The feathery residents of St Andrews Bay | South Georgia Part 1

April 14, 2021

In March 2019 Hannah was lucky enough to go on board the MV Pharos and visit South Georgia. In the first of a series, she takes a look at some of the wildlife that inhabits St Andrews Bay:

Saint Andrew’s Bay South Georgia. First sighted by the British expedition under Cook which explored the north coast of South Georgia in 1775, a two mile wide expanse of exposed bay at the southern end of the Allardyce Range, boasts an extensive array of wildlife.

This idyllic haven is a breeding ground for a variety of fauna including the light-mantled sooty albatross, snowy sheathbill, Antarctic tern, elephant seal and fur seal.

The most distinguishable resident on this fine dark sand beach is the king penguin. The colony is the largest of its kind in South Georgia with approximately 150,000 breeding pairs congregating on this beach continuously year round. 

Laying season begins between late November to mid-January and the first chicks hatch out in mid-January after 54 days of incubation. The king penguin lays only a single egg that it incubates on its feet under a fold of skin. When winter closes in from May to August the chicks rely on their reserves of fat to carry them through the winter, as with scare food supplies their parents do not feed them. This coupled with unpredictable weather conditions ranging from 10 degrees in the summer to as low as -10 degrees in the winter, means that sticking together is vital for survival. The chicks gather into huddles called creches to keep warm until feeding starts again when fish become abundant in September and October.

A young fledglings diet mainly consists of lanternfishes with some squid and krill which is found at depths of up to 1,000ft.  Parents travel considerable distances up to several hundred kilometres to find food for their chicks.

The chicks put on weight, moult into a coat of feathers and depart to sea from late September onwards. Their parents also go to sea to replenish their depleted fat reserves, returning to shore again to moult into a new set of feathers and begin the breeding cycle again.

Unlike smaller penguins, king penguins occupy their rookeries all year round so it is not uncommon to see chicks and eggs at the same time as well as all stages of courtship. King penguins rear only two chicks every three years as it takes more than one year to rear a chick – to be exact 14 months lapse from courtship to fully fledging the chick.

Unusually, king penguins do not mate for life. The divorce rate between pairs can be as high as 80 percent. The reason for this seems to be that penguins arriving to start breeding have limited food reserves and cannot afford to wait for a late-returning mate.

The king penguins at St Andrews Bay are facing a change to their habitat with the three glaciers  behind the beach Cook, Buxton and Heaney Glaciers  all in retreat. Records at South Georgia show that the mean summer temperature has warmed from 2.7 degrees Celsius to 3.5 degrees Celsius. The effects of climate change are very visible in the recession of South Georgia’s glaciers. Many of us will not get a chance to step foot on these pristine shores within our lifetime. However we can but hope that these feathery creatures will be able to call St Andrew’s Bay home for many years to come.

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