Holiday – Part 2

This entry is part 23 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

View down to out bivvy site at Rookery
View down to our bivvy site at Rookery

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.

Within 20m of camp I came across this brown skua taking a dip.
Within 20m of camp I came across this brown skua taking a dip.
Undoubtably the remains of penguin chick still on its head
Undoubtably the remains of penguin chick still on its face

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.

 

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross coming into land at Rookery
Light Mantled Sooty Albatross coming into land at Rookery
Second bird landing within the tussock
Second bird landing within the tussock
Light Mantle Albatross in flight over the sea
Light Mantle Albatross in flight over the sea

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.

Last light over the pass we had crossed earlier in the day
Last light over the mountain pass we had crossed earlier in the day

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.

View above the macaroni colony to see
View above the macaroni colony to sea

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.

View from the top of the pass, down to Rookery, which is the last bit of land you can see.
View from the top of the pass, down to Rookery, which is the last bit of land you can see.

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.

View from the top of the pass to the Three Lakes
View from the top of the pass, down to the Three Lakes
Our final descent down to Coral Hut and the seaside!
Our final descent down to Coral Hut and the seaside!

Coral, like most of the South Georgian coastline, is teaming with wildlife. So we most definitely would not be alone….

Antarctic Fur Seal relaxing at Coral
Antarctic Fur Seal relaxing by our hut at Coral

 

Macaroni Penguins – Fact File

This entry is part 22 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Macaroni Penguin
Macaroni Penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus

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.

Macaroni Penguin chicks left to entertain themselves whilst the adults forage
Macaroni Penguin chicks left to entertain themselves whilst the adults 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.

Fact File

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

Close up of a macaroni chick - just a few more weeks until fledging
Close up of a macaroni chick – just a few more weeks until fledging

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

Displaying Macaroni Penguins
Ecstatically displaying Macaroni Penguins

Weight: 4.5 – 6Kg
Height: 24-28 inches
Fact: Their crest develops with age

Macaroni Penguin giving it the loreal flick to maintain his perm behind an uninterested chinstrap
Macaroni Penguin giving it the l’Oreal flick to maintain his crest behind an uninterested chinstrap

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

Breeding macaroni penguins
Breeding macaroni penguins

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

One of the macaroni penguins predators - Antarctic Fur Seals
One of the Macaroni Penguins’ predators – Antarctic Fur Seals

Holiday Part 1 – Macaroni Penguins!

This entry is part 21 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was recently lucky enough to go on holiday to the Barff Peninsula and revisit my angry friends, the Macaroni Penguins.

Macaroni penguins from the beach
Macaroni penguins on the Barff

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.

Macaroni Penguins making there way down from the colonies to the waters edge
Macaroni Penguins making their way down from the colonies to the water

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!

It wasnt long before I was observing the first acts of aggression between these guys
Dirty mac on his way out of the colonies, displaying at a clean mac on his way in.
Territorial macaroni penguin shouting at the locals
Territorial macaroni penguin sorts out the locals

The colonies are very muddy places and so the first priority, once down, is to get clean.

They are even aggressive in the bath
They are even aggressive in the bath!

Within the largest group of macaroni penguins, there were three stunning chinstrap penguins trying to make friends

Seem to have chinstrap penguin observations everywhere at the moment. One of three trying to blend in with the macaroni penguins
We seem to have chinstrap penguins popping up everywhere at the moment. One of three trying to blend in with the macaroni penguins
It didnt take long for the Macaroni Penguins to find and 'welcome' the chinstraps
It didnt take long for the Macaroni Penguins to find and ‘welcome’ the chinstraps
And they were soon running away in search of refuge - just like watching baywatch
And they were soon running away in search of a safe haven – just like watching Baywatch
Unfortunately this only took them closer to the water which swept them back out to sea - taking a good number of macaroni penguins with them.
Unfortunately, this only took them closer to the breaking surf and they were swept out – taking a good number of macaroni penguins with them.

The chinstraps shouldn’t feel too hard done by as the macs don’t discrimate. They are angry and aggressive towards everything!

Small packages of angry penguin. This one is chasing away an inquisitive Giant Petrel
Small packages of aggression. This one is chasing away a hungry, inquisitive Giant Petrel

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.

Tom Daley would be proud - macaroni penguins diving into the surf and heading out to sea
Tom Daley would be proud – macaroni penguins diving into the surf and heading out to sea
Three macs, opting to wait for the surf to sweep them out
Three macs, opting to wait for the surf to sweep them out having attempted to dive into a puddle!

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.

Penguin Surfing
Several penguins surfing the white water into the rocks
Penguins surfing the breaking waves into shore
Penguins within the waves
Penguin Surfing 2
Bottom left shows how it should be done and top right shows a penguin dismounting from a substantial height

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.

Successfully out of the surf, the penguins make a made dash up the shore before the next wave breaks
Successfully out of the surf, the penguins make a mad dash up the shore before the next wave breaks
Macaronis belong to the rockhopper family and are incredible over rocks. This one landed safely and headed up to the colonies
Macaronis belong to the rockhopper family and are incredible over rocks. This one landed safely and headed up to the colonies

Having completed this very strenuous ordeal and successfully navigated to the rookery, the returning adults are greeted by these hungry, fluffy youngsters.

Couple of macaroni chicks waiting for their parents in the colony
All that effort for these guys! Mac chicks

 

Greene Bay Adventure

This entry is part 20 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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!

Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia
Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia

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.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula
White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula

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.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight in front of adult and chick on the Greene
Another White Morph Giant Petrel in flight, this time in front of an adult and chick on the Greene

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.

Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula
Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula

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.

View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seals back
View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seal’s back

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!

Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier

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.

View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures... Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures… Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier

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.

First views of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty stood in the way!
Glorious view of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty standing in the way!

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.

View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains

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!

View of some scree covered ice caves at the Glaciers edge
Although they look like rock, these are actually ice caves at the glacier’s edge. The ice here has a thin coating of rocks and scree
Shades of blue -looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier
Shades of blue  – looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier

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!

Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier

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.

The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach
The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach

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.

Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to 'fly'
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to ‘fly’

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.

View from Echo Pass to the Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
View from Echo Pass to the spectacular Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier

Rare Sightings, Penguin Census And Calving Glaciers

This entry is part 17 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

Another suprise visitor - Weddels Seal
Suprise visitor –  A Weddels Seal with a snotty nose!

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!

 

Suprise Macaroni penguin
Trying to blend in – a suprise Macaroni penguin in the Gentoo colony

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.

Feeding time for the Gentoo chicks
Feeding time for the Gentoo 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.

Proud Parents - Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken
Proud Parents – Two Brown Skuas and their chick overlooking Maiviken

 

Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick
Hatching at exactly the wrong time for the penguins a brown skua chick

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’!

One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve
One of the many receding glaciers here just starting to calve

 

Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea
Hamburg Glacier calving into the sea

 

The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house/
The wave, following the calving of the glacier. The chunk of ice that fell would have dwarfed my house

 

The moment we realised how big the wave was and that running away was the best decision
Just Before we decided that running away was the best decision!

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.

Imagine a world without these... Hamburg Glacier
Imagine a world without these… Hamburg Glacier

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.

Definately my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.
Definitely my favourite birds here. They never appear when you have the right camera or lens.

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.

Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach
Molting Elephant Seal sunning itself in glacial debris on Harpon beach

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.

Ebony and Ivory - Antarctic Fur Seal Pups
Ebony and Ivory – Antarctic Fur Seal Pups

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.

More molting king penguins in the snow
More moulting king penguins in the snow

 

 

 

Snow!!!

This entry is part 13 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
King Penguin in the snow
King Penguin in the snow

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.

King Edward Point research station in the snow
King Edward Point research station in the snow

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!

My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!
My snowy tracks in the last snow we had. Its a long walk in knee deep snow!

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

Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station
Two of the decommissioned ships at Grytviken whaling station

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!

King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
King Penguins bracing from the wind in front of Grytviken
The snow was heavy,even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered
The snow was so heavy, even the elephant seals were struggling to stay uncovered

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.

Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal
Antarctic Tern fishing in the wake of an elephant seal

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)

Group of King Penguins Making their way through base
Group of King Penguins Making their way through base

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.

Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
Antarctic Fur Seal pup calling for mum in the snow
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals
The fight for space on the colonies must continue even in these adverse conditions, Male, Antarctic Fur Seals

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.

Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow
Giant Petrel Taking off into the snow

 

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

My role in South Georgia – Higher Predator Biologist

This entry is part 10 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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.

Grytviken whaling station - the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored
Grytviken whaling station – the large metal vats are where the oil from the whales was stored – gives you an idea of how many whales were being slaughtered

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.

Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch
Gentoo Penguin adjusting eggs into brood pouch

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.

Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge
Male Antarctic Fur seal at waters edge

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.

Pretty Cute.... An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass
Pretty Cute…. An Antarctic Fur Seal pup peering through the tussock grass

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.