This was the first visit for all the participants to this unique environment of southern Patagonia-Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. There were fifteen Namibian and two South Africans of which only a few were birders, the rest all having a general interest in Natural History and travelling. A journey to the Antarctic, for every person visiting this unique continent is however always a highlight and life changing experience. After spending time amongst the enormous numbers of various penguins and watching the wandering Albatrosses at sea will often change the average person to take more interest in birds generally!
On the 29th January the Swakop group left for Windhoek to meet with the rest of the Namibian group to catch the flight from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires. Six of the participants had left earlier and travelled independently to Ushuaia in Argentina. The following morning 30th January we took off from Oliver Tambo airport for BA arriving there late afternoon. Unfortunately due to delays, not enough time to was left to explore the city or the Rio de la Plata wetlands. Thursday 31 January started with an early morning rise to catch the plane to Ushuaia and to do a trip along the Beagle Channel. Unfortunately the harbour had been closed due to a public holiday and we did not get to do the planned tour. We then split up into a few groups, some exploring the quaint little town and others doing some local birding along the coastline. Around the pier we recorded Dolphin, Kelp and Brown-hooded Gulls, Giant Petrel, South American Terns, White-throated Caracara, blue- eyed (Imperial) Shag and Rock Cormorant. Further along the bay we had good views of Blackish Oystercatcher, Yellow-billed Pintail, Speckled Teal, Chiloe Wigeon, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Correndera Pipit and several of many Chimango Caracara.
The morning of 01 February we finished breakfast and with a local bird guide left for Terra del Fuego park just outside the town. En-route we stopped at the same wetland as the previous day and added Red Shoveller, Magellanic Snipe and some of them other species seen the previous day.
There were dark ominous clouds floating overhead and light rain started after leaving the town, the slightly snow clad peaks of the previous afternoon had a new shroud after snow falls during the evening. After entering the park we had good views of distant Black-necked Swans, Upland Geese with young, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Southern (Crested) Caracara, Great Grebe, American Kestrel, and a short walk in the forest near lake Lapataia we were able to see several Black-chinned Siskins, Patagonian Sierra Finch, White-crested Elaenia, Thorn-tailed Rayadito and the beautiful Austral Pygmy-owl reminiscent of our local Pearl-spotted Owl. A cold icy wind with rain had us moving on to the camp site restaurant for hot chocolate and coffee. While busy enjoying our hot drinks we noticed a Ringed Kingfisher plunge into the water nearby and when investigating the bird we also had good close up views of Magellanic Snipe, Yellow-billed Pintail, more Great Grebe (displaying), many Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, Grey-hooded Siskins, Chimango Caracara’s, Austral Parakeets and just before departing after a hectic climb up the side of a steep hill the star of the trip, the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker both male and female with her upturned black crest. We returned back to our bus an hour later with a very disgruntled driver but a few very happy campers!! From here we travelled back to Ushuaia to board our ship the Ocean Diamond for a trip of a lifetime.
After embarkation (01 February) we all gathered on the upper deck to watch the ship move out of the picturesque bay surrounded by snow-capped peaks and the little town nestled in the bay below. The spirits were high as we cruised down the Beagle Channel here we saw more Giant Petrels around the boat as well as Chilean Skuas, South American Terns, Black-browed Albatrosses and even a few Magellanic Penguins swimming by!
We eventually retired to the deck below for Dinner and then prepared ourselves for the dreaded ‘Drake’ passage!
The following morning on the 2nd February we woke to a warm 6⁰C a West Southwest wind of 20 knots and relatively calm seas. Some of the group felt a little queasy and would take another day to find their ‘sea legs’. However those who felt good spent time on the deck getting their first experience of the vast ocean, the Drake Passage and some new birds. Along this section we spotted several Wandering Albatrosses, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, Giant Petrels, Pintado Petrels, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, and a few Antarctic Prions and Blue Petrels. On two occasions two pods of Hourglass dolphins made their appearance and spent some time with the ship.
Having crossed the Drake Passage and the Antarctic convergence we woke up (03 February) to a quiet foggy morning with almost zero visibility and no birds to be seen. Between 10:00 and 12:00 the visibility started improving and the first of many Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins were seen, more Giant Petrels and Pintado also appeared and when we saw the first Blue-eyed Shags(Antarctic) we knew we could not be too far from land, soon after this we arrived at Aitcho’s Bay on the South Shetlands. After lunch we experienced our first landing, including Zodiac cruise and kayaking in the South Shetland Islands. All had a good first experience of this incredible part of the world and besides the huge numbers of Penguins we also saw our first of several Snowy Sheathbills, Sub Antarctic Skuas and Giant Petrels. After this first exhilarating experience with the landing, the Zodiac cruise and the kayaking we all met for a good happy hour before dinner, the overwhelming ice and experience only just starting to be realised as we set course for Brown Bluff the destination for the next day’s activity. En route before dark we saw a lot more Pintado and Giant Petrels, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Antarctic Terns and a single Antarctic Petrel.
The following morning (04 February) we woke to a beautiful sunny Brown Bluff with a light S W wind of 5 knots and 0⁰C. After breakfast we did our second Zodiac cruise, landing and kayaking, the weather was in our favour for the morning and all were able to take in the spectacular views and photograph the impressive Ice sheets, Ice bergs, the cliffs above Brown Bluff and the birds, the first white morph of the Southern Giant Petrel was also observed here. Just as we were departing from the shoreline we had our first Snow Petrels circling above the cliffs. After the most incredible morning and weather, we then set course towards Paulet Island for the next landing. We cruised through the most magnificent ice fields with blue ice and spectacular Ice bergs and Antarctic scenery towards Paulet, unfortunately on arrival near Paulet the wind had blown in a huge ice sheet and we could not land, we then turned to our next destination Cuverville island, on departing we had our first sightings of breaching Minke whales and en route several Weddell seals, we eventually arrived near Cuverville and anchored for the night, this cruise was exceptionally productive with about 25 Humpback whales and many birds.
On the morning of the 5th February we woke up to a cool southwest wind of 5 knots and 2⁰ C. After breakfast we again cruised, kayaked and landed on Cuverville with exciting close up views of Humpback whales, Crabeater and Weddell seals, as well as many Penguins and sea birds including Sub Antarctic and South Polar Skuas. The landing gave all photographers good close up opportunities to observe the penguins in various stages of moult as well as the feeding frenzies of the hungry youngsters.
After lunch we set course for Neko Harbour and Danco Island, along the way we passed the most impressive ice shelves and ice bergs with several sightings of Minke and Humpback whales. The landing, Kayaking and Zodiac cruises offered some of the most memorable encounters with Leopard seals around the Zodiacs, sleeping Weddell seals and huge numbers of Gentoo penguins, there were also various Skuas and a few sheathbills around. The view from the top of Danco island was absolutely stunning with ice clad peaks and huge ice bergs in all directions. Some of the group were looking forward to a night on the ice, but the conditions did not allow for this, however this allowed them all to join in with the ships barbeque and several happy ‘happy’ hours thereafter!!
The morning of the 7th February most did a short cruise or kayaked and others did a landing at Port Lockroy here some had the opportunity to take spectacular pictures of close up Snowy Sheathbills. After lunch we travelled down the Lemaire Channel with low visibility and strong snow falls, a few whales both Humpback and Minke were seen as well as Antarctic Terns and various Skuas, We then anchored near the mouth of the Lemaire channel for the final zodiac cruise and kayaking, thereafter we set coarse to the open seas to once again brave the dreaded drake and cross the Antarctic convergence towards Cape Horn.
The 8th saw us crossing the drake, unbelievably calm once again as for the 9th where the winds picked up before Cape Horn making the seas choppy and conditions suitable for seabirds. Before reaching Cape Horn and the cruise back to the Beagle channel, we were all spell bound by the huge numbers of Black-browed Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters, there were also many Giant petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Great Shearwaters and on two occasions had pods of Dusky dolphins near the boat.
This was now the end of the cruise and early on the 10th Feb. we woke up to a clear view of Ushuaia and the surrounding mountains and harbour. We docked for embarkation shortly after breakfast, the end of an incredible cruise had come to an end and we were transferred to the airport for a flight to El Calafate where we were to spend the next two nights. After our arrival at El Calafate we travelled for about 20 minutes to the quaint little town and after lunch we were transferred to Lake Nimez on the outskirts of the town, this is a conservation area and is an IBA (important bird area) it is a wetland area which floods from the lake Argentina and is surrounded by scrub and has good birding. Here we had good views of Chilean Flamingos, Coscoroba, Black-necked Swans, Crested Duck, Yellow-billed Pintail, Ruddy duck, Upland Geese, Red Shoveller, Plumbeus Rail and also the impressive Spectacled Tyrant, Patagonian Mockingbird, Longtailed Meadowlark, Cinereous Harriers with screaming fledglings as well as a male being mobbed by an Aplomado Falcon!
The morning of the 11th Feb had us up early to catch our transfer to the Perito Merino glacier, the trip across the arid scrub landscape reminded us of parts of the Karoo and en route we saw several Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, Chimango and Southern (Crested) Caracara’s. On nearing the mountains near the glacier the vegetation changes into Lenga woodland and here we spotted several American Kestrels, Chilean Flickers and in the woodland around the glacier Fire-eyed Duicon. We had spectacular views of the glacier both from the boat, and for those doing Mini trekking (from the top!) also along the network of walkways where the constant cracking of calving could be heard. On departing from the glacier we saw five Andean Condors to close the birding for the day!
The following morning after breakfast we were transferred to the airport for our flight to BA and after arrival at our hotel some of us went to the wetland conservation area on the Rio de la Plata. Unfortunately the wetlands had dried up and no wetland species were seen here, however many other species were observed like huge flocks of Black-hooded Parakeets, Rufous Hornero, Chalk-browed Mockingbirds, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper , Black-hooded Siskin and the beautiful Glittering bellied Emerald. We also had a snail kite circling overhead and good views of Grey-necked Woodrail along the route, both Chequered and Green-barred Woodpeckers ,Screaming , Shining and Bay-winged Cowbirds, Creamy-bellied and Rusty bellied Thrushes, Epaulet Oriole, Picazura Pigeon, Saffron Finch, Grassland Yellowfinch, White-winged Becard , Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird and Great Kiskadee.
The following morning before our transfer to the airport of our flight back to Johannesburg we spent another few hours at the wetland and added Brown chested Martin, Golden billed Saltator, Hook-billed Kite, Striped Flycatcher and the stunning Plush-crested Jay to the list for the area.
All in all the birds seen on the trip ranged from the Antarctic seabirds to the wetland and arid scrub species. A total of 126 different species were observed, some unique habitats were visited and the Antarctic was experienced, for those non birders we do hope that this has now inspired the endless boundaries of bird watching worldwide! The following checklist is of the birds recorded during the voyage to Antarctica, Terra del Fuego Park and the El Calafate area.