Day 8 - Thar' she blows!!..and the Shag Rocks

February 08, 2015  •  1 Comment

Another dawn, another coffee, more biscuits and more seabirds, albeit a bit quieter than the day before. A full day steaming at sea lay ahead. A thick fog lingered for most of the day, only lifting for short periods. The fog had an interesting effect on the seabirds. It basically prevented them from being seen! It also prevented the birds from seeing the ship and so there were not so many species or volume of birds around the ship. The usual suspects were around the ship: Black-browed Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Cape Petrel, Antarctic Prions, White-chinned Petrels and Wilson's Storm-Petrels. The sea was very calm, very flat which meant little wind, ergo, few albatross.

Calm seaCalm sea

Fog from the bow. Visibility only okay.

Northern Giant PetrelNorthern Giant Petrel

Northern Giant Petrel through the gloom. Visibility decreasing. 

Wilson's Storm PetrelWilson's Storm Petrel

Wilson's Storm Petrel in a clear moment.

White-chinned PetrelWhite-chinned Petrel

White-chinned Petrel

Antarctic PrionAntarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion.

I popped in and out of the indoors, from Deck 4 Aft, Deck 3 for the Prion images, the dining room for breakfast, the bar area to grab coffee (and biscuits) and the lounge area for some talks on geology, birds and blubber. As the day progressed, there was a distinct aroma in the air. A thick, rich and slightly ammoniac air. It smelt familiar, in a seabird colony sort of way. But we were miles from land, at least 36 hours from Falklands/Las Malvinas and at least 18 hours from South Georgia. Then, an Imperial Shag flew past the stern. Then another. And another. The smell was indeed bird poo. It was Imperial Shag poo. We must be approaching the Shag Rocks! It was so foggy, however, that there was nothing to see. The race of Imperial Shag found in these waters is known as the South Georgia Shag. South Georgia Shags have white cheeks (the Falkland Island Shag has black cheeks) and a distinct demarcation line between the white cheek and black chin and hindneck. Exciting to think we were that we were closer to South Georgia than to the Las Malvinas/Falklands, and a long way from home. 

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia (Imperial) Shag flying very close to the ship through the fog. Note the white cheeks and distinct demarcation line between white cheek and dark face.

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia Shag (Imperial Shag) -  sub-adult.

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia Shag (Imperial Shag )- adult.

Over the tannoy came an announcement in Cheli's best New Zealand drawl: "We are now approaching the Shag Rocks". The smell we were experiencing was a good indicator after all! The collection of six small islands appeared in the distance through the undulating movement of the fog as it lifted and dropped constantly. We were warned previously that we may have an opportunity to see the islands but it would all depend on weather and fog. Too stormy, and it would too dangerous to approach; too foggy, and it still might be too dangerous to approach. The Shag Rocks are about 250km west of South Georgia and about 1,000km off the Las Malvinas/Falklands. Luckily for us, the fog lifted and we were in a position to make an approach on the Shag was a very cool thing to see. They reminded me a lot of the Stag Rocks off the south-west coast of Ireland and I kept referring to the Shag Rocks as the Stag Rocks all day beacuse of that! I think I confused both myself and the passengers!

From the ship, we could clearly see the fronds of Giant Kelp fastened to the base of the rocks, just where the water washed over the rocks. Hundreds of Imperial Shags were dotted around the islands, with Black-browed Albatross and Wandering Albatross soaring around the peaks and bases. It was quite an impressive sight. The Shags were busy nesting and carrying nesting materials to and from the rocks. Where they were getting the organic matter to line the rock edges was a mystery. 

Shag RocksShag Rocks Shag RocksShag Rocks Shag Rocks and WaveShag Rocks and Wave South Georgia Shags on Shag RockSouth Georgia Shags on Shag Rock South Georgia Shags on Shag RockSouth Georgia Shags on Shag Rock Shag Rocks

As we headed in towards the Rocks, the captain brought in the stabilisers from the ship. It was incredible how much of a difference the make to the stability of the ship. While it was not rough, there was probably a 2m swell with a lot of time in between the waves. However, the ship really rolled. It was quite something. As we changed course and started moving onwards again, we spotted a large, bushy blow from a whale not too far away and in towards the Shag Rocks. Once we were locked on to its position, it dived and a large stocky tail lifted straight up in the air and down. Some thought it was a Humpback whale but Peter Wilson and I didn't agree. The tailstock was nothing like a Humpback and the general shape of the tail was not that of a Humpback. The stock was thick and the tail flukes were too broad and deep. I wondered if it was a Sperm Whale. With the difference of opinion on its ID, it was decided to turn the ship around and head back in to see if we could find the whale again.

As we were slowly approaching the area where we saw the whale initially another blow materialised and the head was clearly seen..."look at the [insert expletive here] callosities on that!!!" was shouted and all our initial theories on the ID were thrown overboard! This was a SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE!!!!! A new species of whale for many on board, including some of the experienced expedition crew. The whale logged on the surface for a while, arching its back resulting in the head and tail both at the surface. After 5-6 minutes, the whale continued to dive and finally disappeared from our view. What a moment. High-fives everywhere. Smiles all around. Two major whale sightings in two days. This trip was exceeding expectations already. 

Southern Right WhaleSouthern Right Whale

A blow from the Southern Right Whale.

Southern Right WhaleSouthern Right Whale Southern Right Whale clearly showing the callosities on its head, with a South Georgia Shag in the background

Finally leaving the Southern Right Whale to themselves, we pushed on towards South Georgia and the fog lifted. As it did so, we could see more and more out towards the horizon. Some Southern Fulmars and Southern Royal Albatrosses found the ship, as did a couple of Grey-headed Albatross. Northern Giant Petrels were flying close to the ship, as were Black-browed Albtrasses and Cape Petrels. Antarctic Prions began to show in bigger numbers. A couple of Northern Royal Albatross were picked out amongst the large albatross following in the ship's wake. It was turning into a nice relaxing afternoon of seawatching after the excitement of the Shag Rocks and our Southern Right Whale encounter. 

Northern Giant PetrelNorthern Giant Petrel Northern Giant Petrel

Black-browed AlbatrossBlack-browed Albatross Black-browed Albatross flies very close to the stern of the ship. Just stunning. 

Then, as if out of nowhere, there were blubber blows all around the ship. Up to a dozen whales were actively coming to the surface and they were all Humpback Whales. Of that we were certain. I was up on the gangway around the bridge to get a better all-round view of the horizon. News of the sightings went out over the tannoy and the vast majority of the passengers were out on deck. The most I'd seen out on deck at any one time (and was to be for the rest of the trip), clearly demonstrating the lure of Humpback Whales. A particular group of Humpback became very curious and came right up to the ship. Great views were had by all and the photographs obtained by some passengers were excellent. The water is so clear here that it is quite easy to see whales coming up to surface from a few metres down. The air was punctuated with lots of "oohs" and "aahs" as the whales performed for the ship, spy-hopping and tail fluking. 

Humpback Whale blowHumpback Whale blow Humpback Whale surfaces right by the ship.

Humpback Whale TriumvirateHumpback Whale Triumvirate Three of the Humpback Whales that came close to the ship, with the smallest of the three (on the left) spy-hopping.

Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale Two of the Humpback Whales that came close to the ship

I was unfortunate not to be in the right position on the ship when the Humpbacks came right alongside. The expedition leader said that it was the first time they had ever had Humpback Whales come up to the ship like that. It couldn't have gone any better. While I missed getting decent images of the Humpback Whales alongside the ship, I did manage to capture images of the two adult Humpbacks as they tail-fluked before diving. The underside of a Humpback's tail is like a fingerprint and is unique to each individual. I must determine where I can send these images to to catalogue the whales and see whether these whales have already been recorded in the Southern Ocean before. 

Humpback pair tailsHumpback pair tails The flukes of two of the Humpbacks we saw.

All in all, a fantastic day out on the sea. Plenty of whale action but a slower day on the seabird front. However, it was great witnessing the passenger's enjoyment of the scene of the friendly and playful Humpback whales. These are the stories that they will bring back home with them and hopefully inspire others (and themselves) to help secure our planet's future. 


Day 7 - on the Southern Ocean heading to South Georgia

February 01, 2015  •  1 Comment

Dawn broke under a low cloud, with some fog and drizzle surrounding the ship. Not ideal weather conditions for photography. Nevertheless, I donned the waterproofs, thermals, neck warmer, hat, gloves and cameras, and headed straight to the bar! Not for a pint but for a mug of strong coffee and some shortbread biscuits to get the brain going at 6am. As soon as I stepped outside to my spot at Deck 4 Aft, the wind chill was very noticeable. We were heading south, towards South Georgia and the ice of Antarctica, and is was much colder than we had experienced as of yet. Throw the drizzle and fog in, and it made for an uncomfortable first hour. However, despite the cold, once I cast my watering eyes out to the sea, all I could see was clouds of Prions. They were everywhere! Antarctic Prions to boot, with a handful of Thin-billed (or Slender-billed) Prions as well. They were circling the ship and it was difficult to concentrate on individuals as they were wheeling around so quickly. Northern Giant Petrels and Cape Petrels were in evidence, with a single Brown Skua causing a bit of havoc.

A quick look around the corner into the biting wind, I could see a nice group of Wilson's Storm Petrel off the bow albeit a bit distant. I walked quickly to the bow and quickly picked up a Grey-backed Storm Petrel in amongst the group. If the brain hadn't been quite awake yet, it certainly was now with my heart galloping and the adrenaline flowed. Again, the bird was distant so no photographs. I was hoping to pick up some Common Diving Petrels but none materialised despite my best efforts in the polar wind. After the rush of seeing another Grey-backed Storm Petrel, I headed back to the shelter of the Deck 4 Aft and the cloud of Antarctic Prions. I was no sooner back and settled into my nook when I picked up some big albatrosses coming along the wash of the ship...more Wandering Albatross, with Southern Royal Albatross thrown in for good measure. We had four Wanderers in amongst the Prions and Giant Petrels that morning. Black-browed Albatross were also evident and continued to be around the ship for the entire day. 

Wandering AlbatrossWandering Albatross Wandering Albatross (sub-adult) shortly after dawn

Wandering Albatross and Antarctic PrionWandering Albatross and Antarctic Prion Wandering Albatross (juvenile) in amongst Antarctic Prion

Wandering Albatross and Antarctic PrionWandering Albatross and Antarctic Prion Wandering Albatross (sub-adult) with Antarctic Prion

Southern Giant Petrel and Antarctic PrionSouthern Giant Petrel and Antarctic Prion Southern Giant Petrel with Antarctic Petrel 

In amongst the Prions were also some White-chinned Petrels, Grey-headed Albatross and the ever-present Black-browed Albatross. Southern Royal Albatross began to make an appearance as we headed further south. A couple of Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater brought a familiar feel to proceedings, as they are the typical large shearwaters we see of the coast of Ireland during Autumn, but the blizzard of Antarctic Prion they were flying amongst reorientated the geography in my head.

Wandering & Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic PrionWandering & Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prion Southern Royal Albatross in amongst the Antarctic Prion with a Black-browed Albatross in the background

Southern Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic PrionSouthern Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prion Southern Royal Albatross in amongst the Antarctic Prion with a Black-browed Albatross in the background

White-chinned PetrelWhite-chinned Petrel White-chinned Petrel with Antarctic Prion

Great ShearwaterGreat Shearwater Great Shearwater

​Late morning, Jim was giving a talk on the albatrosses and seabirds we should expect on the route down to South Georgia. I grabbed a coffee and some more biscuits (thank goodness for elasticated pants), and headed down to the lounge. Like a typical male mass-goer of old, I sat down the back of the room to ensure I could sneak away should I see anything through the window. With one eye on the screen and my full aural attention, I kept one eye on the window. From where I was sitting, I could see Southern Royal Albatross, Giant and Cape Petrels and Prions glide by. Then, a large all dark shearwater or albatross, glided past the window. Then it glided past again...sweet baby jesus it was a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross!! I quietly legged it out of the room and up on deck. There, flying around the ship and in amongst the melee of Antarctic Prions and Black-browed Albatross were a handful of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. And such incredible beasts!! All grace and beauty in a streamlined form. They just glided effortlessly around the ship, sometimes at head height, and at times flying in parallel in a courtship dance. A dream bird to see and I was like a kid in a sweetshop. I think some of the passengers thought I was bonkers, jumping up and down, running around like a headless chicken, screaming obscenities in the excitement when an albatross flew by or a Cape Petrel flew within a foot of my head. This is what it was all about. This is what the utterance of Southern Oceans conjures up for me in my mind. Clouds of seabirds and majestic albatrosses. This day did not disappoint. 

Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty Albatross with a Black-browed Albatross

After the excitement of the Light-mantled Sooties, I scanned the area for what else could be out there. I came upon a small feeding flock of Giant Petrels and then noticed a small shearwater skirt by. I couldn't believe it. I followed it but it kept quite a ways out and never came in too close. I rattled off a few images and kept watching it. I managed to get one of the passengers standing next to me on to it with their camera (few passengers had binoculars) and he managed to get a few more images. It is possible to get Manx Shearwater down this far south, but it would be rare. The only other species I could think of off the top of my head was Little Shearwater. The bird flew onwards and was lost to sight. I had resigned that encounter as one that got away.

After lunch, I was hanging out with Jim on Deck 5 aft for the "wildlife hour", where Jim and Colin Baird point out to the passengers any birds and any whales encountered. We were scanning the area when Jim picked up an Atlantic Petrel coming in towards the ship. I got on to the bird and was delighted to connect with this species. While they do occur in this region, it is not always guaranteed to see one. A full fledged tick!! In the end, we had at least 5 individuals in the space of an hour or so, indicating that this particular spot was good for them.

Atlantic PetrelAtlantic Petrel Atlantic Petrel

Incredibly, I also managed to either relocate the same or find a different small shearwater at the same distance out I had seen the one an hour or two earlier. I eventually got Jim on the bird and we spent at least 5 minutes tracking it, calling out features as we observed. The "common sandpiper"-like flight behaviour, the open face and short wings led us to conclude that it was a Little Shearwater!!! This was a new species for Jim in these waters. An excellent species to add to the trip list. 

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic PrionLight-mantled Sooty Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prion A pair of Black-browed Albatross and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross sweep through a flock of Antarctic Prion

After about 90 minutes of standing in the biting wind and cold conditions, it was time to head to the warmth and comfort of the bridge to keep an eye on what was coming down the line! The captain and the officers of the Sea Spirit were very tolerant of passengers being on the bridge, provided that the ship was not coming into shore or during rough conditions. From the bridge, and from the walkway around the bridge outside, a great 180 degree view was provided. As I was watching Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels and Black-browed Albatrosses wheel around in front of us, I picked up a blow from the port side and about halfway out to the horizon. It was a big blow. A very big and tall blow. The first officer spotted it as well and got excited. I threw up the bins and all I could see was a pale grey and mottled back that went on and on and on until a tiny dorsal fin finally appeared...Blue Whale?! BLUE FRICKIN' WHALE!!!! My heart started going like the clappers and the adrenaline was pumping. I didn't know what to do. I started to leg it out the door to tell the others. So as I opened the door to leg it out,  and then realised that the bridge could talk to all the expedition staff, but then I saw Jim running downing the corridor towards the bridge shouting "did you see that?!?!" and so I just turned around and went back outside. I didn't get any photographs because I simply forgot to. However, we all got great views of the whale and high-fives were being thrown everywhere. What a moment! I'll never forget the rush I felt when I realised what I was looking at. Unbelievable.

After a calming cup of coffee (and some homemade chocolate chip cookies - can you see a pattern forming here?), it was back out on deck to check what else was going by. I soon picked up some Grey-headed Albatrosses coming along the wash of the ship, in amongst the usual suspects. A very attractive and graceful albatross, which are about the same size of the Black-browed Albatross. Southern Fulmars also started to make an appearance now as well, indicating that we were heading south towards the polar convergence. We didn't need the appearance of Southern Fulmar to tell us we were heading towards the polar convergence; the air temperature and wind chill was a reminder of that! A very pale Light-mantled Sooty Albatross stood out from some distance and thankfully, came into investigate the ship providing some fantastic views. 

Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty AlbatrossLight-mantled Sooty Albatross Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (a very pale individual)

Grey-headed AlbatrossGrey-headed Albatross Grey-headed AlbatrossGrey-headed Albatross Grey-headed Albatross (juvenile)

Northern Giant PetrelNorthern Giant Petrel Northern Giant Petrel (note dark tip to bill)

As the Prions were still wheeling about the ship, I ventured down to Deck 2 where they were flying very, very close and approaching eye level. I spent an hour trying to get some decent flight shots of the Antarctic Prions and the odd Thin (Slender)-billed Prions. It was great watching them skim and glide over the waves in an effortless fashion while into a strong headwind. Magic birds. 

Antarctic PrionAntarctic Prion Antarctic Prion

Antarctic PrionAntarctic Prion Antarctic Prion and Thin (Slender)-billed Prion

Antarctic PrionAntarctic Prion Thin (Slender)-billed Prion

As the day drew to a close, we toasted the Blue Whale and Little Shearwater in the bar that evening. The prospect of what the following full day at sea would bring, made for a very fitful and anxious sleep. 

Day 6 - Port Stanley, Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands

January 30, 2015  •  2 Comments

Dawn broke as we approached the Eastern Falkland Islands and our destination for the day: Port Stanley. Stanely is the capital of these Islands, with a population of just over 2,000 people. The main attractions of the capital are the museum, the government buildings and the church. My interest lay in the birds, and in particular, the Rufous-chested Dotterel and Correndera/Falkland Pipit. Having only a certain amount of time in the area, I had to decide what to do. I could go for the Dotterel and Pipit in the bogs at the top of the town, or else get a taxi out to Gypsy Point (4 miles/6km away) for some Magellanic Penguins and the possibility of 2-Banded Plover. While I was think about what I was going to do, I watched Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Northern and Southern Royal Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Southern Fulmar, Cape Petrel and Wilson's Storm Petrel fly around the ship as we steamed through the channel towards the Stanley. Thin-billed Prions were also making an appearance in small numbers and Common Diving Petrels were scampering away from the bow of the oncoming ship. 

Wilson's Storm-Petrel (ventral view; note the feet sticking out beyond the tail)

Black-browed Albatross (sub-adult)

After a health-hearty breakfast, an "omelette with everything" as one does, everyone donned their wet gear and headed for the Zodiacs. The plan had been to moor alongside the dock in Stanley and have a "dry" landing. However, as with all expedition landings, the weather had other plans for us. A very strong and inconsiderate wind blowing from a unfavourable direction prevented the Captain from bringing the ship alongside. So, it was a rough, bumpy and wet Zodiac trip across the channel to town. While we were waiting to tie alongside, a pair of Commerson's Dolphins swam around the Zodiacs. With my camera gear in my dry bag, I was not able to get any photographs. To be honest, I was just so thrilled to get such good views of the dolphins that getting a photograph didn't really bother me. It was my first time seeing this species and they are a stunning mammal. 

Once we disembarked from the Zodiacs and took of the wet gear, Jim gave me directions of where to go for the Dotterel. My mind was set on spending the time looking for this species and hopefully some close, open views of Magellanic Snipe. There was a chance for 2-Banded Plover and Silvery Grebe along the town front later on, so I decided on the gamble of heading upwards. It took Jim three or four visits to the area he was sending me that he finally found the Dotterels. With so little time to properly stake out an area for photographs, making a decision and sticking to it was key. With that, I set off on my own and headed for the open moorland. Jim was working and guiding a group of passengers from the ship in a bird walk around the town and eventually up the moorland where I would be.

While walking up the hills, it was strange concoction of elements hitting the senses: hearing the calls of House Sparrows, seeing the flags of English Premier League football clubs in the windows of people's homes, watching the Falkland race of Austral Thrush looking for worms in the gardens, where some of the oldest and functioning Land Rover makes and models reside in driveways and looking at Turkey Vultures prowling the skies at roof height; a very surreal picture begins to unfold right in front of one's eyes. 

Turkey Vulture at just over head height along the gardens of the Stanley properties. The crows of the region!

I had to stop to take it in, to remind myself of where I was. The island had an uncanny resemblance to the islands of West Cork that I know and have been going to for years. The soaring Turkey Vultures sort of brought it all back home that I was not on Cape Clear now.

So onwards I went, nodding to the Land Rover drivers who were giving the ol' West Cork "one finger off the steering wheel" wave of acknowledgement. Reaching the top of the hilly "street", I ventured over the wire fences and started walking slowly across the bogs and heather. There were remnants of the Falklands War from 1982 scattered about, with rusted gun turrets and a few old helmets apparent in an area that saw fighting. It was a tad surreal. While searching for the Dotterel, some Black-faced Siskins flew by but not much else. A couple of distant pipits flying east could only have been Correndera Pipit but better views would be required to tick that species. The beautiful melodious song of the Long-tailed Meadowlark was audible but I couldn't find them either! After nearly an hour, I finally tracked down a couple of Dotterel in a distant fenced off section of the bog. I was thrilled!! This was a real bonus to find them so quickly given Jim's previous searches. Without his knowledge, I may not have been able to find them. After climbing over a couple of fences, I managed to sneak up on the Dotterel by lying down on my ever expanding belly (thanks to the copious amounts of food on the ship and my ability to eat it all), and crawling along with the camera at the ready. Once I found a suitable position to lay down and ensuring my background was clean(ish), I spent an hour with the birds allowing them to fly around and walk towards me. Quite stunning and a great experience. It was the wind coming in off the sea and the general quietness of the area that appealed to me most. 

Rufous-chested Dotterel (simply stunning)

While lying on the heather and bog, I was fortunate that a male Long-tailed Meadowlark came into investigate. The male bird, such a stunning creature, fed amongst the heather and chased off the Dotterel at one point, threw out a few snatches of song, before flying off again. 

Long-tailed Meadowlark (Military Starling) - a resplendent male. 

Once I had had my fill of the Dotterel, I moved off and went in search of Magellanic Snipe and Correndera/Falkland Pipits. Just as I was traversing another fence, I saw Jim and his group, just like the Pied Piper and his followers, coming down towards me. With a few well-known hand signals exchanged between us while looking through our binoculars, I intimated that the Dotterels were close. I waited for Jim and my fellow passengers and showed them where the birds were. Everyone was happy to have seen them. With Jim's guided walk now complete, it was great that the two of us could wander around and go birding ourselves, just the two of us, like we used to do when I was a kid. It was a really nice moment for me, and I was delighted to have had the chance to do it. As we walked around the area, we stumbled upon some Magellanic Snipe, more Rufous-chested Dotterel and a few Correndera Pipits as well.

Correndera or Falkland Pipit (best images I could manage - tricky to get close to)

Magellanic Snipe out in the open! Such stunning and cryptic birds. Bigger and paler than their European cousins. We saw quite a few in this area of bog/moorland. With some patience and slow movements, it was possible to get close to this beautiful bird.

However, the highlight of our walk around the area was stumbling upon a quite tame Meadowlark. We slowly crept up to the bird, taking turns to go point and using the one-two inline technique we have used for years now when sneaking up on a bird to take some photographs. This was the closest that Jim had ever got to a Meadowlark so I let him lead for most of the stealthy stalking. We were both delighted to have got so close to a male Meadowlark and also to secure some shots. We then slowly retraced our steps and decided to head back into town for some lunch. On our way back to the road, we passed some small flocks of both Upland and Ruddy-headed Geese in the fields. 

Long-tailed Meadowlark (Military Starling)

Once we had a bite to eat in one of the (strange) local pubs and had a pint of the local ale (excellent stuff, too!), we headed back out to look for the Falkland race of Austral Thrush and check the front of town for more waders, gulls and terns. Jim also wanted to pop into the local Sainsbury's(!) to pick up some supplies. Most of the crew do this here in Stanley, as it is generally not possible to get things like Cadbury's chocolate and other familiar items in Ushuaia. Turkey Vultures were gliding overhead as we exited Sainsbury's and Dolphin Gulls were chilling on the grass along the coastal path running along the front of town. Kelp Gulls and South American Terns flew past busy looking for food, while Falkland Steamer Ducks, or Loggers as they are known as locally, were busy chowing down on bivalves and mussels over the sea wall. Rock Shags were also busily feeding in the shallows. 

Falkland Island Steamer Duck or Logger (a male)

Kelp Gull 

Dolphin Gulls

As I had yet to photograph the Falkland race of Austral Thrush, Jim and I headed out towards the cemetery which is a little way out of town. No sooner had we reached the end of the road that Sainsbury's was on when we spied a couple of Thrush having a wash in a small pond in the garden of the Falklands Conservation building, an end-of-terrace house along Stanley front. They were very jittery and quite flighty but I managed to get a couple of images before we decided to push on. Time was against us as we had to get back to the collection point for the ship. 

Austral/Falkland Island Thrush

On our way to the cemetery, and passing a few Land Rover garages, we stumbled upon a Blackish Oystercatcher feeding along the water's edge!! I had only seen the species in flight in Ushuaia so we stopped to take a few photographs. This is a big Oystercatcher with a real mallet-looking bill. Once I had some record shots in the bag, we walked quickly along the coastal path, passing a flock of sleeping Upland Geese and Black-chinned Siskins feeding on the grass seed heads. As we continued along towards the cemetery, Jim spotted a Steamer Duck sitting up on the grass in amongst some Crested Duck - we were confused as to how it got there (no obvious slipway and a high wall present) and were thinking that it might be a Flying Steamer Duck. Dave, one of the expedition crew, had seen a couple of Flying Steamer Duck flying along the town front as we were approaching Stanley that morning. We crept closer and closer but the bird just didn't fly. We took some photographs for analysis later and were about to head onwards when we realised we had run out of time. We had to head back to the dock and get the Zodiacs back to the ship. It was time to leave Stanley. 

Blackish Oystercatcher

MC002674 LoggerMC002674 Logger possible Flying Steamer Duck

MC002707 Crested DuckMC002707 Crested Duck Crested Duck

Stanley was a great little town, strange, surreal and a bit weird. I wish I could have spent some time walking around and gone to visit the garden full of gnomes and the garden full of whale bones made into sculptures. Next time. For now, it was goodbye to vegetation, trees, soil, the sound of passerines chirping and singing for at least two weeks. 

We made our way out of Stanley harbour and the channel, and back into the open ocean, and then steamed south towards South Georgia! I stayed up on deck and spent the last remaining hours of light birding the day away. We were treated to fantastic views of Wandering Albatross and Black-browed Albatross, as well as White-chinned Petrel and Sooty Shearwater. However, the highlight was picking up 2 Grey-backed Storm-Petrels flying into the wind off the bow of the ship!! I had thought initially that they were Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, but the lack of white rump, overall grey back and wings pointed to Grey-backed. Thankfully, one of the other passengers, Roger, managed to grab a few record shots. We showed Jim later on, and he confirmed that they were Grey-backed Storm-Petrel, as species he has yet to see! A great bird for the trip list.

Black-browed Albatross

MC003028 TriumvariteMC003028 Triumvarite

Northern Giant Petrel, Wandering Albatross and Black-browed Albatross in gloomy conditions.

Wandering Albatross being lit by the setting sun

With the prospect of two full days at sea ahead and the weather closing in, it was time for a few beers and to bed at a reasonable hour. An early start beckoned the following day as we began our journey south. 


Day 5 - Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands - Day 1 Saunders Island (A 5-Penguin Day!)

January 25, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The plan for the afternoon of the 20th November was to land on Saunders Island. This is the fourth largest of the Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands and is run as a sheep farm. The island consists of three peninsulas connected by narrow necks, which are prone to erosion due to storms. So, after stuffing my face with burgers, salad and a hot dog on Deck 5 of the Sea Spirit during lunch, and recovering from the morning's landing on Carcass Island, we boarded the Zodiacs once again and the landing to Saunders was to begin. As with all landings, the team head across first to secure a safe landing site, map out a route to ensure nobody goes where they shouldn't go, and help all passengers out from and into the Zodiacs. 

Saunders Island. The beach is dotted with Gentoo Penguins in this image, with a handful of King, Rockhopper and Magellanic Penguins also. 

The first sight to greet one are the Striated Caracara that come in looking for food scraps. Then, being downwind of the upland region of  this part of the island, the strong scent of penguin poo is apparent. A little trek up the small sandy dune connecting two peninsulas and the penguins became very apparent. Gentoos! And lots of them. The Gentoos are a big penguin, with only the King and Emperor Penguins being bigger. They are also very elegant and have lots of personality. There were a number of colonies scattered across the top of the sand-spit linking the peninsulas. The majority of the birds were simply lying down with their heads into the wind, marking out their nest site, and sitting on eggs. There was a lot of activity in the colonies, with lots of birds coming back and forth from the sea. I spent some time with these birds before heading onwards along the beach. 

Gentoo Penguins

The next port of call was to head over to the edge of the beach and watch the Rockhopper Penguins come out of the water and climb up the steep cliffs to one of their colonies. However, as I slowly made my way along the beach, I came across a small colony of King Penguins!! This was unexpected. Due to the small number here, the expedition team would have rather us see King Penguins for the first time in the massive colonies on South Georgia, rather than the small colony that has established itself on Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands. Needless to say, it was absolutely breathtaking to see these enormous birds (1 metre tall!!) waddle up the beach, stand around in groups, or in pairs, just being themselves. There were last year's juveniles also present, with their downy brown feathers. The first explorers that came across the King Penguin colonies thought the juveniles were a different species and called them Wooly Penguins. It was a real treat to see these magnificent birds. Groups huddled together, just staring into space or at each other; pairs facing into the wind trying to cool down by leaning back on their heels and tails; and adults ignoring their youngsters! As we were going to be seeing hundreds of thousands of King Penguins on South Georgia, I moved on. 

King Penguin

On the way across to the Rockhopper Penguin route on the cliffs, I stumbled across penguin species number 3 of the day - Magellanic Penguin. This would be the last opportunity to see this species, but I was unfortunate in only seeing a handful of these different-looking penguins with their chunky bill and rounder and narrower heads than the other penguin species we had just seen. The Magellanic Penguin nests in burrows amongst the tussac grass on Carcass Island, but on Saunders Island, the grass is heavily grazed by sheep and so is kept quite low. Because of that, the land is prone to erosion and sheep can (and do) put their legs through the soil and collapse Magellanic Penguin burrows. I was mindful not to poke my head into the nesting burrows and to ensure that I didn't collapse the soil into the burrows themselves. So, with that, I moved quickly on. 

Magellanic Penguin

Wondering where the Rockhopper route was? All I had to do was look up and see the "Yellow Penguin" brigade, the Sea Spirit passengers, in the distance! We were all given bright yellow parka jackets at the start of the trip for use on the landings. The parkas are warm and waterproof. However, I found the jacket too bulky for photography and so kept to my own waterproof jacket and lots of layers! As it was easy to spot the Yellow Penguins, I headed over to watch the Rockhoppers go up and also to watch the come back down the cliffs and into the sea. It was generally easy to determine which direction birds were going as they took breaks on the cliffs, meeting halfway and having a chat (squabble!); the generally dirty and stained birds were heading down to the sea having spent time incubating one or two eggs, while the clean birds were heading up and to relieve their mate from incubation duties. Watching the Rockhoppers come in and out of the water were a pair of Snowy Sheathbills who were eating anything that looked edible, including penguin poo. Sheathbills are the only wader found on the Antarctic continent and the only species there without webbed feet! They are quirky looking birds but great fun to watch. I never tired of seeing these enigmatic birds. Dotted along the coastline were a few Kelp Goose as well, feeding and resting on the rocks. 

The Yellow Penguin brigade with the Rockhopper Penguin colony visible up the slope on the right hand side. 

Rockhopper Penguins emerging from the water and on their way up to their colony

Rockhopper Penguins coming down from the nesting colony and heading to the sea.

Snowy Sheathbill

Next part of the island which we were to trek to was upwards to the Rockhopper Penguin nesting colony and onwards again towards an accessible Black-browed Albatross breeding colony. We passed some Upland Goose family groups and Turkey Vultures soaring over the colonies looking for sick, injured or dead penguins to eat. The nesting Rockhopper Penguins held an unexpected surprise: MACARONI PENGUIN! This poor individual was certainly lost looking as it took up a nesting site at the edge of the colony, so we were easily able to pick it out. That made it 5 penguin species in one afternoon! Incredible experience. We spent a bit of time with these Rockhoppers. In amongst the penguins were breeding Falkland Island/King (Imperial) Shags. This was a great opportunity to see this race of Imperial Shag up close. One of the differences to separate the Falkland Island Shag race in the field from the main species is that it has a black cheek rather than a white cheek, such as those found on the South American mainland and seen in the Beagle Channel/Tierra del Fuego. 

Rockhopper Penguins at their nesting colony

The larger, paler Macaroni Penguin sits in the foreground and surrounded by Rockhopper Penguins. The longer, brighter and richer-toned eyebrows are easily noticeable.

Falkland Island/King/Black-cheeked Shag (a race of Imperial Shag)

The walk along towards the Black-browed Albatross (BBA) colony was quite steep and a bit slippy on the over-grazed grass, so care was required. However, the sight that was set out in front of us was mind-blowing. There, no more than 20 metres in front us, was a colony of BBAs sitting on their raised mud nests. It was jaw-dropping. Having spent the previous two days watching them at sea, it was phenomenal seeing one so close and on land. As we arrived at the site, Jim had established an imaginary line along which we were asked to stay behind, ensuring we were the required minimum distance from the breeding birds. Anyone who strayed over the line was quickly asked to move back. This is important for not just the birds, but also to ensure that the company are allowed to visit again, and that all other companies also toe the line and obey the rules for observing wildlife in these incredible places. I wish the same could be said for seabird colonies on certain islands around Ireland that get invaded during the breeding season by photographers who do not give the birds the space they deserve. 

Black-browed Albatrosses on their nests of raised mud; wing stretching on the colony; coming into land with the feet out to act as air brakes; looking out on its domain

While we sat there, a BBA landed in right in front of us and proceeded to walk right up to us. I couldn't believe it. I started shaking, the adrenaline flowing through my veins. I had to take a deep breath, compose myself and start shooting! At one point, the individual was too close to fit in the frame with the 400mm lens and ended up being too close to fit in the frame with the 70-200mm lens I had. Staggering. The size of the bird is difficult to convey in images without anything to compare it against. I think that Jim has photographs of the bird and my feet in the frame, as he was about 20 people up from me. Hopefully, if he did take those shots, they may illustrate the sheer size of these birds. The Albatross continued to look around at each and every person along that imaginary line we were to say behind. It was so special to witness that. Once the bird had had its fill of the yellow penguins, it took a couple of steps and took off with ease into the wind. 

Black-browed Albatross coming up for a look; holding its ground; headshot of BBA; taking off (note a Striated Caracara in the background)

Sadly, it was time to head back to the Zodiacs, as our time was up. The various companies who provide these trips, book time slots in each area where landings are allowed or Zodiac cruises are allowed. No two boats are allowed to be in the same place at the same time. This prevents too much disturbance to the wildlife, but also gives the paying passengers the feeling that they are on their own in these wild and remote places. Giving the whole "expedition" feel. On the way back to the Zodiacs, we spotted some Long-tailed Meadowlarks but also a few Dark-faced Tyrants up the slopes! Nice. New species for me. I scrambled up the slope hoping to get a photograph and managed to get one or two I was happy with. Super little bird and one that could be best described as a cross between a Chat and a Wheatear. We also came across some Striated Caracara sheltering from the wind, which was very strong that day, behind some some sea cabbage. 

Dark-faced Tyrant

Long-tailed Meadowlark

Striated Caracara sheltering behind some sea cabbage

One of the dangers of nesting on an island that is also run as a sheep farm is that there are sheep on the prowl, despite the best intentions of fencing off the nesting areas. Now and again, a sheep can get in and the Rockhoppers are not happy about it. There were also some Brown Skuas hanging around the colonies, waiting for a penguin to become inattentive so that the Skua can get in and steal an egg.

Rockhopper Penguin with an invasive species and some sheep-proof fencing.

Brown Skua surveying the Rockhopper Penguins. This sighting meant I had now seen all the species in the Skua/Jaeger family!

Once we were back at the meeting point to go back on the Zodiacs, more Striated Caracara were hanging around the area, looking for some food. Looking back across to the Rockhopper Penguin and Black-browed Albatross sites, one could see Striated Caracara and Turkey Vultures just cruising along the cliff faces and slopes, looking to pounce and find an easy meal. It was quite something seeing both flying together. The Striated Caracaras hanging around the Zodiac landing area were very tame, coming up and investigating shoe laces, bags, the lifejackets...anything that all!

Striated Caracara

Turkey Vulture and Striated Caracara

While waiting to get on the Zodiacs, and back to the Sea Spirit, I noticed some rusting metal pots. When I asked Jim what these were, he said that they were used by whalers/sealers to boil penguins in order to extract the fat from the birds. I can only imagine that it was very easy for the whalers/sealers to simply walk up to the birds, grab then and pop them into the pots. Even down here has not escaped our cruel ways. 

Penguin boiler.

After a biological wash-down of the footwear, bags, jackets and waterproof pants, I headed for my room, took off the boots and waterproofs and headed to the bar to pick up a Beagle Red Ale and ponder on the day's sights, sounds and smells. Disbelief washed over me as I realised that this was really happening. I was on an adventure of a lifetime. Tomorrow would be a day in Port Stanley. I couldn't wait....

Day 5 - Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands - Day 1: Carcass Island

January 22, 2015  •  2 Comments

Dawn broke on the third day of being aboard the ship and I woke to what would become a familiar sight - a hint of blue followed by quickly covering cloud cover. However, that morning also brought my first sight of the West Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands. Our first port of call was to be Carcass Island, a small island of the West Point Island group. Even though the cloud came in, it quickly disappeared again when the sun managed to get up and burn off that cover. 

Dawn over the Western Islands of East Falklands/Las Malvinas

The scenery at dawn was quite breathtaking. There were birds slowly beginning to emerge and I was one of a handful of people on the deck. Damian and some of his crew were up photographing the dawn. I generally set myself up on Deck 4-Aft as it was close to the bar where there was a coffee machine and biscuits made by the pastry chef on the ship. I could be found there every morning as dawn broke, coffee at the ready and evidence of biscuit consumption sprinkled down the front of my neck warmer, actively scanning the sea for signs of life. This would become my routine for the trip. 

Western Islands of East Falklands/Las Malvinas

As I left Damian and his group to their sunrise images, I went in search of birds. The first few species I clocked were Southern Fulmar, Black-browed Albatross, Southern and Northern Royal Albatross, Northern and Southern Giant Petrel, Cape Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and Wilson's Storm-Petrel. Rock and Imperial Shags were also flying by in small numbers, gliding past the bow of the ship in squadron formation. The incredible thing, however, was the number of Common Diving Petrels zipping away from the bow of the boat as we steamed along the coastline of the archipelago. There were hundreds of these auk-like seabirds. In fact, there were probably the smallest seabird we saw on this trip, on par with the Storm-Petrels. However, given the poor light and the speed these birds fly off the water, it was quite a challenge to get any photograph at all. I only saw them if I was standing at the bow of the ship, facing into the teeth of the cold wind, as they took off away from or dove under water from the oncoming ship. It would be the only day of the trip where we would see such numbers. 

Common Diving Petrel

When we crept around one particular headland, we were met with a noise and a sight that I will never forget. There were hundreds, if not a few thousand, Black-browed Albatross wheeling and soaring around the face of the cliffs. A wonderous sight. I could only imagine what it would be like seeing this off the cliffs of the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork, or the Blasket Islands off the coast of Kerry. Fantastic. Hopefully, this sight will never diminish. 

Black-browed Albatross wheel around the cliffs

Southern Fulmar - one of the most beautiful seabirds on the trip, in my opinion. Just so elegant. 

As we moved further along, I spotted a group of something porpoising out of the water at incredible speed, hovering over the surface for a split second. I first thought "fur seals" or maybe a small dolphin species. I raised my binoculars and couldn't believe what I was seeing - PENGUINS!! I was gobsmacked. I did not think they would appear out of the water like this, porpoising the way they did. I have seen a lot of footage from BBC's Attenborough programs where this behaviour was filmed. But it just does not prepare one for the spectacle in the flesh. It was mesmerising. The penguins were difficult to follow and judge where they would exit the water due to the speed they travelled at through the water. I was watching separate groups of Gentoo Penguin and Rockhopper Penguin. Two new species for me. They literally were flying out of the water. I just couldn't stop smiling. It was quite overwhelming. And we hadn't even landed anywhere yet!

Gentoo Penguins

 Rockhopper Penguin

After the excitement of the penguins, I was torn between eating breakfast down in the dining room or staying out on deck for the journey through the islets of the West Point Island group towards Carcass Island. I was buzzing and didn't want to miss anything. Knowing that we had a long morning ahead, I legged it down for a quick omelette (freshly made by the chef...fantastic breakfast) and coffee, and pegged it back up on deck. As we sailed towards Carcass Island, I noted Kelp Geese along the shorelines, Black-crowned Night Herons and Rock Shags also. The odd Elephant Seal and South American Fur Seals were dotted along the edges of the islands. Then, I picked up a flock of a dozen Brown-hooded Gulls! I was thrilled. Too far for decent photographs so I spent my time just observing them. A well-earned tick. Then the call went up for the landing instructions on Carcass Island. Frantic dashing to the cabin to don the waterproofs. Then headed for the Zodiac's and a landing on Carcass Island beckoned. This island is the home of the Cobb's Wren, one of the world's rarest birds. It is the only place in the world where this species is found. Also present should be Falkland Steamer Duck, Magellanic Snipe, Striated Caracara, Tussac Bird, Magellanic Penguin, Long-tailed Meadowlark and Ruddy-headed Goose. Ticks ahoy!

MC__1075 MarlaMC__1075 Marla What a Zodiac landing is all about. 

When we landed on the beach, the expedition team were there. Jim immediately pointed out Tussac Bird (aka Blackish Cinclodes) darting around our feet, Speckled Teal, Falkland Steamer Duck, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Turkey Vulture being mobbed by Magellanic Oystercatchers, a Variable Hawk flying over the ditches, Gentoo penguins coming out of the sea and onto the beach...I was just spinning around 360 trying to take it in. I hadn't even taken my lifejacket off, let alone get my camera out of the bag!! I, literally, had to sit down to take it in. We were here. This was bonkers. Throw into the mix the National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen standing next to me, and a very surreal scenario began to unfold in front of my eyes. This definitely was not Kansas!!

Falkland Steamer Duck (male)

The Tussac Bird (C. a. antarcticus, a race of Blackish Cinclodes) is endemic to the Falklands/Las Malvinas and are very tame!

Magellanic Oystercatcher

When I started to breath again, got my camera out of the bag and finally plucked up the courage to speak to Paul Nicklen (one of the nicest and inspiring persons one could every meet), and his partner Cristina Mittermeier (another ridiculously talented photographer), we quickly found a Cobb's Wren feeding amongst the seaweed. Further down the beach, there was a Turkey Vulture feeding on a Gentoo Penguin carcass. Another Variable Hawk flew over and we could see geese up along the hills of the island. It was superb.

Cobb's Wren

Turkey Vulture feeding on a Gentoo Penguin carcass

The landing was to last a few hours, where we had walk along a marked trail towards the settlement at the other end of the beach. This was a 4 mile hike along the gentle slopes. This was my very first "group outing" with a camera. I found it a bit strange and frustrating but I had accepted that that was the way it was going to be. I was determined to make the best of the situation and enjoy myself without regret. Walking along with Paul and Cristina made the experience something I'll always treasure. Along the way over to the dwellings, we passed Upland Geese with their chicks, the beautiful Ruddy-headed Geese, vocal Magellanic Oystercatchers along the slopes and Magellanic Penguins nesting among the large tussac grass mounds. More Cobb's Wrens were seen close to the shoreline and Kelp Geese were feeding along the water's edge. We also had some Falkland Steamer Ducks with chicks along the shoreline. At nearly ever fence post with long grass growing around its base, we found a nesting Magellanic Snipe. Another new species for me. It's quite a striking bird, with pale cryptic plumage. 

Upland Goose (female) and her goslings

Ruddy-headed Goose

Falkland Steamer duck and chicks

Magellanic Oystercatcher calling, or rather squeaking, amongst the tussac grass

Magellanic Snipe

When we reached the dwellings, we were greeted with tea, coffee, water and some of the finest cakes and biscuits I have ever tasted (with the exception of my mother's baking!!). We had one hour to chill out around the dwelling, eat cake and sit about. Around the settlement were Striated Caracaras that would eat out of one's hand, Black-throated Finches, Austral Thrushes, Blackish Cinclodes (Tussac Bird), Magellanic Oystercatcher, and the Long-tailed Meadowlark. The Meadowlark is a stunning bird and also goes by the moniker Military Starling. Quite a stunning bird. 

Striated Caracara

Long-tailed Meadowlark (Military Starling; male)

I hung back from boarding the Zodiacs when the call went up, which were taking the passengers back to the Sea Spirit. I just didn't want to leave. This was heaven. I wanted to squeeze as much time as possible out of these landings. The beauty of the place? It was quiet. There was no noise from traffic. There was no noise from mobile phones beeping, dinging and chiming. There were so few people. It was all about the wildlife. It was the way it should be. But still, our influence as humans was evident with the presence of introduced plants such as gorse, Monterey Cypress trees and New Zealand Cabbage palms. The gorse is in danger of spreading across the island, destroying the native tussac grass, which the native birds depend on for breeding sites. There seems to be nowhere that we haven't influenced.

The last couple of species photographed before climbing into the Zodiacs and boarding the ship were the tame Blackish Cinclodes (Tussac Bird) and Black-throated (White-bridled) Finches. What a first landing!

Tussac Bird (Blackish Cinclodes)

Black-throated (White-bridled) Finch

The port of call in the afternoon, and after lunch on Deck 5 (more food...a common theme), was Saunder's Island. More on that later!

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