Antarctica, South Georgia & The Falklands Dec 17—Jan 07, 2005

Posted by Brian Patteson


Brian Patteson

Brian Patteson grew up near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but has a keen interest in seabirds, which began over 30 years ago when he started organizing pelagic trip...

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A trip to South Georgia and Antarctica is often touted as a trip of a lifetime, and rightly so. I feel particularly fortunate to have made my third trip of a lifetime to this remote wilderness. I must say, however, that this latest trip exceeded even my own hopes and expectations, which are always quite high. The combination of a wonderful ship with an excellent crew, a great group of 57 enthusiastic VENT participants, and near perfect weather made for a most successful visit to the Southern Ocean. The transition from birding in South America to the Falklands to South Georgia, and finally to Antarctica is a wonderful feature of this itinerary, further enhanced by opportunities for pelagic birding on four sea crossings!

Many of the VENT group on this tour actually began birding in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the fantastic Costanera Sur nature preserve, where they tallied over 70 species including Coscoroba Swan, Rosy-billed Pochard, Snowy-crowned Tern, Whistling Heron, and Gray-hooded Gull. The next day the entire VENT group convened in Ushuaia, Argentina, and, prior to boarding our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, had the opportunity to see an interesting cross section of bird life with a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Highlights included sightings of Spectacled Duck, Great Grebe, White-throated Caracara, and Austral Pygmy-Owl.

After boarding the Clipper Adventurer, we were soon on our way to sea via the Beagle Channel, accompanied by Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant-Petrels, Imperial Cormorants, and Chilean Skuas. We spent the following day at sea, steaming to the Falkland Islands, which were in sight by late afternoon. We crossed in great weather, with a 15 to 25 knot westerly wind and following seas. We saw our first great albatrosses on this crossing—Southern Royals. We also saw our first Cape Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, and thousands of Slender-billed Prions.

On December 21, we spent a busy day in the Falklands going ashore first at New Island where the highlight was a short trek to the seabird rookery where Black-browed Albatrosses, Rockhopper Penguins, and Imperial Cormorants all nest together. After lunch, we visited Carcass Island (named for a ship actually) where most of our party hiked two miles in the rain, but we saw an abundance of small land birds, including the very confiding Blackish Cinclodes, known locally as the “Tussockbird.” There were also lots of Magellanic Penguins nesting there, and we had to be watchful for their numerous burrows while walking. When we reached the island settlement, the McGill family, who has lived there for more than 30 years, hosted a wonderful tea for the entire Clipper group.

The next morning the ship visited Stanley, where the majority of the Falkland Islanders reside. While some opted to take a tour of the town, most of our group went on a special outing to some countryside near the Stanley airport, where we found Rufous-chested Dotterels, Two-banded Plovers, and a few other species which had not been seen the previous day. Considering we only had about a day-and-a-half in the Falklands, we amazingly saw nearly all of the species we might have hoped to see there. We then cruised out to sea, bound for South Georgia, and enjoyed watching a great variety of seabirds during the afternoon, including our first Wandering Albatrosses.

Sea crossings are always an interesting part of these trips. The crossing to South Georgia was fairly smooth, so there was quite a bit of interest in pelagic birding by our group. It was a pleasure to have people out on deck enjoying the spectacle of great birds such as Grey-headed and Light-mantled albatrosses, Soft-plumaged Petrels, Snow Petrels, and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels. The lure of a new pelagic bird even kept many out and scanning through intermittent snow showers one day.

We had a great time at South Georgia. Our first landing was an early morning visit to Salisbury Plain, where we had our introduction to King Penguins of all ages, including newly hatched chicks, and older, very curious chicks in their brown fur coats. We tried to keep a respectful distance, but the penguins would have no part of it. Our second landing was at Prion Islet, in the Bay of Isles. Here we were able to observe the magnificent Wandering Albatrosses at their nests. We also found the South Georgia Pipit nesting in abundance, taking advantage of the rat-free environment. The next day began with snowy zodiac cruises of Hercules Bay, where the feature highlight was Macaroni Penguins, which are quite common at South Georgia, but, because they nest on steep tussocky hillsides, are comparatively hard to observe closely. We also visited St. Andrews Bay, home of the largest King Penguin rookery on South Georgia with an estimated 200,000 birds. It was truly an unforgettable spectacle and probably the most wildlife many of us had ever seen in one place. On our last day on South Georgia, some went ashore after dinner at Gold Harbor, where they divided their attention between the nesting Light-mantled Albatrosses, elephant seals, fur seals (of course), and more King Penguins, including a leucistic individual. Singing White-chinned Petrels were an additional highlight. Because it was so late, these big shearwater-like birds were out in force and afforded some great views—even of their chins!

Our crossing of the Scotia Sea was smooth, and, on the morning after leaving South Georgia, our seabirders were treated to a number of Kerguelen Petrels, a species not always seen on these trips. We also saw many Blue Petrels, and by the afternoon we had seen our first Southern Fulmars. Late in the afternoon we found a large group of Fin and Sei whales, attended by swarms of Antarctic Prions.

On our way to Antarctica we visited Elephant Island, and, because of the calm conditions that day, we were able to make a rare LANDING at Point Wild. It was a humbling experience to stand on the weathered spit there and think about how Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance party must have felt looking out at the watery horizon less than 100 years ago. Our next stop was Deception Island; after a tide change, we found calm conditions at Baily Head, so we were able to land there and make a brief foray into the amphitheater-like home of 100,000 Chinstrap Penguins with dozens of patrolling Brown Skuas.

Upon arriving in Antarctica, we made a continental landing at Neko Harbor, the seventh continent for many in the group. Gentle Gentoo Penguins were the dominant species here, and South Polar Skuas outnumbered the Browns, which had been the common form farther north. The view from the top of the hill was splendid, and all of our fearless leaders took the “express route” down the snowy slope, which was great fun. We next went zodiac cruising in Paradise Bay where we had close looks at crabeater seals and a singing leopard seal! This was followed by a ship transit of the lovely Lemaire Channel en route to Petermann Island. At Petermann Island we visited an Adelie Penguin colony, and we were able to compare South Polar and Brown Skuas.

The next day we were supposed to first land at Port Lockroy in the morning, but an unscheduled visit by another tourist ship forced us to change plans. Instead, we visited Damoy Point nearby. We then had a barbecue on deck and visited Port Lockroy in two groups. This was a chance to observe Gentoo Penguins at very close range, visit a historical landmark, and do some shopping in Antarctica. From Port Lockroy, we headed toward Cuverville Island, which has the largest colony of Gentoo Penguins along the Antarctic Peninsula and is truly a lovely spot, a verdant jewel in a foreboding landscape. Along the way, while cruising the Neumayer Channel, (which is truly spectacular in itself), we spotted an Antarctic Petrel, which was obliging enough to remain in view for several minutes, even giving passengers time to scramble out of their cabins to see it! When we arrived at Cuverville, the light was beautiful—a photographer’s dream. The pretty light continued such that even after dinner, many were able to get some fantastic photos of lunge feeding humpback whales in Wilhelmina Bay, where the sky was full of stunning lenticular clouds.

Our last day in Antarctica found us in the vicinity of Palmer Station. Formerly commonplace, ship visits to research bases in the Antarctic are no longer a feature of every cruise. So we were fortunate to have this opportunity, and the surrounding waters also offered great zodiac cruising, where we saw nesting Adelie Penguins and four species of seals! Palmer Station was quite impressive, very well equipped as you might expect, and, of course, was the last shopping stop in Antarctica.

Returning to South America, we saw a good variety of tubenoses, including several Southern Royal Albatross, and a single Northern Royal, which is worth noting as it seems to be a possible “split.” A few Greater and Manx shearwaters were seen among the thousands of Sooties as we approached the Beagle Channel, and a few persistent observers were treated to good looks at Magellanic Diving-Petrel as we drew close to Ushuaia, where we arrived ahead of schedule on account of our smooth crossing of the Drake Passage, which might as well have been the “Drake Lake.”

Back in Ushuaia, there was time for a quick trip back to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Our single objective was to see the Magellanic Woodpecker, which had been elusive on our first visit. It was a successful mission. We found a stunning male woodpecker, which remained in plain view for several minutes. From there, most of us flew out to Santiago, Chile. A fresh breeze there made it easier to adjust to the warmer climate. The next day was an optional day of birding in the Andes for some of us—a fantastic introduction to the birds of Chile with local guide Michel Sallaberry.

I really don’t think we could have had a better Antarctic trip. The weather was consistently mild, the sites we visited were teeming with a diversity of wildlife, we had a great VENT group, and it was a pleasure to co-lead with Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon. I look forward to returning in December with Pete Dunne and a new group.