where am I? A simple remedy for such panic attacks is simply to rub your neck. Reality gradually returns. The world starts to come into focus. The dreams fades. Breathe deeply and go back to sleep, perchance to dream again!

It often pays to try and piece together the nightmare. What was it about? Better to face it than to forget it, I think. Well, that’s my strategy. Analyse your dreams.

Carabid beetle

I read a lot about Carl Jung at one time. In fact, I so identified with his book, Memories, Dreams and reflections, that I now have Jungian dreams! These dreams are populated by dark, archytypal figures, full of energy and menace. I always wake up feeling energised by these dreams, although I sometimes struggle to understand their precise meaning! A psychoanalyst one told me that to interpret your dreams you had to examine the feelings you had whilst you dreamt. How did you feel about the dream, not what was in the dream. The unconscious mind works in riddles and metaphors and fables, not logic and science. That’s for daytime consciousness.

Which way to look?

I once dreamt that a photocopier, yes a plain old photocopier, started to swallow things. Soon it was sucking in everything around it, and we had to contain it like the Chernobyl reactor. The danger was that it would swallow the world. What was I worried about? The Covid virus maybe? Elon Musk worries about robots and artificial intelligence. Perhaps we will invent something that takes over the world. Such fears are probably universal.

We still have a reptilian mind somewhere inside our brain!

Another sort of dream I have, which I also think is universal, is dreaming about famous people. I have dreamt about Donald Trump, The Queen and Vladimir Putin. In my dream, Putin was a harmless old chap who likes to make glass art works. Just nonsense, but these characters we see everyday on the TV haunt our dreams.

Spirit of Flight by Josephine Wall

Well the Covid lockdowns in 2020-21 have probably left some of us with more time to dream. Others will, I know have had to face some real life nightmares, and my heart goes out to them. But I would finish by restating that I think that dreams can be a source of solace and healing; a way to reinvigorate yourself in times of hardships.

Sweet dreams everyone 😊

A travel blog on Scarborough

It’s hard to keep up a travel blog in these times of lockdowns and travel restrictions. So, I thought, why not do one on your home town?

Scarborough harbour 6 May 2020

Starting out near home, we come across this lovely house (below). Many of the houses in the Old Town, Scarborough, are Grade II listed, which means that ‘are subject to regulations which protect their historical and architectural significance’. In other words, you can’t mess about with them!

Wesley House, Castlegate, Scarborough

Going down to the seafront, there are many fish and chip shops to choose from.

Princess Cafe

The fun fair is open now. It was closed and empty all through lockdown (16 March to 10 May 2020), so the owners are making some money again, hopefully.

Fun fair 19 Sept 2020

Things were very quiet in Scarborough during lockdown, but when the restrictions eased, people flooded to the seaside. They were still supposed to be observing social distancing, and for the most part I think they were, but as these shots show, there were a lot of people on the beach on this warm day in July (below).

South Bay beach, Scarborough on 31 July 2020

South Bay beach, Scarborough. 31 July 2020

We are lucky to have lots of seabirds in Scarborough. My favourites are the Kittiwakes, and they kept me amused and interested all through the summer; following the birth and development of the chicks. For more of kittiwakes, see previous blogs here and here.

Black-legged kittiwake chicks, mid July

Having the sea on your doorstep is a real bonus and I never get tired of the views.

South bay with Ferris wheel

Every one likes to dip their toes in the (North) sea, but it’s cold!

Lighthouse from South Bay

Better to sit in a deckchair on the beach perhaps, and enjoy the late summer sunshine.

Deck chairs on South Bay beach

Or, take a donkey ride (children only)!

Donkeys on South Bay beach

Walking around the harbour, I could not resist a quick grab shot of this girl’s lovely red hair!

Girl with red hair

At this time of year there are lots of juvenile Herring gulls around, pestering their parents with their rather pathetic, high-pitched cries.

Juvenile Herring Gull on Marine Drive

Scarborough harbour at dusk

The Harbour is always an interesting place to visit, although there are not very many working fishing boats, at least compared to the past.

Fishing boats in Scarborough harbour

However, there is still a demand for new lobster pots, called creels (below). This is how they are used.

Creels stacked up in Scarborough harbour

Scarborough was a popular holiday venue for the Victorians, and they left us some wonderful architecture, like the lovely Cliff (Spa) bridge, built in 1827 (which the kittiwakes like to nest on!).

Spa Bridge, Scarborough

It’s a good place to learn to fly!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile flying off the Spa bridge on 31 July 20 4

The Grand hotel (below) is another legacy from the Victorians.

Grand hotel, Scarborough

Well, I think I will leave it there, to save more for another blog about Scarborough at a later date!

Afghanistan from the air

Afghanistan escarpment, 2008.

I have flown over Afghanistan many times – probably too many for the health of the planet – on the way to countries in South East Asia, and back. When conditions have permitted, I have stuck my compact camera against the window and grabbed some shots of the amazing mountain scenery.

Afghanistan from the air, 2015

Looking back at some of these images (which date from 2008 and 2015) I am struck by how beautiful this war-torn country looks from 35,000 feet.  So I have chosen some of the better ones and sharpened them up slightly.

Afghanistan snow capped peaks, 2008

Flights on great circle routes from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, to London, have, in recent decades tended to fly on a route which (going West) passes from India, across Pakistan, Afghanistan and over the deserts of Turkmenistan. One tends to be awake on daytime return flights.

Afghan airspace Jan 21 2020. Source Flightradar

Of course, individual flight paths vary, so it is not easy – especially after a long passage of time – to determine exactly what one was seeing out of the window.  Nevertheless, the map shows that this route passes over the Central Highlands to the west of Kabul. These mountains are an extension of the Hindu kush system and diminish in height as they stretch westward. Nevertheless, toward the middle, near Kabul, they still tower up from 4,500 to 6,000 meters; whilst further west, they attain heights of 3,500 to 4,000 meters.

Elevation map of Afghanistan

The highest mountain in Afghanistan, Noshaq, is the second highest peak of the Hindu Kush Range at 7,492 m (24,580 ft), and is situated on the border between Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. I.e. to the north of these flight routes.

Approaching Afghanistan from the East, 2008

I am always excited to see amazing geographical features from the air, and my heart sinks when the air stewardesses move through the cabin closing all the window shutters, so people can sleep. I am also surprised that more people are not as excited as I am to look down upon these natural wonders!

Afghanistan snow capped peaks, 2008

There is no doubt in my mind that Afghanistan must be a spectacular country to visit, were it not for the rather considerable security considerations.

Sunlit peaks of Afghanistan, 2015

I am just about old enough to remember the hippies going to India on the Hippy Trail. Old, brightly painted buses, full of marijuana-puffing hippies passed through Iran and Afghanistan on their way to India, and back! One of the consequences of this hippie culture was the Afghan coat, a long sheepskin coat with fleecy collars and sleeves. I never had one!

Afghanistan from the air, 2015

The hippie trail came to an end in the late 1970s, largely as a result of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Alas, things have not really improved since then, and only between 15,000 and 20,000 tourist visas are issued annually, according to this Wikipedia website on tourism in Afghanistan.

Sunlit peaks of Afghanistan, 2015

Nevertheless, were it to become safe again, I am sure a lot of people would love to visit this country and see it’s amazing geography and meet the people.

Afghanistan snow capped peaks, 2008

I will finish with one photo of an extraordinary feature , which I remember looking down on, and being awestruck: a giant canyon (below) that seemed to be as large as the Grand Canyon.

Huge canyon in Afghanistan, 2008

I am not 100% sure, but I think that this might have been part of the Band-e Amir National Park, which has been described as Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon. 

Afghanistan from the air, 2008

One day, I am sure, peace will return to this nation and millions of tourists will visit these stunning places.

Afghanistan snow capped peaks, 2008

Journey to the Antarctic: Bird Island (1982)

Bird Island Research Station, Bird Island, South Georgia Dec 1982

Bird Island lies off the north-west tip of South Georgia, (Lat. 54°0’0″S, Long. 38°2’59″W) (below).

Map of South Georgia (By Apcbg – Own work, Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0)

South Georgia near Bird Island (1982)

There is a small research station – Bird Island Research Station – which is run by the British Antarctic Survey, and is ideally suited – being right in the middle of a huge fur seal colony! – to study the amazing wildlife present on this small island, which is only about 3 miles long.

Antarctic fur seal and Wandering Albatross on Bird Island (1982)

According to Wikipedia (the figures may not be completely up-to-date) there are, on this small island:

RFD off Bird Island, South Georgia (1982)

We arrived on Bird Island on 1st Dec 1982, having previously sailed all the way up to Montevideo and back, on the RRS John Biscoe, to collect more personnel to take south. (N.B. it was not possible for civilians to fly via the Falkland Islands at the time). See previous blog here.

South Georgia near Bird Island (1982)

Although we had a limited time at this location, and the priority was to resupply the base (see below), I was very keen to get ashore and see some of the wildlife.

Going ashore in the scow, Bird Island

We all mucked in and helped with the unloading. Parcels and supplies were carried from the scow (above), up the beach and along a temporary plank walk (below) to the base.

Bird Island, South Georgia 2 Dec 1982

Because we were walking through a breeding colony of Antarctic fur seals, the large, territorial males had to be temporarily walled off behind a row of oil drums, to dissuade them from sinking their teeth into our thighs!

Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) colony, Bird Island

The large males are very splendid fellows in the middle of their large harems (above).

Antarctic Fur Seal (Liam Quinn Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Once we had finished unloading, some of us climbed up the nearby hill to photograph some of the Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) which were nesting above the base (below).

Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) Bird island, South Georgia

We probably came too close to these birds than we should have done (below), but none of us had long lenses in those days!

Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) Bird island

I will include a few more recent pictures of these graceful birds (below) which some photographers have donated to the Creative Commons, meaning that they are licensed to copy and in any medium or format (CC BY-SA 2.0). Otherwise photographs are usually ‘All Rights Reserved’ and cannot be copied and reused without permission (and often with payment) from the photographer. I suspect that most people who cut and paste images off the internet are unaware of these rules; but that’s getting off the point. It is just great that some photographers allow their images to be used freely, like some shown in this blog.

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) On West Point Island in the Falkland Islands. Liam Quinn from Canada (Wiki CC BY-SA)

Black-browed albatross, falkland islands (Image by Claudia Kirchberger from Pixabay)

Unfortunately, the Black-browed albatross population on Bird Island has been in a long-term decline in breeding numbers since the mid-1970s (see graph below). It shows how numbers of birds have declined markedly since I visited in 1982.

Population trend of the Black-browed Albatross at Bird Island

Tragically they are often “caught on fishing hooks (bycatch or incidental catch), by longline trawlers. Read more about this terrible crisis which is decimating albatross numbers, here and here.

Another majestic bird breeding on Bird Island is the Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) (below).

Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ (Flickr CC) CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

There was a Wandering albatross chick wandering about the base, getting in the way of our unloading, which had to be persuaded to go elsewhere for the day!

Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) chick, Bird Island, South Georgia, 1982

The wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any living bird, typically ranging from 2.51 to 3.5 m (8 ft 3 in to 11 ft 6 in).

Wandering albatross (Diomedea_exulans) in flight (By By JJ Harrison Own work, Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0. See his website: https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)

Unfortunately, it’s the same tragic story again, with Wanderers declining in numbers between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s (>4% per annum), although the rapid downturn appears to have stabilized, with numbers remaining relatively stable over the last 7-8 years, “albeit at a substantially reduced level compared with the number of breeding pairs present in the 1960s and with no signs yet of a recovery in numbers.” (See graph and reference below).

Population trend of the Wandering Albatross at Bird Island

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) By JJ Harrison Own work, Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0. See his website: https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)

We can only hope that with more people visiting the Antarctic, and becoming aware of the fact that these magnificent creatures are getting caught up on fishing lines, or ingesting our plastic rubbish floating in the oceans, that more is done to say the thousands that are getting killed each year. Especially by illegal fishing: see here and here.

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) in flight (By JJ Harrison Own work, Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0, see his website: https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)

Useful links





For previous blogs on this journey, see:

1) Journey to the Antarctic: 1) Southampton to the Falkland Islands (1982)

2) Journey to the Antarctic: James Ross Island (1982)

3) Journey to the Antarctic: The Antarctic Peninsula (1982)


Summary Conservation Action Plan for Wandering, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses Breeding at South Georgia (2016-2020)


Journey to the Antarctic: The Antarctic Peninsula (1982)

Adelie penguins on an ice floe, Antarctic Peninsula

Continuing my journey aboard the British Antarctic Survey ship, RRS John Biscoe, in 1982, we left James Ross Island, heading around the Antarctic Peninsula towards Wiencke Island in the Palmer Archipelago of Antarctica. Our first destination was to be Damoy Point, a transit point, where personnel and stores were unloaded and then flown further south to the BAS research station,  Rothera (Station R). 

Damoy Hut, Dorian Bay, Wiencke Island. 1982

There was very little to see at Damoy (64 deg and 49 mins south) just two tiny little huts (above) and a temporary snow runway on the glacier above (see below).

Twin Otter landing on the glacier at Damoy Point, Nov 1982

It was not possible to sail all the way south to Rothera (67 deg 34 mins) this early in the season, due to sea ice, so people and supplies were flown down by aircraft. The De Havilland Twin Otters (below) flew down from Canada every season, all the way down South America and across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.

BAS Twin Otter (Alan Light Wiki CC)

It was amazing to see these little, but highly versatile, planes landing on the ice above the huts, on the 400m skiway which ran along the spine of the glacier (below). All they needed was a row of red fuel drums to mark out the landing site.

BAS Twin otter aeroplane landing at Damoy Point. Nov 1982

The Damoy Point hut was established in 1975 and used until 1993/94, I think. After that date, the British Antarctic Survey started flying directly from the Falkland Islands to Rothera base (which is now Britain’s largest research station), so the Damoy Air Facility was no longer required. The hut is now designated a Historic Site and Monument, and is visited by cruise ships, I understand.

BAS ship the RRS John Biscoe off Anvers Island. Nov 1982

The location off the west coast of Wiencke Island, Antarctic Peninsula, was a beautiful place (above). Mount Français (2,760 m), on Anvers Island (below) loomed above the ship.

Mount Français (2,760 m), Anvers Island from RRS John Biscoe

Anvers Island, Antarctica (GNU Free Documentation License)

One of the nice things about arriving at Damoy Point so early in the austral season (10th Nov), was that the penguins had only just returned to their colonies (below).

Newly returned Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) at Point Damoy

Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are probably my favourite penguin and it was interesting to see them standing around on their colonies, waiting for the last of the snow to melt away.

Gento penguins (Pygoscelis papua)

After dropping off the people heading further south by plane, we also set a southerly course, heading for the BAS base, Faraday Station (Station F), about 40 nautical miles away. This short journey took us through one of the most spectacular places on the Antarctic Peninsula: the Lemaire Channel (below).

RRS John Biscoe entering the Lemaire channel, Antarctic Peninsula (1982)

The Lemaire Channel is a narrow strait between the Kiev Peninsula and Booth Island, and is affectionately known as “Kodak Gap” because everybody who visits takes pictures here. It’s not hard to see why, although I have had to include a modern photograph (below) to illustrate the stark beauty. It was rather a dull day when we sailed though in 1982 (above).

Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula (Liam Quinn from Canada, Wiki CC BY-SA)

The Antarctic Peninsula is a vast area of stunning natural beauty, and not surprisingly many cruise ships visit the islands and wildlife sites along this finger of land and ice. In 1982, one of the few passenger ships to visit this area was the MS Lindblad Explorer, which I had the pleasure of going aboard a few times (in 1983/84). Since then, cruising to the Antarctic has taken off so to speak (at least it had prior to the current Covid-19 pandemic). At least 50 different cruise ships, of all shapes and sizes, visit the Antarctic each year, taking some 45,000 people (perhaps less, numbers vary). It’s not hard to see why as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful and unspoiled area in the world. But it is also fragile, and the land and wildlife need protecting and managing to ensure that it is not despoiled by the many threats – climate change, irresponsible tourism, invasive species, over-fishing, mineral exploitation etc. – that an expanding human population pose to it.

Mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula

Fore previous blogs on this journey, see:

1) Journey to the Antarctic: 1) Southampton to the Falkland Islands (1982)

2) Journey to the Antarctic: James Ross Island (1982)

Journey to the Antarctic: James Ross Island (1982)

Iceberg (Drake Passage)

We left the Falkland Islands behind us and headed south into the infamous Drake passage. I was on the RRS John Biscoe, heading eventually to the South Orkney Islands, but depositing first, scientists and other support personnel, in various locations on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The RRS John Biscoe in loose pack ice (1982)

Very few cruise ships visited the Antarctic in 1982, I was extremely lucky, and very excited to be visiting some remote locations before I disembarked at my final destination: Signy Island (a British Antarctic Survey research station).

Tabular iceberg

We were heading due south, towards the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather was kind to us on the crossing and we were able to pass fairly close to a number of icebergs. Seeing an iceberg for the first time is very exciting, and everybody – apart from some of the older hands, perhaps – rushed out on deck clutching cameras. A lot of photographs are taken of the first few icebergs, then gradually, one learns to accept that they will be a constant feature of your life as you head further south! The vast majority of an iceberg is underwater, of course, as this amazing photomontage (below) by Prof. Dr. Uwe Kils, illustrates.

A photomontage of what a whole iceberg might look like. (Work by Uwe Kils) Wiki CC BY-SA 3.0

We sailed down towards Antarctic Sound, at the very tip of the peninsula, an area called Trinity Peninsula (see map below). We were heading to James Ross Island to drop off a field party of geologists, who were going to spend the austral summer working there.

Location of James Ross Island, Antarctic Peninsula. (Apcbg CC BY-SA)

It was an extraordinary experience to sail along a coast of mountainous terrain, covered in glaciers going down into the sea (below).

Trinity Peninsula, Antarctic Peninsula

It was also a strange experience to sail along a coastline and know that there are no humans there, apart from a few tiny huts, research stations, at one or two locations.

Glaciers on Trinity Peninsula, Antarctic Peninsula

There were huge areas of exposed sedimentary rocks (below), replete with fossils no doubt, that make this area so geologically interesting.

Sailing along the Trinity Peninsula in 1982

On the way to James Ross Island on the RRS John Biscoe in 1982

As we  neared James Ross Island, we came up against loose pack ice. The sound of the ship moving through these pieces of ice is rather disconcerting: thump, thump, thump! But she was ice strengthened and perfectly capable of pushing through (below).

RRS John Biscoe moving through loose pack ice in Antarctic Sound, early Nov 1982

The odd crabeater seal was seen hauled up on an ice floe (below).

Crabeater seal on ice floe

Eventually however, we came up to thick pack ice and could go no further. So, the geologists were deposited on the ice, together with their sleds and ski-dos, some 7 miles away from James Ross Island (below).

Geological field party disembarking on sea ice near Jame Ross Island, c. 9 Nov 1982

In 1982, James Ross Island was connected to the Antarctic Peninsula by the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf . However, this 15 nautical mile (28 km) tongue of ice retreated rapidly between 1989 and 1995, and finally collapsed in 1995 (below). It had gradually shrunk over time from an area of ice covering 2,000 square kilometers (in 1945), to 1600 sq km in 1957, to nothing , in 1995 (Cook & Vaughan, 2010).

Prince Gustav Ice Shelf (PGIS), Antarctic Peninsula, February 1988 James Ross Island project

The Prince Gustav Ice Shelf is just one a number of glaciers (Jones, Wordie, Prince Gustav, Larsen A) that have totally disintegrated, i.e. collapsed within the last half-century in the Antarctic. So James Ross Island looks rather different today (photo taken in 2009, below) than it did in 1982.

A satellite image of James Ross Island, 2009. ASTER-image-03march09

There has been a steady decline in total area of the ice shelves that occur in the Antarctic Peninsula, that began in the 1970s (Cook & Vaughan, 2010), with the areas of ice decreasing by thousands of square kilometers, presumably as a result of global warming. These gone-forever ice shelves have been called ‘ghost-ice-shelves‘. There were there when the first Antarctic explores visited these lands – Nordenskjold was the first person to travel in this area in 1902 (Reece, 1950) – but they are starting to disappear. Slowly breaking off and melting into the sea, which has risen by about four inches, roughly, since I made this trip in 1982!

The following beautiful photograph of James Ross Island was taken during a NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club, I think!) expedition to Antarctica in 2018. Other (modern!) photographs can be viewed here.

James Ross Island Photo by Jack P. (Flickr CC)

This part of the world is still very isolated and remote, although not quite as much so, as when I visited it in 1982. There are a few cruise ships which venture into the Weddell Sea and attempt to sail through the Prince Gustav Channel, and there is a Czech Antarctic Station (called Mendel) situated on James Ross Island, which was built in the years 2000–2006. So the Antarctic is gradually opening up to humans, but our presence is still very thin, thank God, and the animals – which I will illustrate in forthcoming blogs – mostly have it to themselves.


‘Ghost Ice Shelves’ and the Third Antarctic Ice Sheet


Cook, A. J., & Vaughan, D. G. (2010). Overview of areal changes of the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years. The cryosphere.4(1), 77-98.

Cooper, A. P. R. (1997). Historical observations of Prince Gustav ice shelf. Polar Record33(187), 285-294.

Glasser, N. F., Scambos, T. A., Bohlander, J., Truffer, M., Pettit, E., & Davies, B. J. (2011). From ice-shelf tributary to tidewater glacier: continued rapid recession, acceleration and thinning of Röhss Glacier following the 1995 collapse of the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology57(203), 397-406.

Reece, A. (1950). The ice of crown prince gustav channel, Graham land, Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology1(8), 404-409.

Journey to the Antarctic: 1) Southampton to the Falkland Islands (1982)

Coronation Island from Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands

On 21st September 1982, I boarded one of the British Antarctic Survey’s ships, RRS John Biscoe, bound for the Antarctic. I was heading for the BAS base on Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands (above and below), where I was going to spend 18 months studying the cold hardiness of the few insect and mite species that are found there.

Antarctic Peninsula showing location of South Orkney Islands; and Signy Island (62°42′S, 45°36′W) From J. Reed, et al. (2015): PLOS ONE. Figure. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0053477.g001

Family and friends came to see us off at Southampton; an emotional farewell for some, especially those ‘FIDS’ who were going to be away for the full BAS tour of two and half years. The word FID, as I was soon  to learn, is slang for someone living and working in the Antarctic (for the British Antarctic Survey), a term derived from the name Falkland Islands Dependencies. I was to be on board for the next three months.

Departing Southampton on 21 Sept 1982

It was not that long after the end of the Falklands War, (Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) and the John Biscoe had been moored alongside the SS Uganda which had been used as a hospital ship in the Falklands war (below). Strangely enough, I had spent a wonderful two weeks on the Uganda as a schoolboy, in 1970, back in the days when it was used for school cruises. But that is another story!

Leaving Southampton on 21 September 1982 (SS Uganda in the background)

Our little ship (1,554 tons), the RRS John Biscoe, looks a lot smaller in these photographs, than I remember, but we felt very safe and secure in her. Her steel plates were riveted together – they don’t make ships like that any more – and she was, technically speaking, 100 A1 ice strengthened (below). More importantly, she and her crew – under the command of Captain Malcolm Phelps – had completed many journeys to the Antarctic and back (since 1956).

RRS John Biscoe in 1982

The Biscoe, as we called her, was a tough little ship, as we soon found out when we ran into some rough weather in the Bay of Biscay (below). Little did I know at the time, that this sort of weather was nothing at all compared to what lay in store for us further south in the Atlantic!

RRS John Biscoe in a moderate sea in the Bay of Biscay Oct 1982

The journey down was a delight. We ‘Fids’ were not required to do an awful lot on board ship. There was a ship’s crew, mostly made up of tough Falkies (from the Falkland Islands), and they did not have any use for us, over than to do a bit of chipping and painting, to keep the ship looking nice.

RRS John Biscoe heading south in the Atlantic in early Oct 1982

I soon learnt that it was a ship not a boat; toilets were called the heads; forward was aft; a tea break was a smoko, and so on.  Fids got to do things like sweeping the bridge and waking up the Mate at 4 am. The fact that some of us had two dgrees (BSc and Phd) cut no ice on the ship, we were the bottom of the pile on board. I didn’t mind and spent my time working – writing up a paper from my Phd research – and sunbathing.

Sailing south on a calm day in mid Atlantic, Oct 1982

It was a long journey down the length of the Atlantic at 12 knots (!) and it took about three weeks to reach our first port of call, Rio de Janiero, Brazil. There were no stops en route, although we did sail close to the Cape Verde Islands and the Saint Peter and Saint Paul rocks – a group of 15 small islets and rocks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean owned by Brazil (below).

Saint Peter and Saint Paul rocks, Brazil (Saint Peter and Saint Paul rocks, Brazil)

Luckily there was plenty of alcohol on board (duty free!) so one of the daily rituals was to observe the sunset (below), clutching a glass of your favorite tipple!

Ocean sunset somewhere in the mid Atlantic

Another time honored tradition was that of the Crossing the Line Ceremony. I can’t say that I enjoy these rites of passage, and luckily I escaped on this occasion as I had crossed the equator before on a ship.

‘Crossing the line’ ceremony aboard RRS John Biscoe. Oct 1982

This period of steady ocean travel was one of the most peaceful and enjoyable experiences of my life. I recall seeing a pod of spinner dolphins moving along in an opposite direction to us; the odd ocean sunfish swimming along just under the surface and seabirds of course. I am ashamed to say that I was not a bird watcher at the start of this adventure, but I was an avid birder by the time we returned to the UK (in 1984).

RRS John Biscoe heading south at 12 knots

I probably should add, that the British Antarctic survey only recruited men to overwinter in the Antarctic in those days! Fortunately, it is a very different state of affairs these days, and the Director of BAS is now a woman: ‎Professor Dame Jane Francis. Much could be written about this policy, which did not change for a further 10 years or so (see here: The evolving role of women at BAS) after I went to the Antarctic, but that is not my purpose here.

We eventually arrived in Rio de Janeiro about the 11 Oct 1982, and we were let loose to sample the delights of the city for a couple of days, whilst the ship refueled and stocked up on fresh food.

The author aged 27, on board ship whilst moored in Rio de Janeiro docks Oct 1982

After leaving Rio, we headed out into the Atlantic, bound for the Falkland Islands. As a result of the Falklands conflict, we had to steer clear of Argentinian territorial waters as we sailed south. Soon after leaving Rio we ran into an almighty storm, which reached Storm Force 12 on the Beaufort scale at one point. At those wind speeds, the definition between sea and sky becomes blurred and air is filled with foam and spray. I took the following photo (below) long after the peak, when we were certainly not allowed on deck and had to lie down in our bunks wedged between the mattress and the bulk head. Even going to the toilet (sorry, heads!) was a dangerous activity.

Huge waves in a Storm Force 12 in the South Atlantic

To make matters worse, the ship gradually started to lose power during the storm. The fuel pumps started to pack up, and one by one the cylinders started to give up. Eventually we were left bobbing about in the open ocean. Fortunately, by the time the ship lost power completely, the storm had abated. The rumour was that the Brazilians had spiked (adulterated) the fuel we loaded in Rio, as an act of support for the recently defeated Argentinians. Whether this was true or not I don’t know, but it meant that we had to wait for an ocean-going tug to come out from southern Brazil and tow us into port, where we stayed for about 8 days (waiting for spare parts to be flown out from the UK).

Brazilian tug boat

We eventually arrived in the southern Brazilian city of Rio Grande do Sul , on 22 Oct 1982.

Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. c. 20 Oct 1982

The inhabitants of this small city were very welcoming and it was a great experience to get a taste of southern Brazil.

Docks at Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. 22 Oct 1992

Local people were allowed to visit the ship, so we got to know, and experienced the hospitality of some of them. I am sad to say that I have never been back to this part of the world, but I would like to.

Entertaining some Brazilian visitors on board the RRS John Biscoe, in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. c. 21 Oct 1982. I am on the left.

After leaving southern Brazil, we sailed south towards the Falkland Islands. As we entered into the Falkland Island exclusion zone, we were buzzed by a RAF Hercules aeroplane, just checking out who we were I suppose. Early the next day, as we got closer to the islands, a Royal Navy frigate (HMS Phoebe) appeared, going much faster than our stately 12 knots.

Leander-class frigate HMS Phoebe 4 Nov 1982

We did not stay long in the Falkland Islands and were not allowed to wander far from the ship. The war had only ended a few months previously and there was still a lot of activity going on, most notably mine clearance operations. The only time I managed to get ashore was to get my tooth fixed by an army dentist!

Because of all the ships that were still there, we had to tie up against the burned out hulk of the RFA Sir Tristram (below), which was badly damaged at Fitzroy on 8 June 1982. It was however, still being used as an accommodation ship.

RFA Sir Tristram at Port Stanley in Nov 1982 after being bombed at Bluff Cove

The awful damage to this ship, and its sister ship RFA Sir Galahad was inflicted during the Bluff Cove air attacks in 8 June 1982, during the Falklands War. A total of 56 British servicemen were killed, and 150 wounded in this bombing, and is was harrowing to walk around the remains of the ship. One couldn’t help but imagine what a horrifying inferno it must have been for the Welsh Guards on board. Horrific events were suffered by both sides in this conflict.

RFA Sir Tristram at Port Stanley in Nov 1982 after being bombed in Bluff Cove

After a brief stop in Port Stanley, we left the Falkland Islands in early November 1982, heading south across the Drake Passage, bound for the Antarctic Peninsula (which I will descibe in a following blog).

RRS John Biscoe off Damoy Point in the Antarctic Peninsula (c. 64 deg S) Nov 1982

All photographs were taken by me using an Olympus OM10 film camera, using Kodachrome film. The rather ageing transparencies were digitised using a Nikon Coolscan V.

The blonde cows of Galicia

Cow with bell. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Readers of my blog may know that I am a frequent visitor to the Province of Galicia, in NW Spain. There are many reasons to visit this attractive region, tucked away on the shoulder of the Iberian peninsula: the beautiful countryside, the empty beaches, the cold waters of the Atlantic!, the cuisine, the rustic architecture, the Gallegan culture (Gallego is the native language of Galicia) and so on.  But one I have not dealt with before, is the cows!

Young calves resting in a meadow. An idyllic life apart from the flies! Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galician cows are adorable. First of all they are such an attractive colour. The commonest breed by far, is the Rubia Galega, or the Galician Blond beef cow. Whether or not you are a meat-eater, I think it is fair to say that these animals are well-treated and seem to me to have a very comfortable existence. As these photographs show, they are usually to be seen sitting in an idyllic meadow, quietly chewing the cud, far away from any stress or hassle!

Rubia Galega cows in a meadow. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galicia is a rural land of smallholders, with many small farms and scattered plots. Whilst agriculture in this autonomous region is becoming more intensified, it seems to be much more small-scale and self-sufficient than many others parts of Europe. Whilst that might not be good for productivity and profits, it certainly is good for cows!

Cows by traditional stone wall. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Alas, this quiet, small-scale way of life is probably not sustainable in the long term. Galicia has been changing since the 1950s, but it is still a relatively poor area – compared to other regions of Spain – without too much major industry, and a largely rural economy. Many people have left Galicia to look for work elsewhere, in Europe, and the rest of the world. So, many of the traditional stone farm houses – with their characteristic slate roofs (below) have been left to slide back into the earth from which they came!

Traditional Galician farm house abandoned. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

I get the impression that, like a lot of agricultural communities (the UK included), the people working the land are getting on in years. Whilst it may be an idyllic and healthy life-style for some, running a small farm or smallholding does not make much money. Yet there must be opportunities to turn this unspoiled and pristine land into high value – i.e. high quality – crops, be they plant or animal.

Rubia Galega calf in a meadow. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galicia is a very tranquil and uncrowded part of Europe. Most foreign tourists head to the beaches on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain. The Spanish themselves know to head north (not south!) in summer, and some parts of the coast do fill up a bit in August. But for the most part, Galicia is remarkably uncrowded, the roads are largely empty (by UK standards), and the cows get to life in peace and harmony! Have I painted an attractive enough picture yet?!

There are other cows in Galicia, including plenty of black and white Friesian milk cows in some areas, and a number of rare breeds. One of the strangest is the Cacehna cow (below), which seems to be a sort of all-purpose cattle breed; it can be used as a draft animal, for milk and for meat.

Cachena cow with odd horns. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Of course one reason why Galicia is so good for cows, is the grass! And the grass is good because it rains! But the climate is mild. Galicia, sticks out into the Atlantic, so expect sunshine and showers most days, and you will not be disappointed! So I’ll finish with a cow enjoying the sunshine in early June, by the sea.

Cow by the sea! Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Katie the Kittiwake goes to sea

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult showing tongue

The Kittiwake nests are all empty now in Scarborough; on the cliffs and in the town, the birds have all gone. Long gone. Gone to sea.

Katie did not want to go to sea; she wanted to stay on her ledge above Marks and Spencer and try all the lovely food her gull-friends on the roofs around her were eating. But it was not to be. Her parents had looked after her and fed her well all through the summer, but now they were tired and needed a break. They wanted to go to sea. Katie would either have to come with them or look after herself, but she was quite incapable of finding food. Walking about the town begging for chips, like the herring gulls, looked like fun, but she didn’t think she could do it. Her legs were too short and she was not cut out for street life. Reluctantly, she came to conclusion that Yes, it was time to go. So one day in late August they all set off.

Newly-fledged Kittiwake chick just like Katie!

Katie had been down to the sea a few times with her parents. She had had a go at sitting on the ocean and trying to peck at the occasional morsel that passed by, but she had never really been out to sea. She had not flown far out, far away from the land. She had just jumped in and out, and sat on the sea wall smelling the ocean and watching all the other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) Andrew C [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

This time was different. Her parents looked serious and in no mood to put up with her reservations. Her Dad, Harold, said: ‘Come on Katie. If you don’t come with us now, you will sit here and starve. A Kittiwake has to go out to the sea. The ocean is where we really belong. You’ll see.’ So off they went; flying high and further out than Katie had ever been before.

Juvenile Kittiwake Bempton Cliffs, Katie Hostad, Flickr files (Creative Commons)

A lot of other gulls were leaving Scarborough at the same time, and soon they joined up with others in a large flock, heading north along the coast. The were soon joined by some other Kittiwakes flying over from the land. ‘Where do you come from?’ Katie asked one of them. ‘Newcastle’ he replied, in a strange accent she had not heard before. ‘Ooh eye, its great there said one of the older gulls; we have nests on a bridge, high above the river’. ‘Oh I was born on a bridge’ said one of the other birds from Scarborough. ‘It’s great, you have a lovely view and it’s very safe. There were so many of us, all close together on the bridge.’ ‘Sounds just like Newcastle’ said the newcomer. ‘So we have something in common then’ he said, flying closer to the bird from Scarborough who happened to be a female. ‘Perhaps we should stick together for a while’ he smiled. Yes Kittiwakes can smile, only they can see it. Humans don’t know what a Kittiwake smile is!

In winter. many kittiwakes move in small flocks …. Some flocks include both adults and first-year birds, but I doubt if there is any kinship between the individuals, as pairs and their offspring separate once they leave the colony in autumn. (Coulson, 2011).

Newly-fledged Kittiwake chick in July. Just like Katie before she went to sea!

After joining up with all the new birds from Newcastle, Katie looked around to see where her Mum and Dad had gone. They weren’t there. She couldn’t see them anywhere. ‘Where’s my Mum and Dad?’ screamed Katie! They’ve gone!

‘You are on your own now’ said one of the older birds from Newcastle. ‘You probably won’t see them again until next year now.’

Since Kittiwakes are not fed by their parents after they leave the nest sites, successful (and rapid) dispersal to good feeding sites is probably critical for the survival of the juvenile birds. (Wernham et al., 2002).

‘How am I going to survive!’ moaned Katie. ‘I don’t even know how to catch fish!’ ‘Don’t worry’ said the older bird. ‘Stick with us and we’ll show you. You’ll soon get the hang of it’. ‘Yea stick with us’ said some of the other juveniles. ‘Our parents have left us as well! We’ll be OK if we stick together’. So off they flew; a small flock of adults and juveniles, not related, but with a shared purpose and common interest. Flying into the unknown, but armed with the instincts and adaptations millions of years of evolution had provided them with. Enough to give them more than a sporting chance of surviving in this new world.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) at Splashpoint, West Sussex, England. Ron Knight [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Katie and her companions flew north helped by a strong wind blowing from the south-west. They made rapid progress and were soon up near the coast of Norway.

‘My Dad came from Norway’ said Katie, excitedly. ‘Let’s go and find him! ‘It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack’ said one of the older birds. ‘What’s a needle and what’s a haystack said Katie’, confused. ‘Forget it’ said the older bird. Stick with us and we will look after you’. ‘OK’ said Katie, looking wistfully across to the foreign shoreline they were flying next to.

‘We are going to go much further north, and then we will head over to Greenland for the winter’. Greenland sounds nice thought Katie. It should be warm there by the sound of it. Little did she know!

Some young Kittiwakes probably remain on the other side of the Atlantic, off Newfoundland and Greenland (Wernham et al., 2002).

They flew on, stopping off to rest and feed on the surface of the sea at night. Eventually the reached a new land. A strange place with huge cliffs and thousands and thousands – hundreds of thousands – of Kittiwakes. Katie had never seen so many Kittiwakes. They joined up with the huge flocks and Katie started chatting to some of the other juvenile birds.

Hundreds of thousands of Kittiwakes nest at Diskobukta on Barent’s Island (Barenstøya), Svalbard Archipelago, where they are preyed upon by Arctic foxes.

‘Where do come from’ asked one of them. ‘Scarborough’ said Katie.

‘Where is that?!’ the other bird asked. ‘It’s a town far to the south from here. I was brought up on a ledge above Marks and Spencer’ said Katie. What’s that?’ said the other bird. ‘It’s a shop’ said Katie. ‘That sells food’.

‘Are there foxes there?’ said the newcomer. ‘Well a few’ said Katie, ‘but we don’t see them much’. ‘Here the foxes try and eat you’ said the local bird. It’s a nightmare I can tell you. My sister was taken by a fox. I can’t wait to get away from the land and head out to sea!’

So off they flew travelling west this time. Soon they saw something floating in the sea. ‘What’s that?’ asked Katie. ‘It’s ice stupid! Haven’t you ever seen ice before?’ ‘No’ said Katie. It looked very strange, and she was not sure if she liked it. ‘Look, you can stand on it’ said one of her new friends’ swooping down and landing on a small lump of ice.

In winter, some Kittiwakes remain as far north as the Arctic Circle, so how do these birds feed and survive in the total darkness? The answer is not known. Some may feed behind fishing boats using floodlights, whilst others may be attracted to luminous prey. (Coulson, 2011).

Black-legged_Kittiwake_(Rissa_tridactyla) on aniceflow (bergy bit). Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

What happens next? Will Katie survive the winter and learn to look after herself? Find out in the next installment of Katie the Kittiwake!


Coulson, J. (2011). The kittiwake. A&C Black.

Wernham, C., Toms, M., Marchant, J., Clark, J., Siriwardena, G., & Baillie, S. (2002). The migration atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. T & AD Poyser.