Tag Archives: Black Browed Albatross

The birds that make the wind blow (R.C. Murphy)

We are now half way across the Drake Passage with our bow pointed towards the Lemaire Channel which is much further south than we normally aim for the start of a trip. Very much looking forward to getting in amongst the serious ice right at the beginning of the trip!

But right now we are gently rolling in languid seas with an escort of albatross soaring around the ship. Wandering albatross with their wingspan of over three meters surround us and display their plumage like badges of rank denoting their age. Some birds still present the dark cap and brown plumage of juveniles, some have discarded the brown feather but retain the collar that proclaims them as sub-adults, some hold the black and white plumage of breeding adults and a few proudly display the broad expanse of white wings that marks them as mature adults approaching the full 50 years of their lifespan. Amidst these colossal ocean wanderers are a host of other albatross including black browed, grey headed and light mantled sooty albatross, as well as smaller ocean birds like the Wilson’s storm petrel, cape petrel, Antarctic prion and the slender billed prion.

It’s a vast ocean but it is hard to feel lonely when surrounded by such splendid companions.

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Beyond shag rocks

The past few days we have had a whirlwind of exploration with fantastic sailing along the north coast of the Falkland Islands accompanied by countless Commerson dolphins and a myriad of sea birds. We visited immense colonies of black browed albatross at west point island, watched the rockhoppers hop over the rocky cliffs and trekked through the rolling hills of the islands watching the diverse birdlife flutter though the tussock grass.

It’s always easy to forget how amazing the Falkland Islands is when en route to South Georgia (probably the most amazing place on earth), but when you arrive on the sandy beaches populated by throngs of Gentoo and magelanic penguins it is easy to spend hours in awe of this far flung land.

Now the Falkland’s lie in our wake, we have past the isolated rocky outcrop of shag rocks with its resident shags and seals, and the jagged snow-clad cliffs of South Georgia will greet me tomorrow when I wake. This thought provides excitement enough to fuel my dreams tonight … and the good news … then I awake the dream of spectacular wildlife and picture book scenery will be a reality!

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The Falklands

We are currently at anchor off the north-west coast of the Falkland Islands. Peale’s dolphins accompanied us as we approached the islands and now we are swingling gently at anchor surrounded by the rolling green hills of the islands with albatross and the occasional seal swimming about. It is always easy to forget the beauty of the Falklands as we head towards South Georgia with its excess of wildlife, but once you arrive you are quickly reminded of the fact that 80% of the worlds black browed albatross nest here and that the white sandy beaches of Carcass and Saunders islands offer a unique and unforgettable experience all of their own. Tomorrow we will be walking among mixed colonies of albatross, rock-hopper penguins and shags and taking advantage of the home grown hospitality of the islanders. A great way to start a fantastic journey, and a huge itinerary ahead of us …can’t wait!

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Towards the ice

This morning I awoke early to feel the swell of the Drake Passage tossing my body around the bed and various loose items around my cabin. I must be on my way to Antarctica!

After a quick tidy up of my various scattered belongings however, I took the time to take in the splendour of being on the southern seas – rolling waves crested by white caps, wind-whipped foam lining the deep blue water … and of course the birds. While sailing all summer up the Norwegian coast in our own little yacht accompanied by northern fulmars, puffins, guillemots, gannets, razorbills and various gulls it’s easy to forget just how numerous the sea birds of the Southern Ocean are.

In Norwegian waters there is generally one or two birds in sight of the ship … Strolling on the pitching deck this morning I was greeted by clouds of seabirds trailing after the ship like a wheeling cloud of moths over a flame. Wandering albatross, giant petrels, pintados, storm petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatross and more all formed a soaring entourage to herald our passage towards the southern continent. In an ocean that stretched around the globe it’s hard to feel alone.

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How do you get away from all the birds?

Today we arrived in the Falkland Islands and had two stops where birds where definitely the main feature. The first stop was Saunders Island with nesting black brow albatross, Magellanic penguins and gentoo penguins, all attended by their attendant crown of hungry scavenger including Striated Caracaras and Turkey Vultures – an amazing sight with some stunning wildlife and behaviours to observe, but for me the highlight was Carcass Island. Not as spectacular in terms of piles of wildlife, but here you sit on the beach and are literally harassed by the birds. The cheeky tussock birds flit around the strand line on the beach and will sit on your knee with a curious expression wondering what kind of strange apparition you are. The birds here are pretty unique as the island is cat and rat free which means these guileless birds are safe for now, whilst in much of their previous range they have disappeared. And it is not surprising – today on sat in the palm of my hand briefly. They have absolutely no fear, which does not bode well in the face of introduced predators. Not that the island doesn’t have it’s own predators… well scavengers really. When the tussock birds aren’t stealing the show, the striated caracaras are always happy to perform. One particular opportunistic individual spent several minutes trying to tear my gumboot apart (with my foot inside) while others hovered only feet above wondering if I presented a meal opportunity. It is really splendid to see a host of animals that are absolutely fearless of humans.

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The bird that makes the wind blow

R.C. Murphy once described the albatross as the `bird that makes the wind blow` which is pretty fitting since we visited Prion Island today to look at some nesting albatross while it blew 40 knots of wind. Despite the gale and the driving rain it is breath-taking to see these birds up close. A 3.5 metre wingspan is enormous but almost impossible to judge when the birds are on the wing with an endless horizon behind and a sweeping sea-scape below… but on the nest you start to appreciate how big these birds are, though admittedly the graceful flight at sea is replaced by a somewhat clumsy waddle as they pick their way through the tussock and crash to earth in a stumble.Watching the birds delicately preen each other in greeting andstretch their wings into the wind makes up for their awkwardness… and being the king of the skies there really is no need for them to perform on earth as well – they are creature of the southern winds and are only bound to land briefly to breed before once again taking to the air. Either way it is a privilege to observe these majestic animals up close, and a fitting farewell to South Georgia as we set sail towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

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South Georgia looms from the mist

This morning we were surrounded by the same thick fog that has clung to us for days except this morning the silence of the fog was pierced by a cacophony of seal cries echoing off the sheer cliffs that peeked through the white mist. We have arrived at South Georgia Island! This is an absolutely incredible place… like nothing on earth. We started the day with a zodiac ride in Elsehul harbour were we cruised past a swarming mass of fur seals all stridently crying out and barking. Above us albatross wheeled through the mist and grey headed, black-brow and light mantled sooties perched amongst the tussocks above us on their delicate nests. Macaroni penguins charged down the hills into the surging waters and king penguins stood proudly in the their neat colonies on the smooth shingle beaches. Meanwhile giant petrels feasted on the carcasses of fallen elephant seals only feet from their comrades still lounging on the thick rafts of kelp washed ashore. The entire busy beach is also bathed in the peculiar chummy odor of fur seal which brands this as South Georgia.

This introduction was followed by a visit to Salisbury Plains, home to the second largest king penguin colony in the world. Picture tens of thousands of stately penguins splashed with gorgeous colours of sunset orange spilling out from the beach into the green tussock. At the base of the colony juvenile kings in their scruffy coats of brown down wait patiently for a feed while occasionally engaging in a detailed investigation of a passing tourist. Stopping to gently mouth a proffered finger. Unfortunately to get to the colony you have to run the gauntlet of grumpy fur seals who have missed out on the seasons breeding and are looking to take it out on the soft looking bipeds wandering around in a daze. Only a couple of close calls for me but 200 kg of angry seal is something to treat with respect!

It’s good to be back after two years!

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What a way to start the New Year! This morning we pulled into the North West islands of the Falkland group and got ashore to wander amidst the fantastic avifauna of the Falklands set amidst rolling green hill and intense aqua blue water that is crystal clear and inviting despite being just a tad to cool for a swim. The first stop was a pretty spectacular location – Saunders Island. Here we see Gentoo Penguins with well-grown chicks nesting on grass with Striated Caracaras and Turkey Vultures prowling around looking for a free meal. Kind of strange seeing the penguins on a green backdrop after a month of seeing them on the clean white blanket of Antarctic snow …  well clean except for the deposits of pink guano. After a while looking at the Gentoos we were then free to roam around the shore amidst the Magellanic Penguin burrows towards the cliffs where the Rockhopper Penguins have staked their territory just next door the Black-browed Albatross nests. The Falklands is the largest and most important breeding site for both these species, with the albatross in particular representing 80% of the global population. Just stunning to watch these majestic animals glide in and then greet their mate and chick with delicate mutual preening displays and calls. And that was just the morning! In the evening we landed at Carcass Island and managed to stretch our legs while walking through the tussock grass to the local homestead where we were plied with home cooked cake and tea in the best English tradition. All up we saw 28 species of birds including two endemic species, the Cobb’s Wren and the Falkland Steamer Duck which are both found no where else on the Earth and former are becoming hard to find even here due to the introduced rats, cats and mice that make an easy meal of these incredibly trusting creatures. My favourite bird for the day is the Tussock Bird, which is happy to sit on your toes and twitter at you … no wonder the cats have a liking for them! And talking of twittering… after the silence of the Antarctic it is pretty special to hear the song of birds flitting around the trees on New Years. Very sweet music to greet 2011.

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Bits and birds

Another Drake passage with a long swell setting the boat to a slow swinging roll. The wind is quite and the birds are drifting long behind the boat as if drawn to this small speck of steel adrift in the endless ocean. We have Royal and Wandering albatross that ghost in occasionally to inspect and a cloud of black browed albatross, giant petrels and cape petrels that seem loath to stray far from our wake. We also spotted a spectacled porpoise today which is a rare sight in the Southern Ocean (I say “we” because I missed it ..damn). Otherwise it is plain sailing with Antarctica at the bow… hoping to reach land by tomorrow afternoon!

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