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Blue-eyed shag

South Georgia Shag

Antarctica's only cormorant that toughs out the coldest winters

What you need to know about the Blue-eyed Shag

Our Expert Says… "The name 'blue-eyed shag' covers a range of species, including Antarctic shag, imperial or king shag, and South Georgia Shag. Further confusion is caused by some of these being different names for the same thing! There are even debates about whether or not it's a true shag species!"

The Blue-Eyed Shag is the Antarctic’s sole cormorant species. It’s currently found in the South Shetland Islands, on Elephant Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula.

There has been debate and confusion about the Blue-Eyed Shag’s taxonomy, and it should probably be more correctly referred to as the Antarctic Shag. However, it’s also known as the Imperial or King Cormorant, or the Imperial Shag.

The Blue-Eyed shag is a 75cm (30”) tall, 3kg (7lb) black and white seabird. It has a 1.2m (4ft) wingspan but unlike its non-polar cormorant cousins it doesn’t spread out its wings to dry them. This is thanks to its very dense under-plumage that makes a waterproof barrier. This means the Blue-eyed shag doesn’t need to dry itself after fishing and expose its body to the freezing Antarctic temperatures.

The “blue eye” they are named for isn’t actually their eye at all! It’s actually blue-colored skin that surrounds the eye, and together with the warty, yellow growth above the bill, it forms the two main identifying traits of the species.

Antarctic shags don’t migrate, staying put winter and summer living in colonies. During the breeding season they pair up and both partners help to build the typical cone-shaped nest out of beach debris, seaweed, and feather, stuck together with their own feces. Both parents take it in turn to incubate the eggs, then the male takes on feeding duties while the female keeps the newly-hatched chicks warm until their downy feathers are formed.

Blue-eyed shags are diving birds, and they usually swim down up to 80ft beneath the waves to catch the fish and crustaceans that form the main part of their diet.

Although not thought to be endangered and currently stable, naturalists have estimated that there are only 20,000 individuals in the entire species’ population.

Blue-eyed Shag: Interesting facts

Shags and cormorants are pursuit divers, using their large webbed feet for propulsion.

Pairs of Blue-eyed Shags spend a lot of time lot of time grooming each other. They use seaweed to make the nest and usually lay 2 to 3 eggs. Incredibly, especially for the Antarctic 'blue-eyed' shags, the chicks are naked when they hatch!

And when the chicks fed they stick their head right down the throat of the parent bird. For the young dark chicks, it looks like the adult bird is trying to swallow them. When they are about to fledge they can be as big as the parent bird and it looks very uncomfortable as the head of the 'chick' eagerly pushes right down the neck of the adult. In the end the adults have had enough, pecking at the chick and then abandoning the birds, that can be told from the adults by the lack of the blue eye-ring.

At this time you can see also of birds busily flapping to strengthen the wing muscles. Then one or two take the maiden flight, then the rest seem to get the right idea and a whole group take off, often crashing onto the sea or onto rocks. At this time they can be inquisitive, even landing on Zodiacs and kayaks But they are also very prone to predators at this stage, skuas often ganging up to drown isolated birds.

Blue-eyed Shag: Pictures & Videos

Blue-eyed shag

Spots where the Blue-eyed Shag can be observed

Grytviken, Fortuna Bay

Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.

Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.

The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs

There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.

As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.

While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.

Our trips to spot the Blue-eyed Shag

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