southern

November - new arrivals & a big ellie fight by Jerry Gillham

November marks the real start of summer on South Georgia as it's when the bulk of the seasonal visitors arrive - the builders, museum team and this year just four new BAS staff; two technicians, boating officer and doctor taking over from those who were departing.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the  National Geographic article here . I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt.   The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the National Geographic article here. I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt. 

The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.  A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.

A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

Shortly after we returned from our trip to St Andrews (see last months blog) I had one of the best wildlife days I've had on South Georgia. In the morning we'd been out in the boats, dropping people off over at Husvik for some field work. Dave and I had been in the RHIB and got some amazing close views of Humpback Whales as we turned off the engines and drifted for a while. 

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

Seeing sea mammals by Jerry Gillham

We've had a good week for wildlife, with spectacular visits from whales and seals.

Southern Right Whale

Early Monday evening we were raised over the radio by James declaring he had a whale in the entrance to the bay. Quickly throwing on insulated boiler suit, jacket, boots, hat and gloves (I've learned from experience that it's far better to be a minute later and prepared than the first one there who has to leave after a few minutes to put on more layers) we rushed out to join him.

We'd had a couple of whales close in the previous few days so weren't too surprised, until we saw it blow from just behind the rocky point in front of base. This one was close in. Taking advantage of the low tide we scrambled out across the rocks until we were on one side of the narrow entrance to the bay, the other side less than 30 meters away. In between us this whale repeatedly raised it's head then dropped below the surface.

That day there had been huge numbers of gulls, terns, duck and petrels feeding in the shallows. In places you could see the pink mist where krill and other marine crustaceans had washed up close. I guess a current had a brought a swarm our direction and those that depend on it, including this whale, had followed.

It seemed such a small space for it to be feeding it we were a little worried it had swum in and got caught as the tide dropped, and were even considering what we would do if we found it lying on one of the beaches the following day.

Leopard Seal

It has been a good winter for leopard seals with several familiar individuals returning, some of them after long absences, and a number of new records. Most of the sightings have been of animals sleeping in the water, just nostrils above the surface. When we're lucky they haul out on the beaches and occasionally we see them feeding.

A leopard seal eating is one of the most exciting wildlife spectacles I have witnessed. We never see them catch their prey but if you're lucky you catch them at the point when they're pushing a penguin or small seal round on the surface, after the kill but before the feed.

Again we were alerted by James, running across the beach to where he'd seen a gathering of scavengers - skuas, gulls, giant petrels - all hovering over one point, then a big splash in the water as the thrashing began.

Leopard seals grip their prey, in this case an unfortunate fur seal, in their incredible teeth then whip them through the air, slamming them down against the sea surface. This flaying is reminiscent of the way crocodiles throw their prey around. It's brutal but compelling and an impressive show of strength.

Giant Petrels by Jerry

The giant petrels, commonly known as 'geeps', are one of my key study species. They're split into two species – the Northern and Southern, differentiated by the colour of their bill tip. Red for Northern and green for Southern. The sexes are basically the same, with the males being marginally bulkier and with longer beaks.
Northern Giant Petrel. Check out that lovely eye and the impressive beak - the salt gland on top to enable filtration of sea water and the huge pointed tip for ripping through carcasses.
The geeps get a bit of a raw deal. The only time you'll see them in any sort of nature documentary is when they're scavenging dead seals or waiting patiently for defenceless young pups and penguins. They'll be fighting with each other for rights to the kill, then shoving their heads right inside these big dead seals, pulling out covered in blood.

No waste on Bird Island. A recently deceased Fur Seal will quickly be reduced to a pile of bones and the geeps are the first ones in there.
They're not as eye-catching as the penguins or as elegant as the albatrosses, but once you start spending some time with them you get captivated by their charisma.

Describing them is a bit like describing a Frankingstein. They're the largest of the procelleria family of petrels and prions. Normally when you think of these birds you'd think of petite Storm Petrels or the elegant shearwaters soaring over the waves, perfectly adapted for a life at sea but a little ungainly on land. Unlike the smaller members of the family the geeps have strong legs that enable them to stalk the beach like dinosaurs. When they fight over food their tails are up, like turkeys, and their wings outstretched as they run at each other, shrieking like banshees.

A beach-master pose as this geep challenges anyone else to try taking his food away from him.
Like most wildlife, it's when you see them with their partners and young that you really warm to them. Giant Petrels are monogamous with long-term pair bonds and often nest in the same place, frequently the same area they were born, year after year. Many of them hang around, with their partners, through the winter.

A pair circling and calling together.
They're amongst the earliest nesters on Bird Island as the Northerns start laying eggs in mid-September with the Southerns about a month later. The nest can be a simple scrape on the ground but is usually a turret built from mud, moss and tussac grass. An ambitious pair may try to use an old Wandering Albatross nest.

The pair will take turns sitting on the egg for around a week at a time while their partner is off feeding. The egg takes about two months to incubate and during this time the birds have to put up with whatever the weather throws at them – wind, rain and snow. There's no ground-based predators here, no rats or cats or mice (which is one of the reasons Bird Island is so important), so there's little threat to the geeps from other life. With a bill like that they're not worth messing with, although there's the occasional territorial squabble between adults.

Geep scrap. These two males were fighting over a nest. The female sat by passively and then left with the loser. Like with most animals the fights are mainly posturing, establishing who is bigger, but then can lead to the interlocking of beaks and with those very sharp tips it's not unlikely that some blood will be spilt. This usually seems to signal the end of the fight.
Each of the approximately 500 nests in my study area gets a number and I'll take a GPS reference so I can plot them on a map later. The majority of the birds here carry rings and darvics. I'll take the numbers down and enter them onto an existing database, from that we'll know whether each individual has stuck with the same partner, changed location, been seen before and many other things. Throughout the season I'll visit about once a week to check on the progress of the egg and chick, ultimately recording whether the pair have bred successfully or not.

Writing down nest number, location and ring numbers of a particularly unconcerned pair. (Hannah's photo).
This is all part of an ongoing, long-term study collecting data on these species to find out all sorts of things like population and population changes, breeding success and survival rates.

Giant Petrels are scavengers as well as predators and can often be seen following boats in the south seas, waiting for any scraps.
Amongst the Southern geep population there's the occasional all-white individual. It's not an albino, it's just a morphological difference. They interbreed with the more usual coloured birds. There's two females like this in my study population of approximately 300 Southern Giant Petrels.

A white morph chick, pretty much full grown and ready for departure.
Two months after being laid a little white chick pokes its way out the egg with this big clunking beak. It's parents stay with it, continuing their regular change-overs for another few weeks, after which time it is left alone. Like most birds of it's kind it defends itself with a snapping bill and the threat of regurgitation – viscous vomit that could ruin an assailant's plumage, fur or jacket.

A week-old geep chick getting it's first rays of sunshine, yawning or calling for food.
As they get older the young birds lose their downy fluff and grow a layer of sleek, black adult feathers. They start to wander away from the nest, but not too far as you never know when a parent will return with food.

Half way through chick development, when they've grown to a decent size but are still covered with down, keeping them warm as the adult feathers develop beneath.
By March the Northern chicks are three to four months old. I'll head round the study area and take weight and bill-length measurements from all of them, also giving them a unique ring so they can be identified in the future. All that remains then is for them to lose their remaining chick feathers, stretch out their wings and head off to sea. By mid-April they'll all be gone with the Southern geeps about a month behind them.

Ready to go. This was the first egg laid last season, in mid-September. By mid-March she was looking beautifully slick and smart and was soon to depart.
They're long-lived birds. I've not seen any figures for ages but there's ones here breeding that are older than me and it wouldn't surprise me if they can get to double that age. Many of these chicks will return to the same areas of their birth to breed, but it'll be a few years before that happens. I was finding apparent first-time breeders this season that were ringed here as chicks in 2005 and 2006. Ongoing experiments using tiny geolocator devices are trying to work out where the young birds go during their teenage years. Ringing recoveries have shown that within a few months of leaving these young birds can be found as far away as Australia. Similar such work has shown a difference in feeding strategies, with females more likely to feed out at sea while males patrol the beaches. As with all good science, the answers are sure to throw up many more questions.

Southern Giant Petrel. Their presence on the island during the winter is one of the highlights of going for a walk.