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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Antarctic Peninsula and Around Cape Horn

2023 Narrative

SANTIAGO PRE-TOUR: We met up for the extension at our Santiago airport hotel, conducting an introductory meeting over dinner. Our two full extension days were filled with some exquisite mountain scenery, with snow-capped ridges, purple and green hued scree slopes that stretched upwards for thousands of feet, waterfalls pouring off craggy ridges, frozen alpine lakes, rainbows, oh – and several birds as well. We began the trip with a visit to the nearby Farallones Valley, where we stopped repeatedly along the roadside matorral vegetation on the lower slopes. Here we recorded little flocks of Austral Blackbirds, busy and vocal White-crested Elaenias, our first (of many) Chilean Mockingbirds and Austral Thrushes, and a perky pair of Tufted Tit-Tyrants. Other stops along the way up into the higher reaches of the road revealed our first Moustached Turca (a huge, quail-like tapaculo with oversized feet), the endemic Crag Chilia, and Mourning, Plumbeous and Band-tailed Sierra-Finches. Soon we reached the alpine zone, where we were soon surrounded by birds such as Rufous-banded Miner (often in display flight), Greater Yellow-finches, Gray-headed Sierra Finches and White-browed Ground-Tyrants. A small alpine wetland held very cooperative Buff-winged and Gray-flanked Cinclodes a nesting pair of White-browed Ground-Tyrants, and lots of cute Black-winged Ground-Doves. In the town of Fallarones we stopped at a well-known site for Lesser Horned Owls and were thrilled to find a pair of these recently split (from Great Horned) birds perched nearly right over the road, staring down at us with a placid and generally disinterested gaze. After a nice lunch at one of the small restaurants we continued on uphill towards the Valle Nevado ski lodge, which sits at the end of the road at just under 10,000 feet. On the arid slopes we located our first Scale-throated Earthcreepers, which resemble small nimble thrashers as they bounce around the boulder fields. Here too were Cordilleran and Sharp-billed Canasteros, a couple of White-sided Hillstars feeding on some small pink flowers and little groups of Black-chinned Siskins. Around the ski resort we were thrilled to spot several huge Andean Condors. Some were lounging on the roofs of the resort, offering exceedingly good and close views, while others were languidly soaring around at nearly eye-level, providing excellent subjects for flight photography. Here too was a single Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, a few stunning Variable Hawks, and a quick flyby from a Mountain Caracara. For many of the participants this was their first day birding in South America, and the solid birdlist and stunning scenery should linger long in their memories.

Our other full day was spent in the incomparable El Yeso Valley, whose towering peaks provide a simply magical backdrop for birding. On the way up to the reservoir that marks the beginning of the alpine section of the valley we stopped along the Maipo River where we located a male Torrent Duck sitting on a rocky bank in the rushing waters. A bit higher on the road we stopped to admire a pair of Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles sitting atop some roadside poles. Soon though we reached our main birding area for the day, a small alpine bog (known locally as a bofedel) where we hoped to find the resident pair of Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The El Yeso Valley is one of the easiest to access and lowest elevation places in the world to see this beautiful, little-known and elegant wader. It took quite a bit more effort than we expected to reach the bog, as the relatively warm summer weather had resulted in significant snowmelt. The braided creek that runs down the center of the valley was too deep to cross with our vehicle, so we resorted to wet feet, picking our way across a half-dozen small channels before reaching the other side of the valley. Once at the bog we quickly found our first Yellow-rumped Siskins, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe and Correndera Pipits, as well as a few species of waterfowl including Yellow-billed Teal, Crested Duck and (for some) Upland Geese in the deeper channels around the bog. Despite much searching though we could not find any sign of our hoped-for quarry. We started making loop walks around the bog, or amusing ourselves with photo ops of Black-winged Ground-Doves, a cute Andean Field Mouse, flocks of Greater Yellowfinches or foraging White-sided Hillstars. All told we spent several hours combing the area, but eventually the siren song of lunch back at the van began to lure us back to the road. Again, we picked our way across the braided valley, but on a whim, I wandered back a different way and was shocked to find the pair of plovers calmly foraging along a shallow creek out in the open rock field in the center of the valley. Happily, the birds stayed put, allowing the entire group to get excellent views. Perhaps it was the altitude, or the amount of effort that we had to put in, but the birds seemed particularly stunning that day as they hunkered down in the wind. After our late lunch we headed back down towards the hotel, with a stop at an impressively large grocery store to pick up some personal items and provisions for the cruise on the way.

The last morning of the extension of the tour we made our way to the coast stopping in a small well-watered valley with scrubby matorral on its slopes. Near where we parked the creek was a bit wider, with enough water to support some water birds including a family group of Yellow-billed Pintail, our first Chiloe Wigeon and Spot-flanked Gallinule and three handsome Dark-bellied Cinclodes. We wandered down the valley delighted by another new suite of new birds. The highlight for me was certainly the fine display put on by two often very retiring species of tapaculos. Within a few minutes walking, and with great views of the dazzling Giant Hummingbird already in hand we detected the nearby calls of a White-throated Tapaculo. I played a bit of tape, after telling the group that this species tends not to pop out into the open, and instantly the bird hopped into view atop a nearby boulder and then spent the next several minutes singing from an exposed bush! To make this valley even more magical, a Dusky Tapaculo flew in to the group as well, proceeding to hop around in a trailside bush and even come briefly out in the open. Further down the scrubby hillside we located a couple of sprightly Des Murs Wiretails in some large patches of bamboo, a perched Fire-eyed Diucon, and our first Striped Woodpeckers hammering away on some small trees just upslope from the trail. We played a bit of Austral Pygmy-Owl tape and were thrilled to get a responsive owl perched up in the ravine bottom, with a literal horde of local birds including Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, several Giant Hummingbirds and some Dusky-tailed Canasteros buzzing around it and showing off extremely well.

We then moved on to the coast, stopping at the small but well-developed Laguna Cartegena where we spent an enjoyable hour walking around the edge of the small wetland. Here we were introduced to a nice cross section of austral waterbirds, from flashy Silvery Grebes and Black-necked Swans to the odd Coscoroba Swan and Red Shovelers. Some particular highlights included a few Black-headed Ducks, the worlds only parasitically brooding waterfowl, locally rare White-cheeked Pintail and White-faced Ibis, and excellent comparison views of White-winged and Red-gartered Coots. Shorebirds and Larids were a prominent part of the avifauna here too, with wintering Whimbrel, Yellowlegs, Baird’s Sandpipers and Franklin’s Gulls joining the local Brown-hooded and Kelp Gulls, and hordes of South American Terns. Our embarkation time for the ship beckoned, so we pulled ourselves away to make the hour and a half long trip up to Valparaiso. While enroute we were informed that the ship would be delayed significantly, so we changed plans and were able to spend an extra hour or two birding along the rocky headlands that ring Valparaiso Point. This proved to be an excellent choice, with views of hulking Peruvian Pelicans, diving Peruvian Boobies, nesting Blackish Oystercatchers passing Guanay Cormorants and Grey Gulls as well as some truly wonderful close-up views of Inca Terns. As it turned out the ships’ departure was delayed until the evening, so we elected to spend the heat of the afternoon relaxing at a nearby hotel, and after dinner headed to the port to begin the main cruise.

-          Gavin Bieber



MAIN CRUISE: Our second Princess cruise to the wilderness of the Great White South had its ups and down, but on balance the ups won out easily, and for many people the ‘highlight’ was the whole ‘pinch-me-I’m-really-in-Antarctica’ experience, with icebergs and glaciers, penguins and whales! While 8 species of penguins and 44 species of tubenoses (including 12 albatrosses!) say something, the trip was about far more than numbers. From looking down on Fin Whales right beside the ship to having majestic Wandering Albatrosses flying by almost close enough to touch; from hyperactive little Thorn-tailed Rayaditos in southern beech forest to the colors and sounds of a King Penguin colony; from great views of Pintado, and Blue, and Snow, and Spectacled Petrels to Falkland Steamer-Ducks steaming; from a graceful Light-mantled Sooty Albatross alongside us in a gale for 46 minutes (!) to bumping across Falkland moors with local characters from this remote island outpost; from stately, trumpeting Black-faced Ibis to a remarkably bold Crested Caracara in Tierra del Fuego; and and from Humpback Whales sleeping amid ice floes to prions flickering over rolling swells, this was a trip of contrasts and memories. But all too soon the time had flown and our remarkable 5000-mile voyage was over—thanks to all for making it such a wonderful experience.

Day 1. Courtesy of big swells at the Valparaíso port entrance our ship’s arrival was delayed about 8 hours, which meant a follow-on effect of delayed boarding and departure. Sadly, the usual efficient Princess boarding process was lacking in Valparaiso, but eventually all were aboard, the last passengers shortly before midnight!              

Day 2. As a follow-on from yesterday’s clusteraceous boarding, the ship still needed fuel so we made a short transit south to San Antonio where most of the day was spent at the dock, which at least gave us time to catch up on sleep and have a relaxed intro meeting for the group. Finally, the ship headed out to sea about 5.30 pm and we enjoyed our first taste of pelagic birding over inshore waters of the Humboldt Current. Often this area is missed for birding on these cruises, so it was a bonus to see classic Humboldt species such as Inca Tern, Peruvian Booby, Guanay Shag, and Peruvian Diving Petrel, plus numerous De Filippi’s Petrels and an even a Manx Shearwater, very rare in this part of the world. Add a couple of Fin Whales, and it was a great way to start the real trip.

Day 3. At sea heading south off central Chile. Twenty knots of headwind plus 20 knots of ship speed made for a blustery start, but by late morning the seas had turned magically to rolling glassy swells; the air was still cool, however. Early morning species were dominated by Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, plus White-chinned Petrels and Red Phalaropes, along with a good mix of other things, including Northern Royal, Southern Royal, Black-browed, Buller’s, and Salvin’s Albatrosses, both giant petrels, and great views of Sperm Whales. Numbers of birds dropped off in the calmer seas, where oddly two of the commoner species were Buller’s Albatross and Long-tailed Jaeger. Other highlights were the numerous fur seals, a few sharks, and late in the day several rafts of storm-petrels that comprised mainly Fuegian along with smaller numbers of the enigmatic Pincoya, whose species status remains unresolved.              

Day 4. At sea all day—the day of the albatross and the real Southern Ocean. As well as some 8 species of albatross today, we started with a following sea, mild temperatures, and 30+ knots of NNE wind, which made for easy birding from the bow. That was too good to last, and by mid-morning came some heavy rain and a change in wind to SW and later W, plus colder temperatures. We could still watch from near the bow, however, and enjoy albatrosses and petrels sailing high in their element, as we transitioned out of the Humboldt Current avifauna, from Northern to Southern Royal Albatrosses, and our last Salvin’s and Buller’s Albatrosses, Juan Fernandez and Stejneger’s Petrels, and Pink-footed Shearwaters. Flocks of Procellaria petrels included good numbers of Westland among the more numerous White-chinned, and late in the day we passed through a belt of frenetic White-faced Storm-Petrels, which, like so many species here, are transoceanic migrants from New Zealand. Most notable, though, were the numerous Antipodes Wandering Albatrosses (also from New Zealand) around the ship, from above eye-level at the stern on Deck 14 to almost within touching distance at the bow! All in all an amazing day at sea before we left the Pacific behind.

Day 5. At sea—well, sort of. We awoke just off the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan and by early morning had land on both sides, with snow-caped peaks, beautiful waterfalls, occasional hanging glaciers, and towering mountainsides as our accompaniment throughout the day. A strong following wind made transit easy, despite occasional rain squalls. Much of the day was fairly quiet for birds, but the start of our passage was marked by a few Great and Manx Shearwaters, both ‘vagrants’ from the Atlantic—and good evidence for how and where these species can switch between oceans. Magellanic Diving Petrels occurred in patches, as did small groups of Peale’s Dolphins, while keen-eyed scope users spotted ‘speck’ Kelp Geese along the rocky shores and even three Andean Condors. A few feeding frenzies at tidal rips featured mainly Black-browed Albatrosses, giant petrels, Chilean Skuas, and sometimes Magellanic Penguins, as well as a few Humpback Whales. Passing Cape Froward, the southernmost point of mainland South America, we turned south into the Magdalena Channel and after dinner almost made it into open ocean, but the captain chickened out and stayed within the islands; still, a brief Rockhopper Penguin, closer Kelp Geese, and more dolphins were enjoyed by the after-dinner die-hards.              

Day 6. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. We arrived on schedule, followed by a not-atypical hurry-up-and-wait port procedure, but soon were heading with local guide Marcelo to the ‘world-famous-in-Ushuaia’ garbage dump, which provided excellent views of all 3 caracara species plus Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. Then on to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where the beautiful Nothofagus (‘false beech’) forest was a striking change from our preceding tree-free days. Cool weather, however, especially biting wind with rain and hail squalls, made birding a challenge; but we still enjoyed striking Great Grebes, Spectacled Ducks, and close-up Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and Patagonian Sierra-finches, plus a very confident Crested Caracara at lunch. Our last stop showcased a diversity of austral waterbirds from a snowy-white male Kelp Goose and both steamer-ducks to noisy Chilean [Southern] Lapwings and a handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel, plus Black-faced Ibis and migrant White-rumped Sandpipers. Back on board in good time we had time to warm up and rest in preparation for our crossing of the Drake Passage…

Day 7. At sea heading south across the Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula, with following seas making for a remarkably comfortable crossing—it’s not often that are you able to watch these waters all day from the bow! Early on we picked up some Snowy Wandering Albatrosses, some of which stayed with the ship all day, often in the wake with Southern Royal and Black-browed Albatrosses and the ‘usual’ giant-petrels. Good numbers of Soft-plumaged Petrels were notable, and prions made things challenging for ID, with Slender-billed and Antarctic well outnumbered by ‘prion sp.’ Other highlights included our first Blue Petrels, Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, Subantarctic Brown and South Polar Skuas, a few elusive Rockhopper Penguins, and superb views of some young Gray-headed Albatrosses.              

Day 8. Dawn seeped into day in the gray, cool, and foggy waters near Elephant Island, where the early morning watchers were rewarded when a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross emerged from the fog and crossed the bow, eliciting whoops of joy; also notable for the early crew were Gray-headed Albatross and Blue and Soft-plumaged Petrels, these last at the southern extreme of their range. Before long the ship was joined by ballets of Pintado (aka Cape) Petrels, Antarctic Prions, and Antarctic (aka Southern) Fulmars, while penguins appeared as splashes like torpedoes being fired from the ship. Sooner or later we managed to see and often snap photos of the many Chinstrap Penguins, as well as small numbers of Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins. Next it was transit over to King George Island, via group after group of feeding Fin and Humpback Whales, plus a couple more Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. A spectacular late afternoon circuit of Admiralty Bay allowed to us to see several research bases of sundry nations amid towering walls of ice and slopes covered with thousands of distant penguins, mainly Gentoo. We also saw Chinstraps and—what in hindsight proved to be—our only Adelie Penguin, plus Antarctic Shags and Kelp Gulls. And then an overnight transit across the Bransfield Strait to the Antarctic Peninsula and the continent proper.              

Day 9. We awoke in calm waters of the Gerlache Strait, air temp a chilly –1oC with icebergs scattered all around, along with a few penguins, South Polar Skuas, and numerous Humpback Whales. Sadly, Charlotte Bay had too much ice for us to visit so we continued on to Wilhelmina Bay. Gentle snow added a nice touch as we pondered the shapes and hues of increasingly larger ice bergs. Continuing south into the Neumayer Channel we were surrounded by towering glacier walls and iced-cake cliffs at a scale that might be termed obscenery rather than simple scenery. As expected, bird diversity was low, but with steady groups of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, at rest on ice or porpoising through the glacial blue waters; a few folks even saw a very distant Emperor Penguin, which dived before all could locate it. A couple of Snow Petrels were spotted around a not-too-distant blue iceberg, eclipsed a little later by one that appeared right in front of the bow, sweeping back and forth to give superb views. Passing a few bases and research stations, including Port Lockroy, we approached the south end of Anvers Island as icy katabatic winds picked up to a screaming 50+ knots. And then the ship stopped, and nobody seemed to know what was happening; time passed, and eventually the captain announced a big storm crossing the Drake Passage such that our plans would change: we would now head north overnight to reach Antarctic Sound by mid-afternoon and be in the land of giant icebergs (and hopefully some ice birds).

Icebergs of Blue

From ice-tongues unhinged

Psychedelically tinged?

Our synapses singed

By icebergs of blue


Shapes sculpted by time

Both stark and sublime

On which our minds climb

Now freed from life’s glue


Day 10. Somewhat sheltered overnight in the Bransfield Strait we awoke to 50–60 knot headwinds, an air temperature of zero, plus snow and 99% humidity—mid-summer in Antarctica! Plan B++ was announced by the captain at 9 am: to continue moving slowly north all day and night in the strait, and wait out the storm before heading north across the Drake Passage tomorrow afternoon. Sadly, then, no tabular icebergs and no more ice birds, but that’s the nature of the beast when dealing with weather at the ends of the Earth. Birding was predictably slow, but there are worse things than watching ballets of Pintado Petrels and silvery Antarctic Fulmars wheeling around the ship, with the occasional albatross and skua thrown in for variety. It was also a good day to rest, edit photos, and generally catch up with life in preparation for the coming days.              

Day 11. Early morning found us approaching Elephant Island, this time with sun breaking through to glow off the numerous glaciers lining the south coast of this rugged land. The scenery—our last sight of the Antarctic—was simply stunning, although birds were surprisingly scarce, not even an Antarctic Fulmar, our commonest species of only yesterday. Heading offshore from Cape Valentine and Point Wild, however, as the wind picked up we started to see Soft-plumaged Petrels, prions, and more albatrosses, wheeling in their element as by contrast the Sapphire Princess lumbered along into the heaving seas of the Drake Passage. Looking straight down on a Fin Whale was memorable, while squadrons of Pintado Petrels circled the ship throughout the day. As we headed into the wind, birds that kept up—or tried to—with the ship included a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (for 46 minutes!) and a valiantly struggling Common Diving-Petrel. Careful watchers noted a few Slender-billed Prions among their more numerous Antarctic cousins, a sign that we were leaving behind the cold Southern Ocean.

My Grail

The prions flip

In silver arcs

As albatrosses sail


Of lights and darks

The patterns of my grail


Day 12. At sea, heading north towards the Falklands. Having crossed the Antarctic Convergence last night we awoke to ‘warmer’ (well, less cold would be more accurate) conditions and found we had left behind all of yesterday’s Pintado Petrels but had entered the belt of great albatrosses—both Snowy Wandering and Southern Royal, a graphic illustration of marine habitats which, on the surface, appear basically the same to land-lubber humans. Also notable were our first Gray-backed Storm-Petrels and, especially as we neared the Falklands, streams of Slender-billed Prions and Sooty Shearwaters along with numerous Black-browed Albatrosses.

Day 13. Falklands! A magical day ashore at this remote British outpost, starting with relatively warm (if windy) weather that, inevitably, changed by mid pm to a little colder. An early start got us out to the Volunteer Point penguin colony in good time and beautiful weather, where the sights and sounds of 100s of breeding penguins were simply amazing, along with numerous Upland and Ruddy-headed Geese, Two-banded Plovers, migrant White-rumped Sandpipers, and the island endemic (sub)species of White-bridled Finch. Our drive back to Stanley was punctuated with superb views of a family of the endemic (sub)species of White-tufted Grebe plus the formidable flightless Falkland Steamer-Duck, followed by some time to wander in Stanley, a colorful town whose human population we more than doubled for the day. Tenders back the ship ran later than planned, but by early evening we were all aboard—and some even found the endemic (sub)species of Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant perched on the ship. All in all, what an amazing day!

Day 14. Day 1 of our South Atlantic seabirding proved very different from previous days at sea. The commonest bird was Soft-plumaged Petrel, with many 100s and rarely a time with none in view! Conversely, we saw only six albatrosses all day (all Black-browed). Notable were our first Atlantic Petrels and Cory’s Shearwaters, a close-up pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales, and quite a few storm-petrels that kept us on our toes: both ‘regular’ Black-bellied and white-bellied Gough ‘Black-bellied’ (best treated as separate species) occurred sporadically throughout the day, reflecting the mix of avifaunas in this poorly known region—as did a brief fly-by skua that looked a best fit for Subtropical Brown Skua rather than the geographically closer Falkland Brown Skua—but these taxa, like so many oceanic birds, remain too poorly known to make any firm ID. A distant Blue Whale and two feeding Southern Right Whales rounded out an interesting day.              

Day 15. Our last full day of seabirding, continuing north towards Uruguay. This varied conclusion to the pelagic component of our trip showed graphically how marine habitats can change quickly. Today only a single Soft-plumaged Petrel at dawn, then numerous Atlantic Petrels, great views of the sought-after Spectacled Petrel, and a steady shift to relentless streams of shearwaters on the continental shelf: among the dizzying thousands of Great Shearwaters were hundreds of Manx and Cory’s, plus small numbers of the poorly known Cape Verde Shearwater. Also featured among 15 species of tubenoses today were small numbers of Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatrosses, and non-birds included Southern Right Whales and Long-beaked Common Dolphins. After the evening ritual bird list we enjoyed a convivial last group dinner and drinks to reminisce over what had been a truly remarkable trip to the ends of the Earth.

Day 16. A relaxed day of birding in varied wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats in Uruguay with our local guide Florencia. We started with a bang at a lake packed with waterbirds, including Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, Lake and Black-headed Ducks, three species of coots, Black Skimmers, Snowy-crowned and Cayenne/Sandwich Terns, Hudsonian Godwits, and on and on… A smaller roadside pond offered superb views of Plumbeous Rail and the diminutive Rufous-sided Crake, along with devil-eyed Plumbeous Ibis. A stop for White Monjita also produced a bonus Burrowing Owl, and our delightful lunch spot held more new species, from Narrow-billed Woodcreeper to brilliant Saffron Finches (aka Yellow-finches, and now actually tanagers) and a Tropical Parula nest-building in the fluffy head of a pampas grass stalk. The wind made land-birding a challenge but our last stop produced the handsome Whistling Heron along with Cattle Tyrant before it was time to return ‘home’ for our last night to pack and prepare for re-entry into the ‘real world.’              

Day 17. Pre-dawn arrival in Buenos Aires and disembarkation for flights home or further birding adventures. Thanks to all for making this such a memorable trip!

-          Steve Howell



-          Julian Quillen Vidoz

Created: 17 February 2023