This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
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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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.
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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CAUTION: “Nature red in tooth and claw” warning.
This post contains graphic pictures which some readers may find disturbing.
My recent trip to Antarctica had many incredible highlights. I was lucky enough to see a ridiculous amount of wildlife with many memorable encounters.
Leopard seals are number two in the Antarctic food chain, second only to killer whales. The majority of sightings are very relaxed with these seemingly lazy animals apparently spending most of their lives hauled out on ice flows, relaxing and sleeping.
These sightings are great because they give you an opportunity to see clearly the markings which make each individual distinctive and identifiable; they also allow you to see the size of the animal, which can often be difficult when they are in the water.
Female leopard seals can reach 5 metres in length. They are generalist predators and will feed on whatever is locally abundant, including krill, other species of seals and penguins. I visited Brown Bluff on the Antarctic continent twice within the space of 10 days. During my first visit, the few leopard seals we encountered had been feeding on krill, 10 days later the story was very different.
With Gentoo and Adelie penguin chicks both beginning to explore the shallow waters, local leopard seal observations were much higher as they were sighted patrolling ice floes and shallows for penguins.
From ashore, it was incredible to see these animals pursue penguins through the shallows at great speeds for their next meal. The amount of kills and hunts observed by all on board was staggering.
As we headed back to the ship in the Zodiac, we came across a hunting leopard seal and decided it would be rude not to see what happened next …
The attack, although spectacular and very interesting, was very depressing to watch as the leopard seal played with its prey for a considerable amount of time before finally opting to eat,
Leopard seals use the friction of throwing animals against the water to open up their prey and rip bite-sized chunks of meat off the penguin.
All for a bite of food
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Another week and more science trips!
This time, checking on the King Penguin colony at Hound Bay, assisting the government checking for presence of rats and Southern Giant Petrel Fledgling counts….
The King Penguins at Hound Bay have historically been the subject of many tracking projects. This is mainly due to its easy access and manageable colony size. It is difficult carrying out studies like this in larger colonies like St Andrews (600,000 king penguins) and Salisbury Plain (50,000) since finding the same penguins and retrieving the equipment can be incredibly difficult.
This season a total of 68 King Chicks were counted with a number of fledglings also present around the colony, suggesting continued success here. This information is really important as it means, hopefully, the tracking studies can continue.
Hound Bay is the most accessible of the successful King Colonies from King Edward Point. It is still a 16km round trip, meaning I had a great excuse for a night off base. This also meant I got to see Hound Bay at both sunset and sunrise!
Walking on South Georgia is rarely simple but when you are walking alongside incredible scenery like this it is easy to forget about the terrain. The Nordenskjold is 3km wide and worryingly, like all the southern hemisphere’s glaciers, it is receding at an alarming rate, meaning the generations after us won’t get to see such spectacular sights.
More spectacular South Georgian scenery on the Barff Peninsula …
On the way back from Hound, I helped the South Georgia Government checking wax tags. These are posts which have peanut butter flavoured wax blocks on them and which smell and taste great to rats – when a rat nibbles on them, it leaves tooth prints. We have thankfully, successfully eradicated rats on South Georgia but we have to be ever-vigilant for any signs of their return and it is vital to monitor for presence in order to ensure any accidental re-introductions can be dealt with swiftly.
It was then time to weigh all the fledgling southern giant petrel chicks before they headed to sea for the winter. Many of the birds were still showing downy feathers, meaning that they are now competing in a race against time, with much poorer, colder conditions already starting to batter the islands
Giant Petrels may not be the most beautiful birds but they are incredible. Seeing these prehistoric birds up close is an absolute privilege. Unfortunately, they don’t feel the same about us, and their bills and claws provide sufficient tools for making handling difficult and sometimes painful!
Out of the 120 Giant Petrels we monitored we had two white morph ‘spirit’ Giant Petrels. Its hard not to discriminate when they look so amazing!
I thought being in South Georgia on my birthday was enough of a present. When you are living in paradise, it’s hard to wish for anything more than ‘normal’, which is pretty damn spectacular. However my birthday week proved to be especially eventful. Not only was it the best week of weather we’d had since I arrived, but I also saw two of the ocean’s most deadly predators and got to handle South Georgia’s answer to dinosaurs!
With the weather so incredibly calm and settled, we’d have been stupid not to take advantage and get out and about. Our travel limits allow us to get to other peninsulas for a holiday. It is necessary that all of us who are qualified to drive the boats are familiar with all the waters in our travel limits. On one of these familiarisation trips to Cumberland Bay West, we managed to get all the way to the base of the Neumayer Glacier.
It is always absolutely incredible to see the glaciers up close. This was the first time I’d been so close to the Neumayer. As I have mentioned before, the Neumayer is receding at 400+ metres a year – I appreciate the fact that this is an astoundingly high figure, but until I had driven over miles of ocean, still marked as land on our map, where the glacier had stood just a few years previously, I did not comprehend exactly what this meant.
As we travelled up the moraine, there was evidence of the glacier’s former size for miles around. The mountain sides were scoured with marks where the ice had once flowed, ripping rock apart. Remains of once full lakes dammed by the cosmic glacier at the foot of vast valleys were now freely draining into the sea.
It was clear to see that the glacier had been very active throughout the morning with huge ice flows present right out of the mouth of the moraine.
Even more exciting for me, the bird geek, were the thousands of Antarctic Terns feeding at the face. Seeing the diminutive birds feeding alongside such a colossal natural masterpiece was really special. Their continual high-pitched screeching took me back to when I worked on the Farne Islands!
Glacial rivers pour beneath the ice, absorbing organic material that eventually flows into the ocean at the face of the glacier. The terns feed on the small fish and invertebrates that are nourished by this organic matter.
It wasn’t just terns feeding amongst the glacial debris….
Apart from seeing all of the incredible breeding species South Georgia has to offer, I arrived with huge hopes of seeing Leopard Seals. With the first sightings for King Edward Point normally coming in April, I wouldn’t normally be disappointed with not having seen any at this point of the year but with sightings already being relatively frequent from cruise ships and other team members, I was beginning to think they might be deliberately hiding from me! Another important part of the work here is contributing photos for the Leopard Seal photo library but until last week I was drawing a blank. However, whilst on our way out of the Neumayer moraine, I finally came across two of these magnificent killing machines relaxing on glacial debris.
The pair both measured 2.5m in length and even from the security of the boat, my heart rate was through the roof. What made the experience even better was that it happened on my birthday!
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It is always enjoyable to get hands-on experience with the wildlife in South Georgia but we try to keep this to a bare minimum in order to ensure our studies don’t affect the success of the animals. However, the growth and development studies involve weighing of both the Gentoo chicks and Antarctic Fur Seal pups; in addition, we also weigh and take biometrics from Giant Petrel chicks.
Last week was the turn of the Northern Giant Petrel chicks and the Antarctic Fur Seals. Fortunately, the seal-weighing was uneventful for all involved and everyone had a great day, despite the large size of the pups and their canines. The Giant Petrels, however, have left me with a number of incredibly deep scratches and a coat reeking of their vomit, which no amount of washing will clean. Having said this, to get up and close with such an incredible, huge, prehistoric looking bird was something I will remember for the rest of my life!
On a final note, we had a very strange visitor to base this week in the form of a Blue-Eyed Shag Chick. I have no idea how this downy bird made it to us because the closest breeding colony is miles away. He did, however, look very happy and content relaxing in front of base.
This week it was time to go and check my Southern Giant Petrel chicks. This involved an overnight trip to the Greene Peninsula and a quick hike to Harpon. I am sure you will be glad to know that both colonies seemed to be doing well. There are lots of healthy looking chicks around, many of which are so large they can now protect themselves – which means they have kicked both adults off the nest to forage!
Because there is only ever one adult on the nest, you don’t necessarily see both parents. So I was delighted to find two more white morph Southern Giant Petrels on the Greene, taking the total up to three.
Incidentally, did you know that the word petrel comes from Peter from the story of St Peter, who walked on the water, and it refers to their take-off strategy which involves running across the surface of the water.
After an evening of monitoring, we headed back to our accommodation (a tent for me) to rest up, have some food and take in the spectacular moon rise.
We awoke with big ambitions for the day and with the weather gods apparently smiling down on us, we set off along Morraine Fjord to the second Greene Giant Petrel colony.
This is a much smaller colony (only 20 birds), although seemingly just as successful, and in my opinion, the birds should pay extra for the view since it’s situated with the stunning backdrop of the Harker and Hamburg Glaciers!
With the work complete, we set off on a bid to circumnavigate the entire Greene Peninsula. Our first big climb was long and up horrible scree slopes but every time you gained height and turned around, you got progressively better views of the spectacular glaciers. The need to take almost the same picture time and time again as we climbed meant that the going was often slow but we eventually made it.
Once over the saddle and onto the east of the island, we lost the views of the Harker and Hamburg but it wasn’t long before we had the Nordenskjold glacier in our sights. The sheer size of this thing is mind-blowing. Flows of ice span as far as you can see from the surrounding hills down over the sea.
As we clambered down to its edges, its size and colours became more and more impressive and as the sun weaved through the clouds and reflected through the ice, shades of blue I didn’t even know existed started to appear! Then, to top the experience off, a pair of snow petrels circled overhead before heading up into the mountains. As clichéd as it may sound, “magical” is the best word I can think of to describe the experience.
Taking our time to absorb all of the landscape, we slowly made our way down past ice caves and rock slides to the glacier’s face. A selection of wildlife awaited in the sea for calving ice to disturb prey species and aid foraging. This included several more Snow Petrel although, as per usual, they sat just out of good photo range. I need to have a word with their agent!
The final third of the walk involved scrambling over pebble beaches away from the Nordenskjold. Beaches tend to have the highest congregations of wildlife on South Georgia, meaning there were lots of opportunities to practice taking the perfect South Georgia shot: wildlife, glaciers, sea and mountains all in the frame and no need to use Photoshop!
Sadly every beach you visit around South Georgia, you are constantly reminded of the devastation that man can cause. Coastlines are scattered with the remains of the whales and seals which were harvested until near extinction.
Not wanting to end the blog on a low note, the trip had one last surprise, well in fact five of them. These came in the form of very obliging chinstrap penguins resting at various points along the Greene coastline. As per usual with ‘cuddly’ penguins, fighting and scrapping was observed but sadly, despite their best efforts, no flying.
The work wasn’t completed there fortunately. The morning after my return from the Greene, myself and Lewis, the fisheries biologist here, set off for the Giant Petrel colony at Harpon. Last time we made the trip in deep snow and with company it took 4.5 hours, so we were ready for a long trek; but apparently we are both getting fitter because we were drinking tea in Harpon Hut 1 hour 50 mins later.
The Harpon colony is made up of 25 birds, which so far have a healthy productivity.
This blog has been a long time coming, many of the pictures you have probably already seen but it’s too good a trip not to write a blog about. As I have mentioned many times before, one of the perks of my job is that I get outdoors a lot and visit many peninsulas to carry out science.
Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Barff peninsula, where I was needed to carry out maintenance on an SM2 for an Oxford University project. An SM2 is a sound meter which can be programmed to pick up specific frequencies of sound. We have a number of these around the island which have been set up to record the songs of South Georgia Pipits. This should hopefully allow the rate of recovery of South Georgian Pipits, post rat eradication, to be monitored.
Fortunately, the SM2 is located 50 metres from a rookery of Macaroni Penguins. Last time this colony was counted, there were approximately 7000 of them, so the colony is a substantial size. Once we had finished with the SM2, we were able to head down to the shoreline and watch the Macaroni Penguins come in from their fishing trips. It is absolutely incredible to watch these guys porpoising through the water and surfing their way up the rocks.
Once they have surfed the white water ashore, you start to observe their aggression. They are very territorial and are definitely suffering from a bit of “little man’s syndrome”. Any excuse possible and they will be pecking, chasing and pushing each other.
Considering their small size, it is astonishing watching these guys making the small commute up to the colony. Once they have washed the salt off themselves, they ‘fly’ up the rocks, jumping over crevices and scrambling through the tussock.
Once up the hill, the Macaronis have to safely navigate their way through the colonies, avoiding the angry territorial swipes and pecks of their neighbours, to their nest. Once alongside, their mate couples perform an incredible display, simultaneously dancing and calling to each other!
It’s not all easy nature spotting though as the walk back to the boating pick-up point was a good 3 hours hiking over deep snow and high mountain passes. Visibility, unfortunately, wasn’t great as a result of low cloud. However, we were accompanied for much of the route by Antarctic Terns commuting back from fishing trips. I have these birds to thank for making me feel so at home from day one here. Hearing their courting calls and being mobbed from the sky took me right back to the Farne Islands and living within the Arctic Tern colony there. Even the acrid smell of seabird colonies gives me a slightly homely feel!