Archive for the ‘Humpback Whale’ Tag

The Atlantic Odyssey: a summary – 23rd March – 6th May 2016   Leave a comment

Margaret and I have recently returned from a very long trip known as the Atlantic Odyssey, a repositioning cruise that is available once a year as a tourist ship ends its program in the Antarctic at the onset of the southern winter and moves to the Arctic for the northern summer. On top of that we went straight from Cabo Verde, the end point of the cruise, to Mallorca to join our friends at Birdquest in Mallorca to celebrate their 35th year of operation. It total we were away 45 days.

I hope to upload many photos from this remarkable and highly photogenic journey from each of the locations we visited, but for now here is a brief overview of the entire trip.

111 Atlantic Odyssey map

Here is a map of our route. There is one important difference to what shown above. In 2016 for the first time the operators, Oceanwide Expeditions, didn’t take the Plancius to the Antarctic Peninsula before heading to South Georgia, instead cruised directly from Ushuaia to South Georgia. You could take a Ushuaia – Antarctica – Ushuaia trip immediately prior to the Atlantic Odyssey, but this would have lengthened our entire tip to 55 days which we though was too much. I have already been to Antarctica but we both intend to to visit some time in the future.

IMG_1101 view from hotel on arrival

After a couple of days of travel we arrived at Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, just as darkness was falling. The view from our hotel was breathtaking.

IMG_4510 Beagle Channel views

Over the next day and a half we explored the Tierra del Fuego National Park …,

IMG_4250 Andean Condor

…. seeing wonderful birds like Magellanic Woodpecker and this Andean Condor.

IMG_4587 Humpback Whale

We took a boat trip on the Beagle Channel and had close up views of Humpback Whales as well as several species of seals and seabirds.

IMG_4682 Plancius

In the afternoon we boarded the Plancius, the ship that was to be our home for the next 34 days.

IMG_4705 fogbow

The passage from Ushuaia to South Georgia was disappointing, we were following the line of the Antarctic Convergence and at this time of year this means fog. This meant few seabirds were visible, even though we did see some lovely fogbows.

7F1A6898 SG glacier

South Georgia was an absolute delight, one of the most wildlife rich and photogenic sites on the entire planet. Described as being like the Alps rising straight from the sea, huge glaciers sweep down from 3000m peaks to the coast.

IMG_4793 Wandering Albert fem + chick

We were able to see Wandering Albatrosses on the nest ….

7F1A7187 King Penguins

…. enormous colonies of King Penguins ….

IMG_5203 KPs

…. many which waddled by completely indifferent to us.

IMG_5227 Fur Seal

There can be few cuter things in this world than a Fur Seal pup.

IMG_5118 Grytviken

We also paid a visit to the old whaling station at Grytviken.

7F1A7748 rough seas

As we left South Georgia we headed north towards Tristan da Cunha we encountered rough seas and several icebergs.

7F1A7910 Wandering Albert

This was the best section of the entire trip for seabirds. Species varied from the enormous Wandering Albatross with its 3.5m wingspan ….

7F1A7931 Wilson's SP

…. to the tiny Wilsons’ Storm Petrel.

7F1A9629 Spectacled Petrel best

As we approached the island of Gough the endangered and much desired Spectacled Petrel put in its first appearance.

IMG_5474 approaching Gough

No landings are allowed on Gough but it is normally possible to cruise inshore in the zodiacs and see the endemic species. On arrival we found the stiff easterly wind had built up a big swell, so we couldn’t approach any closer.

IMG_5622 remotest island

Good weather the following day allowed us to land on the main island of Tristan – the most remote inhabited island in the world.

7F1A9801 Inaccesssible Island

We were not so lucky with the nearby (and appropriately named) Inaccessible Island. Although vertical cliffs prevent access to the interior, the tussocks at the base of the cliff hold a population of the smallest flightless bird in the world – the Inaccessible Island Rail. A swell breaking on the steeply shelving beach prevented any hope of landing and dashed our hopes of seeing this enigmatic bird.

IMG_6032

We were luckier with the neighbouring island of Nightingale, although the landing was far from easy. The endemic finch and thrush were abundant and we hiked up to the relict forest at the top to see the critically endangered Wilkin’s Finch.

IMG_5829 Great Shearwater on launch post

On route we saw many Yellow-nosed Albatross chicks and recently fledged Great Shearwaters (above) which launched themselves into the air from these take-off posts and sometime pattered across the top of our heads to give themselves an extra push.

7F1A0133 Flying Fish

The sea crossing between Tristan and St Helena was the quietest of the trip with only one or two individual birds seen on some days. There were plenty of flying fish about to challenge your photographic skills.

IMG_6154 Jamestown

The capital of St Helena, Jamestown is nestled in this steep-sided valley.

IMG_4093 Jacob's Ladder

There is a winding road connecting Jamestown to the rest of the island of course, but if you want a short cut you can always try the 700 step Jacob’s Ladder.

IMG_3990 White Tern

St Helena’s tourist trade is mainly based on sites associated with its famous former resident , Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course the birders were more taken with nesting seabirds, like this White (or Fairy) Tern photographed at the site of Napoleon’s former tomb.

IMG_4216 Wirebird

Although St Helena had a number of endemic birds before the arrival of man, only one remains, St Helena Plover or Wirebird. We had great views of up to 40 at two locations in the mountains.

7F1A1247 PTS Dolphins

We encountered a few more seabirds as we headed towards Ascension Island but we also saw a good number of cetaceans, such as these Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins.

IMG_4405 view from Plancius

Ascension is basically just a huge military base and is covered with listening and communication devices. It is technically uninhabited as none of the 800 or so residents has right of abode or can buy property, all are on fixed term contracts.

7F1A1180 Ascension cliffs

Ascension, a relatively new volcanic island, has stunning coastal scenery comprised of layer after layer of lava and ash.

7F1A0921 Sooty Tern colony

The two biggest wildlife spectacles are the Sooty Tern colony on the mainland ….

IMG_4438 Frigates

…. and the huge offshore Ascension Frigatebird colony.

IMG_4443 Boatswain Bird Island

We arrived at the offshore stack of Boatswain Bird Island at first light and saw just about all of the world’s population of Ascension Island Frigatebird leave their roost.

7F1A1086 Ascension Frigatebird imm

As the light improved we had fantastic views of this rare and range restricted seabird right over our heads.

7F1A1417 Leach's SP

As we headed north we crossed the Equator and it became very hot on deck. The following day we passed through the doldrums and the sea was still and flat with an oil-like texture. You could see the reflections of the Leach’s Storm-petrels in the glass like surface ….

7F1A1389 Clymene Dolphin

…. and when a group of Clymene Dolphins came in to bow ride, you could see every detail underwater.

IMG_4286 Praia church

On the 28th of April, 34 days after we left Ushuaia, we docked at Praia on the island of Santiago, Cabo Verde. Margaret opted for a cultural tour of the city visiting churches, museums and sites of historical importance ….

IMG_4518 Santiago rocks

…. whilst I joined the other birders for a trip into the interior.

IMG_4523 GH Kingfisher

We saw three of Cabo Verde’s endemic species, a number of vagrants to the island (from the New World and the Old) and other residents like this beautiful Grey-headed Kingfisher.

From hotel

Whilst most of the other passengers headed home we continued on (via Lisbon and Barcelona) to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. We spent much of the first day relaxing after our overnight flight, but in the evening we met up with 19 other Birdquest clients and 9 members of staff who had come to Mallorca to celebrate Birdquest’s 35th year of operation. Rain affected the first part of the trip but it brought down many migrants ….

IMG_4640 Tyrrenian Spotted Fly

…. as well as newly arrived ‘Tyrrhenian’ Flycatchers, the pale and lightly streaked local race of Spotted Flycatcher, which recent research had indicated is worth specific status.

7F1A2168 Tawny Pipit

Agricultural areas held lovely birds like this Tawny Pipit.

Formentor

The mountainous spine of the island ends in the picturesque Formentor Peninsula, a location for Crag Martins, Eleanora’s Falcons and other great birds.

7F1A2106 Cinereous Vulture

Higher up in the mountains we saw Griffon and Cinereous Vultures (above) ….

Albufera at dawn

…. whilst the marshes of S’Albufera and S’Albufeteta gave us views of many specialties ….

IMG_4774 Red-nobbed Coot

…. such as this Red-knobbed Coot, a mainly African species that in Europe is restricted to Spain.

Cabrera (3)

The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the island of Cabrera off the south coast of Mallorca. In this untouched area of maquis and woodland we found many migrants and well as stunning views of the endemic Balearic Warbler ….

7F1A1738 Moltoni's Warbler

…. and the range restricted Moltoni’s Warbler (which contrary to what I posted last year) is actually the last European breeding bird that is a life bird for me.

7F1A2048 Scopoli's Shearwater

On the way to and from Cabrera I had my best ever views of Balearic and Scopoli’s Shearwater (above). All-in-all our four days birding on the reunion gave me many more species than I saw during the whole of my last two-week visit to the island.

 

As I said at the start this is just an overview of the trip. Probably starting some time in the summer I will post a lot more pictures, treating each site in more detail.

The Comoros: 6th – 16th October 2014   2 comments

On the 6th November we left Madagascar and flew to Moroni the capital of the The Union of the Comoros, a group of three islands that along with the French island of Mayotte form the Comoros, the archipelago of volcanic islands that lie between northern Madagascar and the East African Coast.

IMG_0878 GC beach

Much of the the interior of Grande Comore consists of recent lava flows but the beaches are beautiful, or at least would be if the locals didn’t dump rubbish on and around them.

IMG_0876 salt lake

We were told there was a salt lake to the north of Moroni and visited in the hope of finding wintering waders but instead found a sterile crater lake with a connection to the sea.

IMG_0870 Comoros car aprk

There was a large collection of discarded cars along the route,  some even ended up on the top of houses or on the beach.

IMG_1661 Comoros Blue Pigeon

Birding in a few spots in the lowlands was good with the beautiful Comoros Blue Pigeon,

IMG_1386 GC Drongo

and Grande Comore Drongo.

IMG_1440 France's Sparrowhawk

France’s Sparrowhawk is also found in Madagascar but here is represented by an endemic race.

IMG_1418 Comoros Courol

A number of the birds of the Comoros differ markedly from their Madagascar relatives. The Cuckoo-Roller on Grande Comore (but not on the other islands) differs by being smaller with a greyer throat contrasting with a pure white belly in the male and paler below with more rufous underparts in the female and there are vocal differences as well. It is treated as a separate species in the Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands field guide but not by any of the world checklists.

IMG_0866 view of coast

Our main birding excursion on Grande Comore was an ascent of the 2300m high Mt Karthala. We didn’t have to go right to the top, but it certainly felt that way.

IMG_1463 Humblot's Flycatcher

On the way up we found a number of endemic species including this attractive Humblot’s Flycatcher, sufficiently distinct to be placed in its own genus.

IMG_0859 Mt Kathala

We started at 350m asl and turned round at 1910m asl, a higher climb then the ascent of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. During the seven hours of hard  uphill slog we managed to loose our local rep and have the porters take our camping gear and lunch to various different localities all over the mountain. Eventually things got sorted out but we had to manage without our packed lunch,  at least one porter abandoned us and the one who guided us up above the treeline had to be bribed to do so.

IMG_1499 African Stonechat

The stonechat on Madagascar is now considered a separate species from African Stonechat (which in turn is considered a separate species to those in Europe and Asia) but know one seems to know what the affinities of the birds on Grande Comore are.

IMG_1520 Mt Kathala White-eye

Well this was the bird we slogged uphill for seven hours to see – Mount Karthala White-eye. We must have been crazy, although to be fair I did get eight life birds that day at various points on the mountain. Only found above 1900m on this island, it is a very range restricted bird. Lower down it is replaced by Kirk’s White-eye, a bird that induced the inevitable comments – ‘it’s a White-eye Jim, but not as we know it’ and ‘boldly goes where no White-eye has gone before’ .

IMG_1566 Mt Katharla campsite

Fortunately we didn’t have to descend 1560m that day, we camped at about 1200m asl in this very basic camp site but we managed to see the critically endangered Karthala Scops Owl nearby

IMG_0868 back to civilisation

Just a three and a half  hour descent the next day and we were back to ‘civilization’.

IMG_0892 landing at Moheli

Previous trips to the Comoros have been really mucked around by the airline with flights cancelled at the last minute but we were lucky. Here we are descending to Moheli. There was a strong wind that morning and the flight was very bumpy, we took it in our stride but a number of the locals were really scared and  you could hear prayers being offered  all around the cabin.

IMG_0893 Moheli airport

Moheli airport is not the most attractive in the world ..

IMG_0915 Moheli rubbish

… nor were the environs of our cockroach infested hotel …

IMG_0910 Moheli birding

… but the birding location along the central ridge was really nice and after the trials of Mt Katharla was really enjoyable.

IMG_1542 Comoros Fody

The Comoros Fody is treated as a separate species from the Fody in Madagascar and may itself be more than one species.

IMG_1638 Moheli Thrush

The Comoros Thrush occurs on Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan, each island form is very different. The field guide treats them as three separate species, but again, this is not followed by any world checklist.

IMG_1620 Moheli Scops-owl

Pride of place went to the cute Moheli Scops Owl which showed well in broad daylight.

IMG_1650 Comoros Green Pigeon

The following day we drove to the far side of the island and climbed another hill to see Moheli Green Pigeon.

IMG_1580 Seychelles Fruit Bat

We were puzzled to see a number of Seychelles Fruit Bats flying over the sea and apparently picking objects off the surface.

IMG_0898 Moheli airport

Then it was back to Moheli airport again. The last group had to spend six hours here, we fortunately got away after just two.

IMG_0939 small plane

An unusual plane with virtually no aisle at all. It was quite a job to squeeze your way to the front. Dani (who comes from Spain_ was surprised to find the pilot was a Spanish woman and they had quite a chat after we landed in Anjouan.

IMG_1678 Anjouan Brush Warbler

The hotel on Anjouan was much better than the one on Moheli and we scored with two life birds in the grounds, Anjouan Sunbird and this Anjouan Brush Warbler.

IMG_0995 duff minibus

I once was the Health and Safety Officer at work. Imagine writing a risk assessment for this minibus. A frame bolted to the floor, seats made of plywood with movable cushions on top plus a door that wouldn’t shut properly. Well it got us to our destination.

IMG_0959 Anjouan

In the late afternoon we hiked uphill for about 90 minutes to a remnant patch of forest. After dark we tried for the elusive Anjouan Scops Owl, considered to be the hardest of all the Comoros scops owl to see. Two hours of scrambling, often on all fours on steep slippery slopes only resulted in flight views, although we heard the bird calling at close range. The walk back in the dark was tricky especially for one of our party who was still recovering from a broken leg earlier in the year. Dani and one of the drivers stayed behind to help him, we got back at 2345, they arrived two hours later!

IMG_0987 kids & scope

There wasn’t much more to do on Anjouan so the next day was quite restful with just a bit of exploration in the afternoon. If you run out of birds to see you can always entertain the local kids by letting them look though the scope.

IMG_1013 Approaching Mayotte

The day after we flew to Mayotte, a department of France. Even from the air we could see that this was a much richer island than the others in the Comoros. The islands voted for independence from France in the early 90s, all but Mayotte went there own way – I wonder if they rue that decision to this day.

IMG_1018 Mayotte market

The quayside market. There are still some tin shacks on Mayotte but it look like they are used for storage rather than habitation. Good roads, supermarkets, good housing and plenty of tourists were all things lacking on Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan.

IMG_1715 Comoros Olive Pigeon

Some birds showed better on Mayotte than elsewhere such as this Comoros Olive Pigeon …

IMG_1710 Mayotte Drongo

… but it also has four of its own endemics, Mayotte Drongo ..

IMG_1746 Mayotte White-eye

… Mayotte Sunbird (which didn’t come close enough for photos) and this Mayotte White-eye …

IMG_1735 Mayotee Scops Owl

… but once again it was the endemic Mayotte Scops Owl that won first prize.

IMG_1745 Seychelle's Fruit Bat

Seychelles Fruit Bats showed very well….

IMG_1917 Brown Lemur

… as did a group of introduced Brown Lemurs around our lodge which turn up everyday for free handouts

IMG_1909 coral

With all the endemic birds under our belt we spent the next day on a boat trip around the lagoon and further out to sea.

IMG_1823 Brown Noddies

It was a normal tourist trip and we didn’t have the boat to ourselves so it took a bit of effort to persuade the boatman to detour so we could watch a feeding flock of Brown Noddies.

IMG_1775 Spinner dolphins

Pantropical Spinner Dolphins showed well underwater but only briefly performed their famous spinning acrobatics.

IMG_1901 Humpback Whale

The highlight of the day was a mother and calf Humpback Whale. The mother spent long periods suspended vertically in the water with her tail held just above the surface. I don’t know if this is just a resting posture or one that allows the calf to suckle but the boatman had only witnessed it a few times in the many years he had been doing these whale watching trips.

IMG_1965 Crab Plover

On our final morning we had a look around the shore for waders and found a small group of Crab Plovers, an enigmatic crab-eating wader that occurs around the shores of the western Indian Ocean. A suitable end to a very varied, sometimes tiring, sometimes trying, yet rewarding four week tour.