10 Nov 2015

Expedition To South Georgia Island by Maureen

13/23

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Another early morning. This morning is sunny and "warm" (4C), but the wind is up around a constant 30 knots with occasional gusts, so the temp is actually really cold and the ocean is rough. We get a little wet on the Zodiac ride in, but not too bad. There are tons of king penguins lining the shore and making their way inland.

Salisbury Plain's king penguin population isn't as numerous as St. Andrews, but it's well-known because of the possible views (photo opportunities) of the colony. The views just from the beach are magnificent -- lots of mountains, a couple glaciers, and islands off the coast.

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I start out the morning by joining our birding staff, Joe and Dave, on a "pipit and kings" tour. The area right off the beach is tussocky and very muddy/boggy. But pipits like tussock for their nests and we see some flying around. We manage to track them to a general nesting area where parents are flying back and forth with food for their nestlings. The babies make lots of noise as soon as the parents arrive, though we can't see the babies through the thick grass (and we don't want to disturb the nests). We wander around quite a bit finding other pipits. Dave tells us that in 2009 when he was last here, there were rat tracks all over the beach and, therefore, no pipits present. Now, they seem to be thriving. The sun has disappeared and it's still cold and windy.

Top photo: Finding pipits
Middle photo: Pipit found
Bottom photo: Penguins sludging their way through the boggy mud

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After Joe and Dave and the rest of us exhausted our pipit-finding skills, we turned to the king penguin colony here. There are an estimated 60,000 pairs of penguins who come here to breed each year, plus all the oakum boys, so this is quite a colony! They stretch out for quite a distance on the plain, but they also have colonized the mountainside. And as we've come to expect, they make a raucous ruckus, trumpeting and whistling up a storm. The oakum boys are still my favorite, even if they're still more laid back than that first group we met.

Top photo: Portion of the colony; you can see the brown oakum boys on the side of the hill
Middle photo: Oakum boys
Bottom photo: Colony

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After watching for pipits, I walked up the wash area towards the hills/mountains/glaciers. Both sides of the wash were covered in molting penguins. They were noisy. The wash was quite muddy and slippery -- I slipped a couple times, but nothing bad that hurt or made a mess of me. Plus, I needed to walk slowly for the penguins -- they don't like quick movements and prefer when you move at their slow speed. I tried to get photos of the rivers of penguins in the wash, but I couldn't really do the scene justice without a higher elevation to take photos from. Unfortunately, my way to a higher spot was blocked by penguins. I did attempt a different higher spot up the side of the nearby mountain, but it wasn't the right angle. Still, it made for a nice mini hike.

Top and middle photos: Rivers of king penguins
Bottom photo: View of the glacier, mountains, and penguins

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On my way back from the penguins, I stopped at what sounded like a busy hillside for pipits. I made my way slowly up the tussocky hill, stopping to watch for pipit parents going to nests. I finally worked my way over to a very busy nest (perhaps it was 2 nests, or they were just super parents that seemed like 4 birds instead of only 2). I did manage to get some good photos of parents with full beaks for the babies. The babies were so chirpy when mom and dad were there. As I sat on my pipit hill, the sun came back out, the wind died down, and it was really pleasant to sit in the sun and observe these little guys who are making such a great comeback for their species.

Top photo: Pipit with a bug in its mouth
Middle photo: Another pipit with food
Bottom photo: Pipit outside the nest

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Prion Island is home to nesting wandering albatross. The birds are endangered, so the Government of South Georgia requires special visitors' permits and protocols so that the birds aren't bothered. They have built a boardwalk path for visitors to keep them out of critical areas. The Government closes the island to visitors from about a week from now for several months -- I'm not sure how much of that is due to the albatross vs. fur seals taking over the island for breeding. Prion is also home to many pipits because rats were never introduced -- it is the pipit population here that colonized Salisbury Plain.

Due to the restrictions on visitors, the trip participants had to split up into smaller groups. We Zodiac'ed out to the island, fought off the fur seals on the beach, then headed up the boardwalk for our first view of wandering albatross chicks.

Top photo: Walking up the boardwalk
Middle photo: Looking down at the view from the boardwalk
Bottom photo: Wandering albatross chicks (and also some giant petrels)

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These chicks are quite large and sit atop nests. After our first stop on the boardwalk, we headed to a higher area where there were a lot more nesting chicks and some were super close! I really l liked their wispy downy feathers and humungous feet :-)

Top photo: Wandering albatross chick
Middle photo: Chick working on his/her nest (www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10153791333132072)
Bottom photo: Yawning chick