South Georgia Pintail
A South Georgia dabbling duck noted by Captain Cook as he discovered the island
Information about South Georgia Pintail
Our Expert Says… "This is the only wildfowl that breeds in South Georgia. Because of the rat problem, you could only previously find them on the small offshore islands, not often visited. Now there are no rats, the pace that pintails are recolonizing the main island is wonderful to see and a real conservation success story."
The South Georgia pintail is sometimes called the South Georgia teal, but it’s certainly not a member of the teal family! This dabbling duck is an endemic species on the South Georgia archipelago and is also sometimes found on the South Sandwich Islands.
When Captain James Cook made the first-ever recorded landing on South Georgia Island in 1775, the pintail was one of the first species that his expedition noted.
The South Georgia pintail is found mainly on the northern part of the island, the southern areas being too rugged to provide the habitats that it likes. It prefers freshwater pools with surrounding tussock grass, but can also be found in marshy wetlands or other poorly-drained areas that are prone to flooding from melting snow. Pintails can also be found on the coast, where they will often seek out seal wallows.
The South Georgia pintail has developed feeding habits that suit the unpredictability of its home, and will happily eat a wide variety of foods. Pintails can be seen eating vegetation, including marine algae which they will dive for in calm conditions. They will also eat small snails, clams, shrimps, and other crustaceans. They have even been seen scavenging meat from seal carcasses!
South Georgia pintails have a long breeding season that runs from late October to March, so it’s likely that you will see birds mating, nesting, and brooding as well as chicks. They make their nests among thicker tussock grass, away from water. An interesting behavior is that South Georgia pintails will often land some distance from the nest when they return from feeding, then stealthily creep up to it. This avoids giving away the position of the eggs or chicks to any predatory seabirds who may be watching.
Mother pintails will move their brood from pond to pond, the adult usually stay in the open part of the water while the chicks forage in the grassy shallows.
Before South Georgia was used as a commercial whaling station, pintails were present in large numbers. Unfortunately, thanks to both being hunted for food by the whalers and predation by introduced rats, their numbers plummeted. However, since South Georgia was abandoned as a whaling station, numbers recovered somewhat. Since conservationists eradicated rats on the island in 2018 the population of pintails is now thought to be at about the maximum the habitat can support, at over 2,000.
Pictures of South Georgia Pintail
Highlights where the South Georgia Pintail can be seen
Cooper Bay is a small inlet containing Cooper Island at the very southeast end of South Georgia island. It was first mapped and named by Captain Cook’s 1775 expedition. From this small bay, you will get a commanding view of Cooper Island itself whose 1,300ft summit is always above the snowline, giving some stunning polar vistas even in the height of Antarctic summer.
Cooper Island is heavily protected for wildlife and it is a haven for bird species that love to nest in the tussac grass that covers the island, from the South Georgia Pintail and Pipit, to the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and the South Georgia Shag. It is also home to four species of penguin, attracting Leopard Seals, and Cooper Island has the largest Chinstrap colony on South Georgia and is one of the more accessible places to see the Macaroni Penguin.
Fur seals and elephant seals also breed and also watch out for black-browed albatross, as well as Antarctic prions and snow petrels hunting for food offshore.
Elsehul Bay at the northwest extremity of South Georgia Island is known for two things - its remarkable numbers of seals, and its remarkable number of names!
At various times, and on various maps, it has been known as Elsehul, Else Cove, Elsie Bay, Elsa Bay, Else’s Hole, and (somewhat bucking the trend) Paddock’s Cove! It’s a small bay on the northern coast of South Georgia and is only half a mile wide.
Despite its small size, it is home to an abundance of wildlife including a large colony of Antarctic fur seals. As you arrive in the bay your ears will be ringing with the barks and cries of huge numbers of juvenile and adult seals.
Adding to the barrage are the cries from the seabirds that call Elsehul home, especially the King Penguins. Others that breed include Gentoo Penguins and Macaroni Penguins, Black-browed albatross, grey-headed and sooty albatrosses, and quite a few other seabirds, such as the South Georgia Shag and White-chinned Petrel. And since they eradicated the rat on South Georgia, it is a good spot for South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit.
The shore here is a patchwork of tussac grass and mud - so many seals moving around makes for some tricky conditions! Depending on the time of year you visit, the aggressive males may still be in the bay, or, if the mating season is ended, they may have left, leaving the pups and females in peace.
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.
Ocean Harbour, on South Georgia’s northeast coast, was once known as New Fortune Bay (indeed, its Spanish name is still Puerto Nueva Fortuna). By the 1950s, surveyors reported that it was known locally as Ocean Harbour, probably after the Ocean Whaling Company that once used the inlet as its base of operations on South Georgia. Because of the potential for confusion with nearby Fortuna Bay, its name was changed to the one in local usage.
Ocean Harbor has some notable human history, including a cemetery which contains the oldest grave on the island, that of sealer Frank Cabrial who was buried here in 1820. There are also old try pots still visible, used for the rendering of seal blubber.
More recent relics can be seen that date back to its time as a whaling station, including the remains of a narrow-gauge steam locomotive that was used to haul coal and supplies to and from the ships.
There’s also a wreck in Ocean Harbour - the Bayard. She was a three-masted, iron-hulled ship over 200ft long that broke free from her moorings during a storm in 1911 and wrecked on the other side of the harbor from the coaling station where she was tied up.
Now, in a sign of nature reclaiming the past, South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns can be seen nesting on the grass that grows in abundance on the rotting deck of this 1000 ton former coal hauler.
Prion Island, like many places in the Antarctic, was named after what was first seen there. In this case, during an expedition of 1912, the island was named because the naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy noted the large numbers of prions he found here.
The prion is a small petrel also sometimes known as a whalebird, and they get their unusual name because of their saw-tooth bill - the word prion in greek means “saw”.
Prion Island sits in the 9-mile-wide Bay of Isles off the northern coast of South Georgia. It is only 1.5 miles in length but it has been designated a Specially Protected Area in its entirety. Because it has always been rat-free, birds can raise their young here without fear of their nests being raided by non-native scavengers. Because of the need to protect the wildlife, there are strict restrictions on visitor numbers, and only 50 people per day are allowed ashore during the season when Prion Island is open to visitors, so guests are often split between going ashore, doing a really good Zodiac cruise, and sometimes with being onboard ship. You’ll also find that your naturalist guides will ensure that no one is carrying anything on to the island that could harbor an invasive species.
To protect the native flora and to avoid damage to petrel and prion burrows, the South Georgia authorities have built a boardwalk, and you will be required to stay on it at all times during your visit. Don’t worry, though, as the animals seem to have decided that they enjoy using it too and nest and feed right up to its edge, so you’ll have plenty of close encounters!
Another important species that breeds here is the wandering albatross. Indeed, Prion Island is such an important breeding center for them that the whole island is closed to visitors between 20th November and 7th January each year to allow them to pair off without disturbance. This time also coincides with the breeding season for Antarctic fur seals who also benefit from the seclusion.
Other species you can find on Prion Island include South Georgia Pipits and South Georgia Pintails, snowy sheathbills, skuas, Antarctic terns, and gentoo penguins.
Salisbury Plain (known as Llanura de Salisbury in Spanish) is a large coastal flat plain leading to the Bay of Isles, off the northern coast of South Georgia.
Although this area of the coast of South Georgia was discovered by Captain James Cook in the 1770s, there were no detailed maps made of the region until a British Admiralty survey of the 1930s. A chart produced in 1931 is the first time this area was named, and it’s likely to be named after the “original” Salisbury Plain, a grassy, chalk plateau in southern England used for military training and home to Stonehenge.
The Salisbury Plain in South Georgia was formed by the glacial runoff from the nearby Grace Glacier. This glacier was named by American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy for his wife during his expedition of 1912.
Salisbury Plain is world-famous for its remarkable king penguin breeding colony. In 1912, Cushman estimated there were 350 pairs here. Now one of the world’s largest gathering of king penguins, official estimates are as high as 100,000 breeding pairs nesting here in peak season. Seeing the Plain filled with these regal birds is one of the highlights of any trip to South Georgia and to the sub-Antarctic.
Not to be outdone by the king penguins, southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals also use Salisbury Plain to raise their young and can also be seen in good numbers.
South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia Island (known as Isla San Pedro in Spanish) is often described, quite rightly, as a highlight of many peoples’ Antarctic cruise experience.
The remote, rocky main island is 850 miles from the Falkland Islands and the same distance from the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s quite mountainous, with a central high ridge and plenty of bays and fjords on its coast, making for some stunning views and remarkable photographs.
There are 8 smaller islands (the South Sandwich Islands) located 400 miles to the southeast which are rarely visited.
South Georgia has a human history mainly centered around the sealing and whaling industries, with relics such as try pots and sunken whaling ships to be discovered. Many people also pay a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while in South Georgia.
Part of one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the variety of the wildlife to be found in South Georgia is what attracts most of its visitors. From the world’s largest king penguin colonies to beaches crammed with elephant and fur seals, to breeding colonies of the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, the wandering albatross, to innumerable species of seabirds, South Georgia is a destination that serves up “days of a lifetime” every day!
Our trips to spot the South Georgia Pintail