Wednesday 29 May 2019

Antarctica to Mexico 2019

I am recently back from a 7-week Polar-to-tropical journey on RCGS Resolute, thanks to One Ocean Expeditions. Beginning in Ushuaia on 21 March and heading first to the Antarctic Peninsula, the emphasis for our first group of passengers was on whales. Humpbacks especially! We had a group of scientists aboard from California Ocean Alliance who tagged many animals and shared their research with us. Having often covered Antarctica in my blogs, I will pass quickly on to the second voyage....

The Chilean Fjords took us, along with a new group of passengers, from Ushuaia to Valparaiso. Spectacular scenery of Andean peaks and glaciers were the backdrop to our explorations by ship and by zodiac. Whether in polar, temperate or tropical regions, the Resolute made a very comfortable floating home!

 Here is a group of Silvery Grebes, on the sea near Chiloe Island. I could equally have featured the abundant Magellanic Penguins, Black-browed Albatross, Imperial Cormorants or Kelp Geese, which kept us company during the first week of the voyage. The second week included a day at sea in the southern part of the Humboldt Current, a wonderfully productive ecosystem. Salvin's Albatross and Masatierra Petrels were special highlights.

At Amalia Fjord, my staff colleague Franco took photos of an otter from a zodiac: but which species is it? The area has small numbers of both Marine Otter and South American River Otter - they are very similar in appearance, and both are classified as endangered. We have circulated the photos in the hopes of a professional diagnosis.

 In Valparaiso we said farewell to our passengers and most of the staff too. Chile's main port is a bustling centre, both for shipping and for the seabirds of the Humboldt Current. Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Humboldt Penguins and Inca Terns can be seen in the harbour area. 

 For the next ten days we sailed north without passengers, re-positioning to Costa Rica. One of my less usual roles was helping to sort out new stock for the onboard gift shop (including sea otter, sloth and macaw!) 

I kept a daily log of our sightings as we sailed north through the Humboldt Current. As we approached the equator, flying fish began to appear, and occasional schools of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins.  

Brown Booby - sometimes accompanied by Masked and Red-footed Boobies - accompanied us and dived down on the flying fish. Often they would catch them before they fell back into the water. Many other seabirds crossed our path, most commonly Juan Fernandez Petrels. At night Swallow-tailed Gulls followed us for a week and fed on small prey stirred up in our wake. We rarely saw them by day.

On 23 April, we picked up our third group of passengers at Caldera, a small port on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. The next day we began our zodiac excursions to a remote beach at Curu Wildlife Refuge, where the dry tropical forest comes down to the beach. 

Northern Raccoons looked for crabs and fallen fruit on the beach. The reserve also revealed White-faced Capuchin and Howler Monkeys, but the forest here is too dry for sloths. Costa Rica is famous for having no army, and for putting extra funding into the environment, education and health. 

We admired the coastal rainforest on the edge of the Corcovado National Park in the remote south-west of Costa Rica. Here we split into small groups and explored. Some saw a Tamandua (a tree-climbing anteater), but we all enjoyed views of Tayras (a large tree-climbing weasel), Scarlet Macaws and Yellow-throated Toucans. 

On May 1st, after a day exploring Soberania National Park and  Panama City, we made our way through the Panama Canal from Pacific to Caribbean. Here we are entering Miraflores Lock, while on the left, a huge container ship passes along the new, wider channel that now allows even larger ships through. 

Many of us - including those passengers on board for back-to-back voyages - visited a village of the indigenous Embera people. They come originally from the remote Darien area of Eastern Panama. This involved a dugout canoe trip from Colon, Panama. The villagers showed us their school and various fine artefacts they had made - for sale of course! 

They also gave us a great lunch - freshly caught fish, fried plantains, and trays of tropical fruits. Meanwhile, our third group of passengers left us in Colon, and we welcomed a fourth group for the last voyage up to Mexico. 

 We all enjoyed a visit to the old city of Cartagena in Colombia, a world heritage site. Unlike sadly neglected Colon, Cartagena has been beautifully conserved. It felt relaxing - and very safe - wandering the old streets. And it made a change from looking for wildlife in remote forests! 

Back to work! We came across this Rufous-tailed Jacamar in dry scrub near the National Aviary, just outside Cartagena. Jacamars (of Central and South America) fill the same ecological niche as bee-eaters in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, though they are not closely related. 

On the island of Guanaja, Honduras, our crew from the Philippines came ashore with us and prepared a spectacular picnic. The snorkellers found a magnificent variety of fish and coral, while others enjoyed kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, sunbathing or just keeping cool in the crystal-clear water. 

On the first voyage Dave Brosha and I enjoyed playing tunes together, but he and his guitar left us in Ushuaia. After Valparaiso, my old cunbus (Turkish banjo-mandolin) was the only instrument among the staff. Sometimes we'd go into the crew mess and join in the Filipino karaoke!

A visit to Lamanai Mayan site near Belize city was a highlight both for the history and the birdlife. Like most of the Mayan ruins in Guatamala and Mexico, Lamanai is surrounded by a bird-rich forest. Brightly plumaged trogons, aracaris, orioles and honeycreepers delighted the birders among us. 
Finally, on 11 May, we reached Cozumel, Mexico and began our homeward journeys. My journey stretched 85 degrees of latitude - from 65 south to 20 north - and lasted 52 days. Some of the photos here are mine, but also many thanks to various photographers who contributed, especially to Amanda Guercio for the booby, flying fish and jacamar portraits.  


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.