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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Howdy, Birders,

It was a great day for raptors in San Benito County, today. At Paicines Reservoir an OSPREY was making a mad dash for a fish, just as I pulled into the parking area. An adult BALD EAGLE flew in from the south, perching in the oaks on the west side of the reservoir. A mixed flock of 47 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED and 15 CANADA GEESE arrived. A female NORTHERN HARRIER plied the hillsides. Other notable species included: 1 BELTED KINGFISHER, a flock of 25 DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS (one of the largest flocks I have ever seen in the county); 4 VIOLET-GREEN and 1 TREE SWALLOW; 2 AMERICAN PIPITS; 3 YELLOW WARBLERS.

On Santa Ana Valley Road, between the intersections of Quien Sabe and John Smith Road, a PRAIRIE FALCON was sitting on the telephone pole.

A little further along the road, a FERRUGINOUS HAWK was also on a telephone pole.
Two more FERRUGINOUS HAWKS were vying for winter territory, high in the sky. One is below.
At residence #3600, two CASSIN'S KINGBIRDS were present. There may be three individuals.
I stopped at the Historical Park, near Bolado. Best birds were 2 CHIPPING SPARROWS, 5 COMMON YELLOWTHROATS, 22 LARK SPARROWS, 1 LINCOLN'S SPARROW, 2 CALIFORNIA THRASHERS and 2 calling SORAS.

Finally, I returned to Hollister, passing this pumpkin field on my way to the post office.
Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater