Monday, October 25, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 24, 2010

FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602
SUBJECT: ON BOARD m/v PLANCIUS: October 24, 2010

OCTOBER 24, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

From sunrise to sunset, a full, busy, glorious day of teeming wildlife!
Even before the sun rose, we were landing at Salisbury Plain, a vast
expanse of glacial outwash formed by the retreat of Grace Glacier. This
is the largest level ground on South Georgia Island and home to the
second largest King Penguin colony on the island. It was here, in the
Bay of Isles that the famous American seabird researcher, Robert Cushman
Murphy spent 10 weeks compiling a chart of the bay while studying the
wildlife. Grace Glacier is named for his wife. He also kept a detailed
diary of his journey, later published as Logbook for Grace. It contains
an excellent account of the sealing activities.

It is quite difficult to describe the scene laid out before us—
thousands upon thousands of KING PENGUINS, many of them covered in the
brown fur-like coats, which caused early sealers to name them "Oakum
Boys," after the material that was used as a type of caulk between the
planks of their ships. Early biologists thought that these penguins were
a different species. After many years, biologists soon learned the
unique breeding cycle of the King Penguin. These were last year's
chicks, now large enough to be left by both parents. They stood,
protected in their creche, like teenagers on a street corner. One
curious individual was soon followed by half a dozen others. Heads
bobbing up and down with curiosity, they inspected me as I was sitting
on the bare ground—pecking at my boots and legs! We presented these
chicks with their first encounter with human beings. Non-breeding adults
standing in the streams, were just finishing their "catastrophic" molt.

Wildlife abounds at Salisbury Plain— giant petrels and skuas feeding on
the remains of the chicks who did not survive the winter; elephant seals
nursing newborn pups on the beaches; sheathbills picking bits of scraps;
and a few fur seals as well. For four glorious hours, in bright
sunshine, we enjoyed this most spectacular place. After brunch, we made
our second landing of the day at Rosita Harbor, a very sheltered spot.

Our third landing would be the crowning glory to an incredible day in
the Bay of Isles. Prion Island is a site of high environmental
sensitivity and exceptional conservation value. It is one of the few
rat-free tussac islands. As such, it is an important breeding site for
Wandering Albatrosses and the endemic SOUTH GEORGIA PIPIT. This island
has extensive areas of fragile vegetation. The tussac provides nesting
sites for the burrowing petrels, including Common Diving Petrels,
White-chinned Petrels, giant petrels and Antarctic Prions. A boardwalk
was constructed in 2008 for viewing the Wandering Albatrosses on their
nests. In small groups, we easily climbed the steps to platforms where
we could observe these incredible albatross chicks. Wandering
Albatrosses have declined by nearly 30% in the past 20 years. Currently,
the total breeding population on Prion Island is about 60 pairs, about
half of which nest on the island in any one year. At the landings, we
could see two different nests which contained very large chicks who sat
quietly, preening their feathers. The South Georgian Government only
allows groups of 15 persons per visit on the boardwalk at any given
time. So, groups must exchange after their allotted time slot is up. One
never can predict albatross behavior during each time slot. Most of the
time, the chicks simply sat in their nests, waiting for a parent's
return from the sea. Nearby two SOUTH GEORGIA PIPITS were coming and
going with mouths loaded with food, to their nest of young concealed
inside the tussac. Finally, we were lucky to see the adult female
albatross return to the nest to feed its enormous youngster. After a
greeting ceremony, the female was prompted to reguritate its food to the
begging chick. It was wonderful to be witness to this most magnificent
of albatrosses!

After a full and long day, we returned to our home aboard the ship for a
welcome dinner, recap and briefing of the next day's planned events.
Overnight, the ship repositioned for the next day's events.

Wandering albatrosses forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board m/v Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

No comments: