4 November Prion Island, Elsehul

Our last day in South Georgia is for the birds; specifically, the South Georgia Pipit. This is a small brown sparrow-like songbird which has the distinction of being the only songbird found south of the Antarctic convergence. It was once very plentiful here, but it builds its nests low in the tussock, and so is vulnerable to rats. It has now completely disappeared from all except the few rat-free islands. Prion Island is one of these, part of the an area on the north coast known as the Bay of Isles.

This small island is fiercely protected. The government has built a very nicely-done boardwalk, and the limited number of visitors who are allowed on at one time must stay on it. The other big draw (indeed the primary attraction for all but the most rabid birders) is the Albatross nests, in which there are large Wandering Albatross chicks. An initial recon mission by the naturalists reveals quite a number of these close to the boardwalk, so we begin dividing up into small zodiac groups.

The weather has turned at last, there is snow on the deck, but the wind and sea are still calm and it is another very easy landing. The first thing we notice is that the air is full of birdsong! We had thought the pipits would be elusive, but there are lots of them. Although they are hard to spot in the tussock, there are plenty of them flitting about. Because there are no trees, the males fly up and around in circles to advertise for mates. We can at least say we have seen it, although it is pretty hard to get a good look at little brown birds flittering around in the air.

We start on up the boardwalk, which rises steeply in a stairway up the hillside. Before long we reach the first Albatross nest, but another group fills the little platform, so we continue up to the top. They have set up spotting scopes trained on a couple more nests, and as we begin to look around, we see the there are quite a number of nests in sight, each with its big gangly chick sitting quietly or stretching its long wings. They are particularly ugly, Albatross chicks – quite a contrast to their sleek, elegant parents. They are nearly as big as the adults, but fuzzy and patchy and gray and awkward. They sit on these nests for a long time. The parents show up with fish occasionally, and then one day the chick just gets up and flies away, and that's that.

We are keeping a sharp eye out for pipits in the tussock. I get a good look at one pair that seems to be leading a pair of Skuas away from their nest. They hop off in various directions, but the Skuas are not fooled and are poking about searching anyway. The pipits are not at all boring and brown actually, they are quite pretty with yellow-gold stripes. Seeing them close up like this, I feel that I can confidently say that I saw them--not just a brown fluttering bit in the sky that had to be one because it is the only one here.

One of our champion birders (our same friend from bow and bridge, the intrepid Iming of the polar plunge) has found a pipit nest, right off the walkway! It is a hole halfway up a tussock mound, a kind of tunnel with woven sides leading down into a burrow, and can hardly be seen except that every once in a while a pipit flies down to it, drops something in the entrance, and flies away. When the parent is there, we can hear the peeping of chicks inside. They quiet down again right away, no doubt because of the lurking Skuas.

We watch for a long time, long enough for Rick to get some excellent shots with the telephoto. Richard White (the bird expert) tells us that these will make our birder friends at home green with envy. Rick wants to post them to a local birding newsgroup and say “we saw this in our backyard, any idea what it is?”.

Our afternoon stop is another of the islands in the Bay of Isles called Elsehul. This one is famous for Albatross nests – the cliffs are full of white dots that are nests of all four kinds of Albatross that breed here; Wandering, Black-browed, Grey-headed, and my favorite Light-mantled Sooty. To see them, we have to scramble up through the tussock to the top of a cliff—but even before that, land on the beach and pick our way through the Fur Seals.

So far, we have had lots of Elephant Seals, and only a few isolated Fur Seals. At this end of the island, the Fur Seals have already started coming in to breed. Although they are not nearly as big as the Elephant Seals, they are very aggressive. The males “come out fighting” -- the male pups are all scrapping with each other, and the adult males are constantly challenging one another. They are beautiful and graceful, but they have razor-sharp teeth and are lightning fast. The males just don't like anyone getting too close, and are apt to consider humans a threat to their territory. If there are too many, the zodiacs can't land at all. It is very early in the season and not many fur seals are here yet – that is a major feature of this particular trip. We can land at places like this, where we would not be able to do so two weeks from now.

After picking our careful way between seals that eye us suspiciously, we reach the steep scree slope and start climbing through the tussock. These low tussocks are worn smooth on the top by the seals, and we step or hop or jump from one to another. It like a game, a kind of cross between hopscotch and Twister. It's fun, but we continue to keep an eye out for seals – they climb very high, and they look very much like rocks.

When we reach the top of the cliff, our efforts are well rewarded. Below our feet are a number of nests, barely 10 feet below us. Several are the lovely Sooties, and the pairs are billing and cooing like mad. We gaze down on the seals playing in the tide pools far below, and the huge birds fly by us on their way to their nests on the next cliff over.

On our scramble down, I (Rick) was trailing Judy by 20 ft. or so when she walked right over a fur seal that must have been sleeping between the tussocks. She made it another five ft. or so before this seal comes rocketing up into view, clearly thinking “What the heck was that!”. It starts barking at Judy who spins around, also clearly thinking “What the heck is that!” The expressions on both Judy and the seal were priceless. Luckily neither Judy, nor the seal were looking for conflict, so we continued on our respective ways.

Dinner last night included the best dessert yet, something called “Budapest Pastry” that involved hazelnut meringue and whipped cream. Did I mention our Swedish pastry chef? He is also one of the drysuit divers.

We are sad to leave this magical place, and really hope we can come back. Back out to sea now – but at least that gives us two days to catch up on sorting photographs and sending mail! And we will begin turning the clocks back an hour each night again, regaining our 3 hours of lost sleep.