Antarctica Tour: A Study in Contrasts

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale


One of the treats on Westpoint Island is getting close-up views of courting Black-browed Albatrosses. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

3 January 2012

Jim’s view: My first Zodiac launching and driving from the Ortelius went well and I quickly ironed out the kinks and got the feel of the Zodiac again. It was a bit windy this morning, but we took the associated chop and swell in stride and landed successfully. Westpoint features another Rockhopper and Black-browed Albatross colony. I gladly took advantage of the Land Rover to ferry me across the island to the colony. I gave my albatross talk with a backdrop of Black-browed Albatrosses and sheer cliffs towering above the sea. Watching several Rockhoppers bathe and drink in a small pool was a highlight of this visit. Nothing like a clean penguin! 

The problem with a three and a half hour landing is that it goes all too quickly. Before we knew it, we were loading up and bidding farewell to Westpoint and the numerous Kelp Geese and Johnny Rooks that call this place home, but, bigger and better things awaited.  Unlike the morning, our afternoon landing was on the white sandy beaches of Carcass Island, a stark contrast to what one would expect on an Antarctic island. Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins greeted me on the beach and Tussock Birds and Black-chinned Siskins worked the tussock grass and dunes. 

This is one of my favorite landing sites because of the proximity of diverse wildlife to the landing location. Shortly after going ashore we were watching adult and downy young South American Snipe trying to hide in snipe-high vegetation. Our group captured many excellent photographs. Other highlights included Ruddy-headed Goose families, Black-throated Finches, including young ones, Grass Wrens and the endemic Cobb’s Wren. Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers were common on the beach on the other side of the island including a nesting pair and one adult with two fledged young. Confiding Tussock Birds worked vegetation mere inches from where I stood. 

Visiting Carcass Island is a true treasure! Along the far shore, a pair of Falkland Steamer Ducks shepherded their six fluffy ducklings into the water. When they emerged they formed an cute ball of beached ducklings. They seemed utterly unalarmed by our presence. A beach cleanup filled at least ten heavy duty trash bags with miscellaneous plastic, fishing lines and nets, and rusting barrels. Even in this pristine environment, trash happens and it was a gentle reminder that discharged garbage at sea ends up somewhere. The Cheeseman’s have done a beach cleanup here for the last six tours and have never had the problem of too few volunteers. The end result spoke for itself and it was nice to feel as though we could offset some of the carbon footprint of our expedition. 


This well-camouflaged adult (right) South American Snipe and its chick (left), photographed on Carcass Island 3 January 2012, were a delight to us all (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Ann’s view: Today was a double treat—Westpoint Island in the morning and Carcass Island in the afternoon. We started the day with one of our few “dry” landings at a boat ramp on Westpoint Island. Rolling hills and a walk across the island took us to a smallish colony of Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguins. Whose those who focus on listing might wonder why we keep going to see the same species at different locations, a big part of this tour is immersing oneself in the experience and learning as much as possible about the various species. Each site offers spectacularly different scenery as well as new opportunities to view and photograph behaviors. 

A highlight for me today was watching Rockhopper Penguins climb up a freshwater creek to drink and bathe. A steady stream of penguins visited the moss-lined creek, then popped onto the bank to peer at us. It was almost as if they were observing their own “Antarctic code” and kept their distance to about 10 feet from us to watch our strange behaviors. A sketching class within a few feet of nesting albatrosses gave us time to really study the birds—their shapes, the relative size of different body parts, and angles between head and body. Edward Rooks, the instructor, is very patient and helpful to the would-be artists among us!  

The afternoon on Carcass Island was an exercise in contrasts. Magellanic penguins were resting on or struggling through deep white sands that in photos could just as easily have been snow. The aquamarine waters gave the impression more of the tropics than the southern ocean. Magellanic penguins nest in burrows, and Carcass Island is covered with them. We had to step carefully to maintain our distance from hidden penguins. The chicks could be heard calling from the burrows, a reminder that there is abundant life underground here. 


Black-throated Finches, like the one shown above, are one of the most abundant passerines on Carcass Island. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Black-throated Finches and Tussock Birds approached so closely that it was difficult to photograph them. Families of Magellanic Oystercatchers, Ruddy-headed Geese, Falkland Steamer Ducks and Crested Ducks strolled the beaches and meadows. A Common Snipe and her chick entertained us by wandering and feeding a few feet in front of us for about ten minutes. They were so close that I almost stepped on them before realizing that they were there. Johnny Rooks, the ever-present predator, had a nest with two chicks in a tussock berm at perfect scoping height and distance. 

We spent about an hour of the afternoon clearing plastic from one of the beaches. It’s amazing and a little depressing that so much garbage is washing ashore on these otherwise pristine beaches. A lot of it appeared to be from fishing vessels—nets, ropes, lures, and buckets, but other smaller pieces such as drinking box straws could have originated anywhere. We’re bringing a Zodiac load of garbage back with us aboard the ship. Sadly, given time and space, we probably could have brought three.

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