Salisbury Plain

At the southern point of the Bay of Isles lies a large lagoon, held back from the sea by a large shingle bank and fringed by a large flat delta of glacial streams coming to the sea: Salisbury Plain, the second largest colony in South Georgia.

Most of the penguins here are dapper kings with their brown teddy bear adolescent chicks. An occasional Gentoo wanders among them, the clown who took the dinner party door, not the circus route. Where kings walk, feet lifting from the rocks in their determined march, gentoos waddle, almost a sailor’s roll.  Their diminutive statue and lack of colour marks them, out, while they look around as if wondering what the hell happened

The endless complex life of a penguin colony is all the documentaries suggest. It must take a while to fashion but the raw material of reality shows surround you. Here, mates squabble, demanding ‘where have you been? Hanging out in the surf with that Billy?’, before the returner stretches its neck skyward, jerks and gulps, and plunges its beak down. The chick’s voracious prodding and peeping eventually pays off when its head disappears into the parental gullet, engulfed entirely to receive the promised vomit.

The adults talk constantly. Squawks and calls, coughs and ululating cries. The colony is never still and never silent, as this short video demonstrates.

In the next little clump of penguins (the next street along, you might call it), a group of chicks are encircled. One is too big to hide under the adult’s tummy flap but, ostrich-like, buries its head leaving its burgeoning bottom sticking out as if a football lay at the parent’s feet. Perhaps its chin lies on the claws, winning a little protection from the permafrost cold of the rocky beach.

Another penguin is nursing a bony chick, new-hatched and scrawny-bare, its neck-skin scraggy under the startled eyes. A chick born this late faces the on-rushing winter and poor odds of survival. Will it fall to the skuas floating overhead (visible in this picture) and patrolling the colony’s edges, eyes alert for their own family dinner? Gangsters of the Antarctic world, they are patient and determined, and take no prisoners. Only dead or nearly dead is much use to a skua.

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