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Blue Eyed Shag / Giant Petrel / Wandering Albatross

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1/ What are blue eyed shags like?

4/ What kind of a bird is this? (Giant Petrel)

2/ What are these blue eyed shags doing? 5/  The bird that made the breeze to blow (Wandering albatross)
3/ Is this a colony? it looks a bit bleak.
1/ What are blue eyed shags like?
Blue eyed shags are the only member of the cormorants to venture down into the Antarctic proper. They are found particularly along the Scotia arc islands and down the Antarctic peninsula, venturing as far as 68 degrees south. They are characterized by the vivid eye colour and the orange / yellow growth at the base of the beak that becomes particularly large and bright during the breeding season. 

They feed mainly on fish frequently forming a "raft" made up of dozens or hundreds of birds that repeatedly dive down onto the shoals below helping each other by panicking the fish into having nowhere to go except into the beak of the next bird. They are excellent divers with a recorded maximum dive of 116m. Once underwater they use their powerful webbed feet to propel themselves.

 

2/ What are these blue eyed shags doing?
This pair have arrived on their nesting site on a sub-Antarctic island as the last of the winter ice is breaking out. Blue eyed shags are not birds of the ice, usually staying  out of the way of sea-ice. 

They are unique in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic birds in that they will maintain a nest year-round where the sea remains ice-free. They never venture far from their nest site out to sea and because of this were welcomed by the early explorers and sealers who were looking for isolated areas of land in the vast sea-scape of the southern ocean.

Shag chicks are unique amongst Antarctic birds in that they have the only chicks that are born naked with no down. This makes them particularly susceptible to bad weather and especially dependent on their parents when very young.

 

3/ Is this a colony? it looks a bit bleak.
Blue eyed shags nest in colonies with other birds of the same type and sometimes with no other species there at all.  

Shag Rocks for instance, isolated rocks sticking out of the South Atlantic about 250 kilometres from the next nearest island of South Georgia are home to countless blue eyed shags and virtually nothing else. Likewise the aptly named Shagnasty Island in the South Orkneys is home to a large monoculture of these birds, and a very loud and smelly place it is too!

Like many types of penguins these shags are adept and compulsive thieves stealing the unguarded nest material from any neighbouring nests if at all possible. A habit that contributes to a raucous and very lively colony.

 

4/ What kind of a bird is this?
This is a Giant Petrel, commonly known as a Geep, GP or to the old sealers as Stinkers. The latter name came from their habit, quite common amongst sea-birds, of vomiting on any one or thing that approached them and seemed to impose a threat. 

They build the traditional Antarctic nest of small stones, but always seem to manage quite an impressive pile of them in comparison to penguins for example. 

They spend much of their time scavenging and are always to be found where there is a dead seal or whale carcass. Sometimes eating so much that after a couple of aborted attempts at taking off due to excessive baggage, the only remaining option is to be sick in order to lighten the load. They are large birds the size of a turkey with a wing span of 2 meters or more.

 

5/  The bird that made the breeze to blow**

The wandering albatross is a truly remarkable bird. South Georgia residents of the species have been known to make regular fishing trips that take them as far as the seas off Uruguay and southern Brazil. Round trips of thousands of kilometres over several days repeated frequently, and all to catch food for themselves and their young. Any visiting ship to the South Atlantic will almost certainly at some time be followed by one or more albatross, wheeling and turning around the ship, following at a distance hypnotically and silently.

The bird in this picture is a juvenile recognisable by the dark wing tips. As the bird ages, the dark patches recede further to the tips of the wings, so it becomes whiter. After leaving the nest they are thought not to return to land again for 7 to 10 years when they return to the island where they were born. Albatrosses mate for life and can live to be 80 - 85 years old probably making them the animal that travels farther than any other in their life-time.

The birds rarely flap their wings that can measure up to 4 metres in span. They swoop low over the never ending swell of the southern ocean, dipping down when the sea falls and rising on the air that is pushed up again when the wave rises. In this manner they are able to fly continuously and cover vast distances with the minimum of effort. There is even a mechanism within the base of the wing to "lock" it in an extended position so the bird doesn't need to strain to keep its "arms" out.

The albatross is a large bird with a large chick. The chick is so large (12kg when it leaves the nest) that it takes just over 12 months to develop fully. This means that the albatross is in the same select group as king and emperor penguins in that it has a breeding cycle that stretches over 2 years.

In folklore the bird carries the soul of dead mariners. If a sailor kills the bird, bad luck would fall upon him for the rest of his natural life. This was not a universal belief as the feet of the albatross were once used as tobacco pouches.

** "The bird that made the breeze to blow" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

Protect the Wandering Albatross. albatross are facing a decline due to illegal and unregulated longline fishing. Populations of Wandering Albatross are declining at an estimated 1% per year, exposing them to probable extinction within the century if nothing is done to protect them.

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