This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Bird Island
St Andrews Bay is an absolutely incredible place for a number of reasons. Not only does it have hundreds of thousands of penguins, it is surrounded by stunning glaciers and mountains, it borders the sea and it is home to thousands of prehistoric predators.
Where there are penguins on South Georgia, you are never too far from both Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas. These birds fill the dual role of top land predators and scavengers on the island. Both species are incredibly intelligent, tough and persistent, and make a good match for any of the penguin species here.
It’s hard whilst walking around St Andrews, not just to look down at the masses of penguins, but if you glance up, the skies are alive with these majestic birds as they constantly, effortlessly patrol the colonies for gaps to land in.
The giant petrels especially aren’t known for being spectacularly gracious landers but, once on the ground, they start causing havoc.
If you get to a high point above the colonies, you can see the roads that these guys create as they run through the colonies, looking for carrion or weak penguins to predate.
With numbers of penguins being so astonishingly high, you would assume that pickings would be easy. But even once the predators have a penguin in their bill, they have to keep it there long enough to make the kill, all the time being attacked by other lucky penguin survivors.
Once the kill is made, it is a matter of consuming as much as they can as quickly as they can because it’s not long before more hungry eyes pick them out and they have to share their well-earned meal!
Giant petrels aren’t the only competition for food, with brown skuas and snowy sheathbills also abundant around the colony
For more images from this incredible trip to St Andrews, check out my St Andrews Bay album
As life continues at King Edward Point, South Georgia, it seems some thing’s never change. The workload is still huge, it keeps on snowing and life is still awesome. We have had a few noteworthy and out of the ordinary sightings though. The first came in the form of a Weddels Seal. Although these do breed on the very south of the island, this is the north of their range so they are rare visitors to the station. As is often the case with rare animals turning up in the wrong place, this individual was a youngster.
On top of this we had visits from two lost penguin species. First of all was a chinstrap penguin which spent the best part of 48 hours zipping around our jet boats in Cumberland Bay. The closest colonies for these are located on The South Sandwich Islands.
The second was found during the chick count of the Gentoo Penguins. Before we managed to start with the scientific work, we noticed a Macaroni penguin trying his best to blend in with the crowd. The Gentoo colony is located roughly 12km from the closest Macaroni so it was not that lost but more impressive is that the colony is located 2km inland, uphill from the nearest beach. So this guy made his long hike for no reason!
The Gentoo count itself was a little depressing, as we had expected, with El Nino seemingly affecting the numbers of Krill in our waters. Having received news from Bird Island that several thousand Gentoo nesting attempts had been unsuccessful, we were not holding out much hope for our 800 eggs at Maiviken. During previous brief ventures into the colony, I had noted a number of deserted, unincubated eggs, suggesting that the food shortage is leading the Gentoos to terminate breeding attempts, and the Skuas’ nests are littered with debris from the colony. However, we were pleased to see that we still had 120 chicks remaining and looking, on the whole, healthy. And during the time we spent with the birds, adults were observed frequently regurgitating large amounts of Krill to their chicks.
Further bad news from the Penguins’ point of view is that both pairs of Brown Skua, adjacent to the breeding colony, now have hungry chicks to feed, meaning scenes like that captured in the last blog will become more and more frequent.
Sorry to keep mentioning it, but my job is incredible and has many, many perks. One of these is it allows me to get out and about, especially on boat trips to other peninsulas. On one of these trips last month to the Greene, we went via the Hamburg and Harker Glaciers for a bit of familiarisation (sightseeing). And we timed this trip to perfection since on our arrival, a chunk of ice the size of my house calved from the face. I don’t know what was more spectacular, the actual calving or the size of the wave that it caused.
Having enjoyed the calving from a close but ‘safe’ distance, we decided we were ok to sit still and face the oncoming wave. But as the wave continued to grow, eventually dwarfing the glacier from our view, we quickly realised this wasn’t the case and were ordered to ‘run away’!
Whist watching these spectacular structures calving, its hard to think that future generations will not get this chance. The effects of climate change are clear to see all over South Georgia with some Glaciers receding at over 1m a day. In fact, in the entire of South America there is only one Glacier that is not receding, the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina and it is thought that within the near future, this will follow the same trend.
On top of the fact that glaciers are in their own right epic, another great thing about hanging around them is that you have a chance of seeing the majestic snow petrels. These are by far my favourite birds here although they do frustrate me by only turning up when I have a small lens on my camera, hence the slightly distant shot.
On another of my scientific trips to around South Georgia, this time to check my Southern Giant Petrels at Harpon, I got to experience the Antarctic water temperatures for first time. I was in a dry suit, so not particularly brave!
Upon arriving in our rib to a steep shelving beach full of ice glacial debris, it was necessary to jump out in waist-height water and hold the boat whilst we unloaded all the gear. Just standing there for two minutes in a dry suit, my legs were quickly numbing and losing sensation. I have no idea how the seals do it for longer than this – to think that an Elephant Seal will dive to depths of 1500m and spend two hours completely submerged is unfathomable.
As per usual, my visits to my seal colonies continued every other day. One particular visit sticks out as particularly ‘blondie’. Across my beaches, I noted six blonde pups, three blonde females and two blonde males. When you consider that, on average, 1 in every 800 fur seals is blonde, you should get an idea of how many seals make up my study site.
As I mentioned earlier, dumps of snow are almost weekly at the moment and the animals in front of base are starting to look less than impressed. Especially the King Penguins, which have picked this time of year (supposedly the warmest) to molt their feathers.
I was told that spring was going to be full on and this last 10 days has been no exception. On top of the 14km round trip to Maiviken every other day in order to take pictures, I have also visited the Macaroni Penguin colony at Rookery to do some work with South Georgian Pipits (a whole other blog post), rescued a young elephant seal, monitored more Giant Petrels and found the first Penguin Chicks and a ‘blondie’
As higher predator biologist, any seal entanglements or injuries are my responsibility to deal with. So when a couple of the museum staff ventured upon an elephant seal pup that had managed to get stuck under a collapsed bank, I was radioed. I got sent out with a shovel and two other members of the team to try and find and rescue this guy! He had a few scrapes and cuts but most disturbing was the smell. He had obviously been stuck there a few days, with nowhere to go to the toilet, so when we finally manoeuvred him out from beneath the rocks, the release of smell was quite spectacular.
Continuing on the seal front, we have had a number of very rare visitors to Maivikien beaches this year. Within the Antarctic Fur Seal population, certain individuals have a recessive gene trait which results in a change in their fur colour. Studies at Bird Island suggest that approximately 1 in 800 seals are ‘blondies’. Currently, we have 2 adult males (which in the water you can almost mistake for a polar bear if you squint and are wearing very bad glasses), one adult female and a pup. I am not sure what other recessive genes the pup was born with, but the last time I saw it, it had taken over a Giant Petrel nest and started incubating the egg!
The Gentoo Penguins are having a poor year at the moment. Numbers at egg census, which was completed a few weeks back, were down from last year. And further to this, their new nesting site is located adjacent to a pair of Brown Skuas, which, with incredible intelligence and teamwork has resulted in a worryingly large egg graveyard. But it’s not all been bad news… on the 3rd we discovered a number of Gentoos with small chicks and a further check on the 10th showed these guys to have grown at an incredible rate. These guys will eventually form creches at about a month old and will finally become independent of their parents after 3 months.
With spring continuing here, the breeding season for most of our native inhabitants is also in full swing. Large numbers of pintail ducklings are filling the tussock grass King Penguins are displaying, Brown Skuas are on eggs, South Georgian Pipits are collecting food for chicks, and the Antarctic Terns are starting to fledge. So much wildlife to take in and so many pictures to take!