Thursday 18 February 2016

A week in St Lucia

Clare and I are recently back from a relaxing week in St Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles. She was on holiday, while I was leading the Ornitholidays group. The profile of the island is dominated by twin volcanic plugs, called Pitons, that rise sharply out of the Caribbean. Here only one is visible: the other is directly behind it. 

Our resort, Anse Chastenet, is on the west coast. It has two beaches, including this quiet and little used one, Anse Mamin. Good birding is available right there, including two endemic species, St Lucia Warbler and St Lucia Pewee. Our room had views over the sea and across to the Pitons. 

 A number of birds could be enticed to our verandahs with a few crumbs liberated from the breakfast buffet. Boldest are Lesser Antillean Bullfinches and Bananaquits, but with patience this shy Grey Trembler was tempted away from its usual diet of fruit and small lizards. The trembler is so-called as it quivers its wings as if in excitement. In family terms, it is a thrasher, related to mockingbirds. 

On three days we had early starts with picnic breakfasts, guided by one of the top birders on the island, aptly named Vision. Here we are on the Des Cartier Rainforest Trail, where Vision is explaining the importance of some of the rainforest trees. In particular, we were keen to see the national bird, the St Lucia Parrot. The island has six endemic species of birds, which can all be seen fairly easily in the company of a good naturalist guide.

After finding shelter from a passing shower, our driver Sherman summoned us back along the trail to watch a pair of parrots that he found. At their low point, in 1975, the parrots declined to about 150 birds. A national campaign and education programme persuaded islanders to protect them and their nesting trees, and made it illegal to keep them as pets. Now there are over a thousand birds, and all the schoolchildren know about 'Jacquot.'

On another day out with Vision, we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds and this Red-billed Tropicbird flying around the southernmost point of the island. Tropicbirds were always a welcome sight to seamen in the sailing ship days, since they rarely fly more than a day's sailing from land. One morning we took a boat out from the resort, where we found a school of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, many Brown Boobies, plus one Red-footed Booby and two wintering Pomarine Skuas. 

The afternoons were for relaxing, or exploring the coral reef just off our two beaches. Here a Yellowtail Damselfish swims past Yellow Tube-Sponges. Among the brain corals, sea-fans, sea-plumes and giant clams swam a great diversity of fish, in many shapes, sizes and colours. In addition to Clare's and my photos, many thanks to Eoin Hanley and Sue Goodyer for the others. 


Tuesday 9 February 2016

Emperor Penguin!

One of the highlights of my Antarctic season came at 2100 hrs local time on Christmas Eve. In GMT terms, that's the moment Christmas day started! The Vavilov was sailing past Waterboat Point, where the Chilean station of Gonzalez Videla is situated. It was a clear, sunny evening, and we had just finished dinner on board. We had heard from our sister ship that a lone Emperor was among Gentoos on the isthmus that links the mainland to the peninsula where the station is built, and where the Gentoos have a colony. We rushed up to the port bridge-wing and manned the two ship telescopes. There, lying down on the isthmus, was the unmistakable bulk of a huge penguin. At that late hour we had no chance to get closer, as we were heading for Paradise Harbour to offload our campers for a night in bivvy-bags on the ice. 

Our plans to return for a landing or a zodiac cruise in the morning were foiled by an unfortunate medical emergency that had us passing Waterboat Point at full speed - there was the Emperor again, standing up this time. (Happily our patient was safely evacuated and has recovered well.) 
This is how we saw the Emperor on Christmas Eve: the rounded shape on the left of the image! (Click to enlarge the picture). Luckily it remained in the same spot for several days, enabling One Ocean staff photographer Tony Beck to capture his portrait (top image), with a Gentoo for size comparison. 

Here is the Chilean station, with the isthmus on the right of the picture. Our ships could only reach 64 degrees south in December on account of ice; Emperor colonies on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula are well south of the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. Nevertheless the odd vagrant is reported at this latitude from time to time. This one is in immature plumage, with white rather than golden cheek patch. It is probably 18 months old, since Emperors chicks hatch in August. It will spend most of the next two years at sea, returning to its nesting colony aged four, and breeding at five. The weight range of Emperors is 20 to (an unbelievable) 41 kg, while a Gentoo averages 6 kg. So, although it is not much taller than the Gentoo, it is probably four times its weight. 

Despite our views being distant, it was a fantastic Christmas present! Many thanks to Tony Beck for the main photo; also to Nate Small for alerting us to look for it and then spotting it first, and to Alastair and Ruthie McLauchlan for the other photos.  

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Antarctica October 2015-January 2016

My latest Antarctic adventure was my longest: 12 weeks on the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, seen here on a sunny morning off the Antarctic Peninsula, at 64 degrees south. In recent years, there has been too much ice to head further south than this much before Christmas. February and March are the easiest months to cross the Antarctic Circle, at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. As usual this and her sister ship are operated by One Ocean Expeditions, from Canada. Although my main jobs are spotting and identifying wildlife, and giving presentations on the seabirds (especially penguins), we staff all have plenty of other roles. Most revolve around ensuring that our passengers are safe and have a wonderful time!   

We had six groups of passengers while I was on board. The first voyage was just for South Georgia, since October is too early to visit Antarctica. Here King Penguins - with their brown downy chicks aged 8 months - form great colonies close to the beach. On some beaches they have to share space with hundreds of Elephant Seals and (from late November) Antarctic Fur Seals too. 

 Once we reach the Antarctic Peninsula, these are the three penguins we see most: (from left to right) Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap, though it's not common to see the three standing together as here on a beach in the South Shetlands. They usually nest in one-species colonies, apart from the other two. This part of Antarctica (the west side of the Peninsula) is changing quickly, with far less sea-ice remaining in winter compared with a century ago. This has caused a decline in Adelies and Chinstraps, which feed on krill. (Krill feeds on algae on the underside of the sea-ice). However, the more generalist Gentoo - a fish-eater too - is increasing rapidly at the expense of the other two.  

This Gentoo has a nest with two eggs, laid in mid-November. Then came a snowstorm, as often happens early in the season. Like all penguins, both Gentoo parents share all the nesting duties. In a day or two, the other partner will return to take a turn incubating. Provided the nest has a good foundation of small stones to help the eggs dry out quickly, they should hatch as normal - around Christmas or New Year's Day.

Adelies begin their nesting season earlier than Gentoos: this is the colony at Brown Bluff on 3rd January. After two more weeks the chicks' down falls off, revealing their first waterproof plumage underneath. Their first underwater forays are fraught with danger, as they have to learn to swim, find food, and avoid Leopard Seals and Orcas. 

Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, is home to large colonies of Macaroni and Chinstrap Penguins. Here two Macs pose on the rocks with a Chinny. Macaronis are the world's most abundant penguin, with about 9 million pairs, but by no means the easiest to encounter. They nest in large inaccessible colonies on steep slopes, either under tussock or in scree. Although they lay two eggs, they only ever raise one chick to fledging. The first of the two eggs is often smaller than the second, and usually fails to hatch. 

On a snowy day on South Georgia, we are watching Albatrosses (Grey-headed and Light-mantled) on their nests. Some passengers are busy with cameras, while others enjoy the 30x magnification of the ship's telescope. In early November, the albatrosses are at the courtship stage, strengthening their pair-bonds with mutual preening on the nest and synchronized fly-pasts.

This is a pre-digital slide I took many years ago in South Georgia, of two half-grown Light-mantled Albatross chicks on their nests one February. As with all of the family, only one egg is laid. 

In the evenings there is 
often a chance to make music in the bar. Michael, Kaylan and I have just recreated the song 'My Hut on Elephant Isle' - written in 1916 by the crew of the Endurance as they awaited rescue by Shackleton. Some of these photos are mine; many thanks to One Ocean staff and passengers for the others.