The main attraction at Gould Bay – in fact the only reason the Gould Bay camp exists – is a large emperor penguin colony. On my first visit I counted just under 6300 live chicks, and estimated that there would have been about 7500 breeding pairs at the start of the breeding season (April/May). The chicks are about 3-4 months old during November-December, with only a few chicks small enough to be brooded by their parents when we first arrived (i.e. riding on their parents’ feet, enveloped by a fold of skin and feathers, and in contact with the warm, bare brood patch of their parent). By late November, almost all the chicks are large, downy and highly mobile, often travelling 100 metres or more between subcolonies. Indeed the entire subcolonies are highly mobile, with one group of over 500 chicks moving about 1.5 km towards the camp over the course of 3 weeks between my three visits to Gould Bay.
The Gould Bay camp is closed down in early December, before the sea-ice becomes too thin to land planes on, and before there is any real risk of the camp breaking loose and floating out to sea. For this reason, we did not see the final stage of emperor penguin chick development, when they shed their down and departed to sea.
The larger chicks generally maintain their own body temperature, but they form huddles of tens or hundreds of chicks when temperatures drop much below minus 15 degrees Celsius and/or there is a high wind chill.
In addition to the emperor penguins, there is a handful of other wildlife species that can be seen at Gould Bay. A few non-breeding Adélie penguins were among the emperors, with up to six at a time seen. They were often in pairs or small groups, and tried to form nests out of dirty (i.e. guano-stained) snow. In the absence of pebbles or grit, they had no chance of breeding successfully, but eggs are laid some years (and promptly freeze).
I expected to see South Polar skuas and southern giant petrels preying and scavenging on the emperor penguin chicks, but saw neither on my first visit. On my return 4 days later, a pair of South Polar skuas had arrived, and there were at least six present a week later, but none showed signs of territorial behaviour or breeding.
Two species of petrels were occasionally seen in flight near the emperor penguin colony – snow petrels (up to ten per day) and Antarctic petrels (three sightings of one or two birds each time). Both are seabirds that feed in the open leads of water among pack-ice, and breed on rocky slopes on the Antarctic continent and nearby islands. There is no exposed rock close to Gould Bay, and it is a mystery where these birds are commuting to or from. The four Antarctic petrels that I saw all flashed past too quickly to photograph, but snow petrels often circled once or twice before moving on, allowing time for a few hurried photographs.
The only other wildlife that I saw at Gould Bay were Weddell seals, with half a dozen large animals sleeping beside cracks in the sea-ice. The cracks and freshly-frozen sea-water at the sites allow access to the sea below for the seals, which can open and maintain the entrance/exit holes with their protruding incisor teeth. Leopard seals have also been seen at Gould Bay in previous seasons, but unfortunately the ice-edge was more than 10 km from the colony in late 2014. This meant that we did not witness the spectacle of emperor penguins leaping out of the water or diving in, let alone leopard seals hunting the unwary.
Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly visited Antarctica during November-December 2014 as a guest lecturer for Adventure Network International (ANI). This is the seventh in a series of blogs based on his experiences in Antarctica, and particularly at the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony in the southern Weddell Sea.
Previous blogs in this series:
The southernmost penguin colony
The final blog in this series:
I’m very impressed by your images,Colin.It’s great to see photographs of species that most of us will never see.
Thanks very much for your comments Ormond.
It’s interesting how the rock, ice or snow terrain influences the bird behaviour.
Thanks very much Glenda and Stuart for your comments.
Further to your comment Stuart, a related feature of the link between landscape and wildlife ecology is the ephemeral nature of emperor penguin breeding colonies. When the sea-ice breaks out in January or February, it deposits a year’s worth of colony detritus (droppings, corpses, failed eggs) into the Weddell Sea. The birds returning to breed in March and April may be in a slightly different site to previous years, but wherever they choose it is pristine sea-ice and snow. Adelie penguins (and similarly chinstrap and Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula) are not only confined to ice-free (rocky) sites accessible from the sea, but therefore breed year after year on ancient cemeteries of accumulated guano and corpses.
Awesome images Colin! To be treasured.