by Rick Wright
A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia
edited by Robert Burton and John Croxall
Princeton University Press, 2012
200 pages, $24.95–softcover
A scant dozen years after its foundation at the turn of this century, WildGuides is a small and active non-profit publisher producing natural history guides covering Britain and the world. Like such other exciting European ventures as the wonderful Crossbill Guides, WildGuides had gone largely unnoticed in America, but that has changed: Earlier this year, the imprint was acquired by Princeton University Press, which now makes available North American editions of all of the WildGuides titles, including this newest, produced for the South Georgia Heritage Trust, whose conservation efforts are supported directly by the proceeds from this book.
“Cold, cloudy, wet, and windy”—the authors of this guide are never less than honest—South Georgia lies nearly a thousand miles east and south of the Falklands. Its starkly beautiful landscape of snowy mountains and spectacularly abundant wildlife makes it the most popular of the subantarctic islands for visiting birders and tourists, attracted by the hordes of breeding penguins and pinnipeds.
Impressive as the wildlife spectacle remains today, South Georgia is far from pristine. Human exploitation of the island’s seals for blubber and fur began just a decade after Cook first landed here, and the next century and a quarter saw the near extinction of the fur seal, a species that has happily rebounded. The great whales, too, were taken in almost unimaginable numbers, as those of us who first learned about South Georgia from Robert Cushman Murphy’s Logbook for Grace will recall. And the region’s seabirds are in serious decline, threatened by longline fishing and introduced predators. The South Georgia Heritage Trust’s commitment to habitat restoration includes the most extensive rat eradication program in history: Phase I of that program, concluded in March 2011, left the areas around King Edward Point and Grytviken rat-free for the first time in 200 years, and the goal is to eradicate introduced rodents from the entire island by 2015, eliminating, it is hoped, what has become serious predation on the eggs and young of the island’s birds.
Today’s visitors are unlikely to notice these problems, their attention drawn instead by what is still the island’s rich abundance of wildlife. With this guide in hand, the birder or interested tourist will be able to identify nearly every plant and animal she encounters.
As the most conspicuous and, for many of us, the most sought-after organisms on the island, the birds and mammals occupy 90 of the book’s 200 pages. Each species is illustrated by at least one photograph, facing a prose account that covers distribution, identification, voice, and behavior. No fewer than seven plumage stages are shown for the Wandering Albatross, and a taxonomic note informs us that the breeding bird of South Georgia is the Snowy Albatross, Diomedea [exulans] exulans = “chionoptera”. Rare, unusual, or especially appealing species are also accorded short illustrated essays, treating, for example, the breeding cycle of the King Penguin or territorial behavior in the Antarctic fur seal.
Birders who look beyond the spectacle of the island’s seagoing animal life may be surprised by how few non-seabirds South Georgia can claim. Two waterfowl species, the South Georgia Pintail and the Speckled Teal, are resident, as are some of the breeding Snowy Sheathbills; the endemic South Georgia Pipit, a frequent victim of introduced rats, is the island’s only breeding passerine.
South Georgia’s small size, remoteness, and harsh climate make it possible for the guide to go beyond coverage of the island’s conspicuous “macrofauna.” A dozen insects, including six beetles and six flies, are described and depicted, as are a springtail, a spider, a bird tick, two earthworms, a snail, and the largest free-living copepod species in the world. These are the invertebrates most likely to be observed by the non-specialist, though the island hosts another 200 or so species, among them more than 70 mites and ticks.
Plants, too, including 25 native herbaceous angiosperm species and 16 ferns and club mosses, are treated, as are the island’s commonest or most conspicuous liverworts, lichens, algae, and fungi.
Such breadth of coverage makes of this book a true guide to wildlife. Birders so fortunate as to visit South Georgia will, naturally, also pack such essential and more detailed identification resources as Steve Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels, but this guide will open the eyes of even the most single-minded fan of the feathered to the richness and complexity of this most spectacular of the subantarctic islands.
Bloomfield, New Jersey