This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
As I have mentioned before (and you can probably guess from the name) there are a few birds calling this place home!
There may not be a huge amount of diversity here but the species and sheer numbers of birds present are spectacular.
The island is quite large (4km long) but there isn’t a huge number of birds obvious on the ground; that’s because most prefer to nest under it, thanks to the high density of predatory birds above.
To live and work on this island has been my dream for years, but the real pulling factor for coming back to South Georgia wasn’t, believe it or not, the penguins …
Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.
Sadly, I won’t be here for the entire year, which means I won’t get to see the entire breeding cycle of the Wandering Albatross, since they can take 13 months from laying to fledging.
So, unlike most species which were here at the beginning of the breeding season when we arrived, the Wandering Albatross were finishing up. The fledglings were beginning to leave the island, having spent the entire winter on the nest alone, only being visited by their parents to be fed before they disappear back on another several thousand km foraging trip.
Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.
When they are approaching the right age, they actually weigh more than their parents and just before fledging, they regurgitate all the hard parts of there diet (squid beaks, fish bones and sometimes plastic) and head for sea.
Wandering albatross breed every other year so, despite the fact that last year’s birds were fledging, the new birds were also beginning to arrive, ready for the present breeding season.
Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “furries”).
Considering that a hundred years ago, these animals were hunted to economical extinction on the island, it’s mind-blowing to consider their numbers are now in the region of 4 million.
There aren’t many success stories like this that I can think of but seemingly Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are on a similar path, based on the quantity of animals being seen from shore this year.
Unfortunately, food was less plentiful this winter and the seals are paying for it. From looking at the diets of the seals throughout the year, we can see how well they are eating and what prey items are available. After poor winters, breeding numbers are often low.
However, even in poor seasons, the beaches are absolutely covered in fur seals. From looking at the diets of those that have bred this year, we can see that the krill have returned and as a result, the pups are fat and doing well.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t write a blog from South Georgia without a penguin picture or two. One of the many great things about Bird Island is how accessible the wildlife is and with a Gentoo Penguin colony just a few hundred metres from base, it’s been easy to keep tabs on how they are doing.
A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.
A little further away (but also a little more spectacular) is Big Mac, home to 80,000 Macaroni penguins. These are obligate reducers, meaning they lay two eggs but only one will hatch – and that’s what they are starting to do!
In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.
That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed
There are definitely worse places to be left in than Cumberland Bay, South Georgia and although we were all itching to make it to Bird Island, I was also keen to take advantage of being back in Cumberland Bay. Given its location on the Leigh side of South Georgia, the weather is much kinder to Kind Edward Point than Bird Island, so I made sure to take advantage of the clear blue skies during the day and night.
The travel limit at this station is huge and this means there are always hills to climb; we headed up Mount Duse equipped with crampons and ice axes (which we didn’t actually use) attempting to get a view of Cumberland Bay from above.
Unfortunately, as you can see from the photo, the visibility wasn’t great on Duse but it improved for visits to my old study colonies at Maiviken, which in my humble opinion is one of the best places in the world.
Another easy hike from base is along to Penguin River, which is always a good place to catch up with Light Mantled Albatross
One thing I won’t see a huge amount of on Bird Island is Elephant Seals. So I was keen to spend a little time with these beautiful beasts. So cute and useless when they’re born, they triple in weight in just three weeks by which time they are left by their mothers and become weaners, which are equally cute and useless – just a little fatter!
Eventually they will grow into 800kg females or 4 tonne males and return in their thousands to South Georgia to breed. The males will be 50% fat in optimal condition and spend nine months a year at sea-diving to 2400+m in search of their favourite food, squid.
Even in sunny Cumberland Bay, it’s never too long before the next blizzard or snow fall.
One final Elephant Seal picture since I can’t imagine there will be many more for a while!
Just a quck update from my latest travels. I am currently working as a Naturalist for National Geographic Expeditions. It has been my job to guide lucky passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer around the Antarctic wildlife.
During the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to share the very best wildlife watching experiences in the world with these passengers as we navigate from South America, south through the Drake Passage as far as the Antarctic circle.
Highlights have been too numerous to list but amongst the latest to be ticked off the bucket list are seeing killer whales and emperor penguins, as well as watching humpback whales bubble feeding. On top of this, there were lots of penguins and stunning scenery – plus ca change!
When I return to better internet, I will endeavour to update my blog with more images and stories from these latest travels but for now, here is a selection of images so far!
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.
PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING
THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.
Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.
With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.
Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.
If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.
Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.
Absolutely devastated to leave South Georgia after an incredible and life changing year. If anyone gets the chance to visit I would 150% recommend it! It has everything, landscape, wildlife, glaciers and very occasionally the sun also.
It was an absolute pleasure spending the year with this team. One final BBQ in the snow as well as a final champagne toast and it was time to set sail on board the Shackleton.
As to be expected the scenery on the way out was still magnificent and a few species of wildlife made the effort to come and see us off.
On our way North we passed several, huge icebergs which were obviously floating north from the continent
Once within flying range of the Falklands a Hurricane made a flyby whilst carrying out a training exercise allowing great views for photographs
Technically I have left South Georgia but I am aware that I haven’t posted many blogs over the past few very busy weeks. So I will catch you up on my activities with a few blogs! The beginning of spring brings a series of fresh faced new British Antarctic Survey recruits eager to takeover from the old guard and ready to learn their new job.
First on the long list of Kierans (the new me) new responsibilities was the Giant Petrels. Fortunate for us, these prehistoric birds have the a habit of nesting in areas of especially spectacular backdrops!
Where ever there are Giant Petrels there are glaciers not too far away so its often harder to take pictures without glaciers in the background.
There are colonies of Northern Petrels at Maiviken, Zenker Ridge and the Greene which nest approximately six weeks ahead of the Southerns which nest at Harpon and on the Greene.
The latest trip was to check up on the Southerns which should have all laid by now. The Northerns, are starting to lay and will have chicks by now.
Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.
This second instalment from my latest incredible trip to St Andrews will involve fewer superlatives – because I used my quota up in the first instalment!
I have spent a year on this amazing island and over a quarter of my pictures have been taken in the two weeks spent at St Andrews Bay. This is no reflection on how ‘boring’ the rest of the island (it’s not) … but St Andrews Bay is flipping ridiculous!
As you’ll have seen from my previous blog, there are hundreds of thousands of breeding King Penguins resident here, but just as awesome are the majestic giants that span the entire shore front.
They are loud, they smell worse than the penguins and they very rarely move but when they do, the sheer power and strength on display commands your attention and respect.
Beachmasters will spend months on end within harems of hundreds of females, fighting off challenges and rivals in order for the chance to mate with the females once they have weaned their pups. The challengers are numerous and relentless, leaving the beachmasters little time to sleep and relax between bouts and duels.
There are considerable size differences amongst males and it is in the interest of both beachmaster and challenger not to waste energy/get injured in one-sided competitions. So, in order to prevent this from happening, males use their proboscis to amplify their roars, allowing competitors to calculate the size of their rivals and if a fight is worthwhile.
This means big fights only happen when there is an even match and, as a result, duels can last for tens of minutes as both rivals rear back and take turns to slam their bodies and teeth into each other.
Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.
Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool off.
Our visit came during the peak pupping period and as a result, the beach was covered in new-borns suckling the fatty milk of their mothers. Born at approximately 40kg, these will reach 180kg by the time they wean just three weeks later.
Saying goodbye was definitely very hard but I am very excited to say I’ll be back to St Andrews in January, this time on board the National Geographic Expedition ship!!!
Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.
Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!
It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.
The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.
After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.
As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.
Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …
And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.
At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.
As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.
As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.
The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve! It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.
You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.
No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.
What a few days!!!
In the last three days I have seen four more leopard seals, taken the RIB south to St Andrews Bay (where we watched a leopard seal tear apart a king penguin) and spent the night at Maiviken, where we watched at least 1000 Gentoo Penguins returning to South Georgia for the night …. Life is hard!
With news of a second lep sighting at Grytviken coming in the final minutes of light of the day, I set my alarm early and made my way over for first light hoping she hadn’t slugged off in the night in order to get more pictures for the rapidly growing leopard seal database.
Thankfully my efforts were not in vain!
I quickly headed back to base to complete my morning rounds and get ready for a day of boating – but not before taking a quick shot of the Pharos alongside before a patrol.
Next on the agenda was kitting up the boats and getting away, with St Andrews our next destination in order to re-supply the huts with food and medical gear. Unfortunately, the visit had to be very quick but, as regular readers will know, on South Georgia, a lot can happen in a short amount of time!
Upon landing we were greeted by a cloud of hungry Giant Petrels who are resident around the King Penguins. I caught a flash of yellow disappearing towards the sea and was able to get a couple of record shots of a yellow Darvic on the leg of a giant petrel, most probably from Bird Island.
Time didn’t allow me to reach the main King Penguin colony and check up on the chicks but there were a few Kings on the beach near where we landed, along with St Andrews latest occupants … Elephant Seals.
As we lifted the anchor, a very inquisitive leopard seal came to check us out. Unfortunately, my hands were full of anchor so no pictures were possible before it got bored of us and headed off. As we headed back to sea with Hound Bay our next destination, I clocked a congregation of Cape Petrels in the distance and headed towards it. Being in contact with our colleagues at Bird Island, I hear tales of leopard seal attacks and had subsequently added observing a kill, hopefully, to my bucket list.
As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.
Unfortunately, the poor light and swell were enough to make focusing on the action very difficult, so the pictures aren’t much more than record shots but it was an incredible spectacle.
Due to a thick band of incoming fog, we couldn’t stay with the kill for long and were soon on our way north again to Hound Bay, where we were greeted by yet another leopard seal trying to hide itself amongst all the elephant seals.
We did get one last look at the South Georgia landscape before we were engulfed by fog for the duration of our trip back to Maiviken, where we were dropped off for the night.
Gentoo Penguins opt to return to the South Georgian shores every evening to roost, unlike other SG Penguins, even outside the breeding season. As we sat on the shore waiting for the sun to set, sipping mulled wine, we had hoped to see good numbers of Gentoos but we didn’t expect quite as many as we got!
For the first time this year, the Gentoos were observed making their way up past their usual roost site all the way up to their breeding colony, suggesting that we may well have an early breeding season this year.
Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route
With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.