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.
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!
On Tuesday 15th March, I will be competing in the South Georgia Half Marathon. It’s my first attempt at this distance and to make it a bigger challenge, I will be running across the mountainous South Georgian terrain.
Since conservation and science is the reason that I’m in this amazing place, I have decided to raise money for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
To many, the distance may not seem that far. However, when you consider the terrain, the state of my knees, the lack of training and that there is a good chance it will be gale force wind and snow, I can easily see the event breaking me!
To give you an idea of the challenge ahead, last year’s winner is a seasoned half marathon pro who frequently completes road ½ marathons in under 1hour 20. He managed an incredible time of 1hour 50, beating an ex-Commonwealth Games athlete. So for me, I would be incredibly chuffed to finish in one piece with a time of 2hr 30!
The marathon is predominantly run on loose scree slopes and boulders with small sections of upland bog, which doesn’t make for easy running. Further to this, there is an increase of height of over 800m throughout the distance.
The WWF is a charity which all of you will have heard of. They fund research and conservation worldwide aimed at promoting sustainable living between people and nature. They aim to achieve this in a number of different ways: restoring wildlife; sustaining habitats; maintaining the world’s great rivers; promoting sustainable timber and seafood, and reducing carbon emissions. They are a huge charity with world wide support, which enables them to influence political and economic decision-making.
I can only apologise about my late warning but I didn’t realise I was running until now! It would be amazing if you could make a contribution, no matter how small! Just follow this link
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.
South Georgia only has one songbird, the South Georgian Pipit, so its song should be heard throughout the entire island such is the lack of competition. Unfortunately this is not the case. Ever since humans arrived on the islands back in 1775 with their rat-infested boats, it is likely that these vermin have been present. Rats can have devastating affects on whole ecosystems, especially in those species that nest on or beneath the ground.
South Georgia was no exception to this dictum, with rats preying on both chicks and eggs. Huge areas of potentially viable nesting habitat were left barren of birds with the South Georgian Pipit completely extinct from entire peninsulas. In 2011, the South Georgia Heritage Trust invested huge sums of money into the largest rat eradication project in the world in order to return this incredible island to its former pristine self. Because of the nature of the island and the conditions, the challenge was huge. Some parts of the island are completely inaccessible except by helicopter and boat, and its not infrequent to experience 80-100 knot winds.
However, there was one factor working in the favor of the team, in that the glaciers split the island into smaller sections, providing unpassable terrain for the rats. This meant that the project could target specific peninsulas in sequence, making the project slightly more manageable, although when I say “manageable”, it should be noted that each individual section to be baited was larger than any other project of this kind to date!
The glaciers themselves provided the team with another challenge. Since they are receding at incredible rates, often greater than 1m a day, these subsections would soon no longer be divided, allowing the rats to disperse freely across the island, meaning the team was up against the clock!
Although the eradication team went through two helicopters, both torn apart by the wind, it seems that the project has been a success. Throughout the season, I have been lucky enough to hear the dulcet tones of South Georgian Pipit songs across my Maiviken Study site. It was originally thought that these could just be migrant birds passing through but the songs continued and the sightings increased until it wasn’t long before I saw the adults flying with food in their bills, suggesting that chicks were present.
My surmise was confirmed when a week later, I eventually heard the rasping calls of the begging pipit chicks. It’s amazing the distance at which these can be heard and how easy they make it to locate a nest. Armed with my camera, I took quick photo evidence before leaving the nest alone.
All bird species nesting here on the South Georgian mainland will have been negatively effected in some way by the rats and it will be interesting to see the rates at which they recover. Some of these species, such as diving petrels and storm petrels nest in burrows high up in the mountains and so recovery is hard to measure. However, both pipits and pintails nest within the tussock grass that surrounds most of our seal colonies and it is easy to see how well these guys are doing already, just one season after the eradication finished.
I have since discovered another four breeding pairs of South Georgian Pipits at the Maiviken beaches, all of which now have successful fledglings. And I can’t walk more than 20m in the tussock without seeing South Georgia Pintail ducklings running through the undergrowth!
The work is never done. Now that the invasive fauna have been wiped out work has began on the invasive flora.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.