Birding in Antarctica - by Helm van Zijl

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8 years 1 month ago #15213 by Doug
Doug created the topic: Birding in Antarctica - by Helm van Zijl
* denotes lifer

On Saturday 21 November 09 Gill and I boarded the MV Polar Star. It is an icebreaker 86.5 metres long, has capacity for 102 passengers. Fortunately we were only 70. We were due to depart at 1800, but because of spectacular incompetence on the part of Argentinian Airline no luggage had been loaded on a plane from Buenos Aires carrying inter alia 9 Polar Star passengers .A subsequent flight brought the luggage of the 9 relieved passengers and at 2200 we got going. From the ship, whist still moored, I had already identified Southern Giant Petrel, Kelp, Dolphin, and Olrog’s Gull and King Shag.

On Sunday 22 Nov I was on the bridge before breakfast .The sea was calm and I saw
Pintado Petrel, Black-browed albatross, Wilson’s Storm Petrel—these 3 species we saw almost every day. During the day on our way to Falklands we saw Southern Royal Albatross, Antarctic Fulmar [seen on most days] White Chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Antarctic Prion. I also saw a smaller Prion with a different flight pattern as well as a thinner bill : Thin-billed Prion*. I immediately noticed that it was possible to keep your binoculars focussed on a bird for much longer than is the normal case on the boats from Cape Town.

When we woke up on Monday 23 Nov. we were already at anchor off New Island, Falklands. It is the most western of the 700 islands comprising the Falkland Islands[ Malvinas according to Argentinians]. In calm weather we landed on the beach and saw Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, our 5th Caracara, Straited*[several] ,plenty of breeding Rockhopper* and Megellanic Penguin, American Oystercatcher*, Falkland Skua [a subspecies of the Antarctic Skua], Black Chinned Siskin, Austral Thrush, the brightly coloured Meadowlark and Correndera Pipit*.Just after lunch I saw several Diving Petrels
which I identified as Common and the same which I had seen in New Zealand. I also saw several South American Tern. In the afternoon we landed at West Point Island which entailed a two and a half km walk to view nesting Black Browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguin. Welcome tea and cake was provided by a Falklander couple.

On Tuesday 24 Nov. we landed at Port Stanley at 0930 where we walked along the coast
and saw the ubiquitous House Sparrow, Black Crowned Night Heron, the large Falkland Steamer-Duck* and Blackish Oystercatcher. After lunch on the ship we had brilliant views of Northern Royal Albatross. Hannah Lawson, our expedition leader who has been on several trips pointed out that the Royal can easily be distinguished from the Wandering by the no black in the tail and the extensive white in the wings as the Royal approaches .

The next day i.e Wednesday 25 Nov. was spent entirely at sea. At long last we saw a Wandering Albatross and the megatick, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross*, Black-bellied Storm Petrel and Northern Giant Petrel. The following day, ie Thursday 26 Nov. was also spent entirely at sea, but I was able to add 2 lifers ie a bogeybird for me Grey-headed
Albatross* and Gentoo Penguin* which we saw late afternoon whilst circling Shag Rock [on the far western side of South Georgia]

Friday 27 Nov. turned out to be a most dramatic day. The Polar Star anchored in Elsehul, the most western of the sheltered coves on the north side of South Georgia. Birding started with a bang in that I saw one of THE BIRDS I had wanted to see i.e. Snow Petrel*. At 0830 we went on a Zodiac cruise, but because of aggressive behaviour by male Fur Seals, we could not land. In the water we saw King Penguin* and on the shore Macaroni Penguin* and Snowy Sheathbill. We also saw a breeding colony of Macaronis on an almost sheer side of the mountain. Flying overhead we had close up views of Antarctic Tern ,Grey-headed Albatross and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross twinning i.e. the male and female fly in formation [magical]. The wind picked up which caused the Polar Star to roll too much to allow passengers to disembark from the Zodiacs. The Polar Star went towards open sea hoping to find calmer water, but it was worse and turned back to its original position. We then did the longwinded process of hoisting the entire Zodiac with only 3 passengers plus driver. Fortunately there were no mishaps. We then set sail further east and at 1700 we landed in calm water at Whistle Cove, Fortuna Bay. The smell of the huge but docile Elephant and Fur seals was very strong. We had close up views of King, Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins. We also saw 2 South Georgia Pintail* flying. This is the only duck that is carnivorous in that it eats the meat of dead seals.

On Saturday 28 Nov. we visited 2 derelict whaling stations. Stromness is totally deserted but we did manage to see South Georgia Pintail at close quarters. In the afternoon we landed at Gritviken which has a post office, museum and church. We added
Arctic tern.

Sunday 29 Nov. was another great day. On the mammal side we saw 4 Humpback whales who came alongside our ship. We landed at St. Andrew’s Bay which has the largest King Penguin colony. It was a spectacular sight to see a whole valley covered with King Penguins with plenty of fluffy brown juveniles. The noise was almost overwhelming and non-stop. In the afternoon we landed at Gold Harbour which had a colony of more than 25000 breeding pairs of King Penguin. Some of us walked to within 5 meters of a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross sitting on a nest. After dinner I again spent some time on the bridge and I was rewarded by sighting another BIRD I had been hoping to see i.e. Blue Petrel*. Fortunately it is unmistakable with the white tip to it’s tail.

On Monday 30 Nov. we could not land at Cooper Bay to see breeding Macaroni Penguin. We did however do an in/out into Drygalski Fjord which was stunningly beautiful .We saw plenty of Snow Petrels. We then started the long trip to Elephant Island. After leaving South Georgia I noticed several Diving Petrels which had darker body and wings and a whiter underwing. They had a slightly more slowly flight than the Common Diving Petrel. In my view they were Georgian Diving Petrel*.

The next 2 days we were entirely at sea and on each day I identified 9 species .On the second day we saw a White Morph of Southern Giant Petrel. Thursday 3 Dec. was a great day which started at 0400. Ice was all around and our ship broke through many times. We saw our first Chinstrap Penguin* and an Adele Penguin* on one of the many icebergs. I also saw another BIRD I had been looking for a long time ie .South Polar Skua*. On the ice flows we 2 new mammals ie. Leopard and Crabeater seals. After breakfast we landed at Point Wild, Elephant Island, where 22 of Shackelton’s men had spent 4 months. There were plenty of breeding Chinstrap Penguin as well as 2 Gentoo Penguins. During the afternoon we sailed past Gibb’s Island and into the Bransfield Strait. Late afternoon I saw my last target BIRD, the unmistakable Antarctic Petrel*.

Friday 4 Dec. was another action packed day. We had a South Polar Skua sitting on the step leading to the top deck .It was snowing and the wind was blowing when we landed at
Half Moon Island which in nestled between Livingston and Greenwich Islands. We visited a breeding colony of Chinstrap Penguin. After lunch we landed at Whalers Bay, Deception Island where a surprising number of passengers swam/waddled in geothermal heated water. We saw several Pintado Petrel nesting. This beautiful site is apparently one of the 2 most visited places in Antarctica.

Saturday 5 Dec. We woke up at 0500 and saw stunning scenery as we went further south. We landed at Port Lockroy, Goudier Island, which is the other most visited site in Antarctica. It is the most southern post office in the world. We saw plenty breeding Gentoo Penguin. After lunch we landed on the continent of Antarctica i.e. Neko Harbour where we saw breeding colonies of Gentoo Penguin and Blue-Eyed Shag/Cormorant.

On Sunday 6 Dec. we woke up at 0430 to see yet further stunning scenery. We went in a Zodiac cruise at Pleneau Island and amongst others saw Adele Penguin and Crabeater Seal. After breakfast we landed on Petermann Island where we saw breeding Gentoo and Adele Penguins. Thereafter we sailed through Lemaire Channel then Nimrod Channel
and ultimately the dreaded Drake Passage. 5 Antarctic Petrels kept us company for a long time.

We spent both Monday 7 Dec. and Tuesday 8 Dec. entirely at sea in the dreaded Drake Passage. The sea was rough , but that meant that the birding was good. On Monday I saw Kergeulen Petrel* and plenty of Thin-billed Prion. Just before 1700 I momentarily lost concentration and got flung against a window in the lounge sustaining 3 fractured ribs. The following day did not deter me from going to the bridge one last time. Again I was rewarded with my final lifer, Megallanic Diving Petrel*. The underwing was totally white unlike the other 2 Diving Petrels previously seen.

On Wednesday 9 Dec. we were in the beautiful Beagle Channel when we got up and at 0900 we disembarked well in time for our flight to Buenos Aires at 1430..Thus came to end an experience of a lifetime with 51 species seen and 23 lifers. If you have ever contemplated to go to Antarctica, take my advice, Go! You will not regret it.

Helm van Zijl

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  • Dewi Edwards
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8 years 1 month ago #15219 by Dewi Edwards
Dewi Edwards replied the topic: Re: Birding in Antarctica - by Helm van Zijl
Stunning report from my old stomping grounds Helm,
Really enjoyed it, brought back lots of memories for me - the Polar Star limping into Grytviken with a hole in her hull being one of them!!??!!
Elsehull is a fantastic place with tremendous atmosphere (I was on Bird Island for a couple of years) and I know exactly what you were feeling watching the LMSA twinning display flight - it's simply a magical sight.
Petermann Island was our holiday cottage - we used to go there for a week's holiday to get away from the base - stayed in the hut there (I assume it's still there?)
I agree with your Diving Petrel ID's, you've described them really well.

Great photos and for anyone else reading his last sentence, I can only add - GO AS SOON AS YOU CAN!



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