Wednesday, January 31, 2007

One more photo for Laura

I am sitting at the pier in Ushuaia and I figured I would get one more post in. Here are a couple of my favorite photos from the Torres Del Paine portion of my trip. The Megallanic Orchid is for Laura and the Long-tailed Meadowlark is for Mom and Dad.

Made a quick run to the dump today to look for a White-throated Caracara. It must be a popular thing to do here for birders because the taxi driver knew immediatly what we wanted and took us straight to the dump!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cape Horn

I am writing my last post until I get back to Montana here off of Cape Horn. This crossing of the Drake Passage was more typical and I have been correspondingly less active (comatose for a day). We will be at Ushuaia this evening after dinner. Our last day in Antarctica a couple of days ago was a grand finale with one humpback whale breaching 34 times around the ship.
I will be posting more photos and filling in the blanks of my travels over the next couple of weeks so stay tuned for more.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

East Side of the Antarctic Peninsula

Lookout Point, Danger Islands, Devil Island, Deception Island – Doesn’t sound like a very nice place does it. This week has defied these names. The weather has been spectacular. Very little wind and lots of sun. It was 50 degrees yesterday. It is Thomas Mueller’s, my Oceanites research partner, first visit to Antarctica and he is getting the “best of” tour. He hasn’t stopped smiling for a week and he probably shouldn’t come back as he will never be able to repeat this stretch of weather in a lifetime of visits and subsequent visits will pale in comparison.
Up until today, our visit has been confined to the Weddell Sea side of the peninsula, an area littered with large tabular ice bergs. We often maneuvered the ship through bits of brash ice and from our room it sounded like the inside of a slow turning Margarita blender as the ice rattles and scrapes down the hull of the ship.
Our visit to Heroina Island in the Danger Island group on January 23rd was unbelievable. Very few ships visit this island because of the usually surrounding ice (James Clark Ross named them the Danger Islands because they appeared so suddenly out of the ice). A rough estimate of 300,000 pairs of breeding Adelie Penguins occupy most of this island with more Snowy Sheathbills than I have ever seen at one place. The waters surrounding the island were filled with penguins – swimming, loafing on ice bergs, bathing at the surface. The life here was intense and the activity overwhelming and constant. Thomas and I climbed through the colony at the toe of the slope of the island and found and unoccupied gully to climb up to the top of the island. Once on top it was again an overwhelming sight. The whole top of the island was covered in breeding Adelie Penguins. We headed south across the top to where there are the most southeast breeding Gentoo Penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. We were able to find those colonies and get counts of the chicks. The south end of the island was not blanketed by Adelies and we were able to find some discreet colonies to establish reference counts on. The view to the south was also interesting with the nearest two islands in the Danger Island group, Beagle and Platter islands also covered in the telltale pink stain of the guano of thousands of penguins. Nearby Darwin Island, named by Ross in 1842 for Charles Darwin (along with Beagle Island) is rimmed with cliffs and did not appear to have any penguins. Comb Island, another island in the group, appeared to also have a few penguins.
After Heroina, we visited Devil Island, tucked into the coast of Vega Island, and the Adelie penguin colony there on the 24th. Again the good weather continued. I find myself over-dressing and having to peel down once I get moving on the island. We were able to map the edges of the colonies here but the colony is too large for us to get a decent count. After Devil Island we continued west and while coming through Prince Gustav sound we encountered a very large patch of krill and attendant swarm of Adelie Penguins and Blue-eyed Shags. At one point a Minke Whale passed through the sound and the penguins hurriedly scattered away from the whale’s path. We landed that evening at Brown Bluff. Brown Bluff is on the Antarctic continent and the site sits at the base of a large reddish brown conglomerate cliff peppered with nesting Cape Petrels. At the base of the cliff there are Gentoo and Adelie Penguin colonies. This is also one place with easily accessible Snow Petrel nests and we observed two chicks at their nest site under the edge of a massive boulder perched on the slope below the cliff. We had to work hard at getting a count of the Gentoo chicks as they were well along in age and scattered in and amongst the boulders and across the beach outside of their colony area.
This morning we landed at Bailey Head on the outer edge of Deception Island. Bailey Head is and exceptional landing and one of the most difficult for the Lindblad staff because of the surf. The beach is exposed to the swells of Bransfield Strait. It is an acquired skill to be able to drive the zodiac into the beach with a load of passengers and deposit them on the beach and return to the ship without filling the zodiac with water or stranding it on the beach in these conditions. The landing went well and we were able to count a number of the reference colonies at this site. The Chinstrap Penguin colonies here are impressive. Not because of their size (although there are very many penguins here) but more so because of the location. The colonies occupy the better part of a large bowl with a jagged edge in the volcanic rim of the island. There is a small melt water stream the drains through the bowl and enters the sea at the landing. To get to the colonies you pass through a narrow pass where the melt water stream leaves the bowl. This is also one of the main paths for the Chinstraps to access the colony as well so there is constant movement of birds along this path, coming and going to feed their chicks. The Chinstrap Penguin colonies line the sides of the bowl in large colonies and isolated colonies can be observed on top of the highest points visible from where you stand at the bottom. The sound is… what is the next superlative I can use? It is surroundsound penguins as the braying and bugling cacophony of thousands of these birds, the loudest and most piercing sound of all the penguins, penetrates you from all around.
The Chinstraps here were difficult to count as they have not quite formed groups of young birds in the colonies, called crèches, which are easy to count. For some reason there are many adult birds in the colony and the chicks apparently have not had to gather together for protection from the skuas. It may be that there is plentiful krill near the island this year and foraging trips for the adults are quick, enabling them to spend more time at the colony. All the colonies we have visited this year so far have appeared quite healthy with little of the chick carnage I associate with this time of year in a penguin colony. We have also not observed many Leopard Seals this year and it may be that they are also taking advantage of the abundant krill and are not hungry for penguin.
We are currently sitting inside Deception Island at Port Foster, the site of an old whaling base, a place I have visited a number of times. There are no penguin colonies here so while the guests are visiting the whaling station and wandering across the steaming black sand inside this volcano, I have been able to catch up on my writing onboard the Endeavour. We will be heading south from here to drop Thomas off in a couple of days at Peterman Island, site of a summer field camp for Oceanites.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This One’s For Benton

Lookout Point, Elephant Island. Guess what. I can post from Antarctica! Great weather and amazing seas. Our first landing on Elephant Island was wonderful. We stopped at Lookout Point and found a good pod of loafing Elephant Seals. This picture is for my son who wanted me to take a picture of an Elephant Seal so this one’s for you bud. The picture of the Macaroni Penguin is for everyone else because everyone loves a Mac. We have been very busy and lots of stuff to do and I will try to post stuff when I can. No guarantees and I will fill in when I get back but so far it has been spectacular. Later.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Torres Del Paine National Park

I finally found a computer to get a quick blog in. I am in Punta Arenas, Chile waiting to catch the plane later this morning to Ushuaia, Argentina to board the ship to begin the Antarctic portion of my journey. We had 3 wonderful days of sun in the Torres which is nearly unheard of. All the sun caused much melting and the rivers were running full causing some transportation problems of which I will write more about when I return. Lots of photos and stories to post when I can get internet access again sometime after returning to the states. From here on out I may have a few brief spots posted by Laura via email from the ship. I will address all your comments (thanks!) when I return.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Santiago Monday

I didn't make my early morning walk in the park but it was just as well. When I finally got to the front gate, the park was closed. Evidently they were doing grounds maintenance today. I spent the majority of the day being a Lindblad representative - making sure that everyone had arrived (it was a bit dicey with the weather in Dallas and the flight from Dallas carrying a number of guests) and that they knew what the schedule for the day was. We did do a quick city tour today but as usual it was quick and not all that interesting, although a trip to the pre-Columbian museum was quite interesting. It has always been closed in my previous tours of the city. After a nice dinner and quick orientation for my travelers, it is time for bed. Tommorrow we catch our flight south to Punta Arenas in the morning and then on the Puerto Natales for the evening.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Miami to Santiago Chile

I managed to get a window seat at the last minute and even better, I wound up in the two seat row with no other passenger so I had the row to myself. It didn’t really matter that much though. A 6’1” frame with some weight on it trying to sleep in two spaces designed for people much smaller just doesn’t work - no matter how much you contort yourself to try to avoid the metal ridge between the seats while the person in front of you has laid his seat back as far as it will go. I had pillows and blankets and a neck pillow and a jacket all strategically placed to no avail. I wasn’t able to sleep one bit.
I arrived in summer at 0700 this morning and it is taking me a bit to adjust from -14 degree weather and white, to 80 degrees and green with flowers. Immigration and customs were uneventful and I was able to practice my Spanish a bit with a very nice taxi driver on the way to the hotel. Once a year just doesn’t help me get more fluent but at least I can have a bit of a conversation. The first bird for Chile this morning was a white heron or egret but I couldn’t get a better ID when looking down on the birds out the window of the plane while landing. Upon landing and during our taxi to the get to the gate, my first identifiable bird was a Chimango Caracara, the ubiquitous bird of prey that probably fills a niche here similar to one the American Crow fills in North America. At least it was an actual Chilean bird, not the Rock Pigeon the I observed next. On the drive to the hotel I observed many more Rock Pigeons as well as a number of Southern Lapwings in the fields near the airport.
Upon checking in, I was able to play one of the three bears a bit and found someone had been sleeping in my room. A quick trip to the desk and I was able to get a clean room. After a quick unpack of essentials, I melted into the bed and was out for the next five hours.
After waking up I was able to find a few Eared Doves and Austral Thrushes flying around the grounds of the hotel.

This evening I took a walk at a nearby park and amidst a large number of Chileanos enjoying a wonderful Sunday afternoon. I found a number of birds including a Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, a Plain-mantled Tit Spinetail (that one is always hard to tell your non-birding friends that you are looking at - it sounds like one of those goofy made up bird names), Chilean Swallow, Chilean Mockingbird, Common Diuca-finch (feeding a pair of fledgling Shiny Cowbirds), Monk Parakeets, Rufus-collared Sparrows, and a pair of Southern Lapwings. Here is a photo of the plantcutter. They are interesting birds with a song that sounds like a fishing reel on a good run. They are an herbivore and one of the smallest herbivore birds in the world. They have teeth-like structures on their bill and tongue to mascerate the leaves they eat and break down the cell walls prior to entering the digestive system.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

On the way

Laura and I left Fort Peck with three sunrises edging over the horizon yesterday morning. The sundogs were the most intense I have seen in a long time, shining through the ice crystals in the air. It was cold too! The ice on the river was nearly complete with very little open water below Fort Peck Dam. That doesn't happen that often but it was clear cold and calm on Thursday night. Kind of fitting for my trip although it should be warmer where I am going!
I am now at the airport in Miami. The direct opposite of the cold and dry I have gotten used to. The flights went well even with the ice storm moving through the middle of the country. Now I am waiting to board the plan and another 6 hours of sitting in a very small seat trying to sleep upright. Hopefully I can get a window seat but it is not looking good at this point. Hopefully I will have access to the internet and be able to post tomorrow from Santaigo. Later.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Getting Ready

I have slowly been stacking my stuff in my corner of the basement, searching for those cold weather items lost in recesses during the summer months (and what has passed for a winter here in Northeastern Montana so far). In addition to the Antarctic gear, I need to have summer clothes for my time in Santiago and Torres Del Paine Chile, where it is the middle of summer and warm. I have also squeezed in a few days in the Everglades on my way home so.... It is an interesting mix from size 13 White's winter pacs to baggies shorts. Then there's the binoculars, camera, video camera (new this year!) and associated gear, field guides, book of Neruda poems about Chilean birds, computer, and...!

A number of years ago when I was getting ready for a 6 month stint at Palmer Station, I asked my friend Steve Bodio for a list of the top 10 books I should take to read. Not only did Steve get me a list of his top 10, he bought me a copy of each to take with! That's a good friend. I am going to have to try to reconstruct that list one of these days, but one that I remember was Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of the World of the Aubrey and Maturin series. He got me hooked on Patrick O'Brian and I usually grab the next two or so in the series for my ship ride south.

I also start thinking about the weather. I grew up far from the ocean and although the topography in the middle of the Drake passage is often very similar to the topography in Eastern Montana, at least here the substrate doesn't feel like it is trying to buck me off. I don't do well when the seas pick up and I usually take my medicine and get horizontal in my bunk for the duration. I wish I handled it better because I have always been fascinated by extreme weather and the waves, wind and albatrosses (A Royal Albatross from last year is pictured here) are certainly worth watching in those conditions. The wind here has been pretty bad the last couple of days and I hope I don't bring it with me.

One little note from Montana- I had a Long-tailed Weasel run across the road in front of me on the way home from work this evening. A white dash trailing a black dot across the blacktop.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Antarctic Art

I recently found a website of some great Antarctic artwork (Isn't it peculiar how the rabbit trails you wind up following when searching for something on the web leads you to another that is often more interesting than what you originally were searching for?) I found this website while searching for pictures of a Velvet Asity- go figure. The artist is John Gale and he does a wonderful job of getting it right. It is the essence of a place that give me the feeling that the artist has been there and understands the quality of light and atmosphere that makes me feel like I am there when I look at his work. Or maybe it's that John and I see the place similarly. I have quite a few photos that echo his paintings. See the Gentoo penguins below. My photo is on the left.

Although it is hard for me to pick favorites for the work that John has on his website, one that stands out for me is the one below. The reason I like it so much is that one of my first reactions to being in the Antarctic was being overwhelmed by seemingly infinite shades of blue. John captures this very well for me in this painting of a glacier face with wheeling snow petrels along the face (they are there you just can't see them well in this photo). John has some wonderful work on his website - check it out.

Another photographer friend and Antarctic co-worker is Stefan Lundgren. His photographs also capture my sense of what Antarctica is better than most. He also is a great storyteller. One of my favorites is copied below from his website along with the photo he is describing.
"Every wildlife photographer probably has at least one great adventure story to tell. My most remarkable story took place when I took this image of this killer whale, known as the sea wolf of Antarctica. The research ship I was working on was moored along the fast sea ice at Lazarev Ice Shelf. At late night , I walked around by myself and discovered this opening in the ice. Standing along the edge of the ice and looking down into the water, I noticed something shimmering beneath the surface. Before I could figure out what it was, an Orca breached straight out the the water right in front of me. I fell down on my back, myself and my camera covered with the spraying splash of water. Deeply concerned about my camera and not paying attention, the orca suddenly came up onto me and pinned me on the ice. My feet were under its chest while it sent out clicking and whistling echo sounds to analyze me. Not interested in me, the orca retreated into the water. Many times I have seen how these Orcas catch Weddell seals in much the same manner in the same environment. I assume that they are programmed to catch a specific kind of prey and I didn't fit into their menu. Wet and shaky, I set up my tripod and camera. I got a few seconds of opportunity to take these images as the Orca passed back and forth, now completely ignoring me." - Stefan Lundgren
I am not sure that I would have had the presence of mind to get any sort of photo taken! much less the starkly beautiful image that Stefan captured.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Reasons for Bloggin

I have been visiting my friend Steve Bodio on a daily basis at his blog and have enjoyed getting to find out what he is up to. I have also "met" a number of interesting people through his blog. When I was contemplating how to keep my friends and family updated with my upcoming travels to the Antarctic Peninsula, I figured that this would be great way to do that. Hopefully I will be able to get decent internet access while I am in Chile and I plan on keeping a daily written log while on board the ship to post here when I get back. I also plan on regularly posting photos that I have taken during my travels and blogging about other happenings in Eastern Montana.

So why am I going to "The Ice"?
My southern life began through mutual graduate school (University of Wyoming) friends that had been working in Antarctica. They worked for the company that supports the science work in Antarctica and a scientist working on seabirds at Palmer Station. Through them I met a number of OAE's (Old Antarctic Explorer a.k.a anyone that has spent a few seasons on the ice) including my wife! I initially began my Antarctic career as a General Assistant helping to upgrade Palmer Station and shoveling a fair amount of snow. Within a year I began a Ph.D. program at Montana State University studying Adelie Penguins at Palmer Station. I spent two 5 month field seasons at Palmer and then another on King George Island at a small field camp. Although the Ph.D. wound up not happening due to a variety of reasons, I became enamored with the the place.

One of my contacts through this adventure was Ron Naveen, founder of Oceanites, the only non-profit group doing on the ground conservation work in Antarctica. My wife Laura and I were fortunate enough to begin working for Ron in 2001 when we were able to return to Antarctica together and complete inventories during a cruise with Lindblad Expeditions. Ron has a good working relation with Lindblad and they provide berthing for the Oceanites crews for each Antarctic Cruise and we in turn are able to provide Lindblad guests with a unique Antarctic experience. I have been returning to Antarctica almost annually with Oceanites since then. In addition, this will be my 3rd trip where I will be the Expedition Leader for a Lindblad pre-Antarctic tour to Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. I leave in a week.