Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SUBJECT: ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 12 & 13, 2010

NOVEMBER 12, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Crystal clear skies and bright sunshine with absolutely no wind
whatsoever greeted us this fine morning! What a morning it was—Salisbury
Plain is a vast expanse of glacial outwash plains on the southern shores
of the Bay of Isles formed by the retreat of the Grace Glacier. It is
the largest area of level ground at South Georgia. South Georgia is
barely 10 km wide in the Bay of Isles. Rapid changes in weather are not
uncommon as winds are channeled down from Grace and Lucas Glaciers. Such
was not the cast today, however. There is no way to describe the
sensational glory of such a landing under ideal weather conditions. Did
I mention that it was warm, even hot? Temperatures reached close to 50F.
Not only were we cooking, but also the penguins! The oakum boys were
stretched out on the ground, baking in the sun. While most of the
passengers hiked to the king penguin colony, a few of us were happily
photographing on the beach as the Kings would come and go in the small
surf. Quite a number of SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS were still about, while
far more adult male ANTARCTIC FUR SEALS had arrived. Fortunately, the
fur seals had not yet become too boisterous, and were easy to deal with
once we did hike over to the colony. Both NORTHERN and SOUTHERN GIANT
PETRELS were lazing on the beaches, sometimes, bathing. Finally, we
hiked to the colony where penguins were everywhere, literally as far as
the eye can see. The rivers and streams were lined with them. First
estimated at 350 pairs in 1912, the colony, like many at South Georgia,
has undergone a phenomenal increase, and is now estimated at around
60,000 pairs, with as many as 250,000 birds in total on the beach at
this time of year due this being the molt period.

Robert Cushman Murphy spent 10 weeks in the Bay of Isles. He compiled a
chart of the bay and recorded several place names on it, including the
Grace Glacier for his wife. He also kept a detailed notebook of his
journey, later published as Logbook for Grace, and containing an
excellent account of sealing.

This afternoon, we landed at Prion Island, also in the Bay of Isles. It
is a site of high environmental sensitivity and exceptional conservation
value, and one of the few rat-free tussac islands remaining along this
rat infested coastline. It is also an important breeding site for
Wandering Albatrosses and the endemic South Georgia Pipit. It also has
extensive areas of fragile vegetation, including stream margin flushes
and tussac areas burrowed by nesting petrels. Being rat-free, the island
has abundant populations of vulnerable seabird species, including Common
Diving Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Giant Petrels and Antarctic
Prions. The recently built boardwalk led us up the path to the Wandering
Albatross chicks, still in their nests. Use of the boardwalk prevents
tourists from trampling the precious vegetation and tussac required by
the nesting seabirds. The boardwalk also helps guide tourists away from
the fur seals, unless the seals overtake the boardwalk themselves!
Landings, with wider platforms, allow for the photography of the
albatrosses and giant petrels without disturbing their nesting. Like the
remainder of South Georgia's Wandering Albatross population, the number
of breeding pairs has declined by nearly 30% in the past 20 years. So,
it is imperative that tourists use the boardwalk and respect the
wildlife. (Unfortunately, some passengers on our ship refused to do
this, and were repeat offenders of the well established Code of Conduct
as put forth by the South Georgia Governor).

The Wandering Albatross is an icon species for South Georgia, and
indeed, the entire Southern Ocean. These magnificent seabirds are the
archetypal ocean travelers. Their average wingspan of over 3 m is
greater than in any other species. Incredibly, a few birds banded as
breeding adults by the pioneer seabird ecologist Lance Tickell on Bird
Island in 1958, were still present in 2005. Given a minimum age at first
breeding of eight years (the average is 11 years) these individuals must
be at least 55 years old! The Wandering Albatross is unusual in being
one of the few species that breed during the austral winter. It also has
amongst the longest chick-rearing period, 278 days, of any bird.

We could count 7 serenely large chicks, patiently waiting for the return
of their parents, in their nests. A very few lucky folks heard the sound
of a White-chinned Petrel, in its burrow, next to the boardwalk! These
are the largest nesting petrels at South Georgia. Sealers called them
the "shoemaker" or "cobbler" because their sounds were like a sewing
machine. On this sunny day, South Georgia Pipits were continuously
soaring high in the sky, all the while calling in a display flight that
I had not previously seen. South Georgia Pintails were also flying back
and forth. Our descent on the boardwalk was blocked several times by
boisterous male fur seals! Alas, we found that our landing at Prion
Island would be the last of the season for two reasons: the fur seals
would prevent tourists from using the boardwalk, and the landing is
closed until about January 4th, to allow the albatrosses to lay their
eggs without disturbance from tourists. So ended yet another glorious
day at South Georgia!
NOVEMBER 13, 2010

It did not seem possible that we could top yesterday's landings, but we
did! The 5 am wake-up call put us on target for landing at Gold Harbor
by 5:30. Gold Harbor has always been one of my most favorite sites,
since landing there at 4:30 am on February 6, 2001 with Kim Crosbie on
the polar expedition ship, Explorer. It is regarded by many as one of
South Georgia's most beautiful visitor sites. An amphitheater of hanging
glaciers and vertical cliffs rises straight out of the sea, creating an
unforgettable backdrop to an abundance of seabirds and seals. King and
Gentoo Penguins and elephant seals jostle for space on the beach, while
Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses soar the cliffs out toward Gold Head.

However, immediately upon reaching the landing beach, we were completely
smitten with the "weiner" elephant seals on the beach. Many of the adult
females had departed, leaving behind the rotund and adorable newly
weaned pups. Unlike fur seals, these weiners are completely tame and
trusting of human beings. In fact, they investigated just about anything
that they could, including backpacks on the ground, tripod legs and
human legs! Since their canine teeth were just erupting, they were
harmless to us. We sat on the ground, and the weiners approached us,
laying their heads and sometimes, draping their bodies over our legs.
Most of us were quite content with them, but a few of the tourists broke
the Code of Conduct by touching these extremely tame and trusting
animals. One of the "repeat offenders" actually stepped on (not
accidentally) the hind flippers of an adult male elephant seal, who
promptly lifted up the front half of his body! Quite a few of the adult
male elephant seals were still on the beach, mostly snoozing and
snorting. These were not the alpha males, but the up and coming ones.
Every once in awhile, we had a rustle and hustle on the beach as one
male challenged another male. At this landing site, we never left our
original spot, but remained there for the entire time. It was well worth

After a very quick breakfast, we assembled on the gangway at 9 am for a
Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay. On the previous voyage, some made a
grueling hike to the Macaroni Penguin colony only to discover that just
ten penguins had arrived for the summer. However, we were now some 10
days later. Instead of making the grueling hike, we would Zodiac cruise
the rugged, rocky shoreline in hopes of finding our target species. On
Samuel's advise, we choose a new cruising route which proved extremely
successful! In a cavernous, narrow walled bay, we found many
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSSES sitting on nests and circling overhead.
Their mournful "pee-ooo" calls echoed across the narrow bays. This had
to be one of the most special moments of the entire voyage. CAPE PETRELS
and WHITE-CHINNED PETRELS were also observed, prowling their nest sites.
Photographic opportunities abounded— a colony of BLUE-EYED SHAGS, a pair
of PALE-FACED SHEATHBILLS and the South Georgian race of ANTARCTIC
TERNS. Rounding another corner, we arrived at the MACARONI PENGUIN
COLONY. Now, thousands of them could be seen from the rocky shores
ascending all the way to the top of the tussac-covered hillside. HIgh up
the hillside is where they will make their nests among the tussac. (Don
and I hiked this hillside, in the rain, February 2007). Macaroni
Penguins are the most numerous penguin species in the world with several
thousands pairs breeding at this colony. About 4,000 pairs of GENTOO
PENGUINS also breed here. Next, we cruised to the beach where about
10,000 pairs of CHINSTRAP PENGUINS breed. Our Expedition Leader himself,
Troels Jacobsen, was our Zodiac driver for this excursion. We rated it a
five star trip! Upon returning to the ship, we pulled anchor and set
sail for the great white continent—Antarctica!

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

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