31 March 2011

Kings of Anahuac...TEXAS (31 March)

A scout around Anahuac NWR was notable for a superb close up of an American Bittern fishing at close range.

"He" was unconcerned by our presence and shot its neck out to catch small fish right in front of Nick, Scott and I as we excitedly snapped away...

That was not the only showy bird on offer though, as several King Rails chose to ignore normal rail protocol and strut around in the open, much to our delight, before we returned to High Island and a significant influx of warblers...

30 March 2011

Today in Texas...High Island & Surrounds (30 March)

A scout around the Bolivar Peninsula got us great looks at several Wilson's Plovers and Long-billed Curlews along the coast, that also produced our first Black Terns (group of 3 non-breeding adults over the sea) of the spring at Houston Audubon's Bolivar Flats sanctuary. An afternoon walk around HAS Smith Oaks sanctuary on High Island produced a small flock that held a spanking male Yellow-throated Warbler, in the same flock with a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and several tree-hugging Black-and-white Warblers too. The rookery was also lively and busier than it has been for the past few years, with many displaying Great Egrets, and Roseate Spoonbills trying to find a space among them!

Daily updates to come from High Island and the Upper Texas Coast to come...

Elephants of Antarctica...SOUTH SHETLANDS (15 March)

OK so the South Shetlands are technically not Antarctica, although it made for a better title! We spent our last afternoon on Deception Island, thanks to calmish conditions allowing us to land and enjoy such thrillers as the Macaroni Penguins, and for me what was the best animal of the whole trip...

This was also arguably the most ugly animal of the whole trip: Southern Elephant Seal. For me this hulking beast is just a great thing to see. There they were piled up together on the beach, including among them some of the huge "beachmasters" that, earlier in the season, would have had a hareem of females and defended their beaches with extreme aggression, leading to outright battles and bloodshed.

Their scarred bodies betrayed their earlier antics and revealed some of them at least to be some of those beachmasters. Breeding season now over though they were "happy" to loaf around together and relax onshore, although every so often they would get agitated with each other (they do seem to be of a temperamental disposition), and suddenly wake up and glare at each other, or bear their teeth, or grunt grumpily at one another while steam drifts out from their bright pink gapes, making for quite the scene. My favorite Antarctic animal for sure.

Sadly this is my last Antarctic post, as I am now entrenched in High Island, Texas for the spring migration season. Daily updates from this migration Mecca to come...

29 March 2011

Shetland Skuas...SOUTH SHETLANDS (15 March)

A visit to Whalers Bay on the final full day of our Antarctic cruise was fascinating for the old whaling station, although I could not help bu be distracted by the tamest skuas in the world, lumbering on the beach and displaying to each other regularly.

These curious scavengers soon enough spotted my bag was out of my reach and before I knew it a mob of skuas gathered to poke,peck, and pull at this intriguing item (photo above) that they hoped might hide some penguin meat or other skua-delicacy hid within!

Mostly, Brown or Subantarctic Skuas, the odd South Polar Skua turned up too for nice side-by-side comparison. (photo below where you can see the much chunkier Brown sitting in front of the standing slimmer, South Polar Skua.)

A final post will come from this awesome trip that was easily one of the best I have ever experienced, although the best part of the trip was not a bird at all, and come next...

28 March 2011

Lonely Macaronis...SOUTH SHETLANDS (15 March)

In the afternoon of our final day we experienced the best landing yet. There were some concerns over the weather at this exposed landing site, and some long discussions between our Russian captain and expedition leader ensued before zodiacs were deployed and we were steaming our way to Deception Island in the South Shetlands. Before I had even got off the boat news came through that the earlier boat had found the star prize on the islands: Macaroni Penguins!

Macaroni Penguins are actually the most numerous penguin on the planet, with millions alone on the Falklands for example. However, you would never know it on Deception Island, where three lonely birds were found in among the Chinstrap Penguin colony, looking sheepish like they were intruders, trying to hide in amongst their well-dressed cousins! Being called Deception Island you even wondered if they had been deceived and had come to the wrong island! They may be the commonest penguins in the World but we were well happy to see them as this was our only short at the end of our short cruise into Antarctic waters. And how fantastic they were with their distinctive sulphur-yellow "hair-dos". A great fifth and final penguin for the trip.

More to come from Deception Island, with the ugliest seal on Earth...

27 March 2011

Giants of the Shetlands...South Shetlands (15 March)

Moving north from the Antarctic Peninsula, that had been our mesmerizing home over the previous days, we transferred to the South Shetland Isles where a combination of the threat of strong weather and exposed landings left us apprehensive as to whether we would actually get to experience them at all. However, a short time after dawn the sun beamed down on Bailey Head, revealing cliffs with nesting Southern Giant Petrels, and beaches lined with more Chinstrap Penguins.

We actually ended up landing in three different places. At one of these, Deception Point, I busied myself with the Southern Giant Petrels, that were nesting on the rocky outcrops, resting on the beaches, and soaring overhead...

I even got to get up close to a fluffy chick revealing its large tubenose in the process, that they use to track down food, when at sea and scavenging all they can in penguin and seal colonies.

Leopards on Ice...ANTARCTICA (14 March)

For our final afternoon in Antarctica itself, on the Peninsula, we visited one of the largest Gentoo Penguin colonies on Earth.

Cruising the waters of Cuverville brought us excellent views of Gentoos porpoising gracefully through the water around the Zodiac, where they look much more at home than on land.

Then we checked the icy bays and ice floes for any lurking predators and found two different Leopard Seals take a break from chasing penguins to "chill" on the ice.

Like everything in Antarctica these animals were happy for several boats to gently idle up them and ogle them at extreme close quarters... A great close to our time on the Peninsula.

The following day the very different Shetland Isles beckoned north of the pack ice...

26 March 2011

Mountains of Penguins...ANTARCTICA (14 March)

When people think of Antarctica they don't always realize quite what a mountainous continent it is. It is a true place of extremes, being arguably the driest, windiest, iciest continent on Earth, with a bunch of mountains besides. On top of that when people think of penguins they don't usually think of them way up on a mountainside, although that is exactly where we hiked to walk among the dapper Chinstrap Penguins, that had nested on the only area clear of snow: the top of the mountain ridge!

Above is Ecuadorian Pablo with penguins, the friend that I traveled to Antarctica with.

And above is the view of the ship resting in Orne Bay from "Chinstrap Ridge" with a penguin in the foreground to give some idea of the crazy hike these penguins had to make to get there and breed. They are not exactly well-equipped for a long hike with their short squat legs, and awkward appearance on land, in contrast to their graceful porpoising in the waters.

There is a rare photo of me on my blog, with the Chinstrap colony up in the mountains. One of the few hikes we did on the cruise but one that well worth it for the views and experience of walking among these guys.

A surreal experience looking down at our large ship dwarfed by the mountains far below, while we're standing shoulder-to-shoulder (more like knee-to-shoulder really!) with a colony full of Chinstraps in the snow. Just one more thing to be taken aback by in Antarctica that knocks you back time and again with the dramatic scenes offered up daily... Next more close ups of the predatory Leopard Seals...

Cetaceans and Pinnipeds...ANTARCTICA (13 March)

That's whales and seals to you and me! Antarctica is a rich area for seals, or pinnipeds, some of which are specialties of the pack ice zone. The commonest of the "Ice Seals" is the softly-beautiful Crabeater Seal, that regular litter the icebergs off the Peninsula.

In between being spellbound by bergs, and awe-struck by close approaching Humpback Whales we also sidled up to some docile, dozing Crabeater Seals, relaxing on the clean bergs that were scattered around the spectacular Neko Harbor, a haven for both whales and seals.

25 March 2011

Whales and Big Bergs at Neko...ANTARCTICA (13 March)

Having "suffered" the glaciers flanking the Almirante Brown station in the morning we were expecting to have to come down from that high in the afternoon, but instead we launched to new highs as we entered the mind-blowing Neko Harbor (64° 50'S, 62° 33'W).

The scene that we beheld was simply breathtaking, absolute calm conditions meant the bergs were perfectly reflected in the glassy deep blue waters (that have a color like nowhere else on Earth free from the pollutants of elsewhere).

The bergs would have been ample to keep us busy as we shot them again and again, although a disturbance in the waters just off the zodiacs took us aback as a small group of Antarctic Minke Whales showed little concern for the human intrusion to their idyllic bay, and even cruised just a meter or so under the boat when we could see it perfectly through these beautifully clean polar waters.

We reveled in this wonderful whale for a while and then went off for a tour of the icescapes of the harbor, only to be interrupted this time by a pair of Humpback Whales, that included a mother and calf that swam for a while around the boat before seeming to lose interest in exercise and just rested on the surface of the water. A serene scene and a stunning close to our day.

More Whales and Seals on Ice to come...

Shades of Argentina and Glaciel Scenes...ANTARCTICA

We begun our day gently drifting towards Paradise Bay, checking in with a Chilean research station en route, before arriving at the dramatic setting of a "rival" Argentina base, Almirante Brown. This small base with a prominent Argentina flag painted brazenly across the roof, was flanked by a huge glacier that we toured for a while to take in the truly extraordinary scenery that ONLY is offered on the White Continent.

Sometimes in Antarctica the scenery outcompetes anything the wildlife can do...

We stopped off at the base, checked in with some Gentoo Penguins and also our first Chinstrap Penguins hiding out at the back of the colony, that were getting a little aggravated with each other...

All the time the penguins were under the watchful eye of the Snowy Sheathbills, that are ever resourceful and looking for any slight opportunity to take down a penguin or scavenge at a skua's latest catch...

In the afternoon we headed out into Neko Bay on the zodiacs for some whale action, while surrounded by the best bergs on the Peninsula...

24 March 2011

Lazy Antarctic Afternoons...ANTARCTICA (12 March)

This is where we docked in the morning...Port Lockroy (that's our ship)

The afternoon was not so muchy birdy, apart from of course the ever-present Gentoo Penguins that are infinitely amusing in their antics on the ice, but it was a great day to take a hike up to a near ridge and survey the breathtaking scenery of the White Continent below and observe an old British research station sat alongside a rival Argentine one...