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.
As winter progresses, so does the work. Trips to Maiviken have become less frequent but are still necessary. Conditions can be challenging with the temperatures dropping, snow levels increasing and the wind ever present. But once you get there, it is always worth it.
With it being winter now, much of the wildlife around base has dispersed and I have to go much further afield to get my wildlife fix. My weekly Maiviken trips offer the perfect opportunity to do this. With summer densities of wildlife at Maiviken being so ridiculously high, even with a dramatic decrease of numbers, there is plenty to keep me on my toes.
Walking conditions are much more challenging now and snow shoes or skis are necessary for most trips. I also have to be aware of the snow/avalanche conditions, whilst walking across steep heavily loaded slopes. Seemingly, there isn’t enough tea in the world to keep my hands warm but that’s life!
Although fur seals can sleep at sea, Maiviken beaches provide the perfect place for additional R&R for small groups of seals. Calving of the Neumayer Glacier is apparently quite high at the moment with many of the beaches covered in blocks of glacial ice.
Its very rare that you get a still day on South Georgia, so when the snow isn’t falling from the sky, you’re not necessarily safe.
Gentoo penguins will rarely fish overnight and will usually return to rookeries before dusk before heading back out again at dawn. This means that if I get to Maiviken early enough, I get my penguin fix as well.
Winter time is peak fishing time down here. All boats have to come into the bay so that the Government Officers can inspect the vessels and ensure that they meet the high standards required to fish in these seas. It is also a busy time for our Fisheries Patrol Vessel, Pharos SG, which carries out at sea boardings and is constantly patrolling for illegal fishing.
Wherever you go at the moment, you are not too far from pipits. It’s amazing to see how quickly these guys are recovering after the rat eradication. Just as impressive is how such a diminutive bird is able to survive in such extreme conditions. Birds have resorted to foraging on the tidal line, where the sea melts any snow, and roosting in any pockets free of vegetation they can find.
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
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.
I was told that spring was going to be full on and this last 10 days has been no exception. On top of the 14km round trip to Maiviken every other day in order to take pictures, I have also visited the Macaroni Penguin colony at Rookery to do some work with South Georgian Pipits (a whole other blog post), rescued a young elephant seal, monitored more Giant Petrels and found the first Penguin Chicks and a ‘blondie’
As higher predator biologist, any seal entanglements or injuries are my responsibility to deal with. So when a couple of the museum staff ventured upon an elephant seal pup that had managed to get stuck under a collapsed bank, I was radioed. I got sent out with a shovel and two other members of the team to try and find and rescue this guy! He had a few scrapes and cuts but most disturbing was the smell. He had obviously been stuck there a few days, with nowhere to go to the toilet, so when we finally manoeuvred him out from beneath the rocks, the release of smell was quite spectacular.
Continuing on the seal front, we have had a number of very rare visitors to Maivikien beaches this year. Within the Antarctic Fur Seal population, certain individuals have a recessive gene trait which results in a change in their fur colour. Studies at Bird Island suggest that approximately 1 in 800 seals are ‘blondies’. Currently, we have 2 adult males (which in the water you can almost mistake for a polar bear if you squint and are wearing very bad glasses), one adult female and a pup. I am not sure what other recessive genes the pup was born with, but the last time I saw it, it had taken over a Giant Petrel nest and started incubating the egg!
The Gentoo Penguins are having a poor year at the moment. Numbers at egg census, which was completed a few weeks back, were down from last year. And further to this, their new nesting site is located adjacent to a pair of Brown Skuas, which, with incredible intelligence and teamwork has resulted in a worryingly large egg graveyard. But it’s not all been bad news… on the 3rd we discovered a number of Gentoos with small chicks and a further check on the 10th showed these guys to have grown at an incredible rate. These guys will eventually form creches at about a month old and will finally become independent of their parents after 3 months.
With spring continuing here, the breeding season for most of our native inhabitants is also in full swing. Large numbers of pintail ducklings are filling the tussock grass King Penguins are displaying, Brown Skuas are on eggs, South Georgian Pipits are collecting food for chicks, and the Antarctic Terns are starting to fledge. So much wildlife to take in and so many pictures to take!