Thursday, 8 January 2015

Antarctica - part 2

My last blog was all penguins. Now for three albatrosses. What a contrast - the non-fliers and the constant-fliers! This adult Southern Royal Albatross is taking a break from nesting this year, since it's half a world away from its nesting grounds on Campbell Island, off New Zealand. My staff colleague Bruce took this portrait in the Drake Passage, south of Tierra del Fuego. These great albatrosses (with wingspan of up to 3.5 m) are such masters of air currents that they hardly need to flap their wings, and spend the non-breeding years constantly circumnavigating the globe at latitudes of about 50 degrees South. Their breeding population is estimated at 8,500 pairs.  

The Wandering Albatross is a very close relative of the Royal. Here we see a fully grown juvenile begging for food from a parent - on its nest on Prion Island, off South Georgia. It takes a pair of Wanderers a whole year to complete a nesting cycle - three months of egg and nine months of chick in nest. So when half-grown this chick will have endured a harsh winter of snowfalls and gales. Once it fledges, it must learn to fly and catch squid by itself - its parents have finished their work, and now take a year off to roam the southern ocean.

 Also in the same family, but far smaller and darker, is the elegant Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, another emblem of the South Georgia region. Breeding sites echo to the sound of their mournful cries, as pairs pass alongside the cliffs in synchronized flight. The large head, white eye-ring, and pointed tail are characteristic. Unlike their larger relatives, sooties can raise a chick each year. 

Petrels are close relatives of albatrosses; and there's not much size difference between a sooty albatross and this Southern Giant Petrel. This is one of the white morph that occurs in small numbers among the more common grey-coloured giant petrels. Here seen on nesting grounds in the South Shetlands, giant petrels nest in loose colonies and are easily disturbed while breeding. I took this photo with my Nikon Coolpix through the telescope. 

Cape Petrels are often firm favourites with passengers in the Drake Passage, as they follow ships in friendly gangs, riding the air currents for hours and often passing conveniently at deck height. They are also known as Pintado, the Spanish name for 'painted,' since the white back seems to be splashed with black paint. The scientific name Daption is an anagram of Pintado, and has no latin root. 

Finally, we were happy to see that Antarctic Shags had hatched their chicks well before Christmas. These beautiful cormorants nest in small colonies, and can raise three chicks in a good year. The nests are used each summer for decades, perhaps centuries, and comprise fresh seaweed bound with guano. While krill is the preferred food of most Antarctic birds, shags supplement this with small fish. Many thanks to One Ocean staff and passengers for the use of their images. Next time, some Antarctic mammals.....  

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