Plucky pipit stages comeback

South Georgia Pipit is a unique species found only on the island, and is the world's southernmost songbird. Photo: Ewan Edwards.
South Georgia Pipit is a unique species found only on the island, and is the world's southernmost songbird. Photo: Ewan Edwards.
The discovery of chicks of the planet's most southerly songbird helped launch the final phase of the world’s largest rat eradication project.

An 18-strong international team recently departed for the remote British Overseas Territory of South Georgia to begin the final phase of the world’s largest rodent eradication project, which is being undertaken by UK charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust. www.sght.org

Known collectively as ‘Team Rat’, the departure for South Georgia last Sunday (18 January 2015) coincided with the news of the discovery of a nest of five South Georgia Pipit chicks in an area previously overrun with rats, before being baited by the Trust in 2013.

South Georgia Pipit is the world’s most southerly songbird, and is only found on the island. Its numbers had been decimated by invasive rat populations on the island, and its survival as a species was under threat before the eradication work began.

Four species of penguin nest on South Georgia, including around 400,000 breeding pairs of King Penguin. The island’s birdlife includes several species of albatross, skua and petrel, as well as the endemic South Georgia Pipit and South Georgia Pintail.

But although the wildlife remains impressive, it is but a shadow of what 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.

The discovery of the pipit nest was made at Schlieper Bay near the western end of the island. It was found by a former member of Team Rat, 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 Team Rat during its Phase 1 operations, and 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 said: “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.”

The Trust’s ambitious £7.5 million Habitat Restoration Project aims to reverse the ecological destruction wrought by invasive rodents, which were inadvertently brought to the oceanic wildlife oasis on sealing, whaling and other ships during the past 200 years. More recently, climate change has been causing the retreat of the island’s glaciers, allowing the rats to access new areas of the island and gain an ever stronger foothold on South Georgia.

A successful trial phase in 2011, followed by a second phase conducted in 2013, show every sign of having eliminated rats from almost two-thirds of South Georgia. This project is already five times larger than any other rodent eradication attempted worldwide.