Snow Buntings

April 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis; Gealóg shneachta) is an enigmatic member of the bunting family that occurs in Ireland in small numbers during the winter months, predominantly along the west, north and east coasts. Since moving to Dublin in 2008, I have had the pleasure and privilege to see Snow Buntings every winter in and around Dun Laoghaire harbour. This year, there was a very tame first winter male Snow Bunting along the seafront of Greystones in Co. Wicklow. Having not been out much with my camera this winter, I ventured down one dreary grey morning in late February to see if I could find the bird. After parking my car, I proceeded to walk from north to south along the seafront. A short time later, in the dark and misty dawn, I could see the bird feeding no more than 50 metres away from me. I crept up on the bird and found a position that gave me some shelter, so I just sat down and waited. A short while later, the bird just started feeding on the grass seeds to my left and purposefully made its way towards me. And it kept walking towards to me until it was no more than 2 metres away. I took down the camera and spent time just watching it feed on the seeds, all the while keeping one on me and one eye to the sky, looking out for predators. It was quite a thrill to be so close to such a beautiful bird.

MC7D1352 SnowMC7D1352 Snow MC7D1152 SnowMC7D1152 Snow MC7D1210 SnowMC7D1210 Snow MC7D1122 SnowMC7D1122 Snow MC7D1242 Bunt TurnstoneMC7D1242 Bunt Turnstone The Snow Bunting kept company with the odd Ruddy Turnstone or two. This is a really good area to get some very close views of Turnstone during the winter months. A strange sight seeing these species together on a typical Irish landscaped grassy verge!! MC7D1437 SnowMC7D1437 Snow MC7D1492 SnowMC7D1492 Snow The light was pretty poor and the rain kept falling, albeit lightly. The conditions meant I could really test the ISO capabilities of the Canon 7DII to see how it fared. It handled the conditions much better than I thought it would, but the images still lack a bit of punch and are quite flat. However, I couldn't really complain. It was a fantastic few hours spent in the company of the Snow Bunting. MC7D1481 SnowMC7D1481 Snow MC7D1558 SnowMC7D1558 Snow MC7D1674 SnowMC7D1674 Snow MC7D1604 SnowMC7D1604 Snow

Another species literally made my heart stop...a fly-by juvenile White-tailed Eagle came up along the coast before it made its way over the Wicklow hills! Amazing to see such a magnificent species flying freely in our country. A couple of Purple Sandpipers were also milling around on the rocks, giving the area a real Nordic feel! Once the area started becoming busy with Sunday morning walkers, joggers and dog walkers, I decided to head back to Dublin and into the office for a few hours after a relaxing morning. 

There was also a Snow Bunting staying in and around the piers of Dun Laoghaire all winter. I had tried (and failed) to see the bird on a two previous occasions but struck lucky on the third attempt. I also bumped into my good friend Shay Connolly down on Trader's Wharf that Sunday morning and both of us enjoyed photographing the confiding Snow Bunting there for a few hours. Mind you, we spent more time chatting and catching up than photographing the bird! 

MC7D1828 Snow BuntMC7D1828 Snow Bunt MC7D1923 Snow BuntMC7D1923 Snow Bunt MC7D1962 Snow BuntMC7D1962 Snow Bunt MC7D1749 TurnstoneMC7D1749 Turnstone MC7D2038 TurnstoneMC7D2038 Turnstone

The Trader's Wharf is also a great place to get photographs of Ruddy Turnstones. They are quite approachable and are also fantastic characters. Seems that Snow Buntings and Turnstones inhabit the same environment in Ireland during the winter! And I am sure they are close neighbours in Iceland and the Arctic region during the breeding season. I never tire of seeing Snow Buntings. They are just brilliant! 

A Rosy Kind of Day

December 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It has been quite some time since I found the time, energy and urgency to get out and about with my binoculars and camera. Too long, in fact. I was trying to figure out the last time I took out the camera with any anger at all. It has been that kind of year really. Full of activity, full of tasks, jobs, and duties. Not much time for hobbies or such. Not much time for sitting still for a few hours, with only the bite of winter's cold for company. No time for the purpose of numbing one's toes being to photograph a chosen subject. It had been quite a while since I had done that and I looked forward to the cold, cramps, numbness and chilled bones. I like the wait. I like the quiet. I like the calmness that it brings. People often ask whether or not I get bored sitting in one spot for hours. I generally don't. I find it cathartic to be honest. And I needed to find some catharsis. 

The subject of this first outing in quite some time was a juvenile Rosy Starling in Howth, Co. Dublin, which was a great find by Dublin-based birdwatcher, Mark Stewart. Rosy Starlings breed in easternmost Europe and migrate westwards towards Asia. Ireland gets one or two stragglers  of this species every year, but typically on the south coasts. It would be my fourth time seeing one in Ireland. It was a good bird for Dublin. 

The bird was there when I arrived, just on the southern side of the harbour on the water front. It was feeding voraciously in amongst the rotting seaweed, accompanied by our resident Eurasian Starlings (or Eurasian Starlings having arrived here for the winter from mainland Europe). The juvenile birds are generally tatty and in moult when they arrive here. They stand out from the Eurasian Starlings in that they are very pale, have dark wings and have very pale and long legs. The adults are much more striking, with vivid pink and black plumage. While sitting there, along with Rob Vaughan (one of the best wildlife illustrator's I know), a few of the local Eurasian Starlings and Pied Wagtails came to visit and walk around our feet. They were obviously used to the local humans feeding them. Always nice to see up close. The colours on the winter plumaged Eurasian Starlings are quite something and often overlooked, I feel. 

The Rosy Starling stayed with us for about 20 minutes and then flew off. It came back after about 45 minutes, stayed for another 10 minutes then flew off again back in the same direction. I got a call from Rob, who had moved on to look for the bird, to say he had found it a couple of hundred meters away in the neighbouring cove. The bird was showing down to a few metres in front of the gathering birdwatchers, showing no fear at all. With that news, I got back up from my cramped sitting position and made my way to the cove. And I was glad I did. The Rosy Starling was indeed showing down to a few metres, as it busily fed on invertebrates and insects under the foliage along the edge of a concrete stand. It was a cracking bird. The only problem here was that there was no light at all. The light was stopped by the high cliffs and the eastern facing vista and absorbed by the dark clouds. The downside to the dark and dreary Irish winter weather is that it makes for slow shutter speeds despite using a high ISO. However, it was great just watching the Rosy Starling go about its business. It did look a bit ill, with drooping open wings and constant retching-like actions.

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What was quite a lovely surprise on this particular day was a pair of extremely tame Stonechats that fed around our feet as we watched the Rosy Starling. The tamest Stonechats I have ever experienced. Stunning little birds. 

So it was a good few hours spent out in the cold grip of a winter's morning. The Rosy Starling was seen again the following day but it has not been seen since, as far as I know. I just hope the bird decided to move on to a different location rather than moved on to the lunch menu for the local critters of Howth. 

Day 19 and 20 - The Drake Passage to Buenos Aires

November 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After getting out of the waterproof and thermal gear following our final landing on Antarctica (and the trip), we headed to the bar for a pre-dinner drink. The sun was being quickly hidden by low cloud as we ventured out over a choppy Bransfield Strait. A small flock of about a dozen Pintados had come alongside, effortlessly gliding in the stiff breeze. Peter, Jim and I were enjoying a cold bottle of beer when Jim shouted "Antarctic Petrel!" and pointed over my shoulder and out the window. I was in mid-swig and nearly choked on the beer, carelessly placed the bottle on the counter, which was caught by Johnson (best barman on the Southern Oceans), and ran out the door in just a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. This was probably the last new bird species of the trip for me and it was one I really wanted to see. My panicked reaction to Jim's shout had piqued the interest of fellow passengers. A few arrived out on deck all wrapped up, asking had I spotted more whales. When I explained that it was an Antarctic Petrel, they grumbled and just went back inside. None too impressed. I stood outside in the freezing cold and watched the Pintado flock circle the boat a dozen times, but no sign of the Antarctic Petrel. I went back inside to continue supping on my beer. No sooner had I had my first sup when Jim shouted again! Repeat the procedure. Repeat the failure. There was always tomorrow. 

The species that were coming close to the ship in the murky conditions that evening were Southern Fulmar, Pintados, Grey-headed Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrels and Southern Giant Petrels. Nothing to turn one's nose up to. It's always a good day when one sees Albatrosses!  

MC006212 Southern FulmarMC006212 Southern Fulmar MC006320 PintadoMC006320 Pintado MC006259 Black-browed juveMC006259 Black-browed juve MC006221 Black-browed juvwMC006221 Black-browed juvw

The following morning I was up early again on Deck 5-Aft, coffee and biscuits in hand as per usual, in search of the Antarctic Petrel. This day would be my last chance to see the bird. The Drake was not behaving itself all that well during those first 6-7 hours of the day on the deck. The seas were rolling nicely and the wind was strong and head on. While it was "interesting" to experience the Drake a little bit angry, it was only a 5-6 metre swell. Nothing like the 8-10 metre swell Jim experienced on the previous crossing of the Drake he did. I was thankful when the Drake calmed down such that it took on the appearance of the mythical "Drake Lake" for the remainder of the journey. The light improved during the day and it remained dry. It was quite a surreal journey back. A touch of melancholy mixed with bewilderment and disbelief. I did not want this to end. 

The birds were starting to change as well, noticeably so from the Antarctic. The constants were Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Pintado, Southern Fulmar and Wilson's Storm Petrel. Brown Skuas went past every now and then, while White-chinned Petrels and Southern Royal Albatrosses put in an appearance from time to time. One Southern Giant Petrel in particular became very interested in the ship, and flew literally inches over our heads at the stern of the boat on numerous occasions - it was an amazing thing to behold. One could hear the wind ruffle the feathers on the bird. The only disappointment was not seeing any Antarctic Petrels at all that day. Despite scouring the seas and every flock of Pintados that went by or hung about the ship, no Antarctic Petrel materialised. I was gutted. What was even worse, Johnson told me he saw one from the bar window that afternoon. I thought he was taking the piss but when he described the bird he saw to me, it was definitely an Antarctic Petrel. I was gutted. 

MC006421 SGP juveMC006421 SGP juve MC006438 PintadoMC006438 Pintado MC006443 SGP closeMC006443 SGP close MC006691 SGP portraitMC006691 SGP portrait MC006709 Antarctic Prion headonMC006709 Antarctic Prion headon Antarctic Prion was flying high over the ship...fantastic to see these small birds in total control in the strong winds. 

The other highlights of sailing back across the Drake towards South America were very close encounters with Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Southern Fulmar, Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Antarctic Prions. It was still exciting to see these giant albatrosses coming in from distance and heading up and along the wake of the ship, looking for food and scraps. Even thinking of it now, almost a year later, I still get an adrenaline rush. 

MC006468 LMSA sideMC006468 LMSA side MC006487 LMSA head oneMC006487 LMSA head one MC006644 Southern FulmarMC006644 Southern Fulmar MC006857 SRAMC006857 SRA MC006922 SRA bowMC006922 SRA bow We made good time, too good in my opinion, getting back to Ushuaia. So much so that we had to anchor up outside the Beagle Channel overnight. What struck me most about this was that when were still about an hour or more away from sighting land, one could catch the spicy scent of the Patagonian forests. It was the first time in over a week or 10 days that one caught a scent of foliage or earth or plant matter. It was quite surreal on the senses to breath that scent in, to get a first whiff of land without seeing it. In fact, it was quite overwhelming. It gave one a real sense of what the early explorers must have felt like after weeks at sea to finally get a sniff of land. To be honest, I was not sure I was looking forward to getting back to civilisation, unlike the explorers who probably couldn't wait to get to land. 

As we contemplated the trip we just experienced and were looking out on Cape Horn to the port side, we had an amazing close encounter with at least 3 Sperm Whales off the stern and we within touching distance of Tierra del Fuego. They were logging on the surface, breathing and just acting like typical Sperm Whales. I was delighted as it was the first time I had seen Sperm Whales alive and it was totally unexpected. The only other experience I had with Sperm Whales was of a beached and dead Sperm Whale in Dungarvan Co. Waterford, Ireland a few years back. To see them in all their glory alive and breathing was a great moment for me. Chilean Skuas were flying overhead that evening and gave everyone (well, me at least) a sense that we had definitely left the magical world of South Georgia and Antartica far, far behind. 

MC006968 Chilean SkuaMC006968 Chilean Skua MC007093 BBA headonMC007093 BBA headon

The final night on board consisted of a farewell dinner, the Captain's speech and swapping of email addresses and contact details. During the farewell speech from Cheli Larsen, the Expedition Leader, the total piss was taken out of me for not seeing Antarctic Petrel on the trip, despite spending a minimum of 18 hours a day staring at the sea! A lovely image of the species was put up for all to see so that everyone could show me what it looks like when it flies by! Antarctic Petrel has now become my ultimate bogey bird, my arch nemesis of the Antarctic seas. 

It was sad saying good bye to some great people I met on board, and to the fantastic staff who worked on the trip. The slideshow from the DVD we received at the end of the trip was also shown in the lounge that evening, with some great images of the Polar Plunge crew as they, including me, jumped in (proof I did it is below!).

CGM_QUARK_2014_4116CGM_QUARK_2014_4116 The passengers and field staff from our trip...can you spot where I am?

Polar Plunge 1st Dec 20140077Polar Plunge 1st Dec 20140077

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To say it was cold is an understatement! My cousin Peter and I doing the Polar Plunge. It was Peter's second time doing it!

After packing my bag in a solemn mood the night before, and after a deep sleep, I woke at dawn to find that we were pulling in and docking at Ushuaia. It was sad having to leave the ship. I had had a wonderful time and made some friends along the way. It was also brilliant, and fitting, to share the experience with my uncle and cousin, Jim and Peter. After all, it was Jim who started me birdwatching as a kid and it was in one of his seabird books I had first seen a depiction of the Cape Pigeon (Pintado) that I had dreamt of seeing all my life. It made the trip for me very special indeed. 

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Not a happy camper having to leave the ship and go back to Buenos Aires, before heading home to Dublin.

We departed the ship after a hearty breakfast in the morning, and headed to a cafe in Ushuaia to get a coffee and some WIFI. I had not checked my email, turned on my phone or tuned into the outside world for 3 weeks. It was bliss being totally unplugged. I got a bit of a fright to see how many personal emails I had to trawl through and I was getting the Glenroes thinking about how many work emails I would have to go through when I was back in the office! I had a final coffee and bite to eat with Jim and Peter, said my goodbyes and went to the local airport for the 3 hour flight to Buenos Aires. Being back in Buenos Aires was horrible (going from sub-zero to +35C was a shock to the system). So, once I got to the hotel room, showered and refreshed, I went out for a quiet stroll and a coffee down the side streets near the hotel. It was very strange sitting down, having a coffee and watching the world go by. The noises, smells, sounds, sights, the frantic pace, the constant delivery of information...the senses were being attacked from all angles and I really didn't want it! Hence, I returned to my room, ordered a steak and some Malbec (when in Rome...), a local beer and slept like a baby in a bed that did not move. The following day, it was back to London and Dublin...back to reality. Back to the stresses and strains of 21st Century life. 

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And so has ended a trip of a lifetime and a journey I will never forget. Thank you all for sticking through the blog posts and images. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I have priceless memories and thousands of images to remind me of how lucky I was to travel to these magical lands. I just hope that the Antarctic Treaty is signed by all (including my own country, Ireland!) and that this wondrous place is never touched by man's hands again. I hope that I can get back down there again to finally see my Antarctic nemesis, the Antarctic Petrel, before it is too late. 


Day 18 - Cierva Cove, The Antarctic Peninsula...the last day

November 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

This was it. This was the last morning I would wake up looking upon the glory and majesty of Antarctica. The last morning where I would be greeted on deck by icebergs, glaciers, snow-covered islands and landmasses. The last morning I would look up at the sky and not see any contrails from man. 

MC005715 Sea Spirit Deck 5 aftMC005715 Sea Spirit Deck 5 aft The view from Deck 5-Aft looking into Cierva Cove

The sight that greeted Damo and I as we stood on the Deck 5-Aft was white and blue heaven. Icebergs, sea ice, fast ice, mini-bergs, snow, snow-capped mountains and snow-covered land surrounded us. It was a glorious, yet freezing, morning with no windIt was frankly quite ridiculous. As we stood supping our coffee and brushing the biscuit crumbs off our fleeces, there was no need for any words to be exchanged. The vista was breathtaking. Then, the unmistakable sound of a whale taking a breath broke the silence. A quick scan off the stern revealed the leviathan to us. Well, a mini-leviathan. The characteristic arched back of a Humpback Whale, a juvenile, emerged from the icy waters again, taking a breath and diving. It did this for the entire morning we were there, albeit keeping a good distance from the Zodiacs and the ship. What a welcome to Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula. 

MC005732 Humpback whaleMC005732 Humpback whale A juvenile Humpback Whale surfaces amongst the icebergs and sea fast ice.

The area was just covered with sea ice and icebergs. A massive glacier spilled down to the sea, with a face that was over 100 feet high. The icebergs that calved from this glacier were, to me, enormous. The scale of the scene was so difficult to take in. A scout Zodiac zipping across the sea and light sea ice, going past some icebergs, did put a scale on the vista we were looking out on. Once we were out on the water, seeing the ship against some of the 'bergs were really put into context. The different colours of the 'bergs were quite amazing. From pure whites to off-white to blue to being totally transparent. Very small chunks of floating ice that rise only about 1 meter/3 feet out of the water are called "growlers". When trapped air escapes as the iceberg melts, it sometimes makes a sound like the growl of an animal, and that's how growlers got their name. Some of these growlers are transparent (called black growlers) and are a serious threat to shipping lanes where icebergs or growlers occur, as they are very difficult to see. The Cove was simply covered with growlers and black growlers. It was tricky navigating through them in the Zodiac. 

MC__5227 Antarctica IcebergMC__5227 Antarctica Iceberg MC__5250 Cierva Cove ZodiacMC__5250 Cierva Cove Zodiac MC__5255 Glacier scoreMC__5255 Glacier score MC__5295 Cierva Cove growlerMC__5295 Cierva Cove growler Black Growler  MC__5300 Antarctica IcebergMC__5300 Antarctica Iceberg MC__5346 Antarctica Iceberg Sea SpiritMC__5346 Antarctica Iceberg Sea Spirit MC005799 AntarcticaMC005799 Antarctica MC__5358 IcebergMC__5358 Iceberg

The next thing on the agenda was to land and set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. For that, we headed around to Base Primavera, an Argentinian base on the peninsula. Each Zodiac took it in turns to land, have a photograph taken with the flag and then back on the Zodiac again for further cruising around Cierva Cove. I was fortunate to be on the Zodiac with Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Jim and a couple of other passengers. It was great to be piloted around by Paul. His eye for a photograph was just amazing to see in action as he pointed the Zodiac in the right place, using the light and reflections from the sea and 'bergs. Cristina was also incredible to watch in action, swapping cameras and using different focal length lenses and different perspectives for particular situations. It was a brilliant learning experience from a photography standpoint. In case you are wondering, I did set foot on the peninsula and the photograph below is proof!  There were about a dozen Weddell Seals hauled out in well-worn dips in the ice there. It was great to see them so close and they did not pay us any attention at all save for a fleeting glance. A South Polar Skua was also lounging around, waiting for any scraps that surrounded the seals. 

MC005826 Weddell SealMC005826 Weddell Seal MC__5376 Cheli Paul CristinaMC__5376 Cheli Paul Cristina Paul Nicklen, Cheli Larsen and Cristina Mittermeier  MC005865 South Polar SkuaMC005865 South Polar Skua MC005883 Bawe PrimaveraMC005883 Bawe Primavera MC__5384 Mark Carmody on AntarcticaMC__5384 Mark Carmody on Antarctica

A rare photograph of me, and an even rarer one of me standing on the Antarctic Peninsula (with thanks to Jim Wilson for taking the photograph). 

After the stop off, we headed back to the ship to have lunch. Paul took us by some seriously impressive icebergs, some of which were close to flipping over, which would be quite dangerous to be near if it happened. We also swept by a Chinstrap Penguin colony high up the slope near Primavera Base. The penguin highways were clearly visible through the snow and ice. It is amazing how these birds survive down here and how they manage to walk up those slopes. Very impressive. Antarctic Imperial Shags balanced precariously on top of unstable icebergs, while Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and both Brown and South Polar Skuas patrolled the area for an easy meal. "Danger" Dave Riordan then gave a fine example of daredevil Zodiac driving while sitting in a kayak...

MC__5394 Antarctic IcebergMC__5394 Antarctic Iceberg MC005898 Chinstrap colonyMC005898 Chinstrap colony MC__5411 AntarcticaMC__5411 Antarctica MC__5475 Base PrimaveraMC__5475 Base Primavera MC005924 Antarctic ShagMC005924 Antarctic Shag MC__5557 Dave in kayakMC__5557 Dave in kayak MC__5490 proper Cierva vistaMC__5490 proper Cierva vista

After lunch, we headed off across the Gerlache Straits to Mikkelsen Harbour on the south side of Trinity Island, and the smaller D'Hainaut Island which is found in the middle of the harbour and home to a small Argentinian refuge and a series of Gentoo Penguin colonies. We passed some massive icebergs on our transit across the Straits, as well as one of the only ships we encountered on our trip in these waters. This was one of the Russian-owned cruise ships, meandering through those massive icebergs. Having to gaze across another ship was almost an affront to our perceived isolation and expedition-esque journey. There were very few birds on this crossing, the odd Wilson's Storm Petrel and Southern Giant Petrel. A White-chinned Petrel or two was the best there, while a couple of Snow Petrels flew past as well. I spent some time just leaning against the hull of the ship, taking it all in. The realisation that we would be on our way later that evening was beginning to sink in. 

MC__5609 Gerlache StraitMC__5609 Gerlache Strait MC__5637 Russian ShipMC__5637 Russian Ship

Once the Gerlache Strait was traversed, we arrived at D'Hainaut Island, which is home to Weddell Seals and Gentoo Penguins. The typical raiders of South Polar and Brown Skuas, Southern Giant Petrels and Kelp Gulls, and the enigmatic Snowy Sheathbill were also present. A handful of Adelie Penguins, looking suitably lost, were near the landing area. The nearest breeding colony of Adelie's was quite a ways away, so we were not sure what they were doing there. Maybe they were spreading out and looking for new breeding areas. Only time will tell, I guess. This little island was very easy to walk around, despite the hilly terrain. There were Gentoo colonies dotted all around. It was lovely to just stroll around, take in the vista and breathe in the odour of penguin pooh for the final time this trip. The weather was glorious, with blue sky, little cloud and no wind. It was a fitting end to what had been a trip of a lifetime. I had loved every second of it. I could not take enough in. I was knackered but exhilarated all at the same time. 

MC__5659 Weddell SealMC__5659 Weddell Seal MC__5668 Gentoo RidgeMC__5668 Gentoo Ridge MC006018 Gentoo PortraitMC006018 Gentoo Portrait MC__5699 Gentoo portraitMC__5699 Gentoo portrait MC006097 Gentoo screamMC006097 Gentoo scream MC006104 Snoozing gentooMC006104 Snoozing gentoo MC006121 Kelp GullMC006121 Kelp Gull MC__5772 Gentoo colonyMC__5772 Gentoo colony MC__5774 Gentoo pairMC__5774 Gentoo pair MC006167 Antarctic SkuaMC006167 Antarctic Skua MC006141 Adelie pair lostMC006141 Adelie pair lost

MC__5814 Antarctic Skua and Weddell SealMC__5814 Antarctic Skua and Weddell Seal

As we walked back down the slope to the landing area, we were greeting once again by the slumber party that had congregated there; a couple of Weddell Seals and the five Adelie Penguins. A Brown Skua had joined the party, its bill dripping dark red blood from its latest snack, a penguin egg. Kelp Gulls scooted by, saying their goodbyes and the Giant Petrels zoomed over our heads like the Nazgûl about to strike terror into everything below. I made sure to savour the last moments ashore on Antarctica, and sat down on the snow-covered hill with the bones of slaughtered whales for company, watching a large Elephant Seal snooze on the rocky shoreline, and a Snowy Sheathbill picking its way around it. As I was implored by our great leader Cheli Larsen to "get in the bloody Zodiac", I rubbed some Antarctic dirt into my de-gloved hands and said goodbye to the most amazing place I have ever visited. 

It was with a really heavy heart that I stepped foot in the Zodiac for the last time. When we bounced off the pontoon of the Zodiac and on to the splash deck of the ship, I washed my boots as normal in the biocidal wash for the final time and we set sail once more. We were heading into the Bransfield Strait, named after the man who is credited as being the first person to see Antarctica and who was born and raised a mere 20 miles from my home. Once clear of the Bransfield Strait, it was a 2 day journey to Ushuaia across the dreaded Drake Passage...

Day 17 - Livingston Island and the Aitcho Island Group, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

October 03, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Our second morning on the Antarctic Peninsula and our second-to-last day of the Antarctic leg of the trip. It was sort of setting in that the trip was coming to an end. The mental and physical fatigue had also started to take its toll, as I struggled out of the leaba (Gaelic for "bed", pronounced lah-bah) to make sure I did not miss anything. The original plans for the day were changed over night due to an over-abundance of sea ice clogging up some of the bays we had planned to visit. This being due to the excess ice in Antarctica that winter and an excess shedding of ice from the glaciers there. It was a significant reminder of the effect mankind has had on our planet. Up on deck, assuming the position, there was Caniglia in his usual spot, wide-angle in hand with a look of disbelief and a smile on his face. Damo was very generous with his camera gear, and let me borrow his 17-40mm lens at times, which was great to get some really nice wide views. We were entering Halfmoon Bay of Halfmoon Island and heading for Livingston Island. The island was home to Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, as well as Antarctic Terns, South Polar Skua, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels and Snowy Sheathbills. The lack of variety and number of species was noticeable the more we sailed around the Antarctic continent. 

MC004872 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004872 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozingMC004876 (1) Chinstrap snoozing MC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stoneMC004881 (1) Chinstrap carrying stone MC004895 (1) Chinstrap portraitMC004895 (1) Chinstrap portrait MC004925 (1) Antarctic SkuaMC004925 (1) Antarctic Skua A Brown Skua keeping a watchful eye out for an easy meal.  MC004945 Antarctica Kelp GullMC004945 Antarctica Kelp Gull A pair of Kelp Gulls

MC004963 (1) Chinstrap groomingMC004963 (1) Chinstrap grooming

The Chinstrap Penguins were the first species we encountered on this island. They were nesting in dug out holes in the snow and ice, and making their way up the slope of the island to little nesting groups dotted about the ridges. The South Polar Skuas and Kelp Gulls were keeping a sharp lookout for any opportunity to nick in and steal an egg. We were too early for chicks. No doubt quite a few of those would be part of the daily takings of these top aerial predators. A lot of the Chinstraps, I noticed, when they came out of the sea, would eat some of the snow. Others would be carrying stones up the hill to their partner on the nest site. There was lots of grooming going on around the place. 

MC004967 (1) Weddell SealMC004967 (1) Weddell Seal A sleepy Weddell Seal having a scratch. Note the thick, short fur. 

MC__4836 ChinstrapMC__4836 Chinstrap MC__4845 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4845 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background.  MC__4853 Chinstrap SheathbillMC__4853 Chinstrap Sheathbill Can you spot the Snowy Sheathbill?

MC005008 (1) Screaming ChinstrapMC005008 (1) Screaming Chinstrap MC005020 (2) Screaming ChinstrapMC005020 (2) Screaming Chinstrap MC__4860 Chinstrap Sea SpiritMC__4860 Chinstrap Sea Spirit The view from the nesting colony of Chinstrap Penguins. The M.V. Sea Spirit in the background. 

MC__4869 VistaMC__4869 Vista

Walking up the slope from the landing zone, we were greeted by crying Chinstrap Penguins, arguing over space and robbing stones from each other's nests. It was quite good fun to watch. The Snowy Sheathbills were hanging around like the scavengers that they are, the Antarctic's own garbage collectors. South Polar Skua's patrolled vigilantly. A Weddell Seal or two were hauled out up the slopes, having a snooze and a scratch. The weather was changeable, with squally snow showers rushing through, making the temperatures drop below zero and freezing even further. Remnants of sea ice and icebergs were dotted along the shoreline of the island. But the vista these guys had from their nesting areas was stunning. It was getting to a point now where I did not know where to look. The birds were captivating, the scenery was jaw-dropping and the seals were just adorable. I was becoming emotionally drained at this stage. It was getting all a bit too much!

MC__4873 Jim Cierva CoveMC__4873 Jim Cierva Cove

Some people have asked did I hang around with Jim and Peter much when I was on board. Apart from a couple of drinks at the end of the day, and meeting at the coffee machine in the bar when we were motoring along to a new destination, I did not see much of the lads on a daily basis. They were busy working and I was busy standing on the deck freezing my proverbials off or wandering around on my own during the Zodiac landings. This was one of the few times I actually could take a photo of Jim working as I was usually off on a jaunt somewhere else, under guidance from Jim as to where to go on a landing. Having worked for the first time this summer past, I understand now how much time one does NOT have to spend taking photographs as one is far too busy looking after passengers and making sure nobody is straying beyond where they are supposed to be going. Still, I was delighted to catch this image of Jim just as he realised it was me pointing the camera at him.  

MC005120 (1) Antarctic TernMC005120 (1) Antarctic Tern Antarctic Tern riding the wind  MC__4881 PassengersMC__4881 Passengers

The squally showers did not deter my fellow yellow penguins from wandering around, following the marked-out route of luminous flags, which were clearly visible from some distance. There was a feeling and atmosphere of awe from everyone there. It was quite humbling to be stood there, talking it all in. The quietness and scale of the place is impossible to describe. So is the smell from the penguin colonies! The Argentinian base, Camp Livingston, is visible in the image below. Some grounded icebergs were also a treat to see. What was also quite a unique moment to witness was the wedding of a couple of guests! The Captain came ashore and officiated the exchange of vows, with Jim and Colin Baird being the witnesses. Colin insisted that he was best man while Jim was maid of honour! I got the impression that the Captain did not like being on terra firma...

MC__4883 Quark passengersMC__4883 Quark passengers The landing at Livingston Island, with the Argentinian base in the background. There are snow shoes laid out in rows at the landing site.  MC__4920 Cristina PaulMC__4920 Cristina Paul Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen - incredible people, photographers and conservationists  MC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzardMC005158 (1) Chinstrap blizzard The squalls produced these rough conditions on the slopes, but the Chinstraps kept waddling along and not bothered by anything. 

MC__5015 Antarctic PassengersMC__5015 Antarctic Passengers

MC__4960 PassengersMC__4960 Passengers MC__5014 SandpiperMC__5014 Sandpiper Colin Baird, a.k.a Sandpiper, walking along the slopes of Livingstone Island, with the M.V. Sea Spirit moored off in the background.  MC__5017 Jim and MarlaMC__5017 Jim and Marla Marla and Jim trying to determine what the plan of action is. It was getting very cold now.    MC__5039 South Polar SkuaMC__5039 South Polar Skua South Polar Skua MC005250 (1) PintadoMC005250 (1) Pintado Pintado off the back of the M.V. Spirit on our return. Beautiful birds. MC005274 (1) EuropaMC005274 (1) Europa The Europa sailed past us on that day, while we were having lunch on the ship. The first time we saw another vessel since South Georgia.  MC__5064 IcebergMC__5064 Iceberg
With everyone safely aboard the ship, we had lunch on the open deck and headed back out into the Bransfield Strait. The Europa, a three-masted sailing ship built in 1911, sailed past us on the horizon. It was the first of only two ships we saw on our South Georgia/Antarctica leg of the trip. It was quite a strange feeling seeing another ship, a reminder of the world that I had left behind and a reminder that the feats of those who journeyed here over 100 years ago were very brave and adventurous souls. As we headed back out into the Bransfield Strait, icebergs began to increase in their size and different colours of white and blue. It was quite something to behold and there were times where I just started laughing, smiling and shaking my head in disbelief that I was actually here, in Antarctica. What was also in the back of my mind was that we were sailing on a stretch of water that was named after a man (Edward Bransfield) born less than 15 miles down the road from where I grew up! It is quite a small world we live in. 

MC005362 Gentoo Head onMC005362 Gentoo Head on MC__5100 Chinstrap colonyMC__5100 Chinstrap colony MC__5127 Chinstrap stoneMC__5127 Chinstrap stone MC__5135 ChinstrapMC__5135 Chinstrap MC__5138 Gentoo PenguinsMC__5138 Gentoo Penguins MC__5142 Chinstrap BWMC__5142 Chinstrap BW MC__5152 Antarctic GentooMC__5152 Antarctic Gentoo MC__5165 Sea Spirit and DaveMC__5165 Sea Spirit and Dave

As we sailed across the Strait to the Aitcho Island Group, we came across some small groups of Humpback Whales and the odd Antarctic Minke Whale or two. It was always exciting to see some blubber surfacing and sending out their plumes of breath. Black-bellied and Wilson's Storm Petrels had increased slightly than on previous days, with Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Pintado and both Brown and South Polar Skuas flying by the ship. When we approached Barrientos Island, Snowy Sheathbills flew out to the boat for a gander, while a couple of Snow Petrels also flew a couple of times around the ship. The Zodiacs were put down and the scouting party went out to set up the landing. The island hosted both Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin colonies throughout the island. There were a few Elephant Seals beached up on the rocky shore at our landing site. We were allowed wander around the marked out path on the island for a few hours. So, off I went in search of wonder. 

MC__5186 Gentoo climbMC__5186 Gentoo climb

A Gentoo Penguin begins the trek up to its nesting site along a clearly marked out penguin highway on the snow MC__5199 Gentoos on whaleMC__5199 Gentoos on whale Gentoo Penguins perching on a the vertebrae of a long-deceased Fin or Blue Whale. 

MC__5203 ChinstrapMC__5203 Chinstrap

A Chinstrap Penguin making its way up the slope to its nesting site. A clearly marked highway is at the base of the image.

MC__5205 Gentoo Colony BarrientosMC__5205 Gentoo Colony Barrientos

The Gentoo Penguins nested on the rocky shore but the Chinstraps did not. The penguins lying down on the slope in the background are eating snow. 

MC005319 Gentoo face offMC005319 Gentoo face off MC005333 Chinstrap walkingMC005333 Chinstrap walking MC005394 Gentoo pairMC005394 Gentoo pair

The areas where the penguins were nesting were quickly becoming quite wet mud baths from the defrosted snow and ice, caused primarily by the body heat from the penguins. What was interesting to note was that those penguins that had buried into the snow and earth underneath, were now sitting in a pool of cold water trying to incubate what was probably a lost egg. It is quite remarkable how the feet of these guys don't freeze standing around in freezing mud and the harsh conditions. The colonies are quite independent as well. Any Chinstrap Penguin that decide to navigate through the Gentoo Penguin colony got a good nipping from those that it ran by. This could be become quite aggressive and no holds were barred on some occasions. 

MC005409 South Polar SkuaMC005409 South Polar Skua

A South Polar Skua looking for a unattended egg. 

MC005415 South Polar Skua huntingMC005415 South Polar Skua hunting MC005423 Gentoo cry tripleMC005423 Gentoo cry triple MC005432 South Polar Skua snowMC005432 South Polar Skua snow MC005511 Gentoo head portraitMC005511 Gentoo head portrait MC005597 Southern Giant PetrelMC005597 Southern Giant Petrel

A Southern Giant Petrel also looking for a free meal, flying against the snowy backdrop

The island was criss-crossed with compacted, shiny snow highways that were patted down by the countless journeys the penguins make too and from the sea. We were warned, quite vehemently, NEVER to stand on a penguins highway for fear of putting a big ugly footprint on it, thus creating a nasty hole that these guys could trip up in. I sat down on a slope looking down on a Gentoo Penguin colony for what must have been 30 minutes and just watched. I didn't take any photographs, didn't raise my binoculars, I just watched. It was nice to do that. There was a lot of courtship, bickering, stone carrying, stone stealing, egg laying, egg abandoning, egg stealing and snow eating going on all around me. South Polar and Brown Skuas were flying low overhead and Southern Giant Petrels soaring higher up. It was quite epic against the backdrop of snow-laden slopes and mountain tops. Once again, the only sound one could hear was the cry of the Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. It was quite something. 

After a few hours of walking around, we were all beckoned back to the Zodiacs. As always, I was on the last Zodiac back to the ship, my hands frozen solid, my bladder bursting (one is not allowed to relieve oneself when on Antarctica or any of the islands...AT ALL!), my camera batteries draining due to the cold and my mind blown by what my eyes were feasting upon. After dinner, a couple of bottles of beer in the bar with Jim and Peter, I went to bed with a somewhat heavy heart as I knew that the following day was my final day in Antarctica. 


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