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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Antarctic Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego

2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2024 Princess cruise to the Great White South exceeded expectations, and for many people the highlight was the whole ‘pinch-me-I’m-really-in-Antarctica’ voyage! While 8 species of penguins (including Emperor!) and almost 50 species of tubenoses (ranging from 13 albatrosses to 7 storm-petrels) topped the bill, a group of hunting Killer Whales and a family group of Magellanic Woodpeckers that wouldn’t leave us alone weren’t too shabby either! Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses and Antipodes Wandering Albatrosses sailing by at eye-level; swarms of Black-browed Albatrosses wheeling in a gale at Cape Horn; close-up Sperm Whales lolling beside the ship; waves of silvery Red (or Gray!) Phalaropes in their winter home; a good variety of austral waterfowl; bumping across the Falkland moorland, truly off-road; and Darwin’s Rheas watching their Patagonian steppe are simply some of the highlights from this diverse trip. But perhaps it was the sheer scale of Antarctic scenery—fifty shades of white, and counting—that will be forever burned into our memories. And how great to share it with such a convivial, enthusiastic group! But all too soon the time flew by and our remarkable 5000-mile voyage concluded—thanks to all for making it such a wonderful experience.

CEIBAS EXTENSION: Our short pre-cruise extension began with an early morning departure from Buenos Aires; we drove about two hours north to the town of Ceibas for an exciting day of birding. Cooler-than-average temperatures and decent cloud cover made for remarkably comfortable conditions. As usual, the birds came fast and furious…it felt like there was something new everywhere we looked! Rufous Hornero and Monk Parakeet by the dozens…Saffron Finches everywhere…Little Thornbirds and Masked Gnatcatchers in the roadside bushes…Brown Cachalote perched up brilliantly…Chotoy Spinetail showing off its mega tail and colorful (for a spinetail!) head pattern…subtle White-crested Tyrannulet and Southern Scrub-Flycatcher contrasting with unmistakable Guira Cuckoo and White Monjita and…phew! The morning flew by, punctuated by plenty of other highlights like Lark-like Brushrunner and White Woodpecker and Chestnut-capped Blackbird, before it was time to head to lunch at a nearby hotel. The food was delicious and the birds in the garden didn’t disappoint, either, with great views of Checkered Woodpecker and Glittering-bellied Emerald.

In the afternoon, we opted to check out a different road through the pastures and marshes, although by now it was quite sunny and the wind had picked up a bit. We managed to eke out a distant Plumbeous Ibis among all the Southern Screamers, and took some time to study the differences between Yellowish and Correndera Pipits. A bit further on, we lucked into the motherload of Spectacled Tyrants giving extended views, and even teased out Warbling Doradito from the grasses before driving back to Buenos Aires.

Our next morning was spent at the exceptional Costanera Sur reserve, just a short walk from our hotel. Although waterbirds were scarce on this visit (probably due to recent rains nearby), we enjoyed close studies of Rosy-billed Pochard along with Red-fronted and Red-gartered Coots. An exotic Crested Myna was an unexpected find, while the Gray-cowled Wood-rail skulking on the distant shore felt a bit more in-place. Fighting off the hoards of mosquitos (another symptom of recent rains!), we ventured into the scrubby forest, where White-winged Becard and Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch performed brilliantly, and we pished in Golden-crowned Warbler and Chivi Vireo. The grand finale came just in our last few minutes of birding, with Ash-colored and Dark-billed Cuckoos appearing within minutes of each other! A perfect way to end before heading back the hotel for last-minute packing and lunch. And just like that, we were heading off to the ship, where our grand adventure would really begin… 

MAIN CRUISE: Day 1. Everyone arrived safely on time, with several folks coming in a few days early for some extra birding, including the pre-cruise Ceibas extension. After lunch and a somewhat clusteraceous boarding process (thanks to recent storm damage at the usual boarding location) we settled into our cabins before the introductory meeting, followed by dinner as we headed out across the wide Rio de la Plata estuary towards Uruguay.

Day 2. A relaxed day of birding in varied farmland, wetland, and coastal habitats of Uruguay with local guide Agustina Medina. We started with a pleasant austral summertime walk along a quiet road with birds in good song. Highlights included Campo Flicker, Burrowing Owl, handsome Gray Monjitas, plus several species now considered tanagers—Great Pampa-finch, Long-tailed Reed-finch, Black-and-rufous Warbling-finch, Double-collared Seedeater, and Red-crested Cardinal. Great views of flashy male Hooded Siskins and some obliging Narrow-billed Woodcreepers preceded a relaxed picnic lunch, after which we visited a lagoon that held a nice selection of waterbirds. Nearby areas produced superb views of Rufous-sided Crake, a very obliging family of Giant Wood-Rails, bizarre Guira Cuckoos, and the striking White Woodpecker. Cloudy and relatively cool conditions with a light breeze really helped the birding, and we arrived back at the ship in good time to relax before the bird list and a fine dinner. 

Day 3. Our first day of seabirding, heading south towards Falklands, and a really great start to the pelagic component of this trip. We began in shallower waters of the continental shelf and by mid-afternoon were cutting across increasingly deep waters of the continental slope. Birds were in view steadily throughout the day, notably thousands of Great Shearwaters plus hundreds of Manx Shearwaters and Atlantic Petrels and our first albatrosses—the handsome Black-browed and Atlantic Yellow-nosed. Amid the often dizzying masses of birds we found a few Cory’s and Cape Verde Shearwaters, along with the sought-after and striking Spectacled Petrel. Non-avian highlights included Southern Right Whale and a ‘vagrant’ Southern Elephant Seal.

Day 4. Day 2 of seabirding proved quite different, with deep water (often >3 miles deep!), shallowing by evening as we reached the Falkland shelf break. Today the commonest bird was Soft-plumaged Petrel, with smaller numbers of Atlantic Petrels, plus our first Black-bellied Storm-petrels along with the enigmatic Gough Storm-petrel and the diminutive Gray-backed Storm-petrel—quite a contrast from the shelf avifauna of the previous day and a graphic illustration of (invisible-to-humans) marine habitats. Also notable were at least two groups of Gray’s Beaked Whale and a briefly seen Blue Whale.

Day 5. Falklands. A magical day ashore at this remote British outpost, starting with distant (but identifiable) Snowy Sheathbills as we sailed into the sound, plus amazingly close Southern Right Whales! Onshore the weather was glorious, sunny and truly warm, although with some cloud building later in the day and a cool edge to the breeze. An early start got us out to Volunteer Point in good time, where the sights and sounds and smells of hundreds of breeding King Penguins was simply amazing, along with numerous geese, Two-banded Plovers, migrant White-rumped Sandpipers, and a handsome Variable Hawk soaring overhead. The drive back to Stanley was punctuated by a flock of juvenile Rufous-chested Plovers (née Dotterels)—“dotterels in the diddle-dee”—and various waterfowl including the flightless Falkland Steamer-Duck, plus the endemic (sub)species of White-tufted Grebe. After birding there was some time to wander a little in town before tender rides back to the mother ship. What a day!

Day 6. At sea, heading south towards the Antarctic Peninsula across the notorious Drake Passage, which today was pleasantly easy sailing, with a following wind. The low seas made birding comfortable, but temperatures cooled steadily, especially after crossing the Antarctic Convergence in mid-morning. Birds came and went, including hundreds of Slender-billed Prions, a scattering of storm-petrels, and both Wandering and Southern Royal Albatrosses, wheeling effortlessly across the wake and periodically sailing across the bow—what amazing creatures. Also notable were a single Fairy Prion, our first Gray-headed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, and a late afternoon showing of Fin Whales.

Day 7. At sea to Antarctica, crossing the 60oS parallel in early morning. We woke to light—but cold!—winds and gentle seas, which made birding easy, although a temperature around 2oC meant it was decidedly cool on deck. Squadrons of Pintado Petrels, joined by a few Antarctic Fulmars and Antarctic Prions, accompanied the ship as the sunlit (!) snow-capped peaks of Elephant Island hove into sight, small icebergs drifted past, and our first Chinstrap Penguins appeared while Fin and Humpback Whales spouted all around. What a way to start our visit to the ends of the Earth. All-too-often shrouded in fog, today this Antarctic outpost offered magnificent views under blue skies of glacier-punctuated shorelines and dark cliffs topped with snow and ice cornices like giant chocolate cake.

We were even able to see the monument to Captain Luis (Piloto) Pardo on the tiny low isthmus where Shackleton’s men overwintered, and whence Pardo’s ship finally rescued them in 1916. On a sunny summer day it was cold enough for us, and to think of overwintering there was unimaginable. Back to birds, amid large numbers of Chinstrap Penguins we found fair numbers of Gentoos and, finally, a few Macaroni Penguins. Antarctic Terns and the occasional skua and Antarctic Shag rounded out a good selection of birdlife.

Given favorable sea conditions, our captain announced that in the afternoon we would go iceberg hunting, in search of A23A, the largest iceberg presently on the planet. Our transit there allowed time to rest a little and also enjoy some unexpected Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses that wheeled past the buffet windows at eye-level! The sheer scale of A23A made it difficult to appreciate, but by 8 pm we were face-to-face with a wall of ice stretching from horizon to horizon with an area of roughly 3900 square km, some four times the size of New York City, or twice the size of Greater London!


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 8. Scenic cruising in Antarctica. Our iceberg-chasing venture last night meant that, sadly, the captain elected not to visit Hope Bay and instead we headed direct to King George Island in the South Shetlands. Morning birding in overcast, gloomy, and misty conditions through the Bransfield Strait featured Antarctic Fulmars, Pintado Petrels, and at least one Light-mantled Sooty Albatross before reaching the island. Weather cleared a little during our circuit of Admiralty Bay, where we viewed Arctowski Station, the Polish base, plus the Brazilian, Peruvian, and single-building (!) Ecuadorian bases sited on open areas of shoreline in a land of impressive glaciers plus some surprisingly colorful slopes washed in pastel greens and yellows from various lichens and grasses. South Polar Skuas passed by and small groups of penguins shot like torpedoes through the icy waters, but the large penguin colonies on shore were too distant to make out species. Fortunately, with due diligence we did pick out a couple of Adelie Penguins on a closer beach—our seventh species of penguin for the trip—and Humpback Whales were numerous throughout the morning, including one repeatedly breaching individual—wow!

Heading back to sea in the afternoon, skies cleared to bright and sunny but 20+ knots of cold head-on winds made birding a challenge and most folks elected to take some well-earned time to rest and edit photos. An interactive mid-afternoon discussion of taxonomy was enlightening, while passing icebergs (the frozen tears of a dying planet…), albatrosses, and more whales rounded out ‘just another day in Antarctica.’

Day 9. Scenic cruising in Antarctica, the Gerlache Strait—and fifty shades of white. Words cannot do justice to the scenery—or obscenery?—which has to be experienced first-hand to be truly appreciated. Which we did, in a day of mile after mile of glaciers, ice-caked cliffs, creamy meringue cornices, and blue-white icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Besides the birds, we found a few Weddell Seals and even a Leopard Seal—lounging on an ice floe, and yawning to reveal its deadly gape. We really lucked out on the weather front, with often sunny skies and no strong winds, although at –2o Celsius it was nice to be able to take breaks inside in the warm. Humpback Whales and Wilson’s Storm-petrels were rarely not in view, and keen-eyed scanning produced not one but two single Emperor Penguins standing sedately on ice—unbelievable! Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins on icebergs, scattered South Polar Skuas, and relatively large numbers of Antarctic Fulmars marked our leisurely transit through the snowy summer wonderland.

Excitement came (and went!) at irregular intervals in the form of two distant Snow Petrels soaring against towering cliffs; a Snowy Sheathbill that landed briefly on the top deck for the lucky few there at the time; a white-morph Southern Giant Petrel that led us to an Antarctic Petrel sweeping briefly through a feeding frenzy of storm-petrels, fulmars, and Pintado Petrels; and of course those scattered groups of Killer Whales, with that memorable, surging chase of an unfortunate Gentoo Penguin right beside the ship! All in all, one amazing day!

Day 10. We awoke to gray, cool weather and snow flurries in the Bransfield Strait, heading steadily to our last stop in Antarctica—Deception Island in the South Shetlands—accompanied by an occasional Antarctic Fulmar and Wilson’s Storm-petrel alongside the ship. The bleak gray volcanic slopes of the island seemed a poor cousin to the snowy and sunny majesty of yesterday, but wildlife included thousands of Chinstrap Penguins, good numbers of Southern Giant-Petrels, some distant Snowy Sheathbills, and our only Antarctic Furseals of the trip. Penguin colonies low and high on steaming slopes traversed by some notable penguin ‘highways’ were a fun last memory of this remarkable austral land.

Around noon we left Deception, but it wasn’t till late afternoon that we headed into open ocean, leaving behind groups of porpoising penguins to head back north across the Drake Passage. As expected, birds started to change as land dropped behind us, although some spectacular icebergs (with impressive ocean swells dashing upon them!) continued until we called it a night. Great views of Light-mantled Sooty and Gray-headed Albatrosses made it well worth staying out late and finally we saw a few Blue Petrels—although little did we know…


My Grail


Blue Petrels flip

In silver arcs

As albatrosses sail

Wing-tip to tip

Of lights and darks

The patterns of my grail


Day 11. At sea heading NNW across the Drake Passage towards Cape Horn. Long rolling swells told that we were out in the Southern Ocean, but it was still a relaxed day of seabirding—if almost constant Blue Petrels (hundreds and hundreds!) and a scattering of great albatrosses can be called quiet. Close-up, eye-to-eye views of one handsome Antipodes Wandering Albatross behind the ship were fabulous, while Southern Royal and (presumed) Snowy Wandering Albatrosses were also very nice.

Activity picked up frenetically as we approached Cape Horn in late pm, with a blizzard of Black-browed Albatrosses—hundreds upon hundreds mixed in with Sooty Shearwaters, plus a few penguins and our first Chilean Skuas. The wind also picked up, gusting to 30+ knots as it rushed out of the Pacific intent for some reason on getting to the Atlantic. Even at a distance we could appreciate this storied rugged island and see the small Chilean base, and famous albatross monument. From Cape Horn we headed into calm and sheltered waters for our overnight transit to Ushuaia.

Day 12. Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world. Arriving on schedule we met local and loquacious guide Marcelo and decided to head first (before the crowds arrived) to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where the beautiful Nothofagus (‘false beech’) forest was a striking change from our preceding tree-free week. Just before we reached the parking area, Li spotted a ‘big woodpecker’ from the bus and we all jumped out to find a family of the majestic Magellanic Woodpecker—male, female, and a begging juvenile female. Not only did we watch and photograph them, it seemed they wouldn’t leave us alone—the family stayed with us for an hour, taking the same route as we did through the lichen-covered ancient forest! A family of Great Grebes and a couple of White-throated Treerunners were also appreciated, along with dapper rayaditos and sierra-finches, all helping us overlook the cold and rain. 

Elated, we left the park early and headed to a nearby river mouth with a fine selection of waterbirds, but not before a stop to appreciate a group of handsome Black-faced Ibis on a rugby field! Birds at the river mouth included Flying and Fuegian (Flightless) Steamer-Ducks, Kelp Geese, four gull species (Franklin’s Gull being very rare here), side-by-side White-rumped and Baird’s Sandpipers in their winter homes, and even an unexpected Gray-flanked (or Oustalet’s) Cinclodes. Our last birding stop was the ‘world-famous-in-Ushuaia’ garbage dump, which provided excellent views of all 3 caracara species and two less-than-concerned young Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles—impressive birds. After a mostly not-rainy picnic lunch we opted to head back to town for the chance of shopping and simply being tourists in this austral settlement. By early evening we were back at sea in the Beagle Channel, with misty views of spectacular glaciers a wonderful way to end the day for those who stayed up late.

Day 13. Punta Arenas. Our early morning vigil on deck produced good numbers of Magellanic Diving-Petrels and a couple of bonus Sei Whales before an on-time 8 am arrival at our anchorage. FOMO competition for tender places meant we had to await the third ‘sitting’ but we had no rush to be ashore in the atypically rainy conditions. On shore we met our driver and headed north into Patagonian shrub-steppe with a great first stop for a close group of Darwin’s Rheas, a truly stately inhabitant of the region. Next stop was a shallow roadside lake where the usual 1–2 hour walk was cut to less than an hour when Luke spotted a Magellanic Plover that allowed good views as it bathed and foraged in the muddy shallows—and suddenly the spitting cold rain was forgotten. The lake also held a supporting cast of hundreds of migrant White-rumped Sandpipers and our first Austral Negritos, a perky little terrestrial flycatcher. Next stop was a waterfowl-filled lake with both Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, Spectacled and other ducks, Patagonian Silvery and White-tufted Grebes, and a locally rare American Golden Plover—great stuff, and the rain was finally blowing off.

After a roadside picnic lunch we visited a wetland reserve on the edge of Punta Arenas, where Chilean Flamingos seemed rather incongruous within a stone’s throw of the Magellan Strait. Good close views of several waterfowl were also nice, along with a successful Magellanic Snipe hunt and the rain had finally blown through. A short drive south of town along the now white-capped strait helped us appreciate how Punta Arenas sits at the transition between forest and steppe, and then it was time for return to our home base on the ship. All in all a wonderful day in this remote corner of the world.      

Day 14. At sea—well, sort of. We headed out of the Magellan Strait as the day started, accompanied by numerous Sooty Shearwaters and Black-browed Albatrosses, but the sea swells grew with 30 knot winds and our luck with the weather finally ran out. Although the seas didn’t seem bad to us—or to the birds—the captain opted to travel much of the day in sheltered inside passage waters, through misty and then sunny scenery, rather than on the open ocean as we had hoped for. Still, good views of the enigmatic Chilean Common Diving Petrel, our first Pink-footed Shearwaters, and a lovely young Southern Royal Albatross made our short morning passage through ‘outside’ waters notable. The inside passage transit then allowed for a relaxing day to edit photos, rest, engage in a discussion about the process of bird identification, enjoy a convivial group dinner, and of course prepare for two days of seabirding in the upcoming Humboldt Current…. 

Day 15. At sea all day—the day of the albatross. As well as some 8 species of albatross today, we experienced a noticeable habitat shift into the southern Humboldt Current, with new species such as Buller’s (record high numbers) and Salvin’s (record low numbers) Albatrosses, our first Northern Royal Albatrosses, numbers of Stejneger’s and Juan Fernandez Petrels, a surprise Kermadec Petrel well out of range, ditto a Manx Shearwater, and of course the enigmatic ‘Pincoya Storm-petrel’ amid hundreds of Fuegian Storm-petrels. The day ended very notably with a White-faced Storm-petrel and some superb Sperm Whales—wow, what a difference a day makes!

Day 16. At sea heading north off central Chile, sadly our last day of pelagic birding. A following sea meant we could watch from the front of the ship as we headed deeper into the Humboldt Current, with birds at times too numerous to keep track off! It was truly a special experience to view hundreds of albatrosses throughout the day, wheeling in winds up to 40 knots—their element—and yet be standing in comfort. (Of course, had the wind been blowing from a different direction things would have been very different!) We left behind the Wandering Albatrosses and entered the domain of Royal Albatrosses, with over 100 of these majestic giants during the day, along with good numbers of Buller’s (both Southern and Northern), smaller numbers of Salvin’s, and even a handsome Chatham Albatross, which showed well if briefly as it swept past the bow. Species composition was slightly different from the preceding day, with fewer gadfly petrels—but several De Filippi’s (or Masatierra) Petrels in late afternoon, and unexpected Kermadec again!—and more Procellaria petrels, finally including two Westland Petrels. Our final bird list and reminiscences brought this remarkable trip to a close before return to land. 

Day 17. Our pre-dawn arrival in Valparaiso was followed by a pleasantly smooth disembarkation and meeting our local guide Paola Soublette for the post-tour extension in Central Chile.

- Steve Howell

Created: 25 January 2024