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New England Seabirds
First landing. Emmalee Tarry in front of Penguins on top of the rock pile. Notice that in January it is summer down under and not very cold.
In 1983 while I was living in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania lottery
accumulated a 6 million dollar prize. We thought that was a great sum of
money so all my co-workers and I bought lottery tickets. Then for a week
or so we enjoyed playing the "What I am going to do with 6 million
dollars" game. One would open a restaurant, another buy the Boston
Celtics and I dreamed of taking a trip to Antarctica. Well I didn't win
the lottery, but in January of 1999, I did go to Antarctica.
My trip was with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) aboard the MS Explorer owned and operated by Abercrombie and Kent (A&K). There was an afternoon of birding in the Andes Mountains at a ski resort near Santiago and another afternoon in Tierra Del Fuego National Park near Ushuia, Argentina. The primary focus of the trip was on the Antarctic Peninsula, the island of South Georgia and the southern ocean. The trip ended with a day of birding in the Falkland Islands .
The first evening aboard the ship we sailed down the Beagle Channel and awoke the next morning rocking, rolling and birding the infamous Drake Passage. After two full days of sailing we spent 3 days exploring various islands and the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula. Then it was back to the sea for two days, sailing to South Georgia for 3 days of birding at various spots in the islands. The great pelagic continued with two plus days of sailing along the Antarctic Convergence to the Falkland Islands. We had one full day of birding on two outer islands followed by a morning in Port Stanley and a long bus trip to the Stanley airport. We returned home by way of Santiago, Chile.
This was an incredible trip. If you suffer from seasickness (I don't) , you may have several bad days that will temper your enthusiasm.
The real highlight of the trip is the island of South Georgia. If you are planning a trip, be sure South Georgia is included.
All zodiac landings depend upon conditions. Landing spots vary from year to year and are not announced in advance. I assume that if one spot is inaccessible one year that the ship goes to another similar spot. We were extremely lucky with the weather and low ice conditions this year.
The food was more than wonderful and included lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Accomodations were comfortable if somewhat cramped and daily maid service is provided. Everybody has full access to the common facilities on the ship regardless of the price of their rooms. There are no assigned tables in the dining room or formal dressing.
There were approximately 98 participants along with 3 VENT leaders: Greg Lashley, Peter Dunne and Michael Sallaberry. A & K has a number of naturalists and experts on geology and history as part of the crew.
Getting There January 15 - Ice Storms in the North East
The ship sails on schedule even if a ice storm strands you in the north east for hours and even days. We got very lucky and were on one of the few planes that left Boston on January 15. Those who waited until later in the day to travel to one of the three departure points (NY, LA and Miami) were not so lucky. Some missed birding in Santiago and one person did not catch up to the group until the airport in Ushuia after paying an addition $800 for alternate airfare. In the future, I will leave a day early. I did elect to leave from Miami rather than the closer NY to avoid weather problems.
Our flight out of Miami was on Lan Chile, an airline that treats time very casually. Since we did not have assigned seats we arranged to arrive at the Lan Chile counter as they opened. Despite all promises, VENT was only once able to get Lan Chile to assign seats in advance. Seat assignments do not appear to be a heavy concern with Lan Chile. Be careful that they do not assign you to the smoking section without asking.
Our flight was uneventful and we arrived in Santiago, Chile the next morning after getting some sleep on the crowded plane. Buses took us and our luggage directly to the Plaza San Francisco Hotel. Our first birding trip was at noon.
Santiago, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina
Santiago is a modern and prosperous city as evidenced by many new cars, clean streets in good repair and health clubs, a sure sign of a prosperous middle class. We arrived early in the morning and were taken directly to our hotel in downtown Santiago. At noon we boarded buses for an afternoon of birding. This is the middle of the summer south of the equator and you will need lightweight cotton clothing for this excursion.
In the city we had: Southern Lapwing, Austral Thrush, Eared Dove, Picui Ground-Dove, Austral Blackbird. The bus climbed the narrow road to the ski area in the Andean Mountains. As we climbed, the trees were replaced with large cactus parasitized by a striking red flowing plant. We stopped for lunch at a parking area marked with a large Sprite Can. ( Can't explain this one, but if you are looking for this place, you can't miss this landmark.) The leaders had scouted this spot the day before.
Here were enjoyed that staple bird of South America the Blue-and-White Swallow and a Long-tailed Meadowlark. The leaders used a tape to lure a Moustached Turca out into the open. One of the Tapaculos, this little bird runs with its tail straight up. The tape also aroused an Austral Pygmy-Owl. We saw American Kestrel and our first Andean Condor at this spot. We continued higher up the road and near the top had: Aplomado Falcon, Red-backed Hawk, Rufous-tailed Hawk. Mountain Caracara, Mourning Sierra-Finch, Gray-headed Sierra-Finch, Black-chinned Siskin, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Dark-bellied Cinclodes, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Rufous-banded Miner. There is a little ski town at about 7000' and from a parking lot we had great looks at 4 Andean Condors.
We returned to the hotel and made a quick visit to the old church next to the hotel. There was a wedding in progress and we were handed rice to throw at the bride and groom. After a huge buffet dinner, we went directly to bed.
Our second day began at 4 AM. Luggage had to be outside the room by midnight. We identified our luggage in the lobby and had a light breakfast. We flew a Lan Chile chartered flight to Ushuaia. I had a window seat and beautiful views of the Andes Mountains poking out above the clouds. There were white caps on the Beagle Channel
We landed at the Malvinis Airport. (The Argentinean name for the Falkland Islands is the Malvinas.) It was very windy. Buses took us to a restaurant in town located in the old prison. This lunch was very slow and not very good. I wished I had spent the time exploring the town.
On the way to lunch we had passing views of: Dolphin Gull, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Blackish Oystercatcher, Brown-headed Gull, Chilean Skua. During lunch a group of Black-faced Ibis browsed in the field across the street. Buses took us to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park by way of the Ushuia dump.
In a fierce wind at the Ushuia dump we had Chimango Caracara, Crested Caracara, White-throated Caracara, Kelp Gull,Dolphin Gull, Chilean Skua, Rufous-backed Negrito (This bird identified by Michele Sallaberry. I could not find such a bird in the list or the book. There is an Austral Negrito which matched the description.) In the park we had: Chilean Swallow, White-crested Elaenia, Upland Goose, White-fronted Ground Tyrant. We drove through a beautiful beech forest, good habit for Magellanic Woodpecker which we didn't see. At the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) we had: Ashy-headed Goose, 2 Great Grebes nesting and calling, Patagonia Sierra-Finch, Southern House Wren, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch, Black-necked Swan, Austral Thrush. I left saying "I want to come back here some day and bird some more."
The Little Red Ship - M.S. Explorer
And then it was finally time to board the ship which was to be our home for the next two weeks. Down we went one deck, two decks to the bottom of the ship to find room 303 and our baggage. We also found red parkas and a backpack. My parka proved too small and heavy and I took it home as a present for my son. I preferred my lighter, looser jacket with a hood.
I remember seeing ads in National Geographic and Natural History for this ship when it was first launched as the Lindbad Explorer. The price for a trip to Antarctica at that time seemed totally out of reach. Now here I was with my cousin Paula sharing one of the cheapest rooms aboard. We had bunk beds, a small closet, a desk which remained piled with clothes throughout the trip and small complete bath. My bunk proved comfortable enough, but my cousin had to use the upper bunk. She is younger and more agile, but if I had it to do over again I would pay a little more and get two separate single beds.
The room was cleaned every day. The hotel staff was wonderful and worked hard to make us comfortable. The bathroom was a shower stall with a toilet, sink and a drain in the middle for the shower. A thick plastic mat allowed the shower water to flow to the drain without getting your feet wet. There was a handle next to the shower to which you hung for dear life while showering in rough seas. While all this looked a little primitive, we got used to it. There was plenty of hot water and we showered every day. We were to learn that one of the best places to be in a choppy sea is low in the middle of the ship. And that is exactly where room 303 is located. We were so low to the water, that waves constantly washed over our port hole. It was like being inside a washing machine. But we didn't fall out of bed at night.
The ship has a dining room large enough to seat all the passengers, a lounge with a bar on the main deck. One deck up and there is a large lecture hall with doors that lead out to a large open deck. For the first activity we put on the clunky orange life vests and reported to our lifeboat. These life vests were then put away in our rooms and not used again. Smaller, more manageable life vests were worn on all zodiac trips.
At 8 PM we were sailing away from the dock with almost everyone on the upper deck. It got colder and windier as we steamed down the channel and dinner was announced. The crowd on the upper deck thinned to less than 10 people. The birds were good: Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Chilean Skua and flocks of our familiar Sooty Shearwaters . Alcids on the port side? No Alcids down here they are Magellanic Penguins. My first wild penguin. And the birds that at first glance resembled Dovekies, Magellanic Diving Petrels. Also Imperial Cormorants and Rock Shags. We stayed on the deck until it grew dark. The great pelagic was on. Missing dinner wasn't such a bad thing as they served a snack every evening in the lounge.
A word about Cormorants and Skuas. There is some disagreement about the classification of the Cormorants and Skuas in this part of the world. I shall avoid the controversy with vagueness. Next Chapter 2