The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Tours that are mostly easy

ANTARCTICA, FALKLAND ISLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA

The Nearest Thing to Another World

Sunday 19th January – Thursday 6th February 2020

Leaders: Mark Beaman and Oceanwide Expeditions leaders

19 Days Group Size Limit 12

ANTARCTICA, FALKLAND ISLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s combined Antarctica, Falkland Islands and South Georgia birding tours are a truly marvellous bird and wildlife adventure that takes you to the ‘great white continent’. Our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour is an expedition-style cruise that offers up a feast of seabirds, rare landbirds (including a number of endemics) and marine mammals (seals, whales and dolphins) that you will remember forever. You don’t even have to put up with very cold conditions in Antarctica in order to see all these wonders – it is relatively mild down there at the time of year we visit.

Important: in 2020 a Birdquest guide will accompany our group regardless of the number of Birdquest participants.

A visit to Antarctica is like no other journey on earth; it is indeed about as close to visiting another planet as any of us are likely to get. We can say without hesitation that this is the ultimate wildlife adventure, a wilderness experience that is truly uplifting and really does make the heart sing with the joy of being alive. If you ever have the chance to go to South Georgia and Antarctica then take it, for you will surely never regret it!

Antarctica is the last frontier on our ever-shrinking planet, a place that every traveller longs to explore but so few ever see. An uninhabited continent of more that twelve million square kilometres almost entirely encrusted with ice – an awesomely silent but starkly beautiful frozen world. Here some of the most magnificent scenery of all can be seen under the cleanest skies on earth. Towering volcanoes, stark mountain ranges, lowering headlands, icebergs like floating cathedrals – all are enhanced by the peculiar quality of the light, which lends an ethereal beauty to the savage grandeur of the landscapes.

This is a land of superlatives, at one and the same time the coldest, highest, windiest, driest, most barren and least known area on earth. Some 90% of the world’s fresh water is locked up in Antarctica’s icecap, which if it were to melt would cause sea levels to rise over 200ft (over 60m), drowning much of the world’s arable land and hundreds of major cities.

One of the strangest features of this lost continent is the fact that Antarctica is surrounded by the richest oceans of all, thronged with marine life ranging from tiny krill to elephant seals and whales, and supporting enormous numbers of seabirds. The tameness of Antarctica’s seabirds and sea mammals is legendary and this remarkable journey will not only provide numerous opportunities to see albatrosses, petrels, penguins and seals at sea but also see us wandering right amongst their breeding colonies, accepted without question by creatures that have learned no fear of man. Whale-watching is a feature of Antarctic cruises and we are likely to enjoy some spectacular views of these leviathans breaching and sounding right next to our ship.

Our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour starts at Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world, situated on the windswept but spectacularly beautiful shores of Tierra del Fuego. Here we join our ship and sail out into the South Atlantic en route to the Falkland Islands.

The sea crossings from South America to the Falklands and onwards to South Georgia and Antarctica offer some of the best pelagic birding experiences in the world, with no fewer than five species of albatross routinely encountered (Black-browed, Grey-headed, Light-mantled, Wandering and Southern Royal) and several others possible, as well as both Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Cape, White-chinned, Soft-plumaged, Atlantic, Kerguelen and Blue Petrels, Slender-billed, Antarctic and Fairy Prions, Great Shearwater, Wilson’s, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, and Common and South Georgia Diving Petrels. We can also expect a good selection of cetaceans, including some large whales.

Our exploration of the wild yet beautiful Falkland Islands will be enlivened by the spectacular and very approachable wildlife of the archipelago. Here are some of the largest colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern Rockhopper Penguins in the Southern Ocean, while other attractions include South American Fur Seal, Magellanic Penguin, Rock and Imperial Shags, Kelp, Upland and the rare Ruddy-headed Geese, Falkland Steamer Duck, Striated Caracara, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Rufous-chested Plover, Two-banded Plover, Brown Skua, Dolphin Gull, South American Tern, Blackish Cinclodes, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Cobb’s Wren and White-bridled Finch.

After enjoying the attractive scenery and marvellous birdlife of these rugged, wind-swept islands we sail onwards to South Georgia, enjoying some wonderful pelagic birding en route. This most mountainous of the sub-Antarctic islands appears like a series of snow-covered peaks rising from the sea, scalloped with fjords carved by more that 150 glaciers. Here we will experience some of the most unforgettable wildlife spectacles of our journey amidst dramatic scenery, walking amidst huge colonies of stately King Penguins, standing close to gigantic Southern Elephant Seals and enjoying superb views of nesting Wandering Albatrosses, while other notable creatures include Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins, South Georgia Shag, South Georgia Pintail, South Georgia Pipit and the bad-tempered Antarctic Fur Seal.

To the south lie the ice-mantled South Orkney Islands, considered a northern outpost of Antarctica and a major breeding site for the lovely Snow Petrel. This is also a place where numerous huge icebergs, spawned by the Weddell Sea, come to rest in the shallows.

Steaming even further south, across the Scotia Sea, our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour comes at last to our ultimate goal, the Antarctic Peninsula, an icy finger of land pointing towards South America and first seen by human eyes only last century, and the rugged South Shetland Islands, home to millions of penguins and petrels. Here in Antarctica proper we will encounter Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard Seals, penguins and whales amidst the ice floes, visit Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguin rookeries, experience the awesome scenery of the ice-choked Antarctic channels, watch pure-white Snow Petrels and piebald Antarctic Petrels soaring around icebergs, and visit the shores of the Antarctic continent itself. At this time of year we even have a real chance of encountering the legendary Emperor Penguin.

From the Antarctic Peninsula we sail northwards across the deep waters of the Drake Passage to the southernmost tip of South America, where the turbulent waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific meet at lonely Cape Horn, enjoying yet more pelagic birding before very reluctantly returning to ‘civilization’ at the port of Ushuaia with memories that only a lucky few can ever hope for.

The great advantage of taking this particular cruise, if you are especially interested in seeing Antarctic birds and other wildlife in all their glory, is that this particular itinerary is very strongly wildlife-orientated and includes the Weddell Sea, ice conditions permitting.

Birdquest has operated Antarctica birding and wildlife tours, including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, since 1990.

When is the best time for a chance of Emperor Penguin on an Antarctic Peninsula expedition-cruise? There seems to be a widespread misperception about this. You have the best chance of seeing one or more Emperor Penguins if you take an Antarctic Peninsula cruise that has an itinerary that both includes an intention to enter the Weddell Sea (and not many itineraries do that) and is scheduled to visit the area between mid-January and mid-March. The reason for this is simple: ice cover in the region reaches its minimum extent in mid-February and Emperor Penguin colonies are largely deserted by the adults from mid-December onwards, with the birds dispersing away from the inaccessible colonies on the permanent ‘fast ice’ to areas of sea ice where both adults and immatures moult. The confusion about the early part of the ‘ship season’ (late October to November) being best seems to derive from the fact that tours that plan to reach Emperor Penguin breeding colonies (by means of aircraft or ship-borne helicopters) are operated at that time. Yes, they have to be, as by mid-December the colonies have few adult birds left. The problem for expedition ships without helicopters is that the chances of getting into the Weddell far enough to encounter Emperors on ice floes averages much lower in late October and November than it does later in the season after more sea ice melts. You can get lucky in the early season, especially if you take an extended cruise to Antarctica, but your chances of success on any given Antarctic Peninsula cruise are very low. Between mid-January and mid-March your chances on any given cruise that enters the Weddell Sea are considerably improved, being somewhere between 20-40%.

When is the best time for a birding and wildlife expedition-cruise in the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia? This is not a simple question to answer. Laying aside the Emperor Penguin issue covered above, the easiest thing to say is that late southern summer/early autumn (late February into March) is definitely not the best time unless your main interest is cetaceans, as most penguin colonies are winding down and the weather is no longer at its best. The early ‘ship season’, which lasts from late October to late November, is a mixed bag in our view. As with the end of the season, the weather averages colder and more unsettled, but even more importantly there can be issues in many years with sea ice blocking access to wanted landing sites (particularly true of getting to Adelie Penguin colonies, for example). Furthermore, cetaceans are largely lacking at this time. On the other hand the adult Southern Elephant Seals are around in greater numbers on South Georgia and the penguin colonies in Antarctica proper are more pristine, less soiled. During December to early February, the weather reaches its optimum, cetaceans become increasingly abundant, more sea ice melts or disperses, allowing better access to some interesting areas, and most penguin species have endearing small chicks. At South Georgia, Prion Island closes from mid-November to early January, so only outside that period can you observe and photograph Wandering Albatrosses on land. Note that cruises to Antarctica from late December through to early February cost more than those at other times because this is widely considered the optimum time to visit, both for the best weather and for access to some of the top landing sites.

Accommodation & Transport: We shall be sailing on the MV Plancius, a converted, ice-strengthened former Dutch naval vessel of 3434 tons and 89 metres in length operated by the well-respected Oceanwide Expeditions, who are based in the Netherlands. While significantly more comfortable and more modern than the old Russian expedition ships, this is still not a ‘cruise ship’ in the traditional manner and is designed for exploring wild places and enjoying wild nature, rather than enjoying luxurious surroundings and ‘black-tie’ dinners with the officers. Plancius can accommodate a maximum of 114 passengers in 53 passenger cabins, all with private toilet and shower. Cabins consist of quad cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and two upper, triple cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds and one upper, twin cabins with a porthole and two lower single beds, twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds, somewhat larger deluxe twin cabins with a window and two lower single beds and superior twin cabins which are almost 50% larger than a standard twin, with at least one window and one queen-sized bed. Cabins have ample storage space and an outside view.

Public facilities include a restaurant/lecture theatre, an observation lounge/bar with panoramic views, a library and a small shop. Food is plentiful, of good quality, waitress-served and prepared by experienced chefs. Both ships carry a small complement of expedition staff who, as well as guiding excursions ashore and zodiac cruises, double up as guest lecturers and give informal talks on the environment, wildlife and history of the areas visited. The bridge is normally open to all (except when the ship is docking) and provides a great viewpoint whenever it is too breezy to stand comfortably outside.

Much of the sailing is done at night (or what passes for ‘night’ in summer in high latitudes), thus maximizing opportunities for going ashore and enjoying the harsh but beautiful landscapes of Antarctica to the full. Landings are carried out by means of a fleet of zodiacs/naiads, the rugged, fast-moving type of inflatables first developed by Jacques Cousteau for expedition work which allow safe landings on remote coastlines in all types of conditions.

A major advantage of Plancius is that with an absolute maximum of 114 passengers on board, landings can be of longer duration. These days there are fewer and fewer of the smaller expedition ships left and the larger vessels that are becoming the norm have to reduce landing durations so that they comply with Antarctic visitor regulations.

Further information about the cruise, including photographs and details of the ship, are available on the Oceanwide Expeditions website: www.oceanwide-expeditions.com.

Walking: The walking effort during our Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia birding tour is mostly easy, but there are a very few optional harder walks.

Climate: Quite mild at this season (and a surprise to many visitors, who imagine extreme cold is a year-round feature of Antarctica). In the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounds the shade temperature is generally a little above freezing point (and as high as 4-7°C, or 39-45°F, at South Georgia). On sunny days it can feel relatively warm if there is no wind (often the case in Antarctica proper, much less often the case in South Georgia). In contrast, it can feel distinctly cold when windy at sea or while on land at South Georgia. Sunny spells are interspersed with (often longer) overcast periods and some rain or snow are to be expected. In Tierra del Fuego and in the Falklands conditions are typically cool, but considerably warmer than further south.

Bird/Sea Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour are truly outstanding.

Important:  Adverse weather conditions may prevent landings on exposed coasts. It is, however, very unusual for more than a very few landings to have to be called off during a cruise. The information given about possible landing sites should be taken as a general indication about what is likely to be achieved during any given tour: every Antarctica and South Georgia cruise is different, being dependent on the amount of time available, sea and ice conditions, and the weather, and so it is likely that some of the sites visited on your particular tour will be different from those described.

Important: Owing to the possibility, however small, of a severe airline delay, we would recommend that all participants on our Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia birding tour have two hotel nights at the cruise start point prior to the tour. Kindly note that in the event you do not arrive in time, the ship will not wait and neither the cruise operator nor the tour operator can make a refund in such circumstances. Arriving early also has the advantage that your luggage could still catch up with you, should it go astray. We can make hotel bookings for you on request, both before and after the tour.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

Deposit: 20% of the relevant twin-share cabin price (plus 20% of the relevant single supplement if you are taking a single occupancy cabin).

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)

 

2020: For Ushuaia/Ushuaia arrangements:

£10480, $13500, €11950 in a quad-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£11350, $14630, €12950 in a triple-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£12580, $16210, €14350 in a twin-berth cabin with porthole and private bathroom
£13110, $16890, €14950, in a twin-berth cabin with window and private bathroom
£13990, $18020, €15950 in a twin-berth deluxe cabin with private bathroom
£15080, $19430, €17200 in a superior cabin with private bathroom

Gratuities for the expedition staff and crew are not included in the tour price. The level of gratuities is entirely a matter for personal discretion. The staff and crew work very long hours to make such cruises a success, and we understand that most passengers on these cruises give gratuities of between US$300-400.

Single Supplement: Single occupancy of twin-berth cabins can be obtained in return for a 70% supplement on top of the relevant twin-share cabin price.

Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement.

This tour is priced in Euros. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

ANTARCTICA, FALKLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA BIRDING & WILDLIFE TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 1  Our expedition to Antarctica begins this afternoon at Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world, which is situated on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego, the ‘toe’ of South America, at 55 degrees south. If it is clear during the flight south across Argentina to join the tour, you will be able to see the vast, arid landscapes of Patagonia far below and eventually the ice-clad spires and vast snowfields of Tierra del Fuego. Named by Magellan after the warning fires that the now-extinct Ona Amerindians lit when they saw his ships, Tierra del Fuego lies at the extreme southern tip of South America and is a wild land of grassland, windswept moors, stunted Nothofagus beech forests, snow-capped peaks and glaciers.

This afternoon we will board our ship prior to setting sail this evening. We will spend the next 18 nights aboard. As we sail eastwards along the Beagle Channel, Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern (or Common) Giant Petrels and diminutive Magellanic Diving Petrels will be on show, but they are only an appetizer compared to the seabird glories of the subantarctic and Antarctica that still lie ahead.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 2  As we sail towards the Falklands we will be looking out for seabirds that are typical of these shallower, warmer waters such as Sooty and Great Shearwaters. We will also encounter our first Southern Royal Albatrosses and a number of other seabird species widespread in the southern oceans which will soon become familiar companions.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 3-4  The Falkland Islands lie some 500 kilometres off the South American mainland. In spite of their remote location and apparent lack of resources the islands have had a varied history, with temporary occupations by the Spanish and French before the British finally settled the islands permanently in 1842. Although the archipelago consists of over 300 islands, it is dominated by the two main islands of East and West Falkland. A tiny population of only a few thousand is concentrated around Port Stanley, the picturesque little capital with its gaily painted Victorian style houses that briefly became the focus of world attention during the 1982 Falklands War. These windswept islands enjoy a much milder climate than South Georgia and there is only a little snow during the winter months. At this season the islands provide endless rolling vistas of yellow-green grasslands waving in the wind. With so few people to disturb them, birds are tame and abundant. Over fifty species breed in the islands, an almost overwhelming diversity compared to Antarctica proper. During our stay we plan to make several landings.

One of these will be at one of the spectacular seabird colonies that have made the Falklands famous. Most of these are situated on remote islands. At Saunders Island the open hillsides are populated by Dark-faced Ground Tyrants and Correndera Pipits, whilst overhead Variable Hawks hang in the wind. Dramatic sea-cliffs face the open Atlantic and here we shall visit a Southern Rockhopper Penguin rookery, smiling as we watch a succession of Southern Rockhoppers popping up out of the sea onto the rocks like champagne corks leaving a bottle and then hopping and scrambling up the cliffs in a long line, working their way up a natural staircase that has been worn smooth by the passage of countless little feet. From time to time a Striated Caracara or ‘Johnny Rook’ appears in the colony, lurking on the periphery in the hope of making off with a titbit or two. Nearby at a large colony of Black-browed Albatrosses we will see some of the adults squatting on top of flattened grass tussocks rather like strange dwarfs on even stranger toadstools whilst others soar high above us or sweep in to the nest sites to greet their mates with an affectionate round of mutual preening and bill clicking. Other breeding seabirds here include Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins.

On beautiful Carcass Island, Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins potter along waving their little flippers as they wander inland to their nests. Rock and Imperial Shags sit about on rocky skerries whilst South American Terns and beautiful Dolphin Gulls patrol the shallows and Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers pipe shrilly from the shoreline. Upland Geese are especially numerous and there is a good population of the rare and beautiful Ruddy-headed Goose. Along the shoreline we will come across the striking Kelp Goose, which feeds almost exclusively on the beds of giant kelp. The endemic Falkland Steamer Duck or ‘Logger’ is a common sight and we shall soon realize how they got their name as these bulky ducks ‘steam’ over the water, kicking up a cloud of spray from the combined action of their wings and large feet whilst making loud sneezing alarm calls. The variety of landbirds is rather limited but this is more than made up for by the confiding nature of the little Blackish Cinclodes or ‘Tussock Bird’ which happily perches on one’s shoes. White-bridled (or Canary-winged) Finches and Black-chinned Siskins feed amongst the low herbage, Grass Wrens lurk in the damp grass and endemic Cobb’s Wrens forage along the shoreline amongst the cast up seaweed. Around the settlements Black-crowned Night Herons nest in the trees and Austral Thrushes and Long-tailed Meadowlarks are everywhere. Amongst the other birds we may find here are Crested Duck, Yellow-billed (or Speckled) Teal, Turkey Vulture, Southern Crested Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, South American Snipe, Brown Skua and Kelp Gull. As well as South American Fur Seal and Peale’s Dolphin, we may also see the beautiful Commerson’s Dolphin.

Before leaving the islands we will call in at Port Stanley where there are opportunities to wander around the miniscule streets, visit the tiny cathedral, see the historic hulks of the ships that never made it around Cape Horn and observe that great pioneer of the avian world, the humble House Sparrow. Outside the town, there will be a good chance of Rufous-chested Plover and Two-banded Plover. You can walk out to the airport area to look for them, but it is quicker and more relaxing to pay for a taxi.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 5-6  The long sea crossing to South Georgia can often be a highlight of the voyage. As we travel ever further to the southeast we shall pass from the warmer sub-Antarctic waters that surround southern South America and the Falklands to the cold waters of the Antarctic. The line of demarcation between these two water masses is quite strongly pronounced and is known as the Antarctic Convergence. Here the upwelling currents create conditions ideal for plankton and the rich feeding attracts numerous seabirds and often cetaceans.

As we watch from the decks we will see an endless succession of seabirds following the ship, or sailing indifferently past, including Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, the graceful Light-mantled Albatross, enormous Northern and Southern Giant-Petrels, Cape, Soft-plumaged and White-chinned Petrels, Wilson’s, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, and Brown Skuas. We shall check the Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions for Blue Petrels and Fairy Prions but the star of this ever-changing spectacle will be the greatest seabird of all, the Wandering Albatross, with its remarkable wingspan (up to 3.5 metres!). As we watch these huge birds gliding low over the sea between waves and then circling high into the air without even the slightest movement of their wings we will be witnessing one of nature’s ultimate creations in action – a bird which is in total harmony with its environment. We will also come across the confusingly similar Southern Royal Albatross amongst the Wanderings and be reminded just how difficult it is to separate some seabirds!

This is a good area for rarities and we shall keep a lookout for such occasional visitors to these waters as Atlantic, Kerguelen and Grey Petrels and Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers. We also have an excellent chance of seeing whales, especially when we cross a bank where the sea depth decreases from over 4000m to under 200m, producing an upwelling that creates a plankton swarm highly attractive to whales: the most regular species here being Antarctic Minke Whale, Fin Whale and Hourglass Dolphin. If we are lucky we will encounter Gray’s Beaked Whale or Southern Bottlenose Whale. As we voyage southwards we will have a chance to listen to some fascinating lectures on the Antarctic environment and its wildlife or visit the bridge to learn about the many complex navigation instruments in use on our ship.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 7-10  South Georgia lies at the northeastern corner of the Scotia Ridge, a largely submarine formation with only the summits poking above the sea as islands, that links the Andes of South America with the mountains of Antarctica. Profoundly remote, a mass of inaccessible ice-clad mountains rising to 2934m, South Georgia is the most spectacular of all the sub-Antarctic islands. Described by Robert Cushman Murphy, that great pioneer of seabird research in the southern oceans, as presenting ‘one of the world’s most glorious spectacles – like the Alps in mid-ocean’, the coastline of South Georgia endlessly surprises and delights as one striking vista of deep fjords, jagged peaks and glacier-dominated valleys gives way to another and yet another.

During our stay in this marvellous area we plan to make a number of landings. For over fifty years South Georgia was the hub of the South Atlantic whaling industry and we shall explore the eerie, silent ghost settlement of Grytviken, the oldest whaling station on the island. Here we will see the simple grave of Ernest Shackleton, a hero of Antarctic exploration, who died at Cumberland Bay and also the excellent whaling museum that charts the history of the island. South Georgia is famous for its vast nesting colonies of King Penguins, and we shall admire their handsome silver-grey, glowing orange, black and white plumage that contrasts so strikingly with the green tussock grass and beige sandy beaches, whilst inland the huge glaciers provide an even more dramatic backdrop.

On one of the small offshore islands, known as Prion Island, we will have the opportunity to wander through a colony of Wandering Albatrosses – so graceful in the air yet so awkward on land! Not only will we be able to get close to the nesting birds, which look even larger sat on a nest than they do on the wing, we may be fortunate enough to see their wild, evocative display as several adults turn their outstretched wings towards the sky and throw back their heads to wail at the heavens. (Prion Island is closed to visitors until 7 January, owing to Antarctic Fur Seal activity, so the privilege of a visit is something to be savoured by those arriving in South Georgia after the island opens.)

Not far away, Southern Giant Petrels squat Dodo-like on their untidy nests, hissing at intruders. Light-mantled Albatrosses, the most beautiful and most gentle of all the albatrosses, are widespread in South Georgia as nesting birds and it is a thrilling sight to watch them gliding to and fro along the cliffs or displaying to their mates.

During our stay in South Georgia we will certainly want to track down the endemic South Georgia Pipit and also the rather tame endemic race of the Yellow-billed Pintail, which is sometimes treated as a full species (South Georgia Pintail), and we should also see Grey-headed Albatrosses, South Georgia Shags and bizarre-looking Macaroni Penguins. In the fjords or offshore we will find stunning Snow Petrels, diminutive Common Diving Petrels and the localized South Georgia (or Georgian) Diving-Petrel, watching them get up hurriedly from the water and sweep past our ship on rapidly whirring wings. In some places large groups of enormous Southern Elephant Seals are piled on the shoreline like heaps of giant slugs, occasionally stirring from their slumbers to growl a protest as a neighbour jostles them beyond the point of acceptability.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 11  We sail southwestwards across the Scotia Sea towards the South Orkney Islands, considered the northernmost fragments of Antarctica. Once again pelagic birding is excellent and there are more chances for cetaceans.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 12  Today we plan a landing at Orcadas station, an Argentine base in the South Orkney Islands. Visiting an Antarctic base is a fascinating experience in itself and few have finer views than this one with glaciers all around. In the South Orkneys we will surely encounter numbers of gigantic tabular icebergs which have been spewed forth from the mouth of the Weddell Sea. Some of the bergs are the most intense blue colour and have been sculptured into fantastic shapes by the action of wind, water and sun. The incomparable Snow Petrel regularly adopts these bergs as a ‘home away from home’ and we can expect to see these beautiful birds, that surely epitomize Antarctica, perched on the top or circling their floating ‘island’.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 13-16  We sail on to Antarctica proper. As we get closer our excitement grows and we shall keep a careful lookout for strikingly-patterned Antarctic Petrels amongst the much more common Southern Fulmars and Cape Petrels.

The route we take will depend on ice conditions at the time, but if these permit we will enter the Weddell Sea on our way to Antarctic Sound, at the northernmost point of the Antarctic continent. (If ice conditions are unhelpful, we will instead head past Elephant Island and try to access Antarctic Sound and the edge of the Weddell Sea by the western route.

Elephant Island, one of the easternmost islands of the South Shetlands and a remote place where black rock outcrops and mighty glaciers speckled with pink algae create a dramatic landscape. This is the place where Ernest Shackleton’s men survived for more than four grim months after Shackleton set out on his epic attempt to reach South Georgia in a tiny open boat and so bring help. A bust to Captain Pardo, the master of the Chilean ship Yelcho that finally got through to Elephant Island on Shackleton’s fourth rescue attempt, still stands guard at Point Wild, a reminder of the days when explorers could not rely on radios or helicopters to save themselves, but only on their own courage and determination.

Colonies of Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins can be found throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands. We will likely make a landing at Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, or at other very similar bird colonies elsewhere. Here, Brown (or Antarctic) Skuas will try to drive us from their territories by sweeping in low over our heads and breeding Wilson’s Storm Petrels zigzag over the talus slopes where Antarctic Shags nest. Wildlife photography opportunities are brilliant, with penguins pottering through the snow as they file down to the water’s edge, whilst others head inland to greet their mates at the nest??, display wildly to their fellows or steal stone’s from their neighbours’ nests. We may also come fairly close to saturnine-faced Weddell’s Seals hauled out on the ice.

The entry to Deception Island, through the aptly named Neptune’s Bellows, is just wide enough for our ship to navigate and here we will be accompanied by some of the numerous Cape Petrels that nest fulmar-like on the surrounding cliffs. Our anchorage is at Whaler’s Bay, an abandoned whaling station, inside a volcano whose cone caved in to be filled by the sea.

There is traditionally a chance to go for a (rather quick!) Antarctic swim here, in an area with some natural geothermal heating, but birders may prefer to concentrate on the bathing skuas or the nesting Cape Petrels.

As we pass through the Bransfield Strait, passing icebergs of immense size and awesome beauty, some white, others tinged blue-green by algae, we will watch out for the huge flukes of sounding Humpback Whales, the high dorsal fins of Killer Whales slicing through the water and the unobtrusive Antarctic Minke Whale. Here the silence is profound as the sun glows on ice floes dotted with Crabeater, Weddell and sinister-looking Leopard Seals whilst beyond is an endless vista of icebergs and distant, snow-coated mountains.

We plan to make a landing on the continent of Antarctica itself, probably at Brown Bluff in Antarctic Sound. Here we will go ashore on the Antarctic mainland, watching chicken-like Snowy (or Pale-faced) Sheathbills scavenging along the shoreline and South Polar Skuas keeping a watchful eye out for any opportunity for a meal. Out in the bay, graceful Antarctic Terns perch on blocks of floating ice. We will also want to visit the large Adelie Penguin colony. These little characters are surely the cutest penguins of them all.

The northern edge of the Weddell Sea offers our best chance for the winter-breeding Emperor Penguin, as there is a colony on relatively nearby (but generally inaccessible) Snowhill Island. We have seen up to 30 or more standing on ice floes during a visit to this part of the Weddell, but more usually one encounters just one or more individuals or none at all, so you must consider any Emperor Penguin sighting as a bonus. It all depends on sea ice cover in the area. Typically the chances of getting into the Weddell are best from January to early March, and at this time of year the Emperors have dispersed from their colonies, making for a higher chance of a sighting of birds on ice floes. We rate the chances at this time of year to be between 20-40%.

Charlotte Bay on the west coast of Graham Land was discovered by Adrien de Gerlache during the 1897–99 Belgica expedition and named after the fiancée of Georges Lecointe, Gerlache’s executive officer, hydrographer and second-in-command of the expedition. In this spectacular place, where nunataks rise through the ice cap, seals dot the ice floes and South Polar Skuas harry the local Gentoo Penguins. At Wilhelmina Bay the scenic spectacular continues as one admires the dramatic mountain- and glacierscapes of the Arctowski Peninsula.

If we cannot explore Antarctic Sound and the edge of the Weddell Sea owing to too much ice, we may well penetrate further south to Cuverville Island with its large Gentoo colony and may make a continental landing at Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay. Still further south, at Paradise Bay, the sea ice sparkles and 3000m high mountains and glaciers tower above us. No description can do justice to this awesome, unearthly place where all the works of man seem puny indeed. We may even have time to sail through the Gerlache Strait and the narrow Neumayer Channel until we reach the historic British base at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, a fascinating landing site complete with Gentoo Penguins nesting all around the old base and roving skuas looking for a meal.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 17  To the north of the Antarctic Peninsula lies the thousand kilometres (600 miles) of the Drake Passage, separating the Antarctic Peninsula from the curving tail end of South America. Crossing this historic waterway, named after the great English seafarer whose expedition almost came to grief in these wild waters, is an exciting experience and gives us our last chance to enjoy a host of albatrosses and petrels which have become so familiar to us during our Antarctic journey. Almost as rich in seabirds as the seas between the Falklands and South Georgia, the Drake Passage will provide a fitting finale to our time in the great ‘Southern Ocean’.

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 18  In the afternoon we should see the steep, rocky, greenish-grey headland of Cape Horn looming to the west whilst Sooty Shearwaters circle and dive, and Black-browed Albatrosses glide effortlessly down the troughs between the breakers. Here we have a good chance to see the rather uncommon Magellanic Diving Petrel.

This southernmost point of South America, named by the Dutch navigator Schouten after Hoorn, his birth place in the Netherlands, has earned a reputation as one of the wildest places on earth. Here, at the meeting point of the Atlantic and the Pacific, the ferocious winds can whip the waves into a frenzy of spray, although in the southern summer it can sometimes be flat calm!

Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Day 19  This morning we return to Ushuaia. Here we will very reluctantly disembark from the ship we have come to know so well and which has brought us so many unforgettable memories. The tour ends on disembarkation.

Ushuaia area birding: It is easy to see a number of birds, simply by walking in the vicinity of the town, that will either not be seen during the expedition itself, or which are only occasionally seen. Likely species include Black-faced Ibis, Ashy-headed Goose, Flying and Fuegian (or Flightless) Steamer Ducks, Chiloe Wigeon, Southern Crested and Chimango Caracaras, Southern Lapwing, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, Fire-eyed Diucon, Austral Negrito, Chilean Swallow, House Wren, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Austral Blackbird. Less frequently encountered species include Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, Rufous-chested Plover and Brown-hooded Gull.

If the weather is fine, you might take the ski lift up to the Martial Glacier and search for species such as Buff-winged and Grey-flanked Cinclodes, Yellow-bridled Finch and the uncommon White-bellied Seedsnipe, or you could pay a visit to the municipal rubbish dump to look for White-throated Caracaras. If you decide to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park, a spectacular region of seacoasts, forests, lakes and snow-capped mountains on the Chilean border, you may well see Great Grebe, the huge Andean Condor, Austral Parakeet, the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker (the largest of the South American woodpeckers), the attractive White-throated Treerunner, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-crested Elaenia and Patagonian Sierra Finch.

We can help you with birding information, hotel bookings and arranging a rental car, or we could arrange for you to take a day out with a local bird guide if you prefer.

ANTARCTICA, FALKLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA TOUR REPORT 2018

by Mike Watson

View Report

ANTARCTICA, FALKLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA TOUR REPORT 2016

by János Oláh

View Report

Other Antarctic, Subantarctic and Arctic birding tours by Birdquest include:

Spectacled

Tours good for bird/wildlife photography

ALASKA

Wandering

Tours that are mostly easy

ATLANTIC ODYSSEY

Siberian

Tours of shorter duration

FINLAND & ARCTIC NORWAY

Harlequin

Tours that are mostly easy

ICELAND