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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just a quick blog to say that the wildlife is slowly but surely returning to the South Georgian shores. The first few male Elephant Seals are making themselves back at home on the beaches, awaiting the return of the females. Hopefully, we should have the first females very soon, followed by the first pups and that should kick off the big fights between males for harems!
Along with the Elephant Seals have come increased numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals. Although breeding won’t start for these guys for a few months, it’s great to see them again and see them looking so healthy.
Antarctic Terns are increasing every day with a roost beside base reaching numbers of 150+ in the last few days. Birds can constantly be heard courting and seen displaying.
Our wintering residents are still here and I imagine will stick around in order to take advantage of the increased abundance of food! A peak of six leopard seals in a day vied for highlight of the month.
It’s not long now before the Gentoos will stop roosting close to the beaches and push on up to prospect their breeding colony for a year. With such a poor season observed last year, here’s hoping for better luck this time.
Giant Petrels are also increasing in numbers with the first Northern Giant Petrel observed on a nest already. Other seabirds are also increasing in the bay with more and more cape petrels close to base and also the first returning white chins. Hopefully, we should be seeing our first skuas in the next few days.
Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.
It’s great to see these southern giants back around base, dwarfing the comparatively tiny fur seals on the beaches. They use the proboscis on their noses to project their calls, meaning on a still night, you are able to hear their roars from miles away.
Despite all this incredible fauna, probably the most exciting event in the last few weeks has been the return of bird song to the islands with South Georgia Pipits making themselves heard throughout the coastal areas.
South Georgia has been described by many visiting explorers over the years as the island of ice. It is clear to see why when you look at a map and see just how much of the island is made up of glaciers.
In the last few weeks I have been out on the boats a few times, not only to resupply the glacial ice on base to make the perfect G&T, but also for boat training and in order to get readings of how far the glaciers have receded.
When you hear figures of how quickly these majestic landmarks are receding, it’s easy to breeze over the figures and not fully comprehend the scale of withdrawal. Well to give you an idea, since I arrived in South Georgia nine months ago, the spectacular Neumayer glacier has receded by over a mile. It wasn’t until I looked at the navigation screen (still hundreds of metres from the face) and saw that I was apparently navigating several miles inland that the severity of this change struck me.
All along the face, it was clear to see more fragilities and cracks appearing and the moraine was full of titanic slabs of glacial debris that dwarfed both the boats.
It has been joked by geologists that this withdrawal of a glacier that runs the entire width of the island could result in the formation of North and South South Georgia islands. Realistically, there is most probably land lying beneath the glacier but it’s not inconceivable that these glaciers could be gone in the not too distant future.
A day later and we were back out on the boats, this time in Cumberland East to drop the boss off on his holidays. This gave us a great excuse to check out the Nordenskjold glacier, named after the expedition that identified Grytviken as a suitable location for South Georgia’s first whaling station in 1902.
There must be good quantities of small prey items in this area of the bay as large numbers of fur seals were lingering in the bay, not to mention South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns (see below).
It would be nice to think that all this will be preserved for future generations.
As you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.
Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.
As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.
As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.
South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.
The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.
Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.
Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.
Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!
As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another of Grytviken’s attractions is the post office!…
Mount Hodges is 602m and towers behind Grytviken and offers incredible views above the whaling station across the entire Thatcher Peninsula.
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.
Just a quick blog to say thank you to everyone who sponsored me to run the South Georgia Mountain Half Marathon for The World Wildlife Foundation. We set off a few days early because of a break in the bad weather, so if you haven’t donated yet, it’s still not too late to do so! (please click here).
All your donations and kind words definitely helped me break through the pain barrier and complete the course in a time of 2 hours 6 mins and 42 seconds. If you need convincing, then hopefully these amazing images, taken by Matthew Phillips, of the course and the run, will persuade you that it wasn’t just a walk in the park for me!
As you can see, the course is anything but simple. Whilst scrambling up Brown Mountain on my hands and knees, I cursed every single one of you who donated or wished me luck, because you made it impossible for me to quit! Although my knees and muscles may not agree yet, I’m delighted that I persisted and that I’ve been able to make this contribution to such a great cause.
There are a few broken athletes walking around base today but it was worth it. The sauna and and the cold South Georgian Seas (1’C) – Nature’s own Nurofen – definitely helped numb the pain temporarily!
The race itself passed without incident or injury, thankfully. However, I did get lost at one point and was aggrieved to reach the finish line and find out that I’d run 0.8 km further than the rest of the field!
I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.
Before I even got close to the rookery, I spent a few hours down on the beach watching the conveyer belt of little penguins to-ing and fro-ing up the rocks.
Regular visitors to this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these feisty penguins!
The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.
Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends
The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!
Some of the macaroni penguins intentionally made for the sea. I observed various levels of ocean entrances, but considering the sea state, I was impressed that any of them made the plunge at all.
As I mentioned, penguins were both coming and going. Wave after wave was full of surfing penguins trying their hardest to dismount the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being smashed into the rocks below.
Once landed, it’s a matter of scrambling to your feet and away from the breaking waves, before starting the long scramble back up to the colony.
Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.
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.