Saturday 25 January 2014

Antarctica at Christmas

This was my first Christmas visit to Antarctica. Again, I worked as staff ornithologist for One Ocean Expeditions, this time aboard a Russian ship, Vavilov. During my 36 days on board, we took three groups of passengers from Tierra del Fuego to the frozen continent and back. The third, longest voyage included a visit to Falklands and South Georgia. Previously, I'd been in November (when penguins have eggs) and in February (when the chicks are well grown). Now I had the chance to watch them hatch...

I took this photo on Christmas Day. Most of the Chinstrap Penguins were still incubating, but a few had hatched. Here, a parent (probably the male) gives the new arrival one of its first meals, of regurgitated krill. (Click on the image to enlarge). Once the female has laid her two eggs, she needs to return to sea and put on weight she has lost while egg-laying. So the male takes the first turn at providing food.

In the same Chinstrap colony a pair of Macaroni Penguins comes to nest each year. Normally they live further north, in South Georgia, but a few odd pairs nest in the South Shetlands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. On the first two voyages, most of our passengers were not keen birders, but most were very happy to see the stranger in the colony. When we returned on the third voyage, after our visit to South Georgia, both partners were onshore. Unfortunately I have not been able to discover if the pair has ever been successful at breeding so far south. 

 The Gentoo Penguins are the new success story along the Antarctic Peninsula. While the Chinstraps and Adelies decline, the Gentoos are increasing and starting new colonies. These changes are closely related to a reduction in winter sea-ice around their breeding grounds. Gentoos are an open-water penguin, while their two relatives need more sea-ice nearby. The water below sea-ice is a vital nursery for young krill, the basis of almost all the Antarctic food-chains. Gentoos lay eggs a week later than Chinstraps: I took this photo of a day-old chick and egg in early January. 

Westpoint Island, in the Western Falkland Islands, is the site of a fascinating mixed colony of Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguins. In early January, both these very different species have young of a similar age. The albatross only ever lay one egg, but the Rockhoppers lay two. Usually only one of the chicks survive, but this year we saw plenty of healthy-looking twins. The penguins 
gain protection from the longer-necked albatross when predators are flying over (such as Striated Caracaras). The albatross, on the other hand, only just seem to tolerate their flightless neighbours,and arguments between the two are a regular and noisy occurrence.

A visit to one South Georgia's great King Penguin colonies is always a highlight of any voyage. So what's going on here? The paunchy-looking penguins are in fact incubating an egg on their feet. Most will hatch in February. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a juvenile hatched last February is soliciting food from a parent. Already it is considerably heavier than the parent. It will need its extra weight, since it is about to spend two weeks moulting into waterproof plumage, before heading out to sea. Its parents have no way of teaching the young to fish: they must learn by trial and error. The spare fat will soon be used up! 

Fur Seals are in the sea-lion family, not at all related to the true seals. They are abundant in South Georgia, having almost been exterminated two centuries ago for their dense, waterproof fur. Most of the pups are black, but one in a hundred is a blond. The adults occasionally bite human visitors, but they can usually be scared off by clapping hands together as they charge. Now their over-abundance is starting to be a problem: they are starting to collapse the burrows of various nesting petrels such as Antarctic Prions. Before the sealers reduced 
fur-seal numbers, the thousands of great whales around South Georgia would have kept fur-seal numbers in balance (since both are krill-eaters). But now, following sixty years of devastating whaling, fur-seals continue to increase. At least some whales are flourishing now: we saw plenty of Humpback (pictured) and Fin Whales, plus a few Minkes and Orcas. 

In the evenings there was plenty of time to relax in the bar with a song or two. Here Quinn and I are re-creating a song composed in 1916 on Elephant Island. When Shackleton's men were marooned there and eking out a meagre living awaiting rescue, the banjo they had with them helped to keep them cheerful. Passengers helped us with the chorus, "Oh Frankie Wild-o tra-la-la-la-la-la-la!"

And on Christmas Day, Liz, Amanda, Eva and I put our ornithological hats on as we negotiated another hard day at the office. Yes it is work, looking after 80 or 90 passengers, but it's a great privilege, and I can't wait to head back south in November!