Monday, November 17, 2008

Animal of the Day: Southern Giant-Petrels

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to accompany Scott Sternbach to Jacob's Island, about 2 miles from station. Jacob's is an amazing rock, so thick with moss and ridges of white granite that I felt I had been transported to the Scottish Moors.

More about the island later, but the visit got me thinking about one of my favorite birds here, the Southern Giant-Petrel. On Jacob's, and on all the islands near here, there are a few birds, paired and sitting on nests.

In the air, the 'Giants' are powerful and graceful. Their gorgeous wings look loose and organic, and they easily curl up the ends like an amazing airfoil to maneuver their lazy turns. With their bulky bodies, they are most comfortable flying in a stiff wind or good air, and they are experts at finding that good air. When I'm watching, I almost never see these birds flap their wings. Seemingly, they can soar all day and love to do so, turning figure eights and circles above the islands. The silence, and their size (up to 18 pounds and a wing span span of over six feet) is what one notices most about the bird and it makes every action seem considered: even when flying fast and low, as they often do, the Giants never look like as though they are in a hurry; every feather looks dignified and they have a natural solemnity.

On the ground the Macronectes giganteus look pretty goofy. They half-hop from one enormous webbed foot to another; their wings held out like a haphazard balance beam. The combination of that awkward loping gait and their huge heads, constantly turning and craning, make them look like loveable cousins to the Three Stooges.

The truth is that the Giants are ruthlessly effective hunters and scavengers. They nest near penguin colonies and elephant seals in order to prey on the young of one and the dead of the other. Their enormously long, curved bills are strengthened to tear into intact carcasses, which they do, in addition to hunting krill, squid and fish. Two factors have contributed most to the declining numbers of the Giant (at least 20% in the last several decades), accidental entanglement in longline fisheries and the decline in elephant seal populations, whose carcasses they depend on. The Giants are variously listed as threatened or endangered on conservation listings. Giants, like most of the animals in the Antarctic are slow growing, reaching maturity at six or seven years. When they pair, it is to raise a single chick in a stone nest on the cliffs of islands like Jacob's. After 60 days of incubation, the youngster is brooded for about four months and then takes to the sea like its parents.


TemporaryLibrarian said...

I love the picture of the lurching bird - and that you got so close to the nesting one. Those beaks look fake!

Anonymous said...

Hey there Louise! Stephen here! I didn't want to leave you hanging like no one was reading your posts. I read them whenever it is time to clean out my email... (As I am cleaning, I see your blog email, and then I catch up with you! I designed my life that way and it works for me!) Anyway, I have loved being able to keep up with what you are doing. You are a world away, and I can't imagine what it is like down there! Anyway, to answer your question, anything you right is fine by me, BUT I must admit, I am dying to hear about what it is that you do day to day. What are your responsibilities? How do you decide what to do each day? Are some days more exciting than others and why? But truly, anything that you right is great! And I DO love the pictures!

Here things are much the same, but I can feel that the major work is slowing down. Problems are getting fixed up or figured out, and things continue to move forward. I am resigned to this new earlier launch date, and it seems like we will be at least to the new launch date (3/5/09). Here's hoping that you get back in time to see it leave the ground!

Have a wonderful day, (whenever you read this). You are missed!

yojay said...

It appears I may have had a little too much coffee when I blamed your blog for the collapse of civilization.
Sorry about that. It turns out that even the guys in the crew of the Endurance (expedition of 1914-1916) kept up a blog (well not a blog but a diary). I read over them and Thomas Orde-Lees' bears a striking resemblance to yours! His description of cold, ice and snow are remarkably similar to your pictures. Also, you have pictures of people jumping into the frigid waters, and Lees describes the same thing in his journal (well, not so much jumping in as falling in). Another thing is both blog and diary describe local fauna. He calls them sea leopards, while you call them leopard seals. Actually, he describes them more from a culinary standpoint, than a naturalistic one. Also, his view of seeing killer whales " like being face to face with the great leviathan...with their blood-curdling blasts...." a smidge more dramatic than your blog, but other than that, his diary and your blog are so alike, its just crazy!
If you have time, check out Sir Ernest Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance at

BlueMarinoni said...

The giant petrels look incredible. It must be quite an experience to watch one fly. Best! C.

Susan said...

Hello! So, we got so wrapped up in our own travel adventure that I'm just now adding your blog to my list of blogs to read. (I don't know whether Terran will read it regularly -- he's still figuring out what to do with blogging and other online communities. Usually I'm the designated blog-reader for our mutual friends, and I pass the juicy bits on to him.)

I went back and read your posts in August and September to get an idea of the parameters of this adventure. I'm amazed and impressed that you're doing this, and I'm eager to read more about it.

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