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.