All Aboard and Bon Voyage

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

Editor's note: Due to some initial hang-ups getting e-mails from the ship, we are a few days behind with blog entries from Jim and Ann. We will release our backlog of posts one per day, rather than putting them all out at once. Unfortunately, Jim and Ann have no way of sending us images that are being taken during this trip, so in order to properly illustrate their daily accounts we are using images captured during Jim's prior tours.

31 December 2011

Jim’s view: The day that I have been eagerly anticipating for 675 days finally arrived—the beginning of another exploration of the great white south. Many things were on this morning's schedule including name badges to be handed out to clients and luggage tags to be attached to all bags going to the ship before boarding our buses and heading to Tierra del Fuego National Park. 

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We had excellent views of three Magellanic Woodpeckers, including one male like this one, a female and a presumed immature female. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

The overwhelming highlight for me at the park were prolonged views of three beautiful and cooperative Magellanic Woodpeckers. Nothing like getting the pressure off early in the morning. We luck out; sometimes it can take up to three days to find this elusive woodpecker. I also enjoyed spectacular views of five Black-necked Swans against a background of snow-capped mountains and blue sky. A single Black-chested Buzzard Eagle soared majestically overhead. Other birds included Grass Wren, an extremely cooperative Fire-eyed Diucon and numerous Chilean Swallows. A few folks spotted the first of several Red Foxes, which are always a delight to find. 

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the perfect tourist storm. The weather was beautiful, it was Saturday, and a large cruise ship docked in Ushuaia the previous night. We had to share the park with hordes of other people, who, like us, arrived in large tour buses. Thankfully, they slowly cleared out so that we could enjoy the grandeur without feeling like we were in Grand Central Station. 

A stop at the end of the road yielded two secretive Plumbeous Rails that stepped out of character by emerging for decent views. After a few stops to look for orchids, we headed to that mecca of ornithology, otherwise known as the Ushuaia dump. As our time was limited, we lucked out with the White-throated Caracara, which was spotted almost immediately. We decided that if we were late, we could blame it on the 47-point turn of the bus at the end of the dump road. In a bit of unexpected duty, my last few minutes in Ushuaia were spent assisting with the transfer of wine to the ship. I finally boarded the Ortelius, and with help made my way to our cabin—home for the next 26 days. The Ortelius will take some getting used to. I'm hopeful of navigating from the cabin on Deck 3 to the dining hall on Deck 4 within 10 minutes. A busy evening included a welcome toast, safety demonstration, lifeboat drill, dinner, and a staff meeting. Where did the time go?

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Today we set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's southernmost city. We won't return for 26 days. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker) 

Ann's view: Today we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park for the second time in three days. One of the first differences we noticed was that despite traveling to the “fin del mond” (the end of the world), we were definitely not alone. The southernmost traffic jam on the planet was at the entrance to the park, where we were at the back of a line of at least six buses. Three of them were from our tour group, but a much larger cruise ship was also in town. The paths of the various tour groups crossed several times during the morning. 

The birding highlight for most of us had to be great looks at a male and two female Magellanic Woodpeckers, who were passing time in a busy campground. For about 15 minutes, two of the birds rested high in a tree, wings spread and bodies pressed against the branch, enjoying the morning sun. Competing for the spotlight were two Plumbeous Rails, coaxed from a marsh created by beavers. Yes, Canadian beavers are an invasive pest in Tierra del Fuego. Deliberately introduced for their fur, they have essentially run amok, altering the landscape in both the Argentine and Chilean portions of the island. Attempts are being made to control them, but even if successful, it’s estimated that it will take more than a hundred years to reverse the damage. 

After leaving the park, we headed to every birders’ paradise, the city dump. Dozens of raptors including the White-throated, Chimango and Southern Caracaras and the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle were doing their part to reduce the organic matter at the dump. Hector, our bus driver, had to turn the bus around on what was essentially a one-lane road—no small feat! One of the other passengers commented that it was the best 47-point turn he had ever seen.  Next, the moment we had all been waiting for. We boarded our ship, the Ortelius. Within a couple of hours we were underway and heading out of the Beagle Channel. 

The sea was calm and the weather mild as we listened to instructions about seasickness and safety procedures. One of my personal highlights was the lifeboat drill. We all donned our finest bright orange life jackets and squeezed into the opening of a 75 seat enclosed lifeboat. There were laughs aplenty as we filled the benches in the lifeboat. Although the drill was fun, we are all hoping that was the only time we have to do it!  Dinner ran late and before long we were toasting to the new year.  We celebrated at midnight Greenwich Mean Time so we could all get to bed for a good night’s rest. Well, in theory, in any case. 

Several of us headed to the bow of the boat to search for Magellanic Diving-Petrel. Despite staying out until dark (around 11 pm), we missed the diving-petrels, but saw hundreds of Imperial Shags and even got to enjoy dolphins riding the bow wave of the ship. We will be at the mouth of the Beagle Channel and out into open water by daylight—which in this part of the world happens around 4 am. The weather forecast is “variable”, meaning we won’t know until we get there. Tomorrow promises new birds and maybe even some whales!

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