Tuesday 28 February 2012

Three Kings here we come!

Well I have been rather quiet on here of late.  Have recovered relatively smoothly from the wisdom teeth extraction.  Not the most pleasant of ops and looking forward to not having gaping holes at the back of my mouth!  Had another quick stint up at the Rena ICC (Incident Command Centre) with the release of our final rehabilitated little blue penguins, and tidying up the last of the Wildlife operations.  Standing in as Wildlife Manager this time, and happy to be able to help out and finalise a few things as the Wildlife Response draws to a close.
Have also had the displeasure of transferring everything over to my new iMAC...they make it sound like a migration from a PC to a Mac is so simple!  Ha!  Perhaps it is if you don't have any files of email!  Spent approximately 24 hours transferring my entire email file over manually because Mac Outlook 2011 import function doesn't actually work...it seems to decide randomly which 40% of your email file you might want and doesn't transfer the rest.  Oh well, gives us something to do on summer weekends I guess!
So now up early and I'm off northwards to start our annual Three Kings pelagic - we do a four day liveaboard in the Far North from Houhora up to the Three Kings.  Last year was an absolute MEGA trip with a NZ first record (collared petrel) as well as a bunch of other good stuff (Tahiti petrel, sooty tern and wedge-tailed shearwater), so we are hoping for good things again this year.  Obviously a blog and photos to follow, but for last years trip report take a look at our Trip Reports section.  The blog from last year is here also.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Birding Buenos Aires with Alec Earnshaw

So I got home just over a day ago and slowly getting back into a 'normal' routine.  This afternoon I get my wisdom teeth out, so might be out of action for a few days...not looking forward to that!

However, my final day in Argentina was an absolute cracker!  Alec Earnshaw, a birding guide based in Buenos Aires (visit his website here), picked me up from the hotel at 0430 (yes the time is correct, that is not a typo!), and we headed north out of the city to a place just up out of the Plana River valley called Ceibas.  This was to be our first stop, with it being dark most of the way, just getting light as we got to the area.  However, on the way lightening flashed in the sky, and with a not so good weather forecast we were a little anxious.

We made our first stop, and within minutes were racking up the species, almost all of which were new - three spinetails, a conastero, a couple of doves and pigeons, black-capped warbling-finch, etc etc.  Even in the half light we were managing some great views of the birds, and even better the rain was holding off.  Alec was extremely sharp with bird calls and was picking up and identifying birds I was struggling to even get a whisper of, knowing the calls and having good ears really is the key to successful birding in many parts of the World.

We headed down the road a little further and had very close views of several scissor-tailed nightjars (unfortunately no breeding plumage male, but these birds are beaut anyway), and then further down the road to some areas that used to contain wetlands.  With the drought over the last five years, many of these areas are now dry or hold only remnants of what used to be significant wetland areas.  However, there were still plenty of giant woodrails around, a strange bird with beautiful orange and green bill, and as the name suggests quite large.  As the rain started we managed a few other local specialties, including another spinetail, but unfortunately no firewood gatherer (hows that for the name of a bird?!).  We did find some Southern screamers, another lifer for me and a bird from a family I had long wanted to see.  These things are related to ducks, but look more like a large long-legged turkey vs goose.  Weird and wonderful at the same time, and quite the fliers too.

We decided to get to some better roads as the rain came down heavily, for fear of getting stuck, but we were still able to bird along the way and gradually pick up a few more things.  Steadily the rain eased, and after an hour or so had completely stopped.  We picked up wattled jacana, plumbeous rail, curve-billed reed-haunter, rufous-capped antshrike, scarlet-headed blackbird and a few other good birds, with another couple of stops for two more species of spinetail.  Cattle tyrant, dark-billed cuckoo, and blue and yellow tanager were seen along the way, and as the sun started to shine, the camera came out a little more often.

Before long it was time for lunch, and we had a quick lunch stop, where amongst others we found a glaucous blue grosbeak singing from a perch, very nice bird.  We then headed out into some drier country, and started to see some more different birds, although a couple of wetland/stream stops had South American snipe, black-backed water-tyrant, and finally a stonking male vermilion flycatcher (after having seen a few juvs and females).    The drier country gave up things like a juv savanna hawk, American kestrel, burrowing owl, and a saffron-cowled blackbird, plus a couple of grey monjita.  It was here we also managed the bird with definitely the weirdest name of the day - a firewood gatherer!  Nice little fella and a member of the family Furnariidae, to which so many of the birds seen today belong.

As the sun started to get lower in the sky, we decided we should head back towards the city...missing my flight back to New Zealand was not really on my wish list, so with the potential for a slow drive in heavy traffic after the end of holiday season, we started to head back.  On the way we made a few quick stops, and found what I feel was the bird of the day - yellow-billed cardinal.  A stunning bird with blood-red head and black and white plumage.  Perhaps it was the warm evening light, or the success of the day, so far, but several nice views of this bird made it stick in my mind as the best of the day.

We slowly headed back into the city, traffic was not actually too bad, so we made reasonable time, getting back to the hotel around 2100.  All in all a fantastic day with Alec, and I thoroughly recommend him as a guide.  It was great chatting throughout the day, and as he had just bought a new SLR we got to talk camera gear and practices.  In total we got 106 species for the day, which was pretty good considering the dearth of waterfowl/wetland species due to many of the wetland areas being dry.  Of these 106, 47 were lifers, and counting the 118 species seen during my three days in Buenos Aires I managed about 52 lifers in total.  Thanks for a great day Alec!

Rufous-capped antshrike

Southern screamers

Freckle-breasted thornbird

Double-collared seed-eater

A roadside hawk...beside the road

Chalk-browed mockingbird

Cattle tyrant...without the cattle

Patterning on an Uturu pit viper Bothrops alternatus
Ha, and you thought I was so brave to get the above photo! Dead Uturu pit viper  Bothrops alternatus, one of four snakes we saw during the day, three of which were unfortunately road kill.

Fork-tailed flycatcher, a species seen commonly throughout the day

Burrowing owl in flight

Pair of burrowing owls perched

Juvenile savanna hawk perched on a fence post

Pampas cavy (or guinea pig) Cavia pamparum

Sunday 5 February 2012

Costanera Sur

Had another good morning at Costanera Sur in Buenos Aires this morning.  There at 0800 as the gates opened and shortly after met up with a couple of local birders - Javier and Norberto.  Ended up seeing some great stuff  as we walked much of the park, with 46 species and 8 lifers.  Many thanks to them for their conversation and bird finding and identification skills!  Nice to also have my identifications from the previous day confirmed! ;)

They directed me to the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve website, which might be of interest to others


Lots of great photos and information on the place.

Also, just to note that I posted 300 images to my Eco-Vista: Photography & Research Facebook page.  You don't have to be a member to look at any of the images on there.

Saturday 4 February 2012

A Century and a half...what an Antarctic cruise!

So, I see this is to be blog post number 150!  Rather apt considering this follows one of the best cruises I've ever done, and certainly the best Antarctic/South Georgia/Falklands cruise I have ever done.  We were so spoilt with the weather I almost got sick of saying to people "Man this weather is awesome, you guys don't realise how lucky you are!".

We set out from Ushuaia and headed up to the Falklands.  Pretty smooth sailing and some nice sightings of cetaceans, with some bow riding dusky dolphins as we left the Beagle Channel, then a close pod of hourglass dolphins which allowed some photography, and then we hit the Falklands.  It was my first visit to Bleaker Island, but what a great place.  A couple of freshwater ponds with breeding black-necked swans, some tufted and silvery grebes, and a bunch of white-rumped sands and two-banded plovers.  Nice start!  The rockhopper colony was fantastic, with half grown chicks running around and creching, and massive Imperial shag colonies.  All made for some great photos.  Stanley in the afternoon gave us a chance to walk around from the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth to Gypsy Cove..  A great walk with some botanising and birding along the way.  I tried to discourage everyone from looking at the disheveled lone King penguin moulting on the beach at Gypsy Cove..their first King penguin - it should have been 1 of 60,000 breeding pairs in South Georgia, but oh well!  I got a few minutes back in Stanley to run up and catch up with Kay McCallum who we had stayed with for many weeks back in 2004 when we were married in the Falklands.  Was great to see her and chat, even if only for half an hour!

Then it was on to South Georgia where we completed something nine landings (inc zodiac cruises) in three days.  We managed every landing with weather being stunning almost throughout, something that is very rare on South Georgia.  A zodiac cruise at Elsehul was first up, but of course the highlights for me were Salisbury Plain (with 60,000 breeding pairs of king penguins), my first visit to Prion Island with breeding wandering albatrosses, St Andrew's Bay with even more King Penguins, Gold Harbour, and Cooper Bay.  South Georgia is a stunning stunning place, and if you ever get the chance to go to Antarctica, make sure it includes at least a few days in this absolute jewel.

Then it was down to the South Orkney Islands where we made a landing on Coronation Island.  Massive chinstrap colonies, and I managed to find a leopard seal as well.  We had five seal species during the two zodiac cruises I did, so pretty awesome, again in pretty sunny conditions. Looks like a pretty rugged place, and can't even imagine spending the winter there as my good mate Rick Price has done on more than one occasion!

Then on to Elephant Island, where as with the rest of the trip, the seas were flat, the winds light, the skies blue, and we made a landing on Point Wild!  I venture to suggest the weather was not much like that day for most of which Shackleton's men spent camped there!  Absolutely stunning to land there and see the place up close.  Those guys were damn tough, it's hard to believe they all survived, but they did, and Point Wild can't have been the most relaxing of places to spend the best part of a winter.

We then headed down to the Antarctic Peninsula, with a sneaky day in the Weddell, including a landing at Brown Bluff (where the wind got up to 90 knots as we got people back to the ship in the zodiacs...needless to day a few people - inc me driving - got a little damp!), Devil Island, and some cruising in Antarctic Sound.  Very nice day.  Then back up and around to a few spots with a stunning pod of killer whales in the Gerlache, beautiful humpbacks and calves, before an absolutely stunning day at Neko Harbour and Paradise Bay, with an evening cruise in stunning conditions in the Le Maire Channel.  Wow!  Just doesn't get any better.  We then rounded off with a great day at Port Lockroy, Cuverville and then onto the South Shetlands.  The last day was a big one with Bailey Head (YES- my first landing here at this legendary place and driving too!), Whalers Bay, and Pendulum Cove, and the Hannah's Point...whew, four landings!  After all that, we did something like 27 landings, and really needed a rest on the Drake on the way back, and it was the Drake Lake!  Fantastic.

So I am now in Buenos Aires, having had a day wandering around Costanero Sur birding.  Looks like I will head there again tomorrow and then may get a day with a guide on Sunday, before heading home.

Hourglass dolphin busting through the surface

Chilean skua on Bleaker Island

Rockhopper chick testing its wings

Adult rockhopper amongst the creche

Comin' to get you...

Goose feather on Bleaker

Pembroke Lighthouse

Ferns near Gypsy Cove, Port Stanley

Magellanic penguins near Gypsy Cove

Wandering albatross at sea

Macaroni penguins to scared to get in the water

King of the hill!

Leucistic fur seal pup

Kings, kings everywhere!

Looking from the top of Salisbury Plain


That kid don't need no more food!

Wandering albatross stretching its wings on Prion Island

Crash landing!

The colony at the top of Prion Island

Wandering albatross on the nest on Prion Island


Fur seal pup nursing

South Georgia pintail at Stromness

Stromness Whaling Station

Reindeer at Godthul

Gentoo chicks stretching it out

Chasing for food!

Giant petrels cleaning up a penguin

St Andrew's

Courting kings


King in snow

King with a rainbow

About to mate

St Andrew's

Looking out over the colony

North meets south

The embrace

Boisterous sub-adult elephant seals

Giant petrels tearing apart a carcass

King penguin running through the colony

Feeding the chick

Arriving back at the colony

Skua with a scrap of penguin



Gold Harbour

The egg

The beach at Gold Harbour

Leucistic fur seal checking out a king

Leucistic fur seal

Macaroni having a shake

Coronation Island, South Orkneys, massive chinstrap colony

Cape petrels following the ship on the way into Elephant Island

Against the light

Elephant Island

Across the bay from Elephant Island

Chinstrap swimming

Monument to the Capt of the Yelcho, Luis Pardo Villalon, who took Shackleton back to Elephant Island to rescue his men

Bergs in light

A closer berg

The bluffs of Brown Bluff

Adelie still building with stones

Adelie colony at Brown Bluff

Rick Price poised like a coiled spring

MV Clipper Adventurer, just before the 90 knot winds!

March of the penguins

Devil Island

View from the top

Adelie chicks on Devil Island

Fluffy Adelie chick

Chasing for food

Bergs and light

Big tabular berg

Female killer whale

Breaking the surface

Big male killer whale

Nice sunset!

Bergs and sunset

And more

Last one...

Awesome zodiac cruise

Cape petrels feeding on krill beside a berg

Big cave archway

They left their mark...whale bones

Weddell seal scratching

Gentoo and chick panting in the heat

A humpback dives

Dive dive

With a berg in the background

Stunning close views of a humpback calf about to break the surface for a breath

The calf

And again




Early morning light

And again

Humpback breaks the surface

Bergs and sun

Flat calm coming into Neko Harbour


The ship at Neko

Gentoo surfaces

Gentoos heading out to sea

A visit by a minke

Castellated bergs

Crabeater sleeping

Berg reflections

Young Antarctic shag

Young Antarctic shag diving

Ctenaphore or comb jelly

on the way into the LeMaire Channel, ah Una!

Lots of ice in the LeMaire

But we went in anyway

Light on the hills in the LeMaire

Gentoos at Port Lockroy

Antarctic shag

Skua about to land and harass penguins

Not on my watch buddy!

Go ahead make my day!

Oh dear!

Part of the gentoo colony on Cuverville Island

Humpback right by the ship

Just round the corner from Bailey Head, Deception Island

More chinstraps than you can shake a stick at!

Coming back to the colony

The rocks etched by penguin claws on Hannah Point

Skuas make short work of a dead gentoo chick

A giant petrel killing a giant petrel chick, a very strange and disturbing thing to watch