Rare pipits return following rat eradication on South Georgia
The world’s most southerly song bird, the South Georgia Pipit, is fighting back from extinction thanks to work carried out by an 18-strong international team to eradicate rats from its island home in Antarctica.
Just as the final phase of the world’s largest rodent eradication project was being undertaken by UK charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), news came that a nest of five South Georgia Pipit chicks had been found in an area previously overrun by rats.
The South Georgia Pipit is only found on South Georgia and its numbers had been decimated by the invasive rat populations on the island. Its survival as a species was under threat before the eradication work began.
The discovery of the pipit nest was made at Schlieper Bay near the western end of the island by a former member of the rat eradication team, Sally Poncet, an expert on South Georgia’s wildlife and this year a recipient of the Polar Medal in recognition of service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research.
Poncet was a member of what has been nicknamed Team Rat during its Phase 1 operations. She discovered the nest while on a Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris expedition (in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia) to survey Wandering Albatrosses.
Alison Neil, Chief Executive of South Georgia Heritage Trust says, “The discovery of pipit chicks is thrilling news and shows the rapid beneficial effect of the Habitat Restoration Project on this threatened species.
“People had spotted pipits exhibiting breeding behaviour following the baiting work, but this is the first firm proof that they are nesting in areas from which they were previously excluded by rodents.
“Pipits cannot breed when rats are present, so this discovery is confirmation that birds are quickly responding to their absence.
“We are confident that when South Georgia is once again free of rodents, it will regain its former status as home to the greatest concentration of seabirds in the world.”
South Georgia is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas and amongst the wildlife on the island are 90 per cent of the world’s Antarctic fur seals and half the world’s elephant seals.
Four species of penguin nest on the island, including King Penguins with around 400,000 breeding pairs. The island’s birdlife includes albatross, skuas and petrels, as well as the endemic South Georgia Pipit, and the South Georgia Pintail.
However, although the wildlife is impressive, it is a shadow of the numbers Captain Cook encountered when he discovered and named South Georgia in 1775.
Rats and mice, arriving in the ships of sealers and whalers, have spread over much of the island, predating on the eggs and chicks of many of the native birds.
The aim of SGHT’s project is to eradicate these invasive rodents and allow millions of birds to reclaim their ancestral home.
A successful trial phase in 2011 was followed by a second phase conducted in 2013. The results have been signs of rodents having been eliminated from almost two-thirds of South Georgia.
Phase 3 began on 18 January. The challenge is to complete the baiting of the entire island during the brief sub-Antarctic summer months and this will be followed by two further years of monitoring by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the South Georgia Government.
Assuming no signs of rodents have been discovered by 2017, South Georgia will be declared free of rodents for the first time since humans first came to the island.
Rare birds return to remote South Georgia island after successful rat eradication programme: here.