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….
A regular follower of this blog, who wishes to remain anonymous (don’t worry, mum – it’s our little secret) frequently complains that there isn’t enough factual information in some of my posts so here goes on one of favourite subjects …
Macaroni Penguins are the largest of the six crested penguin species. They breed between October and March. Adults arrive at the colonies and lay an A egg and a B egg. Colonies are usually on rocky slopes or in the tussocks. In the majority of nesting attempts, the A egg will fail when the B egg is laid and the B egg will then subsequently succeed. Once the female has laid, the male and female share the responsibility of incubation for the first 12 days. This is then followed by a 10 day shift by the female, followed by a 12 day shift by the male. Once the chick has hatched, the male will continue to guard and incubate the chick for 20-25 days whilst the female completes daily foraging trips. This is followed by a “crèche” period, where chicks gather in small groups for protection, allowing both adults to forage.
Adults tend to stay on the colony overnight and forage from early morning until late evening. After the chicks have fledged, all birds will leave the colony and head to sea, often migrating north, until the following breeding season.
Range – Mainly found breeding around the Antarctic Convergence – Sub Antarctic Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, south of other crested penguins Status– Declining – IUCN threatened species Productivity – 1 chick per nest Incubation Period – 35 days Fledging Period – 60-70 days
Total Population: 10,000,000 pairs Largest populations: South Georgia 5,000,000 pairs Diet: Mainly krill and small fish Fact: Macaroni penguins complete an ‘ecstatic display’ in pairs, which allows pairs to recognise each other
Weight: 4.5 – 6Kg Height: 24-28 inches Fact: Their crest develops with age
Sexual Dimorphism: females smaller Diving Depth: 50m – birds spend little or no time at the base of their dive meaning the dive is V shaped Diving Time: 2 minutes
Sexual Maturity : 5 in females – 6 in males
Fact: Males will return to the same nest annually to display – more often than not breeding with the same female in consecutive years (mainly monogamous) Predators: Leopard Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals and Killer Whales
I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.
Before I even got close to the rookery, I spent a few hours down on the beach watching the conveyer belt of little penguins to-ing and fro-ing up the rocks.
Regular visitors to this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it wasn’t long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these feisty penguins!
The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.
Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends
The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!
Some of the macaroni penguins intentionally made for the sea. I observed various levels of ocean entrances, but considering the sea state, I was impressed that any of them made the plunge at all.
As I mentioned, penguins were both coming and going. Wave after wave was full of surfing penguins trying their hardest to dismount the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being smashed into the rocks below.
Once landed, it’s a matter of scrambling to your feet and away from the breaking waves, before starting the long scramble back up to the colony.
Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.
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.
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.
South Georgia is an island located north of the main Antarctic Peninsula and with it being in the southern hemisphere it should be spring now. I should be walking to my study site every other day, worrying about how badly the hole in the Ozone is going to fry my skin, but its been almost a week since we last saw even a spec of blue sky. Not only has it been cold, its been bloody snowy and blowing a gale. As I am writing this, the weather station is recording regular gusts of 70knot winds and the snow flakes coming down are bigger than the face of my watch.
With Christmas approaching, we are starting to think there may be a slight chance of a white Christmas. But, do I want it….? Well, it would be pretty cool (if the wind calms) but it doesn’t half make the round trip to my study site hard going, in knee deep snow, which I will have to complete on Christmas day and New Years. Its not all bad though as the longer I am out for the less I will need to help with the big Christmas cook!
With activities restricted as a result of the severe weather, the team took the time to practice their snowball throwing and also helped the museum staff decorate the church for visiting cruise ship tourists over Christmas. I would love to say we did this out of the kindness of our hearts but I’d be lying, we were lured across with the promise of mince pies and mulled wine! It also gave me the chance to take a couple shots of the various decommissioned ships around the whaling station at Grytviken in the snow
There is something very magical about being on an island with heavy snow during the brief intervals in the wind. But these intervals are very few and far between, so if you want to get out you better wrap up and prepare yourself for a battering. At times the snow was falling so quickly the wildlife was struggling to keep its self afloat!
For the animals, they don’t have the luxury of batting down the hatches and turning on the central heating, the breeding season must go on! So I was very keen to get out and join them and see how the weather affected the wildlife. Even with us being so close to the Antarctic peninsula it is very rare for South Georgia to get this amount of snow during spring. And as a result there’s seldom the chance of seeing our native wildlife in the snow, especially during the breeding season. I was particularly impressed with the diminutive Antarctic Terns and Wilson’s Storm Petrels which were frequently observed flying against the wind and snow, successfully foraging.
The winds also left a group of King Penguins that had been moulting near the wharf heading through base to seek shelter. Problem is they didn’t stick to the pavements and they didn’t look left and right before crossing which made life difficult for all the South Georgia traffic (1 car)
It is a bad time for harsh weather conditions with so many animals reproducing across the islands. I was concerned for my study seals and penguins with the chicks and pups being especially susceptible to the elements. The cold wet weather means the young have to use high amounts of energy in order to maintain their body temperatures.
Inevitably there will be some casualties in these conditions, but one animals loss is another’s gain. With Southern Giant Petrel chicks about to hatch and Northern chicks growing rapidly, any meal is much appreciated.
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.
The currents and bathymetry (sea floor) of the seas surrounding South Georgia have resulted in large amounts of nutrients upwelling from the deeper oceans, causing an incredible richness in marine life. As with most rich biological resources around the world, there are great profits to be made from exploiting these. South Georgia has a history of extreme over-exploitation of these resources – especially sealing and later, whaling – from the beginning of the 20th century and Captain Cook first claimed it for Britain in 1775. After this, fish populations were heavily hit by overfishing during the 1970s.
A large proportion of South Georgia’s income is still from fishing with its only other income coming from tourism so they have realised it is in their interest to ensure that that the fish populations are conserved.
Cold water species tend to have very long life cycles, grow slowly, have relatively low fecundity (the ability to produce large numbers of young) and reach sexual maturity very late. This means that fishing irresponsibly for one year could easily result in the loss of the fishery for the next 50 years, with recovery rates being very slow and sometimes irreversible.
In order to prevent this happening, the South Georgia Government have invested large amounts of money and research into the setting up of self-sustaining fishery, where the ecosystem is managed and researched as a whole, and where money made from the fishery is used to invest in the policing of fishing as well as research into the broader effects of fishing on the environment.
Food chains are extremely complex things and hard to fully understand. However, monitoring of key predators within them can give a good indication as to the health of lower levels in the same food chain. This is why, in South Georgia, the fisheries are researched and overseen, as well as the higher predators. This is where I come in: I work intensively with the Antarctic Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins because they feed almost exclusively on krill, which is at the centre of most Antarctic food chains. I also observe the behaviour of giant petrel and albatross.
The main focus of my job is to work with these top predators at an area of the island called Maiviken. I have to visit my study site every other day during the summer period here and take pictures of the fur seal colonies. The aim of this is to allow us to understand more about the build up of the colonies during the breeding season and also understand how successful the colonies are.
On top of this, we also look closely at the development of the pups and chicks by weighing them at various stages because growth rates relate back to how successfully the adults are fishing, which in turn indicates the health of the ecosystem.
We also study the diet of these predators through analysing their scats (poo) as this gives us a good indication as to what species in the food chain are thriving and which species may be struggling. For example, if we only find adult krill in the seal’s scats then this suggests that there has been no recruitment of young krill into the population and that there could be a problem in the ecosystem.