There are two things you need to know about A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia, edited by Robert Burton and John Croxall, and produced by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. First, if you are, like me, geographically challenged, then you need to know that this is not about Georgia, the U.S. state. Nor is it about Georgia, the country in Eurasia. South Georgia is an island in the area we call Antarctica. If you look up “South Georgia” on the Internet, it is coupled with words like isolated, glacial, inhospitable. It is also the site of an incredible concentration of wildlife–penguins, albatrosses, petrels, seals and whales, and this is why you’ll also find “South Georgia” in the same sentence with terms like “truly spectacular”. Second, even if you have no intention of ever traveling to South Georgia, this book is worth reading. The descriptions of the territory’s birds, seals, whales, introduced mammals, invertebrates, and plants are written within the framework of the conversationist, so it is more than a field guide, it is a record of endangered wildlife and the efforts being made to protect it. The title page of the book states, “All profits from the sale of this book will support conservation work in South Georgia”.
The book is organized into 3 parts: Introductory chapters on Topography and Geology, Climate, The Fertile Sea, History of Exploitation, Habitat Restoration, Biosecurity, Protected Areas and Regulations, and Vegetation and Plan Communities; the main section on South Georgia Wildlife; and end-of-the-book material, including a Glossary and an Index of English and Scientific Names. The temptation will be to jump to the Wildlife sections. Who can resist penguins and whales? Please, please, please, read the introductory chapters. I know, I say this with every review. But, here we have a place that is so remote, so far away, most of us have no idea what it looks like. Surprisingly, South Georgia is not all ice and snow. There are eleven types of plant habitats, including Bog, Mire, and four kinds of grasslands. Also, knowing South Georgia’s history of sealing, whaling, and fishing, and how these industries introduced animals (Reindeer, Brown Rats, House Mice) and plants (Mouse-ear Chickweed, Dandelion) that have threatened and competed with native species, gives the necessary context within which to appreciate the uniqueness of this incredible wildlife ecology.
The section South Georgia Wildlife describes 65 species of birds, 20 species of sea mammals, nearly 60 species of insects, and more than 40 species of flowering and nonflowering plants. The length of each bird species account varies, depending on whether the bird is native or a “visitor” (the book’s term for migrant) or vagrant, breeding or non breeding. Black-browed Albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys, for example, gets the full treatment: distribution, identification, voice, behaviour, and in a box, status (endangered, breeding visitor), number of breeding pairs on South Georgia, number of breeding pairs worldwide, length, wingspan, specific threats (incidental mortality in fisheries), and where the species can be seen. (The book is entitled South Georgia, but it also covers nearby areas including the South Sandwich Islands, Shag and Clerke Rocks.) In addition to the photo below, of a Black-browed Albatross and its young, a full-page photo shows adult and juvenile birds in flight. In contrast, for Coci Heron, Ardea cocoi, a vagrant, we get identification points and a quarter-page photo.
The book notes that most of South Georgia’s birds are either Penguins, Sphenisciformes, or Tubenoses, Procellariiformes. And, much as I love Albatrosses and am curious about Prions, it is the pages on Penguins that I keep turning to. South Georgia is home to the King Penguin, the second largest penguin in the world. There are 450,000 pairs of King Penguins in South Georgia, they are thankfully not threatened, and if you can’t go there to see them, then you must see these photos. They breed in dense colonies, incubate their single egg on the feet, and take more than a year to fledge a chick. The plate below shows the top half of the first 2-page spread on the King Penguin; the field guide devotes four pages to South Georgia’s signature species.
Other penguin species that are resident or breed on South Georgia are the Gentoo Penguin (pictured below), the Chinstrap Penguin, and the Macaroni Penguin. And, while the Gentoo, like the King Penguin, look distinguished and majestic, the Chinstraps are adorable and the Macaroni Penguins, who flaunt long, golden plumes above each eye, look totally comical.
Thirty-six Tubenose species are covered to varying degrees, depending on their status. If you do travel to South Georgia, it will probably be by boat, and if it is a large boat, then you might also consider taking Steve N. G. Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America:
A Photographic Guide, previously reviewed here. In addition to Black-browed Albatross, Tubenoses you are likely to encounter in South Georgia include Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Wandering Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Antarctic Prion, and Fairy Prion. There is one passerine that breeds on South Georgia, the endemic South Georgia Pipit. If you are a lister, then this is your reason for visiting the island. The South Georgia Pipit is near threatened, its nests predated by rats, and is one of the main reasons that the South Georgia Heritage Trust aims to eradicate rats from the whole area.
Seals and Whales are also given a lot of attention, with entries organized similarly to the bird species accounts. Over 3 million pairs of Antarctic Fur Seals breed on South Georgia, saved from near extinction by fur hunters. Southern Elephant Seals and Weddell Seals are also resident, though not in such large numbers. Details are given about the seals behavior, including when they come ashore, social organization, how the young are taken care of, and diet. Fourteen species of Cetaceans (baleen whales and toothed whales) are covered, including Humpback Whale, Antarctic Minke Whale, Blue Whale, Sperm Whale, and Killer Whale. Comparisons are depicted amongst the different species, showing difference in size and shape; identification points are specific, ranging from the wrinkled skin on the head of the Sperm Whale to the columnar blow of the Blue Whale. I found the section on Invertebrates less interesting than the previous wildlife sections. I am slowly growing to appreciate some insects, but there seems to be very few interesting bugs in South Georgia. Most of the almost 200 invertebrate species are beetles, midges, gnats, and mites. Plant life in South Georgia is also less spectacular than its bird and mammal life, but I am sure that the non-grasslike herbs, grasses, sedge, rushes, ferns and mosses are lovely when viewed in person. Each plant entry gives a detailed description, whether the plant is native or introduced, global range, where the plant is seen on the island and at what altitude.
A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia features 368 photographs by a number of photographers, credited in the back of the book. They are all impressive, showing the birds and whales in action as well as in portrait. In some descriptions, photographic insets are used to illustrate diagnostic identification details. Others, my favorites, show the species within the habitat: breaching Humpback Whales, a Reindeer confronting a King Penguin (below), an elevated view of a beach full of breeding Fur Seals. The book is graphically designed so that each wildlife section has a different colored border on top of the text page; species accounts are made very readable by the typography, which utilizes size, color and font to draw the eye to the required information quickly and by the use of color-shaded information boxes.
Robert Burton, a natural history writer who has studied albatrosses at the Brisih Antarctic Survey research center, is the editor of A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia, and John Croxall, former Head of Conservation Biology at the British Antarctic Survey and current Chair of BirdLife International’s Global Seabird Programme, is the Editorial Consultant. The text of the chapters were authored by 10 writers, including Burton and Croxall. If there is one fault with this field guide, it is the fact that these authors are listed in the back of the book, under Acknowledgements, and that no information is given about their credentials or background. This is not unusual for some types of reference books, but in the birding world, where we refer to our guides by the name of the author, we want a little more information. I like knowing that Ari Friedlaender, who wrote the section of Cetaceans, is a marine biologist affiliated with Duke University who studied Humpback Whales in Antarctica, and that Phil Trathan, who wrote the Penguins section, is a senior research scientist with the British Antarctic Survey who has conducted a census of Emperor Penguins. I found this all out on websites not affiliated with this book.
I do like the Index of English and scientific names, which highlights in bold print the species that get full descriptions and in red print the main text pages. And, I think some birders will appreciate the Taxonomic Notes section, also in the back of the book, which discusses the classification system used by the book (South American Classification Committee for breeding birds, BirdLife International for others) and taxonomic puzzles and struggles for specific species.
And, I do recommend A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia as a book that is informative and enjoyable, a photographic and textual tour of a magical place filled with fantastical creatures that are far from mythic. As I said at the start of this review, you don’t have to be planning a cruise through the South Ocean to invest in knowledge about South Georgia. Human habitation and industry had an almost devastating effect on this area. The South Georgia Heritage Trust seeks “to redress the damage to its environment done in the past”(website), damage that might increase as the island’s glaciers recede. Purchasing a copy of the Field Guide will contribute to their Habitat Restoration project. It will also put in your hands some very excellent Penguin and Whale photographs and text. The book is reasonably priced and can be purchased in the U.S. from Princeton University Press (directly from their website or from online book stores) and in Europe from the South Georgia Heritage Trust website.
If you have visited South Georgia, or other areas in the Antarctic, please tell us about it here. And, if you are, like me, a Penguin Groupie, tell me about your favorite Penguin species–the best Penguin you’ve seen or the dream Penguin you fantasize about seeing. Me, I’m eager to photograph those Macaroni Penguins.
Photographs used with permission of Princeton University Press and the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
Bog – Ron Lewis-Smith
Black-browed Albatross and chick – Morton Jorgensen
King Penguin and chick – Phil Trathan, British Antarctic Survey
Gentoo Penguins – Ewan Edwards, British Antarctic Survey
Reindeer vs. King Penguin
A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia
by Robert Burton, editor; John Croxall, editorial consultant.
Princeton University Press/WILDGuides/South Georgia Heritage Plus Publishing
Paper, 2012, $24.95, £17.95
200 pp.; 368 color illus.