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

Grytviken Whaling Station

This entry is part 31 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Grytviken and King Edward Point from the top of Mount Hodges
Grytviken and King Edward Point from the top of Mount Hodges

As you all know, I live at King Edward Point, the headquarters of the British Antarctic Survey on South Georgia. It is also home to the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and within the bay, we also have a historic whaling station called Grytviken.

An old whaling ship on the South Georgian shores
An old whaling ship on the South Georgian shores

Grytviken was first established by Carl Larsen in 1904 and used as a station for the hunting of whales and elephant seals. Grytviken was home to 300 people at peak running but was thankfully closed down in 1966.

Ernest Shackleton Research Vessel with Grytviken and Mount Hodges behind
Ernest Shackleton Research Vessel with Grytviken and Mount Hodges behind

Now much of the station is rusting away but we have a building and museum team based here during the summer months, whose job it is to maintain the buildings and displays for visiting tourists.

South Georgia Museum run by SG Heritage Trust
South Georgia Museum run by SG Heritage Trust

Many tourists come to Grytviken, not only to see the old whaling station but also because of its relevance to Shackleton. When Shackleton and his men were famously trapped on their ship Endurance before escaping to Elephant Island, he and several members of his crew sailed for help and reached the shores of South Georgia. After they had traipsed across the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, they eventually reached Grytviken from where they were able to launch a rescue mission.

Shackletons Grave at the cemetery
Shackletons Grave at the cemetery where many tourists come to toast ‘the boss’
Back of Shackletons grave with Mount Duse in the background. 'I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life's set prize... Robert Browning
Back of Shackleton’s grave with Mount Duse in the background. The inscription reads, “I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize … Robert Browning”

Another of Grytviken’s attractions is the post office!…

South Georgia's postbox
South Georgia’s postbox

Mount Hodges is 602m and towers behind Grytviken and offers incredible views above the whaling station across the entire Thatcher Peninsula.

View of Mont Duse, King Edward Point and Cumberland Bay
View of Mont Duse, King Edward Point and Cumberland Bay
View of Maiviken and Harpon from Hodges
View of Maiviken and Harpon from Hodges
View of Maiviken from an old Argentinian bunker on the back of Hodges, built during the Falklands war.
View of Maiviken from an old Argentinian bunker on the back of Hodges, built during the Falklands war

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