St Andrews – Mark 2

This entry is part 40 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Which chick is mine?
Which chick is mine?

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.

King Penguins of St Andrews
King Penguins of St Andrews

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!

Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony
Chicks well and truly outnumbering adults in the colony

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.

King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool
King Penguins gracefully making their way across a tidal pool

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.

Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals
Lower beach, now dominated by elephant seals
One of South Georgias latest residents taking advantage of the melted lakes
One of South Georgia’s latest residents taking advantage of the melted pools

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.

Marginally better entrance
A marginally better water entrance.

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.

Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.
Three of the Eight leopard seals present in the water.

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 …

Leopard seal with kill
Leopard seal with kill

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.

Full leopard seal on the rocks
Full leopard seal on the rocks

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.

Poor weather approaching
Poor weather approaching

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.

King Penguin chicks in the snow
King Penguin chicks in the snow

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.

More kings penguins bracing against the snow
More King Penguins bracing against the snow

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.

Begging chick
Begging chick
Chick thinking about its next meal
Chick thinking about its 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.

Making their way up the beach in the snow
Making their way up the beach in the snow
Small congregation on day 1
Small congregation on day two
Kings marching along the beach
Kings marching along the beach
Larger congregation on day 3
Larger congregation on day three

 

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.

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Swallowing some flesh
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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

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