Last month I made the short voyage up the coast of South Georgia to The Bay Of Isles and Prion Island to check up on the Wandering Albatross. These are the world’s largest seabird and they nest in numerous colonies around the South Georgia coastline.
A few years back when I saw my first ever albatross on The Galapagos, I put ‘seeing wanderers on the nest’ top of my bucket list.
I didn’t think for a second that I would be able to cross it off so soon. To be allowed to get up close and personal with such incredible birds was a privilege and a pleasure, but now I need something else to take top spot …. maybe diving with leopard seals!
The trip was a success but with the weather window being very narrow, there was much concern that we may not manage to get the work done. However, after a dawn wake-up, we managed to get landed.
Of the birds present, when I last monitored Prion back in April, 100% had successfully made it through the winter and all should hopefully be fledging before the end of the year.
The island is also home to a number of other species which have been able to thrive without the presence of rats. Two colonies of Gentoo penguins were all sitting on freshly laid eggs, Giant Petrels were courting and laying, Pipit chicks were calling from nests all over the island, Light Mantled Albatross were sitting on nest bowls and White Chin Petrels were singing from their underground burrows. Also, the first few male Fur Seals were taking up residence on the beach.
I’m often asked how frequently we get let off South Georgia for holidays and to see family. The answer is never!
For an entire year, I am restricted to the island.
But we do get much more freedom than other Antarctic bases and have a very generous travel limit. And we do get ‘holidays’ – kind of – where we get to visit neighbouring peninsulas for a short period with the help of boating support.
After a hard and very long summer, I took a few days off to visit St Andrews Bay. This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, since watching David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.
St Andrews Bay is a stretch of land lying at the foot of Mount Skittle on the Barff Peninsula. It stretches 3km from the mountain ranges at each end and 2km between the ocean and the glaciers located at either side.
More spectacular than the bay itself are its residents. St Andrews Bay is home to the largest breeding colony of King Penguins worldwide. Depending on who you talk to, the numbers of penguins residing here are between 400,000 and 600,000. And having visited the colony, I can now understand why there is such ambiguity.
Literally everywhere you look, there are King Penguins. Along the beaches, there is a constant conveyor belt of birds as adults either return to land to feed their chicks or head to sea to stock up on baby food.
We were incredibly lucky to visit the colony at this time of year. Not only was it covered with a thick layer of snow, but also, amongst the adults, were chicks of all different sizes. Surprisingly, there were even a small number of adults still incubating eggs.
I wish St Andrews was on our doorstep but unfortunately not. In fact, in order to reach this spectacular phenomenom, we had to walk 20km across knee deep mountainous terrain in snow shoes. Upon arrival at our St Andrews Bay hut, myself and Robbie, exhausted from walking, ingested a kilogram of chocolate in seconds, which some philanthropist had kindly left for us in the hut.
Was it worth all the effort and exhaustion …? Well, you decide for yourself. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, so the rest of this post is silent …
After covering a lot of distance in our first 24 hours, we decided to spend a day close to the hut within Coral Bay and the adjacent Sandebugten. Relaxing at South Georgia is almost impossible. There are so many opportunities and things to do here, you feel guilty doing nothing. I fought the urge to get up early, however, and managed to resist the wildlife until heading out at 07.30. First stop as per usual on the Barff were the Light Mantled Sooty Albatross again, since all the nesting attempts on my peninsula had failed before I even arrived.
I spent a long time sitting along the cliff top with a pair of displaying birds just metres away. The light was perfect and so I was able to get an image literally of a birds eye view of Coral Bay.
I could have spent the day sitting with these majestic animals. However, I wanted to get down and do some filming of the seals. I was doing exactly that soon enough, seated above a plunge pool, observing the Antarctic fur seal pups fighting and learning to swim. As these guys get older and bolder, their personalities seem to grow. It is impossible to spend time with the pups without smiling! Even if they are trying to chase you and maul your legs!
Having had my fill of the feisty Fur Seals, I weaved my way back amongst them and the putrid smelling Elephant Seals to the hut for a brew and a bacon butty!
In need of a stretch of legs, I decided to clamber along the coastline to the next bay, where I was surprised with incredible views of the Nordenskjold glacier.
Completely taken aback by the view, it took me some time to notice the yapping noise coming from my feet where a Giant Petrel chick was laying. I have spent loads of time working with these birds but not long enough properly watching them, so with time on my hands, I made myself comfortable. It wasn’t long before an adult bird was landing on the cliff and slowly making its way towards the chick.
Both birds started to display at each other, making me think that possibly the adult had got the wrong nest. The adult bird continued making its way towards the chick before making a noise I had never heard before, apparently aiding the regurgitation of the chick’s next meal. It wasn’t long before the chick was happily tucking in. This behaviour alone was an absolute privilege to observe. When you add the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Nordenskjold to the picture, it’s easy to see why South Georgia is on so many bucket lists!
A regular follower of this blog, who wishes to remain anonymous (don’t worry, mum – it’s our little secret) frequently complains that there isn’t enough factual information in some of my posts so here goes on one of favourite subjects …
Macaroni Penguins are the largest of the six crested penguin species. They breed between October and March. Adults arrive at the colonies and lay an A egg and a B egg. Colonies are usually on rocky slopes or in the tussocks. In the majority of nesting attempts, the A egg will fail when the B egg is laid and the B egg will then subsequently succeed. Once the female has laid, the male and female share the responsibility of incubation for the first 12 days. This is then followed by a 10 day shift by the female, followed by a 12 day shift by the male. Once the chick has hatched, the male will continue to guard and incubate the chick for 20-25 days whilst the female completes daily foraging trips. This is followed by a “crèche” period, where chicks gather in small groups for protection, allowing both adults to forage.
Adults tend to stay on the colony overnight and forage from early morning until late evening. After the chicks have fledged, all birds will leave the colony and head to sea, often migrating north, until the following breeding season.
Range – Mainly found breeding around the Antarctic Convergence – Sub Antarctic Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, south of other crested penguins Status– Declining – IUCN threatened species Productivity – 1 chick per nest Incubation Period – 35 days Fledging Period – 60-70 days
Total Population: 10,000,000 pairs Largest populations: South Georgia 5,000,000 pairs Diet: Mainly krill and small fish Fact: Macaroni penguins complete an ‘ecstatic display’ in pairs, which allows pairs to recognise each other
Weight: 4.5 – 6Kg Height: 24-28 inches Fact: Their crest develops with age
Sexual Dimorphism: females smaller Diving Depth: 50m – birds spend little or no time at the base of their dive meaning the dive is V shaped Diving Time: 2 minutes
Sexual Maturity : 5 in females – 6 in males
Fact: Males will return to the same nest annually to display – more often than not breeding with the same female in consecutive years (mainly monogamous) Predators: Leopard Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals and Killer Whales
I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.
Before I even got close to the rookery, I spent a few hours down on the beach watching the conveyer belt of little penguins to-ing and fro-ing up the rocks.
Regular visitors to this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these feisty penguins!
The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.
Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends
The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!
Some of the macaroni penguins intentionally made for the sea. I observed various levels of ocean entrances, but considering the sea state, I was impressed that any of them made the plunge at all.
As I mentioned, penguins were both coming and going. Wave after wave was full of surfing penguins trying their hardest to dismount the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being smashed into the rocks below.
Once landed, it’s a matter of scrambling to your feet and away from the breaking waves, before starting the long scramble back up to the colony.
Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.
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’
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.
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!
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.
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!