ANTARCTICA, FALKLANDS & SOUTH GEORGIA BIRDING 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 before setting sail early this evening. We will spend the next 18 nights aboard. As we sail eastwards along the Beagle Channel, Magellanic Penguins, Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels, Imperial and Rock Shags, Chilean Skuas, Kelp Gulls, South American Sealions and with a bit of luck one or two diminutive Magellanic Diving Petrels will be on show, but they are only an appetizer compared to the 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 likely the even smarter Northern Royal Albatross, 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 two landings on small islands off West Falkland and a final landing at Port Stanley.
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 or equally interesting Westpoint Island, the open hillsides are populated by Dark-faced Ground Tyrants and Correndera Pipits, whilst overhead we may see a Variable Hawk hanging 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 Striated Caracaras or ‘Johnny Rooks’ appears in the colony, lurking on the periphery in the hope of making off with a titbit or two.
At a large colony of Black-browed Albatrosses (shared with rockhoppers at Westpoint), 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 into 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 land birds 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 and human flotsam and jetsam.
Around the settlement, 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 Sealion and Peale’s Dolphin, we may also see the beautiful Commerson’s Dolphin and the uncommon South American Fur Seal.
Before leaving the islands we will call in at Port Stanley where there are opportunities to wander around the minuscule 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. We will arrange an excursion to an area outside the town where there will be a good chance of finding the lovelyRufous-chested Plover and the smart Two-banded Plover.
During the afternoon of Day 4 we head for distant South Georgia.
Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 5-6 The long sea crossing to South Georgia can often be a highlight of the voyage for birders and cetacean fans. As we travel ever further to the east-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 a 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 uncommon species and rarities, so we shall keep a lookout for Atlantic Petrel and Northern Royal Albatross, as well as for more occasional visitors to these waters, such as Kerguelen and Grey Petrels, Sooty Albatross 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, Killer 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 while our ship staff check-in with the British authorities, 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. The youngsters are covered in a woolly brown down, in contrast to the colourful adults, and indeed they were originally described as a distinct species: Wooly Penguin! Large flocks bathe off the colony beaches and others parade up and down, from time to time pointing their heads and bills up and uttering their strange cries.
Popular landing sites include Fortuna Bay, the very scenic Gold Harbour (where a glacier looms over the colony) and the huge colonies at Salisbury Plkainb (70-150,000 adults) and especially St Andrews Bay, where you can walk to a low ridge that gives wonderful, panoramic views over this world’s largest colony at 150-300,000 adults!
Elsewhere, we will likely visit the busy Gentoo Penguin colony at Godthul, where the adults have a long walk up to the nesting area from a sandy cove. Watching the Gentoos interact, pick up and carry stones (or even steal them), squabble and attend to their demanding chicks is great fun.
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, which has now become quite common once more, following the successful rat-eradication project) and also the rather tame endemic race of the Yellow-billed Pintail, which is sometimes treated as a full species under the name South Georgia Pintail).
We should also see Grey-headed Albatrosses (and occasionally a zodiac cruise is possible at the colony at Elsehul) and endemic South Georgia Shags. In the fjords or offshore we will find stunning Snow Petrels, diminutive Common Diving Petrels and the more localized South Georgia (or Georgian) Diving Petrel, watching the latter get up hurriedly from the water and sweep past our ship on rapidly whirring wings.
Antarctic Fur Seals are everywhere (ranging from big adult males to females and pups). 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.
The bizarre-looking Macaroni Penguin is always high on everyone’s wants list. Landings at colonies are uncommon as they are all in exposed sites, but we should be able to do one or more zodiac cruises that will give us a marvellous encounter with these comical birds as they shuffle down to the water’s edge before jumping into the sea.
At the southeastern end of the island, numbers of Chinspot Penguins nest, so this is probably where we will have our first encounter with this smart bird.
On one of the small offshore islands, known as Prion Island, we may 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. (Note that Prion Island is closed to visitors from mid-November to early January, owing to Antarctic Fur Seal activity, and even outside this period landings are regularly cancelled because of the exposed situation, so the privilege of a visit is something to be savoured by those visiting South Georgia.
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 may make 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. An alternative site is Shingle Cove, where there is a large colony of cute Adelie Penguins.
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’. Sometimes we have an encounter with the elusive Antarctic Petrel here.
Antarctica, Falkland Islands & South Georgia: Days 13-16 We sail on to Antarctica proper. As we get closer our excitement grows and we shall continue to keep a careful lookout for the strikingly-patterned Antarctic Petrel 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 via Antarctic Sound, at the northernmost point of the Antarctic continent.
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 courage and determination. (Landings here, and even zodiac cruises, are uncommon, owing to the exposed situation.)
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 and South Polar 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 or on a beach,m and if we are in luck a co-operative Leopard Seal or two.
If we visit, 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 that is exceptional and more usually one encounters just one or two individuals, and most often none at all! You must consider an Emperor Penguin sighting in the Antarctic Peninsula as a real bonus. A lot depends on sea ice cover in the area. On average the chances of getting into the Weddell Sea are highest from January to March, but conditions vary a lot from year to year and even from month to month.
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 glacier-scapes 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 birthplace 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.
TIERRA DEL FUEGO PRE-TOUR EXTENSION
You ought, as a sensible precaution in case of travel delay or lost luggage, to have one or two nights in Ushuaia prior to the departure of the ship, so why not join our optional 2-nights extension and go birding and photographing in Tierra del Fuego?
Day 1 The extension begins this evening at Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego, where we will stay for two nights.
Day 2 Ushuaia is situated at 55 degrees south and is the most southerly city in the world. Although the bird diversity at this latitude is low, the quality is outstanding.
During our stay at the veritable ‘End of the World’ we will, explore both the immediate vicinity of Ushuaia and nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, a spectacular region of seacoasts, forests, lakes and snow-capped mountains on the Chilean border.
Specialities of southernmost South America we should encounter amidst the wonderful scenery of the Ushuaia area include the attractive Upland, Kelp and Ashy-headed Geese, the bulky Fuegian (or Flightless) and Flying Steamer Ducks, Chiloe Wigeon, Imperial and Rock Shags, Great Grebe, the handsome Black-faced Ibis, Blackish and Magellanic Oystercatchers, Southern Lapwing, Dolphin and Brown-hooded Gulls, South American Tern, Chilean Skua, the huge Magellanic Woodpecker (usually positively easy to find and get close to in this area), Austral Parakeet, Chimango Caracara, the localised White-throated Caracara, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, White-throated Treerunner, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Chilean Elaenia, Fire-eyed Diucon, Austral Negrito, Chilean Swallow, Austral Thrush, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Black-chinned Siskin and the handsome Patagonian Sierra Finch.
Other, more widespread, birds that we may well encounter include Crested Duck, Yellow-billed Teal, Black-crowned Night Heron, the splendid Andean Condor, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Variable Hawk, Kelp Gull, Southern Crested Caracara, Ringed Kingfisher, House Wren, Correndera Pipit and Rufous-collared Sparrow.
Day 3 After some final birding around Ushuaia this morning, we will embark this afternoon on our Antarctic adventure.
White-bellied Seedsnipe Additional Extension Option: If there are participants who would like to extend the extension by an extra day (which means having a third night at Ushuaia, immediately before the start of the extension proper), we can also include a visit to a spectacular high mountain area to search for two more restricted-range specialities, the uncommon and sometimes rather elusive White-bellied Seedsnipe and the smart Yellow-bridled Finch, as well as Buff-winged Cinclodes and Dark-fronted and Ochre-naped Ground Tyrants.
We will operate this extra seedsnipe option with just two people minimum, but you do need to inform us at the time of booking the extension that you want to do the extra day.
The hike up to the seedsnipe area is fairly demanding (it takes between 1.5-2 hours and is ‘off trail’, being steep in places) and once up there the seedsnipe can take anything from 1-5 hours to locate, depending on the day, so this extra day is only for those who are fit enough. The hike into the mountains is weather dependent. Occasionally there is too much rain or snow.