Pictures from this trip can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/neiljulianthomas/albums
A cruise to the Southern Ocean had always been an unachievable dream for as long as I had worked as a teacher, but I had long decided that as soon as I retired I would book such a trip at the earliest opportunity.
The trip was booked through Antarctica Bound http://www.antarcticabound.com/ who had to deal with some unfortunate changes because my initial booking with G-Adventures on the Expedition was cancelled due major repairs scheduled for the time of my cruise. I was then offered a trip at the same price on the Plancius, but after paying a deposit for this discovered it did not visit Antarctica, but had the offer of pulling a sledge across South Georgia following Shackleton’s route in a self-supported expedition – interesting from a historical perspective but not what I wanted! (incidentally I met up with people in Ushaia who had done this trip and apart from land based viewing of Right Whales at Trelew they had not seen a single cetacean in the entire trip).
Fortunately, for they had no obligation to do so, Oceanwide Expeditions refunded my deposit in full and I was finally booked on a cruise on Sea Spirit with Poseidon Expeditions, with only minor changes to my international air flights. Many thanks to Sara and Lynn at Antarctica Bound for rescuing my trip. The total cost of the cruise was £8,128 which was more expensive than the original booking, but was for a shared cabin rather than a 4 berth. Obviously I did not spend very much time in the cabin. The accommodation, service and food on Sea Spirit could not be faulted. I did not ask for toothpaste to be put ready on my toothbrush, but I expect they would have done so.
Wildlife tourism must be more benign than the past and present exploitative uses of Antarctica’s natural resources but it must have an impact. Like all responsible operators Poseidon Expeditions follows IAATO guidelines but one can also attempt to offset the harm one does by visiting Antarctica and South Georgia by donating generously to the rat eradication programme (http://www.sght.org/sght-habitat-restoration-project) or to albatross protection (http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/donations/campaigns/albatross/)
However even though the ship offers ridiculous standards of luxury it should not be forgotten the cruise ventures into extreme environments and during our cruise another ship ripped panels from its hull in collision with an iceberg, another was damaged by fire, and a third encountered such extreme weather it was unable to make the crossing to the Antarctic Peninsula from South Georgia, so a planned itinerary is only a guideline.
Wildlife viewing opportunities take the form of watching from the deck of the ship, which was an excellent stable platform, where one could always find some shelter, even in the worst of conditions. There were zodiac landings whenever possible, which were always handled very efficiently, giving maximum time on shore. I was very appreciative that once on shore, after being briefed about how to minimise our impact and sensitive areas were clearly flagged out we were free to potter about, spending as much time as we wished watching a particular bird or animal. We also did a few zodiac cruises, which allow close encounters with wildlife in the sea or on ice floes.
On a general cruise such as this you will visit the same sites you would visit as on a dedicated wildlife tour, but it is entirely possible you will find yourself to be the only birder on the ship, as proved to be the case for me. You will, of course, find yourself amongst lovely friendly people with a general interest and appreciation for wildlife, but they do not have the same emotional commitment to trying to see a Southern Right Whale Dolphin or a rare Gadfly Petrel so for a lot of the time you might be the only person on deck, which means much will inevitably be missed.
The use of digital photography has rather transformed identification of seabirds and cetaceans for me, and it was amazing how often even a poor grabbed image ended speculation about the identification of a prion, diving petrel or great albatross. It also meant that the non-birders could receive a prompt and confident answer for their ID enquiries, instead of the purgatory of trying to interpret some incomprehensible description.
1st – 4th November – at sea travelling from Buenos Aires to the Falklands.
5th November West Falklands, West Point, visited BB albatross colony at Devil’s Nose.
6th November East Falklands, Stanley and Gypsy Cove.
7th-8th November. At sea to South Georgia.
9th November. Landings at Salisbury Plain and Prion Island, South Georgia.
10th November. Landings at Fortuna Bay and Stromness, South Georgia.
11th November. Hike from Myvikin to Grytvikin, landing at St. Andrew’s Bay South Georgia.
12th November. Landing at Gold Harbour, but landing at Cooper Bay aborted due to weather.
13th -14th November. At sea between South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula.
15th November. Elephant Island, zodiac cruise around Endeavour Glacier.
16th November. Landings at Arctowski Station on King George Island, and Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands.
17th November. Landings at Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay.
18th November. Zodiac cruise at Enterprise Island and extra excursion to Deception Island.
19th-20th November. At sea through Drake Passage.
21st November. Beagle Channel, arrived in Ushaia.
30th October. Before my long awaited cruise to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula I had two days to spend in Buenos Aires, and this gave the opportunity to revisit Costanero Sur, a reserve which had enchanted us in 2006. The birds seen are what one would expect as if in my case you have no field guide, virtually no knowledge of calls and total ignorance of the locations of any particular species. After the ‘rigours’ of the journey to Buenos Aires the sun broke through to give a clear blue afternoon, although it was pleasantly cool with a fresh breeze, and I made the trek through the traffic chaos to Costanero Sur. The site really is a little gem, although hardly tranquil, lying under the airports flightpath and with a backdrop of skyscrapers and traffic. The site is very heavily used by the Buenos Airians but I am sure this enforced habituation helps contribute to the confiding approachability of many of the resident birds. Just before flying out I viewed the pitiful attempts I had made to photograph the birds here on my previous visit, which was in the dark days of film, and I was determined to improve on these efforts, not that it would be difficult. I walked round the bunds overlooking pampas grassland and scrub, much of which is a riotous assemblage of non-native species such as castor oil and yellow flag. The area was in fact mostly dry with the only significant open water to adjacent to the northern edge of the reserve and I decided to leave this lagoon for the following day. On the trek to the site I had already encountered some of the common birds such as the slightly comical Rufous Hornero with its goose stepping gait, Monk and Nanday Parakeets, Shiny Cowbirds, Eared Doves, Great Egret, Chalk-browed Mockingbird, Southern Caracara, and less desirable reminders of home in the form of Starlings and House Sparrows.
Once I entered the reserve I left my comfort zone with a plethora of unfamiliar calls coming from cover and glimpses of birds that melted away before I could fuse a permanent image of their field marks into my cortex. I did soon come to recognise the songs of Black-and rufous Warbling Finch, the abundant Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Hooded Siskin, as well as the plaintive calls of Chimango Caracara, a bird with interesting ecology and behaviour, but surely the least formidable raptor of them all. Eared Doves were super-abundant, as were the handsome Picazuro Pigeon, and White-eyed Parakeets were added to the list to make it a trio of parrot species. Other species were Green-barred Woodpecker, the brilliant Red-crested Cardinal, Grey-breasted Martin, White-rumped Swallow, Ash-coloured Cuckoo, White-throated Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Streaked Flycatcher, a party of Guira Cuckoos, Rufous-bellied and Creamy-bellied Thrushes, Spectacled Tyrant, and Masked Gnatcatcher. Along the choppy mud stained waters of the River Plate Olivaceous Cormorants were fishing and Kelp Gulls drifted past. Two mammals were encountered, with Pampas Cavy foraging at the side of the path, and a Coypu floating in a pool filled with Azolla, before it performed a water vole like surface dive to disappear.
31st October. I made an early start to reach Costanero Sur shortly after sunrise, and with the reserve not opening until 8.00 am I walked along the promenade which gave good views over the only remaining area of open water on the reserve. The south eastern section was covered with Azolla with large numbers of Wattled Jacanas and Spot-flanked Gallinules foraging amongst the plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups. Alongside some of the reed fringed islands could be seen stealthy Rufescent Tiger-Herons, Limpkins and the impressive Giant Wood-Rail, while on the open water there was still a selection of waterfowl, although not in spectacularly large numbers. Lake Duck were seen amongst floating vegetation, the bird seemingly most of note for having the largest penis of any vertebrate in relation to body size, while other wildfowl were Coscoroba Swans, that manage not to look wild at all, the exquisite Silver and Ringed Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail with broods of ducklings, Rosy-billed Pochard, Fulvous Whistling Duck, and White-faced Whistling Duck. Neotropic Cormorants and the elegant White-tufted Grebes were quite numerous with two Pied-billed Grebes also noted. Many Red-gartered Coot swam in open water, while the moorhen like Red-fronted Coots tended to stick closer to cover. I met up with some very friendly Argentinian birders who were doing a bird count of the area and I tagged along with them before I was lured away to a café for breakfast. Once in the reserve I walked along the other side of the lagoon, getting very good views of Rufous-sided Crake and a variety of scrub loving birds such as the striking Golden-billed Saltator, nesting Solitary Black Caciques, Vermilion Flycatcher, Masked Yellowthroat, Saffron Finch, and House Wren. It transpired that since my previous visit in 2006 the large lagoons on the reserve had completely dried up and this had allowed invasion by reeds and yellow flag with the result that even if the area floods there is no significant open water, so without intervention the natural process of succession has reduced the value of the site. From the viewpoints that used to overlook the lagoons I saw Whistling Herons fly over, as well as a trio of Harris Hawks that spent most of the day soaring together and causing annoyance to birds such as Southern Lapwings. I spent some time on a bund running into the Laguna de los Coipos, photographing White-rumped Swallows that I felt would be good practice for storm petrels as they skimmed over the water, as well as many duck including ridiculously tame Fulvous Whistling Duck and a Coypu that swam very close as it went about its business. I was able to study the technique Limpkins used to feed on Apple Snails, basically after the snail was located visually or by probing it was carried to shallow water, where it was subjected to GBH with the pick-axe bill, the Limpkin then spending an inordinate amount of time removing shell debris and the operculum before swallowing its catch. On our previous visit we saw no terrapins, presumably because it was winter, but today both Hilary’s Side-necked Turtle and a Terrapin resembling Red-eared were both much in evidence.
Campo Flickers were nesting in a tree overlooking the main trail, and I was able to watch the adults changing places at the nest hole, while a few metres below them passed endless joggers and cyclists, the birds and humans seemingly quite oblivious to one another. A few additional species seen in the afternoon were Tropical Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, White-crested Tyrannulet, Saffron Finch, while I enjoyed excellent street food on the promenade outside the reserve Red-crested Cardinals and Guira Cuckoos disputed ownership of scraps with feral pigeons.
1st November. We sailed from Buenos Aires in the late afternoon. I scanned the muddy waters of the River Plate for the supposedly common Franciscana, but failed to see any. As we left the harbour Cocoi Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron were seen. The only seabirds encountered were flocks of Brown-hooded Gulls totalling about 150 birds.
2nd November. Naturally I emerged on deck at first light to see the promising sight of a Black-browed Albatross sailing past. Sadly it had already become apparent that I was indeed the only birder on the ship, and all ID and location would be down to my own inadequate abilities. There was in fact a staff ornithologist, but unfortunately uniquely among the staff he seemed demotivated in his work, and spent no time helping the other passengers with spotting and identifying wildlife, other than for the first hour of this first day with me when he identified the first Manx Shearwater as a Grey Petrel, and the second as a Little Shearwater. I can only imagine what I would miss during the day and the trip, but at least I thought I couldn’t possibly be gripped off. The day was a fantastic initiation to the spectacle of South Atlantic wildlife. During the day we travelled to 38’ south, 57’west, conditions were clear and sunny for the entire day and winds were f5 and the sea state generally moderate, although around midday it dropped off and grounded (so to speak) many of the seabirds. It was interesting to see how the numbers and species composition of the seabirds changed during the day. The most common Albatross species was Black-browed, and although they were in view for virtually the entire day around 12.00 there were spectacular numbers associating with other species. Before 8.00pm several Northern Giant Petrels were see, but only one thereafter, while after this the first White-chinned Petrels appeared and they were a common sight for the rest of the day. In the afternoon the first Great Shearwaters skimmed into view, and then for several hours staggering numbers could be seen, together with large numbers of Manx. When I took a brief respite at 4.30 it was if a switch had been pulled and only scattered seabirds could be seen, although these included the first 2 Cape Petrels and this period provided the only cetacean sightings of the day, with 3 Dusky Dolphins coming close to the boat, including a mother and calf, and distant and unidentifiable animals under a feeding flock of hundreds of shearwaters.
Great Grebe – one was seen on the sea
Black-browed Albatross c300
Grey-headed Albatross 3
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross 1
White-chinned Petrel c400
Manx Shearwater c600
Great Shearwater – awesome numbers of this fabulous bird, with certainly thousands seen in the afternoon
Northern Giant Petrel 10
Cape Petrel 2
Wilson’s Petrel 50
Southern Skua 2
Arctic Skua 3, chasing of terns was seen
Royal Tern 1
Cayenne Tern 3
South American Tern 80, possibly also winter plumaged Arctic Terns
Magellanic Penguin 8
A number of pinnipeds were seen rafting on the surface, their flippers raised vertically as if to indicate their presence. They were clearly difficult to identify with certainty, but where the head shape could be ascertained they could be confirmed as South American Fur Seals.
3rd November. The idea that I couldn’t be gripped off on this trip was instantly dispelled when I emerged on deck at sunrise as one of the indefatigable Chinese photographers showed we an image of a breaching Southern Bottle-nosed Whale that he had taken 5 minutes previously. I could not help wondering what Chairman Mao would have thought of Chinese comrades indulging in such a blatantly bourgeois activity as an Antarctic Cruise. There were changes in the species composition from yesterday. Large numbers of Giant Petrels were gliding in the wake of the boat, the vast majority being Southern. Great Shearwaters were still numerous with hundreds being seen in the day, either gliding past or in rafts on the sea, as were the White-chinned Petrels. At times blizzards of Prions could be seen tracking into the wind, examination of photos showed that all birds that could be identified were Slender-billed. Although a few Black-browed Albatrosses were in view for the entire day it was at midday we found ourselves amongst staggering numbers of Albatrosses. As one viewed certainly several hundred, possibly well over 1000 Albatrosses it was hard to believe that this is, tragically, an endangered species. Many Wilson’s Petrel skimmed low over the waves, while at the other end of the size spectrum the first great Albatrosses put in an appearance, and some 15 were seen during the day. I took photos where possible to aid identification so positively identified birds were all wandering. However I tried to be less obsessed with identification and just to enjoy the spectacle of these incredible birds gliding past in seemingly lazy flight on account of their colossal size.
There were many Cape Petrels today, while Manx Shearwaters were completely absent, but the first single Sooty Shearwater of the trip, other birds included Kelp Gulls and a single skua sp.
Given the rich feeding indicated by the profusion of bird life it seemed surprising we did not see more cetaceans. However I saw one rorqual blowing, while at 13.00 several blowing whales were located in a wide area of sea. They were identified as Sperm Whales and Humpbacks, but I was far from convinced of this – the tail shape of lob tailing animals was wrong for both these species and the blow was distinctively V shaped, but it took clear photos of the head of a breaching animal, with its distinctive callosities to convince the expedition staff that my initial identification of Southern Right Whales was correct. There were perhaps 8- 10 different Right Whales seen.
During the day a long rolling swell developed to give a taste of what the Southern Ocean might be like which obviously affected some people as only 40 or so people felt able to attend the Captain’s welcome, even with the lure of free cocktails.
4th November. The day was spent at sea on passage to the Falklands Islands, and during the day the wind increased to F7 and linked to the swell I also suffered from sea sickness although I managed to stay on deck for the day. Coming out on deck at dawn it was to find a swirl of Giant Petrels, almost all of which were Southern, Black-browed Albatrosses and Cape Petrels following the ship. Birds flying past at eye level, just metres away gave tremendous views. Scanning the sea revealed many Slender-billed Prions, a few Great and Sooty Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrels and storm petrels. The first five I saw were all Grey-backed, but then there was an unbroken run of 50+ Wilson’s before I saw any more.
Several great Albatrosses were seen during the day, and I photographed them when possible to aid identification so reaching the conclusion 3 were Wandering, and 2 were Southern Royal, but not forgetting to enjoy the spectacle of these breath-taking birds. Huge numbers of albatrosses were seen attending a fishing boat and were a reminder of the threats facing these birds.
The only marine mammals seen were a brief view of Dusky Dolphins which were only seen underwater as they passed by close to the ship.
5th November. Mercifully the sea had calmed down somewhat overnight, and of course flattened right down when we entered the lee of the Falklands. Sea-birds seemed reduced in numbers from the previous day, with just a few Giant Petrels trailing the boat, but watching soon revealed the tiny whirring shapes of Common Diving Petrels flying low over the sea, as well as Sooty Shearwaters, c60, Slender-billed Prions, 10 Great Shearwaters, Grey-backed Storm Petrels, one Wandering Albatross, and the first of two Antarctic Fulmars seen. As we approached the Falklands other birds put in an appearance, with Imperial Shags flying past the boat, a Striated Caracara circled round with the Giant Petrels, Blackish Oystercatchers drew attention to themselves with their piping and South American Terns put in a reappearance. Cetaceans presented themselves, the first group of c5 dolphins never completely broke clear of the water, but photos of the fin and back were just sufficiently clear to confirm these as Peale’s Dolphin, but there was no confusion possible with the striking Commerson’s Dolphins that swam past, showing their distinctive black and white colouring as they leapt.
As we waited to disembark at West Point Island one could view large numbers of Kelp and Dolphin Gulls along the shoreline, as well as Rock Shags, a soaring Variable Hawk, Magellanic Penguins amongst the tussock grass, and two burly South American Sea-Lions hauled out on a rock.
The Falklands are often compared to the Shetland Isles, and scenically they are indeed similar, and the hike to the seabird colonies at the Devil’s Nose put me in mind of the rather more arduous hike to view the seabird colonies at Hermaness, and of course pay homage to ‘Albert’, except here there were thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses, instead of one. The nesting companions for the Albatrosses were Rock-hopper Penguins, the species cheek by jowl with one another, although the relationship between the two was not always harmonious, with arriving Rock-hoppers suffering pecks from both albatrosses and other penguins. Many of both species were incubating, but there was also courtship and mating seen, as well as Rock-hoppers carrying grass fragments to put the finishing touches to their nests.
The seabirds at West Point seemed almost fearless, but this applied to other birds as well such as the three species of geese seen – Upland, Kelp and Ruddy-headed, the Falkland’s Steamer Duck with ducklings, the Blackish Cinclodes, Blackish Oystercatchers, Long-tailed Meadowlarks, Falklands Thrushes, Black-chinned Siskins and Black-faced Ground-Tyrants. Other birds seen were Turkey Vultures, Striated Caracaras and Falklands (Brown) Skuas, Crested Duck, and Yellow-billed teal.
We had been told to pop into the homestead for cookies, which hardly prepared us for the lavish spread of cakes provided – it would been an unparalled act of gluttony to sample everything on the menu, tempting as that might have been.
6th November. The morning was cloudy, but the sun broke through during the day as we approached Stanley on East Falkland. My first task of the day was to retrieve seven Common Diving Petrels from crevices on the balcony of a suite at the front of the ship. Although they had presumably collided with the ship in the night they flew off strongly on release, even one which I accidentally trod on, to my total distress. Seabirds are tough.
Many Sooty Shearwaters c40, c5 Antarctic Fulmars, 10 Giant Petrels, Prions, c20 Black-browed Albatrosses and two Commerson’s Dolphins were seen before we anchored at Stanley. Once again I found myself making mental comparisons with Shetland, but the obvious differences were the brightly coloured roofs, and the birds in the harbour and along the seafront were Falklands and Flying Steamer Ducks, Crested Duck, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Imperial and Rock Shags, Upland and Ruddy-headed Geese, Dolphin and Kelp Gulls, and South American Terns. Once we landed we were taken on an excursion to Gypsy Cove, a site 6 km from Stanley, with white sand beaches backed by dry heathland and sand dunes with patches of tussock grass. At the ends of the bays low rocky headlands provided nesting sites for some seabirds, such as Rock Shags as well as Black-crowned Night-Herons, which seem quite a strange component of the Falklands avifauna. Magellanic Penguins were nesting in the heathland and presumably a small percentage of those present could be viewed in their burrows. Some of the distinctive passerine community of the Falklands could be seen, including Black-faced Ground-Tyrant, the stunning Black-throated Finch, Falklands Grass-Wren, Blackish Cinclodes, Black-faced Siskin, Falkland Thrush and Falkland (Correndera) Pipit. Other birds seen were Turkey Vulture, Brown-hooded Gulls, and Kelp Geese.
Returning to Stanley in the early afternoon gave time to walk along the seafront to west Stanley, viewing 2 Commerson’s Dolphins just offshore, and around a small pool a confiding Rufous-chested Dotterel. I had seen winter plumaged birds in Chile but they could not compare with this exquisite specimen. Before we sailed I had time to dip into the museum and then walk to a small bog I had noticed from the bus back from Gypsy Cove, and here I was very pleased to find a Magellanic Snipe.
As we stopped to refuel past Gypsy Cove Gentoo Penguins could be seen swimming to a distant beach, which was already covered with hundreds of penguins. Unlike the more sedate Magellanic, small groups of which were also seen the Gentoos progressed by porpoising, sometimes in groups of 4-5. There were also big concentrations of Shags and South American Terns fishing here.
7th November. The day was spent in transit between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Initially it was quite foggy, but visibility improved during the day although it was generally overcast. The 21 knot wind was blowing in the direction of travel, so it was quite comfortable to view from the front of the ship. In terms of numbers there were fewer seabirds seen than on any previous day, but there were some exciting and unexpected sightings. The striking and beautiful Hourglass Dolphin was a hoped for species, and a small pod of 4-5 came into the bow of the ship, before dropping back to ride the stern wake, with me managing to entirely miss another pod in the afternoon. In the late afternoon a whale rolled once close to the boat. Unfortunately it did not reappear at the surface, although I could follow its course below the surface. It was in the 7-10m size category, light brown in colour, with numerous scars and a fairly prominent triangular dorsal, so even though I did not see the bulbous melon I am virtually certain this was a Southern Bottlenose Whale. The least expected mammal sighting was a pinniped – having noted the animal on the surface, and expecting a Fur Seal or Sea-lion I was astonished to see a sinuous mottled neck appear out of the water, topped with the massive ‘reptilian’ head of a Leopard Seal, a hoped for animal on this trip, but one I would only expected to encounter on Antarctic Ice.
Southern Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels, Slender-billed Prions, White-chinned Petrels, and Black-browed Albatrosses were seen in small numbers, but a number of new species were seen.
Blue Petrel 20, probably as numerous as the SB prions.
Black-bellied Storm-Petrels 18 examples of this chunky little bird were seen low over the sea
Atlantic Petrel 3 examples of this endangered species were seen careering past in typical gadfly petrel flight.
Grey-headed Albatross 3. Close views of this species convinced me at least one of the albatrosses I photographed on
2nd November was Yellow-nosed.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. 8 examples of this most elegant of seabirds were seen with one giving stunning views in a close fly past of the ship.
King Penguin. Although a few! birds might be expected on South Georgia it was good to get the first sighting of this species with 5 birds seen
Macaroni Penguin. One bird seen.
8th November. The day was spent at sea, travelling to South Georgia, at 17.00 we passed the sea stack pinnacles of Shag Rocks, 115 km from South Georgia itself. It was overcast and the wind was F7, but as it was in the same direction as we were travelling the ship was reasonably stable. I failed to locate a single cetacean, but large numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals were seen over the banks around Shag Rocks, with some porpoising or surfing the swells.
Birds seen were 3 Royal Albatross, 1 Wandering Albatross, 5 Grey-headed Albatross, 4 Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, 60 Black-browed Albatross, 20 Giant Petrels, 100 Cape Petrels, 20 Black-bellied Srorm-Petrels, 3 Wilson’s Petrels, 1 Southern Skua, 80 Blue Petrels, 1 Diving Petrel sp, 50 White-chinned Petrels, 20 Gentoo Penguins, 1 King Penguin, and 1 tern, which was probably the first Antarctic Tern. Three definite new species were seen during the day, as at least some of the many Prions seen during the day were photographed and confirmed as Antarctic. There were vast numbers of South Georgian Shags crowded onto every suitable area of Shag Rocks, with long snaking lines of birds returning to their nest sites, or heading out to sea, and 2 Great-winged Petrels were seen going past in their typical and distinctive high arcing flight.
9th November. At dawn the rising sun illuminated the dramatic snow clad jagged mountains of South Georgia, as well as an impressive iceberg. The cloud cover increased during the day, but the biting wind reduced as it began to snow and sleet. As we travelled along the coast seabirds seen included 2 Wandering Albatross, 3 Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, 5 Grey-headed Albatrosses, 10 Black-browed Albatrosses, Antarctic Prions, White-chinned and Cape Petrels, King and Gentoo Penguins, and with the aid of the camera some of the Diving Petrels speeding past the ship were confirmed as South Georgian – the white underwing and the scapular stripes were clearly visible.
We were then able to land at Salisbury Plain, a vast expanse of glacial wash that is in fact the largest area of level ground in South Georgia, and is home to a massive King Penguin colony. As we waited to board the zodiacs flocks of Snowy Sheathbills circled around the boat like a flock of pigeons, and more unexpectedly an exquisite Snow Petrel put in an appearance.
The Penguin spectacle did not disappoint with hundreds along the beach, with birds coming ashore or leaving in rafts, birds displaying and courting, or heading inland in groups. It was surprising how far they wandered inland, or indeed went up mountain slopes. The main breeding area in flattened tussock grass was covered with creches of fully grown but unfledged chicks with their brown coats, as many adults. Scattered amongst the King Penguins were the bloated bodies of Southern Elephant Seals, either with 10+ females and huge doe eyed pups accompanied by the massive beachmaster, or single males lying about, presumably waiting for the beach-masters to retire or die. Rather more potentially aggressive were the bull Antarctic Fur-seals, which had shared out the beach in anticipation of the arrival of females. This assemblage of life attracted the inevitable predators and scavengers with Brown Skuas, Giant Petrels and flocks of Snowy Sheathbills. Along the shore immaculate Antarctic Terns dipped for fish, and South Georgian Pintail pairs flew about.
In the afternoon we visited the rat free Prion Island which is still covered in tussock grass but as the numbers that could be landed at this site was limited we started with a cruise around the island, where we could admire the circling Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses and the rather less elegant Giant Petrels. The beach where we were due to land had scattered Gentoo Penguins, Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals as well as a few Brown Skuas, South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns but attention was soon focussed on the sleek but sinister form of a Leopard Seal stretched out on the kelp. By the time we had landed on Prion Island and explored the board-walk the Leopard Seal had slipped into the water, although this did not seem to deter the comings and goings of the Gentoo Penguins. From the boardwalk we could view several of the ultimate birdwatcher’s bird, the South Georgia Pipit, either foraging around clumps of tussock grass, or in song flight. The South Georgian Pintail was also present here and presumably breeding. As a contrast to the activity of the pipits some six Wandering Albatross chicks, all on the point of fledging sat serenely on their nests, as they must have done so through the ravages of the South Georgian winter.
10th November. At dawn clear blue skies but with enough cloud formations to send members of the cloud appreciation society into ecstasy lit up the panorama of the breath-taking South Georgian coastline. As well as massive glaciers one could take ones pick of look-alike mountains – the Matterhorn and Torres del Paine were certainly represented. As we turned into Fortuna Bay a massive iceberg could be seen, and a limited selection of seabirds included Light-mantled Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels, Brown Skuas, Antarctic Terns, Prions and Southern Giant Petrels. There is a glacier at the head of the valley at Fortuna Bay, but between there and the sea lie some km2 of glacial wash, while the surrounding slopes are covered with tussock grass. On the beach there were many Antarctic Fur Seals, which were almost all bulls, and several groups of Southern Elephant Seals, each with a massive beach-master at their centre. I eventually walked as far as the King Penguin breeding site, the colony here numbering some 7,000 pairs, but there were many distractions on the way. Several Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses flew over the snow covered slopes, and I saw the dual flight of a pair, the two birds flying in perfect synchrony in a display which must be one of the most breath-taking sights in nature. There were also many Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas circling around here, while lower down both South Georgian Pintail and some singing South Georgian Pipits could be seen. At the King Penguin breeding site the creches of down covered juveniles could be seen, while on the way there numbers of moulting birds could be seen. With the temperature rising up to 20’ C it was clearly too warm for many of the penguins, and they congregated on slow patches, often lying down on them.
In the afternoon we travelling round to the abandoned whaling station at Stromness. It was a different era in the period this establishment operated but for me it was as horrendous as a visit to Auschwitz, but at least this site of destruction and death was now invaded by Elephant Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals and a few Gentoo and King Penguins. I spent the afternoon watching the pinnipeds. The Elephant Seal beach-masters kept a very close eye on other males who would inch towards his harem, eventually provoking him to rear up, inflate his proboscis and roar in an impressive and threatening display. If the challenger failed to back down as this point the Beach-master would hump towards him, showing something of disregard for the females and pups as he lurched over them, covering some with blood from his wounds. I had a sneaking hope of witnessing a really serious fight, but in every case the mis-matched challenger fled at this point. I was also able to witness the aftermath of a birth, with the arrival of the afterbirth luring in a cloud of Skuas and Giant Petrels who cleared it up in seconds while the mother tried to push the scavengers away from the rumple skinned pup. Finally mating took place, an interesting event to witness given the disparity in size between the female and beachmaster. The Fur Seals continually showed aggression to one another, but there was never more than a quick exchange of bites, as opposed to a serious and prolonged fight. Birds seen here included Antarctic Terns.
We finished the day with a short cruise around the bay at Stromness in deteriorating weather, seeing 2 Sheathbills, Gentoo Penguins, nesting South Georgia Shags (c30 pairs), Fur Seals, South Georgia Pintail, Antarctic Terns, and once again we could see the synchronised flying of a pair of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses – a fine end to the day!
11th November. Mostly sunny during the day, with the expected ferocious wind moderating to light airs by mid-afternoon. Before we moored off Maivikin seabirds seen included Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Diving Petrels, with one South Georgian being found on the ship, Wilson’s Petrel, Brown Shuas, Antarctic terns and a Snow Petrel. The hike from Maivikin to Grytvikin took about 3 hours at a slow pace, crossing snow fields along a pass between two mountain ridges. I was able to photograph a pair of the South Georgian Pintails on a meltwater pool before we arrived at the sombre dereliction of Grytvikin. Some bones of the 174,000 whales that had been processed in South Georgia littered the shoreline, which was being reclaimed by relatively small numbers of Elephant Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals, King Penguins, Giant Petrels and Antarctic Terns as well as another pair of Pintail. Although I found Grytvikin a place of horror the museum is excellent and there you can learn about and donate to the habitat restoration project which has the ultimate aim of rat eradication.
In the afternoon travelled to St. Andrews Bay with four species of Penguin being seen on the calm seas – porpoising Kings, Gentoos and Macaronis, and a single Chinstrap resting on an iceberg. Other birds seen included Black-browed, Wandering, Light-mantled Sooty and Grey-headed Albatrosses and several Wilson’s Storm-Petrels.
St. Andrews Bay is another wide expanse of beach fronting a wide expanse of glacial wash, with the King Penguins penetrating inland even to the glaciers, several km inland. When we arrived an interesting problem presented itself as finding even a limited expanse of beach free from wall to wall King Penguins or Elephant Seals proved difficult, but eventually a site was found and we could view the massive colony of 150,000 pairs of King Penguins, sharing the beach with 6,000 Elephant Seals.
It was simply not possible to access the main creches, so we were mainly surrounded by moulting Penguins, with thousands crowded along the melt water streams, but also with a continual coming and going of non-moulters. Sitting in any reasonably Penguin free area would inevitably result in a procession of Penguins plodding towards one to investigate the human interloper at close range. In contrast to the placid penguins the Elephant Seal haul-out was a maelstrom of beach-masters mating with cows, intruder bulls pushing their luck as far as they dare – it was amusing to see a challenger appear and roar, seemingly a force of determined aggression, then suddenly turn tail and flee when the apparently quiescent beach-master lifted his head. Large numbers of bulls wallowed in the shallows, repeatedly trying to invade the beaches, only to be sent packing as soon as they approached a harem. Other birds seen here were Southern Giant Petrels, Snowy Sheathbill, Brown Skuas, Antarctic Terns, and 3 Gentoo Penguins who seemed a little out of place amongst the chaos.
12th November. The day dawned clear with light winds and views of the usual breath-taking scenery of glaciers, massive icebergs and mountains which cannot be described without resorting to cliché and overused superlatives – but it was awesome –really! We made an early landing at 7.00 am on the beach at Gold Harbour. Once again there was a large King Penguin colony and a shoreline littered with Elephant Seal harems and the inevitable also-rans sulking on the fringes.
Possibly because we landed earlier in the day, or simply because of the sheer number of seals, there seemed to be a particularly high level of aggression between the bulls, and there was at least one fairly serious fight, although I was too late to photograph it, the challenger retreating with flaps of bloodied skin hanging from his neck. Once again mating was seen, when in total contrast to the machismo of the bulls curious wide-eyed pups flopped over to investigate us.
Apart from the King Penguins there was a small colony of Gentoo Penguins amongst the tussock grass, Brown Skuas and Giant Petrels, including at least one Northern lurking on the fringes, and Snowy Sheathbills poddling about amongst the Elephant Seals. Two stunning species presumably breed here with Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses and Snow Petrels flying over the mountains and snow fields.
We should then have landed at Cooper Bay, where there is a large colony of Macaroni Penguins, a species which had largely eluded us, in spite of being the most numerous South Georgian penguin (although a few were seen from the ship), but mid-morning the wind dropped to nothing, then veered through 180’ and rapidly increased to a F10 or 11. The landing abandoned we headed off for the Antarctic Peninsula through seas that were white with extensive foam and flying spray.
Staying on deck was something of a physical ordeal but it did allow views of the southern ocean seabirds. Birds seen were –
Diving Petrels – thousands, both Common and South Georgian could be identified from photos
Snow Petrel 35
Wandering Albatross 5
Black-browed albatross 30
Grey-headed Albatross 5
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross 7, with some very close passes past the boat
Prions and Blue Petrels were numerous species 100 or so of each
White-chinned Petrels 40
Giant Petrels 30
Wilson’s Petrel 30
Great-winged Petrel 1
It was always amazing to watch these birds slice, seemingly without effort into a gale of such force it was difficult to stand up. Numbers of Fur Seals were also seen amongst the waves.
13th November. The wind had dropped during the night, giving a grey and overcast day, but thick fog settled in during the afternoon, which severely limited observations. Birds seen during the day were 2-3 Wandering Albatrosses, Grey-headed Albatross, 4 Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Black-browed Albatrosses, Antarctic Fulmar, Cape Petrel, 2 Snow Petrel, Wilson’s and the more numerous Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Blue Petrels, Antarctic Prions, Giant Petrel sp, and Chinstrap Penguins on ice floes, while the only mammals were Antarctic Fur Seals, which were abundant, even over water of more than 1000 metres depth.
14th November. The day was spent at sea travelling towards the Antarctic Peninsula and Elephant Island. The weather was overcast in the morning, with moderate winds and seas (for the Southern Ocean!), it then deteriorated with thick fog and blizzard conditions for much of the afternoon, before clearing in the later afternoon. In the morning whales were finally located, with 2 Fin Whales and another rorqual, probably of that species blowing. There were some blizzards of Prions, and other birds seen were Black-bellied and Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Giant Petrels, Black-browed Albatrosses, Chin-strapped Penguins, Cape Petrels in very large numbers (but no sightings of Antarctic Petrels amongst them), Southern Fulmars, Blue Petrels, Grey-headed Albatrosses, and several Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, which performed exceptionally well at times gliding in synchronous pairs parallel to the ship.
After observations had been curtailed by fog and blizzards a return to deck gave views of several Fin Whales blowing and moving at the surface, with some close enough to get a whiff of their blow. There were probably about 8 in a fairly large area of a few square km, but another whale produced a lower bushy blow, and bins revealed the humped back and rising flukes of a diving Humpback Whale.
15th November. At first light the ship was approaching Wild Point on Elephant Island, the day overcast, with relatively wind, but heavy swells. A large feeding flock of birds could be seen in the distance, presumably Prions and Cape Petrels, which must have been the location of a krill swarm, so it was no surprise when the simultaneous appearance of several bushy blows and black shapes appearing at the surface indicated a feeding group of perhaps 8 Humpback Whales. A little further on 2+ distant rorquals, probably Fin Whales and another Humpback were seen, while later in the day three other Humpbacks were seen distantly, including one breaching.
Cape Wild was named after a member of Shackleton’s expedition, as opposed to the geography of the site, but it was certainly a dramatic and desolate location, with steep rock pinnacles covered in Chinstrap Penguins. I had always known these birds are real mountaineers but it was still astonishing to see how high they had climbed, and see the steep faces and quantities of snow they had to overcome. One bird which had not made it was being demolished on the sea by Giant and Cape Petrels, and Brown Skuas – I would assume this was the remains of a Leopard Seal kill, but if so there was no sign of the perpetrator. Other birds seen here were the first Antarctic Shags, Wilson’s Petrel, and Black-browed Albatross. Unfortunately the heavy swells precluded a landing here, and rapidly worsening weather conditions meant the next planned landing at Cape Lookout was also precluded. This was a site for Macaroni Penguins, and they could be viewed distantly before a swirling blizzard reduced visibility to almost zero. We did manage a rather wet and bumpy zodiac cruise along the front of the large Endeavour Glacier. Once again bare hillsides were covered with large numbers of Chinstrap Penguins, and here Elephant Island lived up to its name with a strand line of Elephant Seals.
With rough seas, thick fog and blizzard conditions in the afternoon observations were curtailed, although flocks of Southern Fulmars could be seen swirling about in the snow.
16th November. Overnight there was a complete transformation in the weather, and winds varying between F0 and perhaps F3 and clear conditions in the morning it actually became quite warm, although in the afternoon it became overcast and began to snow. At dawn a flock of Cape Petrels that were attending the ship has been joined by the slightly larger and strikingly patterned Antarctic Petrel, of which at least two were present. Other birds seen at sea were Brown Skuas, Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Black-browed Albatross, Antarctic Terns, Antarctic Shags, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, as well as porpoising Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins, but numbers of birds were far less than in the turbulent seas of the Southern Ocean further north. The calm conditions helped with cetacean sightings and before 07.30 we had seen 2 rorquals and c5 Humpback Whales, one of which surfaced very close to the ship. Two krill swarms were a remarkable sight, with hectares of the sea turned orange with astronomical numbers of the euphausids.
Unfortunately this bonanza was only attended by Cape Petrels and Black-browed Albatrosses, with no cetaceans. We anchored in the bay off Arctowski Station on King George Island in the South Shetlands. There were substantial quantities of floes and brash ice in this bay, and searching with the bins revealed three Leopard Seals stretched out across the ice. I persuaded Dimitri to pay one a visit and so we were able to view this apex predator from a range of a few metres, before we landed. While we waited c5 Humpback Whales could be viewed in shallow water in the bay itself, or further out to sea. The ones in the bay entered shallow water and were presumably feeding, as they regularly showed their flukes as they dived.
Once ashore I made a beeline for the Adelie Penguin colony. The actual breeding area is off limits to tourists, but the stony hilltops where they were nesting could be viewed with the scope, and displaying birds, and birds carrying stones could be watched, while there was a regular procession of penguins to and from the sea. There was a significant vertical snow covered ridge next to the sea, and it was amazing to watch the penguins scale this, using their beaks as ice picks. There was also a possibly confused Chinstrap and several Gentoo Penguins here.
On the way to the next destination of Half Moon Island (2 sections joined by a tombola) the glassy calm seas helped with cetacean location, and impressive numbers of Humpback Whales were seen, possibly 15 in total, as well as 2 Fin Whales. Most were cruising at the surface, but one individual repeatedly tail slapped the sea as we passed, giving great views of the flukes.
At Halfmoon Island a seal resting close to the penguin colonies turned out to be a Weddell Seal, not as I thought when seen in the distance another Leopard Seal. Close to the disproportionally small head, short flippers and sausage like shape were very distinctive, and there were in fact three in view. There was a single Macaroni Penguin in the Chinstrap colonies, which seemed to create a twitching fervour in all the passengers who climbed up to see it. It certainly is a bizarre looking penguin, although for me it took second place to the activity amongst the Chinstraps, with continuous display, mating and fighting. Snowy Sheathbills wandered amongst the penguins, with two facing birds giving a peculiar bobbing display as they interrupted a snack of penguin faeces. Antarctic Terns were performing courtship flights with fish overhead, and other birds included Antarctic Shags, Gentoo Penguins, and Brown Skuas.
The landing finished with the insanity of a ‘swim’ in the polar sea. I had a theory that once water reaches a low of, say, 10’C immersion causes firing of all cold receptors, and even colder water would not actually cause any more pain or shock, but I think this theory was debunked. At least it made one appreciate even more the effectiveness of the adaptations of Antarctic marine animals.
17th November. The day started with strong winds, blizzards and poor visibility, but the wind dropped mid morning, the sea became glassy calm at times, and the sky was cloudless. Before we anchored off Cuverville Island birds seen included numerous Southern Fulmars, 2 Antarctic Petrels, 10 Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, only 1 Cape Petrel, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins, Giant Petrel sp, South Polar Skua, and Antarctic Tern.
Cuverville Island holds one of the larger Gentoo Penguin colonies with 6,000 pairs under some spectacular volcanic plugs that break through the snow covered landscape. At what was obviously the main landing site for penguins numbers could be seen bathing, and I spent much time trying to get a really good image of a leaping penguin by following the bird under-water. The penguin colony was a hive of activity with frequent fights and territorial skirmishes, courtship, mating and nest building. Each cluster of birds seemed to be centred on rock outcrops, where the snow was melting faster. Amongst the skuas patrolling the colony two intermediate South Polar Skuas could be identified, although it would have been nice to have an easy light phase bird.
We then headed for Paradise Bay, passing through narrow channels before slowing penetrating ice filled areas with some remnant sea ice and shattered ice bergs. Some 17 Weddell Seals were seen, with most hauled out on snow covered beaches, and one ‘bottling’, while a single cream coloured Crab-eater Seal was seen, which had me speculating where the other 29,999,999 might be hiding. Paradise Bay allowed a continental landing, while birds here were several Snowy Sheathbills, Antarctic Terns, a Gentoo Penguin Colony and Antarctic Shags. We left Paradise Bay in the evening cruising over glassy seas, speckled with foraging Wilson’s Petrels, and those two iconic birds, Snow Petrel and Antarctic Petrels were both seen. One zodiac party had the only Antarctic Minke Whale of the trip surface beside them.
18th November. The weather or at least the wind was changeable today, to say the least. Our proposed landing at Neko Harbour was aborted as the winds were F7, but they then intensified with some of the violent gusts surely F9-10, before it dropped to a flat calm in twenty minutes. This persisted for 30 minutes before the raging gale resumed, but then by mid-morning light breezes were the order of the day, and it was possible to cruise in zodiacs amongst the ice floes in Wilhelmina Bay.
As we travelled around Enterprise Island birds seen were Wilson’s Storm Petrel, South Polar Skua, many Southern Fulmars, Snowy Sheathbills and Snow Petrels over the ship, Antarctic Terns, and Giant Petrels, and one Humpback Whale was seen surfacing along the edge of the ice. The zodiac cruise gave the opportunity to peruse Antarctic Shags, Antarctic Terns nesting on the wreck of a whaler, and two Weddell Seals resting on the snow. One really surprising feature was revealed by the use of a ‘gopro’ camera which revealed that after 100 years there were no encrusting organisms on the hull, at least at moderate depth. Perhaps the formation of ice destroys any establishing organisms each year.
As we sailed from Enterprise Island to Deception Island Snow Petrels and Wilson’s Petrels were seen, as well as a Weddell Seal, one Fin Whale and two Humpback Whales, although I must admit some observations were made from the hot tub, the bird list for this vantage point being South Polar Skua, Southern Fulmar, Antarctic Tern and Giant Petrel sp.
In the evening we had the bonus of sailing into the vast caldera of Deception Island. Wilson’s Petrels and many Cape Petrels flew around the basaltic cliffs, while along the shoreline there were 15 Weddell Seals in twos and threes, one possible Crab-eater, Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, Skuas sp, and Gentoo Penguins, all viewed with a sunset turning the snow and geometrically shattered sea ice various shades of pink. To make it perfect two Snow Petrels flew in dipping flight over the ice.
19th November. For our first days crossing of the notorious Drake Passage it was showing its benign side with light winds, which never exceeded a F4. The calm seas made cetacean spotting easier and numbers of large whales were seen in the morning. At least 29 large whales were seen, with the overwhelming majority that could be identified being Humpbacks, but at least two Fin Whales were also seen. One Humpback announced its arrival by audibly blowing right by the boat, but I was mildly put out when an ill judged lunch break coincided with 5 whales cruising down the ship, so close I could see the massive gleaming white pectorals underwater through the cabin window, but they were well past before I made it outside with the camera. There were clear changes in the species mix of birds as we headed north.
Cape Petrels – large numbers seen with c50 following at any one time
Antarctic Petrel – c5 birds with Cape Petrels early on, and a couple slicing through the air around the boat to the end.
Snow Petrel 1
Black-bellied Storm Petrel 5
Wilson’s Storm Petrel 10
Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel, most of c30 seen being of this species
Black-browed Albatross 10
Grey-headed Albatross 1
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross 8
Sothern Fulmar 50
South-Polar Skua 4
Arctic Term 4
Blue Petrel 20
A few rafting fur seals were seen, south of the Antarctic Convergence these would be Antarctic Fur Seals.
20th November. Once again the dreaded crossing of the Drake Passage was characterised by very light winds and calms, although even in these lightest of airs the swells were still considerable. It is said that the most exciting seabird watching of this crossing takes place in strong winds, but it that is true it was hard to imagine how much better it might be, as it was still superb, with one real rarity showing well and allowing unique photo opportunities. On the other hand the cetacean sightings were disappointing for quantity even if the limited selection included some very rarely seen species.
Black-browed Albatross – seen throughout the day, with large numbers of rafting birds as we approached the entrance to the Beagle Channel. With a day total of perhaps 1000+ it was again staggering to consider this is the most endangered Albatross.
Grey-headed Albatross c 20, including some juveniles.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross 20
Wandering Albatross 1
Southern Royal Albatoss 2
Northern Royal Albatross 3– one of these gave me my closest and best views of one of the great albatrosses.
Sooty Albatross – this species was certainly not on the expected or even really hoped for list, but one cruised round the ship several times, showing its chocolate plumage and conspicuous yellow bill stripe and giving excellent photo opportunities. Excellent to see this species as I had dipped on a bird in view during a pelagic from Portland, Australia.
Southern Giant Petrels – most specifically identified birds were of this species with c300 seen during the day.
Northern Giant Petrel
Blue Petrel – c40 seen
Common Diving Petrel – assumed birds of this species far out to see.
Magellanic Diving Petrel – a few speeding diving petrels in the Beagle Channel could not be specifically identified, but one bird on the water could be examined and the white collar characteristic of Magellanic Diving Petrel could be seen.
Cape Petrel – birds were trailing the ship all day, although fewer in the swarms of yesterday, and they came particularly numerous close to the Beagle Channel.
Sooty Shearwater – scattered birds were seen throughout the day, totalling fewer than 100, but the species became really numerous close to the Beagle Channel, with several thousand birds coming past in streams, or rafting on the sea.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel – small numbers seen throughout the day, perhaps 100 in total.
White-chinned Petrel – this species made a reappearance having not been seen after South Georgia, with c150 seen.
Rock-hopper Penguin – many small groups seen out at sea, either porpoising, or refting on surface.
Magellanic Penguin – c50 birds seen around entrance to the Beagle Channel or in the channel itself.
Southern Skua- a few birds seen flying past.
Chilean Skua – several examples of this cinnamon tinted, dark capped skua were seen attending the rafts of Sooty Shearwaters close to land.
Southern Fulmar – probably the second most consistent ship follower after Cape Petrel.
Imperial Shag – large fishing flocks were seen close to the Beagle Channel.
As mentioned earlier seeing any cetaceans proved hard work, but a Southern Bottle-nosed Whale surfaced showing tan colour, triangular fin and small bushy blow. As I moved round the ship to photograph a Wandering Albatross I was distracted by the appearance of a tight group of cetaceans which were black with a small triangular dorsal. One surfaced at an angle showing a distinctive long beak, and this would confirm they were Arnoux’s Beaked Whale. Just before we entered the Beagle Channel a small group of dolphins appeared. As they rolled towards us I am fairly sure I saw the dark head of Peale’s, but photos I did get were inconclusive. A number of South American Sea-Lions were seen in this area, including the grotesquely massive bulls.
21st November. We docked in Ushaia at 7.00 am, noting Kelp Gulls and Imperial Shags. Mistrustful of Aerolineas Argentinas I caught the same bus to the airport as those on the 10.30 am flight and was heartily relieved I did so because my afternoon flight was cancelled. I, and most others were able to transfer to the earlier flight, thus avoiding missing my international flight from Buenos Aires, which would have somewhat tarnished an otherwise fantastic trip.
White-tufted Grebe. About 20 birds on the Laguna de los coipos, with some birds along the wall giving really close views.
Pied-billed Grebe. Two were seen on the Laguna de los coipos, and I was able to take reasonable photos, although when the birds dived they swam so far underwater relocation was a real challenge.
Neotropic Cormorant. About 30 resting birds on the reserve with more fishing on the River Plate.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron. Four adult birds and two of the tiger striped juveniles were seen stalking the margins of the Laguna de los coipos.
Whistling Heron. Three birds were seen in flight. With the drying up of the lagoons the reduction in numbers of herons was a big contrast from our visit in 2006.
Great Egret. A few birds were seen in flight.
White-faced Whistling-duck. Some small flocks seen around the margins of the Laguna de los coipos, about 30 birds seen in total.
Fulvous Whistling-duck. Less numerous than the previous species, with around ten birds seen in pairs, some viewable down to 6m.
Coscoroba Swan. There were a few resident birds on the Laguna de los coipos, with at least one pair on a nest, and 6 birds seen in total.
Ringed Teal. A rather exquisite species, a pair gave brilliant views as they dabbled around the margins of the lake.
Silver Teal. Another beautifully marked duck, several pairs were seen on the Laguna de los coipos, with c50 birds present.
Yellow-billed Pintail. Several birds were seen on the Laguna de los coipos, with some obviously resident as a pair was seen with a brood of ducklings.
Rosy-billed Pochard. About 20 birds were seen on the Laguna de los coipos, showing versatility in feeding by either dabbling or diving for food.
Lake Duck. Some ten birds were seen in Azolla covered areas of the lake. It was only when I went to the Internet to check on the differences between this and Masked Duck that I discovered that all references were obsessed with the extraordinary reproductive anatomy of this bird.
Harris Hawk. Three birds were present and spent much of the day soaring over the area, sometimes being mobbed by birds such as Southern Lapwings.
Southern Caracara. This species was not actually seen on the reserve, but five were seen circling around the buildings of the city.
Chimango Caracara. At least one loose party of 4-5 birds were seen circling over the scrub at Costanero Sur.
Rufous-sided Crake. A pair were seen foraging in mud at the edge of swamp vegetation at the edge of the Laguna de los Coipos, a beautifully marked and confiding crake.
Giant Wood-Rail. I was very keen to see this impressive species, and given the suggestion it is not closely associated with water I was searching in thickets and woodland, but the one I did see was stalking the margins of an island in the Laguna de los Coipos.
Moorhen. This species was common around the margins of Laguna de los Coipos, often attacking the inoffensive Spot-flanked Gallinules.
Spot-flanked Gallinule. This species appeared absent in 2006 but some 15 birds were easy to see on the Laguna de los Coipos, foraging in the open on Azolla, alongside Wattled Jacanas.
Red-gartered Coot. In 2006 the only coot species I identified was White-winged, but these appeared to be absent, while this species was fairly numerous in open water, with c60 present.
Red-fronted Coot. This species seems to occupy a niche between coots and moorhens, being a bird of floating and emergent vegetation rather than open water.
Limpkin. I had fabulous close views of two roosting birds and one feeding on Apple Snails around Laguna de los Coipos. Other birds were seen on the islands with 8 Limpkins seen in total.
Southern Lapwing. Only a few birds seen intermittently mobbing Harris hawks.
Wattled Jacana. The only other wader seen, a big contrast to 2006, this species was numerous on the Azolla mats on Laguna de los Coipos, with c60 present, with typically much chasing and territorial disputation.
Kelp Gull. Several birds were seen drifting around the seaward edge of the reserve.
Picazuro Pigeon. This large pigeon was common and easy to see in scrub and woodland on the reserve, with c200 birds seen during the day.
Eared Dove. This species was abundant both on the reserve and in downtown Buenos Aires, with hundreds seen daily.
White-eyed Parakeet. A small group of 6 birds was seen on the reserve in the evening of the 30th October.
Nanday Parakeet. Noisy flocks of this large parakeet regularly flew over the promenade at the edge of the reserve.
Monk Parakeet. This species was common in parks and green spaces in Buenos Aires, although not seen in any numbers on the reserve itself.
Ash-coloured Cuckoo. This new species was seen well in scrub on the reserve, the subdued grey pastel shades its plumage being relieved by the red wine coloured orbital ring and iris.
Guira Cuckoo. One tends to think of cuckoos as being self effacing and retiring birds, but as well as the parties sunning themselves at the entrance to the reserve, birds could be seen running along pavements around cafes to challenge feral pigeons for scraps.
Glittering-bellied Emerald. In a brief view the only hummingbird seen at all well would seem to be this species.
Green-barred Woodpecker. This small woodpecker was quite a common species on the reserve with 8 birds seen during my visits.
Campo Flicker. A few birds were seen briefly in flight, but then I found a nest site along the main trail on the reserve, and had great views of the male preening, and then swapping places with the female.
Narrow-billed Woodcreeper. Only one bird was seen, easy to pick out as it flew between trees, but not so easy to spot in trees in spite of its piercing calls.
Rufous Hornero. This is a common species in any grassy area in the city, and along the grassy edges of tracks. Birds were seen displaying outside their extraordinary mud nests.
White-crested Tyrannulet. One example of this inconspicuous species seen on the 31/10.
Cattle Tyrant. One bird seen on a grassy area in the city.
Great Kiskadee. A noisy and fairly common species along the bushy edges of the Laguna de los Coipos.
Streaked Flycatcher. A few birds, c4, were seen in the evening of the 30/10, but I didn’t pick up any more the following day.
Tropical Kingbird. Just one bird seen on the reserve.
Vermilion Flycatcher. Two females were seen close to the reserve entrance on 31/11.
Spectacled Tyrant. One of the very distinctive males was seen, as well as 4 of the rather pipit like females.
White-rumped Swallow. This very attractive and chunky swallow is a summer visitor and several birds were hawking over the Laguna de los Coipos, and elsewhere on the reserve.
Blue-and-white Swallow. This smaller species was also seen over the Laguna, but less numerous than White-rumped.
Grey-breasted Martin. This large hirundine was a common sight over the city and in the airspace over the reserve.
House Wren. Several birds seen in scrub on the reserve, often in song.
Rufous-bellied Thrush. A common species both on the reserve and in open spaces in the city. Many birds were singing.
Creamy-bellied Thrush. This species was common on the reserve with no obvious ecological separation from Rufous-bellied Thrush, with birds foraging side by side.
Chalk-browed Mockingbird. This was a conspicuous and bold species on the reserve. Many birds were giving their rich and varied song.
Masked Yellowthroat. Had very good views of a singing male who seemed to respond to ‘pishing’, another 4 examples of this handsome but skulking species were seen.
Masked Gnatcatcher. Some six examples of this warbler like bird were seen foraging through bushes, and adults were seen feeding fledged juveniles.
Black-and-rufous Warbling Finch. On our previous visit we only saw one of this species, but it is now one of the most common passerines on the reserve, with its distinctive ‘pleased to meet you’ song emanating seemingly from every thicket.
Saffron Finch. Five birds were seen in scrub on the reserve.
Red-crested Cardinal. This showy species was most easily seen along the promenade where birds hopped amongst House Sparrows around the cafes – decidedly dude, but great views.
Golden-billed Saltator. This handsome species was not seen at all in 2006, but is now a common resident, and perhaps 15 were seen with others heard giving the distinctive fluting song.
Rufous-collared Sparrow. This smart little bird is probably the most common passerine on the reserve, with many seen along trackways or on the edges of scrub.
Solitary Black Cacique. There was a pair nesting along the track parallel to the Laguna, with two birds preening alongside their intricately woven nest.
Bay-winged Cowbird. Small parties were frequent in scrub on the reserve.
Shiny Cowbird. Commonly seen foraging on the ground in short grass areas both on the reserve and in the city.
Yellow-winged Blackbird. A pair was seen on the reserve, the yellow shoulder patches not apparent at all on the resting birds.
Hooded Siskin. Some 20 birds seen, with many males in song.
Coypu. Apparently feral dogs have severely depleted the population of this species, although this must have happened some time ago as we saw none in 2006.Two individuals were seen, one on a small Azolla covered pool, and another ensuring Laguna de los Coipos lived up to its name.
Pampas Cavy. Just one was seen in the late afternoon at the edge of one of the tracks, although their runs were quite obvious, so I would suspect most emerge as the crowds begin to leave.
Systematic list – largely follows Monroe and Sibley, A World Checklist of Birds, Yale 1993
Upland Goose Chloephaga picta. Several birds seen at West Point on West Falkland, including families with goslings, and also numerous and tame at Gypsy Point and in and around Stanley. There were c50 birds alongside the runway at Ushaia Airport in Argentina.
Kelp Goose Chloephaga hybrida. Pairs of this strikingly dimorphic species were seen at West Point and at Gypsy Cove on the Falklands, typically but not exclusively along shorelines.
Ruddy-headed Goose Chloephaga rubidiceps. This attractive species that resembles a female Upland Goose, except for finer barring and smaller size is difficult to see on mainland South America, but was easy to find at West Point on West Falkland, with several very tame pairs on view.
Falkland Steamerduck Tachyeres brachypterus. There was a breeding pair at the mooring at West Point, West Falkland, with several ducklings diving with their mother, with the pale-headed drake close by. A few other birds were seen along the seafront in Stanley, perhaps 10 in total.
Flying Steamerduck Tachyeres patachonicus. A drake was found resting on shore along seafront at Stanley.
Crested Duck Anas specularioides. A few birds were seen at West Point, West Falkland, and loafing along the seafront at Stanley.
Yellow-billed Teal Anas flavirostris flavirostris. A few birds were seen along beaches at West Point, West Falkland.
Yellow-billed (South Georgian) Pintail Anas georgica georgica. This subtle but neat duck is increasing already as the rat eradication programme proceeds, and birds were seen on Prion Island, Fortuna Bay, Stromness, on meltwater pools on our hike to Grytvikin, and along the shoreline at Grytvikin itself, with c30 birds being seen, mostly in pairs.
Magellanic Snipe Gallinago paraguaiae magellanica. I had noted some boggy pools on the outskirts of Stanley as we returned from Gypsy Cove, and was very pleased when a search of this area revealed a very confiding Magellanic Snipe resting amongst the sedges.
Snowy Sheathbill Chionis alba. An interesting, fearless and curious species, these birds were first seen at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia, where a flock flew out to investigate the ship. There were about 30 birds present at this site, and some were invariably attending the other King Penguin colonies we visited, such as at St Andrew’s Bay. In Antarctica they were present in Chinstrap colonies at Half Moon Island, and Gentoo colonies at Cuverville Island. They were seen to tuck into penguin faeces with great enthusiasm, as well as attempting to pull scraps of tissue off wounded Elephant Seals. Two birds facing each other gave a synchronised bobbing display.
Blackish Oystercatcher Haematopus ater. Six examples of this hefty billed oystercatcher were seen along the shoreline at West Point on the Falklands, with others flying past the ship at sea.
Magellanic Oystercatcher Haematopus leucopodus. A few examples of this species were seen along the sea-front at Stanley. The sharp stabbing beak of this species is very different to that of the Blackish Oystercatcher – perhaps divergent evolution means they occupy very different niches?
Rufous-chested Plover Charadrius modestus. A sparkling summer plumaged bird was found by a pool to the west of Stanley, and the bird foraged with 6m as I sat down and watched it at close range.
Southern Skua Catharacta Antarctica. A few birds were seen at sea as we approached the Falklands Islands and also the Beagle Channel.
Brown Skua Catharacta lonnbergi. There were invariably several birds (up to 20) attending penguin colonies on South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. They were often completely fearless allowing close assessment of the structure and plumage of this hulking bird.
Chilean Skua Catharacta chilensis. With its cinnamon tones and strongly capped appearance this is one of the easier skuas to identify, and c10 were identified as we entered the Beagle Channel.
South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki. This bird proved something of a challenge to positively identify as I saw no nice easy pale phase birds. Photographs allowed assessment of structure and subtle features such as a whitish spot above the bill, and I am confident it was seen at Cuverville Island and Arctowski Station. It may well be that most of the skuas seen passing at sea around the peninsula were of this species, but they seemed indifferent to the ship and rarely came close.
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus. Three birds were seen on the 2nd November, not proving easy to identify as they were in the (to me) unfamiliar non-breeding plumage, lacking tail projections and with barring on the underparts, but photos allowed assessment of structure and their flight action was inconsistent with Pomarine.
Dolphin Gull Larus scoresbii. This rather lovely gull, with its raspberry bill and legs and subtle dove-grey wash was numerous and approachable along the sea front at Stanley, and at Gypsy Cove, with c80 seen.
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus. Although this widespread species was rarely seen far out to sea birds were seen daily in the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and on the Antarctic Peninsula, with some always present around penguin colonies.
Brown-hooded Gull Larus maculipennis. About 250 were seen in the Rio Plato estuary on the 1st November, and small numbers were seen flying offshore at Gypsy Cove on the Falklands.
Royal Tern Sterna maxima. One bird was seen at sea on 3rd November.
Cayenne Tern Sterna sandvivensis eurygnatha. At sea on 3rd November I was surprised to hear a Sandwich Tern like call, but a scan with bins revealed one of this yellow billed taxon.
South American Tern Sterna hirundinacea. About 20 adult birds were seen at sea on 3rd November. There were also numbers of winter plumaged/second summer birds (c80) that may have been this species or Arctic Terns.
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea. No candidates for this species were seen in Antarctica, perhaps we were too early, but some winter plumaged birds were seen off Argentina on 3rd and 20th November.
Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata. This species was first seen around Shag Rocks off South Georgia, and from then on was ubiquitous in small numbers along shorelines in South Georgia and on the Antarctic Peninsula, with pairs hovering and diving, seemingly often for tiny copepods, although larger fish were also seen taken. The underparts are darker grey than breeding Arctic, with a clear white stripe below the black cap.
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura. Seemingly a slightly incongruous species to find on the Falkland Island, but seen on both West and East Falkland, about 10 birds both days.
Variable Hawk Buteo (Geranoaetus) polysoma. One was seen hanging in the wind over a hillside at West Point, West Falkland.
Striated Caracara Phalcoboenus australis. The first bird seen was a juvenile that investigated the ship as we approached West Point on West Falkland on 5th November, and c8 others were seen on the island, with frequent aerial squabbles. I was amazed how quickly birds on the ground could run.
Great Grebe Podiceps major. One was seen on the sea on 2nd November.
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasiliensis. Several birds were seen in the harbour at Buenos Aires, or offshore on 1st November
Imperial Shag Phalacrocorax atriceps. Several birds of this species flew around the boat near the Falkland Islands, with others fishing in Stanley Harbour. It was also numerous as we approached the Beagle Channel, with hundreds seen in fishing flocks.
Antarctic Shag Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis. This species was seen on the Antarctic Peninsula at Paradise Bay, and on the South Shetland with several small breeding colonies constructing their nests on steep snow-free slopes.
South Georgian Shag Phalacrocorax georgianus. This species was first seen at Shag Rocks, which lived up to its name with c1000 pairs covering most of the available surface, and lines of birds beating their way into the gale force winds to go fishing. Smaller numbers were seen nesting at other locations on South Georgia, such as Stromness.
Rock Shag Phalacrocorax magellanicus. I had previously had distant views of birds in Chile, but nesting birds at Gypsy Cove on East Falkland allowed very satisfactory close range views of nesting birds, exhibiting behaviour such as nest building, courtship and mating.
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. In this far flung outpost of the empire of this cosmopolitan species, three birds were seen at Gypsy Cove, including one on a nest amongst Rock Shags.
King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus. The first birds were seen at sea on the way to South Georgia, where we were able to visit a number of enormous colonies where overwhelming spectacle was the order of the day. On 9th November we landed at Salisbury Plain with 60,000 pairs, on the 10th we visited Fortuna Bay, with a ‘mere’ 7,000 pairs and then the ultimate penguin immersion was at St.Andrews Bay on the 11th with 160,000 pairs. There was also a large colony at Gold Harbour , visited on the 12th. Large numbers of birds undergoing their pre-nuptial moult crowded along the meltwater streams in a penguin Kumbh Mela, while others were actively courting, while still others were been chased by and still feeding chicks, such is the protracted breeding of this species. A stunningly beautiful bird at close range, as curious birds would approach one if one sat on the beach. In some places (Marion Island) Antarctic Fur Seals will hunt King Penguins on land, but I saw no sign of hostile interactions, nor indeed any corpses/remains.
Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua. This species was first seen on East Falkland with small groups of birds porpoising past the ship in the evening. They were heading for a distant beach where 100s of penguins could be seen leaving the sea. Small numbers were seen at several sites on South Georgia, such a Prion Island, St.Andrews Bay and Gold Harbour, where they were nesting in tussock grass. On the 17th November we were able to visit one of the larger colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula at Cuverville Island where the 6,000 pairs were actively engaged in courtship, mating and defending territories.
Adelie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae. This species was not seen at sea, but we were able to visit a colony at Arctowski Station on the South Shetlands. Access to the actual nesting sites on the tops of low hills is not permitted, but with the scope good views of birds displaying and nest building could be had, while there was a procession of birds entering and leaving the sea, using their bills as ice picks to climb near vertical snow slopes, and then tobogganing past once on more level ground.
Chinstrap Penguin Pygoscelis antarctica. Small numbers were seen on icebergs around South Georgia, then on 14th November we could view large breeding colonies from the ship at Wild Point on Elephant Island. The heavy swells that prevented us landing did not deter the penguins from leaping out on to the rocks and one marvelled at how these indomitable birds climbed to the top of seemingly inaccessible peaks. There were many other colonies seen around the peninsula, but on the 15th November we visited a large colony on Half Moon Island, a hive of activity with courtship, mating and territorial disputes. I was quite surprised some penguins would pursue rivals for 50m or more, rather than simply evicting them from a nearby territory.
Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome. On the 5th November we were able to visit a nesting colony on West Point Island in the Falklands at Devil’s Nose. The birds were mixed in with Black-browed Albatrosses and there were some squabbles between the penguins and their larger neighbours, but presumably the penguins gain some protection against gulls and skuas, even though the nests are well hidden among tussock grass. Far below penguins could be seen overcoming massive swells to leave the ocean and begin their long trek to the nesting sites. Many birds were seen up to 200 km from land as we crossed the Drake Passage.
Macaroni Penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus. Although this is the most numerous breeding penguin on South Georgia with 1000000+ pairs it proved quite hard to locate. A handful of birds were seen on the sea, while some were viewed with the scope at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island before a blizzard obscured them. We were able to twitch one of these wacky looking penguins among Chinstraps at Half Moon Island.
Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus. A few birds were seen on the sea on 2nd November, while a few breeding birds (presumably a very small proportion of the total) were seen among tussock grass at West Point, while we could view nesting birds in burrows at Gypsy Point. Some 4 birds had burrows conveniently close to the path. A few hundreds were seen at sea off Cape Horn and in the Beagle Channel.
Southern Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus. Giant Petrels were seen daily and this species seemed to be the most numerous, when I carried out sample identifications of birds sailing past the ship. It was hard to assess exactly how many birds were seen as some would follow the ship for considerable distances, but up to 20 could be seen in one view. Giant Petrels were always in attendance around seal and penguin colonies, and were seen scavenging a chinstrap penguin at Wild Point, and delivery of an Elephant Seal afterbirth immediately resulted in melee of competing birds. Three dead birds were seen on South Georgia. Four of the striking white morph were seen.
Northern Giant Petrel Macronectes halli. Less numerous than the preceding species but examples could be found most days when the bill tips of birds passing the ship were examined.
Southern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialoides. This species was first seen in small numbers around the Falkland Islands, then daily for the rest of the trip with large numbers (100+) daily in Antarctica and in the Drake Passage. As with Northern Fulmar an inveterate ship follower.
Antarctic Petrel Thalassoica antarctica. Four examples of this striking species were seen with Cape Petrels around the South Shetlands on the 16th and 17th November, while five followed the ship in the Drake Passage on the 19th Nov. One bird remained for a considerable distance, sweeping from side to side in huge sweeping arcs, actually flying upside down at the peaks of its swings.
Cape Petrel Daption capense. This species was seen on every day, except 1st November, with the largest numbers following the ship in rough weather during the traverse to the Antarctic Peninsula and in the Drake Passage. Flocks of 50-60 would swirl around the ship, or pass by at eye level. Birds were nesting around the cliffs at Deception Island.
Snow Petrel Pagodroma nivea. This exquisite bird was first seen on South Georgia on 9th Nov with one at Salisbury Plain, one was also seen at Maivikin, but 37 were seen during the crossing from South Georgia to the Antarctic Penisula, while 2 birds dipping amongst ice floes on Deception Island approached avian perfection. Odd birds were seen most days around the South Shetlands with the final sighting in the Drake Passage. The birds were often attracted to the ship, and would fly around the upper decks, giving superb views.
Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera. Two birds were seen during the crossing to South Georgia on the 9th November, and one on the 12th as we headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. In strong winds these birds flew in their typical high arcs, at times at a great height above the churning sea.
Atlantic Petrel Pterodroma incerta. On the 9th November 3 examples of this endangered species were seen careering past in typical gadfly petrel flight. Although not attracted to the ship one came close enough for reasonable photographs.
Blue Petrel Halobaena caerulea. This small, neat and aerobatic petrel with its distinctive white tail tip was a common sight on the crossing from the Falklands to South Georgia, then to the Antarctic Peninsula, and in the Drake Passage, but it was not seen around Antarctica itself. 20-100 were seen on these days. They often consorted with prions, but often flew higher above the sea.
Antarctic Prion Pachyptilia desolata. Given their small size and often erratic flight identification of prions was difficult. Taking digital photos was a real help, but was obviously not appropriate for every bird. This species was first identified south of the Antarctic Convergence on the 8th December, and most of the prions around South Georgia were of this species. Up to 100 seen daily from the ship.
Slender-billed Prion Pachyptilia belcheri. The prions seen on the first few days north of the Antarctic Convergence appeared to be all of this species. Some prion blizzards were seen on the 3rd November, with thousands of birds swirling over the sea. Both species were identified in the Drake Passage.
White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis. This large petrel was one of the most numerous seabirds throughout the trip, and was seen daily except in days spent around the Antarctic Peninsula. It was not a ship follower, but birds regularly came close to the ship giving good photo opportunities. Up to 100 were seen daily while at sea, while birds were seen flying to their nesting sites on South Georgia.
Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis. Spectacular numbers of this fine bird were seen between Buenos Aires and the Falklands, with thousands seen on the 2nd, and hundreds on the 3rd, giving fantastic views as they cruised past the ship. Just 10 birds were seen around the Falklands and none thereafter.
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus. A few birds were seen between Buenos Aires and the Falklands, with c60 birds around the Falklands, but the most impressive flocks were seen in the northern Drake Passage. In the evening thousands were seen in great streams of birds, or rafting on the sea.
Magellanic Diving-Petrel Pelecanoides magellani. A number of Diving-Petrels were seen whirring over the calm waters of the Beagle Channel, but with one bird on the sea the white neck collar could be seen to confirm a Magellanic Diving-Petrel.
South Georgian Petrel Pelecanoides georgicus. A few diving petrel sp were seen around the north coast of South Georgia, but as we left South Georgia and headed for the Antarctic Peninsula on the 12th November thousands of diving petrels were seen whirring over the sea or resting on it, and both Common and South Georgian were identified from photographs. Not one was seen the next day.
Common Diving Petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix. Presumably this species was seen in some numbers around the Falkland Islands, and seven birds found on the deck of the ship in the morning were of this species. Thousands of Diving-Petrels were seen as we left South Georgia on the 12th November, and some were Common.
Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans. I found the great albatrosses quite difficult to identify, given they were often quite distant and the great plumage variation related to age and gender, and in most cases I resorted to taking an image and examining it later. This species was seen between Buenos Aires and the Falklands, on the journey to South Georgia and in the Drake Passage, with a total of 10 identified out of c50 Great Albatrosses seen. Chicks on the verge of fledging were seen among the tussock grass on Prion Island. There is perhaps no finer sight in world birding than watching one of these birds cruising over the mountainous swells of the Southern Ocean.
Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora sanfordi. Three birds seen in the Drake Channel on the 20th November appeared to be this species with all dark upperwings, one of which came very close to the ship.
Southern Royal Albatross Diomedia epomophora epomophora. Birds of this species were seen between BA and the Falklands, on the journey to South Georgia, and in the Drake Passage, with 5 identified from photos.
Black-browed Albatross Diomedea melanophris. This beautiful albatross was the first seabird seen on the trip, and numbers were seen most days, although it was noticeably scarcer around the Antarctic Peninsula. Enormous numbers were seen north of the Falklands on the 3rd November, with me needing to look at photos to confirm there really had been that many in view. There were large numbers in the north Drake Passage on the 20th November, often rafting with Sooty Shearwaters. The nesting colony at Devil’s Nose on the West Falkland was am impressive site with several thousand birds. Courtship between established pairs was seen, particularly when one arrived to relieve its partner at the nest.
Grey-headed Albatross Diomedea chrysostoma. This species was seen on 2nd December between BA and the Falklands, and daily approaching and around South Georgia, where it breeds, but in smaller numbers than Black-browed with a maximum of 5 birds daily. Rather larger numbers – 20+ were seen in the northern Drake Passage on 20th November, with some juveniles.
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Diomedea chlororhynchos. This relatively small, neat ‘mollymawk’ was a new species for me although I had seen Indian Ocean Yellow-noses in Australia and South Africa. Three were probably seen on 2nd November, including one which gave good photo opportunities, showing the narrow black edging to the underwing.
Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca. The most unexpected bird of the trip, one appeared as we crossed the Drake Passage, and circled the ship several times, allowing excellent photo opportunities, which showed bold yellow bill stripe and enabled careful analysis of bill structure. Its dark chocolate plumage was very distinct from Light-mantled and evoked comparisons with Sooty Shearwater!
Light-mantled Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata. Perhaps deservedly billed as the world’s most elegant bird this was an expected and hoped for species as we approached South Georgia. Eight birds were seen on 7th November, and some of these, like many others would follow the ship, and indeed cruise past at eye level, just metres away. They were seen daily around South Georgia, with breeding birds seen circling over Prion Island, Fortuna Bay, Stromness and Gold Harbour. Several times they gave the breath-taking synchronised pair flights around snow capped mountains.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel Oceanites oceanicus. This small seabird was seen daily with 5-100 birds skimming over the waves. It proved quite hard to get any decent photos of this species as they rarely came close to the ship and never followed it. At dusk the bat-like forms could be seen flitting around the cliffs of Deception Island.
Grey-backed Storm-Petrel Garrodia nereis. Small numbers (6 per day) were seen on the 4th and 5th November as we sailed south towards the Falklands Islands.
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregatta tropica. From above this species was confusable with Wilson’s, except for its broader winged, ‘chunky’ appearance and jinking flight. They were fairly commonly seen between the Falklands and South Georgia, and en route to the Peninsula, with up to 18 seen on days at sea.
Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant Muscisaxicola maclovianus. A few birds were seen on West Point Island and at Gypsy Cove on East Falkland.
Blackish Cinclodes Cinclodes antarcticus. Had very good views of 2 birds foraging amongst strand line debris on West Point Island, and birds were also seen at Gypsy Cove.
Correndera Pipit Anthus correndera. One bird seen in moorland near Gypsy Cove, East Falkland.
South Georgian Pipit Anthus antarcticus. Populations of the world’s most southerly passerine and clearly increasing and spreading as the rat eradication programme proceeds. Predictably several birds were seen and heard singing on Prion Island, in spite of atrocious conditions, but singing birds were also seen on mainland South Georgia at Fortuna, Stromness and Gold Harbour.
Black-chinned Siskin Spinus barbatus. Small numbers seen on West Point Island and at Gypsy Cove on the Falklands.
Long-tailed Meadowlark Leistes loyca. This showy species was a common species on both East and West Falkland Islands.
White-bridled Finch Melanodera melanodera. This rather beautiful finch was seen foraging amongst heathland plants at Gypsy Cove on East Falkland, perhaps 5 birds seen.
Sedge Wren Cistothorus platensis. This species was seen rummaging like a mouse through heathland vegetation at Gypsy Cove. I searched for, but did not find Cobb’s Wren along the beach at West Point.
Chilean Swallow Tachycineta leucopygia. Birds had arrived in Ushaia, and could be seen as we docked on the 21st November.
Austral Thrush Turdus falcklandii. This species was common in the more sheltered areas on West Point Island, and in and around Stanley.
Mammals – List follows Whales, Dolphins and Seals, a field guide to the Marine Mammals of the World by Hadoram Shirihai and Brett Jarrett.
Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae. We saw far more of this species than I had expected, given that we were supposedly early in the season. One was seen with Fin Whales on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula on the 14th November, while on the 15th a feeding group of c8 were seen around Elephant Island, with another 4 seen during the day, including a distant one breaching. On the 16th 5 were seen as we approached King George Island in the South Shetlands and another 5 were seen cruising around the ice as we were anchored off Arctowski Station. As we sailed to Half Moon Island 15 were seen, including one who put on a great tail slapping display. Two Humpbacks were sighted on the 18th near Enterprise Island, then for a finale 29 were seen in the morning of the 19th in the Drake Passage. This included one that announced its arrival by blowing over us as it surfaced by the side of the ship, but I felt a slight sense on injustice when an ill judged departure for lunch coincided with 5 swimming down the side of the ship and I missed out on this unique photo opportunity.
Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis. On the 3rd November a group of 8 were located, spread out over a wide area of sea. Some were lob-tailing, showing the distinctive concave edge to the flukes, others were breaching and blowing whales showed a double v shaped blow. Presumably they were on migration down to Antarctica.
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus. On the 14th November 2 Fin Whales were seen in the morning, with a loose group of 8 in the afternoon as we travelled towards Elephant Island. We slowed to spend some time viewing these whales.
Unidentified rorquals were seen around Elephant and King George Island, and another 2 certain Fin Whales were seen in the Drake Passage on the 19th November.
Antarctic Minke Whale Balaenoptera bonaerensis. This must be the dip of the trip, given that the population is estimated to be between 510,000- 1.4 million, and I did not see a single one, but one surfaced by a zodiac in Paradise Bay.
Southern Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon planifrons. On the 3rd November one of the Chinese passengers showed me a photo of a breaching Bottlenose Whale he had taken 5 minutes before I made it onto deck at sunrise! On the 7th November, en route to South Georgia a beaked whale surfaced in front of the ship. Given its size, tan colouration, shape of dorsal and scarred body I am pretty certain it was this species, but unfortunately it did not resurface although I could view it underwater, so the less likely Cuvier’s Beaked Whale cannot be totally eliminated. On the 20th November in the Drake Passage another surfaced, giving a low blow, and this time I could see the distinctive large melon.
Arnoux’s Beaked Whale Berardius arnuxii. On the 20th November in the Drake Passage a tight group of beaked whales was seen on the surface. As another whale surfaced at a steep angle its head broke the surface showing a long beak. I did get some photos before the group dived but they just show a black body with a small triangular dorsal as they arched their backs to dive.
Peales’s Dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis. A group of 5 briefly approached the boat close to West Falkland on the 5th November, and a small group of 2-3 showed the blackish head as they rolled close to the Beagle Channel on the 20th November.
Hourglass Dolphin Lagenorhynchus cruciger. This striking and beautiful oceanic species appeared around the boat between the Falklands and South Georgia on 7th November, just 4-5 animals. I missed another pod seen in the afternoon.
Dusky Dolphin Lagenorhynchus obscurus. Certainly confusable with Peale’s in a brief view, but 3 seen close to the ship on the 2nd November, including a mother and calf, and 2 seen on the 4th November.
Commerson’s Dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii. At least this inshore species is completely unmistakeable. A group of 5 put on a great display of leaping as we approached West Falkland, another 2 were seen near Stanley, and it was possible to view a few individuals in Stanley Harbour from the sea front.
South American Fur Seal Arctocephalus australis. It was certainly not easy to identify pinnipeds at sea, but on the 2nd November several were seen while at sea, typically rafting on the surface with flippers raised. For those that the head shape could be assessed they were definitely Fur Seals as opposed to Sea-Lions, and Antarctic Fur-Seals are said not to occur north of the Antarctic Convergence.
Antarctic Fur Seal Arctocephalus gazella. This species was first seen around Shag Rocks on the cruise to South Georgia, and then males were starting to occupy the beaches on South Georgia. It was reasonably easy to avoid the potentially aggressive males at this time of year, but I saw photos of the same sites with astronomical numbers of Fur Seals later in the season which made one realise how difficult a landing might be at that time. The testosterone charged males spent the entire time challenging and sparring with their neighbours, most conflicts resulting in just a few quick but bloody bites to the neck. Huge numbers were also seen at sea between South Georgia and the Peninsula, even in very deep water, presumably most of these would duly head for South Georgia.
South American Sea Lion Otaria byronia. Two were seen on the shore at West Point, and another swimming at Gypsy Cove, these were young bulls so harder to identify than the almost grotesque and monstrous mature bulls seen close to the Beagle Channel on the 20th November.
Southern Elephant Seal Mirounga leonina. An undeniably awe-inspiring animal, we were there at the peak of the breeding season, which is earlier than the Fur Seals. Haul outs were seen at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island, Fotuna Bay, Stromness, Grytvikin, St.Andrews Bay (with 6,000 individuals), and Gold Harbour. Elephant Seals were also seen in Antarctica, as Elephant Island lived up to its name. The beaches were a cauldron of activity with continual challenges made to the beachmaster by rival bulls, but there was clearly a clear awareness of size and strength as in every case I witnessed the challenger fled immediately the beachmaster charged him. However the bloody and lacerated necks of most of the beachmasters bore witness to the fact that really serious and prolonged fights take place. We were sensibly warned not to approach too close to fighting Elephant Seals, but I think the main danger would being charged down by a fleeing animal while (say) changing a memory card. When the seals attacked or fled they would just launch their 3.5 ton bodies over protesting females and pups regardless. Mating was observed several times, the side by side position preventing the female from being crushed by her massive suitor, and I was just too late to witness a birth, with the new born pups arrival into the world being met by a reception committee of skuas and giant petrels waiting for the afterbirth. In complete contrast to the bulls the ridiculously appealing newly weaned pups would show great curiosity in investigating and approaching the humans amongst their midst.
Leopard Seal Hydruga leptonyx. Although it seems an unlikely record I was convinced I saw one at sea en route to South Georgia. It was completely unexpected but when a mottled sinuous neck reared out from the sea, topped by that massive ‘reptilian’ head I was sure it was a Leopard Seal. One was seen hauled out at Prion Island, and three were seen on ice floes off Arctowski Station, and we were able to approach very close to one resting animal. It would have been interesting to see this apex predator hunting, but although a scavenged chinstrap at Elephant Island was presumably killed by a Leopard Seal this was not to be.
Crabeater Seal Lobodon carcinophaga. Given that this is the most abundant large mammal in the world after humans, with an estimated population of 15-75 million it proved very difficult to locate. Even with the scope distant hauled out seals were not easy to identify, and I am only sure one uniform cream coloured animal seen on an ice floe at Paradise Harbour was of this species, although a few others were probably seen.
Weddell Seal Leptonychotes weddellii. At close range this large sausage shaped seal, with a disproportionally small head was easy to identify, but distant animals were not so straightforward. Three were seen hauled out at Half Moon Island, 17 at Paradise Bay, 2 allowed a close approach with zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay, and 15 were seen at Deception Island.