Letter from Lockroy - 29th December 2008

Letters from Lockroy - 29 December 2008

Wildlife and Christmas at Lockroy

 Since our last blog all sorts of exciting things have happened at Lockroy and we are enjoying our time here immensely . Over the past weeks we have kept a close eye on our gentoo neighbours as they located their nests, pinched stones from one another, and protected their precious eggs through the weeks of unusually wild weather we have endured here this Austral summer. Along the way, some of the gentoos have lost eggs to the elements, predators, or in some cases abandoned nests altogether. However on 20th December we discovered our first chicks in a nest down by the old boatshed. As anticipated, these were discovered by one of our eagle-eyed guests who visit the island with fancy camera lenses and great binoculars! Armed with the knowledge that these chicks had successfully hatched, we wandered around checking other nests which we suspected may not be far behind. On closer inspection we were delighted to discover two more nests with chicks in the same area. Speaking to visiting Expedition Teams we have learnt that the chicks at Goudier Island have hatched considerably later than chicks in other nearby colonies, however we are still four days ahead of when the first chicks were spotted here last year.

In the following days we kept a close eye on these nests and two days later, Laura (as resident Wildlife Monitor) undertook a sweep of Goudier Island to check out the status of nests in the rest of the island’s colonies and make some observations. We managed to identify eight nests in total with two chicks in four of those nests and one chick in each of the others. Most of these were located around the boatshed. This is one of nine colonies and is the lowest colony on the island. It therefore stands to reason that chicks in this area are hatching first. The snow here melted earlier, allowing the gentoos to start collecting small pebbles from the shore to build their nests sooner, meaning the whole mating cycle was slightly further ahead than other colonies on the island. We discovered just one nest with two healthy looking chicks in the control area at that stage. Typically three days pass between mating and the laying of an egg and the incubation period is 35 days. Each gentoo will typically try to lay two eggs and raise both chicks. If a gentoo loses an egg or worse still, a clutch of eggs early in the season, she will re-lay and try again.

For the most part the early chicks seem to be feeding well. When the parent isn’t sitting on them to protect them from predators and keep them warm, they are feeding or nuzzling into their parents breast feathers. When they first hatch the chicks are around 10cm tall with long necks, cute faces and rounded tummies! They have very soft looking downy fur (which isn’t waterproof at this age). The fur is almost black on the top of their heads which becomes grey on their backs with a paler grey tummy and a white under-side on their long slim necks. Each has the most adorable teeny black wings, an orange bill and over-sized orange flippers!

There was just one pair of chicks we were concerned about as one chick seemed as if it was getting more attention than the other. We weren’t sure if one was maybe a couple of days older than the other and maybe why one seemed more floppy and less alert, but we were concerned that as the parent sat down it wasn’t even completely protected from the elements.

On a more positive note, a few days later, chicks are hatching all over the island and we’re all desperately trying to get that coveted camera shot of a chick’s beak peeking out a broken egg shell! We’ve seen it so many times, but by the time we fetch our cameras, the parent is once again hunkered down on its nest! The boatshed colony is still much further ahead of the other colonies, but we now have chicks in front of the shop, at the flagpole, mast, and control colonies. With approximately 620 nests at last count however we still have a very long way to go!

In the week that has past since the first eggs hatched, the chicks have been growing at amazing speed. The chicks in the first nest we discovered have doubled in size, look equally as healthy as one-another and the parent can barely cover them when it lies down. Sadly the chick in the nest we were concerned about really hasn’t grown much at all with its sibling double in size and its future isn’t looking so rosy. It’s hard not to feel sad but we have to accept that it’s just part of nature’s cycle here.

First chicks

The gentoo’s main predators are birds called Skuas and there are usually two or three around. They tend to perch on top of Bransfield House and the boatshed and swoop around the colonies looking for unguarded eggs or a tasty looking sheathbill! Up until a week ago, we watched them pinch eggs from time to time, but have seen no eggs taken in the past few days and thankfully no chicks yet. The snowy sheathbills are however acutely aware of the new arrivals and are frequently seen scurrying around the nests. These are much smaller birds though and the gentoos are pretty good at protecting their young and shooing them away! We have at least six breeding pairs of Snowy Sheathbills on the island and they all seem to have successfully created nests. Five of these are under the main building and one under the boatshed. Rick informed us there is usually a pair under the old whale skull by the boatshed but since this is where we discovered the grizzly remains of two sheathbills which had been preyed on by Skuas, I think it is fair to assume there will be no nest there this year.

Right next to Goudier Island is Jougla Point. This is literally 30m or so from Goudier but with no boat we can’t investigate that often. There are approximately 2000 breeding pairs of gentoos there but in amongst them are Blue Eyed Shags. Their chicks hatched approximately 2/3 weeks ago. While scouring Goudier Island for chicks however we could see the Shag chicks through binoculars and they are now almost the same size as their parents. There is no way of confusing them however as instead of having the stunning black and white plumage and blue and yellow eye markings as their parents they are just huge brown fur balls with hungry beaks!

Blue eyed shags  Weddell Seal 

We have also had plenty of seals around Port Lockroy. In addition to the Leopard and Elephant seals we have mentioned in previous blogs we have also spotted five Weddell seals basking in the sunshine on Bill’s island on Christmas Day which we walked over to from Goudier at low tide.

Laura, wildlife monitor

The most significant wildlife spot however has been the whales. Port Lockroy is a small sheltered harbour just off the main Neumeyer Channel which runs through the mountains along the west coast of the peninsula. There have been many sitings of whales in the channel itself over the course of the past few weeks with all sorts of whales spotted out beyond our view. However, in the past week Rick and Nikki spotted a small Minke whale during a zodiac transit to a ship out in the Peltier Channel (behind the island. Even more surprisingly however has been the visit by two Humpback Whales right in the bay which we have spotted several times in the past three days. We suspect it is a mother and calf. We can only guess that there is an abundance of krill which has drawn them in. This is also good news for the gentoos as it would indicate a plentiful food supply for them and their young.

Christmas at Lockroy

 After all of that you would almost be forgiven for thinking that Christmas had passed us by! You needn’t worry however as we’ve been kept exceptionally busy and have been enjoying the festivities. Over the course of the past week we have had over 1,300 guests pass through Port Lockroy on 13 ships! These have ranged from 8 passenger yachts, to huge private Marine Vessels to 250 passenger expedition ships, each carrying guests who just love to shop, send postcards and party! Needless to say we have been happy and willing to oblige on all fronts and the dinner cooking rota was temporarily (and metaphorically) thrown out the window!

We have really enjoyed the company and hospitality of all the expedition teams, crew and their guests who have as usual been very good to us. Christmas Eve was spent on board the Polar Star where we enjoyed a lovely Christmas dinner, a guest led Christmas play with audience participation which had us weeping with laughter for all the wrong reasons (!) as well as salsa dancing and karaoke!

Christmas Eve on the Polar Star

On Christmas day we hosted visits from two ships, the Antarctic Dream and the beautiful three-masted Dutch sailing ship, the Bark Europa. A festive atmosphere was created in the base with all of us gamely wearing santa hats and jigging around to Christmas jingles. It seemed that everyone was still busy with their Christmas shopping and enjoying the day. Christmas lunch between ship visits consisted of oven roasted chipolata sausages, fried eggs and champagne before we made phone calls to family back home and sat down to some serious gift opening. Thank you to everyone who sent us all so many lovely cards and gifts. It’s not so easy being away from loved ones at Christmas but we were really touched by everyone’s generosity and thoughtfulness. We were delighted to receive not one, but TWO ‘Penguin Bowling’ sets between us and are planning a championship on the shop counter very very soon!
 Bark Europa Penguin bowling

After the visit by Bark Europa we had a short while to chill out and enjoy a power nap before joining the guests of the Bark Europa for dinner. For anyone who was concerned by the sound of our ‘Christmas Lunch’ you needn’t worry as a treat was in store on board the Bark. It’s a small sailing vessel with approximately 35 guests so they have two cosy dining areas. We were seated downstairs in an oak panelled dining room with a flat screen TV showing a DVD of a roaring fire! Dinner was Krill (penguin food) wrapped in a pancake, followed by South African kudu, ostrich and springbok kebabs grilled on the BBQ. Delicious!

Christmas festivities

Since Christmas we have had at least two ship visits per day and were almost up to our IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) visitor site limit of 350 guests per day on one occasion. Despite being exceptionally busy during and between visits the weather has been glorious and we have managed our first ‘Port Lockroy Plunge’ of the season. For anyone who’s a little confused, that means donning our swimming togs and jumping off the rocks into the icy cold penguin-infested waters of Port Lockroy. Rick was first in wearing his ever so fetching stripy black and white all in one Victorian style bathing costume. This was much to the amusement of the Bark Europa who were cheering him on as the ship left the bay sounding their horn by way of encouragement! Nikki and Jude were next in with Laura appointed as chief photographer. Suffering from a cold Laura had to refrain which means we’ll be doing it all over again very soon!

PL swimmers!  

We have also enjoyed a late night out with some expedition staff to Damoy Point another old British base in the bay adjacent to Port Lockroy. The base is now kitted out as a refuge hut. We zoomed around in a zodiac before investigating on shore. The old hut is amazing, complete with fully kitted kitchen, dining area and old bunk room. There’s even a darts board and stash of Jack Daniels and ‘Emergency Baileys’! We trekked up the snow hill (where we realised how unfit we had become living on tiny Goudier Island) and took in the breathtaking view across the bay and back down on Port Lockroy.

Aside from the Christmas festivities, the sunny weather has also allowed us to catch up on some base maintenance and complete the weather-proofing of the hut roof with black bitumen paint. We still have lots of maintenance projects to tackle but that was a very good start!

We hope that this has given you a good idea of all that’s new at Port Lockroy. We will be back soon with more news but in the mean time we wish you all a very Happy New Year!