Antartica and S South America

Subject: Antartica and S South America
From: Penny Brockman <>
Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2005 13:56:54 +1000
Dear Birders

I've been meaning to finalise a report on my Antarctic trip for a
whle, but a further trip to Sri Lanka got in the way, and I've only
now got it into shape.  Here is the first section for those who want
to read on - will do it in two more sections.

Antarctica and Southern South American  January / February 2005

Leaving Sydney on 7th January I flew to Ushuaia via Santiago, where I
had to overnight as the flights didn't connect. Then the following day
to Ushuaia arriving midday. With almost 24 hours before boarding the
icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy next afternoon, I had time to tick off
a few local birds, such as Flightless Steamer-duck, Brown-headed and
Dolphin Gulls, South American Terns, Crested Ducks, Olivaceous and
Blue-eyed Cormorants, and Chilean Swallows. I enquired about
organising a day's outing with Marcello, a local bird guide, on my
return from Antarctica, and was quoted US$240 for the day. Much too
expensive and perhaps more rewarding to identify the birds myself.
The following day in a small town park I found Black-chinned Siskins,
Patagonean Sierra-finches, Yellow-bridled Finches, Thorn-tailed
Rayadito (a beautiful little bird with a spiky tail that foraged
upside town like a sittella) and White-crested Elaenias. In the
harbour hanging around the drains were a pack of juvenile Southern
Giant Petrels, mean looking birds, and Chilean Skuas.

Next day after boarding the Shokalskiy, we were sent up to the top
deck to witness our departure from Ushuaia, crouched at the base of
dark snow-topped mountains. Kelp Gulls watched from their perches on
the tall harbour lights, and we saw Black-browed Albatross, Blue-eyed
Cormorants and Magellanic Penguins as we slipped down the Beagle
Channel, heading east to the Falkland Islands. Then it was welcome
drinks in the bar, introductions to the specialist staff and trying to
remember all the names.

I was up and out early next day to see what birds were around. We were
followed by a large pack of S.Giant Petrels, with Cape Petrels,
Wilson's Storm-Petrels and some unidentified prions flitting over the
water around the boat, and Black-browed, Wandering and Royal Albatross
which kept their distance. There was heavy cloud cover and the light
was dim so it was extremely difficult sorting out the prions  - they
flew past like grey shadows on the swell. Then the first White-chinned
Petrels appeared, a common bird after this, and a Sooty Shearwater.

That morning we were instructed in Life-boat Drill and all given a
number (mine was 14). Then on the alarm going off, we had to put on
our lifebelts in our cabins, walk up the nearest gangway to main deck
and crowd into two lifeboats for 54 people, the 24 crew having to make
do with the Zodiaks. Heaven help a claustrophobic if we needed to do
this in reality - shut into a fibre-glass hull with no headroom, tight
against each other and bouncing around in the waves. While at sea we
had lectures morning and afternoon on glaciers, ice, whaling, fishing
industry, early explorers and what is on or under the sea surface.
Videos were shown at night on aligned subjects, such as David
Attenborough's Frozen Planet series, and there was a small library in
the bar. With 48 passengers and 6 specialists on board, there was
often very little room in the bar, and people sat on the floor when we
had meetings. The tour was ably led by a Canadian, Shane, who balanced
very well the difficult tightrope of being friendly and accessible and
at the same time giving commands and keeping people to the rules when
landing in penguin colonies. Unfortunately there was no Southern Ocean
Bird Specialist, and I turned out to be the most knowledgeable, which
with my struggles over prions, was tricky.

On 11th January we sailed into West Point Island, north-east corner of
the Falklands, past low cliffs with patches of original tussock grass
in places inaccessible to sheep.  Kelp and Upland Geese showed up well
against the black rocks and green grass.  A couple of fishing boats
were at anchor in the bay and we could see a few small houses hidden
in sheltering wind-blown trees. On landing at a jetty we were greeted
by Roddy Napier the island owner and a rather supercilious looking
Striated Caracara sitting on a tussock. A group of beautiful white
male Kelp Geese with stripy females and Upland Geese rested on the
grass to our left. Turkey Vultures were roosting flip-flop on a farm
shed roof. We started on the 2.5 mile track to a colony of
Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguins the other side of the
island. I saw a Long-winged Harrier fail in its attempt to catch a
Long-tailed Meadowlark which spun off showing its bright red chest and
vanished into shrubs. Patches of gorse grew on the hillsides and
tussock and reeds in boggy patches, with cushion plants on windswept
rocky heights. Also saw Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Falkland Skuas and
the local breed of Austral Thrush and lots of Falkland (Correndera)
Pipits. The Albatross and Penguin colony was a mass of noise, smell
and stinky mud between tussocks that grew below the rocks on which
they were nesting, and down the cliff side. Clean grey fluffy
albatross chicks sat neat and smart on raised dry mud nests and dirty
brown/grey penguin chicks slumped on rocks, with adults coming and
going non-stop, feeding, preening or resting. Albatross were also
breeding among tussocks on the cliffs with many wheeling and circling
below or on the water. Penguin highways twisted through the tussocks,
shown by fresh white splashes of guano and footprints. Blue-eyed
Cormorants, Falkland Skuas and terns also present. On return to the
settlement, we were treated to a wonderfully old fashioned morning tea
in Roddy's house, watched closely by six Striated Caracaras standing
on the grass  outside.

After lunch we landed at Carcass Island on a sandy beach backed by
steep grassy sand dunes with a rocky promontory on the right and the
settlement hidden behind trees a mile to the left. More geese and a
pair of Crested Duck with 5 ducklings and Falkland Flightless Steamer
Ducks also with 5 ducklings. Magellanic Penguins were breeding in
burrows up the  hillside with many South American Terns on the
promontory. Blackish Cinclodes hopped around my feet as I walked
across the sand looking at Magellanic Oystercatchers, Rock and
Red-legged Cormorants. Near the penguin colony were Falkland  Pipits
and more meadowlarks. The light was brilliant, the sun now being out,
with colours of grass, scrub and herbs in sharp detail. We next
motored in the Zodiak across the bay to the settlement and had another
delicious afternoon tea, with the most delectible scones, homemade
cream and raspberry jam.  Sheltering cypresses held tangled and ruined
Night Heron nests - all this year's brood having fledged and flown.

Overnight we sailed along the northern sheltered coast of the islands
to anchor opposite Stanley. Three Black-necked Swans flew past as we
waited to board the Zodiaks. Stanley is a huddle of small houses
facing the straits, painted bright pastel colours, crouched below a
ridge that looks over the Atlantic to the south-east.  Three of us
took a taxi to Gypsy Cove (the nearest birdie spot) but could only
walk the path above the bay as Argentinian mines were still present in
the cliffs and beach. It alternately rained, hailed or sleeted,
between bouts of warm sun, and the wind blew the rain horizontally. We
saw  more Magellanic Penguins at their burrows, Rock Cormorants and
Night Herons on the cliffs, both with chicks, and Cobb's Wrens and an
Austral Thrush, both followed by begging fledglings. Lush green
cushion plants grew among the tussock and a few delicate flowers kept
their heads out of the wind. We returned to town for lunch at the
Globe, sausage and mash  washed down with British beer. Sailing out of
Stanley harbour  we passed an island smothered in seabirds - only had
time to identify Great, Little and Sooty Shearwaters, Wandering and
Black-browed Albatross. This was where I really missed not being on a
true birding trip as this island deserved a stop to check the birds.

The 13th was spent at sea en route to South Georgia. The swell became
bigger and the diningroom emptier. I spent as much time as possible
out on deck. Many Black-browed and Wandering Albatross, prions,
White-chinned Petrels but less Southern Giant Petrels were around.
Bird of the day was a solitary Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. It was
pleasanter on deck than on the bridge as crew members were allowed to
smoke there and it got very fuggy with the view  obscured by the
streaming glass. Outside when well wrapped up and out of the wind, it
was not that cold. Overnight we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and
were at sea all next day. It became noticeably colder. New birds in
sight included a juvenile Grey-headed Albatross, and Black-bellied and
White-bellied Storm Petrels. Saw the first iceberg at 3pm and then 10
Southern Right Whales and some Minkes surfaced. Shag Rocks came into
view late arvo - a group of pyramidal black rocks rising shear out of
the sea, covered with shags and other sea-birds and with hundreds
circling and on the sea around.  A Light-mantled Sooty Albatross flew
past and Adelie Penquins were resting on icebergs.

South Georgia was in sight from 4am on the 15th. I was on deck at 6am
as we entered Elsehul Bay on the north-east coast. Heavy cloud hid the
tops of mountains but there was only a slight swell and moderate wind.
Thousands of birds were in sight - Light-mantled, Black-browed,
Grey-headed and Wandering Albatross everywhere, many breeding on the
steep tussocky hillsides, with Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, Skuas,
Snowy Sheathbills, Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels, Prions, Blue-eyed
Cormorants, and a few Common Diving-Petrels. Heads popped up to look
at us - Southern Fur Seals.   Strips of brown kelp coloured the
shifting turquoise-blue waters. We were into the Zodiaks at 7.45am to
motor around the bay and have a closer look at the seals and birds.
Wind blew across, the clouds descended and rain spattered during the
hour's trip. All slopes off the vertical were cloaked in tussock,
bright green grass or moss, lichens red, green, yellow or white.
Groups of King Penguins stood on black beaches moulting, looking
uncomfortable,  Macaronis sat on rocks or struggled up and down to and
from their nesting sites high above, their gawdy orange plumes damp
and dishevelled. Dead bodies were voraciously attacked by Soutyern
Giant Petrels and Skuas but there was so much around they didn't have
to fight over their food. Huge lumps of paler rock turned out to be
clusters of Southern Elephant Seals, huddled together with an even
larger male in attendance. A few leucistic baby Fur Seals showed up
brightly against the dark stones and mud on the beaches.

The ship sailed on past steep dark mountains streaked with snow.
Glaciers slipped down what would be deep valleys if one could see
under the ice, many now not reaching the sea but melting short and
showing black gravel beaches or plunging into a lagoon hidden behind
shingle banks. After lunch we were again bundled into the Zodiaks in
our thick Antarctic clothing and gumboots to visit Salisbury Plains,
landing on a flat tongue of gravel, black sand and flattened grass,
where a vast King Penguin colony of more than 250,000 breeding pairs
stretched to the base of a glacier hidden by low cloud. Close by were
Elephant and Fur Seals, South Georgian Skuas and Sheathbills, and
lining the melt water channels from the glacier, thousands of King
Penguins at all stages of growth, moult and breeding. There was
constant moaning and groaning, snorting and chortling from the
penguins, and a foul stink from the results of all this activity.
Seals and penguins lurked among tussocks edging the beach and filthy
channel, with untold others hidden by the low lying cloud that
obscured the view inland. The penguin chicks ran up to us, flapping
their flippers, beaks up, whistling and hooting and hoping we would
provide some food. Some looked like pointy dirty brown tea cosies,
others were nearly fully fledged but still with brown fluff on heads
or chests, almost ready to go to sea. Fur Seals were likely to attack
you and it was better to walk in groups as they then stood off. The
Skuas stood unconcerned by our presence, squabbling over a dead body,
raising their wings to show the startling white patches at the base of
their primaries.

That night we sailed east to Fortuna Bay, landing in increasing
drizzle at 8.30am. Penquins, Fur Seals and female Elephant Seals were
scattered all along the stony beach. A few small icebergs floated or
were grounded in the bay with a huge glacier at the far left. King
Penguins looked brilliant with their orange and yellow ear pieces,
silver shoulders and gleaming blue-black backs. Elephant Seals heaved
up into the tussocks, forming huddles, lighter brown than the Fur
Seals. On the right was a small colony of Gentoo Penguins high up a
steep hillside, with a difficult walk up and down a rocky creek bed
down which creamy water rushed from the ice above. A South Georgian
Pintail flew across the beach, later bathing in a fresh water pool at
the cliff base. The rain increased so a rather damp group of Penguin
and Seal enthusiasts had to return to ship.

During lunch we sailed south-east to Hercules Harbour to tour the bay
in Zodiaks. A Southern Right Whale rolled around in the kelp, waving
its fins and tail in the air. The cliffs were composed of fractured
rock, twisted by past volcanic upheavals and now shiny black or
dressed in gold, silver, yellow, olive and green lichens.  A black
beach with a waterfall at the back falling into a lagoon was lined
with King Penguins, a few Gentoos and seals, and above and beyond,
faint through the mist was a higher waterfall with mountain tops
hidden in cloud. Skuas picked at carcasses on the beach. Beach master
Fur Seals oversaw their harems.  Macaronis perched on rocks or climbed
precipitous pathways up to their nests among the tussock above. A lone
Chinstrap Penguin looked lost in a group of Macaronis and a
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross circled above coming to land at its nest
in the tussock. The clouds came down again as we sailed north-west to
Possession Bay to view another glacier and high winds brought thick
mist and light snow down from the heights so we could only view one
side of the bay at a time - jagged black mountains patched with ice
and snow, and glaciers dipping into the sea.
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