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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Antarctic Peninsula and Around Cape Horn

2020 Narrative

CEIBAS PRE-TOUR: An early departure from Buenos Aires saw us well to the north by sunrise, near the small town of Ceibas. We spent most of the day birding along quiet dirt roads, through scrubby forests and fields and wetlands. At first, it was hard to keep track of all the new birds coming fast and furious…Freckle-breasted Thornbird perched up and singing, White-naped Xenopsaris posing for photos, Brown Cachalote frolicking in the trees, Guira Cuckoo on a fence post, Monk Parakeets constantly flying around, Masked Gnatcatchers scolding, even a pair of Spotted Nothuras crossing the road! We particularly enjoyed some Furnariids with fun names like Firewood-gatherer and Lark-like Bushrunner. Phew! It seemed like each bird we looked at was something different.

A large reedbed nearby produced such goodies as Warbling Doradito, Sulphur-bearded Reedhaunter, Curve-billed Reedhaunter, and a cooperative Ash-colored Cuckoo. Our local guide, Julian, knew all the little spots and took us from one to the next – a little wetland down the road held over a hundred Southern Screamers, and we watched with some mixture of glee and terror as a Maguari Stork annihilated a meter-long snake, beating it for fifteen minutes until it finally succumbed. Giant Wood-Rails were delightfully common, strutting in the open alongside Plumbeous Rails.

We had a quick lunch of tasty empanadas and continued birding, trying to avoid the looming rain on the horizon. A fortuitous stop in some open pastures with patches of tall grass produced the uncommon Marsh Seedeater, along with so many more Southern Screamers sharing a field with wintering American Golden-Plovers. Perhaps the highlight of the day, however, was a roosting group of nine Nacunda Nighthawks, blending in perfectly in a field full of cow pies. After watching them peacefully for several minutes, they took to the sky, showing their white bellies as they hawked around, settling back onto the ground shortly. A great finale to our pre-tour day of birding, with even more excitement building for the days of seabirding ahead!

-          Luke Seitz

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MAIN CRUISE: Our inaugural Princess cruise to the dreamland of the Great White South exceeded expectations, and for many people the ‘highlight’ was the whole ‘pinch-me-I’m-really-in-Antarctica’ voyage! While 7 species of penguins (including an Emperor!) and 45 species of tubenoses (including 12 albatrosses!) topped the bill, seeing Andean Condor within minutes of walking away from a male Magellanic Woodpecker wasn’t too shabby! And then there were those Humpback Whales feeding all around the ship amid glaciers and blue icebergs, prions flickering over the swells, a great selection of handsome austral waterfowl, and other miscellanea, from crazy-looking Guira Cuckoos to impressive Southern Screamers and stately Black-faced Ibis; from an intense at-sea rainbow to bumping across the Falkland moors; from dapper Pintado Petrels and Black-browed Albatrosses to rarely seen Spectacled Petrels, Cape Verde Shearwaters, and Chatham Albatrosses. And 37 Wandering Albatross sweeping behind the ship one morning had to be seen to be believed! But all too soon the time had flown and it was over—thanks to all for making it such a wonderful experience.

Day 1. Early arrivals spent a morning birding at Costanera Sur in Buenos Aires, an amazing wetland reserve in the city. Despite black skies and brief heavy rain (which meant the reserve was closed) we enjoyed a bird-filled morning that included impressive Southern Screamers screaming, Plumbeous Rails in the open, a selection of wading birds and waterfowl, plus a couple of fierce little Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. After lunch we boarded the ship, a very smooth procedure, and had a chance to settle into our cabins, explore the ship, and undergo the safety drill before our introductory meeting, birdlist, and dinner as we headed out across the Rio de la Plata towards Uruguay.

Day 2. A relaxed day birding varied wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats in Uruguay with local guide Florencia Ocampo. We started well with obliging Rufous-sided Crakes, the bizarre Guira Cuckoo, and surprise European Goldfinches, then headed on to a tasty empanada picnic lunch via some decidedly cute roadside Burrowing Owls. A post-lunch birding walk, under wonderfully ‘cool’ cloudy skies with a pleasant breeze, produced a good selection of the local birds, including Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Black-and-rufous Warbling-finch, Long-winged Harrier, Spix’s Spinetail, Yellow-browed Tyrant, and a handsome male Dark-throated Seedeater. We checked a beach spot on the way back to the ship and were pleasantly surprised to find a good number of birds, despite the holiday season human beach traffic, with nice scope views of Snowy-crowned Terns, the taxonomically vexed Cayenne Tern, and some migrant American Golden Plovers. We arrived back at the ship in good time to relax before the bird list and a fine group dinner.

Day 3. Our first day of seabirding, heading south towards Falklands, and a really great start to the pelagic component of this trip. We began in the shallow waters of the continental shelf with 1000s of birds around the ship (mainly Great Shearwaters) for the first few hours, and by mid-afternoon had crossed into deep waters farther offshore. Birds were in view steadily throughout the day, notably good numbers and excellent views of Atlantic Petrels, plus a few Spectacled Petrels and our first albatross, from the smaller ‘mollymawks’ (Black-browed and Yellow-nosed) to the huge Southern Royal. Numbers of Southern Sunfish were also notable, plus a few Sei Whales and Southern Right Whales.      

Day 4. Day 2 of seabirding proved very different, with 30+ knot winds and deep water all day (often >3 miles deep!), shallowing to 1000m by evening but not in time to reach the Falkland shelf break. Today the commonest bird was Soft-plumaged Petrel, with many 100s and rarely a time with none in view! Also notable were our first majestic Wandering Albatrosses, of the Gough (sub)species, plus a close Sperm Whale, a small group of Killer Whales, and, late in the day, the diminutive Gray-backed Storm-Petrel.      

Day 5. Falklands. A magical day ashore at this remote British outpost, starting with glassy calm and truly warm weather (!) that, inevitably, changed by mid pm to cold and windy. An early start got us out to the Volunteer Point penguin colony in good time and beautiful weather, where the sights and sounds of 100s of breeding penguins was simply amazing, along with numerous geese, Two-banded Plovers, migrant White-rumped Sandpipers, and the endemic (sub)species of White-bridled Finch and Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant. The drive back to Stanley was punctuated with superb views of Magellanic (aka South American) Snipe, various waterfowl including the flightless Falkland Steamer-Duck, and the endemic (sub)species of White-tufted Grebe. Some folks enjoyed a leaping Commerson’s Dolphin on the tender ride back to the ship, and we departed in time to see some distant (but identifiable!) Snowy Sheathbills at a seabird colony leaving the islands. What a day!

Day 6. At sea, heading south towards the Antarctic Peninsula, although on this occasion the notorious Drake Passage was more of a Drake Lake. The low seas made birding pleasant but temperatures cooled steadily, especially after crossing the Antarctic Convergence in mid-afternoon. Birds came and went, including thousands of swarming prions, a scattering of storm-petrels, and the near-constant accompaniment of majestic Wandering Albatrosses, wheeling effortlessly across the wake and periodically sailing up along the sides at eye level—what amazing creatures. Also notable were 2 Snowy Sheathbills that circled the ship, giving close overhead views (from the swimming pool deck!), plus our first Gray-headed Albatross, a few groups of Macaroni Penguins, and a late afternoon pod of Hourglass Dolphins.      

Day 7. At sea to Antarctica, crossing the 60oS parallel in early morning. We woke to light winds and gentle seas, which made birding easy, although a temperature around 2oC (without wind chill) and curtains of fog meant it was decidedly cool on deck. But a steady fare of Pintado Petrels, Chinstrap Penguins, and whales, along with occasional Antarctic Fulmars, a Blue Petrel, plus beautiful Light-mantled Sooty and Gray-headed Albatrosses made for a memorable morning, along with our first icebergs. And then the real fog came… Reportedly we reached Elephant Island by late morning, but despite the best attempts of the from-the-bridge commentator, the fog did not lift. So we headed east towards Clarence Island, which was equally hidden by fog, and then back to Elephant Island, which eventually revealed itself after dinner, showing spectacular glaciers and jagged peaks. Evening visibility also produced more whales and our first South Polar Skua and Antarctic Tern, appropriate birds for our location.      

Day 8. Scenic cruising in Antarctica. Light ice conditions this season enabled the ship to pull in close to Esperanza Station, the Argentine base on the Antarctic Peninsula, flanked by 1000s of nesting Adelie Penguins on ground stained red by poop from a krill diet, and fronted by towering walls of snow-white and aqua-blue ice set off against the dark gray skies—an amazing place to experience. Our sojourn into the waters of ‘iceberg alley’ (the frozen tears of a dying planet) also produced many penguins on icebergs and in close groups on the water, plus Humpback Whales and a couple of Snowy Sheathbills that flew alongside at eye level, affording wonderful views of the only non-web-footed bird in the Antarctic. By mid-morning we were heading out to sea and back across the foggy and blustery Bransfield Strait to King George Island, for more stunning scenery and some impressive katabatic winds gusting to 60 knots, which made impossible a zodiac visit from some researchers at one of the bases on the island. We viewed Arctowski, the Polish base, plus the Peruvian and single-building (!) Ecuadorian ‘bases,’ amid surprisingly colorful shorelines and slopes washed in pastel pinks, greens, and yellows from various lichens and grasses. Birds included numerous South Polar Skuas along with putative hybrid South Polar x Brown Skuas, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and both giant-petrels before we headed back out to cross the Bransfield Strait on our continuing adventure southwards, with some Antarctic Fulmars accompanying the ship after dinner.      

Day 9. Scenic cruising in Antarctica, the Gerlache Strait. We started in Charlotte Bay with bright overcast skies and light snow flurries, surrounded by towering glacier walls and iced-cake cliffs, at a scale that might be termed obscenery rather than simple scenery. As expected, bird diversity was low, but with steady South Polar Skuas and Antarctic Terns. The show-stealers, however, were groups of feeding Humpback Whales all around the ship, amazingly close and spectacular in the glassy calm waters, plus a Snow Petrel spotted by Luke that remained on a small iceberg for all to see in the scope! Then it was on to Wilhelmina Bay, an area not previously visited by Princess ships, where the mind-numbing scenery continued, dominated by the blues and whites of icebergs and glacier faces:

Icebergs of Blue

From ice-tongues unhinged

Psychedelically tinged?

Our synapses singed

By icebergs of blue

 

Shapes sculpted by time

Both stark and sublime

On which our minds climb

Now freed from life’s glue

 

Bird numbers were low overall, but we were pleasantly surprised by an Antarctic Petrel resting on ice and then Luke struck again, spotting a distant but quite identifiable Emperor Penguin standing alone on some ice! After another Antarctic Petrel and more whales we left Wilhelmina Bay and passed through the stunning Neumayer Channel, as the sun broke through to add to the dazzling grandeur all around us. Late in the day we glimpsed Port Lockroy and Palmer Station and skirted around Anvers Island to start back north across the Bransfield Strait, where the gentle ocean rolls lulled us into a contented sleep as tabular icebergs dotted the misty horizon.      

Day 10. We awoke in the gray, cool, and misty Bransfield Strait, heading steadily to our last stop in Antarctica, Deception Island in the South Shetlands, with the occasional Black-bellied and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels alongside the ship. The bleak gray volcanic slopes of the island seemed a poor cousin to the snowy majesty of yesterday, but the calm seas meant the ship could enter through Neptune’s Bellows and circumnavigate the flooded caldera, allowing views of the abandoned whaling station and various bases protected within the crater—the largest ship ever to enter (and leave!) there. Wildlife included thousands of Chinstrap Penguins; good numbers of Pintado Petrels, Southern Giant-Petrels, and Antarctic Shags; plus some sheathbills and our best views of Weddell Seals. Shortly before noon we left the caldera, but it wasn’t till after mid-pm that we headed into open ocean, leaving behind groups of porpoising penguins and our last icebergs to head back north across the Drake Passage. Not far offshore the fog hit us, the price of gentle seas, but then it cleared and the late afternoon featured numerous snappy little Blue Petrels, plus various albatrosses, and, finally, an Antarctic Prion—one of the most abundant Southern Ocean species that had somehow eluded us.

My Grail

Blue Petrels flip

In silver arcs

As albatrosses sail

Wing-tip to tip

Of lights and darks

The patterns of my grail

 

Day 11. At sea heading NNW across the Drake Passage towards Cape Horn. Long rolling swells finally made us think we were out in the Southern Ocean, but it was still a relaxed day of seabirding, quiet for long periods in the deep water, if Blue Petrels and giant Wandering Albatrosses can be called ‘quiet,’ and then picking up frenetically as we approached Cape Horn in mid-pm, with an orgy of albatrosses—hundreds upon hundreds mixed in with Sooty Shearwaters, plus a few storm-petrels, penguins, and our first Chilean Skuas. Waters calmed in the lee of Cape Horn where we enjoyed good views of the imposing cliffs, small Chilean base, and the iconic albatross monument. Albatrosses and shearwaters continued to swarm around and keen-eyed Luke spotted a couple of Striated Caracaras perched atop a small sea stack, which allowed scope views for those present. From Cape Horn we headed into pleasantly calm and sheltered waters for our overnight transit to Ushuaia.      

Day 12. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Arriving on schedule we met local guide Marcelo and headed to the ‘world-famous-in-Ushuaia’ garbage dump, which provided excellent views of all 3 caracara species and a less-than-concerned Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. Then on to Tierra del Fuego National Park before the crowds, where the beautiful Nothofagus (‘false beech’) forest was a striking change from our preceding tree-free week. We enjoyed some handsome Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and Black-chinned Siskins before finding a male Magellanic Woodpecker right by the bus! We watched (and photographed!) this impressive and unconcerned bird for quite some time before walking away from it and heading deeper into the park, seeing Magellanic Penguin and Andean Condor within 5 minutes of the woodpecker! A relaxing picnic lunch with attendant Rufous-collared Sparrows and Patagonian Sierra-finches was followed by a couple more stops, appreciating the diverse austral waterfowl such as Kelp and Ashy-headed Geese, both steamer-ducks, and a vagrant White-cheeked Pintail, along with the handsome Black-faced Ibis and a showy Chilean Skua. Strong winds delayed departure, but by late afternoon we were back at sea in the Beagle Channel, with low-angle sunlight views of spectacular hanging glaciers a fine way to end the day.

Day 13. Punta Arenas. We arrived on time, around 0800, but service to shore was delayed over an hour (off ship on first tender 0930) and we finally headed north out of Punta Arenas by 1000, our first stop a shallow roadside lake where the usual 1–2 hour walk was negated when we found several Magellanic Plovers right by the parking spot! Wow, that was too easy. A handsome juvenile Rufous-chested Dotterel was also notable, plus flocks of Austral Negritos, and then we headed inland to the vast, rolling rain-shadow steppe that is Patagonia. Groups of Darwin’s Rheas dotted the landscape, plus caracaras and the occasional fox, and other notables included Austral (née Sedge) Wren and the waterfowl-covered ‘swan lake.’ Our drive home featured some Chilean Flamingos, which always seem a little out of place in this part of the world, and an unplanned visit with the 1st Punta Arenas wetland birding festival, which corresponded to International Wetlands Day! It was good to see a lot of locals and young people engaged in the event, and the selection of waterbirds included Patagonian Silvery Grebes with back-riding chicks plus 3 species of coots! All in all a wonderful day in this remote corner of the world.      

Day 14. At sea—well, sort of. Our luck with the weather finally ran out a little, and a storm system meant the captain opted to travel much of the day in sheltered inside passage waters, through misty and rainy scenery rather than on the open ocean as we had hoped for. Still, there was a beautiful sunrise as we headed out of the Magellan Strait and any day with numbers of Black-browed Albatross is always good. Other birds were few, but a single Wandering Albatross on our brief morning passage through heaving ‘outside’ waters was notable. The inside passage transit then allowed for a relaxing day to edit photos, rest, and prepare for two days of seabirding in the upcoming Humboldt Current.      

Day 15. At sea all day—the day of the albatross. As well as some 8 species of albatross today, we started with at least 37 (!) Wandering Albatrosses wheeling behind the ship, and these giants stayed with us all day, allowing many 100s of photos to be taken at and above eye-level, and also allowing wonderful comparisons of Antipodes and Snowy Wanderers. Also notable were Salvin’s, Buller’s, and Chatham Albatrosses, Westland Petrel, numbers of Stejneger’s and Juan Fernandez Petrels, and the enigmatic ‘Pincoya’ Storm-Petrel.      

Day 16. At sea heading N off central Chile. A following sea meant we could watch from the front of the ship as we headed into the Humboldt Current proper, with birds on and off all day, at times too many to keep track off. Calmer conditions meant we left behind the Wandering Albatross but instead entered the domain of the Royal Albatrosses, with over 100 of these giants seen during the day. Species composition was similar to the preceding day, including Buller’s and Chatham Albatrosses, Stejneger’s Petrel, and ‘Pincoya’ Storm-Petrel.

Day 17. Pre-dawn arrival in San Antonio and a smooth disembarkation, meeting our bus and local guide Erik Sandvig for the post-tour extension in Central Chile.

-Steve Howell

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SANTIAGO EXTENSION: We arrived in San Antonio on the morning of February 6, sadly bidding the ocean farewell but excited for a couple days of land-based birding around Santiago. After meeting our local guide, Erik Sandvig, we headed a short distance to the Maipo river estuary, where we eased our way into the local avifauna. The estuary was loaded with wintering Franklin’s Gulls, Elegant Terns, and Black Skimmers, among which were small numbers of shorebirds including several Whimbrel and a couple Hudsonian Godwits and Red Knots. Most surprising, however, was a single Willet on the beach that appeared to be of the “Eastern” subspecies (semipalmata) – perhaps the first documented record for Chile?

The nearby shrubs surrendered a cute Dusky Tapaculo along with a surprising Great Shrike-Tyrant, the latter not often seen at the Maipo. Spiffy Spectacled Tyrants perched conspicuously and we eventually glimpsed a Wren-like Rushbird in the reeds. It was soon time to head to our seaside restaurant for lunch, but not without a quick stop at Cartagena, where we enjoyed very close studies of three species of coots (Red-gartered, White-winged, and Red-fronted) along with Spot-flanked Gallinule and a rare Sandwich Tern. A couple Black-headed Ducks, known for its parasitic behavior, were appreciated by all.

Delicious fish and chips lulled us into an afternoon daze but we had more birding to do, starting with a couple cryptic Stripe-backed Bitterns near Algarrobo and a very cooperative Spot-flanked Gallinule swimming right towards us, its lime-green bill gleaming in the sun. A nearby road through a shrubby valley was expectedly hot and quiet, although some more Rufous-tailed Plantcutters and cute Tufted Tit-Tyrants entertained us.

The next day would see us heading high into the Andes on the east side of Santiago, with a very special little shorebird at the front of our minds. On the drive up through the El Yeso valley, we made a productive stop for Crag Chilia, which paraded around in the open alongside the enormous-footed Moustached Turca. Not a bad way to kick off the day! Ascending higher, we became familiar with Greater Yellow-finches and Rufous-banded Miners, even picking out some uncommon Creamy-rumped Miners among them. The intricate patterns of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe were studied well, and we puzzled over some White-browed and Black-fronted Ground-Tyrants. It’s impossible not to mention the scenery in this stunning valley; the dramatic backdrop for our birding was just as much of a highlight! Finally, we reached the end of the bumpy road, where we found the star of the show: Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers! We studied a pair and two chicks at our leisure, armed with a picnic lunch in our hands. Birding at its best.

Mountains were on the agenda again for our final birding day, this time a little further north on the road to Farellones. Again, we worked our way up the road with a few strategic birding stops: first for a friendly White-throated Tapaculo, then for a rather less friendly Dusky-tailed Canastero, and finally for a couple pairs of Chilean Flickers. We reached La Parva in the late morning and walked a short distance around the open habitats, where a Magellanic (Great Horned) Owl snoozed in a roadside tree, a Gray-flanked Cinclodes lurked among the Buff-winged, and single Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant flitted among the rocks.  

After a tasty picnic lunch at Plaza de las Pumas, complete with a Scale-throated Earthcreeper and an attendant Andean Field Mouse keeping us company, we made it up to the Valle Nevado ski resort. This is a well-known destination for anyone interested in Andean Condors, and we were not disappointed. At least fifteen (probably more!) condors gave stunning views as they perched on rooftops, soared overhead, and rocketed by at eye-level…we could even hear the wind rushing as they flew so close. It was an exquisite way to end our days exploring the Santiago area.

-          Luke Seitz

Updated: February 2020