Sunday, December 23, 2012

Baily Head - Important Bird Area

Baily Head, Deception Island
62°58’S, 60°30’W
"Get out of the boat, GET OUT OF THE BOAT!!!!" Easier said than done when you find yourself on the high side of a tipping zodiac! A moment later the rolling wave retreated and I scrambled to join my companions on the beach.

And what an amazing beach it was! Over 100,000 pair of Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) return to Baily Head each year to raise their chicks, making this spot one of Birdlife International's Important Bird Areas (IBA). With it's large swells and breaking waves, Baily Head is considered by some to be Antarctica's most dangerous but worthwhile landings. However we had good weather and conditions so per our skipper, ours was just a "sporty landing."

One one side of the massive rock outcrop is a small horseshoe-shaped cove with a dramatic steep slope which leads up to the massive colony above. The diminutive little penguins trudging upward through the snow to reach their mates - on a warm day the snow gives way, making the accent relatively easy... on a cold day the snow turns to ice and the slope more of a slick toboggan run.

The other side of the outcrop boasts a long beach of black sand with a long gentle slope and a winding trail of penguins marching to and fro with purpose. The beach is dotted with large chunks of blue ice which drift ashore and give predators a nifty spot to hide.

Leopard seals only look cute and cuddly
Yup, when you have that many penguins in one spot, chances are you are going to run into quite a few critters who are looking to benefit.  I watched in amazement as a large leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) surged ashore not ten feet behind one of my companions, scattering penguins in every direction. My shouts of "TURN AROUND" were lost in the din of wave, wind and penguin chatter - he had no idea the seal had been there. The penguins were lucky and escaped unscathed this time. Further up the beach I found a couple of penguin bearing wounds from narrowly escaping the seal.

Skua with a stolen penguin egg
The threat isn't over once the penguins reach shore... the Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) and Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) will take advantage of any unprotected nest, scooping up eggs and chicks alike. Before you judge them too harshly, remember every community needs a sanitation crew. Together with the snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus) these birds help to keep disease from spreading in a colony as they keep everything tidy. With a short season and hungry mouths everywhere, nothing ever goes to waste in Antarctica.
Southern Giant Petrel

Snowy Sheathbill is the clean up crew of the penguin colony
A leopard seal rolls off a rock after a failed attempt to catch a penguin 

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