Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

GPS Tracking – A Day In And Around Ushuaia

March 4th, 2010 at 8:21 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Our unexpected full day in Ushuaia turned out quite nice. We started with a visit to the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia, located in the former prison which had been the core of the foundation of Ushuaia as a penal colony a long time ago.

We then wandered through the main shopping and restaurant portion of downtown Ushuaia – lots of tourist goods, a large number of restaurants offering all you can eat buffets (we didn’t partake), and tour companies offering trips to see penguins (been there, done that).

Lunch required busing to Patagonia Mia, a restaurant near the entrance of the Tierra del Fuego national park. While not bad, the meal we had there was perhaps the most disappointing of the trip – they only offered fish (cod) as a main course (we managed to get a breaded beef filet for Bas), and it was bland and uninspired. Quite a contrast from the diverse and almost universally great food we’ve enjoyed aboard the National Geographic Explorer.

After a quick stop at the ship, we took a two hour bus ride to Estancia Harberton. Estancia means “ranch” or “farm”, but while Estancia Harberton used to be a sheep farm and place where firewood was harvested, today it’s more of a historic site. On property is also the Museo Acatushun Aves y Mamiferos Marinos Australes, the Museum of Birds and Marine Mammals, which features the world’s best collection of marine mammal skeletons and skulls. Pretty impressive, although we had limited time available to truly appreciate the collection.

Our final dinner aboard the Explorer awaited our return.

We’re now just about thoroughly packed and ready to get up before dawn so we can leave Ushuaia just after dawn. We hope to be in Miami late Friday night at a hotel Lindblad has arranged for all of us on the charter. On Saturday we move to a nice hotel in Coconut Grove, a trendy area south of downtown Miami.

The GPS track for our day in and near Ushuaia is below.

 

Hercules Bay – Jumping Macaroni Penguins

February 28th, 2010 at 10:16 am (AST) by Jake Richter

February 25, 2010 – After our spectacular morning on the plains at Fortuna Bay, we took a short voyage up to Hercules Bay. During late afternoon, we enjoyed a private Zodiac tour – just us four Traveling Richters with staff photographer Mike Nolan as our guide and driver.

The light wasn’t great – it was already quite dark as far as our cameras were concerned, but that didn’t prevent us from being delighted at seeing a number of small colonies of Macaroni penguins. Better yet, there was constant Macaroni penguin traffic off and on small cliffs as the penguins leaped into the water to go feed, and fed penguins leaped out to feed their chicks.

Macaroni penguins plunging into the ocean

Macaroni penguins plunging into the ocean

The Macaroni penguin in the foreground has just leaped out of the water and appears suspended in mid-air

The Macaroni penguin in the foreground has just leaped out of the water and appears suspended in mid-air

The landscape in Hercules Bay was also stunning, with amazing rock formations showing evidence of the strong forces which shaped South Georgia eons ago.

Here the rock striations are colored by lichen, algae, and mosses

Here the rock striations are colored by lichen, algae, and mosses

And lest we forget, the glaciers and snows atop South Georgia’s impressive mountains also produce their own form of terrain change.

Snow melt creates this impressive cascading series of waterfalls at Hercules Bay

Snow melt creates this impressive cascading series of waterfalls at Hercules Bay

All in all, a very pleasant afternoon in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.

More photos available on my Flickr pages.

 

Penguins and Seals Don’t Just Live Atop Rocks and Ice

February 28th, 2010 at 10:06 am (AST) by Jake Richter

February 25, 2010 – One of the things that our current trip through Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic has made us realize is that the mental images we grew up with about the habitats of penguins and seals are just plain wrong. Maybe not entirely wrong, as such animals can in fact live on top of ice floes, ice-covered beaches, and rocky shores, but wrong enough that we were just stunned to find penguins and seals living on grassy plains, tall cliffs, and hills, distant from water.

The view of the beach at Fortuna Bay from our balcony in the morning

The view of the beach at Fortuna Bay from our balcony in the morning

As we anchored in Fortuna Bay, on the island of South Georgia, we took in this environment, so different from what we had come to believe as the sole reality of penguin and seal existence. From our balcony, we could see green, grassy plains extending from the shore, and liberally dotted with Antarctic fur seals, wandering King penguins, and even reindeer. The white specks that were King penguins stretched out even into the foot hills a mile or more from shore (and even further than that as we later observed).

We had already seen penguins climbing to nest at stupendous heights, but not with all the greenery involved as well.

The plains at Fortuna Bay are covered with King penguins and Antarctic fur seals

The plains at Fortuna Bay are covered with King penguins and Antarctic fur seals

Upon landing on shore, we also discovered the skeleton of a leopard seal – dried out, leaving only leathery skin, bones, and teeth. Yet another species of critter to dot the landscape.

Close-up of the desiccated skull of a leopard seal we found on the beach

Close-up of the desiccated skull of a leopard seal we found on the beach

As we wandered inland, for well over a mile, to find the large King penguin colony (7,000 nesting pairs, we were told) at Fortuna Bay, we had to continually dodge around fur seals and King penguins wandering about – mostly to or from the colony.

Three Stages of King Penguins - Adult, juvenile with no fuzz, chick losing fuzz

Three Stages of King Penguins - Adult, juvenile with no fuzz, chick losing fuzz

The King penguins have cute little tails

The King penguins have cute little tails

The fur seals were especially interesting – there were a lot of aggressive young males of all ages that would first growl at us and then charge. However we just stood our ground, stared them down, and occasionally told them to stop in a stern voice, and that took care of the problem. Much like dogs in that way. The fur seal pups, though, were just too cute when they tried the whole growling thing, and would always stop charging and then sulk off when we told them how adorable and cute they were. I hope they survive the emasculation of our comments.

One of the countless fur seal pups on the plain

One of the countless fur seal pups on the plain

The King penguin colony we ultimately saw was not nearly as impressive as the one back at Salisbury Plain, but we were interested to see that surrounding the colony were several herds of reindeer, apparently unperturbed by our presence. And seeing the penguins wandering near the reindeer gave the scene a rather surreal atmosphere.

A reindeer buck with tatters of velvet on his antlers - and King penguin in the foreground

A reindeer buck with tatters of velvet on his antlers - and King penguin in the foreground

As we slowly wandered back to the shore we spent time communing with the King penguins there as they exited and entered the ocean. King penguins feed exclusively in the ocean, and thus they spend a lot of their time in the water. But their chicks are in the various small colonies spread out across the hills and plains, so they spend a lot of time walking back and forth as well.

King penguins charge into the surf

King penguins charge into the surf

We set off for our Zodiacs, and the penguins around us wandered off to whatever engagements faced them.

A lone King penguin leaves tracks in the sand after exiting the water

A lone King penguin leaves tracks in the sand after exiting the water

Many more photos are available on my Flickr pages.

 

Stromness – A Playground for Antarctic Fur Seals

February 27th, 2010 at 9:52 am (AST) by Jake Richter

February 24, 2010 – After our interesting morning with reindeer in Jason Harbour, we moved on to Fortuna Bay, where a couple of dozen hardy souls were dropped off to walk the last four miles of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible trip across South Georgia. The hike was a one-way trip, ending at Stromness, the next bay over to the east of Fortuna Bay.

It was snowing, it was cold, and we just were not feeling quite ambitious enough for such exertion so we instead opted to take the ship over to Stromness.

The former whaling station at Stromness

The former whaling station at Stromness

Stromness was a major whaling station on South Georgia, and the relics of the whaling station are still present on shore, but due to asbestos and a lack of structural integrity, humans are no longer allowed to get close to the structures there.

When we arrived at Stromness, Captain Kruse surprised us by running the National Geographic Explorer aground into the soft sand near the beach. This made for a very short trip to shore by Zodiac. The other surprise awaiting us were hundreds of fur seals on the beach, and more particularly, in the water. In fact, one particular area of the surf we could see from our balcony was literally alive with Antarctic fur seals, playing in the water.

Masses of fur seals observe us and the ship with only minor curiosity

Masses of fur seals observe us and the ship with only minor curiosity

It was snowing and raining quite strongly, but we needed to check out these fur seals for ourselves.

The seas are alive with the sounds of playing fur seals

The seas are alive with the sounds of playing fur seals

Once on land we discovered the fur seals were not particularly interested in us, and even the few older male fur seals didn’t waste energy on trying to intimidate us with growling and charging like we had experienced elsewhere on this trip.

Fur seals like body surfing as much as we do, but also in really cold water

Fur seals like body surfing as much as we do, but also in really cold water

Most of the fur seals were young pups – thoroughly adorable and curious, and readily approached us to check us out (and then ignore us when we proved to not be interesting enough).

Bas checks out his temporary fur seal pup companion while Linda videos him

Bas checks out his temporary fur seal pup companion while Linda videos him

Other critters were present too, including some elephant seals – one of whom came close enough to decide we were not something it wanted to spend more time with.

An elephant seal juvenile came in for a look at us, but ended up leaving again

An elephant seal juvenile came in for a look at us, but ended up leaving again

We also found two species of penguins – Gentoos and Kings. Watching the interchange between the seal fur pups and penguins was comical, with the fur seal pups being playful and the penguins being a bit disconcerted and huffy about the whole thing.

This Gentoo penguin appeared a little out of place when it came out of the water and found itself surrounded by curious fur seal pups

This Gentoo penguin appeared a little out of place when it came out of the water and found itself surrounded by curious fur seal pups

We spent a couple of hours on shore, completely soaked, but also very happy we had visited, and even happier we had not done the long hike.

Our King penguin greeting committee wishes us a good journey to our next stop in South Georgia

Our King penguin greeting committee wishes us a good journey to our next stop in South Georgia

More photos and larger version of those above can be found on my Flickr pages.

 

Wild Reindeer and More in the Sub-Antarctic

February 24th, 2010 at 8:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We anchored last night in the protected and calm waters of Jason Harbour (or maybe it’s “Jason Harbor”?). Wet snow was once again companion – it had started snowing last night, and had not let up much since.

From our balcony, which faced our anticipated landing spot, we could see penguins (King penguins mostly), fur seals, and off in the distance, a herd of about 15-20 reindeer.

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia several times between 1911 and 1925 – only a couple of dozen total, but they have ultimately thrived, and it’s estimated that there are around 2,000 reindeer now spread throughout South Georgia. They are perhaps among the most destructive introduced species on the island, as they destroy young vegetation as well as certain lichens and herbs that would otherwise flourish. Their diet ultimately also causes soil erosion, which leads to other issues in the ecosystem.

After landing, we followed one of our naturalists, Steve MacLean, through the bogs lining the shoreline towards a large ridge inland. There we caught our first close glimpse of reindeer.

The interesting thing to observe was the interaction between the reindeer and fur seals, where at one point they would simply be hanging out harmoniously (or apparently so), and then some rambunctious male fur seal would take it upon himself to charge at the reindeer and scatter them off. It may not be obvious from their physique, but fur seals can run outrun a running man, so they are also able to give reindeer a good chase.

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Steve also explained how antlers grow, in contrast to horns. Horns last a lifetime, whereas antlers are seasonal – they are cast off at the end of the summer and regrown anew starting in the spring. During growth, antlers are covered by a skin called “velvet” (due to its texture). Velvet is filled with blood vessels which help feed the growth of the antlers (which are effectively bone). Once full antler growth is achieved, the velvet ends up coming off – either by getting old and drying and falling off or during fights between reindeer. Notably, reindeer of both sexes grow antlers.

And, as luck would have it, we saw two reindeer bucks, both with tattered velvet hanging from their antlers, get into a tussle, and that caused a large piece of velvet to get ripped off. After the reindeer had moved on, we found the velvet – pretty amazing stuff.

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

And near the velvet was a skeleton of a reindeer, which Steve estimated to be about two years old based on the fact that cartilage was still in place in a couple of the joints as well as the wear on the teeth in the jaw bones we found. Also, because the skeleton had a full rack (antlers), it probably died in about the same time of year as now – the end of the southern summer.

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

Steve also showed us the teeth in the jawbone, which are multi-layered, and in reindeer they do not continue to grow after maturity.

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple=

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple layers of enamel and dentin

Moving on, we came across a number of elephant seals, including a group of young males molting, a much larger male by himself, and a “weanie” – an elephant seal pup that has been recently weaned. They all had large doleful, almost alien, eyes, which Steve indicated was the result of their need to be able to see with even the smallest bit of ambient light at the extreme depths that they typically dive at to find food.

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

An elephant seal 'weanie'

An elephant seal 'weanie'

We ended our walk along the beach, where a large variety of kelp had washed up, and some King penguins could also be found.

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

We considered the morning to a splendid one – full of discovery and enlightenment, even though all of our outer clothing was thoroughly soaked from the never ending wet snow.

More photos as well as larger versions of the ones above can be found in my Flickr pages.

 

Are King Penguin Chicks Ugly or Aliens?

February 23rd, 2010 at 10:04 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Not included in the previous set of King penguin images is one of an adult King penguin with it’s baby chick still nestled in the brood pouch. I have included it below. For a creature which ends up as beautiful as a King penguin, the tiny chicks are downright ugly, as you can see.

A King penguin with its chick, just emerged from the brood pouch

A King penguin with its chick, just emerged from the brood pouch

When we all looked at the image in detail here aboard the ship, we noticed a remarkable resemblance between the chick and one of our favorite TV villains – Davros, the commander of the evil Daleks on the Dr. Who television series.

Davros - Leader of the evil Daleks on the Dr. Who television series from the BBC

Davros - Leader of the evil Daleks on the Dr. Who television series from the BBC)

So, King penguin chick – just ugly or a Davros clone? You decide.

(Davros image obtained from http://www.bbc.co.uk/norfolk/content/image_galleries/galleries_davros_gallery.shtml)