This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series 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.
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.
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 …
Nope. It was the chance of working with Antarctic Fur Seals again. Well, that, and living in a Wandering Albatross colony.
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.
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.
Not all birds lay on the same day obviously and thus it follows, just as obviously, that not all were the same age.
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.
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.
Whilst the wandering albatross can be found over the meadows higher up on the island, the beaches are covered by fur seals (or “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few weeks after arrival, the eggs were cracking and the gentoo siblings were emerging.
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!
In other news, molliemawks (grey-headed and black-browed albatross) and Giant Petrels have fat chicks.
That’ll have to do for this weeks photo fix… Hope you enjoyed
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED.
PLEASE DON’T CONTINUE READING
THIS POST IF YOU ARE AT ALL SQUEAMISH.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Sadly my time on South Georgia is coming to a close. The time has absolutely flown by and I have well and truly fallen in love with the island and its incredible wildlife. With the breeding season and my workload starting to increase, I managed to wangle one last non-scientific holiday and made the long hike over to St Andrews Bay to one of the most incredible wildlife congregations this planet has to offer.
Having had an uncharacteristically warm September, I booked the time off with high hopes of easy hiking and blue skies. Sadly this wasn’t the case but when you come to South Georgia you can’t complain. The walk over was easy, certainly, with mild conditions allowing us to make it over in four hours and get into the colonies for the afternoon. Luckily we took advantage of this and enjoyed the only clear skies we were going to get for the week!
It was amazing to see such a massive change in the dynamic of the Bay. Hungry chicks dominated the main breeding colonies, magnificently outnumbering the few providing parents. The few gaps in the colonies were covered in unfortunate chicks that sadly didn’t make it through the harsh South Georgia Summer. The rivers and lakes which had run through the colony on my last visit were now melted and flowing.
The outskirts of the Bay were completely covered with non-breeding, moulting King Penguins – staying well away from the noise of the main colony. Many adults had ventured more than a mile inland to stand on the cool of the glaciers. By far the most significant change came along the beach front. Where months previously I had taken pictures of thousands of King Penguins lining the shore a much larger South Georgia native had now taken up residence there. More than 5,000 Elephant Seals covered the beach, obstructing the poor penguins’ route up to the higher breeding ground.
After a tip-off from our Doctor and Base Commander, who had visited a few weeks previously, we left the main colony for a rocky peninsula to the north of the Bay. As we passed the streams of clumsy Kings crossing the tidal pools going the opposite way to us, we noticed a number of injured penguins, suggesting that the tip-off had been good.
As we stepped out onto the rocks and peered down into the deep, we were greeted by a number of inquisitive eyes checking us out. In total, there were eight leopard seals all waiting close to the rocks and kelp, looking to ambush any passing King Penguins.
Within seconds of arriving, we spotted thrashing offshore as a hungry leopard seal tore apart an unfortunate King Penguin. In total, across the few hours spent at the point, I saw seven successful kills including three simultaneously. Nature, red in tooth and claw …
And the reason so many penguins manage to escape is because the leopard seals love to play with their food, often catching it several times and letting it go before finally killing it.
At one point, I was amazed to see a number of young Fur Seals cleaning themselves in the waters within a couple of metres of two big Leopard Seals and assumed that, with such abundant harmless prey in the form of King Penguins, the Leopard Seals didn’t bother the Fur Seals. However, it turned out the Fur Seals simply hadn’t spotted the Leopard Seals yet since they were soon making the 2 metre leap from the sea to the relative safety of the rocks.
As the light faded and the visibility reduced,we headed back to our hut for a dinner of military ration packs and an early night – the alarm was set for 05.30.
As I awoke, I was extremely happy to see bright white coming through the windows and eagerly got out of bed. I opened the door … to discover that what I thought was bright sunshine was actually a thick layer of snow! Still, since I was now up, I decided I may as well get my Antarctic Hero gear on and brave the conditions. Although the visibility wasn’t obviously bad, the fresh falling snow accompanied by the evaporation off the elephant seals backs obstructed any wide-shots I attempted, so I headed back to the Kings.
The winter is the hardest part of the season for the King chicks. Between April and October, some of the chicks will only be fed a couple of times, going as long as four months without a parental visit – Social Services would definitely not approve! It also means that it’s not uncommon to be followed around the colonies by a group of hungry chicks trying their luck. I managed to resist since I was running low on their preferred lantern fish.
You can’t blame the adults for making themselves scarce – the few chicks lucky enough to have parents around were extremely high maintenance, always begging for their next meal.
No matter what was going on on the beach, no matter what the weather was doing and no matter what dangerous obstacles needed passing, the stream of King adults kept coming, with numbers within the breeding colony increasing every day. Pretty impressive, all things considered.
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.
What a few weeks! As per usual they have been hectic, but amazing. We were incredibly lucky to be visited by members of the Royal Marines and Navy, who were part of the Antarctic Endurance Expedition team retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s footsteps through South Georgia and the Antarctic in 1914-17.
By the time the team reached us, they were on the final leg of their journey, having just completed the four day hike across South Georgia, which Shackleton had crossed 100 years previously to get help for his crew, who were stranded. They had travelled over 3000 miles across some of the most dangerous seas in the world.
The team immediately clocked our football pitch on arrival and challenged us to a game at the world famous South Georgia National Football Stadium, an incredibly brave move, considering that we have never lost a match here (we’ve only played one!)
Having been soaked through to the skin by a well-timed South Georgian shower during the national anthems, the game eventually kicked off with the away team kicking down into the bog. With the tempo and quality of play reaching levels never seen before on this famous footballing island, the bog provided players with much appreciated rests.
The spectators, all two of them, were so taken away with what they were seeing, they had to remove themselves from the stadium before they got too carried away! I would like to say that when a game of such beauty and skill as this takes place, the score doesn’t matter, only football is the winner and lots of other clichés, but it’s not every day you get to smash Her Majesty’s finest 6-0 on your your home ground!
Although maybe not footballers, our opponents comprised a group of incredible people and it’s no wonder their mission had been so successful.
With the breeding season winding down now, my time has freed up fractionally, meaning I have had a few hours around work to spend time with and appreciate the amazing wildlife and landscape on our front door.
With the king penguins around base now having completed their moult, they are beginning to look quite spectacular. On a rare, bright, still evening, I got myself out with my camera onto the beach and spent a bit of time observing a small group. Every now and then it really hits me how ridiculously privileged I am to be here!
The group had two pairs amongst them who were posturing and calling to each other – I could have watched these majestic animals for hours. However, just because the sun was out, it doesn’t mean it was warm and it wasn’t long before my hands had turned blue and the kettle was calling.
With scientific work easing slightly, I have also had more time to crew and cox our RIBs and jet boats. Having spent a lot of time on board powerboats before the RIB training, they weren’t too much of a challenge but getting my head around jet boats is another completely different challenge. A challenge which I am loving, I have to say, since it means I get to see more of the island and spend time at sea.
And when you’re on board either sort of boat, you’re never too far from beautiful scenery…
Incidentally, we do have a small breeding colony of King Penguins accessible to us by foot near King Edward Point at the aptly named Penguin River. Due to the small size of the colony, breeding isn’t often successful, unfortunately. However, on a visit this week, I was happy to find eight new chicks ready to give it a go.
All the chicks and their parents seemed healthy and were in full voice throughout my visit despite the poor conditions and I was incredibly happy to see the adults regularly feeding their demanding chicks.
After covering a lot of distance in our first 24 hours, we decided to spend a day close to the hut within Coral Bay and the adjacent Sandebugten. Relaxing at South Georgia is almost impossible. There are so many opportunities and things to do here, you feel guilty doing nothing. I fought the urge to get up early, however, and managed to resist the wildlife until heading out at 07.30. First stop as per usual on the Barff were the Light Mantled Sooty Albatross again, since all the nesting attempts on my peninsula had failed before I even arrived.
I spent a long time sitting along the cliff top with a pair of displaying birds just metres away. The light was perfect and so I was able to get an image literally of a birds eye view of Coral Bay.
I could have spent the day sitting with these majestic animals. However, I wanted to get down and do some filming of the seals. I was doing exactly that soon enough, seated above a plunge pool, observing the Antarctic fur seal pups fighting and learning to swim. As these guys get older and bolder, their personalities seem to grow. It is impossible to spend time with the pups without smiling! Even if they are trying to chase you and maul your legs!
Having had my fill of the feisty Fur Seals, I weaved my way back amongst them and the putrid smelling Elephant Seals to the hut for a brew and a bacon butty!
In need of a stretch of legs, I decided to clamber along the coastline to the next bay, where I was surprised with incredible views of the Nordenskjold glacier.
Completely taken aback by the view, it took me some time to notice the yapping noise coming from my feet where a Giant Petrel chick was laying. I have spent loads of time working with these birds but not long enough properly watching them, so with time on my hands, I made myself comfortable. It wasn’t long before an adult bird was landing on the cliff and slowly making its way towards the chick.
Both birds started to display at each other, making me think that possibly the adult had got the wrong nest. The adult bird continued making its way towards the chick before making a noise I had never heard before, apparently aiding the regurgitation of the chick’s next meal. It wasn’t long before the chick was happily tucking in. This behaviour alone was an absolute privilege to observe. When you add the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Nordenskjold to the picture, it’s easy to see why South Georgia is on so many bucket lists!
I started writing the last two blogs with the intention of telling stories from my holiday trip to the Barff, but both times I haven’t made it past my beloved the Macaroni Penguins! Hopefully, this post will give a better description of my three days R+R.
Where to start….? Well, the beginning is as good as anywhere, I suppose. After an early start of preparation and biosecuring all our gear, myself and Ernie were ferried across to the Barff Peninsula by the team. After a brief ‘cuppa’ in the government hut, we loaded our gear up and set off on for Rookery Bay. The walk is about three hours and fairly challenging when carrying all your camping gear but we made good time and even with a couple of stops for snacks, we were soon arriving at our destination.
First thing for us to sort out was our bivvy site, which involved finding shelter from the wind. Instead of lumping a tent over the hill we both opted for bivvy bags, which are basically small waterproof bags you slide into within a sleeping bag. Once unloaded, I headed out to find the closest source of water, which wasn’t as easy as I thought because I kept getting distracted by wildlife.
After leaving the skua, it wasn’t long before I heard the haunting calls of displaying Light Mantled Sooty Albatross. So taking another diversion, I made out for the cliff tops where I quickly discovered a single Albatross on the ground, displaying to two overflying Albatross. The grounded bird was sat on what seemed to be a nest bowl but by this time of the season, you would be expecting to see chicks, if it had been successful.
With the light fading, I quickly finished my objective, returning to camp armed with fresh water. We soon had it boiling and were tucking into our army chicken tikka ration packs. Content and full of food, we headed to our bivvy bags and watched the numerous satellites and shooting stars pass over head until sleep kicked in.
To say it was cold was a massive understatement! At one point the frost was so severe that I found my bivvy bag was frozen to the ground. However, snug inside my sleeping bag, I slept well and was soon waking up for a morning spent within the Macaroni colony.
Keen to make it back to Coral before the end of the day, the pair of us decided it was best to start making our way after lunch. The walk is fairly spectacular, taking you past flats covered in breeding petrels, up a Gentoo penguin motorway to a small breeding colony, before heading up a steep mountain pass alongside glacial rivers.
Once at the top, it’s all downhill, navigating through valleys with mountains on all sides, past three huge lakes and back to Coral Hut where we would be spending the next two nights.
Coral, like most of the South Georgian coastline, is teaming with wildlife. So we most definitely would not be alone….