Giant Birds!

This entry is part 42 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings
Wandering Albatross chick stretching its wings

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.

Sitting tight
Sitting tight
Working the vocal cords
Working the vocal cords

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.

Bucket list complete!
Bucket list complete! – me for size comparison

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!

At this stage of the development adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit
At this stage of the development, adults are both out foraging so we were very lucky to see this adult paying the island a brief visit
Begging chick
Begging chick
Bracing from the snow
Bracing from the snow

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.

Prion at sunrise
Prion at sunrise

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.

Albatross on the snow
Albatross on the snow
Huge wingspan
Huge wingspan
Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings
Another chick
Another chick

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.

Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff
Light Mantled Albatross sitting tight on a cliff
Gentoo colony
Gentoo colony
Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach
Male Fur Seal on the Prion Island beach
Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel
Our big red taxi behind a nesting Giant Petrel

 

Gentoos are back!

This entry is part 39 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

What a few days!!!

Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return
Sunset at Maiviken watching the Gentoos return

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!

The beginning.... lep 1
The beginning …. lep 1
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base
Sleepy leopard seal in front of base

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!

It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
It was initially to dark for good record shots but it soon brightened up
Lep two at Grytviken
Lep two in front of South Georgia Museum and Mount Hodges at Grytviken

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.

Pharos alongside at King Edward Point
Pharos alongside at King Edward Point

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!

King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews
King Penguin fresh from the sea at St Andrews

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.

Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel
Yellow Darvic on the leg of a Giant Petrel

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.

Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters battling for hareems
Soon the beaches will be covered in these monsters, battling for harems
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Trying to get some kip before the fighting begins
Elephant seal eating the jetboat
Elephant seal eating the jetboat!

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.

View through a wave
View through a wave

As we approached, all that was clear was that something was being thrown around in the water by a dark shadow.

img_6965
Swallowing some flesh
img_6935
A mouthful of king penguin

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.

The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin
The leopard seal shook the meat from the penguin

 

Leopard seal and a king penguin
Leopard seal and a king penguin
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps
Young Kelp gull bravely stealing some scraps with the leopard seal lurking below

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.

Hound Bay Leopard Seal
Hound Bay Leopard Seal

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.

Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay
Paget Mountain towering above Hound Bay

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!

Waves and waves of upto 50 returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach
Waves and waves of up to 50 Gentoos returned until over 1000 had passed us on the beach

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.

Gentoos piling onto the beach
Gentoos piling onto the beach

Whilst the majority of the gentoos opted for the large open section of Tortula Beach, not all picked the same route

Making their way through the rocky shore
Making their way through the rocky shore
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on
Not all pick the easiest beaches to land on

With last year being a spectacular breeding failure for the Gentoos, we are hoping for a more fruitful season this year.

Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore
Gentoo penguins making their way back to shore

Wandering Albatross

This entry is part 33 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

My latest South Georgian adventure involved a cruise up the coast on board our Fisheries Patrol Vessel to the Bay of Isles. More specifically to Prion Island, in order to see its feathery inhabitants.

Wanderer chick and my big red taxi
Wanderer chick and my big red taxi

Prion Island is home to a small population of the world’s largest seabird, the Wandering Albatross. With a spectacular wingspan of 3.7 metres, a large adult wanderer is roughly the same length as a small car.

Stretching its wings
Stretching its wings

Approximately 30 wanderers return to Prion Island every year in December.  They lay a single egg each which will eventually hatch and be cared for by both parents over the year, before hopefully fledging.  Because of the large investment needed to fledge a wandering albatross chick, parents breed monogamously, every two years. This means that the breeding population of the island is roughly 60 pairs.

Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island
Stunning wandering albatross chick on prion island

My job, this visit, was simply to check up on the downy chicks as well as record a number of parameters, such as snow cover and fur seal disturbance, which may effect the success of these giants.

Wandering Albatross Family Portrait
Wandering Albatross Family Portrait

By the time chicks are this developed, both parents can leave the chick in order to forage so I was incredibly fortunate to see a number of adult birds on the colony..

Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows
Pair of monogamous adults renewing their vows

Albatross species forage at sea and are often caught accidentally by long lining fishermen around the world. South Georgia has one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, with vessels forced to use particular preventative practices that reduce the risk of bycatch of seabirds (seabird bycatch was 0 in 2015). However, as a result of their spectacular size and effortless flying abilities, Wandering Albatross forage for thousands of miles, meaning birds breeding on the islands will be affected by less well managed fisheries across the Southern Ocean. Sadly, as a result of this and also consuming plastic waste, Wandering Albatross populations are falling and they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

Chick begging for food
Chick begging for food
Still begging
Still begging!

Once chicks fledge at the end of the year, they will roam the southern oceans in search of cephalopods (squid), crustacean (krill) and small fish until they are old enough to breed, covering up to 120,000 km in a year.

Dinner time for the chick
Dinner time for the chick

The island is also home to breeding Giant Petrels and Gentoo penguins. With this year’s Giant Petrel fledglings still covering the island, next year’s breeders had already arrived and were already courting and building nests.

Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Pair of courting Giant Petrels
Giant petrel running in front of the happy couple
Giant petrel getting in the way of my Wandering Albatross picture

Gentoo penguins tend to return to their colonies every evening to roost rather than remaining at sea. As we awaited a pick up on the beach, I was able to put my GoPro in the water and get a glimpse of them in their more natural habitat.

Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins

Before rats were successfully eradicated from South Georgia, islands provided the only safe haven for South Georgian Pipits. These small areas of refuge allowed populations to survive allowing recolonisation of the mainland, post rats

South Georgia Pipit in the snow
South Georgia Pipit 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.