Summer On Bird Island

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
Light-Mantled Albatross over the South Georgia coastline
Young fur seal pups are inquisitive. The heaviest pup weighed this season was a whopping 19.2kg.
Black-Browed Albatross over the ocean
Gentoo penguin chick looking lighter than normal. Nearly ready to head out to sea
Grey-headed and black-browed albatross chicks look almost identical and have a habit of nesting in stunning locations
When the sun breaks through the cloud on Bird Island the colours are often stunning
Gentoo penguin chicks chasing one of their parents for their next meal. The chick that keeps up with the adult for the longest will get fed
Macaroni penguin looking majestic in front of a very blue Scotia Sea
This is Sleven. Upon my arrival on Bird Island I was told that its chances of fledging were very low. It took a while, but 2 months after the rest of the wandering albatross fledged it finally headed out to sea!
Macaroni Soup
Even against the towering mountains of South Georgia a wandering albatross’s 3.5m wingspan is impressive
A blonde fur seal pup coming to check out the camera
Bird island has had a conveyer- belt of ice drifting pass this season. I’m told these bergs have made it further North than the Falklands
Big and brave fur seal
Wandering albatross making a GIANT petrel look tiny
South Georgia Shag against an iceberg
Brown skuas are stunning and annoyingly intelligent. There are very few animals nesting on South Georgia they can’t outsmart in order to get a meal
Wandering albatross at sunset
Another spectacular piece of ice
Bird Island sits between South Georgia and the Willis Islands (pictured here)
As the ice grounds itself it gets battered by the waves and quickly breaks up
Fat Macaroni Penguin chick looking healthy in front of South Georgia’s stunning coastline
Not sure if the Light-Mantled chicks are more or less impressive than the adults
Macaroni Penguins making the daily commute back to shore after a day at sea
A lighter morph fur seal who loves the camera
Black-browed albatross are one of the smaller albatross with a wingspan of just over 2m. Still pretty impressive
The noise that is associated with this display is unforgettable!

A face that can’t be hated

Predators at St Andrews

This entry is part 3 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Giant Petrel patrolling colony
Giant Petrel patrolling colony

St Andrews Bay is an absolutely incredible place for a number of reasons. Not only does it have hundreds of thousands of penguins, it is surrounded by stunning glaciers and mountains, it borders the sea and it is home to thousands of prehistoric predators.

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Where there are penguins on South Georgia, you are never too far from both Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas. These birds fill the dual role of top land predators and scavengers on the island. Both species are incredibly intelligent, tough and persistent, and make a good match for any of the penguin species here.

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It’s hard whilst walking around St Andrews, not just to look down at the masses of penguins, but if you glance up, the skies are alive with these majestic birds as they constantly, effortlessly patrol the colonies for gaps to land in.

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The giant petrels especially aren’t known for being spectacularly gracious landers but, once on the ground, they start causing havoc.

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Looking for a landing space

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Preparing to land

If you get to a high point above the colonies, you can see the roads that these guys create as they run through the colonies, looking for carrion or weak penguins to predate.


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With numbers of penguins being so astonishingly high, you would assume that pickings would be easy. But even once the predators have a penguin in their bill, they have to keep it there long enough to make the kill, all the time being attacked by other lucky penguin survivors.

Giant Petrel after a successful kill
Giant Petrel after a successful kill

Once the kill is made, it is a matter of consuming as much as they can as quickly as they can because it’s not long before more hungry eyes pick them out and they have to share their well-earned meal!

Displaying giant petrels
Displaying giant petrels

Fighting the way up the pecking order
Fighting their way up the pecking order

Giant petrels aren’t the only competition for food, with brown skuas and snowy sheathbills also abundant around the colony

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Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye over the colony

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Brown Skua coming into land in the colony

For more images from this incredible trip to St Andrews, check out my St Andrews Bay album

Rare Sightings, Penguin Census And Calving Glaciers

This entry is part 17 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

As life continues at King Edward Point, South Georgia, it seems some thing’s never change. The workload is still huge, it keeps on snowing and life is still awesome. We have had a few noteworthy and out of the ordinary sightings though. The first came in the form of a Weddels Seal. Although these do breed on the very south of the island, this is the north of their range so they are rare visitors to the station. As is often the case with rare animals turning up in the wrong place, this individual was a youngster.

Another suprise visitor - Weddels Seal
Suprise visitor –  A Weddels Seal with a snotty nose!

On top of this we had visits from two lost penguin species. First of all was a chinstrap penguin which spent the best part of 48 hours zipping around our jet boats in Cumberland Bay. The closest colonies for these are located on The South Sandwich Islands.

The second was found during the chick count of the Gentoo Penguins. Before we managed to start with the scientific work, we noticed a Macaroni penguin trying his best to blend in with the crowd. The Gentoo colony is located roughly 12km from the closest Macaroni so it was not that lost but more impressive is that the colony is located 2km inland, uphill from the nearest beach. So this guy made his long hike for no reason!

 

Suprise Macaroni penguin
Trying to blend in – a suprise Macaroni penguin in the Gentoo colony

The Gentoo count itself was a little depressing, as we had expected, with El Nino seemingly affecting the numbers of Krill in our waters. Having received news from Bird Island that several thousand Gentoo nesting attempts had been unsuccessful, we were not holding out much hope for our 800 eggs at Maiviken. During previous brief ventures into the colony, I had noted a number of deserted, unincubated eggs, suggesting that the food shortage is leading the Gentoos to terminate breeding attempts, and the Skuas’ nests are littered with debris from the colony. However, we were pleased to see that we still had 120 chicks remaining and looking, on the whole, healthy. And during the time we spent with the birds, adults were observed frequently regurgitating large amounts of Krill to their chicks.

Feeding time for the Gentoo chicks
Feeding time for the Gentoo chicks

Further bad news from the Penguins’ point of view is that both pairs of Brown Skua, adjacent to the breeding colony, now have hungry chicks to feed, meaning scenes like that captured in the last blog will become more and more frequent.

Proud Parents - Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken
Proud Parents – Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken

 

Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick
Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick

Sorry to keep mentioning it, but my job is incredible and has many, many perks. One of these is it allows me to get out and about, especially on boat trips to other peninsulas. On one of these trips last month to the Greene, we went via the Hamburg and Harker Glaciers for a bit of familiarisation (sightseeing). And we timed this trip to perfection since on our arrival, a chunk of ice the size of my house calved from the face. I don’t know what was more spectacular, the actual calving or the size of the wave that it caused.

Having enjoyed the calving from a close but ‘safe’ distance, we decided we were ok to sit still and face the oncoming wave. But as the wave continued to grow, eventually dwarfing the glacier from our view, we quickly realised this wasn’t the case and were ordered to ‘run away’!

One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve
One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve

 

Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea
Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea

 

The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house/
The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house

 

The moment we realised how big the wave was and that running away was the best decision
Just Before we decided that running away was the best decision!

Whist watching these spectacular structures calving, its hard to think that future generations will not get this chance. The effects of climate change are clear to see all over South Georgia with some Glaciers receding at over 1m a day. In fact, in the entire of South America there is only one Glacier that is not receding, the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina and it is thought that within the near future, this will follow the same trend.

Imagine a world without these... Hamburg Glacier
Imagine a world without these… Hamburg Glacier

On top of the fact that glaciers are in their own right epic, another great thing about hanging around them is that you have a chance of seeing the majestic snow petrels. These are by far my favourite birds here although they do frustrate me by only turning up when I have a small lens on my camera, hence the slightly distant shot.

Definately my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.
Definitely my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.

On another of my scientific trips to around South Georgia, this time to check my Southern Giant Petrels at Harpon, I got to experience the Antarctic water temperatures for first time. I was in a dry suit, so not particularly brave!

Upon arriving in our rib to a steep shelving beach full of ice glacial debris, it was necessary to jump out in waist-height water and hold the boat whilst we unloaded all the gear. Just standing there for two minutes in a dry suit, my legs were quickly numbing and losing sensation. I have no idea how the seals do it for longer than this – to think that an Elephant Seal will dive to depths of 1500m and spend two hours completely submerged is unfathomable.

Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach
Molting Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach

As per usual, my visits to my seal colonies continued every other day. One particular visit sticks out as particularly ‘blondie’. Across my beaches, I noted six blonde pups, three blonde females and two blonde males. When you consider that, on average, 1 in every 800 fur seals is blonde, you should get an idea of how many seals make up my study site.

Ebony and Ivory - Antarctic Fur Seal Pups
Ebony and Ivory – Antarctic Fur Seal Pups

As I mentioned earlier, dumps of snow are almost weekly at the moment and the animals in front of base are starting to look less than impressed. Especially the King Penguins, which have picked this time of year (supposedly the warmest) to molt their feathers.

More molting king penguins in the snow
More moulting king penguins in the snow

 

 

 

Brown Skuas Versus Gentoo Penguin

This entry is part 15 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

For some reason a Gentoo Penguin and its chick became isolated from the colony and it wasn't long before a Brown Skua found the pair
For some reason a Gentoo Penguin and its chick became isolated from the colony and it wasn’t long before a Brown Skua found them

The Brown Skua tried to aggressively force the adult penguin away from its chick
The Brown Skua tried to aggressively force the adult penguin away from its chick

The Gentoo Penguin stands firm, warning off the Brown Skua with its own threats
The Gentoo Penguin stands firm, warning off the Brown Skua

Unfortunately this does not deter the Brown Skua and it persists
Unfortunately this doesn’t deter the Brown Skua and it persists

The Brown Skua switches technique, opting to hop side to side over the penguin in order to move the Gentoo and create space to take the chick
The Brown Skua switches technique, opting to hop side to side over the Gentoo Penguin in order to move it and create space to take the chick

The Gentoo continues to sit tight over its chick
The Gentoo continues to sit tight over its chick

The skua calls in for help from its mate who duely arrives
The Skua calls in for help from its mate who duly arrives

 

Second skua moves in for assistance
One Skua continues to hop over the adult  Gentoo and lure it away from its chick, whilst the other Skua sits waiting for an opening

Skuas persist with the hopping tactics alternating between the pair
The Skuas persist alternating the hopping tactics between the Gentoo and chick

Gentoo stands strong over his chick, fending off the skuas attacks.
The Gentoo stands strong over his chick, fending off the Skuas’ attacks.

The Gentoo's bill is a powerful form of defense which has the potential to severely injure the Skuas
The Gentoo’s bill is a powerful form of defence which has the potential to severely injure the Skuas

 

Eventually the Skua's patience pays off and a gap opens which one of the pair is quick to exploit
Eventually, the Skuas’ patience pays off and a gap opens which one of the pair is quick to exploit

The Gentoo is quick to react and turns to save his chick
But the Gentoo is quick to react and turns to save his chick

Gentoo managed to make a last gasp grab of the skua making him drop the chick and injuring the skuas leg
Fortunately, the Gentoo managed to make a last gasp grab of the Skua, making him drop the chick and injuring the Skua’s leg. The sorry Skua limps back to its chicks empty-handed, whilst the Gentoo chick lives on to fight another day.

Another Busy Week… a seal rescue, ‘blondies’ and chicks!

This entry is part 12 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was told that spring was going to be full on and this last 10 days has been no exception. On top of the 14km round trip to Maiviken every other day in order to take pictures, I have also visited the Macaroni Penguin colony at Rookery to do some work with South Georgian Pipits (a whole other blog post), rescued a young elephant seal, monitored more Giant Petrels and found the first Penguin Chicks and a ‘blondie’

Macaroni penguin at Rooker Point making standing up look difficult!
Macaroni penguin at Rookery Point making standing up look difficult!

As higher predator biologist, any seal entanglements or injuries are my responsibility to deal with. So when a couple of the museum staff ventured upon an elephant seal pup that had managed to get stuck under a collapsed bank, I was radioed. I got sent out with a shovel and two other members of the team to try and find and rescue this guy! He had a few scrapes and cuts but most disturbing was the smell. He had obviously been stuck there a few days, with nowhere to go to the toilet, so when we finally manoeuvred him out from beneath the rocks, the release of smell was quite spectacular.

An elephant seal we managed to free from the collapsed bank at Penguin River
An elephant seal we managed to free from the collapsed bank at Penguin River

Continuing on the seal front, we have had a number of very rare visitors to Maivikien beaches this year. Within the Antarctic Fur Seal population, certain individuals have a recessive gene trait which results in a change in their fur colour. Studies at Bird Island suggest that approximately 1 in 800 seals are ‘blondies’. Currently, we have 2 adult males (which in the water you can almost mistake for a polar bear if you squint and are wearing very bad glasses), one adult female and a pup. I am not sure what other recessive genes the pup was born with, but the last time I saw it, it had taken over a Giant Petrel nest and started incubating the egg!

Rare pale morph adult male fur seal taking a dip
Rare pale morph adult male fur seal taking a dip

Blondie, Antarctic fur seal sitting on a giant petrel egg
Pretty cute…. A Blondie, Antarctic fur seal sitting on a giant petrel egg

The Gentoo Penguins are having a poor year at the moment. Numbers at egg census, which was completed a few weeks back, were down from last year. And further to this, their new nesting site is located adjacent to a pair of Brown Skuas, which, with incredible intelligence and teamwork has resulted in a worryingly large egg graveyard. But it’s not all been bad news… on the 3rd we discovered a number of Gentoos with small chicks and a further check on the 10th showed these guys to have grown at an incredible rate. These guys will eventually form creches at about a month old and will finally become independent of their parents after 3 months.

Brown skua patrolling the Gentoo penguin colony
Brown skua patrolling the Gentoo penguin colony in the snow

Young Gentoo Penguin begging for food
Young Gentoo Penguin begging for food

With spring continuing here, the breeding season for most of our native inhabitants is also in full swing. Large numbers of pintail ducklings are filling the tussock grass King Penguins are displaying, Brown Skuas are on eggs, South Georgian Pipits are collecting food for chicks, and the Antarctic Terns are starting to fledge. So much wildlife to take in and so many pictures to take!

Hopefully the first of many Antarctic Tern fledglings at King Edward Point
Hopefully the first of many Antarctic Tern fledglings at King Edward Point