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South Georgia Pintail

South Georgia Pintail

A South Georgia dabbling duck noted by Captain Cook as he discovered the island

What you need to know about the 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.

South Georgia Pintail: Pictures & Videos

South Georgia Pintail

Spots where the South Georgia Pintail 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.

prion island
Prion Island

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.

Our trips to spot the South Georgia Pintail

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