Birders on Board: Observations and Advice for Birders on a Classic Falkland, South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula Cruise Part I

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Massive ice berg near the Antarctic Sound Photo Stephan Lorenz

Going south to the 7th continent is a dream of a lifetime for many travelers, but for birders the frigid journey offers the allure of many species that thrive in these inaccessible places like penguins, tubenoses, and a few endemic land birds. The classic Falkland, South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula cruise remains the best wildlife and birding adventure in this windy and cold corner of the world. It allows participants to set foot on the White Continent and sample the wildlife havens, including millions upon millions of seabirds, of the Falklands and South Georgia. We were fortunate to be able to join a 20 day and 19 night expedition cruise on an ice-strengthened former research vessel. There are now many cruises and expedition ships plying the rough crossing to Antarctica and it can be difficult to choose the right company. It is advisable to go with one of the smaller ships, ideally a vessel that carries less than 100 passengers (for example our vessel held around 80). Granted the smaller ships will have less amenities and also pitch and roll more in rough seas, but landings will be easier with more time on terra firma and these smaller ships are also able to visit areas that larger ships cannot (most notably Prion Island, which not every cruise can access). Price also plays a major role and as demand for cruises increases it will become more and more difficult to find last-minute specials, so the main advice may be to go sooner rather than later.
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King Penguins are the signature bird of South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

In this article I will provide a daily journal and some specific advice as where to expect and look for certain species. This should help birders prepare for a cruise. Many cruises have expert ornithologists on board, but not necessarily and it helps to know what to look for in specific locations. In addition, the majority of shipmates will share only minor interest in birds and during our cruise we only had one other couple that were serious birders. At the end I also provide a detailed list of all species recorded with some identification tips and best locations to observe them.

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The frozen entrance of the Weddell Sea Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 1 October 26th Ushuaia
Cruises to Antarctica are unpredictable and landings are highly weather dependent, so it is important to start with a flexible mindset. I have heard a handful of interesting stories, including no landings on South Georgia due to weather and broken bridge windows in the Drake Passage, forcing a return to port. The infamous Drake Passage can also be an interesting experience and our crossing of the Drake Passage fell right between to hurricanes (with 14-meter waves)!
We boarded the ship in the late afternoon, received instructions, and our berths before heading to our first dinner. It goes without saying that none of these cruises will leave passengers starving and our trip was no exception with three-course meals for lunch and dinner, an ample breakfast buffet, and snack time in the afternoon. This was good since I built up quite an appetite standing outside for hours in the freezing wind.
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Female Southern Elephant Seal Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 2 October 27th Ushuaia
We spent most of the day on board in Ushuaia. The city literally sits at the edge of the world hemmed in by snow-clad peaks and the gray waters of the Beagle Channel. Many Antarctic cruises leave from the port in Ushuaia, but by no means all. Punta Arenas, Chile and even Buenos Aires are points of departure too, but Ushuaia is likely the most scenic city of embarkation and also provides fantastic birding to fill two or three days before departure. It is highly recommended to arrive early to make sure all luggage arrives and this also provides a chance to do some excellent birding in the mountains and forests of Tierra del Fuego. The city of Ushuaia provides all services Antarctic travelers may need, including equipment rental, outdoor clothing stores, and good restaurants. We spent six days in Argentina’s southernmost cities and explored it thoroughly during several hikes along the coast and climbing into the mountains. See: Birding el Fin del Mundo for details.
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Young King Penguins on South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

 Day 3 October 28th Ushuaia and departure through the Beagle Channel
We did a Beagle Channel cruise in the morning, visiting small islands in the channel and cruising around the famous lighthouse. Birds were plentiful with Magellanic and Imperial cormorants  nesting on rocky islets and Flightless Steamer-Ducks paddled along the shorelines. We also passed a small South American Sea Lion rookery that had several Snowy Sheathbills in attendance with the birds waiting patiently for sea lion waste and other delectables to eat.
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Kelp Geese are easy to see around Ushuaia and in the Falklands Photo Stephan Lorenz

The flat island we landed on held winnowing South American Snipes, many Kelp Geese, and Austral Negritos ran through the short grass. The mini cruise ended before lunch and soon we were on our way on the actual cruise, leaving the port of Ushuaia and heading east along the Beagle Channel. I remained on board until dusk when the ship reached the end of the Beagle Channel and the open ocean greeted us. Birding in the Beagle Channel was productive and I added the first Southern Giant-Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, Southern Fulmars, and Black-browed Albatross. At the end of the day a single Cape Petrel made an appearance (this would be the most constant species of the trip) and when it was almost night I spotted two Blue Petrels, somewhat surprising as we had barely left the Beagle Channel.
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Blue Petrels were common in colder waters further south, the glowing white tail tip distinguishes them easily from prions Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 4 October 29th At sea and reaching New Island in the eastern Falklands
I stepped on deck first thing in the morning and spent most of the day outside under relatively clear skies and with tolerable temperatures. I still wore every layer I had, gloves and hat, in order to remain outside for hours at a time. Seabirds were constantly present, either following the ship or zipping past in large numbers. The first large albatross showed almost immediately as soon as I lifted my binoculars and by the end of the day many Royal Albatross had been seen with a total of nearly a dozen. Almost all of these were “Southern” Royal Albatross with one or two showing “Northern” traits. One or two Wandering Albatross also made an appearance.
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Large albatross like this “Southern” Royal are a constant feature en route to the Falklands and South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

 At first the large albatross were difficult to sort out, but after hours of studying them I realized the birds with a nearly all white tail and still lots of black in the upper wing were always Royal Albatross. Also the black line along the cutting edge of the bill, distinctive for Royal Albatross, shows well in photos, although it can be difficult to see in the field unless the birds are very close. Royal Albatross also showed a cleaner white back and head, whereas the Wandering Albatross often showed at least some brown speckling on the back and head. Sub-adult Wandering Albatross often showed a broad black band in the tail and adults had a yellowish wash to the head. I am sure this is also mentioned in field guides, but the Wandering Albatross seemed to have a slower more lumbering flight and had a drooping head and bulging back.
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Royal Albatross were common between the South American mainland and the Falklands Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other tubenoses that showed in good numbers included Southern Fulmars with nearly 300 for the day and good numbers of White-chinned Petrels, Great Shearwaters, and Sooty Shearwaters. Both shearwater species were completely absent from colder waters further south. Cape Petrels followed the ship constantly alongside the much larger Southern Giant-Petrels. The first prions appeared and presented an identification challenge and these small tubenoses whipped in and out of view among the waves. The numbers of prions increased dramatically as we neared the Falklands with flocks of several hundred resting on the water, taking flight right in front of the bow of the ship. I positioned myself lower and towards the bow, photographing as many prion as I could. It turned out that all prions seen well and photographed were of course the expected species, Slender-billed, which nest in the Falkland Islands by the millions. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels made regular appearances throughout the day, often following the ship among the larger species.

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Slender-billed Prions nest in the Falklands and were seen in large numbers approaching and leaving the Falklands, note the broad supercilliary and pale lores Photo Stephan Lorenz

When we finally neared New Island in the Falklands by early evening the weather had turned sunny with low winds. During the anchoring process, I watched two dozen Striated Caracaras on a grassy islets, landing among the tussocks or riding the gentle updrafts with two birds setting forth and flying right over the ship. We were able to make our first landing by Zodiac without any problems and enjoyed an incredible two hours on land. Right after landing, I found a pair of Blackish Cinclodes foraging at the edge of the tussock grasses along the beach. This species is also found in the Fuegian Islands, but much easier to see on the Falklands. The birds were very approachable and gave one or two wing-displays typical of the genus. Since we were not able to visit Carcass Island we missed Cobb’s Wren (a Falkland endemic), which only survives on rat free islands. We asked the residents on New Island, but they had never seen the species (although eBird records indicate it may have been present?). Apparently Seal Island harbors Cobb’s Wren and this was the biggest miss of the trip for us. The Blackish Cinclodes is more widespread and can also be found on the outskirts of Stanley, but I only saw one pair on New Island.

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Black-browed Albatross tending an egg on New Island in the Falklands Photo Stephan Lorenz

The rocky beach was littered with Kelp Geese and once we started walking Upland Geese scattered on the drier, grassy flats. I also picked out at least two pairs of Ruddy-headed Geese and the Falklands remain the best place in the world to see this beautiful sheldgoose with mainland populations facing extirpation (although it can still be found in a few locations in Chile and Argentina)! We followed the wide path for a kilometer and soon arrived at a sizable Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony with the feisty birds squabbling over space and mates.

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Southern Rockhopper Penguins can only been seen in the Falklands during the cruise Photo Stephan Lorenz

Nearby was a large colony of Imperial “King” Cormorants with distinct dark cheeks and on flatter ground the mud nests were graced by Black-browed Albatross with birds displaying or tending eggs. The time passed all too quickly and by evening we had to return to the ship, but not until I made one last attempt for the wren, searching the beach area, but only got a great view of Falkland Steamer-Duck standing on the sand at low tide.

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Blackish Cinclodes is very difficult to see within its mainland range, but common on the Falklands Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 5 October 30th Visiting Stanley in the western Falklands

During the night the ship navigated towards the western Falklands and by mid-morning we arrived in Stanley Harbor. After a somewhat cumbersome landing we were finally able to disembark and explore Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. From a birding perspective Stanley holds only minor interest, but there are a few good spots near town worth exploring. The walk along the waterfront was loaded with steamer-ducks and both Blackish and Magellanic oystercatchers were present along with a lone Black-crowned Night-Heron.

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Magellanic Oystercatcher can be seen around Stanley in the Falklands Photo Stephan Lorenz

We reached the center of town and organized a taxi to take us to Gypsy Cove, a 15-minute drive to the east of town past the airport. Theoretically it is possible to walk there, but would take at least one hour. Gypsy Cove has a small Magellanic Penguin colony, but we only managed to see one bird walk from the beach into the water, but the landscape here was stunning. Dozens of steamer-ducks loafed on the beach in the cove below and best of all we had a close sighting of a White-bridled Finch (a bird that can be tough to find on the mainland).

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White-bridled Finch Gypsy Cove near Stanley Photo Stephan Lorenz

After exploring the town some more and visiting a local pub, I walked towards the edge of town to look for shorebirds. The best area I found was along the Stanley Bypass (a two-lane road) on the south side of town. I followed Dean Street south to the Stanley Bypass and turned right (west), crossing the bypass where a pasture held an approachable pair of Ruddy-headed Geese. Exploring the grasslands here further, they stretch for miles, I found at least ten Rufous-chested Dotterels. There were several dirt tracks offering plenty of access to the area and with more time other land birds could be found. Other species noted on the edge of town were Long-tailed Meadowlark, Black-chinned Siskin, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, and Austral Thrush.

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Rufous-chested Dotterel in fields just south of Stanley Photo Stephan Lorenz

I looped back around along Dairy Paddock Road and explored the waterfront for a few more minutes, checking out some monuments and the governor’s house. South American Terns foraged close to the shore here and I added Crested Duck plus plenty of Dolphin Gulls. Overall Stanley provides a good half day’s birding with some widespread species not possibly anywhere else during the cruise. Also watch out for Commerson’s Dolphins in the harbor as the ship is arriving or leaving.

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The flightless Falkland Steamer-Duck is very common in its namesake islands Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 6 October 31st At Sea between Falklands and South Georgia

This was the first full day at sea of the two-day crossing between the Falklands and South Georgia. In terms of seabird diversity the first day out of the Falklands may be the most important for pelagic species, since the warmer waters here support species not found further south and fortunately we had clear and relatively calm conditions, allowing for a full day on deck. The number of albatross and other tubenoses was again mind-boggling and I added some welcome lifers. This stretch of ocean is the best for the neat Atlantic Petrel and most observers add a few here, but I had the species nearly all day with up to five at the same time, ending the day with a conservative estimate of 100 individuals, many of them close.

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Atlantic Petrels are one of the special pelagic species between the Falklands and South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other hoped for species that I added were Kerguelen Petrel, with one bird hovering high above the ship. These stocky birds are virtual pelagic rockets, racing past the ship with dramatic high arcs. I also managed to see three Soft-plumaged Petrels, although all distant, low over the water, and fast. White-chinned Petrels were also numerous with Great and Sooty shearwaters beginning to noticeably thin out. The storm-petrel numbers increased with abundant Wilson’s, but also the first Black-bellied (which would be common further south) and the only Gray-backed Storm-Petrels of the trip with birds invariable feeding near floating kelp, a good technique to see them is to focus binoculars on floating kelp patches. I identified two non-breeding plumaged terns far out at sea as Arctic.

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Cape Petrels are near constant companions during the cruise Photo Stephan Lorenz

Great albatross followed the ship in numbers with many Royal and some Wandering albatross almost constantly in view. Towards the end of the day I also noted the first Gray-headed Albatross and finally the first Light-mantled Albatross.

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Kerguelen Petrels are small, fast petrels that rarely lingered in view Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 7 November 1st At Sea towards South Georgia

During the second full day at sea saw the ship steaming southeast towards South Georgia at a steady rate under good weather conditions. I spent the majority of time on deck with only brief breaks to warm up. The composition of birds changed dramatically with Atlantic and Kerguelen petrels almost completely absent, just one of each. Sightings of Gray-headed and Wandering albatross increased with some great looking juveniles of the latter.

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A young Wandering Albatross sails past the ship between the Falklands and South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Similar to the previous day, many more of the giant -petrels were Northern (for example between the South American mainland and the Falklands all of them had been Southern) and by the end of the day the ratio was around fifty-fifty. Southern Fulmars nearly disappeared whereas White-chinned Petrels and Cape Petrels were of course present in good numbers. The Black-bellied Storm-Petrels outnumbered Wilson’s and Common Diving-Petrels appeared as we neared South Georgia. Towards the end of the day at least five Snow Petrels flew past, capping off a fantastic day at sea. Other species that could have been seen during the two-day crossing include Sooty Albatross (one I really hoped for), Gray Petrel, and Great-winged Petrel, plus a number of possible oddball sightings, but these three species were missed.

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White-chinned Petrels were never numerous, but widespread and seen most days at sea except around the Antarctic Peninsula Photo Stephan Lorenz

The numbers of prions increased again as we neared South Georgia and I employed the same strategy as before, systematically studying them and photographing. I could not find anything that did not match Antarctic Prion with an estimated 200 by the end of the day. This is the main breeding species on South Georgia and default prion around the island, but Fairy and even Broad-billed prions are possible during the cruise. Prion identification is challenging to say the least, good views of minor field marks, photos of fast-flying, small birds, and some luck are required.

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Antarctic Prion near South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 8 November 2nd South Georgia: Right Whale Bay and Prion Island

Our first day in South Georgia started with some bad weather, but ended with one of the absolute highlights of the trip. The first planned activity had to be cancelled since the ship was unable to get anchorage in the strong winds and we moved on to Right Whale Bay where weather conditions allowed a landing amidst snow flurries. During the night two South Georgia Shags had landed on board and stayed with the ship for the remainder of the morning. Right Whale Bay was a great introduction to South Georgia with a relatively small King Penguin colony, around 5000 birds, and Southern Elephant Seals, plus testy Antarctic Fur Seals. The scavenging Giant-Petrels, both species, and Brown Skuas were also present in numbers, while Snowy Sheathbills paraded along the edges of the penguin colony.

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Snowy Sheathbills were common scavengers throughout the cruise Photo Stephan Lorenz

The freshly fallen snow and frigid winds lend a pristine air to the remote setting with King Penguins wandering among the seals or breaking from the waves onto the pebbly beach.

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King Penguins in the snow flurries at Right Whale Bay Photo Stephan Lorenz

As soon as we had landed I saw a small songbird flying along a grassy slope and it was without a doubt the endangered South Georgia Pipit, the only songbird native to the island and often heralded as the southernmost breeding passerine, although I have to verify that claim. The pipit has declined dramatically due to the spread of introduced rats and the species has disappeared from much of its former range. In the past, only small offshore islands that remained rat free guaranteed as sighting of this sought-after endemic, for example Prion Island, but an intensive and apparently successful rat eradication program has aided pipit populations. Nowadays it is possible to see the species at Right Whale Bay and the famous Salisbury Plain. It may reclaim much of its former territory and be much easier so see than in the past when a missed landing on Prion Island often spelled a miss of the species for birders. Towards the eastern end of the bay I eventually located a pipit collecting food in the grassy swales of a hill and repeatedly flying to what I assumed was a hidden nest. It was great to obtain good views of the endemic and witness the successful recolonization of its former range.

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South Georgia Pipit photographed at Salisbury Plains where the species has become more numerous in recent years due to a rat eradication program Photo Stephan Lorenz

After our visit to Right Whale Bay we all warmed up on the ship and continued to Prion Island. Landings on this small island are never guaranteed and I felt a bit better with the pipit under the belt already. We were in luck though and the swell had just calmed enough so we could proceed with the landing. Prion Island is a crown jewel among the treasures of South Georgia, offering access to one of the few Wandering Albatross breeding sites. Visit are tightly controlled with only fifty people allowed on the island at a time and the island is also off-limits during other times of the year. (When researching cruises it is important to pay attention whether these will visit Prion island). We landed among snow flurries and strong winds and staying in a group marched up the boardwalk towards the viewing platforms. A few Gentoo Penguins stood on the beach and we were lucky enough to find a nestling Wandering Albatross close to the viewing area. The chick was almost fully grown and lifted its long wings into the wind, its remaining down moving in the breeze. The chick and nearby nesting Northern Giant-Petrels could have cared less about our presence and it was awe inspiring to stand so close to a young bird that would potentially cover more than 3 million miles of some of the roughest ocean on the planet during its lifetime.

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Wandering Albatross chick on Prion Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The search for the pipit became almost secondary, but I really wanted to take at least one decent picture. The pipits hid very successfully from the wind and us. The situation became almost comical as the other birders on board and I tried to shuffle into position along the narrow boardwalk to catch up with pipits flitting in and out of view among the dense tussocks. Other people “had this little dull bird walk around their feet” while we struggled to get a decent view. Eventually one bird walked across the snow long enough to study it well, a dark heavily streaked pipit with a strong bill. During the walk back towards the landing area we had more views of the flighty pipits and close encounters with a fur seal, plus lengthy studies of the small Gentoo Penguin colony (the first Gentoos we had seen on land so far).

En route seabirds remained numerous and I managed to see Gray-headed, Light-mantled, Black-browed, and Wandering albatross. A few Snow Petrels were seen, plus the expected Blue, White-chinned, and Cape petrels. The other new penguin of the trip were two Chinstrap at sea, this species nests in small numbers on South Georgia, but is much more common further south towards Antarctica.

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Northern Giant-Petrels were common alongside their Southern cousins around South Georgia, note the red bill tip Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 9 November 3rd South Georgia: Salisbury Plain and Stromness Bay

The sheer number and din of King Penguins was overwhelming. The birds spread out as far as the eye could see, crowded onto muddy flats and gentle slopes with snow and ice long melted beneath their busy feet. Feathers washed down small rivulets and molting birds shed feathers into the air like snowflakes. Youngster, fluffed up in their brown coats, huddled in tight groups, while the colorful heads of adults packed into swarms created a mosaic of ever shifting black, white, and orange. Single King Penguins separated from small parties, setting forth, leaving webbed prints in the mud, to investigate the newcomers on the beach. We had to tread carefully in order not to trip over a curious penguin that sneaked up behind.

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King Penguin adult huddling with a youngster at Salisbury Plain South Georgia Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was easy to get lost for hours watching the melee of penguins, the coming and going, and it difficult to really appreciate the scale and abundance of wildlife here. A small distraction was provided by a South Georgia Pipit that landed right among the group of visitors and proceeded to pluck maggots from an old penguin carcass. I guess thriving as the southernmost passerine in the world requires ingenuity and a steadfast stomach to make a living. The beach was also littered with elephant and fur seals, one bull elephant seal lifted its body and its head stood as tall as mine, truly impressive animals.

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A male Southern Elephant Seal studying the scene a Salisbury Plains Photo Stephan Lorenz

In the distance a pair of Light-mantled Albatross performed their famous courtship flight, drawing synchronous figure eights in front of their breeding promontory. I watched the birds land on what I assumed was a nesting platform. The Light-mantled Albatross has to be one of the most beautiful albatross species, a perfect study of subtle colors.

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Light-mantled Albatross nest on South Georgia and are common at sea around the island Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

Scavengers flocked in numbers and a group of giant-petrels and Brown Skuas squabbled over a deceased elephants seal among the marine leviathans. It was not an uncommon scene to watch giant-petrels, their heads covered in blood, run along the beach followed by voracious skuas. South Georgia remains a wild and raw place.

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A typical South Georgia scene with giant-petrels and Brown Skuas scavenging among elephants seals Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yellow-billed “South Georgia” Pintails were common in streams and puddles around the Salisbury Plain. By some authorities considered distinct from the mainland Yellow-billed Pintail, the South Georgia Pintail is smaller and apparently is not avert to scavenging with observations of ducks feeding on carcasses. A harsh environment leads to unique adaptations.

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South Georgia Pintail at Salisbury Plain Photo Stephan Lorenz

After our visit to the Salisbury Plain, which passed all too quickly, the ship moved towards Stromness Bay. These short stretches at sea allowed me to add a few birds en route, the best during this particular stretch were four Macaroni Penguins. Macaroni Penguins tend to arrive later at their breeding colonies and the cruise was on the early side for the species, but I still managed a few good views during at least three days while at sea around South Georgia.

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Macaroni Penguin porpoises near the ship Photo Stephan Lorenz

Stromness Bay is the site of a former whaling station and the ruined buildings are off-limits to visitors due to dangerous debris. We were able to hike into the valley beyond Stromness Bay, welcome exercise after spending so much time on board, and there was a Gentoo Penguin colony beyond the hills. We saw the odd Gentoo Penguin walking up the beach and crossing a few hills, following the stream in the valley below, and one individual kept pace with us. It turned out that the colony had moved far up the valley, since Gentoo Penguins change the locations of their small colonies every year. We could still see the blackened areas from previous years, but this one was too far to reach during the allotted time on land. Hiking back we passed some Gentoo Penguins very close to the trail. I sat down on a rock and waited, watching the birds pass by within touching distance, their webbed feet crunching in the snow.

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Gentoo Penguins are the most widespread species during the cruise Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 10 November 4th South Georgia: Fortuna Bay and Grytviken 

In the morning we made a snowy visit to Fortuna Bay where unfortunately Light-mantled Albatross were not nesting within an accessible area this year, although I saw at least one fly high towards a distant slope. The beach here was loaded with fur and elephants seals, plus a few King Penguins. We mainly enjoyed a walk along the beach and close encounter with the marine mammals, although a displaying South Georgia Pipit braving the blustery conditions was also noteworthy, more evidence of the species expansion.

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Female Antarctic Fur Seal on the fresh snows of Fortuna Bay Photo Stephan Lorenz

Afterwards we spent a brief time at sea navigating towards Grytviken, which offered the best views of Macaroni Penguins yet, with one bird right next to the ship visible while it dove in the clear, blue waters. While waiting at anchor in the bay under a clear sky and bright sun, I enjoyed watching several Antarctic Terns repeatedly swoop close to the ship.

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Antarctic Tern feeding near Grytviken Photo Stephan Lorenz

Grytviken is the historical highlight of South Georgia and we enjoyed a tour around the old whaling station (a story of slaughter of unbelievable proportions) and also visited the church and museum. Even here wildlife ruled with King Penguins wandering among the buildings and Elephant Seals resting among the rusting hulls of old whaling ships. The evening’s crowning point was the traditional toast at Shackleton’s grave under a perfect sky with the sun sinking beyond the snow covered mountains. Pintails waddled along the grassy track, while elephants seals rested on the black sand beach, and Antarctic Terns plunged for fish just offshore.

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View across the bay from Grytviken Photo Stephan Lorenz

Day 11 November 5th South Georgia: St. Andrew’s Bay and Drygalski Fjord

The calm and sunny weather from the previous evening had passed and we woke up to snow flurries and rising winds. Due to the rough conditions a landing at St. Andrew’s Bay was not possible, but we were able to do a Zodiac cruise within the large bay itself. St. Andrew’s harbors the largest King Penguin colony and even after the spectacle at Salisbury Plains this sight was incredible with penguins covering huge stretches of beach and the hills beyond. The edges of a large glacier sweeping from the high mountains were peppered with penguins and even the offshore rocks were crowded with head bobbing birds. Small groups of penguins porpoised in the cold waves, heading in all directions. One of the more exciting sightings here was a lone Leopard Seal, the only one of the trip, that hung around the rocky shoreline (likely hunting penguins), occasionally surfacing for nice views.

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The reptile-like head of a Leopard Seal Photo Stephan Lorenz

During the afternoon, we cruised towards Drygalski Fjord and enjoyed the magnificent hanging glaciers spilling from the steep mountains. Birds were scarce except for the occasional Snow Petrel that passed the ship and one or two Gentoo Penguins, but the frozen world of white and gray was impressive.

As the ship set sail south towards the Antarctic Peninsula I stayed on deck and obtained more views of Macaroni Penguins and Chinstrap Penguins, although identification of penguins at sea comes with its own challenges and the best way was to take lots of pictures of porpoising penguins for verification. A few Antarctic Prions showed while Blue Petrels were downright abundant. Earlier during the day, while the ship motored from St. Andrew’s Bay towards Drygalski Fjord, I had managed to photograph a South Georgia Diving-Petrel with its white scapular lines clearly visible in the photo (I also saw a possible the previous day). Now the number of diving-petrels increased, but all observations and photos showed Common Diving-Petrels. A bit of luck and plenty of time may be required to see South Georgia Diving-Petrels, which can be missed, but the southern end of South Georgia maybe the best bet. South Georgia sank beneath the horizon all too soon and we settled in for a three-day crossing to the Antarctic Peninsula with the weather forecast calling for rough seas. (See Part II)

Complete Bird List: Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctic Peninsula with photos of most species

  1. Upland Goose (Chloephaga picta) – common around Ushuaia and in grassy areas on the Falklands, especially New Island

IMG_7633 (2)2. Kelp Goose (Chloephaga hybrida) – common around Ushuaia and almost abundant in the Falklands

IMG_8058 (2)3. Ruddy-headed Goose (Chloephaga rubidiceps) – fairly common on the Falklands where seen on New Island and just south of Stanley

IMG_8110 (2)4. Falkland Steamer-Duck (Tachyeres brachypterus) – abundant in the Falklands where seen during every landing and along shorelines from ship

IMG_8156 (2)5. Crested Duck (Lophonetta specularioides) – only a few along the waterfront in Stanley, Falklands

6. Yellow-billed Teal (Anas flavirostris) – one or two near Stanley in the Falklands

_MG_0508 (2)7. Yellow-billed “South Georgia” Pintail (Anas georgica) – common in South Georgia where seen during almost every landing in suitable habitat, especially numerous at Salisbury Plain and Grytviken

IMG_8878 (2)8. Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) – a small colony at Gypsy Cove near Stanley, also a few seen at sea in the Beagle Channel where larger colonies are present

IMG_6837 (2)9. Southern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome) – a sizable colony present on the Falklands, can only be seen on the Falklands during the cruise with colonies also present also on Carcass Island

IMG_8025 (2)10. King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) – the signature bird of South Georgia, seen during every landing and regularly at sea around the island, thousands upon thousands at Salisbury Plain and St. Andrew’s

IMG_8426 (2)11. Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) – strongs winds prevented us from landing at the huge colony at Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula, but we could study them from the ship through the scope and saw some on icelfoes fairly close

_MG_9349 (2)12. Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) – the most widespread penguin species with colonies in South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, also commonly seen at sea, we visited colonies at Stromness in South Georgia and on Orne Island in the Gerlache Straight, Antarctic Peninsula, a large group was seen at Brown Station when we landed on the continent proper

_MG_9474 (2)13. Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) – seen at sea around South Georgia and around the Antarctic Peninsula, finally we visited a small colony on Orne Island

_MG_9727 (2)14. Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) – our cruise was too early to catch the birds at breeding colonies on South Georgia, but we managed several sightings at sea during three days around South Georgia, the species breeds on steep cliffs in South Georgia

IMG_8785 (2)15. Gray-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) – first noted at sea between the Falklands and South Georgia, we missed the breeding colony on South Georgia due to weather, but recorded the species every day at sea around South Georgia, also seen en route to Antarctica, but absent further south

IMG_8760 (2)16. Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) – we visited a large colony on New Island in the Falklands where we watched displaying birds and birds on eggs, otherwise noted at sea every day except in the far south

IMG_8005 (2)17. Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) – first seen at sea between the Falklands and South Georgia, also seen every day around South Georgia with nesting birds in courtship flight at Salisbury Plains, but only distant breeding birds at Fortuna Bay

IMG_9117 (2)18. Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora) – the common large albatross at sea with birds seen every day except in the far south, between the South American mainland and the Falklands outnumbered the next species, between South Georgia and Antarctica numbers dropped and the next species dominated, also seen regularly in the Drake Passage during the return journey

IMG_8273 (2)19. Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) – first noted at sea en route to the Falklands and then commonly seen between the Falklands and South Georgia, absent furthest south, also observed in good numbers in the Drake Passage

IMG_8369 (2)20. Southern Giant-Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) – common throughout the trip, seen in large numbers between the South American mainland and the Falklands where the only giant-petrel species, en route to and around South Georgia both species were present at roughly equal ratios

IMG_7895 (2)21. Northern Giant-Petrel (Macronectes halli) – the species became more and more common as we neared South Georgia where it nests, seen on nest on Prion Island, around South Georgia as common as previous species, but absent for us between the South American mainland and Falklands

IMG_8917 (2)22. Southern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides) – very common between South American mainland and Falklands, absent for some days and again very abundant with flocks of hundreds around Antarctic Peninsula

_MG_9252 (2)23. Antarctic Petrel  (Thalassoica antarctica) – one of the major trip highlights, but only seen on two days, one while leaving the Gerlache Straight and another seen very well as it hung around the ship near the South Shetland Islands, this can be a difficult bird to get during cruises later in the year and early-season cruises provide the best chances

_MG_9775 (2)24. Cape Petrel (Daption capense) – abundant nearly every day and a flock that wheeled about the ship as we waited out the hurricane near the South Shetland Islands was fun to watch

IMG_7850 (2)25. Snow Petrel (Pagodroma nivea) – the first birds showed as we neared South Georgia (where the species nests near glaciers) and then seen daily around South Georgia with a few birds en route to Antarctica

IMG_9015 (2)26. Kerguelen Petrel (Aphrodroma brevirostris) – the stretch between the Falklands and South Georgia is the best bet for this fast-flying species and I saw them each day of the two-day crossing

IMG_8189 (2)27. Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis) – only seen between Falklands and South Georgia during the first day out at sea from Stanley, this stretch of ocean is the best bet

28. Atlantic Petrel (Pterodroma incerta) – incredibly more than 100 seen during the first day out at sea from the Falklands, only a single the following day

IMG_8239 (2)29. Blue Petrel (Halobaena caerulea) – first seen as the ship left the Beagle Channel and then very common in colder waters further south with nearly 100 seen some days

IMG_8358 (2)30. Antarctic Prion (Pachyptila desolata) – the standard prion around South Georgia, but beware Fairy and Broad-billed can also occur

IMG_8366 (2)31. Slender-billed Prion (Pachyptila belcheri) – the common prion around the Falklands

IMG_8341 (2)32. White-chinned Petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis) – widespread throughout the cruise, but never numerous

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33. Common Diving-Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix) – seen while approaching and leaving South Georgia, the more common and widespread diving-petrel

IMG_9203 (2)34. South Georgia Diving-Petrel (Pelecanoides georgicus) – only one noted with certainty while en route from St. Andrew’s Bay to Drygalski Fjord, the southern end of South Georgia appears to provide the best chances for this relatively scarce bird, identification difficult and best with photos

IMG_9088 (2)35. Great Shearwater (Ardenna gravis) – common between the South American mainland and the Falklands, absent further south

36. Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea) – common between the South American mainland and the Falklands, absent further south, seen again after crossing the Drake Passage and approaching Tierra del Fuego

37. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) – common throughout except in colder waters further south

38. Gray-backed Storm-Petrel (Garrodia nereis) – only seen during the first day out at sea from the Falklands with three birds invariably near floating kelp

39. Black-bellied Storm-Petrel (Fregetta tropica) – more common further south than previous species and seen right around Antarctic Peninsula

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40. Magellanic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax magellanicus) – nesting colonies in the Beagle Channel and also present on the Falklands

IMG_8150 (2)41. Imperial Cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps) – nesting colonies in the Beagle Channel and we visited a large colony in the Falklands on New Island where the dark cheeked race occurs “albiventer” or King Shag

IMG_795442. Antarctic Shag (Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis) – uncommon around the Antarctic Peninsula where best seen at a breeding colony near Brown Station in Paradise Bay, also seen in flight in other areas of the peninsula, note obvious white patch on back

_MG_9532 (2)43. South Georgia Shag (Phalacrocorax georgianus) – two on board during the first day in South Georgia and seen sporadically at sea around the island

IMG_8466 (2)

South Georgia Shag in flight Photo Stephan Lorenz

44. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – New Island in the Falklands

45. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) – present in the Falklands where seen on New island

46. Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis albus) – a common scavenger and seen throughout

IMG_8437 (2)47. Blackish Oystercatcher (Haematopus ater) – a few along the Stanley waterfront in the Falklands

IMG_8134 (2)48. Magellanic Oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus) – numerous along the Stanley waterfront in the Falklands

IMG_8146 (2)49. Rufous-chested Dotterel (Charadrius modestus) – common in pastures and fields on the outskirts of Staneley in the Falklands

IMG_8118 (3)50. South Polar Skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) – birds seen briefly in flight around the Antarctic Peninsula, this species occurs much further south than previous, but there is overlap around the peninsula

51. Brown Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) – common in the Falklands where the large antarcticus subspecies occurs, sometimes split as Falkland Skua and abundant around South Georgia where the lönnbergi subspecies or Subantarctic Skua occurs

IMG_851552. Dolphin Gull (Leucophaeus scoresbii) – this beautiful gull was common along the Stanley waterfront and in the Beagle Channel

IMG_7769 (2)53. Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) – common on the Falklands and South Georgia all the way to Antarctic Peninsula, widespread

54. Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) – non-breeding plumaged birds at sea were identified as this species

55. Antarctic Tern (Sterna vittata) – common around and on South Georgia and around Antarctic Peninsula

IMG_8899 (2)56. South American Tern (Sterna hirundinacea) – seen along the Stanley waterfront in the Falklands and while cruising in the Beagle Channel

57. Striated Caracara (Phalcoboenus australis) – many seen on grassy islets while anchoring near New Island and several seen on New Island itself with a bird on a nest right next to the rockhopper penguin colony in the Falklands

IMG_7945 (2)58. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) – one in flight on New Island in the Falklands

59. Blackish Cinclodes (Cinclodes antarcticus) – a pair seen along beach on New Island in the Falklands

IMG_7922 (2)60. Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant (Muscisaxicola maclovianus) – one or two in pastures at the edge of Stanley in the Falklands

IMG_8131 (2)61. Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii) – noted around Stanley in the Falklands

IMG_4389 262. South Georgia Pipit (Anthus antarcticus) – with the rat eradication program the species is becoming more widespread, seen Right Whale Bay, Salisbury Plains, Prion Island, and Fortuna Bay on South Georgia

IMG_8578 (2)63. White-bridled Finch (Melanodera melanodera) – seen very well at Gypsy Cove near Stanley Falklands

IMG_8095 (2)64. Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca) – seen on New Island and around Stanley in the Falklands

_MG_0504 (2)65. Black-chinned Siskin (Spinus barbatus) – seen on New Island and the outskirts of Stanley in the Falklands

66. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) – present in Stanley in the Falklands

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The famous whale bone arch in Stanley Photo Stephan Lorenz

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