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
After 10days at King Edward Point I was well and truly ready to set sail for Bird Island on my transport mark II, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel. As we headed North past the almighty snow covered scenery we were accompanied by some of South Georgia’s smaller breeders Cape Petrels and White Chinned Petrels.
With the weather still and flat we were confident of getting ashore but as we approached Bird Island visibility came in and engulfed our new home making launching conditions unsafe.
It did eventually disappear and finally we made it ashore and it proved to be everything I had hoped for. In my first week as we frantically prepared for the arrival of a years worth of stock I managed to make it around the island in search of one of the islands most beautiful breeders, the light mantled albatross. I also got out to weigh and measure last years wandering albatross chicks as they made it to the 260 day year old mark and approached fledging age.
Here is a preview of my new amazing home and a taster of what is to come over the next few months
Leaving South Georgia 2 years ago there was a lot that I was worried about leaving behind but the thought of not seeing Antarctic fur seal pups was genuinely depressing so I am thrilled to be working with these charismatic mammals again!
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!
Its been a long while since I wrote a blog but now that I am back settled in colder climes I think it’s about time that I update this website.
I am back in my favourite part of the world living on a small island 500m North West of South Georgia. It’s aptly named Bird Island since its home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds and penguins. So dense is the wildlife here that there is either a seabird or seal every 1.5m2.
As with all travel in the Southern Ocean, ‘Plan A’ very rarely comes to fruition. I set off from home via RAF flight to the Falklands where I had a couple days to explore the rich wildlife the islands have to offer. Having been to the Falklands several times now I am still amazed by what’s on show here. With it being located north of the subantarctic convergence the species found here are slightly different and there were great opportunities to see Southern Sea Lions, Rockhopper Penguins and Imperial Cormorants.
The Falklands will literally blow you away with wind and rain almost as predictable as beautiful wildlife!
Bull Seal Lions are formidable animals weighing 350kg
I then headed south on board the Naval patrol ship, HMS Clyde. My next destination was Bird Island. 3 days sailing away. As we made our way South on the unusually flat calm seas we were treated to views of fin whales, right whale dolphins, Peale’s dolphins and Humpback whales as well as lots of seabirds.
As I woke up on the 3rdmorning, just north of Shag Rocks, ready for my 5am ice watch on the bridge, we were greeted by a 2 by 3 mile iceberg which had a couple of smaller bergs which had broken off. Fortulately the captain was up on the bridge and suggested we position the ship so that when the sun rises it comes up directly behind the ice berg. And this was carried out to perfection!
Unfortunately the next step of the plan worked out less perfectly as we approached Bird Island which is very exposed to the prevailing winds and swell. The decision was made to not even attempt landing meaning we would reposition to my old home at King Edward Point and wait patiently for a different lift.
There are definitely worst places to be stationed on standby. Read my next blog here
Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.
The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.
Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.
Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.
The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.
There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).
And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.
One final albatross picture, because they are awesome
Few images from St Andrews Bay, South Georgia
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As much as it kills me to have left my work with the British Antarctic Survey, the new job has some pretty amazing perks. Working at King Edward Point allowed me to see a small part of South Georgia over a long period of time working immersed within incredible wildlife. However, life on board National Geographic Explorer has 5 star food every night, a masseuse and most importantly, access to much much more of the island than we were able to visit from base.
One of my favourite new landings to visit this year is Gold Harbour. Not the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia but still spectacular.
One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.
During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.
The breeding season is a difficult time for these giants. Beachmasters will spend months on end starving on land, battling to defend their harems from competitors. During this time, the battles can be brutal and so moments of rest and recovery must be taken at every opportunity.
Not all the fights end in blood and gore; youngsters are always practising because they know that at some point it will be their turn to fight for real.
As the elephant seals head out to sea for a much needed foraging trip the beach opens up, allowing other wildlife some space to thrive.
Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away
Although not in the same abundance, elephant seals can still be found here late in the season since they return to the South Georgia coast in order to moult. This process takes roughly a month. Several animals will lie in the same location for most of this process and the combination of their weight and excrement kills everything beneath them, leaving foul smelling wallows throughout the coastline.
If the wildlife doesn’t quite do it for you, then you can keep your eyes above the seals and penguins and it still ain’t half bad.
Despite the 4 a.m. mornings there is very little that can spoil an experience like this. However, we did find one thing that did just this on our final landing of the season. A young Antarctic Fur Seal with fishing material wrapped around its neck.
Despite South Georgia’s isolated location, there is no escape from marine pollution. Ghost fishing and marine waste are a real problem here. During my time on South Georgia we freed, any number of animals entangled within fishing or packaging waste. And on a landing at King Haakon Bay, we even managed to retrieve a washed-up fridge from the beach, as well as numerous bottles and bags.
If you think about how little activity and fishing there is in sub antarctic waters in comparison to other areas further north then the impacts and effects this will be having is hard to fathom. Over 100,000 marine animals are harmed through pollution such as this every year.
Not to end on a negative note, here are a few time lapses from a day at Gold Harbour
It’s been a while but I thought it was about time that I wrote a blog about a typical day as a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer. And what better location to do so than from Salibury Plain. The second largest king penguin colony on the island, Salisbury Plain lies within the Bay Of Isles towards the North of South Georgia.
After a blustery night anchored in the Bay of Isles, guests awoke expecting poor conditions but were pleasantly surprised to see flat seas and a fresh coat of snow covering the bay. Just five days previously, when we were last in the bay, there was barely any snow on the near mountains.
Its been a hard year for these King Penguin chicks, after the eggs were laid a year ago they have been stuck on this beach through the harsh South Georgia winter. Some of the chicks will have gone months between feeds shrinking up to 50% in weight during these periods.
The landing did not disappoint, a natural path through the colony allowed guests to get their best views of the “Oakum Boys” yet. Despite the cold temperatures, the light was stunning and guests used every second on shore to get their shots.
The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing!
By this stage of the breeding season, the weakest chicks will have perished, so those remaining all looked in good health. After more than a year of development these chicks will soon loose this downy coat in favour of their waterproof juvenile coat.
After a long but spectacular morning on the colony we headed back to the ship for hot drinks and tasty food, a luxury which the British Antarctic Survey never provided!
The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.
If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO!
Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars.
San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling.
San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.
With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset.
Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations.
Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next.
The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert.
Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.
There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!
The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.
Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.
The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.
Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard.
If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment.
For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!
For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album
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Something that surprised me about my recent visit to the Antarctic Peninsula was that the ice was equally as impressive as the Killer Whales, Leopard Seals and the Humpbacks.
Nothing can prepare you for the different shades of blue captured within these floating structures and the size of the slabs is simply staggering!
Fortunately conditions allowed us to make it south past the Antarctic circle!
And if the Ice isn’t enough the landscape and mountains ain’t half bad either!
Its been a while since I posted pictures of my penguin friends so here are a few of my favourites from the Peninsula where I was finally able to see the Holy Grail of Penguin species; The Emperor Penguin. As well as all three species of brush tail, magellanic and rockhopper.
For more images check out my two Antarctic Galleries….
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