Invasive rats on South Georgia

by Tom Hart on

ZSL Penguinologist Tom Hart is hiking across South Georgia with the joint tasks of working on the rat eradication project, collecting penguin feathers for DNA sampling, and checking the cameras set up last season to see if they’ve made it though the winter.  Here is his latest news…  

13th November We’ve just been dropped off in Coral Bay, South Georgia – it’s across Cumberland Bay from King Edward Point and really scenic. It’s a little horseshoe cove with a scattering of elephant seals, a few fur seals and some lost penguins every now and then. There are loads of skuas, giant petrels and sooty albatrosses flying overhead- we’ve chosen an amazing spot! We’ve landed our kit by zodiac (flat-bottomed inflatable speedboat) in loads of boxes that we drag up the slope to the hut. There are a few huts which act as refuges around South Georgia, and we’re lucky enough to be staying in one of the most scenic. While lugging boxes up the hill, I fell into several of the muddy holes peppering the hill. Andy called me a “city slicker”.
20th November It’s been a busy week. We’ve been setting loads of traps for the rats around the coast. They have only just started catching – a bit worrying as there are meant to be loads of rats here. We’re also trying to collect rat poo and samples from skua pellets to try and gather more information and gather a larger sample for the rat genetics work, which is being undertaken by the Government of South Georgia.  Meanwhile, we’ve been using the opportunity to visit loads of penguin colonies around the Barff Peninsula – mostly gentoo penguins. I’ve collected a load of broken eggshells that are a result of eggs being snatched by skua (a bit like a seabird version of an eagle), and hundreds of feathers from around the colonies.  We will process these in the lab over the Antarctic winter. We’re getting to a lot of sites this year, which is really valuable. We also hope to be able to return to some of these sites next year to see how penguin populations are changing over time.
Life in the field is great – we have stunning views, with lots of amazing wildlife. We’re trekking quite a few miles each day over the mountains so it’s tiring but doing me the world of good after most of a year in the office. Happiness revolves around the basics – lots of food and a warm sleeping bag at night. In the evenings it’s great to catch up with the other teams when we report in and to have an hour off just sitting and looking at the wildlife. The hill behind our hut is a white chinned petrel colony, so as dusk falls they start chirping and the hill comes alive with movement. It’s paradise!
22nd November I suspect most people aren’t as excited as I am by penguins, but the aim of our project, to record how penguins are responding to growing threats in the region, is really exciting.  Working on the rat eradication project, a growing problem for the bird life of South Georgia, means that we are making strides towards penguin conservation. Also, it’s my birthday, which meant we had a good dram of whiskey with dinner. Andy cooked a very good pasta slop, and the hut felt quite festive. At the evening safety sched (a round-robin radio call with specific times for each team to report in), it feels like most of the Southern Ocean is wishing me a Happy Birthday, so I feel a bit special...   26th November We’ve just been picked up with the other rat teams and brought back to King Edward Point. Eggshell-Mike, Ron and I have a good catch up over a cup of tea and find out what each other have been up to.  Also today was the memorial service for Frank Wild. He was the hero of several expeditions with Earnest Shackleton, including the famous one where he was left to keep the team on Elephant Island alive until help arrived. He lived in relative obscurity in a mining town in South Africa for the rest of his life, and his ashes were found in a house and brought down to South Georgia to be buried where he felt really at home.  

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