Thursday, 8 March 2018

Antarctica 2017-8

 I am recently back from my seventh season with One Ocean Expeditions, working as ornithologist for passengers travelling between Ushuaia or Stanley and the Antarctic Peninsula. We also made two longer voyages that included the Jewel of the Southern Ocean, South Georgia. Here the ship is at anchor at Grytviken, South Georgia, with the remains of the rusting whaling station and the church, built in 1913, in the foreground.
 One Ocean always keeps a few berths open for scientists, such as Dr Ari Friedlaender from the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose research involves tagging whales with suction caps and biopsy darts. The caps soon drop off, and reveal important information about ranges, length of dives, etc, while from the darts we can learn about diet and any toxins in the blubber. Here Ari creates history with the first ever tag placed on an Antarctic Minke Whale. 
Another inspiring colleague was Falcon Scott, only grandson of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. Here he is in the Presentation Room, just after he presented his interpretation of the explorer, his scientific achievements, and ultimate tragedy. On staff we always have a few naturalists, a historian, a photographer, two kayak guides, several zodiac drivers, and often an artist in residence. 

Occasionally I have the opportunity of leading a hike, such as here at Penguin Island in the South Shetlands. Adelies and Chinstraps both have nesting colonies here, but on this occasion we were heading up to the viewpoint on top of an extinct volcano: a cinder cone with great views in all directions.  
Among the other ships we passed was the latest Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, which is down in the area doing underwater research and campaigning for a marine sanctuary to be declared in the heavily visited Antarctic Peninsula, where most of the penguin colonies on the continent can be found.  

As for this season's wildlife sightings, this was one of the most remarkable. When we were in open ocean, 140 miles south-west of South Georgia, we saw a small songbird flying around the ship. During lunch it found its way through the open door into the bar-lounge, where it landed on the only object that looked familiar - which happened to be the Christmas tree. It was a White-crested Elaenia, a flycatcher that normally nests in woodland in Patagonia and was seriously lost. Sadly we had no food for it, and it must have perished at sea. 

On the crossing to South Georgia, we are used to seeing many Light-mantled Albatrosses, but this is a much rarer cousin, the Sooty Albatross, which nests in small numbers in the Tristan group in the South Atlantic. Its most important seabird island, Gough, is about to be the target for an ambitious project to eradicate the invasive house mice, which have grown almost rat-sized by eating the eggs and chicks of the seabirds.  See
Gold Harbour on South Georgia was the setting for this dramatic and unprovoked attack by a Northern Giant Petrel on a young King Penguin on the beach. Within a few seconds, other giant petrels joined in, and the unfortunate penguin was soon dismembered. 

King Penguins are increasing on South Georgia, and the loss of some young or weak birds is only to be expected in their huge colonies. Their main diet is lanternfish, a small species that has no commercial fishery, so they have most of the stocks to themselves.  
On a zodiac cruise at Elsehul, South Georgia, we witnessed the amazing spectacle of a huge feeding frenzy of Antarctic Prions, small burrow-nesting petrels which must have had a bonanza of copepods at the surface. Cape Petrels, giant petrels and three species of albatross were joining in the feast. 
 At Fort Point in the South Shetlands, there's a mixed colony of Gentoos and Chinstraps, with a single pair of Macaronis nesting in the middle. This encounter between a Mac and a Chinny looks aggressive, but it only lasted a second and the two birds soon waddled off in different directions.

We were at Hope Bay during the week when all the Adelie chicks were taking their first swims. This proved to be a great opportunity for a number of Leopard Seals, which were too fast for these innocent youngsters.  

Finally, a photo I took on Saunders Island, in the Falklands. It shows that King Penguins teach their chicks to indicate their intention to turn left at an early age!
Many thanks to Nigel Hacking and Steve Rose for those photos which are not mine. It was another great season - one reason I look forward to our winters. Thanks also to all One Ocean staff and passengers who made it possible for me to return yet again to this unique wilderness.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Costa Rica Nov 2017

In November I was lucky enough to return for my 12th visit to Costa Rica. Each time I have co-led an Ornitholidays group, though this one will probably be my last since the company has now been sold. As usual I was impressed by the vast areas of well-protected forest from sea-level to mountain top, and by the fact that everyone there seems to understand the concepts of conservation and eco-tourism. It's an inspiring country to visit. 

 In the group, I was lucky enough to have several very talented wildlife photographers who were happy to share their images. This Coppery-headed Emerald was taken by Martin Robinson. It's one of the handful of Costa Rica endemics - there are so few, since almost all the regional endemics occur also in West Panama. There are over a hundred of these. 

This shot of a male Red-headed Barbet was the work of Roger Christopher. There are many roadside stops where teas, coffee and cake can be enjoyed while watching the feeders outside: often with well-positioned lichen-covered branches carefully placed nearby to make the settings seem more natural!

 Martin spent hours working at capturing hummingbirds in flight. Here a male Blue-throated Goldentail hovers at vervain flowers at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

We came across the iconic Keel-billed Toucan in a number of places, such as at Arenal. More often we saw the larger and inaccurately-named Black-mandibled Toucan: the local subspecies has a chestnut and yellow bill.  

 The Fasciated Tiger-Heron frequents the banks of fast-flowing streams, such as this one, flowing down from Arenal Volcano. We also had frequent encounters with its lowland cousin, the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. 

We didn't focus only on birds: we had a tip-off that this Margay was visiting the Arenal staff dining-room for hand-outs for herself and her cub. In the same area was a venemous Eyelash Pit Viper: both subjects kept the photographers busy for a while!

 After Arenal, we headed north to Cano Negro, near the Nicaraguan border. Here the river was flooded following recent rains, but from our small boat, we discovered quiet backwaters where this long-toed Northern Jacana could step easily from one water-lily leaf to another. 

Here also we came across a rare sight: a pair of Yellow-breasted Crakes with their newly-hatched brood of black chicks. As with all these images, click on the photo to enlarge it. Thanks to Mark and Carren Holden for this shot.

We visited the small garden of a local artist and conservationist named Cope. Next to his garden pond he has constructed a photographic hide, from which Martin made this study of an American Pygmy Kingfisher

 Cope took us to a small woodland nearby where we were able to enjoy great views of this roosting Crested Owl, not an easy species to see in Costa Rica. Tis medium-sized owl (weighing 400g) feeds mostly on insects.

In another woodland, Cope pointed out a family of Spectacled Owls - white-headed juvenile in front with its darker parents in the background. Weighing 750g, this species feeds on small mammals, reptiles and birds such as jays and oropendolas. 

Rancho Naturalista is an eco-lodge designed for visiting birders and wildlife photographers. On a stretch of river nearby, we followed this Sunbittern for 45 minutes as it moved slowly downstream. Only once or twice did it open its wings to reveal the exquisite chestnut pattern. Not related to bitterns, its closest relatives are seriemas and trumpeters, but it is in a family of its own. Thanks to my wife Clare for this image.

The lodge garden is the place to look for this tiny hummer, the male Snowcap. It feeds on the vervain bushes which line the entrance drive, but they are easily dominated by the larger and aggressive Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. It weighs 2.5g, and is only 6.5 cm long.

Still on the theme of hummers, here's another tiddler, only fractionally larger than the Snowcap. The male White-crested Coquette is adorned with more than its fair share of bright colours and striking plumage. It also finds the vervain irresistible. 

Often regarded as the world's most spectacular bird, the male Resplendent Quetzal is one that all visitors hope to see. We visited an area where a co-operative of local farmers keep an eye on their fruiting avocados (not the commercial ones) which are the quetzals' main diet. They can phone in their sightings to a local lodge, which encourages visits and tourist dollars to benefit them. The farm we visited (in pouring rain) had eight visiting quetzals that afternoon. Thankfully there was a shelter for us and our cameras.  

Our last forest reserve was Carara, in the Pacific lowlands. This is a great place to find the Great Tinamou, which can often be found quietly feeding in the leaf-litter by the main trails. Many thanks to my friend and co-leader Herman Venegas for taking us to so many great wildlife spots and finding so many species for us. And thanks again to all the photographers.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Brazil - Atlantic Rainforest

I am recently back from Brazil, where I spent nine days guiding the Ornitholidays group. We stayed at Regua, a nature reserve not far from Rio de Janeiro, a former cattle ranch now beautifully restored as tropical forest. It's an inspiring place where hundreds of thousands of native trees have been planted, and local schools are given guided tours. Only 7% remains of the original Atlantic Forest - which contains a great number of endemic species (not only birds of course). 

 As a contrast to the ongoing afforestation at Regua, one of our days out was to Carmo, in much drier country to the north beyond Teresopolis. My photo shows how much of the original forest looks now: bare hillsides with deep erosion gullies and only scrubby remnants of dry forest. Yet still great wildlife clings on here!

 One example from Carmo is this pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants, seen here in noisy display. We enjoyed many other restricted-range species here, such as Three-toed Jacamar and Serra Antwren. 

Here is the group in the best section of dry forest at Carmo, waiting for a White-collared Foliage-gleaner to appear. In the foreground is Adilei, a top-notch bird-guide who recognizes every squeak and whistle and can imitate most of them. 

 Back to Regua: the forests are full of tanagers, antbirds, manakins, with smaller numbers of toucans, motmots and trogons. This Green-headed Tanager is just one example, seen from one of the many excellent tracks and trails on the reserve. Though brightly coloured, it retains excellent camouflage in the canopy. 

 On another day out, we watched this Scale-throated Hermit as it hovered on the mountain slopes of Macae de Cima. Hermits can generally be recognized by their long curved bills and face pattern. Many species lack the iridescence typical of most hummingbirds. 

Rough grassland and open, dry forest (cerrado) is the habitat of the Red-legged Seriema: a pair of them (with silent, fully grown youngster) treated us to an ear-splitting  territorial display: definitely a decibel prize-winner. Seriemas are a family on their own: most closely related to cranes, but bearing a superficial resemblance to the Secretary-bird of Africa. Both are long-legged ground dwellers that nest in trees.

Burrowing Owls are common on the farmland around Regua. A close relative of our Little Owls, they have a huge range from British Columbia to Southern Argentina and Chile, excluding the whole Amazon basin.

 The lodge at Regua is a wonderfully informal place to stay, more like a large family home than a hotel. It's the kind of place you don't need to lock doors, and where I can leave telescope and tripod out on the verandah day and night. Many thanks to Nicholas, Raquel and Tom Locke and their staff for a great stay.

 Though not normally a city-dweller, I enjoyed spending my last 24 hours in Brazil in the magnificent city of Rio. Here the long sweep of Copacabana Beach can be seen from my viewpoint on Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf). My thanks to bird-photographers Mike Creighton (tyrant, hermit and seriema) and Richard Swinbank (tanager and owl).

Monday, 12 June 2017


I am recently back from Finland, where I co-led the Ornitholidays tour. We spent most of our days in the Oulu and Kuusamo areas, just south of the Arctic Circle. We were surprised by the lateness of the season: Oulu Bay was still  full of ice on 20 May, and many inland lakes were still frozen. One result was that Waxwings were more visible than usual - they were an everyday bird for us in the north. 

My co-leader Pirita worked very hard to find us the special birds we hoped to see. Here, at a sunny lunch break near Kuusamo, we were discussing where to go next. Unfortunately, a shortage of voles in the area made owls hard to find. We had one spectacular success.....
Pirita led us unerringly into a pinewood where this magnificent Great Grey Owl was spending a solitary spring, with no mate and few rodents to eat. Luckily it was settled in its daytime roost and not perturbed by our presence. I took this photo on my phone, through the scope.

The spruce and pine forests of the Kuusamo area are renowned for grouse populations: this male Capercaillie allowed a close approach. With snow only just melting, they were having a late breeding season this year. 

The Siberian Jay is often elusive in June since they retreat into spruce forests to breed. They survive all the year in the far north, becoming confiding around human habitations, like their close cousin the Grey Jay (or whiskyjack) in the Canadian north. 

Finland is a land of thousands of lakes. Where they were beginning to thaw, large numbers of duck often gathered on the ice-edge. The birches were still not ready to bud even in late May.  

Most of the duck were Teal and Goldeneye, with smaller numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders. There was antagonism among the drake Smew for territory, while the chestnut-headed females took no notice and continued preening. The wild songs of Greenshank and Wood Sandpipers were regular accompaniments to these scenes. Many thanks to Ross and Alan for the photos that were not mine.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Antarctica Feb-Mar 2017

Humpback Whales are often inquisitive - this one especially! It visited each of the zodiacs in turn. I had to resist the temptation of stroking the barnacles on its chin. (I wasn't using any zoom on my pocket Nikon Coolpix). This was just outside Orne Harbour, in the Gerlache Strait, on a cloudy day in February.   

Between the zodiacs you can see the top of the humpback's head, and under the water the white form of its left pectoral fin - which can grow to almost 5 metres in length. In my experience humpbacks are very gentle with small boats, sometimes swimming underneath them without touching them or alarming the passengers. 

Another day, another friendly humpback. Still no zoom on my lens! This time the kayaks were on the water too, and it swam between them too. How did I take the photo? Well, it was just a fluke! 

We had a few cloudless days during these two voyages, though generally it was cloudier than in November and December. Along the Antarctic Peninsula - our area of operations - the climate is warming, with an average of 90 days less sea-ice than a century ago. However, most other parts of the continent are south of the Antarctic Circle, and have a stable climate - i.e. seriously cold! 

Zodiac cruises may be for wildlife watching or just admiring the amazing ice formations that Antarctica throws at you everywhere. In this photo (click to enlarge), we are looking at another zodiac through a great hole in a huge iceberg. 

By the beginning of March, Gentoo Penguin chicks are almost fully grown. Here the chick - on the left - is making a polite request to its parent for another feed of regurgitated krill and fish. As the chicks begin to lose their down and moult into their first waterproof plumage, the adults stop feeding them. Hunger soon forces them to the water where they have to learn for themselves how to swim and catch food.

During an excursion to Hannah Point in the South Shetlands, we came across this Macaroni Penguin, one of three in a large colony of Chinstraps - one has its head visible in the bottom right. Although it's the world's most abundant penguin. most of its colonies are further north, and inaccessible (being on steep slopes of scree or tussock). Every year a few try to nest among Chinstraps in the South Shetlands.

A visit to an Antarctic Research Station is always popular. This is the bar of the Ukranian Vernadsky Station, formerly the British station Faraday, at 65 degrees south. The bar itself was built by a British carpenter, Keith Larratt, out of wood intended for a new dock. His work has ensured that visitors and residents have a warm welcome, with homemade vodka usually on offer. Famous as the base where the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, the scientists here continue important work in meteorology, atmospheric studies, zoology, etc. 

Finally, a look back to Christmas Day on the Vavilov deck. Ceilidh and Madeleine dance for the passengers while Julia and I play Morrison's Jig on fiddle and cunbus, a Turkish banjo-mandolin I bought in Istanbul in 1984. Many thanks to staff photographer Jeff Topham for sharing this image. The other photos are mine.