Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falklands Jan 05—26, 2017

Posted by Brian Gibbons


Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Our January 2017 Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands cruise began in a steamy Buenos Aires, where we soaked up the warmth as we observed more than 100 species, most of which we wouldn’t see again as we headed south to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, and beyond. The Falklands and South Georgia provided unrivaled wildlife spectacles only after we enjoyed fantastic pelagic birding and a few cetaceans along the way. Elephant Seals, thousands of penguins, Shag Rocks, and point-blank views of Black-browed Albatross nesting colonies were some of the highlights burned into our memories as we navigated these remote islands. A couple of weeks after our journey began, we finally made it to the White Continent—the main reason for many of us to undertake this voyage. The scenery was sublime when it wasn’t a gale, but those windy days illustrated the dangers of Antarctica and the bravery the early explorers possessed. The snowy Elephant Island was wind-whipped when we saw our first Antarctic land. I can’t imagine being marooned there for several months and hoping the improbable rescue boat would make it to South Georgia, much less mount a rescue mission, but we all know it worked! Fortunately, our final day in Antarctica was placid in Paradise Bay; a few of us brave souls tested the water, surrounded by icebergs and the most splendid scenery of Antarctica. As we sailed north, the sunset illuminated dozens of Humpback Whales as they bid us farewell. Finally, the Drake Passage was easy—this time!

Scarlet-headed Blackbird

Scarlet-headed Blackbird— Photo: Brian Gibbons


Buenos Aires skyscrapers provided a stunning backdrop for our group as we birded Costanera Sur, a managed wetland that is a fantastic birding locale right in the city. Lifers were streaming by quickly for many. Monk and Nanday parakeets were constantly on the move over the marsh and woodland. Stunning waterfowl included Coscoroba Swans, Rosy-billed Pochards, Silver Teal, White-faced Whistling-Ducks, and Brazilian Teal. A couple of Ardeids provided the unrivaled highlights of the afternoon. First Hector spotted a Stripe-backed Bittern in the middle of the wide-open marsh, a very unbittern-like position which we all enjoyed through the scope. Further down the dike we discovered a Rufescent Tiger-Heron frozen in a pose worthy of a bittern as it guarded its fuzzy progeny. Also in the marsh were Spot-flanked Gallinules, as well as Red-fronted and Red-gartered coots. Glittering-bellied Hummingbirds made a couple of appearances, adding some iridescence to the list. Swainson’s Flycatchers were nesting, and a Golden-billed Saltator was singing away, giving us all good looks. The next morning, we headed out of the massive sprawl of Buenos Aires to the pampas at Otamendi Reserve. We enjoyed excellent birding on a warm sunny morning; Scarlet-headed Blackbird, Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Speckled Woodpecker, Long-winged Harrier, Brown-and-yellow Marshbird, and the unique Spectacled Tyrant all brightened our day. The sprawling grasslands and marsh that make up the pampas provided a backdrop to Maguari Storks and a couple of distant Southern Screamers. Finally, near the headquarters Rafael spotted a sleepy Striped Owl that most folks caught a glimpse of before it shook off its slumber and headed deeper into the woods.

Magellanic Woodpecker, female

Magellanic Woodpecker, female— Photo: Brian Gibbons


The next morning, we split to the four winds and amazingly all ended up in Ushuaia with all of our bags. We had a little time to bird the grounds of the Arakur Resort. Most numerous were the families of Rufous-collared Sparrows that were twittering everywhere. We also spied some Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, White-throated Caracara, and Austral Thrushes. The next morning, we headed into Tierra del Fuego National Park with our hearts set on a big woodpecker. We first enjoyed some Great Grebes, Flying Steamer-Ducks, Black-necked Swans, and more Rayaditos than you could count as they passed through in roving bands. Finally, the words we’d been hoping for, “Holy Mackerel!” Paul uttered. There, on an emergent snag, the Magellanic Woodpecker female sat for us to see. We numbered nearly 40, and everyone was ecstatic to have seen this wonderful species, as big as a crow with a snazzy recurved crest and a red face—she was everything we’d wanted. As we meandered the trail back to the bus, we crossed paths with her and her mate foraging quietly in the woods; he was even on some rotten logs for awhile. We all got more looks at one or both of these fantastic beasts as they went about their morning. Bahia Lapataia hosted several new birds for us; frustrating but spectacular was a speck of a bird across the bay—Gaston had spotted an Austral Pygmy-Owl on a distant snag. Also distant but easier to see given their enormous bulk were a couple of soaring Andean Condors. Several fly-by Austral Parakeets gave up their location with their screeches. With what remained of our afternoon we decided to head back to Ushuaia and Bahia Encerrada, which had a host of different species for us. Crested Duck, Red Shoveler, Chiloe Wigeon, and Yellow-billed Pintail were some of our new waterfowl. We also had good looks at Southern Lapwing, Long-tailed Meadowlark, and South American Tern. We eventually had to pack it in and start the real adventure. We headed over to our home for the next 18 days, the Ocean Diamond.

Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony

Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony— Photo: Brian Gibbons


Sailing the Atlantic Ocean on our way to the Falkland Islands, we had our first gush of new seabirds; Black-browed and Royal albatrosses, Sooty and Great shearwaters, Slender-billed Prions, Southern Giant-Petrels, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were just some of the birds that we saw around the ship that day. The Zegrahm staff offered many lectures during our days at sea, which many folks enjoyed. I had a hard time getting inside for these, as my eyes were glued to the sea. Our first landing on the neck at Saunders Island was a rush of sights, sounds, and smells. Thousands of Gentoo Penguins stood at attention in their colonies, Falkland Steamer-Ducks rooted through kelp on the beach, Magellanic Oystercatchers patrolled the beaches, and Striated Caracaras surveyed all this activity looking for an opportunity to scavenge a morsel. After hiking up the hill to the other side of the island, we found our first Black-browed Albatross colonies mixed with Southern Rockhopper Penguins (and their attendant antics), and Imperial Cormorants. Scattered about the island were the many burrows of Magellanic Penguins with their braying calls. A few lucky observers saw Commerson’s Dolphins surfing in the offshore break below us. As we returned via the low road, we got our first looks at King Penguins, which would be ubiquitous on South Georgia in a few days. At midday we repositioned to West Point Island, another private island. The beach hosted Kelp Geese and a few Ruddy-headed Geese, rounding out our list of Sheldgeese. After a mile hike, we were rewarded with a meandering trail through a Black-browed Albatross colony. At one point a stumbling albatross ended up on the trail with us; it looked up casually, assessed its way out, and waddled past! All the while, albatrosses were sailing just overhead on this windswept isle. A wonderful surprise was tea at the caretakers’ home and exceptional hospitality; we had fine Earl Grey tea and dozens of homemade cakes and treats to choose from. Outside of Stanley we enjoyed the pastures and a family group of Rufous-chested Dotterels and Correndera Pipits in the wind. In town, museums and shops filled the rest of our day as the ship was refueling. Once underway we had nice studies of Gray-backed Storm-Petrels as they pattered the surface, invariably near bands of kelp.

Oakum boys and a few adult King Penguins

Oakum boys and a few adult King Penguins— Photo: Brian Gibbons


Sailing from the Falklands we had two full days at sea. In addition to the constant stream of pelagic birds, some folks enjoyed the informative lectures from Zegrahm staff. Along the way we crossed the Polar front and entered true Antarctic waters. At this point the Slender-billed Prions tapered off, and the default prion for the next ten days was the Antarctic. Wandering Albatross, the avian Goliath with a wingspan of eleven feet, became a common sight around the ship. A few Fairy Prions made watching the swarms of Antarctic Prions around the ship worthwhile. We added Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, Gray-headed Albatross, Snow and Cape petrels, and Northern Giant-Petrel to the list while at sea. The Shag Rocks are an ocean sentinel more than 100 miles west of South Georgia; they were swarming with our first South Georgia Shags, which were flying to and from their nests on the impossibly steep cliffs. Our first landing in South Georgia was at Grytviken, an industrial whaling station that has long since fallen silent. A few King Penguins waddled around the rusting hulls of whaling vessels and the tanks and boilers that once rendered twenty whales a day. On shore we had to meander between Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals on our way to toast “The Boss,” Ernest Shackleton. Fortuna Bay was our first glimpse at a proper King Penguin colony with thousands of birds loafing around, including our first Oakum boys, the nearly year-old fledglings that were still covered in their fuzzy brown down—named Oakum boys for their resemblance to ship repair crews known as such. Real Oakum boys used pitch and rope to seal cracks in wooden ship hulls, and after working with the sticky pitch they would be covered in rope fibers. The stars of the Fortuna landing were certainly the South Georgia Pipits that were very obliging as more than 100 people crowded the island. This bird has become a common sight in the last few years now that rats have been eliminated from South Georgia. This is the southernmost breeding passerine in the world and a survivor for sure now that they can thrive again in this harsh environment. In Gold Harbor the trumpeting of 30,000 King Penguins greeted us. The beach was a frenzy of activity, and one needed to watch where one stepped—baby seals here, napping giant-petrels there, with snorting and sparring Elephant Seals everywhere. As always, winds became an issue in the afternoon, and we were nicely sheltered in the spectacular Dygalski Fjord. Cruising in the calm waters we enjoyed Snow Petrels, Antarctic Terns, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and some of our first Chinstrap Penguins of the trip. The next day we cruised the north side of South Georgia, through the Bay of Isles and Elsehul, hoping the wind would abate; it never did, and that evening we had to leave for the White Continent. Again, lectures and seabirding filled our days, as well as gorging ourselves in order to stay warm on deck. In the Scotia Sea we had several nice encounters with Kerguelen Petrels before the snowstorm hit. Also at sea we had Peale’s and Hourglass dolphins, and a few lucky folks saw a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales. Our first land in Antarctica was Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s crew sheltered for five months, hoping their rescue had been set in motion. The williwaws swirled the water and strew foam all about the ship; we wouldn’t be landing today, but we enjoyed the rugged scenery and again were in awe at the conditions this land could throw at early explorers. The penguin colonies carried on even in the wind and the fresh coating of snow. Just offshore the winds were light enough that we could enjoy an amazing show by the Fin Whales in the area. More exciting was a cooperative pod of Killer Whales that we gazed upon for fifteen minutes. With the wind up again we reluctantly bypassed Brown Bluff and found dead calm the following morning in Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island. The steaming black sand beaches and the mirror of the bay were welcome after yesterday’s storm-tossed seas.

Killer Whales

Killer Whales— Photo: Brian Gibbons


We hiked along the beach to Neptune’s Window overlooking the Antarctic Sound and our first view of the mainland. Cape Petrels and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were tucked into the cracks and crevices, brooding their new young. As we approached Livingstone Island, Humpback Whales were lunge feeding all around, with Kelp Gulls picking up the scraps of disoriented krill. Hannah Point holds colonies of both Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins; the Chinstraps are the more raucous of these two colonies. On the rocky outcrops above, Southern Giant-Petrels brooded their fuzzy white young that hadn’t quite outgrown their cuteness, but soon! A lone Macaroni Penguin haunts this colony, but it disappeared before many folks could spot it. As usual, Snowy Sheathbills loitered around the edges looking for scraps or something to scavenge. Somewhere along the way, large krill were washed onto the deck, and Eryn Field saw fit to collect them and show everyone the small animal that feeds everyone in the Antarctic. Another glorious morning greeted us at Portal Point, our first Continental landing. Few birds were around, but we shared the rocks with a couple of South Polar Skuas. With the weather still cooperating, we made a Zodiac cruise through Wilhelmina Bay our afternoon activity. Cruising through icebergs and floes, a few lucky folks spotted our first Adelie Penguins; little did we know that due to weather and ice conditions, they would be our last. We even had a chance to wander on some shorefast ice with Weddell and Crabeater seals. We were all primed to see Port Lockroy in person after the movie Penguin Post Office, but our hopes were dashed once again, as the winds whipped the sea into a fury. We had to satisfy ourselves with views from the ship of this historic British Base. Neumayer Channel was a good ship cruise that we enjoyed despite the winds. Cuverville Island hosted a few thousand Gentoo Penguins and their nemesis neighbors, the skuas, both Brown and South Polar. We wandered near the colony and saw many interactions between the skuas and penguins, the skuas hoping for dinner and the penguins trying to prevent it being their offspring!

Paradise Bay

Paradise Bay— Photo: Brian Gibbons


On our final day in Antarctica we nosed into the Lemaire Channel. The winds and waves had piled huge ‘bergs into the mouth, and we were unable to pass through, but we did enjoy the breathtaking scenery that has become so commonplace in Antarctica. Paradise Bay was serene and certainly the most spectacular scenery we saw while sailing around the White Continent—soaring snow-capped rugged peaks corralled clouds over the glaciers, white icebergs all around. Some fools, myself included, decided we wanted to take the Polar Plunge and purposefully left a toasty warm ship to jump into the Southern Ocean at 32 degrees! Afterwards we made our final continental landfall at Brown Base, an Argentine research station. Hiking to a hill behind the base provided a 360 panorama of the properly named Paradise Bay—brave souls even had a chance to glissade down a snow bank. After enjoying the day in Paradise Bay, we headed north reluctantly while we enjoyed a BBQ on deck. In the evening sun Humpbacks seemed to be everywhere as we headed into the dreaded Drake. We had a little swell on the first day, but the next day the Drake Passage was definitely Drake Lake. We enjoyed seeing some old friends again with all the albatrosses making appearances, and at times the Sooty Shearwaters swarmed the ocean. As we approached Cape Horn, our first view of the continent in more than two weeks, the largest swarms of albatrosses we’d seen greeted us—mostly Black-browed, but a couple of lucky folks added Buller’s to the list; after the fact, I found some in my photos, sitting amongst large rafts of Black-brows. Also careening through the masses of birds were several Chilean Skuas with their cinnamon bellies and underwings. Alas, our final dinner called us inside as we made our way to the Beagle Channel. Clear skies greeted us in the morning as we cruised the last stretch of the channel before reaching colorful Ushuaia, with the backdrop of Tierra del Fuego National Park and its soaring snow-capped peaks. What a trip! Thanks for traveling with VENT and Zegrahm. I look forward to our next birding adventure, wherever in the world that might be.