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.
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
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.
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.
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.
On our way North we passed several, huge icebergs which were obviously floating north from the continent
Once within flying range of the Falklands a Hurricane made a flyby whilst carrying out a training exercise allowing great views for photographs
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Both sexes are very similar in appearance. However females tend to be smaller in size.
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.
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
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
This time, checking on the King Penguin colony at Hound Bay, assisting the government checking for presence of rats and Southern Giant Petrel Fledgling counts….
The King Penguins at Hound Bay have historically been the subject of many tracking projects. This is mainly due to its easy access and manageable colony size. It is difficult carrying out studies like this in larger colonies like St Andrews (600,000 king penguins) and Salisbury Plain (50,000) since finding the same penguins and retrieving the equipment can be incredibly difficult.
This season a total of 68 King Chicks were counted with a number of fledglings also present around the colony, suggesting continued success here. This information is really important as it means, hopefully, the tracking studies can continue.
Hound Bay is the most accessible of the successful King Colonies from King Edward Point. It is still a 16km round trip, meaning I had a great excuse for a night off base. This also meant I got to see Hound Bay at both sunset and sunrise!
Walking on South Georgia is rarely simple but when you are walking alongside incredible scenery like this it is easy to forget about the terrain. The Nordenskjold is 3km wide and worryingly, like all the southern hemisphere’s glaciers, it is receding at an alarming rate, meaning the generations after us won’t get to see such spectacular sights.
More spectacular South Georgian scenery on the Barff Peninsula …
On the way back from Hound, I helped the South Georgia Government checking wax tags. These are posts which have peanut butter flavoured wax blocks on them and which smell and taste great to rats – when a rat nibbles on them, it leaves tooth prints. We have thankfully, successfully eradicated rats on South Georgia but we have to be ever-vigilant for any signs of their return and it is vital to monitor for presence in order to ensure any accidental re-introductions can be dealt with swiftly.
It was then time to weigh all the fledgling southern giant petrel chicks before they headed to sea for the winter. Many of the birds were still showing downy feathers, meaning that they are now competing in a race against time, with much poorer, colder conditions already starting to batter the islands
Giant Petrels may not be the most beautiful birds but they are incredible. Seeing these prehistoric birds up close is an absolute privilege. Unfortunately, they don’t feel the same about us, and their bills and claws provide sufficient tools for making handling difficult and sometimes painful!
Out of the 120 Giant Petrels we monitored we had two white morph ‘spirit’ Giant Petrels. Its hard not to discriminate when they look so amazing!
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.
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!