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

 

Return of the wildlife

This entry is part 2 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches

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!

Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows
Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows

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 Tern in flight in front of the ship
Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship

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.

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Friendly leopard seal making use of the ice which had flown into the cove

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.

Gentoo penguins on maiviken beach
Gentoo penguins on Maiviken Beach

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.

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R&R in front of base
Giant Petrels are back and building nests
Giant Petrels are back and building nests

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.

Fur Seal shaking out his mane
Fur Seal shaking out his mane

Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.

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Leopard seal trying to ignore the wind and snow
Another fur seal shaking it out
Another fur seal shaking it out
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River

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.

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Leopard seal hiding behind a snowdrift on base! Easy to miss in a white out
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow

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 pipits are mcuh more apprent now and have begun singing
South Georgia pipits are much more apparent now and have begun singing

48 Hour Film

This entry is part 38 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

The BAS team based here has now dropped to 7 and it’s a long time since we last saw real people! To stop us going crazy, we have to keep ourselves entertained. As a marine biologist, my favourite pastime would be talking to the animals, but apart from the occasional seal, base is fairly barren of wildlife so we have to find other ways to keep busy.

Not a particularly chatty fur seal on the beach
One of the remaining fur seals for me to talk to. Unfortunately, their conversation is mostly limited to fish.

Luckily, we have lots of snow at the moment so there are opportunities to get out on the hill and ski. Its not quite the same as your standard resort skiing since in order to ski down a hill, you must first ski up it because we have very few chairlifts. Well, none at all, actually.

Skiing above Grytviken
Skiing above Grytviken

Also there are no piste bashers to compact the snow, meaning that even on skis, it’s not uncommon to sink several inches beneath the surface, making falls frequent but landings comfy.

Skiing over Grytviken
Russ skiing around Grytviken

As well as talking to seals and ski-ing, we also we take it in turns every Saturday to provide food and sometimes entertainment for everyone on base. So far this month we have had a Glastonbury themed evening, where we dressed like hippies and watched the downloaded Glasto highlights. We have also had a pizza and quiz night.

Glastonbury stage on King Edward Point
Glastonbury stage on King Edward Point – Photo credit Lewis Cowie

Sometimes the entertainment isn’t thought up within station. Two weekends ago, we participated in the Antarctic 48 Hour Film Competition. This was first thought up by an American base and allows us to compete against all the other bases around the Antarctic continent.

Filming of our 48 film
Filming of our 48 film

The competition starts with an email on the Friday evening which contains a list of various items to incorporate into a 5 minute film. You then have until 0000 Sunday night to write, film, direct and edit your film, and , if you feel confident enough, to submit it for viewing around the Antarctic.

Our entry included daring stunts
Our entry included daring stunts

The film is then judged by your peers based on the acting, filmography and editing, and winners are announced. Having sat through 22 different entries, I was incredibly impressed by the overall standard and creativity, although that can’t be said about every entry! Ours this year was a soof 1970s cop show and was voted as second best overall. If you want to make your own follow this link ….
48 hour film link

Our 48 Hour Film Entry - KEP COP SQUAD
Our 48 Hour Film Entry – KEP COP SQUAD

We also have a very well equipped workshop and the experienced people here have been happy to show me around the machinery, meaning I have been able to improve both metalwork and woodwork skills.

Turning wood in order to make a pen
Turning wood on the lathe
Pen almost complete
Pen almost complete
Grinding Steel
Grinding Steel
Cutting steel
Cutting steel to make a knife

We are also spending lots of time training ourselves on the use of the fine South Georgia fleet so that Russ, our boating officer, feels confident enough to go on holiday!

Anchoring practice of the Jetboat
Anchoring practice of the Jetboat
Driving the ribs is bloody cold at this time of year
Driving the ribs is bloody cold at this time of year
Pride of the KEP fleet, dotty - photo credit Becky Taylor
Pride of the KEP fleet, Dotty – photo credit Becky Taylor

In other news, we had a 7.4 earthquake at the weekend. I am told that base shook considerably and it awoke several members of the team. But apparently, I am a very deep sleeper!

Seismic readings of the earthquake from the British Geological Survey
Seismic readings of the earthquake from the British Geological Survey

 

More Leps

This entry is part 5 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Leopard Seal sightings through the winter
Sightings occur all over the thatcher peninsula, this one was right in front of base
Sightings occur all over the Thatcher Peninsula, this one was right in front of base

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Leopard seal sights
Yawning for the camera

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Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken
Leopard seal hauled out on glacial ice in Maiviken

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Unfortunately this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
Unfortunately, this individual was only seen offshore and I only had my small lens with me
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Not all individuals come out of the water to be photographed!

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This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier hauled out on the ice
This individual was observed in front of the Neumayer glacier, hauled out on the ice

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The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps
The second of my birthday Neumayer Leps

Life’s A Boat

This entry is part 35 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Humpback whale
Humpback whale off the coast of South Georgia
My view for the next two weeks.
I may have swapped rooms but my new window view is just as stunning

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.

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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.

Whale sightings were immediate, once out of Cumberland Bay
Humpback whale at the surface in front of the South Georgian shores

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.

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Characteristic showing of the humpback’s flukes prior to a deep dive

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.

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Giant Petrel off the side of the boat
Giant Petrel off the side of the boat

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.

Too close to photograph
Almost too close to photograph

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.

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Southern Fulmar in flight
Humpback whale right besides the ship
Humpback whale right beside the ship
Wandering Albatross over the sea
Wandering Albatross over the sea

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.

Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface
Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface

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.

Seabirds and seals in the waves
Seabirds and seals in the waves
Humpback blow - note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface
Humpback blow – note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface

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!

Displaying humpback
Displaying humpback
Diving Humpback
Diving Humpback

As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures

Young antarctic tern
Young antarctic tern

Another Week In Paradise

This entry is part 11 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

This week has crazy to say the least. I have no idea how many miles I have walked but it’s quite a lot; however, it was worth the blisters!

Giant Petrel patrolling colony
Giant Petrel patrolling colony

One of the best parts of my job is that it gets me out and about to different areas and peninsulas in order to carry out observations on various different species and colonies. This week was the turn of the Giant Petrels at Harpon and the Greene Peninsula, both of which involved substantial amounts of walking over spectacular scenery. Fortunately for other members of the team here, most of these locations are outside the single person travel limit and they get the lucky job of accompanying me without actually having to do any work!

The team making our way over one of the many snowy passes to Harpon
The team making our way over one of the many snowy passes to Harpon
Team making the much appreciated descent down to Harpon
And the much appreciated descent down to Harpon – not a bad view!

As for the Giant Petrels, although these guys are slightly prehistoric looking, they are awesome! The noises they make are incredible, the size and power of their bills is ridiculous and, a little weird I know, they smell pretty good as well (if you avoid letting them throw up on you!). And…. although the birds tend to nest in boring tussock, they always seem to have a spectacular backdrop behind them, as demonstrated by this Southern Giant Petrel at Harpon.

Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus, in front of Lyell Glacier at Harpon
Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus, in front of Lyell Glacier at Harpon

We are lucky enough to have two species of Giant Petrels here – the Northern and Southern. They breed at slightly different times of the year and usually in separate colonies so whilst I was carrying out egg censuses for the Southerns, I could also monitor if the Northerns had any chicks and they most certainly do!

Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli, with chick on the Greene Peninsula. This chick should take 110-120 days to fledge
Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli, with chick on the Greene Peninsula. This chick should take 110-120 days to fledge

Its not easy to distinguish these guys (the Southerns and Northerns) but the easiest way to do so is by the colour of the bill, as illustrated by these pictures. The Northerns have the reddish bill whereas the Southerns have a paler head and a greenish tip to the bill.

Close up showing the reddish bill colour of the Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes hall
Close up showing the reddish bill colour of the Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli
Picture showing the distinct bill colour of the Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus
Picture showing the distinct bill colour of the Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus

They are the scavengers of the Antarctic. Having seen their bill up close during the census, I was soon able to appreciate its purpose when a young elephant seal died close to base. The seal, probably 100kg in weight, was stripped to skin and bones within 24 hours by these guys. It was absolutely amazing watching the birds’ display and compete for first place in the pecking order.

Giant Petrels feasting on an unfortunate elephant seal pup! Note the posturing and fighting for a place in the queue
Giant Petrels feasting on an unfortunate elephant seal pup. Note the posturing and fighting for a place in the queue

After we had finished with the census, we did get time to play and the incredible Steph found me my first ever chinstrap penguin, chilling on the beach. Named after their characteristic mark on their chin, these guys are rare visitors to Cumberland Bay; although there is a small colony on the south eastern tip of the island, on the whole they tend to breed further south than South Georgia.

Rare visitor to Cumberland Bay - a chinstrap penguin
Rare visitor to Cumberland Bay – a chinstrap penguin