Blue Whales off South Georgia

HMS PROTECTOR arrived off Cooper Island located at the south-east end of South Georgia on the morning of 9 Feb 15.  As per normal I headed to the focsle after my breakfast to see what was about.  Unsurprisingly there were literally hundreds of seabirds around.  The most numerous species was Macaroni Penguin.  It was impossible to accurately count them but there were literally thousands of them.  Gentoo Penguin, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Antarctic Prion, Black-browed Albatross and Cape Petrel were also present in large numbers.  However, it was a distant Blue Whale that stole the show.  Both Steve and I had seen what we believed to be a Blue Whale in the Pacific Ocean back in April 14.  However, unlike on that occasion I had record images to confirm this particular sighting.  As documented the blow of the Blue Whale was indeed very tall and narrow as shown in the image below, and quite distinctive in comparison to that of the Humpback and Fin Whale that were also present.

Blue Whale, South Georgia – 9 Feb 15

Throughout the first part of the morning PRTR patrolled a box off Cooper Island before the ship headed into the nearby Drygalski Fjord to measure on radar the extent of the Drygalski Glacier’s retreat caused by climate change.  Throughout that period it was very apparent that at least three Blue Whales were actively feeding in the area.  One particular animal showed brilliantly as it surfaced and passed down the port side of the ship as PRTR headed towards Drygalski Fjord.  The yellowish colouring on its flanks caused by diatom algae colonizing the animal’s skin was extensive.  The sound of each blow was incredible to hear as Steve and I witnessed the spectacle from the bridge roof.  It was no wonder that the resulting ‘spout’ reached so high.

Blue Whale, South Georgia – 9 Feb 15

Blue Whale, South Georgia – 9 Mar 15

Blue Whale, South Georgia – 9 Feb 15

Blue Whale, South Georgia – 9 Feb 15. Photographed by Steve Copsey.

Blue Whale, South Georgia - 9 Feb 2015. photographed by Steve Copsey

Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia – 9 Feb 15

Steve hard at work – 9 Feb 15

 

Good birding,

Tony T   BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Hawfinch and Firecrest in Petrin Gardens, Prague, Czech Republic

Middle-spotted Woodpecker was very much a hoped for species during my extended weekend visit to Prague with Mrs T.  However, my best sighting was of a completely unexpected species, despite it not being a ‘lifer’.  Whilst waiting expectantly for the Middle-spotted Woodpecker photographed in the previous Blog entry to return to its nest hole I spotted five passerines fly into the tree canopy above.  When I raised my binoculars I was extremely pleased to identify them as Hawfinches.  However, an hour later on the lower slopes of Petrin Hill I was treated to my best ever sighting of the species when two individuals literally flew into the bush I was stood next to.  That was five minutes after we had followed a Firecrest along the footpath we were strolling along.  Fantastic.

Hawfinch, Petrin Gardens – 8 Mar 15

Nuthatch (Eurasian), Great Tit and Blackbird were regular throughout the city but I was surprised by the complete absence of House Sparrow, Starling and Dunnock.  Although the flight from London Heathrow was only two hours in duration it had resulted in me being 1000 miles further east.  Consequently, I studied my battered softcopy of the Collins Bird Guide and learnt that Common Starling was only a summer visitor to the city.  The same also probably applied to Dunnock with the region being on the edge of the distribution map shown for the species.  However, House Sparrow was apparently resident but it never made it onto my Prague List despite the miles Mrs T and I accumulated wandering around the city on foot.  My perusal through the worn pages of my reference book also highlighted the fact that my presumed immature Herring Gulls were in fact more likely to be Caspian/Yellow-legged Gulls according to the distribution maps.  Unfortunately, I only encountered flyover birds on my final day so I was unable to confirm visually.

Red Squirrel was another unexpected species and they were to be found in all the large parks.  Once again I found myself wondering why the UK has allowed the ‘Grey’ to wipeout populations of the far more attractive native ‘Red’.

Red Squirrel, Letenské Sady Hilltop Garden – 8 Mar 15

Species seen away from the Vltava River were Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Kestrel (male), Common Buzzard, Blackbird, Song Thrush (1), Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Jay, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Pheasant (male), Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Hawfinch (max 5), Goldfinch, Magpie, Rook, Jackdaw, Wren, Robin and Firecrest (1).

All in all Mrs T thoroughly enjoyed our ‘extenders’ in Prague.  It certainly beat the subsequent decorating.

‘Golden Lane’ within Prague Castle – 7 Mar 15

Castle and Cathedral Complex, Prague – 7 Mar 15

Good birding,

Tony T   BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Middle-spotted Woodpecker in Petrin Gardens, Prague, Czech Republic

Although Prague had always appealed to me as a foreign destination to visit, a little ‘birding’ research before departure highlighted the added bonus of several potential ‘lifers’ there.  Aware of the extensive woodland on Petrin Hill where the hotel was located I hoped to connect with at least one.  My list of potential target species comprised of Black Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Middle-spotted Woodpecker and Short-toed Treecreeper.  I had the good fortune to connect with one of them after I had enjoyed the panoramic views with Mrs T from the top of Petrin Tower during our first afternoon in the city.

Petrin Tower, Petrin Hill, Prague-8 Mar 15

From Petrin Tower we opted to walk, rather than take the funicular railway, down the wooded hillside to Lesser Town and the renowned Charles Bridge.  Within a 100m of setting off I heard a tapping from the bare tree canopy above and immediately spotted not just one, but two, Middle-spotted Woodpeckers.  It was a species we encountered several times during our extended weekend in Prague.

Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Petrin Gardens-6 Mar 15

A couple of days later we spotted a Middle-spotted Woodpecker in a nest hole.  I managed to capture a few blurry record shots before the bird flew off.  With the nest hole bathed in full sunshine I was able to reduce the ISO setting, increase the shutter speed and pre-focus on the hole as I waited expectantly for the bird to return.  Despite waiting fifteen minutes I had no luck, and although Mrs T wasn’t impatient I’m not one to push my luck.  Consequently, I was unable to get any better photographs.

Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Petrin Gardens-8 Mar 15

Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Petrin Gardens-8 Mar 15

Good birding,

Tony T   BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Ringed Black-headed Gull in Prague, Czech Republic

I returned to the UK on 1 Mar 15 and just a few days later I took off from London Heathrow for an extended weekend in Prague with Mrs T.  We had a thoroughly enjoyable time in what is a beautiful city, and apart from an overcast but dry first day we enjoyed wall to wall sunshine for the remainder of our stay.  Although not a birding holiday I spotted a total of 36 species that included several sightings of a ‘lifer’.  The tally certainly benefited from our hotel being located adjacent to the extensive Petrin Gardens – who’d have thought!!!  The hotel was also just 100m from a stop of the Number 22 tram that was ideal for Mrs T after a day on foot taking in the sites.

Prague viewed from the Powder Gate Tower – 8 Mar 15. From left to right – Town Hall Tower, Monastery (on hillside and adjacent to our hotel), Petrin Gardens, Tyn Church and St Vitus Cathedral / Castle complex

The Vltava River that cuts through the city was home to hundreds of Black-headed Gulls.  I noticed a first winter bird that had a metal ring on its right leg.  Like most of the gulls and wildfowl present the bird was relatively tame.  Consequently, I was able to record the ring details that I have subsequently submitted online.  Hopefully, I’ll get feedback on where the bird was rung – Prague???

Black-headed Gull (1st-W), Prague – 7 Mar 15

Black-headed Gull (1st-W), Prague – 7 Mar 15

Other species spotted on the Vltava River were Cormorant, Mallard, Mute Swan, Moorhen (1), Coot, Wigeon (single male), Tufted Duck, Little Grebe and Caspian/Yellow-legged Gull (immatures).

Below is a photograph of what is probably the city’s most famous attraction.  I highly recommend the tour of the associated Town Hall State Rooms and underground buildings.

Astronomical Clock, Town Hall, Prague – 7 Mar 15

PS  A prompt response from PŘÍRODOVĚDECKÉ MUZEUM stated that the immature Black-headed Gull (male) had been rung two months earlier on 11 Jan 15 in the same area of Prague.

Good birding,

Tony T   BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Sei and Humpback Whales off the South Sandwich Islands

The passage north to South Georgia took the ship right past the South Sandwich Islands. Unfortunately the weather for the majority of the transit as it had been for most of the ice period was overcast and gloomy, with just a few hours of sunshine on the 8th.  At the southern end of the island chain just of Thule Island we had decent views of two Sei Whales that surfaced just as the ship passed by. On the same day we also had 72 Kerguelen Petrels, 29 Southern Fulmars and the odd Snow Petrel. A few days later at the top of the chain; not too far from Zavodoski Island we had views of a single Humpback Whale. I also saw my first Blue Whale of the season in the same watching period. It was too far for even a record shot so I just watched with the bins. I do remember thinking to myself at the time; “that is one big Flipping Whale” or something similar if you get my drift. More on them to come from Tony.

Sei Whale, South Sandwich Islands, 6 Feb 2015

Sei Whale, South Sandwich Islands, 6 Feb 2015

Snow Petrel, South Sandwich Islands, 6 Feb 2015

Humpback Whale, South Sandwich Islands, 8 Feb 2015. Note how blue the sea looks when the sun is shining !!!

Steve C

Stuck in the ice with Adelie and Emperor Penguins !!!

The passage south was continuing well on the 1st of February despite some heavy pack ice.  We had seen plenty of Emperor Penguins throughout the day and Adelies were pretty much all over the ice. Unfortunately that was all to change on the 2nd. During the evening we had all been kept awake as the ship broke through ever thicker ice in a bid to reach the British Antarctic Survey Base at Halley. The wind had been blowing increasingly from the north for the last few days and this caused all our problems. The shore lead channel, which is normally open and through which the ship would gain access to Halley was firmly closed as the ice pushed onto the shore. At around five in the morning all went quiet as the ship finally got stuck in the ice at around 72 degrees south. As you would imagine; for an ice breaker to get stuck in the ice is an occupational hazard and we have a number of options available when it happens. One is to wait it out and as the wind shifts the ice shifts eventually letting you free. The other solutions involve re-ballasting weight from forward to aft and also swinging the crane out to starboard with a weight attached to break the grip the ice has on you. We did these latter two solutions and a few hours later we were on the move again, but it was clear that we were not going to be able to break through such thick ice and reach Halley within our allotted time frame. The decision was made to return north instead and patrol the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia; which are British Overseas Territories. Both these locations have great birding so as one door closes another opens. ‘Every Cloud’.

Adelie Penguins, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Adelie Penguins, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Minke Whale, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Stuck in the Ice, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

Stuck in the Ice, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015. Using the crane and weight to break the grip

Stuck in the Ice, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

Stuck in the Ice, (partly free), Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

On the move again

Emperor Penguin, imm, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguins, imm, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguins, imm, Weddell Sea, 2 Feb 2015

Steve C

Kestrel and Rook interaction over Hook Links

I am back in Hampshire for March and the week before last I popped along the links at Hook. At the end of Cowes Lane I spotted a Kestrel in the hover and as I got closer with the camera, a Rook flew in and started to pester the bird as it hovered; the pestering was rather half-hearted, nearly as if the Rook had better things to do but was thinking I am a member of the crow family so I should have a pop at this raptor given the chance. The Kestrel was quite relaxed about the whole incident and seemed to have one eye on the Rook and the other on the floor for the majority of the time. After a while the Rook lost interest and flew off to the north; the Kestrel carried on about its business of hunting, before moving further along the links.

Kestrel, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel and Rook, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel and Rook, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel and Rook, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel and Rook, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Kestrel, Hook Links, 6 Mar 2015

Steve C

Crabeater and Weddell Seals in the Weddell Sea

During the passage south through the Weddell Sea; the most numerous seal seen was the Crabeater.  To be expected I guess as it is the most numerous seal in the world and has a circumpolar distribution around the Antarctic Continent. Despite its name the species does not eat crabs; its diet consists entirely of Krill and this food source is sieved through specialised teeth. The seals were most often seen hauled out on the ice and as you can see from a few of the images below, took exception to being disturbed by the Protector. Unlike the penguins which generally tend to hurry away and dive back into the sea as we pass, the Crabeater shows full defiance even when we are breaking through the actual ice the seal is laying on! The real surprise was the lack of Weddell Seals. This is another seal with circumpolar distribution but we only saw the one animal whilst in the Weddell Sea itself. Even then I was not 100% sure but I’ll let you decide.

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 29 Jan 2015

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 29 Jan 2015

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Crabeater Seal, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Weddell Seal ?? Weddell Sea, 29 Jan 2015

 

Steve C

Emperor Penguins in the Weddell Sea

The 1st of February will live long in the memory for a number of reasons; chief of these being my first Emperor Penguins. The chaps on the bridge knew I had yet to see this bird so at approximately half past one in the morning my phone rang and I was informed that an Emperor was on the ice near the ship. I raced up to the bridge but alas, on my arrival I was greeted with the news that it had literally just dropped into the water. I returned to my cabin and was awoken again at quarter past three with the same report. Fortunately this time an adult and an immature bird stayed on the ice as we passed.  I then stayed on the bridge for another hour or so clocking up four more Emperors. About seven in the morning Tony (unaware of my early morning activities) burst into the cabin to inform me that he had three Emperors on the port side of the ship. I duly got on these birds as well. This continued to be the pattern for the day. We passed small parties of birds as we made our way through some very heavy (9&10/10) pack ice. The weather was not on our side, as it had not been for the previous week; continuous grey skies not making for easy photography, but at least the ‘big’ penguin was now in the bag.

Emperor Penguin, imm, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015. The first one, photographed at 03:28

Emperor Penguin, ad, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015.

Emperor Penguin, ad, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguins, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015. (Tony's early birds)

Emperor Penguin, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguin, ad and imm, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguin, ad and imm, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguins, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Emperor Penguins, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

 

Steve C

Antarctic Birding: Snow Petrels in the Weddell Sea

As with Antarctic Petrels; our arrival in heavier pack ice also coincided with an increase in Snow Petrel sightings. Most watches on the upper deck produced double figure counts and if we were lucky, we would come across a roost of birds on an ice floe. On one occasion numbering around forty birds. No doubt we must have missed a number of roosting birds as they blend rather well into their surroundings. (Not a great surprise, I hear you say). Again as with the Antarctic Petrel, the Snow Petrels would also forage in the wake as we broke through ice. Although not in the same numbers, usually just the odd bird or two.

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Roosting Snow Petrels, Weddell Sea, 29 Jan 2015

Snow Petrel, (feeding in the wake), Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

The shots below demonstrate reasonably well the difference between how easy the bird is to pick up over water as compared to how difficult it can be over ice, especially at distance and in what seemed to be the constant gloomy weather. (I know what you’re thinking he is down the Antarctic birding; and all he can do is whine about the weather………Sorry)

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 29 Jan 2015

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Steve C

Birding Lanzarote : Teguise Plain

I mentioned in an earlier post, Gustavo Tereja. After meeting him in Arrecife I arranged for him to pick me up as a guide for the day. My aim was the four or five species that inhabited the island but I had never seen on my travels. Gustavo picked me up early from my hotel and we headed straight out for the Teguise Plain. This is a huge, flat, arrid area that because of the recent rains on Lanzarote was now rather lush. We stopped the van and opened the window. Straight away we could hear singing Lesser Short-toed Lark and after a while Stone Curlew calling. We were looking for Houbara Bustard and we drove for another fifteen minutes before Gustavo shouted “Bustard”.  We could see a female in the distance and we soon spotted a male nearby. He was running to and fro displaying to the female. After a while another female was spotted and we realised that he was displaying to both of them.

Houbara Bustard, Teguise Plain, Lanzarote, 9th Feb 2015

Houbara Bustard, Teguise Plain, Lanzarote, 9th Feb 2015

All in all we saw 7 bustards that morning, five females and two males. The other species that inhabits this terrain is the Cream-coloured Courser and we were soon looking at a group of five. Unfortuantely they were very distant and extremely spread out. Here is the best image I could get showing three of the five birds.

Cream-coloured Courser, Teguise Plain, Lanzarote, 9th Feb 2015

The only other bird seen on the plain were a few Southern Grey Shrike. From here Gustavo took e too a site on the coast where he had previously seen Barbary Falcon. This was not to be, the sun was directly behind the cliff and scanning the nooks and crannies was nearly impossible.
Having seen my two target birds, Gustavo asked me if there were any species that I would like to try for. The only species that I knew was possible but I had never seen was Trumpeter Finch. Gustavo racked his brains and decided that the Timanfaya visitor centre would be worth a try. This sits in the middle of a lava field and initially we had no luck. Finally we walked back to the car and whilst chatting scanned the carpark. Two birds flew in and although we expected them to be Linnets we followed them to where they landed.
I was pleased to see that they weren’t Linnets but a pair of Trumpeter Finches.

Trumpeter Finch, Timpanfaya NP, Lanzarote, 9th Feb 2015

After a beer and a chat on the way home, we headed back to the hotel when suddenly Gustavo screeched to a halt. There on the wire was one of favourite birds, a Hoopoe.

Hoopoe, Timpanfaya NP, Lanzarote, 9th Feb 2015

Gustavo proved to be a great guide and wonderful company. A superb ornithologist and hugely passionate about birds of his native land. Gustavo is happy to take out any visitors and his daily rate is extremely reasonable. He can be contacted at : debajodelrisco@hotmail.com
Mark C

Antarctic Petrels in the Weddell Sea

The next few days produced a similar range of species to what we had seen since sailing from Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands. Like I said Antarctic Petrels had become relatively common in and around the ship, although for the most part they did not pay the ship much attention. However, we did notice that when we were in particularly heavy ice; the birds would fly in the ship’s wake. They could clearly be seen feeding on what we assumed would be Krill from the underside of ice slabs that we churned up and flipped over as we broke through.

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrels, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrels, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 1 Feb 2015

Steve C

Fin Whales and Ice Petrels near South Orkney

We sailed south from the South Orkney Islands on the 27th January and within a few miles three Fin Whales passed by the ship quite close. Within a few minutes we had a further three whales; this time Humpbacks.  A great start to ice period 3. As we left we also had good numbers of birds around the ship with at least 300 Antarctic Prions, 150 Cape Petrels and 40 Black-browed Albatrosses as we stood on the upper deck at 15:00

Fin Whales, (hopefully), South Orkney Islands 27 Jan 2015

Fin Whale, South Orkney Islands 27 Jan 2015

As we headed south towards the Weddell Sea,  we started to come across more ice bergs each day and soon found ourselves in heavier pack ice altogether. Antarctic and Snow Petrels are famously linked with pack ice, so it was no surprise that numbers of these species started to increase. Both great birds but the latter often rather difficult to pick up as it flies over ice, never mind roosting on it.

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 28 Jan 2015

Ice Berg, Weddell Sea, 28 Jan 2015

Antarctic Petrel, Weddell Sea, 28 Jan 2015

Antarctic and Cape Petrels, Weddell Sea, 30 Dec 13

Snow Petrel, Weddell Sea, 28 Jan 2015 (not the easiest to see)

Roosting Snow Petrels, Weddell Sea, 28 Jan 2015

9/10 Pack Ice in the Weddell Sea, January 2015

Steve C

Prions, Petrels and Albatrosses around the South Orkney Islands

We arrived off Signy in the South Orkney Islands during the afternoon of January 26th and dropped off the scientists whom had embarked for the passage in Chile. The day was rather overcast, but the islands have large numbers of breeding seabirds so we knew we would have birds around the ship. Antarctic Prion was the commonest species for the day with over 200 being seen in the lunch hour alone. We also had four species of Albatross in the same period; Wandering, Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty. A Soft-plumaged Petrel that zipped by was rather unexpected as we had not seen any since the eastern side of South Georgia back in September. Unfortunately it did not return, (they rarely pay attention to ships) so the record shot will have to do. 40 Cape Petrels, 18 Blue Petrels and 11 Black-bellied Stormies made up the other significant sightings.

Antarctic Prion, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

Antarctic Prion, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

Black-browed Albatross, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

Grey-headed Albatross, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

Soft-plumaged Petrel, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

Black-bellied Storm Petrel, South Orkney Islands 26 Jan 2015

 

Steve C

Black-browed Albatrosses and Slender-billed Prions in the South Atlantic

The ship sailed from Punta Arenas, Chile on the 22nd January and headed South East towards the South Orkney Islands. The 23rd saw us quite near the Falkland Islands and unsurprisingly Black-browed Albatrosses and Slender-billed Prions were seen around the ship in good numbers during the evening watch. Approximately 125 Black-brows and probably double that number of Prions. All were heading towards West Falkland which was about 70 miles away. We assume returning to the colonies after a day’s fishing.

Black-browed Albatross, South Atlantic, 23 Jan 2015

Black-browed Albatross, South Atlantic, 23 Jan 2015

Slender-billed Prion, South Atlantic, 23 Jan 2015

Slender-billed Prion, South Atlantic, 23 Jan 2015

Steve C