On Location from Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands Dec 17—Jan 07, 2005
Posted by Barry Lyon
On the afternoon of December 18, Victor Emanuel and I met the participants for an optional afternoon birding trip around Buenos Aires. It was a spectacular beginning to our trip. We visited a terrific wetland that happens to be part of a major urban park right in the middle of the city. We found lots of great birds, with many species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and herons. Birds like Coscoroba Swan, Rosy-billed Pochard, Snowy-crowned Tern, Whistling Heron, and Gray-hooded Gull brought great excitement to our group. We had a number of land birds as well, with the highlight being the Golden-breasted Woodpecker.
We arrived in Ushuaia after a four-hour flight on the morning of the 19th. Our co-leader, Brian Patteson, joined us, and we spent the remainder of the day in Tierra del Fuego National Park. The scenery there is magnificent, and fairly reminiscent of what one might see on a trip to Alaska. Rugged snow-capped peaks, thick forests, glacial lakes, and rushing streams characterized the great landscapes of the park. The birding was quite good as well, and we had a good local guide. The highlight for me was the variety of native geese. Species such as the Upland Goose, Ashy-headed Goose, and Kelp Goose were attention-getters. Their plumage is like silk, and I think they were among my favorite birds seen so far.
We boarded the ship that night and, all at once, the thrill of the trip was upon us. Sailing east through the Beagle Channel offered our first glimpses of what our time in this strange and remote country would provide. The characteristic birds of the Southern Ocean began to show up almost immediately. Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant-Petrels, and King Cormorants were abundant. The excitement and giddiness of the group was palpable, and we were only just beginning.
Since that time we have had one great day after another, even though we have had some long days at sea. Upon leaving the Beagle Channel, we spent all that night and all the next day en route to the Falkland Islands. The daily lectures were extremely well done and informative. Most of the participants attended them and had good things to say about the Clipper staff. The birding at sea was magical. The massive Royal Albatross was the bird of the day; however, the immaculately plumaged Cape Petrels were the favorite of many. The former name of this bird was the Pintado Petrel. Pintado means painted in Spanish, and the striking black and white coloration of the bird imparts that feeling. Only in Antarctica!
The Falkland Islands are a remote outpost off the Argentinean coast, yet offer plenty for the naturalist, as well as the curious. Why the Argentineans ever fought the English over these remote rocks is something of an oddity to us all, except for the fact that Argentina was not in good shape at the time, and the then president thought he could uplift (and distract) his countrymen by taking the islands. We visited two outlying islands off the western side of the archipelago, New and Carcass islands. New Island was alive with birds, including the Falkland Steamerduck, one of a group of four species restricted to southern South America.
We found our first penguins from atop a cliff overlooking the South Atlantic. Perhaps more than any other bird, it is the penguins that draw people here, and the Rockhopper Penguins we saw that day did not disappoint. With many excellent views of nesting penguins, and many fine photographic opportunities to be taken advantage of, our group of travelers returned to the ship decidedly satisfied. That afternoon we visited Carcass Island and had a tremendous time exploring the coastline of this remote island. The weather was cold and rainy, but nobody seemed to care. The sight of Kelp Geese, Magellanic Oystercatchers, steamerducks, and Dolphin Gulls kept everybody’s spirits up.
We arrived in Port Stanley early the next morning. Port Stanley sits on the eastern side of the archipelago and serves as the administrative center of the islands. Though small, it was interesting, and the birding was terrific. The Rufous-chested Dotterel and Two-banded Plover were the premier birds of the morning, and though still very cold, the rocky headlands provided inspiring views of the surrounding seas. A short trip through town rounded out our experiences.
We spent the next two-and-a-half days at sea, covering the 800 miles to South Georgia. We saw lots more birds, most of which were new for us. During the run to South Georgia, we encountered the incomparable Wandering Albatross, along with other highlights such as Snow and Blue petrels, Gray-headed and Light-mantled albatrosses, and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels.
South Georgia has been incredible in so many ways that it is difficult to describe its grandeur. Lonely, remote, and breathtakingly beautiful, I feel it a terrible shame for anybody to come to Antarctica without coming here. The wildlife appears in a near pristine state, with tens of thousands of penguins and fur seals delivering images of unforgettable wildness. The weather has been cold with intermittent snow showers; what else to be expected so far south? We are in the fifth day of summer down here, but the weather is reminiscent of what you might see if you look at the weather of New England. The natural beauty of the island is comparable to that of any place I have ever seen.
On top of the wildlife, we made a four-mile hike across a portion of the island that all who participated won’t soon forget. In the spirit of Shackleton, we walked from Fortuna Bay to the decaying whaling station at Stromness. What a trip! First ascending steeply from the fur seal clad beach, we soon found ourselves amidst stupendous alpine scenery. We were surrounded by majestic, snow-clad mountains, broad glaciers, and icy mountain lakes. Victor and I found the experience exhilarating. The back half of the hike included jaunts by glacial moraines, a visit to a Gentoo Penguin colony, and more glorious mountain scenery. We even descended a long snow field, all the while reveling in the incredible natural beauty of the island.
Today we visited Grytviken, home of a defunct whaling station and a fine historical museum. What a place!