Another Science Trip

This entry is part 30 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Hound Bay King Penguin colony
Hound Bay King Penguin colony

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….

King Penguin close up
King Penguin close up

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.

King Penguin chick getting some food
King Penguin chick getting some food

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.

King Penguin chick begging
King Penguin chick begging
King Penguins at sunrise
King Penguins at sunrise

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!

More King Penguins
More King Penguins

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.

Nordenskjold glacier on the way back from Hound Bay
Nordenskjold glacier on the way back from Hound Bay

More spectacular South Georgian scenery on the Barff Peninsula …

View down to Sorling
View down to Sorling

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.

Checking wax tags for signs of rats. Monitoring is vital for ensuring the eradication continues to be a success
Checking wax tags for signs of rats. Monitoring is vital for ensuring the eradication continues to be a success

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 Petrel fledgling at harpon
Giant Petrel fledgling at Harpon

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!

Giant Petrel in front of the Lyell Glacier
Giant Petrel in front of the Lyell Glacier

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!

Rare white morph southern giant petrel chick on the Greene
Rare white morph southern giant petrel chick on the Greene Peninsula

South Georgian Success!

This entry is part 14 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

South Georgia only has one songbird, the South Georgian Pipit, so its song should be heard throughout the entire island such is the lack of competition. Unfortunately this is not the case. Ever since humans arrived on the islands back in 1775 with their rat-infested boats, it is likely that these vermin have been present. Rats can have devastating affects on whole ecosystems, especially in those species that nest on or beneath the ground.

South Georgian Pipit in the snow at tortula
South Georgian Pipit, our only song bird, making his way across a beach in the snow!

South Georgia was no exception to this dictum, with rats preying on both chicks and eggs. Huge areas of potentially viable nesting habitat were left barren of birds with the South Georgian Pipit completely extinct from entire peninsulas. In 2011, the South Georgia Heritage Trust invested huge sums of money into the largest rat eradication project in the world in order to return this incredible island to its former pristine self. Because of the nature of the island and the conditions, the challenge was huge. Some parts of the island are completely inaccessible except by helicopter and boat, and its not infrequent to experience 80-100 knot winds.

Seal Colonies often are good sources for flies so make good foraging
Seal Colonies are often good sources for flies and thus make good foraging

However, there was one factor working in the favor of the team, in that the glaciers split the island into smaller sections, providing unpassable terrain for the rats. This meant that the project could target specific peninsulas in sequence, making the project slightly more manageable, although when I say “manageable”, it should be noted that each individual section to be baited was larger than any other project of this kind to date!

The glaciers themselves provided the team with another challenge. Since they are receding at incredible rates, often greater than 1m a day, these subsections would soon no longer be divided, allowing the rats to disperse freely across the island, meaning the team was up against the clock!

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

 

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 which fell would have dwarfed my house!

Although the eradication team went through two helicopters, both torn apart by the wind, it seems that the project has been a success. Throughout the season, I have been lucky enough to hear the dulcet tones of  South Georgian Pipit songs across my Maiviken Study site. It was originally thought that these could just be migrant birds passing through but the songs continued and the sightings increased until it wasn’t long before I saw the adults flying with food in their bills, suggesting that chicks were present.

Pipit in flight with food at burnet
Pipit in flight with food at burnet

 

South Georgia pipit in flight with food
South Georgia pipit in flight with food

My surmise was confirmed when a week later, I eventually heard the rasping calls of the begging pipit chicks. It’s amazing the distance at which these can be heard and how easy they make it to locate a nest. Armed with my camera, I took quick photo evidence before leaving the nest alone.

South Georgia Pipit chicks
South Georgia Pipit chicks – not the most attractive things you’ll ever see!

All bird species nesting here on the South Georgian mainland will have been negatively effected in some way by the rats and it will be interesting to see the rates at which they recover. Some of these species, such as diving petrels and storm petrels nest in burrows high up in the mountains and so recovery is hard to measure. However, both pipits and pintails nest within the tussock grass that surrounds most of our seal colonies and it is easy to see how well these guys are doing already, just one season after the eradication finished.

I have since discovered another four breeding pairs of South Georgian Pipits at the Maiviken beaches, all of which now have successful fledglings. And I can’t walk more than 20m in the tussock without seeing South Georgia Pintail ducklings running through the undergrowth!

Another species to have benefited - South Georgian Pintail duckling
Another species to have benefited – a very obliging South Georgian Pintail duckling

The work is never done. Now that the invasive fauna have been wiped out work has began on the invasive flora.

Pair of South Georgia Pintails foraging amongst invasive Dandelions - the next mission for the trust
Pair of South Georgia Pintails foraging amongst invasive Dandelions – the next mission for the trust

To find out more about the project follow this link to the South Georgian Heritage Trust website