watching king penguins from the kitchen window
I am currently sat by my kitchen window, in Larson House, a small shed of a building at one end of a small group of similar, but differently sized buildings that make up the King Edward Point research station here in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. From our front door to the sea is about 20 meters, and for the better part of each day, the flat, scree covered rock is home to a shifting population of moulting king penguins, fur seal pups and the occasional sea elephant. There is only limited interaction between the three, pesky fur seal pups taunt the moulting kings, and everything shifts, quickly, when a sea elephant wants move from shore to sea and vice versa - they are so huge, if easily scared. Our little home looks out onto a highway of seal pups and their mothers that come and go from the higher ground behind - so that there is a fair amount of traffic, mostly good natured. Occasionally, penguins and seals poke about at one another, but the kings are not easily intimidated with their sharp, long beaks.
The day to day life of a penguin in moult is dull. I know, I watch it. Preen, poke a neighbour, preen a bit more, and stand still. Energy must be carefully spent, if you are a moulting penguin as you can neither feed nor drink. It takes a week or two, and rarely do the birds move from a fixed spot, meaning that the one in the middle of the track down towards the whaling station must be driven, walked or cycled around. It never flinches, and we respect its right to be just there in the most 'in the way' spot it could have found.
As my particular group of birds comes towards the end of their moult, they are beginning to pair up. Pairing behaviour consists of a good deal of walking about, the male tightly following the female in a paired walk that almost looks like he is trying to stand on her heels. After a bit of a walk, they will stop, look about a bit, and do it again, only ever going a short way. Sometimes, and this is when it can get nasty, a third bird, usually a male, will follow and try to sneak in. A good deal of chattering, pecking and calling goes on in this instance, and a good deal of commotion can occur, but usually it is brief and to the point.
I am collecting material for some more writing work, which is interesting to me - yet to see if a publisher will find it so. We will see.
Meanwhile, I am taking part in team rat, the world's largest ever attempted animal eradication. There is a group of specialists here running the project, including our director, Professor Tony Martin, ably assisted by a team that consists of specialists in their field - Keith Springer who let the Macquarie Island rat, mouse and rabbit eradication among them, and a whole host of talented field workers, who will spend the next few weeks loading poisoned bait into helicopters to scatter strategically around the island. There are approximately 14 sites that we will bait this year, the remainder will be tackled in 2015 in all probability, so long as we can raise the funds, as this is all paid for by the charity the South Georgia Heritage Trust which is coordinating the project.
This trip represents, for me, the chance to give something back to the Antarctic - I have loved working here for over 17 years now, and have taken more from it in terms of enjoyable work, and friendships made. The rare, special and unique birds of this isolated, beautiful range of mountains deserve to be rid of rats, and we hope to succeed.
I'll be posting on my blog over the next few weeks, but if you want to find out more information, then please check out the SGHT web site, and if you want to donate to our work, you can do so there.
With best wishes to you all - cheers! Gerard