Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands Dec 26, 2011—Jan 16, 2012

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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We convened in Buenos Aires on the evening of December 27 with several early arriving participants making an afternoon excursion to Costanera Sur. Here, on a warm summer afternoon, they observed some 40 plus species including such lovely birds as Green-barred Woodpecker, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Masked Yellowthroat, and White-eyed Parakeet.

A very early start saw us onto our direct flight to Ushuaia and by 10:30 AM we were in a birding bus and off to Tierra del Fuego National Park. It was a great morning in the park with pride of place going to an incredible trio of Magellanic Woodpeckers that fed unconcernedly on the ground within a few meters of us; an absolute knockout.

Other great sightings came quickly as we clocked up Black-necked Swan, Upland Goose, Flightless and Flying steamer-ducks, Crested Duck, Chiloe Wigeon, Great Grebe, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Magellanic and Blackish oystercatchers, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-throated Treerunner, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, White-crested Elaenia, Austral Negrito, Fire-eyed Diucon, Patagonian Sierra-Finch, the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow, Austral Blackbird, and Austral Parakeet.

After lunch at a delicious Argentine parilla, our explorations continued behind the restaurant where we saw a large flock of Black-faced Ibis, a quartet of beautiful Ashy-headed Geese, and a feral North American beaver! We explored the coast and a small freshwater marsh in Ushuaia with more new birds coming in a steady progression including Chilean Skua, American Kestrel, Rock and Imperial shags, Kelp Goose, South American Snipe, Red Shoveler, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, a fledgling Correndera Pipit crouched in the grass at one meter, beautiful South American Terns, and Dolphin Gulls. A pilgrimage to the tip for the White-throated Caracara was blown out by hurricane strength winds blowing up the Beagle Channel!

After boarding the Clipper Adventurer we were into our cabins, dinner, then bed. At midnight we left the dock, cleared the Beagle Channel, and set course for Staten Island and the Falklands.

Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed Albatross— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our first full day at sea we observed more than 80 Magellanic Penguins, rafts of more than 300 Rockhopper Penguins, 300 Black-browed Albatross, 2 Wandering Albatross, and at least 10 Southern Royal Albatross.

Northern and Southern giant-petrels, Southern Fulmar, Cape Petrel, Slender-billed Prion, White-chinned Petrel, Great and Sooty shearwaters, large flocks of the recently split Fuegian and a handful of Gray-backed Storm-Petrel and Common Diving-Petrel kept us on our toes. We also had our only sightings for the voyage of both Manx Shearwater and Magellanic Diving-Petrel—the latter confirmed by photographs of the white arc extending boldly up behind the ear coverts. Marine mammals made an appearance with two killer whales—one a large bull—and fast-paced dusky dolphins getting us off to a fine start.

With good seas the next morning, December 30, we arrived at Carcass Island in the Falklands. A rat-free island, this special place harbors all of the extant small passerines of the Falklands. We all opted for the long hike of some five miles that wended along the coast and pastures with large areas of well-protected "tussac" grass, culminating at the local landholder's house with a spectacular tea and cake ceremony.

The birding was special—a solitary King Penguin, nesting colonies of "Subantarctic" Gentoo Penguins and burrows full of Magellanic Penguins, nesting Striated Caracara, Blackish Cinclodes feeding at our feet, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Cobb's Wren, Austral Thrush, beautiful Black-throated Finch, showy Long-tailed Meadowlarks, and dapper Black-throated Siskins.

Our next stop was Saunder's Island where we weathered a sand storm as we made it up the slopes to a breeding colony of both Rockhopper Penguin and Black-browed Albatross. What an amazing treat to be up alongside these most exceptional seabirds. Gentoo, Magellanic, and a small number of King penguins also nested here, while Turkey Vultures, Falkland Brown Skuas, and a lone Snowy Sheathbill patrolled the colonies for opportunities. South American sea lion was also observed working the coastline for feeding chances.

We heaved anchor and were at sea en route to incredible South Georgia. With favorable seas we made the crossing in two-and-a-half-days. Sea watching was again productive. We made our first sightings of the Gray-headed Albatross, the stealth bomber Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, the scarce Atlantic Petrel, Soft-plumaged Petrel performing some incredible display flights like pronking gazelles, a beautiful view of Gray Petrel, the delightful Blue Petrel, a couple of Subantarctic Fairy Prions amongst clouds of Antarctic Prions, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, and South Georgian Diving-Petrel.

By the afternoon of January 2 we were ready for our first Zodiac cruise in Elsehul Bay in spectacular South Georgia. Hordes of Antarctic fur seals and a few loafing moulting southern elephant seals thronged the bay while King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, a solitary Chinstrap Penguin, good numbers of three species of nesting albatross, giant-petrels, Cape Petrels, our first sightings of both South Georgian Shag and Antarctic Terns, and good numbers of Snowy Sheathbills made for a lively afternoon. Pride of place went to the Macaroni Penguins—our only chance to see a nesting colony of this species that favors steep, rocky coastal cliffs to breed. With their luxuriant crests and puffin-like bills they are quite the penguin. As Peter Harrison professed, "If you don't like penguins, you should seek medical advice!"

Overnight we moved to the Salisbury Plain in the Bay of Isles. Gray skies and rain greeted us as we made landing at an enormous colony of King Penguins estimated at more than 100,000 pairs! With King Penguins in all plumages and at all stages of reproduction, it was an insight into the lives and struggles of this most splendid penguin as they trumpeted around us: br…br…br…brrrrrrrr. The birders convened for a Zodiac cruise to nearby Tern Islet. We found a pair of South Georgia Pipits that gave a bunch of quite good to very good views as they flitted amidst the boulders and sea caves. These delicate passerines eking out a tough existence in this harsh environment are the only perching birds in the Antarctic.

Snow Petrels

Snow Petrels— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

From Salisbury Plain we repositioned to Fortuna Bay. Forty passengers and staff commenced the Shackleton Walk, hiking overland to the Stromness Whaling Station where Sir Ernest was able to raise the alarm and rescue his stranded expeditioners on Elephant Island—a tale of epic drama in the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.

The next morning dawned clear and sunny, and we had a magical morning at Gold Harbour—truly the Serengeti of the Far South. The southern elephant seals led the charge, indulging in combat and mating rituals as a throng of King Penguins scampered to keep out of the way of these voluminous jousting behemoths. Words cannot describe.

As we rounded the southeast of South Georgia, we were joined briefly by small numbers of ethereal Snow Petrels—what special birds they are. A massive tabular iceberg attracted thousands of prions to the upwelling of life it brought to the surface.

Two days at sea en route to the Antarctic Peninsula included excellent sightings of giant fin whales, and both Peale's and dashing hourglass dolphins amidst a rich diversity of seabirds, with giant Wandering Albatross in view much of the time in a variety of plumages.

When we reached the Antarctic Sound, giant tabular berg after giant tabular berg announced our arrival at the southernmost continent. An Antarctic Petrel gave a great view—a lucky break—while an Antarctic Minke whale surged, half breaching parallel with the ship. We had truly arrived.

Adelie Penguins

Adelie Penguins— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We were straight into the action making a first continental landing at Brown Bluff. Here we strolled past colonies of “Antarctic” Gentoo Penguins and Adelie Penguins as rock pilfering, regurgitation, and star patterns kept the digital cards being filled like penguin chicks. A special encounter with nesting Snow Petrels under a boulder bank was something else.

Trying to maximize our time, we went straight to Gourdin Island which literally heaved with nesting Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins—a biomass and olfactory spectacular! Our next stop was Neko Harbour, set amongst Andean mountains and enormous tongue glaciers. An uphill hike gave us a "buena vista" shared with nesting South Polar Skuas.

Back into the Zodiacs, we were joined by a trio of surface lunging humpback whales. It was my first time to literally see the tonsils of these baleen giants as they fed (and we could see the krill) right next to us. This was perhaps the overall voyage highlight for many. We made further landings at Almirante Brown before taking the ship, skillfully guided by the captain, through an ice-filled Lemaire Channel. Back in the Zodiacs we encountered Weddell seals, leopard seals, crabeater seals, and hot chocolate tippled with Bailey's Irish Cream.

Our final day in the peninsula saw us landing on Wienke Island at Dorian Bay, inspecting a well-preserved British Antarctic Survey hut. A highlight was seeing a photograph of geologist Geoff Renner celebrating Christmas 1978. Geoff was amongst our amazing lecture staff on board the Clipper Adventurer.

Our final landings at Port Lockroy and Jougla Point provided a unique chance to send mail and pick up some souvenirs. Antarctic Shags had well-developed chicks, with Gentoo Penguins in different stages of breeding success and attentive South Polar Skuas acting as health inspectors.

We cruised the amazing Neumayer Channel as the sun broke through past Brabant Island, and into a Drake Passage that massaged us with roiling five meter plus swells—a Drake experience that satisfied most!

I would particularly like to thank all of the participants on this voyage and the amazing Zegrahm staff, ship's crew, and Quark liaison staff who kept us as well as an expedition team possibly could.