Summer On Bird Island

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
Light-Mantled Albatross over the South Georgia coastline
Young fur seal pups are inquisitive. The heaviest pup weighed this season was a whopping 19.2kg.
Black-Browed Albatross over the ocean
Gentoo penguin chick looking lighter than normal. Nearly ready to head out to sea
Grey-headed and black-browed albatross chicks look almost identical and have a habit of nesting in stunning locations
When the sun breaks through the cloud on Bird Island the colours are often stunning
Gentoo penguin chicks chasing one of their parents for their next meal. The chick that keeps up with the adult for the longest will get fed
Macaroni penguin looking majestic in front of a very blue Scotia Sea
This is Sleven. Upon my arrival on Bird Island I was told that its chances of fledging were very low. It took a while, but 2 months after the rest of the wandering albatross fledged it finally headed out to sea!
Macaroni Soup
Even against the towering mountains of South Georgia a wandering albatross’s 3.5m wingspan is impressive
A blonde fur seal pup coming to check out the camera
Bird island has had a conveyer- belt of ice drifting pass this season. I’m told these bergs have made it further North than the Falklands
Big and brave fur seal
Wandering albatross making a GIANT petrel look tiny
South Georgia Shag against an iceberg
Brown skuas are stunning and annoyingly intelligent. There are very few animals nesting on South Georgia they can’t outsmart in order to get a meal
Wandering albatross at sunset
Another spectacular piece of ice
Bird Island sits between South Georgia and the Willis Islands (pictured here)
As the ice grounds itself it gets battered by the waves and quickly breaks up
Fat Macaroni Penguin chick looking healthy in front of South Georgia’s stunning coastline
Not sure if the Light-Mantled chicks are more or less impressive than the adults
Macaroni Penguins making the daily commute back to shore after a day at sea
A lighter morph fur seal who loves the camera
Black-browed albatross are one of the smaller albatross with a wingspan of just over 2m. Still pretty impressive
The noise that is associated with this display is unforgettable!

A face that can’t be hated

Introduction to Bird Island

As I have mentioned before (and you can probably guess from the name) there are a few birds calling this place home!

There may not be a huge amount of diversity here but the species and sheer numbers of birds present are spectacular.

We don’t get many sunsets here but when we do …!

The island is quite large (4km long) but there isn’t a huge number of birds obvious on the ground; that’s because most prefer to nest under it, thanks to the high density of predatory birds above.

Giant Petrels at battle over food

To live and work on this island has been my dream for years, but the real pulling factor for coming back to South Georgia wasn’t, believe it or not, the penguins …

… as great as penguins are!

Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.

A plateau of wandering albatross

Sadly, I won’t be here for the entire year, which means I won’t get to see the entire breeding cycle of the Wandering Albatross, since they can take 13 months from laying to fledging.

These majestic birds can take 13 months from laying to fledging …

So, unlike most species which were here at the beginning of the breeding season when we arrived, the Wandering Albatross were finishing up. The fledglings were beginning to leave the island, having spent the entire winter on the nest alone, only being visited by their parents to be fed before they disappear back on another several thousand km foraging trip.

When the parents come back, the chicks can be pretty persistent in their begging

Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.

Still fluffy!

When they are approaching the right age, they actually weigh more than their parents and just before fledging, they regurgitate all the hard parts of there diet (squid beaks, fish bones and sometimes plastic) and head for sea.

First flights aren’t always graceful!
But if at first you don’t succeed …

Wandering albatross breed every other year so, despite the fact that last year’s birds were fledging, the new birds were also beginning to arrive, ready for the present breeding season.

Not a bad place to set up for the year

Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “furries”).

Full of furries

Considering that a hundred years ago, these animals were hunted to economical extinction on the island, it’s mind-blowing to consider their numbers are now in the region of 4 million.

About 1 in 800 fur seals are born blonde and given the imaginative nickname of “blondies”
And where there are blonde adults …

There aren’t many success stories like this that I can think of but seemingly Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales are on a similar path, based on the quantity of animals being seen from shore this year.

I may or may have not taken this in Antarctica last February

Unfortunately, food was less plentiful this winter and the seals are paying for it. From looking at the diets of the seals throughout the year, we can see how well they are eating and what prey items are available. After poor winters, breeding numbers are often low.

Apparently fur seals like the taste of rock! Who knew?

However, even in poor seasons, the beaches are absolutely covered in fur seals. From looking at the diets of those that have bred this year, we can see that the krill have returned and as a result, the pups are fat and doing well.

Grumpy but content

Nevertheless, I couldn’t write a blog from South Georgia without a penguin picture or two. One of the many great things about Bird Island is how accessible the wildlife is and with a Gentoo Penguin colony just a few hundred metres from base, it’s been easy to keep tabs on how they are doing.

Just hatching

A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.

Gentoo chick already begging
Siblings waiting to be fed

A little further away (but also a little more spectacular) is Big Mac, home to 80,000 Macaroni penguins. These are obligate reducers, meaning they lay two eggs but only one will hatch – and that’s what they are starting to do!

Fat macaronis making their way back to the chicks

In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.

Black-browed albatross taking off
Grey headed albatross are truly stunning specimens
Northern Giant Petrel Chicks are also well on their way, having started earlier than most breeders.

That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed

British Antarctic Survey Mark II

Southern Rockhopper Penguins

Its been a long while since I wrote a blog but now that I am back settled in colder climes I think it’s about time that I update this website.

I am back in my favourite part of the world living on a small island 500m North West of South Georgia. It’s aptly named Bird Island since its home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds and penguins. So dense is the wildlife here that there is either a seabird or seal every 1.5m2. 

Big Mac is the largest colony on the island and is used by 40,000 pairs of Macaroni penguins 

As with all travel in the Southern Ocean, ‘Plan A’ very rarely comes to fruition. I set off from home via RAF flight to the Falklands where I had a couple days to explore the rich wildlife the islands have to offer. Having been to the Falklands several times now I am still amazed by what’s on show here. With it being located north of the subantarctic convergence the species found here are slightly different and there were great opportunities to see Southern Sea Lions, Rockhopper Penguins and Imperial Cormorants.

The Falklands will literally blow you away with wind and rain almost as predictable as beautiful wildlife!

Thousands of Rockhopper Penguins breed along the cliff tops of the Falklands
Two headed Cormorant

Bull Seal Lions are formidable animals weighing 350kg

I then headed south on board the Naval patrol ship, HMS Clyde. My next destination was Bird Island. 3 days sailing away. As we made our way South on the unusually flat calm seas we were treated to views of fin whales, right whale dolphins, Peale’s dolphins and Humpback whales as well as lots of seabirds. 

Humpback whale alongside the ship close to shore
First of many Wandering Albatross over a flat sea
Giant Petrel over a less flat sea

As I woke up on the 3rdmorning, just north of Shag Rocks, ready for my 5am ice watch on the bridge, we were greeted by a 2 by 3 mile iceberg which had a couple of smaller bergs which had broken off. Fortulately the captain was up on the bridge and suggested we position the ship so that when the sun rises it comes up directly behind the ice berg. And this was carried out to perfection!

HMS Clyde making her way to the Iceberg
Sunrising behind the iceberg
Decent sized chunk of ice!

Unfortunately the next step of the plan worked out less perfectly as we approached Bird Island which is very exposed to the prevailing winds and swell. The decision was made to not even attempt landing meaning we would reposition to my old home at King Edward Point and wait patiently for a different lift. 

Sunsetting over my first views of South Georgia this season
Heading towards Cumberland Bay down a snowy coastline
It amazing to see how many whales there are around South Georgia this year. These are only the second Humpbacks I have ever seen inside Cumberland Bay.
Grey Headed Albatross over the South Georgia mountains
The Nordenskjold glacier still looks as spectacular as ever
Back to my old home, King Edward Point! Temporarily!

There are definitely worst places to be stationed on standby. Read my next blog here

Gold Harbour

As much as it kills me to have left my work with the British Antarctic Survey, the new job has some pretty amazing perks. Working at King Edward Point allowed me to see a small part of South Georgia over a long period of time working immersed within incredible wildlife. However, life on board National Geographic Explorer has 5 star food every night, a masseuse and most importantly, access to much much more of the island than we were able to visit from base.

Gold Harbour home to Bertrab Glacier and a few penguins

One of my favourite new landings to visit this year is Gold Harbour. Not the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia but still spectacular.

Kings making their way to sea

One of the many things that make this site stunning is the Bertrab Glacier, which hangs over the colony.

King standing tall in front of the Bertrab Glacier

The sunrises at gold are ridiculous as are the frequent rainbows

More Kings

During spring the beaches are covered by harems of Elephant seals which push the colony back into the tussock.

Elephant seals in the morning sun

Young beachmaster checking out the competition – the weather can change within a second from snow to sun to rain.

Calm before the storm

The breeding season is a difficult time for these giants. Beachmasters will spend months on end starving on land, battling to defend their harems from competitors. During this time, the battles can be brutal and so moments of rest and recovery must be taken at every opportunity.

Battle of the giants

Sleeping beauty

Beach littered with elephant seals and penguins trying to navigate the maze

Not all the fights end in blood and gore; youngsters are always practising because they know that at some point it will be their turn to fight for real.

Not quite as dramatic when the youngsters fight

But seemingly just as exhausting

As the elephant seals head out to sea for a much needed foraging trip the beach opens up, allowing other wildlife some space to thrive.

Antarctic Fur Seals can be found on just about every South Georgia beach and Gold Harbour is no exception

Gentoo penguin trying to blend in with the crowd

Wherever there are penguins and seal colonies, predators and scavengers are never too far away

Brown skua looking for a space to land in the colony

Skua in the morning light

The beaches can be quite exposed and landings aren’t always easy for our Zodiac boats or the penguins

Although not in the same abundance, elephant seals can still be found here late in the season since they return to the South Georgia coast in order to moult. This process takes roughly a month. Several animals will lie in the same location for most of this process and the combination of their weight and excrement kills everything beneath them, leaving foul smelling wallows throughout the coastline.

If only you could smell them!

If the wildlife doesn’t quite do it for you, then you can keep your eyes above the seals and penguins and it still ain’t half bad.

Sunrise on the Bertrab glacier

Despite the 4 a.m. mornings there is very little that can spoil an experience like this. However, we did find one thing that did just this on our final landing of the season. A young Antarctic Fur Seal with fishing material wrapped around its neck.

Despite South Georgia’s isolated location, there is no escape from marine pollution. Ghost fishing and marine waste are a real problem here. During my time on South Georgia we freed, any number of animals entangled within fishing or packaging waste. And on a landing at King Haakon Bay, we even managed to retrieve a washed-up fridge from the beach, as well as numerous bottles and bags.

Young fur seal with fishing material around its neck

If you think about how little activity and fishing there is in sub antarctic waters in comparison to other areas further north then the impacts and effects this will be having is hard to fathom. Over 100,000 marine animals are harmed through pollution such as this every year.

Not to end on a negative note, here are a few time lapses from a day at Gold Harbour

Salisbury Plain

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.

Not a bad sight to wake up to. First light uncovered a snow-coated Salisbury Plain. At dawn, King Penguins already spanned from the shore all the way up the hillside. As the day progressed waves of adults joined the colony from the Southern Ocean.

View of the ship from the landing

Thousands of King Penguins covering Salisbury Plain

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. 

All four seasons were experienced throughout the landing with brief spells of snow followed by beautiful sunshine.

Warming up after the snow

Early travellers thought that these woolly penguins AKA Oakum Boys, were a completely different species than the adults

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.

Adult leading its chick through the snow in search of shelter

The snow got worse before it got better

Chicks were left covered in snow when the sun came out again

Covered in snow

Bracing from the snow

Sun shining on the colony within a few minutes of a blizzard

The cold was obviously too much for this penguin who couldn’t stop sneezing! 

Creching for shelter

Chicks without parents huddled together in order keep warm

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.

The majority of the chicks on the colony to have made it this far were looking in good condition and will soon be melting into their juvenile coat

Fat and ready to moult

Basking in the brief moment of sunshine

As the snow came down again and the feeling in my hands finally disappeared completely, we headed back to the ship

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! 

View of the colony from the warmth of the ship

Albatross over the ocean as we navigated out of the Bay Of Isles around the stunning South Georgia coastline

The island is home to millions of birds including ten of thousands of Black Browed Albatross which thrive in these windy conditions.

Black Browed Albatross soaring close to the ocean in a localised patch of calm

Carnage!

This entry is part 1 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

WARNING!

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.

PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING

THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.

Giant Petrels scavenging
Giant Petrels scavenging on an Elephant Seal

Although not the prettiest birds to grace the planet, if you ever get the chance to see giant petrels in the wild, they will command your respect like few others. There is nothing quite like watching the coming together of hundreds of these majestic giants at a recently deceased corpse.

Covered in blood!

With piranha-like efficiency, giant petrels can tear hundreds of kilograms of flesh from an elephant seal skeleton in hours, with powerful tube-nosed bills strong enough to crack open a seal skull. Plunging deep into the carcass, the heads and necks of these usually exquisitely preened birds quickly become coated with bright red blood and gore.

Fighting for a place at the dinner table

Equally as striking is the intraspecific competition for the optimal place at the carcass. The birds posture with wings spread and tails fanned, moving their heads from side to side whilst emitting their best war songs – unforgettable primitive guttural cries – to deter challengers.

Giant Petrel Displaying

Tail Fanned in display

If the deterrent is unsuccessful, the birds clash chest to chest, locking bills and slapping wings until one challenger concedes. It’s a spectacular display of carnage from this ultimate scavenger.

Low Blow

Fighting besides the BBQ

Because the males are larger than the females, gatherings such as this are usually between males whilst females tend to forage at sea where competition is less harsh.

Angry prehistoric looking birds

Almost Velocoraptor like

They do it on the water to!

Brutal birds!

South Georgia for Kids!!!!

This entry is part 44 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.

Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’

As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.

I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists

 

Final Farewell!

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

Farewell South Georgia

Absolutely devastated to leave South Georgia after an incredible and life changing year. If anyone gets the chance to visit I would 150% recommend it! It has everything, landscape, wildlife, glaciers and very occasionally the sun also.

Wintering team plus postie!

It was an absolute pleasure spending the year with this team. One final BBQ in the snow as well as a final champagne toast and it was time to set sail on board the Shackleton.

Last views of Mount Duse for a while

One last picture of Grytviken and KEP

The Nordenskjold in the cloud

As to be expected the scenery on the way out was still magnificent and a few species of wildlife made the effort to come and see us off. 

Giant Petrel in front of SG coastline

Our ‘horse and carriage’

On our way North we passed several, huge icebergs which were obviously floating north from the continent

More Icebergs

Different view of the same Icebergs

Once within flying range of the Falklands a Hurricane made a flyby whilst carrying out a training exercise allowing great views for photographs

Flyby

Black Browed over flat seas

Sei Whale in the mist

 

Majestic Petrels and Glaciers

This entry is part 43 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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Technically I have left South Georgia but I am aware that I haven’t posted many blogs over the past few very busy weeks. So I will catch you up on my activities with a few blogs! The beginning of spring brings a series of fresh faced new British Antarctic Survey recruits eager to takeover from the old guard and ready to learn their new job.

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First on the long list of Kierans (the new me) new responsibilities was the Giant Petrels. Fortunate for us, these prehistoric birds have the a habit of nesting in areas of especially spectacular backdrops!
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Where ever there are Giant Petrels there are glaciers not too far away so its often harder to take pictures without glaciers in the background.

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There are colonies of Northern Petrels at Maiviken, Zenker Ridge and the Greene which nest approximately six weeks ahead of the Southerns which nest at Harpon and on the Greene.

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The latest trip was to check up on the Southerns which should have all laid by now. The Northerns, are starting to lay and will have chicks by now.

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Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.

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Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views
Not only Giant Petrels enjoy the views

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