Antarctica from an Expedition Cruise Ship - 19th December 2011 – 3rd January 2012

Published by Dave Horton (davetwitcher AT

Participants: Dave Horton


I chose a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsular with Quark Expeditions which was cancelled two days before sailing. I hastily arranged a longer but only slightly more expensive cruise with Hurtigruten who I had previously dismissed as an option as I thought the size of the ship would limit the landings. However, this proved not to be the case as the company limited the group size to 199 passengers which meant we were a class 1 vessel with all landing options available. We managed 12 landings in total with only one cancelled due to adverse weather conditions.

The cruise took in the Falklands, South Georgia, South Orkney’s and Shetlands and the Antarctic sound and Peninsular. The cost was approximately half that of an organized birding tour on a vastly superior boat with facilities that my non-birding partner could appreciate. I was the only birder aboard the ship and found all species myself. I found the expedition ornithologist to be less than reliable. I saw most species you would expect with the exception of South Georgia Pipit which was unavailable as no landing was attempted in the area of the island where it still thrives. For those birders not desperate to see every single species, this would be a very viable, economical alternative.

18th December

Upon arrival at Ushuaia, my baggage was delayed so I took a brief look around the scrub behind the airport noting, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Bar-winged Cinclodes and Austral Thrush.

We stayed in a hotel in Ushuaia before the cruise which enabled me to do an afternoon/early evening walk along the shore and more intensive early morning birding to the West the town the following morning Birding along the shore East of the pier produced a few groups of Flying Steamer Duck, Kelp Goose, Upland Goose, Crested Duck, Chilean Skua, Great Grebe, King Cormorant, Magellenic Oystercatcher, South American Tern and both Kelp and Dolphin Gulls.

19th December

Early morning to the West I found a lagoon bordered by a dirt track with a feeder stream leading to a hidden marshy area. This was most productive with Magellan Snipe, Correndera Pipit, Red Shoveler, Chiloe Wigeon, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Southern Lapwing and Chilean Swallow. Birds along the shore walking to this point included Blackish Oystercatcher and the only Flightless Steamer Duck plus Black-crowned Night Heron.

We did not need to board the ship until 4 p.m. so we took in a standard Tierra del Fuego tour in the morning. This enabled me to get my only views of Ashy-headed Goose, 2 fly over Buff-necked Ibis, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, Austral Nigreto, House Finch, Patagonian Sierra Finch, White-crested Elaenia and Austral Parakeet. Other species seen were Black-chinned Siskin and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant. The ship left port at 10 p.m. leaving little light for any meaningful birding as we sailed through the Beagle channel.

20th December – At Sea

The first of the ever present Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel and Pintado Petrels were seen early morning and as the day progressed Slender-billed Prion and the first of the large Albatrosses with both Southern Royal and Wandering Albatross putting in an appearance. Sooty Shearwater were numerous along with fewer Great Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrel and Wilson’s Petrels. A few porpoising Gentoo and Magellenic Penguins were noted along with Peale’s Dolphin and South American Fur Seal.

21st December – Western Falkland Islands- New Island and Carcass Island

Our first landing was on New Island which held a large Rock Hopper colony mixed with King Cormorants and Black-browed Albatross. I also saw Black Cinclodes, Striated Caracara and Turkey Vultures. Our afternoon landing was on Carcass island which is rat free and teaming with life. The Magellenic Penguins were inquisitive and Black Cinclodes ran around my feet. Within minutes I had located a Cobb’s Wren which is split by IOC and a few White-bridled Finch and Black-chinned Siskin. Austral Thrush were also amazingly tame. Other species seen were a family of Ruddy-headed Geese, and Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck. Common Diving Petrel was noted as we set sail for Port Stanley.

22nd December – Port Stanley

I took an organized wildlife tour around the coast to Gypsy Cove which was a big disappointment and I could have seen more independently. The birds that were noted were Magellenic Penguin, Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck, South American Tern,
Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Austral Thrush and the usual range of Geese and Gulls. Many of these species were missed by the leader of the group. The Variable Hawk that had nested on the headland in previous years was not present this year.

23rd December – Scotia Sea

As we headed for South Georgia, the first Antarctic Prions were noted along with a Soft-plumaged Petrel and Sooty Albatross, both of which gave amazingly close views as they gave the ship the once over. Grey- headed Albatross was also seen for the first time.

24th December – Scotia Sea

Soon after midday a Snow Petrel started to follow the ship and stayed with us until dark. As we headed further East the number of Wandering Albatross increased and I had my first sightings of Black-bellied and Grey-backed Storm Petrels. Surprise of the day was an Atlantic Petrel that flew very close over the observation deck giving fantastic views.

25th December – South Georgia – Fortuna Bay and Stromness

Our first landing of the day saw us walking amongst 8,000 King Penguins with hundreds of Antarctic Fur Seals loafing about in the tussock grass and on the beach along with a few Southern Elephant Seals. Northern Giant Petrels were observed well for the first time gorging on a Seal Carcass. A few of the South Georgia sub species of Yellow-billed Teal were seen in the streams and pools leading to the penguin rookery.

Many of the party chose to walk in Shackleton’s footsteps over the hill to Stromness Bay but I chose to stay onboard as we passed close to a Macaroni Penguin colony. Unfortunately the mist came down and I only saw 3 porpoising Macaronis close to the boat. At the old whakling station in Stromness I saw a pair of Snowy Sheathbill flying around the station but not venturing outside the two hundred yard exclusion zone around the asbestos infested remains. Reindeer were frequent as they were at Fortuna bay. It is likely that they will soon be eradicated along with other introduced species, notable rats. South Georgia Shag were flying to and from breeding rocks and many Antarctic Terns flew along the shore. Heading further round in the late afternoon a South Georgian Diving Petrel was well seen close to the boat and thousands of Antarctic Prion flew around as dusk approached.

26th December – South Georgia - Grutviken

Much off the day was wasted waiting for the weather to improve so we could make a landing at the old whaling station and museum. The bay also features Shackleton’s grave and an active Post Office. We finally made it ashore soon after midday and most of the same species seen yesterday were again apparent in the bay and along the shore. Once we headed towards the eastern end of South Georgia the first Light-mantled Sooty Albatross appeared and these were then to be the most frequent Albatross seen until we got to South Orkney. As we sailed away from South Georgia the first Blue Petrels were observed amongst the hundreds of Antarctic Prions.

27th December – At Sea

As we got further south the first Southern Fulmar’s put in an appearance and after the excitement of the first icebergs, the first whales appeared. Humpbacks were seen fairly frequently and one pod of 4 Fin Whale was seen close to the boat.

28th December – South Orkney Islands

We landed at the Argentinean Station of Orcadas where we were the third ship in 10 months to visit the base. Being a fair way south our first Adelie and Chinstrap Penguins were seen along with 4 loafing Leopard Seals on the sea ice on the far side of the isthmus on which the base stands.

29th December – Elephant Island

We viewed the spot where Wilde lived for 4 months before being rescued by Shackleton . A fair sized Chinstrap colony was nearby but we did not take to the Polar Circle boats to get any closer views. We only used these to be transported to shore taking 8 people at a time in discomfort as the boats only really took 7. Zodiacs are vastly superior in my view despite having a seat in the Polar Circle boats. We headed on south seeing more Humpback Whales en-route. A few Snowy Sheathbills circled the boat miles from land and looked like they would land but thought better of it.

30th December – South Shetland Islands – Admiralty Bay and Half Moon Island

The first landing of the day was at Admiralty Bay on King Georges Island where we were greeted by 2 Elephant Seals and numerous Adelie Penguins, a few Gentoos and one lost King Penguin. The first South Polar Skuas were seen along with Brown Skua allowing a good comparison of the somewhat subtle features. The second landing at Half Moon Island saw Sheathbills scavenging around the Chinstrap colony which was the only time we observed this normal behavior. One Macaroni Penguin tried to hide amongst the hundreds of Chinstraps. Wilson’s Petrels prospected the rocky boulders where Antarctic Shags were breeding.

31st Antarctic Sound and Continent – Brown Bluff

I was up early to see some massive tabular icebergs drifting through the Antarctic sound and these were around all day with many smaller bergs of different shapes including one with a superb arch. We made our continental landing at Brown Bluff with a large Adelie Colony and many Gentoos and Cape Petrels breeding on the high cliffs at the back of the beach. We headed onto Paulet Island but sea conditions did not allow us to land at this enormous Adelie Colony. This marked the most southerly point of the cruise at 63 35’ which was not as far as we had been led to believe by the online brochures. However, we would not have added any additional species had be ventured further south to the East of the peninsular. We headed back into the Antactic Sound seeing at least 4 Crabeater Seals and one Weddell Seal loafing on Ice flows.

1st January – Deception Island

We undertook two landings at Deception Island which gave close views of some pale morph South Polar Skuas and at least 9 Elephant Seals, one being taunted by a Chinstrap Penguin.

2nd / 3rd January – Drake Passage

Our trip across the dreaded Drake Passage was an anti climax with the weather being very calm meaning that most birds were just loafing on the sea proving very difficult to locate.
In the early stages I saw a few Blue Petrels and a White morph Southern Giant Petrel followed the boat for most of the morning. Pintado Petrels were always present and White-chinned occasionally flew by. Light-mantled Sooty, Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross were seen infrequently. On the second day a Wandering Albatross paid us a visit along with Wilson’s Petrels. As were neared Cape Horn hundred’s of Black-browed Albatross and Sooty Shearwaters were seen loafing on uncharacteristically still waters.

4th January - Ushuaia

A quick taxi ride to the dump on the East side of town near the Rio Olivia outflow enabled me to see two White-throated Caracara, numerous Chimango Caracara and one Southern Caracara along with numerous Chilean Skuas , a Turkey Vulture and masses of Kelp Gulls.

Species Lists


Humpback Whale Frequent in second half of cruise
Fin Whale 4 seen en route to South Orkney’s
Peale’s Dolphin Falklands and Drake Passage
Weddell Seal 1 on ice in Antarctic Sound
Crabeater Sea 4 on ice in Antarctic Sound
Leopard Seal South Orkney and Deception Island where common
Southern Elephant Seal South Georgia and King George Island
South American Fur Seal At sea between Ushuaia and Falkland’s
Antarctic Fur Seal 1000’s South Georgia
Rabbit Introduced – Falklands
Reindeer Introduced – South Georgia

Species seen in Antarctica and Ushuaia

Upland Goose TDF, Ushuaia shore, Falklands
Kelp Goose Ushuaia shore, Falklands
Ashy-headed Goose TDF
Ruddy-headed Goose Falklands – Carcass Island
Flying Steamer Duck Frequent - Ushuaia
Flightless Steamer Duck Only one seen along Ushuaia shore
Falklands Flightless Steamer Duck Falklands – frequent in all areas.
Chiloe Wigeon Ushuaia
Speckled Teal Ushuaia
Crested Duck Ushuaia shore, Falkland
Yellow-billed Pintail Ushuaia and South Georgian race on South Georgia
Red Shoveler 45 on lagoon West of Ushuaia town
Great Grebe Ushuaia shore
King Penguin South Georgia – 8,000 Fortuna Bay and a few elsewhere
Rock Hopper Penguin Falklands – New Island
Gentoo Penguin Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetlands
Adelie Penguin First seen on South Orkney and common further south
Chinstrap Penguin First seen on South Orkney – Common on South Shetlands
Macaroni Penguin In with Chinstraps on South Shetlands
Magellanic Penguin Falklands - New Island and Nature walk to Gipsy Cove
Wandering Albatross A few near South Georgia and 1 in the Drake
Southern Royal Albatross First seen en-route to the Falklands
Grey-headed Albatross First seen en-route to the Falklands 1 in the Drake
Sooty Albatross One at Sea between Falklands and South Georgia
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross South Georgia and south to South Orkney 1 in the Drake
Black-browed Albatross Common with colony viewed on New Island - Falklands
Cape (Pintado) Petrel Common throughout
Snow Petrel First west of South Georgia, more frequent further south
Blue Petrel Between South Georgia and South Orkney, a few in the Drake
Atlantic Petrel At Sea between Falklands and South Georgia
Soft-plumaged Petrel At Sea between Falklands and South Georgia
White-chinned Petrel Common
Great Shearwater Frequent between South America and the Falklands
Sooty Shearwater Common in the Scotia Sea and the Drake Passage
Wilson’s Storm Petrel Common throughout
Black-bellied Storm Petrel A few between the Falklands and South Georgia
Grey-backed Storm Petrel A few South Georgia to the South Orkneys
Common Diving Petrel At Sea between Falklands and South Georgia
South Georgia Diving Petrel One north of South Georgia
Northern Giant Petrel Only recorded with certainty on South Georgia
Southern Giant Petrel Beagle Channel, and all areas - Common
Southern Fulmar South of South Georgia – South Orkney’s
Antarctic Prion Common between Falklands and South Georgia
Sender-billed Prion Common between South America and the Falklands
Snowy Sheathbill Scarce on South Georgia more frequent further south
Imperial (King) Cormorant Common Ushuaia and Falklands
Antarctic Shag Antarctic Peninsula
Rock Shag Falklands – Carcass Island
South Georgia Shag South Georgia
Black-crowned Night Heron Common in Ushuaia and on the Falklands
Black-faced Ibis 2 in flight TDF
Turkey Vulture Common on the Falklands and at Ushuaia Dump
White-throated Caracara 2 at Ushuaia Dump
Southern Caracara Ushuaia Dump and Falklands – Carcass Island
Chimango Caracara Ushuaia Dump, Common in Buenos Aires
Striated Caracara Falklands – New Island
Peregrine Falcon TDF
Magellenic Oystercatcher Ushuaia shore and River Mouth, Falklands
Blackish Oystercatcher Ushuaia shore and River Mouth, Falklands
Southern Lapwing Ushuaia and also in Buenos Aires
South American Snipe Ushuaia Damp areas back from shore
White-rumped Sandpiper Ushuaia
Kelp Gull Common throughout
Dolphin Gull Ushuaia shore and River Mouth, Falklands
South American Tern Ushuaia shore, Falklands
Antarctic Tern South Georgia, South Shetland and Antarctic Peninsula
Brown Skua Falklands, South Georgia - South Shetlands
South Polar Skua Admiralty Bay and Deception Island
Chilean Skua Ushuaia shore and Dump
Austral Parakeet TDF
Dark-bellied Ciniclodes TDF
Black- Cinclodes Falklands - Carcass and New Island
Bar-winged Clinclodes Ushuaia shore
Austral Negrito TDF, Ushuaia Scrubby areas back from shore
White-crested Elaenia TDF
Chilean Swallow Ushuaia
Dark-faced Ground Tyrant TDF, Falklands especially New Island
Correnda Pipit Ushuaia and Carcass Island
Austral Thrush Ushuaia and Falklands particularly Carcass Island
Black-chinned Siskin Ushuaia Scrubby areas back from shore, Falklands
Patagonian Sierra Finch TDF
White-bridled Finch Falklands – Carcass Island and nature walk to Gipsy Cove
Rufous-collared Sparrow Ushuaia Scrubby areas back from shore
House Sparrow Common in the Falklands
Long-tailed Meadowlark Ushuaia shore and Falklands
House Wren TDF
Cobb’s Wren Falklands – Carcass Island (IOC Lifer)

87 Species