Wednesday, December 15, 2010

San Benito County Birding Report

Howdy, Birders,

This is a late report of some birds in San Benito County.

PAICINES RESERVOIR has had a good selection of waterfowl: up to 14 HOODED MERGANSERS (25 Nov), 250+ COMMON MERGANSERS (all days), 12 RING-NECKED DUCKS (11 Dec), and other usual species, including WHITE PELICANS (3-5); EARED, PIED-BILLED, WESTERN and CLARK'S GREBES. Raptors present have included the adult BALD EAGLES, off and on, usually perched in the oak grove, with both male and female present (26 Nov); PRAIRIE FALCON, usually perched on the double power tower on the far side (25, 26 Nov; 11 Dec); MERLIN, usually perched in the far leafless trees (I saw one eat a red-winged blackbird, 11 Dec); and NORTHERN HARRIER (11 Dec). TREE/VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS (3) were present on 12 Dec. Reasonable numbers of shorebirds have been present, including: LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (up to 25 most days); LEAST SANDPIPER (up to 22 most days); WESTERN SANDPIPER ( 1 on 26 Nov; 2 on 12 Dec); BLACK-NECKED STILT (1 on 19 Dec); SPOTTED SANDPIPER (1 on 12 Dec, unusual in winter). Geese have included: CANADA, CACKLING (2 on 12 Dec), and WHITE-FRONTED (22 on 12 Dec).

HOLLISTER SEWER PONDS: I visited the sewer ponds on 10 Dec. Birding is abysmal, as there is precious little water. Shorebirding is next to nil. The best place for shorebirds is at Paicines Reservoir. Two COMMON GOLDENEYES were just about the only birds of note.

PANOCHE VALLEY: At Summit Ranch Pond, I noted one DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, which I do not believe I have ever seen at this pond. (Reasonable numbers of cormorants are at Paicines Reservoir). Panoche Valley was socked in with fog on 12 December, even in mid-day. On Panoche Road near the school, both a dark-morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK and PRAIRIE FALCON were present. Another PRAIRIE FALCON was present on Recalde Road, along with a few MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS. Near Silver Creek Ranch, small numbers of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, AMERICAN PIPITS, and 3 VESPER SPARROWS were present. At Shotgun Pass, an immature GOLDEN EAGLE was hunting ground squirrels, as it perched on rocks, and 2 ROCK WRENS were in the pass itself. I found no mountain plovers or kingbirds.

BROWN'S VALLEY ROAD: On Dec 12, two BURROWING OWLS and one SHORT-EARED OWL were present. On Dec 11, two BURROWING OWLS and a MERLIN were present.

PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT: On December 11, I found 5 CALIFORNIA CONDORS (2 were soaring, while 3 were perched in a large pine tree on the ridge); one ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER in the campground, along with the usual resident suspects.

GLORIA ROAD: On 25 Nov, I birded this road, and found most of the usual resident and winter birds. Highlights included: more than 20 LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES, 12 BELL'S SAGE SPARROWS, 1 HUTTON'S VIREO, and 1 PHAINOPEPLA.

FREMONT PEAK STATE PARK: On 10 Dec, near the top of San Juan Canyon road, at the entrance to the park. very large flocks were encountered, including 100+ CEDAR WAXWINGS, HERMIT THRUSH, AMERICAN ROBINS, and 2 EVENING GROSBEAKS (very few records for San Benito County of this species). A male TOWNSEND'S WARBLER and a BROWN CREEPER were in the oaks near the campground. Finally, a BOBCAT was scampering along the hillside. Images are at:

HOLLISTER: On 14 Dec, from my front yard, I heard an EVENING GROSBEAK calling in a grove of trees near the intersection of Hilltop and Clearview Roads.

Sorry this report is so late, however some of the species are worth mentioning.

Happy Holidays to all,
Debi Shearwater


Hello, Birders,

On December 10th, while birding in San Benito County, I had a wonderful encounter with a bobcat (Lynx rufus) at Fremont Peak State Park. It was a dark, dreary, foggy noontime when I entered the park picnic areas. Immediately, I noticed an animal running up the hillside. Stopping the car, I was able to shoot about 35 frames, as the bobcat scampered up the hillside. In order not to scare the bobcat, I used my car as a blind, and did not get out of it. Below, is one of my first shots. You can see that it was headed for this fallen tree.
Although bobcats are mostly nocturnal, I have had many encounters during the day. Since there is no trophy hunting of bobcats in the State of California, they are often very tame. I've even had the experience of having one walk very closely to me, while I was standing in a road, birding.
The image, below shows the very short, "bob" tail, which is only black on the very tip. This is a field mark for the bobcat. Tails average about five inches long. I love the way it curls!
Here, the bobcat walks up the hillside. Notice that the underside of the paws are black. Bobcats are mostly solitary, as this one was. They do den in hollow logs. So, I am wondering if this animal could use this area for a den.
Bobcats average 25-30 inches long and weigh 15-35 lbs.
This image shows the black markings on the ears.
It is almost possible to detect the short ear tufts in the image below when the bobcat turned around to look my direction.
Finally, it slowly walked off uphill, into the grass. It blends in so easily!
It is always a pleasure to encounter wildlife, and San Benito County is great for this!

Happy trails,
Debi Shearwater

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 19 - 20, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Antarctic expedition cruising continued with a 5 am wake up call, and
Zodiac landing promptly at 5:30 am. We landed at Cuverville Island, one
of my favorite places on the Peninsula. Cuverville is a small, rocky
island which lies in the Errera Channel on the northwestern Peninsula.
The island was covered in snow, making it all the more beautiful. Once
again, we donned our snow shoes. This time it was more imperative that
we wear the snow shoes as the GENTOO PENGUINS had already made many well
defined, pink-stained trails, and some not so well defined. These are
known as "penguin highways." It is important not to leave a crushing
footprint in any of the highways, as this will cause penguins to fall in
the holes and die. It is also important not to sit in or near enough to
a highway that it prevents penguins from using it. Most of those in our
group complied, but it was impossible for the EL to rein in the repeat
offenders. Large groups of GENTOOS were standing around, sometimes
bowing in their courtship display, or sometimes mating. As far as I
could discern no rock nests had yet been made, nor were any eggs
visible. This is the largest Gentoo colony in the area. The usual
ANTARCTIC TERN. Some folks hiked to higher ground for some spectacular
views of the colonies and icebergs of many shapes and sizes near the
landing area. Don hiked to the water's edge to try to photograph
penguins there. He found the only LEOPARD SEAL of the entire voyage
prowling the shoreline, in search of an unwary penguin. Unfortunately,
we did not take our radios on this landing. So, none of us knew about
the leopard seal until we all returned to the ship for breakfast.

After breakfast, everyone was on deck for the navigation to Andvord Bay.
Our final destination and landing was to be Neko Harbor, at the end of
the bay. To say the scenery was beyond anyone's imagination of what
Antarctic is really like, is an understatement! Snow covered mountains,
silver blue glaciers plunging to the sea and icebergs and bergy bits all
about us was simply breathtaking. Captain Alexander Pruss navigated this
puzzle of ice with great deft. However, Neko Harbor was chock a block
solid with icebergs far too great for our ship to handle. Instead,
Expedition Leader, Troels Jacobsen, decided that we would make a Zodiac
cruise in the ice! For many on board, this was their first time riding
in a Zodiac in ice. The sounds of the Zodiac crushing small bits of ice
under the floorboards is amazing. "Whiskey ice, or black ice" was
spotted and collected for the bar and our evening party. Finally,
several CRABEATER SEALS were spotted on ice floes. Our expert driver,
Chris Gilbert, got us up close and personal to these lovely seals. Neko
Harbor was to be our continental landing. Since we could not make
through the ice to the site, we instead landed on a very small pebble
beach, not far from a tremendous glacier. Once on shore, some folks
decided to take the "polar plunge" — stripping to their bathing suits,
and diving in the icy waters! So, in the end, we could all claim a
landing on the 7th and great white continent— ANTARCTICA!

After a quick lunch, we all went out on deck to watch the last vistas of
Antarctica. During lunch an ANTARCTIC MINKE WHALE was briefly observed.
For awhile, big, fluffy snow-flakes were falling. Passing the Melchoir
Islands, two HUMPBACK WHALES were spotted. During recap, Don, Will,
Donna and Joe were out on deck photographing smashing images of several
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSSES. Earlier, they had shot hundreds of

The Captain put the pedal to the metal, and we were zooming for the
Drake Passage. At recap this evening, we found out why we were headed to
quickly for the Beagle Channel— weather! To be exact, we had the dreaded
triangles on the weather chart! Triangles indicate a serious low
pressure system. Don and I have been through these "triangles" on
previous trips. In the past, these systems have been as high as
hurricane force winds.

As I write this email it is nearly 6 pm on November 20th. Don just
pointed out a BLUE PETREL out our cabin window. We are still steaming
for the Beagle Channel. The seas are heavy and heaving, but nothing too
terrible— yet. Today, some of us pre-packed in anticipation of the
weather to come. The photographers still managed to capture many images
of Southern Ocean seabirds. We understand that the worst weather might
arrive between 7 am to noon, tomorrow. (We are on target to hit the
triangle at noon, tomorrow) The Captain is aiming for Cape Horn. At some
point, he will turn the vessel toward the east, which should give us an
easier ride. In the words of our Expedition Leader, Troels, "Let's see
how it goes."

As this will be my last blog posting until I reach home, I'd like to
thank all of those folks who have traveled with me on this awesome
voyage, especially the Shearwater Journeys' folks: Don, Will, Gill,
Lois, Donna, Carol and Joe. We miss our friends and families and look
forward to seeing and speaking with everyone soon! To those who are
reading this blog, I also extend my thanks.

Southern Seas forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

Friday, November 19, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 17 - 18, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Our polar expedition continued overnight, finding us in the northeast
Antarctic Peninsula region at daybreak. This is where tabular icebergs
roam. In some years, the Erebus and Terror Gulf are chock a block full
with ice. This region will have the most spectacular icebergs that we
are likely to encounter on the entire voyage. Huge tabulars break from
the Larsen, Ronne and Filchner ice shelves to the south, and combine
with one year old and multi-year sea ice to produce a floating,
undulating panorama of rugged ice scenery. The Erebus and Terror Gulf
and the Weddell Sea represent the center of the Peninsula's Adelie
Penguin populations. The worldwide breeding population of Adelies is
estimated to be a minimum of 2 to 3 million pairs. Data collected
through 1993 suggests a minimum breeding population of about 295,000
pairs in the Northeast Peninsula region.
A howling wind caused streaks of white across the sea. Nevertheless, we
landed at Paulet Island at 8 am. This small island in the northwestern
Weddell Sea lies three miles southeast of Dundee Island. It is home to
100,000 or more breeding pairs of Adelie Penguins. From November through
January the island teems with tuxedo-clad Adelies, crowding the upper
slopes and beaches. This is exactly what greeted us on the cobble beach
where we landed. Despite the howling wind, we managed to enjoy the
penguins on a relatively warm day, nearly 40F! There was a nonstop
penguin parade along the beach, a few penguins carrying rocks for
nesting, and quite a few penguins sitting on eggs which could be seen
whenever they stretched. Along the beaches, many Weddell Seals with
their charming faces, were hauled out. Derrick and Jeanette found their
spot on the beach, watching all of the wildlife activity. Later, Derrick
told me that he saw WILSON'S STORM-PETRELS, going in and out of the
scree slopes where they nest. Due to the winds, we were unable to see or
reach the remains of the Nordenskjold Expedition hut. The wicked and
fickle wind kept changing unpredictably. So, our landing was cut short
by an hour or so. Still, we all felt as though it was a giant success.
This would be our best stop for observing Adelie Penguins! Surely, it is
one of the most incredible of all incredible places in Antarctic. If
penguins were an indigenous people, they would have declared Paulet
Island a "holy" place, eons ago.

During lunch, we headed toward the eastern side of the Antarctic
Peninsula via Antarctic Sound. The sound is 30 miles long and 7 to 12
miles wide. It connects the Bransfield Strait with Erebus and Terror
Gulf, and separates Joinville Island from the northeastern end of the
Peninsula. Brown Bluff, our next destination, is a promontory on the
Tabarin Peninsula. However, the winds were far too high, reaching gale
force now, for us to make a safe landing at Brown Bluff. This region
teems with vibrant exploration history. The most bizarre of these tales
involves the wandering, missed connections and surprises connected with
Nordenskjold's Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04. Chris recounted,
in brief, this expedition at our evening recap. We celebrated Jeanette's
birthday this evening!

Morning of November 18th, we were scheduled to land at Half Moon Island,
in the South Shetland Islands. The ice cliffs and mountains of the South
Shetland Islands are separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the
Bransfield Strait. Because these islands are so close (about 40 hour's
crossing in the Drake Passage) to the rest of humankind, they are the
most heavily visited part of the Peninsula. More than 45% of all
Peninsula landings occur here. The Shetlands are a great contrast to
many visitors' black and white and gray notions of how Antarctica might
appear. This is the warmest, wettest and most colorful part of the
continent. When the penguin breeding season is in full blossom, the
guano adds a large pink mass to this palate. Again, this is a region of
great history and exploration. But, for us today, the object was landing
at Half Moon Island which we successfully accomplished.

Half Moon is a 1.25 mile long, crescent-shaped island that lies in the
entrance to Moon Bay between Greenwich and Livingston Islands. The
island was known to sealers as early as 1821. The Argentine Camara
Station is located on the southwestern side of the island. We could see
the brightly colored, orange buildings. At the landing beach on the
northeastern shore, buried in snow, was a rotting dory. Upon landing, we
donned some high tech snow shoes! Environmentally, this was a great idea
as we did not leave behind any of the deep holes that occur without snow
shoes, thereby causing penguins to fall inside of them. Instead, we
walked uphill, effortlessly, on the snow, up to three feet deep. It was
sunny, with little wind, and temperatures about 30F. This was to be our
best view of CHINSTRAP PENGUINS on this polar expedition. Wherever the
snow had revealed exposed rocks, chinstraps had taken up residency,
setting up their nests, some already on eggs. Hiking along the marked
path to the eastern spit, we saw KELP GULLS, ANTARCTIC TERNS and BROWN
SKUAS. But, the Chinstraps were the real attention getters. Quarrelsome
and boisterous, stealing rocks, eating snow, tobogining and mating—
their many behaviors engaged our attention. The scenery was breathtaking
and truly glorious. Sitting on one of the rocks at the top of the hill,
overlooking all of this, Carol said to me, "You are right— there really
are no words to describe all of this!" True, this is a place that one
must experience, more than any other place on Earth. Words,
superlatives, they are no good at the bottom of the world.

Back on board the ship, hot lunch awaited us as we headed for the grand
Deception Island. Deception Island is ring shaped and 9.2 miles in
diameter, enclosing the large harbor of Port Foster. Deception is the
largest of recent volcanic centers in the South Shetlands. It has
erupted most recently as 1970. Our skillful Captain Alexander Pruss
carefully navigated the ship through a very narrow opening called
Neptune's Bellows. Whaler's Bay is the small bay first encountered to
starboard after passing through a narrow opening called Neptune's
Bellows. The French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot named the bay
because of its heavy use by whalers at the turn of the 20th century. The
rusting boilers and dilapidated buildings date from shore-based whaling
operations that began here in 1910 and ended in 1931.

It was an easy landing on the black cinder beach, strewn with whalebones
and other debris from the whaling and research groups that once operated
here. A single WEDDELL SEAL was on the beach. Soon, we notice boiled
krill at the water's edge. Steam rising from hot springs along the
shoreline was responsible for this. In years past, expedition passengers
would soak in the hot springs, but this is no longer permitted. Some
folks hiked to Neptune's Window, while others wandered around the old
whaling station and cemetery. A "club" of bachelor skuas hung out at the
pond. Here, we saw mostly BROWN (SUB-ANTARCTIC) SKUAS, but two SOUTH
POLAR SKUAS were also photographed. Hybrid skuas also occur here. A few
GENTOO PENGUINS were along the shore, but no penguins of any sort breed
here. In fact, it is an area with very little wildlife. Thus, we
returned to our shipboard home in a light snow, ending another polar
expedition day.

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

Thursday, November 18, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 14 - 16, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Leaving the incredible island of South Georgia behind us, we continued
our polar cruise to our final destination, Antarctica. Seas and weather
were calm enough. Now, we settled into a routine of on board lectures by
the staff while simultaneously heading outside for photography whenever
the light conditions would allow. This would be remembered as the day
when the first ANTARCTIC PETREL made its appearance. It would also be
remembered as a day when Will and Joe would get smashing images of a
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSS. FIN WHALES were also a major highlight,
some extremely close to the ship.

On November 15th, we celebrated a number of events. First, Don Doolittle
won the "spot the first iceberg" contest, receiving a bottle of
"bubbly." Several ANTARCTIC PETRELS continued to capture the attention
of the birders and photographers. Land came into view, as we watched the
myriad of shapes and sizes of ice bergs, bergy bits and sensational
tabular ice. Our great Captain Alexander Pruss remarked to me, "Now I am
home," at the sight of all of the ice. The mountainous land within our
sights was the South Orkney Islands.

The South Orkney Islands comprise five major islands and several minor
islets and rocks. They lie 700 km east and slightly north of the tip of
the Antarctic Peninsula. They are situated 800 km south of the Antarctic
Convergence. Some 85% of the islands are ice-covered. Pack ice surrounds
all of the islands in May - December, most years. Current ice charts had
shown that the islands were free of pack ice, allowing us to approach.
Decreasing numbers of ADELIE and CHINSTRAP PENGUINS breed in the
islands. Indeed, we saw many of them on ice bergs or the shorelines. Our
destination was Laurie Island where we visited Orcadas Research Station,
operated by the Argentines. Their official greeting on the bridge radio
was one of anticipation and excitement. We were the first visitors to
the station since March 10th. We brought a sack of potatoes, crate of
apples, a watermelon, case of wine and cigarettes to the station. The
head officer proudly gave us a tour of the weather station facility.
They served up tea and cookies and sold a few souvenirs. Post cards and
letters were posted, but there is no way to tell how long it will take
for these to get out. Few ships visit, as the landing is usually quite
difficult. There was no real wildlife value in this visit— it was more
of a place of human contact and a place to set one's feet on solid
ground. It was also a place to remind us that not one country "owns" the
Antarctic Continent. Rather, it was a time to reflect upon the
importance of this unimaginable place. In the words of the scholar
Robert Burton, "So, as well as the breath-taking scenery and the
magnificence of its wildlife, Antarctica is an amazing place because it
represents a huge section of the planet that lives at peace, despite the
presence of a range of nations with very different political and
cultural backgrounds and despite the mayhem that breaks out in other
parts of the world. It has allowed peaceful and controlled development
of scientific programmes whose value has been increasing as the
significance of the role of Antarctica in global environmental systems
has become appreciated." (From Southern Horizons). At dinner, we
celebrated the birthday of one of our group, Donna Kirsacko with fun,
laughter and wine.

Once again, we pulled anchor for nearly a two day sail to our next stop.
That brings us up to date, November 16th. Today, we have been at sea
under mostly cold (30F), calm, gray and mostly foggy conditions. CAPE
have been our constant escorts. There has been no ice about the ship. I
look forward to returning to the ice in the Terror and Erebus Gulf, as
we make our way to Paulet Island. Time for briefing on tomorrow's plans.
All is well on board, and in our little group.

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

P. S. Just after typing this, I stood up from the desk to see a huge
slice of tablular ice outside our cabin window! Whoo hoo!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SUBJECT: ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 12 & 13, 2010

NOVEMBER 12, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Crystal clear skies and bright sunshine with absolutely no wind
whatsoever greeted us this fine morning! What a morning it was—Salisbury
Plain is a vast expanse of glacial outwash plains on the southern shores
of the Bay of Isles formed by the retreat of the Grace Glacier. It is
the largest area of level ground at South Georgia. South Georgia is
barely 10 km wide in the Bay of Isles. Rapid changes in weather are not
uncommon as winds are channeled down from Grace and Lucas Glaciers. Such
was not the cast today, however. There is no way to describe the
sensational glory of such a landing under ideal weather conditions. Did
I mention that it was warm, even hot? Temperatures reached close to 50F.
Not only were we cooking, but also the penguins! The oakum boys were
stretched out on the ground, baking in the sun. While most of the
passengers hiked to the king penguin colony, a few of us were happily
photographing on the beach as the Kings would come and go in the small
surf. Quite a number of SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS were still about, while
far more adult male ANTARCTIC FUR SEALS had arrived. Fortunately, the
fur seals had not yet become too boisterous, and were easy to deal with
once we did hike over to the colony. Both NORTHERN and SOUTHERN GIANT
PETRELS were lazing on the beaches, sometimes, bathing. Finally, we
hiked to the colony where penguins were everywhere, literally as far as
the eye can see. The rivers and streams were lined with them. First
estimated at 350 pairs in 1912, the colony, like many at South Georgia,
has undergone a phenomenal increase, and is now estimated at around
60,000 pairs, with as many as 250,000 birds in total on the beach at
this time of year due this being the molt period.

Robert Cushman Murphy spent 10 weeks in the Bay of Isles. He compiled a
chart of the bay and recorded several place names on it, including the
Grace Glacier for his wife. He also kept a detailed notebook of his
journey, later published as Logbook for Grace, and containing an
excellent account of sealing.

This afternoon, we landed at Prion Island, also in the Bay of Isles. It
is a site of high environmental sensitivity and exceptional conservation
value, and one of the few rat-free tussac islands remaining along this
rat infested coastline. It is also an important breeding site for
Wandering Albatrosses and the endemic South Georgia Pipit. It also has
extensive areas of fragile vegetation, including stream margin flushes
and tussac areas burrowed by nesting petrels. Being rat-free, the island
has abundant populations of vulnerable seabird species, including Common
Diving Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Giant Petrels and Antarctic
Prions. The recently built boardwalk led us up the path to the Wandering
Albatross chicks, still in their nests. Use of the boardwalk prevents
tourists from trampling the precious vegetation and tussac required by
the nesting seabirds. The boardwalk also helps guide tourists away from
the fur seals, unless the seals overtake the boardwalk themselves!
Landings, with wider platforms, allow for the photography of the
albatrosses and giant petrels without disturbing their nesting. Like the
remainder of South Georgia's Wandering Albatross population, the number
of breeding pairs has declined by nearly 30% in the past 20 years. So,
it is imperative that tourists use the boardwalk and respect the
wildlife. (Unfortunately, some passengers on our ship refused to do
this, and were repeat offenders of the well established Code of Conduct
as put forth by the South Georgia Governor).

The Wandering Albatross is an icon species for South Georgia, and
indeed, the entire Southern Ocean. These magnificent seabirds are the
archetypal ocean travelers. Their average wingspan of over 3 m is
greater than in any other species. Incredibly, a few birds banded as
breeding adults by the pioneer seabird ecologist Lance Tickell on Bird
Island in 1958, were still present in 2005. Given a minimum age at first
breeding of eight years (the average is 11 years) these individuals must
be at least 55 years old! The Wandering Albatross is unusual in being
one of the few species that breed during the austral winter. It also has
amongst the longest chick-rearing period, 278 days, of any bird.

We could count 7 serenely large chicks, patiently waiting for the return
of their parents, in their nests. A very few lucky folks heard the sound
of a White-chinned Petrel, in its burrow, next to the boardwalk! These
are the largest nesting petrels at South Georgia. Sealers called them
the "shoemaker" or "cobbler" because their sounds were like a sewing
machine. On this sunny day, South Georgia Pipits were continuously
soaring high in the sky, all the while calling in a display flight that
I had not previously seen. South Georgia Pintails were also flying back
and forth. Our descent on the boardwalk was blocked several times by
boisterous male fur seals! Alas, we found that our landing at Prion
Island would be the last of the season for two reasons: the fur seals
would prevent tourists from using the boardwalk, and the landing is
closed until about January 4th, to allow the albatrosses to lay their
eggs without disturbance from tourists. So ended yet another glorious
day at South Georgia!
NOVEMBER 13, 2010

It did not seem possible that we could top yesterday's landings, but we
did! The 5 am wake-up call put us on target for landing at Gold Harbor
by 5:30. Gold Harbor has always been one of my most favorite sites,
since landing there at 4:30 am on February 6, 2001 with Kim Crosbie on
the polar expedition ship, Explorer. It is regarded by many as one of
South Georgia's most beautiful visitor sites. An amphitheater of hanging
glaciers and vertical cliffs rises straight out of the sea, creating an
unforgettable backdrop to an abundance of seabirds and seals. King and
Gentoo Penguins and elephant seals jostle for space on the beach, while
Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses soar the cliffs out toward Gold Head.

However, immediately upon reaching the landing beach, we were completely
smitten with the "weiner" elephant seals on the beach. Many of the adult
females had departed, leaving behind the rotund and adorable newly
weaned pups. Unlike fur seals, these weiners are completely tame and
trusting of human beings. In fact, they investigated just about anything
that they could, including backpacks on the ground, tripod legs and
human legs! Since their canine teeth were just erupting, they were
harmless to us. We sat on the ground, and the weiners approached us,
laying their heads and sometimes, draping their bodies over our legs.
Most of us were quite content with them, but a few of the tourists broke
the Code of Conduct by touching these extremely tame and trusting
animals. One of the "repeat offenders" actually stepped on (not
accidentally) the hind flippers of an adult male elephant seal, who
promptly lifted up the front half of his body! Quite a few of the adult
male elephant seals were still on the beach, mostly snoozing and
snorting. These were not the alpha males, but the up and coming ones.
Every once in awhile, we had a rustle and hustle on the beach as one
male challenged another male. At this landing site, we never left our
original spot, but remained there for the entire time. It was well worth

After a very quick breakfast, we assembled on the gangway at 9 am for a
Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay. On the previous voyage, some made a
grueling hike to the Macaroni Penguin colony only to discover that just
ten penguins had arrived for the summer. However, we were now some 10
days later. Instead of making the grueling hike, we would Zodiac cruise
the rugged, rocky shoreline in hopes of finding our target species. On
Samuel's advise, we choose a new cruising route which proved extremely
successful! In a cavernous, narrow walled bay, we found many
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSSES sitting on nests and circling overhead.
Their mournful "pee-ooo" calls echoed across the narrow bays. This had
to be one of the most special moments of the entire voyage. CAPE PETRELS
and WHITE-CHINNED PETRELS were also observed, prowling their nest sites.
Photographic opportunities abounded— a colony of BLUE-EYED SHAGS, a pair
of PALE-FACED SHEATHBILLS and the South Georgian race of ANTARCTIC
TERNS. Rounding another corner, we arrived at the MACARONI PENGUIN
COLONY. Now, thousands of them could be seen from the rocky shores
ascending all the way to the top of the tussac-covered hillside. HIgh up
the hillside is where they will make their nests among the tussac. (Don
and I hiked this hillside, in the rain, February 2007). Macaroni
Penguins are the most numerous penguin species in the world with several
thousands pairs breeding at this colony. About 4,000 pairs of GENTOO
PENGUINS also breed here. Next, we cruised to the beach where about
10,000 pairs of CHINSTRAP PENGUINS breed. Our Expedition Leader himself,
Troels Jacobsen, was our Zodiac driver for this excursion. We rated it a
five star trip! Upon returning to the ship, we pulled anchor and set
sail for the great white continent—Antarctica!

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

Monday, November 15, 2010

PLANCIUS: November 10 & 11, 2010

NOVEMBER 10 & 11, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Well, it had to catch up to us, sooner or later—the weather! Unlike
anywhere else on Earth, the Southern Ocean wraps completely around the
planet, with no continents in its path. This means that winds and swells
can build to higher dimensions than anywhere else on Earth, since there
is nothing to stop them. This morning, we attempted to land at Elsehul.
However, the winds and swells prevented us from even a Zodiac cruise. It
was not safe. So, we pushed on for Right Whale Bay. Don and I were, of
course, quite thrilled that we had made this very difficult landing on
our prior voyage. How lucky we were! The first SNOW PETREL and
PALE-FACED SHEATHBILLS of the voyage appeared today. I call the
sheathbills, the "chickens of the sea." It was funny to watch these
white birds sitting on top of the orange life boats, outside of our
cabin window. Sheathbills are just returning from South America for the
breeding season in the Antarctic. They are the only non-webbed bird in

This afternoon, we landed at Right Whale Bay in gale force winds, with
icy snow bits pelting our faces like small stones! In a howling wind,
such that we could barely stand up, we hiked to the KING PENGUIN COLONY.
This bay was presumably named for the large numbers of Right Whales once
found here. Whalebones littered the beach, even today. As compared with
our landing on the previous trip, only ten days ago, we made note of the
departure of about 50% of the Southern Elephant Seals, while the
Antarctic Fur Seal numbers had more than doubled. Our landing was of
short duration due to the extreme weather. In fact, it was reported to
me that one lady actually became airborne due to the high winds. Back on
the ship, the wind meter was reading gusts up to 57 knots. Now, we have
had a chance to see a bit of what the weather can do!

The next morning, November 11th found us anchored at St. Andrews Bay.
Although it was still a bit windy, the sun was shining! What a
difference a day can make. Near the landing site a group of giant
petrels was feeding on a dead elephant seal pup, their faces covered in
bright red blood. It was amazing to watch them vying with each other
over the carcass. Most of us walked over to the KING PENGUIN COLONY. I
sat at the edge of the colony, photographing and videotaping their
amazing sounds. Don and Joe meandered around, photographing wildlife, as
well. Over 100,000 pairs of King Penguins are estimated to breed at this
site. In 1911 Norwegian whalers imported REINDEER to the island in order
to have a supply of meat. Several small herds could be seen feeding in
the grassy areas.

In the afternoon, we made our way to Cumberland Bay and the historic
whaling station at Grytviken. Here, we officially cleared customs with
the South Georgia Government and our passports were stamped. We all had
a toast at Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave, "The Boss." Many of us visited
the post office, museum and the newer exhibit of the small vessel, James
Caird in which Shackleton and his men sailed from Elephant Island to
South Georgia. Several pairs of South Georgian Pintail were feeding
along the shoreline. Will managed to get a great shot of one with a leg
band, #57. The South Georgian race of Antarctic Tern was feeding its
young in a nest on the fallen down dock. This is the exact same spot
where one was feeding a youngster when we visited last January. Finally,
we returned to the ship for the "Antarctic Barbecue" which included the
staff at the museum and the BAS station. A fun time, with dancing was
had by all!

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

Sunday, November 14, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 4 - 5, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

"Time flies, when you're having fun", the saying goes, on board M/v
Plancius! It has been a busy time for me, but I will try to catch up on
the voyages. The "South Georgia Exclusive Voyage ended at 8 am, November
4 in Ushuaia. We bid farewell to our dear friends, Lorraine and Edwin,
who also participated in the Shearwater Journeys' Charter Voyage this
past January. Also, fond farewells to the many new friends we made,
especially our Dutch friends, and my new Dutch "sister," Jonneke van
Eijsden. Jonneke is the owner of Beluga Expeditions and Adventures,
based in The Netherlands.

Ushuaia is one of our favorite towns in Argentina. There is so much to
do, but we had so little time. Don headed off for the Martial Glacier to
search for the cryptically plumaged White-bellied Seedsnipe, while I
headed to Hotel Albatros to check emails. At the Hotel, I met some of
the folks who would join us on our next voyage: Donna, Carol, Lois and
Will and Gill. On Avenue San Martin, the main shopping row, I
reconnected with Don, using our family radios. We enjoyed a lunch at on
of our favorite restaurants, Tante Sara, bought some wine, visited the
post office and bookstore. In no time at all, it was time to board the
ship for our next voyage. Don did not find the unobtrusive seedsnipe,
despite the fact that the day was warm and full of sunshine! So it was,
under sunny skies with the surrounding mountain peaks glowing, we headed
up the Beagle Channel, escorted by the Chilean Skuas and South American
Terns. Who could ask for a better start to a voyage to what is surely
one of the most incredible places on Earth?

The next day found us at sea en route to the Falkland Islands. We
enjoyed beautiful views of Staten Island and the southern coast of
Tierra del Fuego. Peale's Dolphins accompanied us, off and on. The
Expedition Staff was introduced and the lecture program on board was in
full swing. Troels Jacobsen remained on board as our Expedition Leader,
and Christopher Gilbert as our Assistant Expedition Leader. Of course
our lovely Hotel Manager, Natascha Wisse was still with us, along with
her wonderfully entertaining assistant, Francis de Buck. Our passengers
were truly international on this voyage, with folks from France, Taiwan,
The Netherlands, Australia, Argentina, Italy, England and the United
States. And, we settled in to our cabins, routines and getting to know
each other. So our first day at sea was uneventful in terms of sea
conditions and weather. One significant seabird sighting was of two
MOTTLED PETRELS, rarely found in this region. Great Albatrosses—
Northern and Southern Royals and many Wandering Albatrosses escorted us
along our way.

Southern seas forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

: ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 4 - 5, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

The Falkland Islands lie 490 miles east of Argentina Patagonia and
comprise 778 islands. Two main islands, East and West Falkland dominate
the archipelago's geography. These islands are of major importance for
marine mammals and birds, including many seabirds and 14 endemic taxa,
two of which are currently recognized as species, and are the stronghold
of the Ruddy-headed Goose, Striated Caracara, Blackish Cinclodes and
White-bridled Finch, all of which are highly range restricted, very rare
and, in some cases, extremely difficult to find in mainland South

Early morning on 6 November, found us navigating the Wooly Gulf which
separates West Point Island from West Falkland Island. Very playful,
COMMERSON'S DOLPHINS escorted us along our way, porpoising out of the
sea. We commenced our first landing at the Settlement on Carcass Island
which lies to the northwest of the Falkland Islands archipelago and
takes its name from the HMS Carcass which visited in the late 18th
century. Present day owners, Rob and Lorraine McGill, have lived on the
island for 31 years, and continue the conservationist traditions
established long ago. Being a rat-free island, we had high hopes of
finding many of the smaller land birds absent from islands which were
invaded by rats, decades ago.

We were not disappointed at all! Immediately at the landing site, we
were greeted by many "tussacbirds," BLACKISH CINCLODES, busily gathering
nesting material. Sometimes they landed right at our feet, completely
oblivious to our presence. A MAGELLANIC SNIPE sat motionless in the
short grass, acting as though we might not have seen it. Cameras were
clicking off at rapid fire. In the non-native, yellow flowering gorse,
male and female WHITE-BRIDLED FINCHES (formerly Black-throated Finch)
were feeding young in the nest. Only a few feet down the first trail, a
singing COBB'S WREN, a Falkland Island endemic, was belting it out!
Overhead STRIATED CARACARAS, also known as JOHNNY ROOKS, by the locals,
soared, along with TURKEY VULTURES and one RED-BACKED HAWK. At the
water's edge, CRESTED DUCKS with golf ball sized chicks meandered on the
white sand, UPLAND GEESE with 8 goslings fed on the grassy knolls,
RUDDY-HEADED and KELP GEESE, also with chicks were wandering about.
shrubby gorse. The endemic Falkland Flightless Steamer-Duck was dozing
on the beach, while a DARK-FACED GROUND TYRANT was plucking insects near
the kelp line. Don found a BLACKISH OYSTERCATCHER sitting on eggs and a
MAGELLANIC OYSTERCATCHER with small chicks! And, heck, we had not even
made it to the slopes were the MAGELLANIC PENGUINS nest in burrows! All
of this was under brilliant, warm sunshine with no wind. Finally, we
enjoyed the traditional Falkland Islander tea and cake spread with Rob
and Lorraine at their settlement. No less than 40 types of tea cakes
were served up! We returned to Plancius and dubbed this, our first
landing, a five star landing!

After a hasty lunch, are repositioning of the ship, we next landed at
"The Neck" on Saunders Island. This island is owned by Tony and David
Pole-Evans. Saunders is the second largest offshore island within the
archipelago, and is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, notably 11,000
breeding pairs of BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSSES and four different species of
penguins. On our short visit, we would only be able to see a small
sampling of this wildlife. Our major targets were the nesting
albatrosses and ROCKHOPPER PENGUINS.

Low tide made for an exposed long, white beach loaded with KELP and
DOLPHIN GULLS. JOHNNY ROOKS were already up to wrecking havoc with our
gear at the landing site. A single trypot led the way beyond sand dunes
dotted with GENTOO PENGUINS incubating eggs to the far side of the neck.
Amongst them, were several KING PENGUINS, including two "oakum boys."
Here, we climbed a steeper, grassy hillside with grazing sheep to the
ROCKHOPPER PENGUIN colony. This hillside was covered with nesting
MAGELLANIC PENGUINS, most of whom were inside their burrows. Humankind
has not been kind to penguins, in years' past. Penguin hunters
frequented the island, attracted by the abundance of breeding colonies.
This trypot was once used for boiling down penguins for their oil.
Apparently, it took eight Rockhopper Penguins to make one gallon of oil.
This is a stark reminder of past prosecution. On this sunny day,
protected by conservationist land owners, we were privileged to witness
these breeding penguins. Today, 272,000 pairs of Rockhopper Penguins
breed in 52 colonies in the Falklands, making the archipelago the most
important place on Earth for this species. After shooting many
photographs of the Rockhoppers, we continued hiking to the Black-browed
Albatross colony. Once we arrived, we settled in to watch the
albatrosses who were quietly sitting on eggs in their columnar nests of
soil and grasses. Eighty per cent of the global population of
Black-browed Albatross breed in the Falklands. IMPERIAL SHAGS were
gathering grassy nesting material for their nests amongst the
Rockhoppers. Despite the presence of rats on this island, Don and I
THRUSHES on the hike down to the shore. On the beach, a single WEDDELL
SEAL was snoozing. This is an unusual sighting so far north. We could
see Rockhoppers climbing the rocky cliffs to the colony upslope. Indeed,
the cliff is striated with the claw markings of hundreds of thousands of
climbing Rockhoppers. Hiking back to the landing site in a light
drizzle, Donna and I paused to watch a male Gentoo Penguin who
methodically provisioned his nest with any tiny piece of dirt or pellet
he could find. His mate sat patiently on two eggs. Suddenly, Donna
spotted a FALKLAND SKUA with a penguin egg in its beak! The skua landed,
and repeatedly circled the egg, trying to break it. Finally, it flew
away without success. Reluctantly, we returned to our shipboard home
after a fully sensational day in the Falkland Islands.

Rockhopper Penguins forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 30, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 30, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

This is our last day of landings on South Georgia. And, it was to be a
very special day, indeed. In the morning, we landed at Right Whale Bay,
another new site for both Don and I. Right Whale Bay was presumably
named for the large number of right whales once found here. This
stunningly beautiful area has a large King Penguin colony, and fur and
elephant seals, against a backdrop of cascading waterfall. We landed on
a whale bone littered sand beach and hiked a short uphill walk to the
penguin nesting area. The day was overcast. Large groups of King
Penguins were still in molt. "Oakum Boys" constantly called. Finally, we
made our way to the beach. At the water's edge, groups of 50 or so King
Penguins were coming and going in the surf. This entertained us and made
for some great photographic sequences. Hiking back to our landing site,
we noticed a flurry of loud-mouthed skuas, denoting the birth of an
elephant seal. Don and I arrived on the scene about 4 minutes after the
birth. A few lucky passengers witnessed the actual birth. Still, the
skuas were consuming the afterbirth before our eyes. Cameras were
clicking away! Soon it was time to return to our ship.

With immense anticipation, we arrived at Elsehul, our final landing
site. This is a beautiful little harbor with an astonishing array of
wildlife. If one could think of all of South Georgia as a "Fourth of
July Fireworks" display, Elsehul, would be the grand finale of the
fireworks show! It is the pow, pow, pow, explosion of lights and sounds
of grandest show at the end of an already grand show. Here is the only
visitor site on all of South Georgia where colonies of Black-browed and
Gray-headed Albatrosses can be viewed. It is a difficult site to visit,
once the fur seals arrive en mass, and absolutely impossible to hike at
that time of year. In all of my previous visits to South Georgia, I have
only hiked the cliffs, once, in January 2001. And, although the
Shearwater Journeys' charter voyage on Professor Multinovskiy visited
Elsehul in January 2010, we arrived too late in the evening to hike. We
did Zodiac cruise, though. So, this was a very, very special
opportunity. And, Don did not miss it! He returned with awesome images
of the Gray-headed Albatrosses on their nests! In addition, all of us
made a Zodiac cruise to see a few more arriving Macaroni Penguins. Now,
it was time to begin our journey to Ushuaia, Argentina.

Elsehul forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 28, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 28, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Wakeup call at St. Andrews Bay, approximately 30 km southeast of the
entrance to Cumberland Bay. This is the landing we were blown out of,
yesterday, forcing us on to Plan C or D, or E! This is one of the more
difficult landings, usually due to swells because the bay is fully
exposed to the strong winds that plummet from the ice-clad summits of
the southern end of the Allardyce Range. This day dawns anew, however!
The winds and swells have died. Troels announces a five hour landing at
this most incredible site! Indeed, Don and I are nearly the first ones
ashore and the last ones to depart, making full use of our time. As Don
said afterward, if we had never before been to South Georgia, each of us
would have easily shot over 1,000 images at this one site, alone! It is
a pity for those on board who run out of space on their chips. Come
prepared for the time of your life.

On landing, we shed our outer jackets and gloves because it was a balmy
0 degrees C with absolutely no wind at all. The landing beach was
covered with wildlife— elephant seals and king penguins dominated the
scene. This is the site of the largest King Penguin colony on South
Georgia, and possibly in the world. There could easily have been 50,000
"oakum boys" (young) King Penguins, alone! In total, there could easily
have been over half a million King Penguins.

The King Penguin colony at St. Andrews Bay was first described in 1883
during a visit by the 1882-83 German International Polar Year
expedition. 1,100 birds were recorded there in 1925, when it was
believed to be the largest colony on the island. Gerry Clark, a New
Zealand ornithologist and sailor counted 32,000 chicks in the winter of
1985. Seventeen years later there were approximately 150,000 pairs, a
threefold increase. Encounters with King Penguins are unforgettable: the
sound and smell of a hundred thousand birds gathered on the beach and by
the river is surpassed only by the spectacle that these beautifully
plumaged penguins offer the visitor. Beneath the brilliant blue skies of
this still summer day, their characteristic grace, superbly contrasting
slate-gray and white feathers, and golden orange 'ear' patches, are
captivating. Near the meltwater streams, thousands of adults stood on
the sandy beaches littered with the molted feathers, which sometimes
gently blew up in the air like snowfall. It requires more than one year
to raise a chick for this species of penguin. Thus, last year's 'furry'
brown chicks had gathered in noisy creches, especially along the river
banks—ribbons of brown amongst the gray and orange adults. These chicks
receive double the amount of food at this time of year since both
parents are now free to forage. They accumulate large amounts of fat. In
December, they will fledge.
Researchers at the BAS recently counted 4,400 elephant seals at St.
Andrews Bay! Indeed, the beach was completely covered with their massive
bodies. These are the largest living seal species, being slightly larger
than the Northern Elephant Seals. They have an impressive diving
ability, spending 90% of their time submerged and attaining depths of
about 1,800m during dives that may last for up to two hours. For
elephant seals there is a complete separation between feeding at sea and
fasting on land during the two main haul out periods: breeding and
molting. One of the best parts of our voyage, being in October, is that
we are witnessing the breeding season which is not the case for visits
during the later months of Antarctic travel. There are extreme
differences between the sexes of elephant seals. Mature males can attain
weights of 4 to 5 tons, more than ten times the size of females. This,
we can easily observe among the many bodies packed on the beach. We sit
and watch, fascinated by all of their activities— nursing pups,
satellite bulls vying for a chance to mate with the beach master's
harem, alpha bulls defending their harem, and mating with their females.
Meanwhile, skuas and giant petrels feast on the afterbirth, Antarctic
Terns feed along the sea edge, all against a backdrop of stunning,
jagged mountain peaks and tumbling glaciers. Could we ever tire of it?

We returned to our home ship, Plancius for a brunch buffet. This was
interrupted by an announcement of two Humpback Whales ahead of us. It
was wonderful to watch them, in the glassy, smooth seas as our expert
Captain Pruss navigated carefully around them. Great to find whales down
south, already.

After brunch, we made a Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay. This was the other
landing that we were blown out of, yesterday. It always helps to keep
that flexible attitude when expedition cruising! So, here we were, in
perfect conditions, watching the first arriving Macaroni Penguins of the
breeding season. Although we only saw a few Macaroni Penguins on the
rocks at the shoreline, it was great. They nest high up, on the
tussac-covered slopes. Gentoo Penguins could be seen in larger numbers.
Around 4,000 pairs breed in the Cooper Bay area, according to a count in
2002. Again, Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses were calling overhead,
flying past their nesting cliffs.

We headed over to the Main Bay landing site. Next, a hike through the
tussac lead to a beach covered in Chinstrap Penguins. Over 10,000 pairs
of Chinstraps breed at this spot. In November 2004, an outbreak of avian
cholera was reported at the colony and the beach closed to visitors
until this year. After the uphill hike, we photographed the "chinnies"
on the beach. We made the return hike along a stream bed which was much
easier. On the opposite side of the stream, many Gentoo Penguins were
sitting on eggs at their nests. Finally, time to return to our ship for
showers (most of us being quite muddy), recap and briefing. Just after
the sun had set, Troels announced, "Killer Whales off the bow!" Everyone
flew outside with cameras. Again, Captain Pruss managed some terrific
navigations to get us on the Killer Whales. One group of 4 was
traveling, but others were spread out. Quite a number of seabirds,
especially Cape Petrels were constantly circling around the Killer
Whales. This led us to believe that they had some sort of prey item,
which they could have been dragging underwater with them. Although we
tried very hard to obtain photo-ID shots, it was extremely difficult and
nearly dark. Two animals approached the ship, very closely, riding
alongside. In the end, Troels estimated that 7 animals were present: one
adult male, possibly one subadult male, one tiny calf, one older calf,
and three "female" types. From the few images that were obtained, we
believe these Killer Whales to be the Type A forms. What an ending to a
most amazing day!!

Penguins forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 31 - November 2, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602
SUBJECT: ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 31 - November 2, 2010


Howdy, Birders,
We have been underway since the evening of October 30th, heading for
Ushuaia, Argentina. For four days, we are at sea. We have had a number
of lectures, in both French and English, covering subjects ranging from
Killer Whales to Ice. Yesterday, the mountaineering group made a
wonderful presentation of their trek from Peggotty Bluff to Stromness
Bay, complete with many fine images. On Halloween, Don dressed up as Dr.
Death! He was the only one on board to sport a Halloween costume and it
was a big hit. We are not crossing the Drake Passage. Rather, our route
from South Georgia takes us through the southern Scotia Sea. And, you
know what? I have nothing to report about the dreaded "Roaring 40's" or
"Furious 50's." Neptune has been quite kind to us, with only a few hours
of small swells. The seas have been remarkably calm! So calm in fact,
that we often experience long hours of fog. This has allowed us some
time to catch up on writing, editing images. So, there is nothing
dramatic to report. Today, November 2, we have very calm seas, and
horizon to horizon visibility. Both Hourglass Dolphins and False Killer
Whales (also a dolphin), have been reported, along with Gray-backed
Storm-Petrel. So, it is time for me to get on deck!

Lest you think that we are so busy that we do not think of our many
friends and family, let me say that it is not so! We think of you often.
Special wishes to my sisters, Robin and Elena, my step-dad, Mike (whose
80th birthday is coming up soon), and to my many friends, especially
Jennifer, Scott and Linda. Don sends special wishes to his friend,
Peter, and family, especially our favorites, Henry and Thomas!

Friends and family forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 29, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 29, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Once again, we arrived at Fortuna Bay for a proper landing. This is a 6
km long fjord leading to the heart of South Georgia's interior. Several
groups hiked up to a Gentoo Penguin nesting area. The mountaineers hiked
to a glacier and jumped into a lake for a short swim. Others, including
Don, made a wild hike in the tussac in search of nesting Light-mantled
Sooty Albatrosses! This is not a hike for everyone, as one misstep can
be quite serious. Don returned with incredible photographs of the
albatrosses! Also, this small group of hikers found a broken albatross

Landing at Possession Bay was next up, after lunch. This was a new
landing site for both Don and I. (We love revisiting sites, but really
appreciate new sites!) The weather was still holding out, although there
was wind, today. At our landing site, at least half a dozen Southern
Giant Petrels were on their nests. Giant petrels are more easily
disturbed by human presence. Therefore, the South Georgian government
requires us to double the 5m distance rule to 10m. Along a the shoreline
of a small lake, many Brown Skuas were bathing. At the far end of the
beach we could detect a huge commotion. This turned out to be a feeding
frenzy of giant petrels on a newborn elephant seal! This occupied all of
my remaining time on shore! Watching the giant petrels vying for
positions on the carcass, sticking their blood-soaked heads deep into
the carcass and skuas trying for bits and pieces on the side was just
amazing to observe. This is akin to watching a kill on the Serengeti in
East Africa.

Giant petrels forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

Thursday, October 28, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 27, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 27, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Well, this is expedition cruising which always demands a flexible
schedule! Or, put it this way— if one cannot remain flexible, one will
certainly not have an enjoyable time. Case in point, was this morning.
At the 0530 wake up call, Troels announced that we would not be able to
land at St. Andrews Bay as scheduled due to a high swell and high winds!
We were blown out. So, back to sleep until 0700. We proceeded to Gold
Harbor where we had an easy, four hour landing! Gold Harbor is regarded
as one of South Georgia's most beautiful visitor sites. An amphitheater
of hanging glaciers and vertical cliffs rises straight out of the sea
and the towering snow-covered peaks of Mt. Paterson create an
unforgettable backdrop to an exceptional abundance of seabirds and
seals. Highlights included nearly 2,000 SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS; KING
SHEATHBILLS and more. The elephant seals occupied much of our time. It
is only during October and November that one can expect to observe
breeding elephant seals. While alpha bulls try desperately to maintain
their harems from the satellite bulls, cows are birthing and nursing
their newborns. It is easy to spot a newborn pup, as the BROWN SKUAS
move in immediately to consume the afterbirth. Fat "weiners," those that
have already been weaned from their mothers, are scattered on the beach.
There is no end to the jostling and writhing on the beach. Meanwhile,
the King Penguins are scattered, everywhere. Many adults are finishing
the last days of their "catastrophic" molt. The fat "oakum boys" keep a
watchful eye for their returning parents. The dead remains of chicks who
did not make it through the winter liter the beach. The sounds of the
kings and seals alone are nearly deafening!

Back on board, we enjoyed a brunch before setting sail for Drygalski
Fjord. Our expedition leader, Troels was now working on Plan D or E for
the day, as we were also blown out of Copper Bay. Drygalski seemed like
a great bet, though. Here, we hoped to do a Zodiac cruise into Larsen
Harbor. Indeed, our good Captain Pruss approved this, although the winds
were difficult on the launch and return. Once inside of the protected
Larsen Harbor, we cruised up to some WEDDELL SEALS on the snow covered
rocks. Larsen Harbor is the most northerly recorded breeding site for
Weddell Seals. With their small smiling faces and curly whiskers, these
large mottled seals are easy to distinguish from all other seals. We saw
about a dozen of them. Several SOUTH GEORGIA PINTAILS and ANTARCTIC
TERNS were about. An odd sound, sort of reminiscent of a screech owl
call, caught my attention. Soon, we spotted two CAPE PETRELS on a rock
ledge, apparently setting up their homestead for the coming nesting
season. Deeper into the harbor, Troels spotted a SNOW PETREL which
vanished into a snow hole near the base of a rock. After we returned to
the ship, we proceeded on a ship's cruise to the end of Drygalski Fjord.
The weather in the fjord is windier and cooler than on the central north
coast. Funneled by the great massif of the Salvesen Range,
hurricane-force winds hurtle down 14 km long Drygalski Fjord. The peaks
of Mt. Carse, Mt. Macklin, Douglas Crag and Trendall Crag which rise to
over 2000 m barely 5 km from the sea, are positively breathtaking. These
rocks were once part of the continental margin of Gondwana, and as such
are the oldest rocks on South Georgia. Magnificent glaciers and Snow
Petrels were a beautiful end to yet another special day at South

Snow Petrels forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 26, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 26, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Early morning, we stopped in Fortuna Bay to pick up the mountaineering
parties' gear. Due to extremely good weather conditions, they were able
to complete the trek from Peggotty Bluff a full day early! A small group
of passengers disembarked in Fortuna Bay to join the mountaineers on
their final trek to Stromness Harbor. At Stromness the remains of the
whaling station are still present. However, our main reason for stopping
here was to pick up the hiking party. This is the whaling station where
Shackleton and his men arrived after their very long journey. The relief
he must have felt upon hearing the morning whistle call at the station
can only be imagined. Soon enough, we picked up our hikers and headed
for Cumberland Bay.

Grytviken and King Edward Point lie within King Edward Cove, a sheltered
harbor tucked between Hope Point and Hobart Rock on the eastern shore of
Cumberland Bay. The rusting ruins of the Grytviken whaling station,
South Georgia Museum, church, cemetery and British Antarctic Research
Station can all be found at this site. First, we called at the cemetery
where Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave can be found among others. We
toasted "The Boss," saving a bit of our whiskey to spill on his grave,
as is the tradition. Next, we headed for the post office, museum and
whaling station remains. Lightly falling snow gave a bit of a feel of
Antarctica to the scene. It was the first precipitation that we have had
on the voyage to date, as well as the coolest temperatures. A few
ANTARCTIC TERNS were about. One pair seems to be taking up nesting in
exactly the same spot as when we were last here in January 2010 on the
Shearwater Journeys' charter voyage.

The evening gave way to the traditional "Antarctic Barbecue." Our guests
included researchers and staff from the British Antarctic Survey base.
Don and I were fortunate enough to have Matt and Kelvin at our table.
Matt is the engineer who keeps the generator running at the base. Kelvin
is involved in the eradication of a noxious plant.

As the days go by, we begin to know more of our fellow travelers, a very
international group. The French make up about 40 passengers, but we also
have folks from Holland and Germany on board. This evening, Don reported
to me that several of the folks on board think that we are a
photographic team, working for National Geographic! We had a good laugh
over that. I guess they thought this because we are using walkie talkie
radios to communicate with each other, passing sighting reports back and
forth. On our second day at sea when the first Sooty Albatross showed
up, I kept calling Don on the radio, "Don, Don, this is Debi! Sooty
Albatross off the bow, close enough to shoot!" So, it soon became a joke
amongst the Dutch passengers: "Don, Don, Debi"!

Whales forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 25, 2010


FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 25, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

On tap for today, we again have three different landings scheduled. In
the morning wake up call, Troels announced that the full moon was just
about to set! We began our day's activities with a landing at Ocean
Harbor. This site is one of the sunniest and warmest areas on the
island. It certainly was so for us! The broad sandy beach is backed by a
large expanse of level ground on a glacial outwash plain. Here, REINDEER
were grazing amongst the small braided streams lined with bright green
moss. Remains of the 1920 whaling station could be found on the plain.
The wreck of the Bayard, a steam locomotive and a handful of graves were
also visible relics. The decks of the Bayard are now covered with tussac
and support a breeding BLUE-EYED SHAG colony, several pairs of ANTARCTIC
TERNS and KELP GULLS. The beach was covered with elephant seals of all
ages, including several very large bulls.

Mid-morning, we landed at nearby Godthul, 6 km north. On shore, small
groups of elephant seals and a scattering of fur seals greeted us. Many
in the group hiked up the tussac hillside where a small GENTOO PENGUIN
colony was observed. A very few folks who had previously visited this
landing, hiked up the tussac slopes in search of LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY
ALBATROSSES, who would be prospecting for their nest sites at this time
of year. Considered by many seabird lovers to be one of the most
dreamily beautiful of all albatrosses, the LMSA as it is affectionately
called, breeds in small colonies on high rocky ledges. The white,
half-moon shaped eye arc of feathers above the eye and long,
wedge-shaped tail give this species an unmistakable silhouette. Their
extremely graceful flight is even more pronounced as courting pairs
duet-fly. Their mournful calls ring and echo across the narrow, rock
walls of the harbor. Indeed, Don returned to the ship with absolutely
stunning images of this lovely albatross!

After a hot lunch, our Expedition Leader, Troels, prepared us for a
landing at Cobblers Cove about 2 km northwest of Godthul. This site is
named after the White-chinned Petrels, also known as the "shoe maker"
due to the sounds they make, which nest here. Forewarned that it would
be a very, very wet Zodiac landing, we packed up our cameras in our
waterproof bags. The objective of the this landing site was to hike to
the large MACARONI PENGUIN colony on the other side of the landing site.
It was a very, very steep hike to the top of the saddle. Some waited up
here, while REINDEER (introduced to the islands) passed in herds and
giant petrels scouted for nesting sites. But, most of the folks hiked to
the 4 km down to the Macaroni "colony." As it turned out, only ten
individual penguins were present! It is early in the season, and they
had not yet arrived. Nevertheless, these few Macaroni Penguins were a
delight to find. Hiking down the scree slope to the Zodiac landing, many
of us opted for the easy route, and slide down the snow covered gully on
our butts! Completely soaked on our return Zodiac ride to the ship, we
welcomed a hot shower. Recap and dinner followed. We also received an
update on the mountaineering group informing us that they were doing
quite well in their progress to Fortuna Bay.

LMSAs forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

Monday, October 25, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 22 & 23, 2010

FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602
SUBJECT: ON BOARD m/v PLANCIUS: October 22 & 23, 2010

OCTOBER 22 & 23, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

October 22 marked a significant change in the array of seabird life. The
morning dawned, bright and sunny. No longer did we find Sooty and
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Spectacled Petrel or White-bellied
Storm-Petrel. Instead, we are now observing Light-mantled Sooty
Albatrosses and Wandering Albatrosses in greater numbers, as well as our
appears that we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, or Polar Front, last
night. KING PENGUINS appeared more regularly. They feed near the Polar
Front, primarily on lantern fish. A small group of toothed whales
briefly appeared alongside the ship. One incredibly lucky lady,
Natatlie, was able to fire off some shots of these enigmatic
mesoplodons! Her images show what might well be, STRAP-TOOTHED WHALES— a
group with females and, possibly a calf! After the sunny morning, we
spent most of the day in and out of fog.

We continued watching for wildlife, but many folks began editing their
photographs on October 23. The sea conditions and weather were holding
up nicely. Excitement was high, as we encountered our first sight of
Main Island, one of the offshore islands of South Georgia. On board, we
have a small group of rugged mountaineering climbers and skiers who plan
to traverse the historic Shackleton route across the massive, snow
capped and glaciated mountains of South Georgia. They were busy making
final preparations for this incredible trek.

Late afternoon, we arrived at King Haakon Bay, which lies between Nunez
Peninsula and Bomford Peninsula near the western end of the south coast
of South Georgia. It was here that Shackleton and his five companions
arrived on the James Caird at the end of their epic sea voyage from
Elephant Island. During this 16 day voyage, they covered some 800 miles
in their small vessel. Delighted upon arrival at Cave Cove, they made a
stew from pure, ice-cold water and four young Wandering Albatross
chicks. After a few days' rest, they sailed to the head of the bay and
established "Peggotty" camp. The James Caird was turned upside down to
form a shelter for the men who remained behind, while Shackleton, Crean
and Worsley set off across the island to Stromness Whaling Station.

Our plan was to land at Cave Cove, but the swell was too difficult.
Instead, we enjoyed a beautiful Zodiac cruise along the shoreline, with
as many as 12 LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSSES in spectacular courtship
flight, sitting on potential nest sites and calling all the while.
Landing at Peggotty Bluff, we found many SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS,
including large bulls! A few KING PENGUINS stood in the meltwater
stream. Giant Petrels and the first SNOWY SHEATHBILLS and SOUTH GEORGIA
PINTAILS of our voyage. Finally, we were all so thrilled to be on land
for the first time in nearly six days' time. Our mountaineering party of
eight, headed off to the peaks and glaciers, following in Shackleton's

LMSAs forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board m/v Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 24, 2010

FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602
SUBJECT: ON BOARD m/v PLANCIUS: October 24, 2010

OCTOBER 24, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

From sunrise to sunset, a full, busy, glorious day of teeming wildlife!
Even before the sun rose, we were landing at Salisbury Plain, a vast
expanse of glacial outwash formed by the retreat of Grace Glacier. This
is the largest level ground on South Georgia Island and home to the
second largest King Penguin colony on the island. It was here, in the
Bay of Isles that the famous American seabird researcher, Robert Cushman
Murphy spent 10 weeks compiling a chart of the bay while studying the
wildlife. Grace Glacier is named for his wife. He also kept a detailed
diary of his journey, later published as Logbook for Grace. It contains
an excellent account of the sealing activities.

It is quite difficult to describe the scene laid out before us—
thousands upon thousands of KING PENGUINS, many of them covered in the
brown fur-like coats, which caused early sealers to name them "Oakum
Boys," after the material that was used as a type of caulk between the
planks of their ships. Early biologists thought that these penguins were
a different species. After many years, biologists soon learned the
unique breeding cycle of the King Penguin. These were last year's
chicks, now large enough to be left by both parents. They stood,
protected in their creche, like teenagers on a street corner. One
curious individual was soon followed by half a dozen others. Heads
bobbing up and down with curiosity, they inspected me as I was sitting
on the bare ground—pecking at my boots and legs! We presented these
chicks with their first encounter with human beings. Non-breeding adults
standing in the streams, were just finishing their "catastrophic" molt.

Wildlife abounds at Salisbury Plain— giant petrels and skuas feeding on
the remains of the chicks who did not survive the winter; elephant seals
nursing newborn pups on the beaches; sheathbills picking bits of scraps;
and a few fur seals as well. For four glorious hours, in bright
sunshine, we enjoyed this most spectacular place. After brunch, we made
our second landing of the day at Rosita Harbor, a very sheltered spot.

Our third landing would be the crowning glory to an incredible day in
the Bay of Isles. Prion Island is a site of high environmental
sensitivity and exceptional conservation value. It is one of the few
rat-free tussac islands. As such, it is an important breeding site for
Wandering Albatrosses and the endemic SOUTH GEORGIA PIPIT. This island
has extensive areas of fragile vegetation. The tussac provides nesting
sites for the burrowing petrels, including Common Diving Petrels,
White-chinned Petrels, giant petrels and Antarctic Prions. A boardwalk
was constructed in 2008 for viewing the Wandering Albatrosses on their
nests. In small groups, we easily climbed the steps to platforms where
we could observe these incredible albatross chicks. Wandering
Albatrosses have declined by nearly 30% in the past 20 years. Currently,
the total breeding population on Prion Island is about 60 pairs, about
half of which nest on the island in any one year. At the landings, we
could see two different nests which contained very large chicks who sat
quietly, preening their feathers. The South Georgian Government only
allows groups of 15 persons per visit on the boardwalk at any given
time. So, groups must exchange after their allotted time slot is up. One
never can predict albatross behavior during each time slot. Most of the
time, the chicks simply sat in their nests, waiting for a parent's
return from the sea. Nearby two SOUTH GEORGIA PIPITS were coming and
going with mouths loaded with food, to their nest of young concealed
inside the tussac. Finally, we were lucky to see the adult female
albatross return to the nest to feed its enormous youngster. After a
greeting ceremony, the female was prompted to reguritate its food to the
begging chick. It was wonderful to be witness to this most magnificent
of albatrosses!

After a full and long day, we returned to our home aboard the ship for a
welcome dinner, recap and briefing of the next day's planned events.
Overnight, the ship repositioned for the next day's events.

Wandering albatrosses forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board m/v Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

Thursday, October 21, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 18 to 21, 2010

FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602
SUBJECT: ON BOARD m/v PLANCIUS: October 18 to 21, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

About noon on October 18th, we boarded the expedition ship, Plancius
docked at Montevideo, Uruguay port. Plancius is a newly refurbished
oceanographic research vessel. She was built for the Royal Dutch Navy in
1976 and has been completely refitted by Oceanwide Expeditions, winner
of the World Travel Award 2009, "World's Leading Polar Expeditions
Operator." At the dockside, we were happy to see our friends, Troels
who will be our Expedition Leader, and Natascha Wisse, our
Hotel Manager! After being shown to our Superior Cabin, I began
unpacking and settling in for the next 36 days. And, what a beautiful
cabin— 3 large window, excellent storage, sofa, desk and more! There is
nothing like a new ship, sparking and clean in every crack and corner.
On the digital monitor in our cabin, I checked for the day's program.
What a surprise! I saw that Captain Alexander Pruss would be at the helm
of our voyage! Captain Pruss was with us on Shearwater Journeys' charter
voyage on board Professor Multanovskiy, January 4 to 22, 2010. (See
previous blog entries) We were absolutely thrilled to be expedition
cruising with him, again! Finally, after several hours' delay, we
departed Montevideo, heading for the sub-Antarctic Island of South

Our first day at sea, October 19th, began with WILSON'S STORM-PETRELS
sitting on the water in small flocks in the fog. SOUTH AMERICAN FUR
SEALS frolicked off the bow. But soon the fog gave way to beautiful,
blue skies, along with a following sea. GREAT SHEARWATERS circled our
vessel, while ATLANTIC PETRELS trickled by our ship, flying low on the
water as there was no wind. By day's end, Atlantic Petrels were the most
numerous seabird with over 300 counted. We were beginning to observe the
breeding seabirds of Gough, Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan da
Cunha Islands. The petrels were followed by ATLANTIC YELLOW-NOSED
finally SPECTACLED PETRELS! Additional seabirds included both NORTHERN
COMMON TERNS. The crowning glory of the day was our first sighting of
SOOTY ALBATROSS! What a beautiful day on calm, glassy seas.

Bright sunshine greeted us the morning of October 20th. It was to
continue throughout the day. The suite of seabirds, both from the
southern Atlantic islands mentioned above, as well as further south
continued throughout the day. SOOTY and ATLANTIC YELLOW-NOSED
ALBATROSSES dominated the day. Around lunchtime, we were very close to
an underwater seamount. Suddenly, thousands of PRIONS appeared! Ongoing
debates as to the species involved remain. Using range maps, these
should be ANTARCTIC and SLENDER-BILLED PRIONS. Several flocks of
COMMON/ARCTIC TERNS numbering over 50 individuals, passed our vessel.
The wind was up today, causing the seabirds to soar higher. Indeed, we
are entering a low pressure system. Distant blows of a SPERM WHALE were
spotted. A SEI WHALE made a very quick spin on our bow! And, some lucky
folks may have spotted a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL.

October 21 we were greeted with a very gray day, indeed. Now riding in
the trough, with a constant rolling, limited visibility and fairly quiet
seas, most folks on board attended lectures and caught up with their
journals. The number of Sooty Albatrosses dropped off, and the first
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSS was spotted. Don spotted the first
LONG-TAILED JAEGER of the voyage after lunch. Who knows what the
remainder of this day will bring? That's all for now. We are all well,
even if a bit tired of the trough riding.

Gough Island Seabirds forever,
Debi Shearwater



FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

16 & 17 OCTOBER 2010

Howdy, Birders,

We spent the next two days birding along the coast of Uruguay as far
north as Chuy on the border of Brazil. Sunny skies prevailed. We visited
Laguna Rocha and Laguna Negra. One night we spent in Rocha. The next in
Minas, a small town which was a gold mining town about 100 years ago.
Both were enjoyable. Traveling on many secondary, hard gravel roads was
easy. At various patches of habitat, we stopped to look at birds. The
single best place was Mirador de Aves on Hwy 14 between La Coronilla and
Hwy 16 at Laguna Blanca. Some spectacular species included: GREATER

From Minas, we drove through some of interior countryside backroads,
ending in Montevideo about 11 am. We reached the port and found our way
to our new home, Plancius.

Happy trails,
Debi Shearwater

Saturday, October 16, 2010


14 - 15 October 2010
Howdy, Birders,

After some 40 hours of travel, my friend Don Doolittle and I arrived at the sparkling, new Montevideo airport. Very efficiently, we cleared immigration and customs to find our rental car agency waiting with a sign with our name on it, in the main lobby. We resisted changing money at the first cambio in the customs area. Good thing, too. The rental car folks, MultiCar, told us that the airport has a very poor exchange rate. While getting set up with our car, some familiar South American birds were in the lot— CHALK-BROWED MOCKINGBIRD, RUFOUS HORNERO, PICAZURO PIGEON, and of course, RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS. MONK PARAKEETS were calling and flying overhead. Per my standard routine, I photographed our car. We headed to a nearby lake and saw RINGED KINGFISHER, GREAT GREBE, GREAT KISKADEE, and ANHINGA. Poking around the wetlands and nearby houses, we stopped to watch two very beautiful WHISTLING HERONS plucking worms from the ground, much like American Robins.

Off for new adventures, tomorrow.

Gauchos forever,

Debi Shearwater,
Montevideo, Uruguay