Archive for the ‘Narcissus Flycatcher’ Tag

Vietnam part 2: Bao Loc to Phong Nha: 10th – 23rd March 2018   2 comments

This post is the second about my tour to Vietnam. As usual I travelled with Birdquest, my 74th trip with this company. The 25 day (27 with travel to and from included) covered much of the country.

The first post just covered Cat Tien NP, this post covers the central part of Vietnam from Bao Loc to Phong Nha Khe Bang and the final post will detail our travels in the north.

 

Map courtesy of the Birdquest website. See http://www.birdquest-tours.com/Vietnam-birding-tours/2019#topofpage for details of this tour and more photos.

 

Like at Cat Tien a fair bit of our time was spent in makeshift hides. This one at Do Lui San was set up to see Blue Pitta. Unfortunately it was heard but not seen. Here local leader Quang is replenishing the mealworm bait.

 

Our primatologist friend Lucy and Birdquest leader Craig Robson seemed capable of remaining motionless for ages but after about 10 minutes my knees would be killing me and I’d have to move around a bit.

 

No luck with the Blue Pitta, but stunning views of another Orange-headed Ground Thrush, this time a male.

 

Nearby we had great views of a Collared Owlet.

 

Later that day we visited an area of native pine forest on the Da Lat plateau. Our targets were the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinch …

 

… and ‘Vietnamese’ Crossbill. Although an endemic race, this distinctive form, which seems to have a bigger bill than even Parrot Crossbill, is still lumped in Common (or Red) Crossbill. Massively disjunct from other crossbill forms and with a distinctive morphology, it surely more deserving of specific status than our Scottish Crossbill or even the recently split Cassia Crossbill of Idaho.

 

We spent three nights at the town of Da Lat which has some impressive modern architecture in its centre.

 

Again we spent time in hides in the forest of the Da Lat plateau. Here the group reconvene on the pathway after a long session of sitting still.

 

However the rewards for all that discomfort were really great. A White-tailed Robin …

 

… Large Niltava …

 

… Snowy-browed Flycatcher …

 

… and the tiny Pygmy Cupwing. Until recently called Pygmy Wren-babbler, this and three other congeners have been shown to be unrelated to other wren-babblers and so have gained this rather cute moniker.

 

But our main target was the beautiful Collared Laughingthrush.

 

Just one of 17 species of laughingthrush we saw on the tour, Collared Laughingthrush is endemic to the South Annam area of Vietnam.

 

We also visited a rather unusual ornamental park at Ta Nung Valley Resort. Here Craig uses this unusual platform to search for bird flocks.

 

Our main target was the South Annam endemic Grey-crowned Crocias.

 

Also seen in the area was Vietnamese Cutia, a split from the more widespread Himalayan Cutia …

 

… and Kloss’ Leaf Warbler. This species was formerly lumped in White-tailed Leaf Warbler but has, like so many other members of the genus Phylloscopus, been recent split. In fact the leaf warbler genus has increased from something like 50 members to 77 as a result of taxonomic investigations, making it one of the largest genus in the avian world and the family Phylloscopidae the only large family to be composed of a single genus.

 

There are many confusing species of bulbul in South-east Asia, and this, Flavescent Bulbul is one of them.

 

Away from the forest we visited this large lake …

 

… more open country birds like White-throated Kingfisher …

 

… another Flavescent Bulbul …

 

… and Grey Bushchat in the process.

 

We also saw Necklaced Barbet (formerly lumped in Golden-throated Barbet) found only in SE Laos and south Vietnam.

 

Our final location in the Da Lat area was on a hillside above the local cemetery.

 

Here in rank grassland after a bit of scrambling and bush bashing we caught up with the elusive and seldom seen Da Lat Bush Warbler. Now in the genus Locustella, I suppose it should be renamed Da Lat Grasshopper Warbler.

 

On our way north we paid a brief visit to the picturesque Lek Lake.

 

We saw a few typical asian waterbirds like Chinese Pond Heron …

 

… but when I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d seen a male Pintail (somewhere near the far shore of this photo) he didn’t believe until he’d had a look down the scope himself, as this duck, a familiar winter visitor in the UK, had not been recorded in Central Annam before!.

 

We arrived at our hotel at Mang Den rather later in the day after over ten hours of driving.

 

We visited a number of sites in the Mang Den area but by far the most memorable was near Ngoc Linh.

 

Only Lucy, Adrian, Leonardo and I joined Craig on the hike which was on narrow, steep and muddy trails.

 

It took several hours to get there but we were eventually rewarded with views of the Critically Endangered Golden-winged Laughingthrush. Only described in 1999 it is only known from this tiny area and so is in immediate danger of extinction. It has been seen by just a handful of birders and indeed was a lifer for Craig, an acknowledged expert on Vietnamese birds. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, this one is by Nguyen Minh Tuan: see http://birdwatchingvietnam.net/group/golden-winged-laughingthrush-871

 

Another restricted range babbler, although easier to see was Spectacled Barwing which was quite common along the road.

 

Another highlight of the Mang Den area was the critically endangered Grey-shanked Douc Langur of which as few as 500 individuals may remain.

 

Our long journey north continued. I was impressed with the ornamental borders, arches and general tidiness of the Vietnamese towns.

 

Most of our accommodation was good, a few were below par but the Lang Co Beach Resort was superb. Unfortunately the sunny weather that had accompanied us since the start had gone and we found ourselves in thick fog.

 

The hotel grounds had been touted as the place to see Siberian migrants on their way north and the adjacent beach as the place to see interesting waders but it was not to be and after a couple of hours of birding we gave it up as a bad job.

 

We headed up the mountain to BAch Ma NP where our accommodation was far less salubrious but the weather was better.

 

It was nice to see this female Blue Rock Thrush perching on the crumbling accommodation building. The last time I saw this species was also on a building, in a housing estate in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds in December 2016. Buildings seem a perfectly practical substitute for the rocky ledges where they usually feed and I see no reason why some birders dissed the Cotswolds’ record (other than the fact that they had already seen the species in the UK on Scilly and hated being gripped back).

 

There have been claims that the eastern Blue Rock Thrush races (including both red-bellied and blue bellied forms) should be treated as a separate species but this has not been followed, at least not by the IOC.

 

Other good birds in the area included the pretty Silver-eared Mesia (another babbler) …

 

… the charming Chestnut-headed Bee-eater…

 

… and male migrant Narcissus Flycatcher on route to its breeding grounds in Japan, Sakhalin or Ussuriland.

 

Barbets, non-passerines distantly related to woodpeckers, are prominent members of the South-east Asian avifauna but are more often heard than seen. Here are three species: Moustached Barbet which can be found over much of Indochina …

 

… Green-eared Barbet which like the former species is widespread, although less conspicuous …

 

… and the near endemic Necklaced Barbet which we also encountered earlier in this post.

 

The weather had been good during our stay at Bach Ma …

 

… but the next day low cloud we had seen on the coast caught up with us and it started to rain. In fact much of the next week would be plagued by low cloud and fog. It didn’t affect the birding much but certainly spoilt the views. We cut our losses at Bach Ma and headed to Phong Na Khe-Bang NP.

 

There is always plenty to see on Vietnam’s roads from motorbikes with loads three times as wide as they are to women working in paddyfields wearing traditional ‘coolie’ hats.

 

Phong Na Khe-Bang’s beautifully sculptured limestone hills are on the itinerary of most tourists to Vietnam.

 

Although it remained dry the low cloud certainly spoilt the view.

 

One of the key birds at Phong Na Khe-Bang was Sooty Babbler. No photographs were obtained so here is one by James Eaton of Birdtour Asia  https://www.birdtourasia.com/

 

Another speciality of this karst habitat of northern Indochina is Limestone Leaf Warbler, another Phylloscopus. This photo was taken by Nguyen Hao Quang http://birdwatchingvietnam.net

 

Easier to photograph was this charming Asian Emerald Cuckoo.

 

We spent a lot of time in the park walking along the road. Parts of the area had previously been deforested and the remaining vegetation was covered with an invasive creeper. However we saw some good birds ranging from a pair of distant Brown Hornbills to groups of Cook’s Swifts overhead.

 

However only the widespread Crested Serpent Eagle was photographed.

 

To many when Vietnam is mentioned their thoughts turn not to the green verdant land of today but to the civil war fought in the sixties and early seventies which resulted in major involvement of the USA and others. As we approached the former North Vietnam there were more reminders of that war. Circular ponds in the rice fields were the result of carpet bombing by the Americans …

 

… and here a shrine to a group of youth workers who took shelter in a cave during an American bombing raid and were entombed and died by the resultant rockfall.

 

I’ll conclude this post with another of SE Asia’s avian gems -a Silver-breasted Broadbill photographed at Phong Na Khe-Bang.

 

 

 

 

The final locations of Cuc Phuong, Tam Dao and Sa Pa/Fansipar will be shown in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russia’s Ring of Fire – May 23rd – 11th June 2016   1 comment

At long last, another post! This time about my recent trip to the Russian Far East, the Kamchatka peninsula, the Commander and Kuril Islands and Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk – the so-called ‘Russian Ring of Fire’.
Getting to see the avian gems of the north Pacific has taken some time. In 1996 on my trip to Arctic Siberia trip we were delayed for four days on the north coast and had to completely abandon our visit to the seabird megacities of the Sea of Okhotsk and last year this trip, run by Heritage Expeditions, was cancelled due to Russian intransigence over the Ukraine situation.
Its taken 20 years, but at long last I have visited this wild part of the world and seen it’s amazing wildlife. Of course I didn’t plan to go on two cruises just a few weeks apart, but with last years cancellation that’s the way it worked out .
One thing that strikes you is how lucky we are in the UK with our climate, The northernmost point of the cruise was on the same latitude as northern England, the southernmost point is level with the French Riviera, but for part of the time, even in June, we had snow on the ground at sea level and had fog, gale force winds and temperatures that seldom rose above 5 – 10c. At sea level in Kamchatka birch trees were just coming into leaf, but ascend 100m and they were still bare and many migrants appeared not to have arrived.
This post is just a summary of the trip, as I still have most of my photos to edit. At its conclusion we were given a Powerpoint presentation prepared by a member of staff.  All photos in this post, except those labeled with my name, are taken from this presentation. Although each picture cannot be individually credited (as this information was not supplied) the photographers whose work has been used are: Lisle Gwynn, Leonid Kotenko, Meghan Kelly, Chris Collins and Katya Ovsyanikova.
IMG_5030 Welcome to Kamchatka

Travelling across 11 time zones took ages, especially as there was a 13 hour wait between flights in Moscow. We arrived on a rare perfect day at Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy (universally abbreviated to PK).

IMG_5099 Forests near PK

We birded the birch forest that surrounds PK. The birch forest was just coming into leaf ….

IMG_5118 Forest nr PK

…. but you only had to ascend about 100m and the trees were still bare. The prime avian target was the very elusive Black-billed Capercaille. We eventually all saw a female, but for me at least, it was under extremely frustrating circumstances.

IMG_5162 Avacha Bay

We also explored the shores of Avacha Bay, the beautiful natural harbour that surrounds PK. The above four photos taken by Ian Lewis

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In the evening we set sail on Heritage Expedition’s ship, the Professor Khromov or Spirit of Enderby as they call her, into Avacha Bay.

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Pk is the central marked point on the Kamchatka peninsula. From here we sailed north to the Commander islands, back to two more locations in Kamchatka, visited seven islands in the Kuril chain before crossing the southern Sea of Okhotsk to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on the island of Sakhalin.

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The Sea of Okhotsk is very cold whilst the NW Pacific receives warmer water from the tropics. The result is fog, grey skies and bad weather. Even though the sun seldom shined once we left PK, we had calm seas and great wildlife viewing such as this flock of Red-necked Phalaropes on a glassy ocean.

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On the trip we saw four Blue Whales, two Fin Whales (above), Humpback Whale, many Sperm and Killer Whales, Baird’s and Stenejger’s Beaked Whales and Harbour and Dall’s Porpoise.

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We made three landing in the Commander Islands, the most easterly of the Aleutian Chain and the only ones not to belong to the USA. The islands are named in honour of Commander Vitus Bering who led the first expedition to explore these waters and died here after a shipwreck.

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A short climb took us to North-west Cape where lo0king over a cliff ..

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…. we had good views of Red-faced Cormorants ….

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…. and some enormous Steller’s Sea Lion bulls (the fourth biggest pinneped in the world) with an inquisitive Arctic Fox as a bonus.

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There were also large numbers of Northern Fur Seals in the area.

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A visit to an offshore stack in the zodiacs gave us views of Horned Puffins ….

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…. and the enigmatic Red-legged Kittiwake, a gull confined to the Aleutian chain.

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A wide-angle view of the island of Medney, although I never saw it from this angle as I was birding along the shoreline of the bay.

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After birding/exploring the bay we took a zodiac cruise along the spectacular shore line.

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There were plenty of Sea Otters, many with a little cub resting on their bellies.

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Most of the passengers were from Europe, North America or Australia but we also had four Russian tourists who could always be identified by their bright red jackets.

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Overnight we sailed back to Kamchatka. Dawn was wet, with low visibility, quite a few migrants came aboard the ship, including Brambling, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and this Olive-backed Pipit; seeking refuge, appropriately on the lifeboat.

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Conditions improved as we zodiaced ashore and headed inland up the Zhupanova River.

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Our main target was the enormous and magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle, here seen feeding on a salmon. Compare its size with the adjacent Carrion Crow.

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Several pairs of Steller’s Sea Eagles nest along the river. With the zodiacs it was possible to get quite close without disturbing them. The leader’s 500mm lens with 2x converter helped as well.

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We returned down the Zhupanova River and spent some time near the mouth looking at terns.

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It didn’t take long to find our target, the range restricted Aleutian Tern, which calls more like a wader than tern. As this species has occurred in the UK (once) I was delighted to see it, as it my ambition to see every extant species on the British List (just one to go now).

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The next day we went ashore at a fjord near the southern tip of Kamchatka, in spite of the fact that it was already June and we were at the same latitude as London, the ground was covered by snow right down to sea level.

IMG_5432 Brown Bear

After some good birding we returned to the ship and at the mouth of the fjord I picked up this Brown Bear on the snowy slopes. It was at least a mile away but I got some record shots. The colour made it look more like a Polar Bear than a Brown Bear. The only other one we were to see at Kunashir in the far south of the Kurils looked more like an American Black Bear in colour!

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Our next stop was at Atlasova, one of the northernmost of the Kuril Islands. Here we had a real surprise, a Red-billed Starling, a species that was a mere 4000 km out of range!

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The deep trench off the Kurils is known as a good location for Killer Whales or Orcas and they certainly didn’t disappoint with up to 80 individuals seen.

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We heard that a cyclone was coming but we didn’t know just how bad. That evening the winds gusted over 80 knots (that’s 160 km/hr). Unable to anchor the ship took shelter in the lee of the island of Onekotan. Of course we couldn’t make a landing that afternoon and we weren’t able to make any landings the following day either.

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On the third day of rough seas, a brave attempt was made to get us ashore inside the flooded caldera of Simushir Island. However as can be seen from this photo the swell was still pretty bad and I nearly fell in the sea trying to board the zodiac and got soaked up to mid-thigh. The attempt to board the zodiacs was aborted and the ship steamed about 5km to a new location whilst we followed, bumping along in the zodiacs. By the time a more sheltered location was found I was very cold and had no alternative but to re-embark and get thawed out. Most of the others in the zodiacs stayed and many more still on the ship joined them, but it was now a hour’s ride to the caldera and an even longer journey back.

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Those that made it to Simushir and its former secret Soviet submarine base said the expedition was worthwhile and quite enjoyable, but they returned cold and wet several hours later.

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The number of seabirds in these waters is staggering, Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses swarm around a trawler, there was another trawler about 2km away and the flock extended as far as the second boat. Estimates of the number of birds present varied from 100,000 to half a million.

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Heritage Expedition have done this itinerary at least a dozen times. They usually see one or two of the mega-rare Short-tailed Albatrosses per trip (but have missed it some years and there is no guarantee that any one observer will connect). This year we saw 14! The storm may have prevented some landings but it delivered quality seabirds. Short-tailed Albatrosses were hunted to the point of extinction on their only breeding island (Torishima, off southern Japan) in the early part of the 20th century for their feathers. It was only because there were a number of immatures still at sea that the species survived. The population now numbers a couple of thousand but they wander over a huge area of ocean and we were very lucky to see them so well and so often.

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Even better was the sighting of a couple of adults, one seen here is with smaller Laysan Albatrosses. The name ‘Short-tailed’ doesn’t do it justice, ‘Golden-headed’ would have been better, or perhaps  Torishima Albatross.

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For all of the birders on board (and most of the non-birders too) the highlight of the entire trip was the evening visit to Yanchika Island.

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Fortunately the swell had subsided enough to let us enter another flooded caldera, complete with its hot springs and fumaroles.

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On the way we saw prodigious numbers of Crested Auklets ….

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…. and the exquisite Whiskered Auklet, surely the most charismatic of the auk family.

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Inside the caldera the water was covered with auklets and both Crested ….

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…. and Whiskered could be found all over the rocks.

Ravens, Peregrines and at least six Arctic Foxes gathered to feast on the assembled auklets.

7F1A4405 auklets

For over an hour there was a constant stream of auklets pouring into the caldera. It was more impressive than even the biggest starling murmuration. It was hard to estimate numbers, but two million pairs are said to nest there, so a million Crested and perhaps ten thousand Whiskered would be a reasonable estimate. It was by far the best experience of the trip. Photo by Ian Lewis

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The next day saw us zodiac cruising alongside a lava flow on Chirpoy Island. The lava front was slow-moving and the lava had cooled from red-hot to merely hot ….

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…. but even so the site of hot rocks tumbling into a caldron of boiling water was spectacular to say the least.

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The island of Urup will be best remembered for the hours it took to get a (poor) view of Japanese Robin, so I’ll gloss over that one and go on to talk about the next island, Iturup (above).

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Unlike the other Kurils, Iturup is still inhabited and we were transported around the island in these big trucks, which was less than satisfactory as you couldn’t communicate with the driver and so couldn’t request a stop for birding ….

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…. but for the first time since boarding the ship we were able to get away from the coastal fringe. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to bird the area properly and although we heard a Japanese Accentor, we never saw it.

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In the southern Kuril Islands, Steller’s Sea Eagles are largely replaced with the smaller, yet still spectacular, White-tailed Eagle.

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The southernmost island in the main Kuril chain is Kunashir. After the bleak conditions of Kamchatka, the Commander and northern Kuril Islands it seemed almost tropical.

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The mature forest held many more birds,such as this exquisite Narcissus Flycatcher, but also a lot of mosquitoes.

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Quality birding continued as we sailed north across the southern Sea of Okhotsk bound for Sakhalin. Large numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen, along with a few Pacific Divers (or Loons) and hundreds Rhinoceros Auklets (above). Most surprising was a few Japanese Murrelets, a species that has not been recorded on this itinerary before and presumably had been displaced northwards by the cyclone.

7F1A5071 Gagarin Park

On the morning of 8th June we docked at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the cruise ended. Many passengers departed for flights that afternoon, but some of us had delayed our departure to be able to do some birding on Sakhalin. We were joined by passengers on the next cruise (around the Sea of Okhotsk) who had just arrived in Russia. This woodland is in Gagarin Park (named in honour of the first man in space) which was immediately opposite our hotel. This photo and the next were taken by Ian Lewis.

IMG_5927 BB Reed Warbler

We were able to see the endemic Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (a species that may have occurred in Dorset) and Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler, plus the super-elusive Rufous-tailed Robin, but it was only this Black-browed Reed Warbler that posed, in the rain, for photos. There were no flights on the 9th, I got to Moscow without difficulty on the 10th, but there was a major delay which meant I had to sleep in the airport overnight. I finally got home late on the 11th.

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Although there were some issues getting back and the weather was more like a British winter than what you would expect in June, I have to say that this was a most wonderful trip. I would like to thank Rodney Russ (above) the owner of Heritage Expeditions and all his staff plus the crew of the Professor Khomov/Spirit of Enderby for a truly fantastic experience.

 

 Again a reminder that only seven of the above photos are mine and the rest were taken by Heritage Expedition staff. Once I have edited all my photos I hope to upload many to the blog but I know have quite a backlog!