Category

Albatross

Prion Island, South Georgia Island

Albatross, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Photos of Nesting Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) on Prion Island, South Georgia Island

We wait out the bad weather that arrived while we were on Salisbury Plain on the icebreaker M/V Polar Star, which is anchored in the lee of a nearby small island. Although the weather is cold, dark and snowing, it is also gradually improving. A warm and hearty lunch, and some time reading a book, recharges me after the cold morning and I am hopeful we make another landing today in spite of the weather. After dinner, Ted Cheeseman makes the decision to go ashore at Prion Island to see nesting Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans).

Wandering albatross, on nest and the Prion Island colony.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross, on nest and the Prion Island colony. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24428
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Prion Island, South Georgia Island

We had seen Wandering Albatross in flight over the open ocean when we made our crossing from the Falklands to South Georgia, but since then I had not seen one. Wanderers have the greatest wingspan of any bird, up to 12′ from wing tip to wing tip. They are at their most impressive when in flight. The birders on the trip are eager to see more of them, and consider the Wandering Albatross a very special bird. Only small groups of visitors are permitted, and only on a restricted walking path, to avoid disturbing these highly endangered birds. It is dark, and stormy looking, but the seas are reasonably calm and we experience an easy zodiac ride and landing. Once ashore, a short walk amid fur seals brings us to the summit of the small island. A dozen or so nesting albatrosses are seen, including one which is only about 10’ from the walkway. My long lens, brought in anticipation of more distant nests, is overkill but at least I get some tight portraits of the huge, snow-white seabird. In spite of being in the presence of these noble albatrosses, the condition make Prion Island seem forlorn to me right now. Snow patches surround the albatrosses, wet snow falls occasionally, the wind is blowing and the skies are dark and ominous. If I had to stay here with the gear I have with me I would die in a few days. These elegant birds are incredibly hardy.

Next: Godthul, South Georgia Island
Previous: Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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En Route to South Georgia Island

Albatross, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

En Route to South Georgia Island, Wandering albatross in flight

Sunset clouds create a colorful arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island

Sunset clouds create a colorful arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24073
Location: Southern Ocean

It is a three day sail from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island. Day 1 dawned with leaden gray skies that soon clear, at which time the weather can only be described as great, with following seas, light winds and very little swell. I spent the day on deck trying to photograph and identify seabirds and spot whales. Sunset was stunning, with an arch of red and orange clouds that required a 180-degree fisheye lens to capture in its entirety. Day 2 brings my first Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), enormous and elegant birds that soar over the open ocean swells, arcing and diving to take full advantage of the updraft created by each passing wave.

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip.  It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop.  The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years.  They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24071
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Southern Ocean

Wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any living species of bird, over 11 feet from tip to tip. When one wandering albatross passed alongside the boat very close I was able to hear the wind as it parted and passed over the wings of this magnificent bird. The wandering albatrosses glide almost the entire time they are in sight; their aerodynamics are so remarkably efficient they rarely need to flap their wings. Most excellent. I am glad to have been able to see this species of albatross out here in the middle of the ocean, where it is so obviously at home and I am so obviously not. The oft-quoted ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy said it well upon sighting his first Wandering Albatross in 1912: I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!

Sunset viewed through the window of my cabin on the M/V Polar Star, somewhere between Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island

Sunset viewed through the window of my cabin on the M/V Polar Star, somewhere between Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24097
Location: Southern Ocean

At one point a storm of prions and other small seabirds gather aloft behind the boat, dipping the beaks into the water as they flit and hover above the ocean’s surface. It seems to me they are feeding. Simultaneously we spot our first whales. The fact the two species are present here is no coincidence — we must be in an area of food, perhaps krill. Much guessing among my shipmates ensues as to what species of whales they are. I refuse to speculate early on, as I have learned from many hours spotting whales that I need to see at least the dorsal ridge or fluke, preferably both, to hazard a guess. Gradually I decide that they are all fin whales, based on the manner of their round out and dive, the shape and color of their rostrums and their dorsal fins, and their blows. The flock of small birds and our whale sightings eventually lessen, indicating we are leaving the feeding zone (if that is indeed what it was). As the day wears on, periodic individual wandering albatrosses are seen soaring around the M/V Polar Star, always angling and turning to best use the updrafts of the swells to glide. Since the wandering albatrosses tend to stay at a distance from the boat, I needed my longest lens and a teleconverter (500+1.4x), a heavy combination to handhold on the deck a rolling boat. I took a lot of photos and was lucky to manage a few sharp images. I go to bed wondering what South Georgia Island will look like when we arrive tomorrow.

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12' from wingtip to wingtip.  It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop.  The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years.  They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear, Diomedea exulans

Wandering albatross in flight, over the open sea. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the wingspan between, up to 12′ from wingtip to wingtip. It can soar on the open ocean for hours at a time, riding the updrafts from individual swells, with a glide ratio of 22 units of distance for every unit of drop. The wandering albatross can live up to 23 years. They hunt at night on the open ocean for cephalopods, small fish, and crustaceans. The survival of the species is at risk due to mortality from long-line fishing gear.
Image ID: 24092
Species: Wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans
Location: Southern Ocean

Next: Approaching South Georgia Island
Previous: Steeple Jason, West Falklands
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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Steeple Jason, West Falklands

Albatross, Falklands, Southern Ocean

Photos of Steeple Jason Island and Black-browed albatross, West Falklands, Falkland Islands

Steeple Jason, one of the Jason group of islands, is to be our only landing today. There has been quite a bit of anticipation for this visit. It is considered one of the major landings of the trip, the location of one of the world’s finest natural spectacles. Lots of mention has been made already of how superlative this place is. A couple people who have been here before suggest that it is one of the world’s “top 10” wildlife scenes. Morning dawns for us on the southwest side of the island, with myriad birds flying about and cacophonous sounds — an enormous bird rookery — coming from the island about half mile away. The breeze brings with it the scent of the colony. I love that scent! To my dying day, the distinctive briny odor of a shore covered in centuries of guano, borne on a fresh ocean breeze, is something I will always associate with remoteness, wildness and the sea. It is the smell of a vast number of seabirds. I have smelled it in the Galapagos Islands, at tiny Rose Atoll, at Cocos Island, in the Sea of Cortez and now in the West Falklands. It is the smell of life, huge amounts of life, life that is intrinsically bound to sea and air.

Black-browed albatross in flight, against a blue sky.  Black-browed albatrosses have a wingspan reaching up to 8', weigh up to 10 lbs and can live 70 years.  They roam the open ocean for food and return to remote islands for mating and rearing their chicks, Thalassarche melanophrys, Steeple Jason Island

Black-browed albatross in flight, against a blue sky. Black-browed albatrosses have a wingspan reaching up to 8′, weigh up to 10 lbs and can live 70 years. They roam the open ocean for food and return to remote islands for mating and rearing their chicks.
Image ID: 24145
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

Steeple Jason is steep and rugged, with jutting serrated seacliffs that raise the ramparts of the island high above the ocean. Sections of lush green tussock grass are mixed with broad areas of reddish brown, shorter vegetation. Around much of the island’s western perimeter a white collar marks the seabird colony that lines the coast. Surf pounds the edge of the island, tossing spray high in the air. With a little tectonic nudge, Steeple Jason could easily be two islands. As it is today, the north and south portions are linked by a thin, lowlying isthmus that offers two landing sites, one on each side.

Straited caracara, a bird of prey found throughout the Falkland Islands.  The striated caracara is an opportunistic feeder, often scavenging for carrion but also known to attack weak or injured birds, Phalcoboenus australis, Steeple Jason Island

Straited caracara, a bird of prey found throughout the Falkland Islands. The striated caracara is an opportunistic feeder, often scavenging for carrion but also known to attack weak or injured birds.
Image ID: 24125
Species: Striated caracara, Phalcoboenus australis
Location: Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

Soon after dawn the freshening wind and swells cause us to move to the other side of the island where we will land at the more sheltered of the two locations, one with thick stands of bull kelp and macrocystis kelp. I admire the lush kelp forest lining the shore and wish I could dive here. In spite of some trepidation on the part of the staff responsible for getting us safely onto the slippery rocks, the landing is not a problem. Within minutes after starting to hike around the north half of the island I see a caracara take a penguin chick. I feel like Marlin Perkins.

Striated caracara feeds upon a gentoo penguin chick it has just killed, Phalcoboenus australis, Pygoscelis papua, Steeple Jason Island

Striated caracara feeds upon a gentoo penguin chick it has just killed.
Image ID: 24086
Species: Striated caracara, Gentoo penguin, Phalcoboenus australis, Pygoscelis papua
Location: Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

I have switched from my waterproof muck boots to my hiking shoes for the easy one-mile walk to the colony of black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys). It is warm and sunny, with a few clouds – a great morning for a walk. The trail is several hundred feet above the ocean, which boils down below along the rocky coast. I pass a pair of striated caracaras on some rocks. They are comfortable with my presence so I sit and watch them closely. This seems unusual for raptors.

Black-browed albatross colony on Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands.  This is the largest breeding colony of black-browed albatrosses in the world, numbering in the hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs.  The albatrosses lay eggs in September and October, and tend a single chick that will fledge in about 120 days, Thalassarche melanophrys

Black-browed albatross colony on Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands. This is the largest breeding colony of black-browed albatrosses in the world, numbering in the hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. The albatrosses lay eggs in September and October, and tend a single chick that will fledge in about 120 days.
Image ID: 24078
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

After a short while I reach my first view of the colony. It is a fantastic assemblage of black-browed albatross extending along several miles of coast, ringed by tussock grass and shadowed by a lush green ridge above. It is the principle black-browed albatross colony in all the world. Light winds are fostering much flight activity this morning as parents leave or return to the nest, taking turns caring for their chick and foraging at sea. Constant and loud — but not unpleasant — albatross vocalizations are heard, a mix of croaking, high-pitched screeching and subtle clucking. Some of the larger chicks are left alone. Striated caracaras are constantly on the prowl for such easy prey and over the course of a few hours relaxing at the colony’s edge I see a couple of caracaras carrying away a meal. Eventually, most of our group makes the hike and arrives along the edge of the colony. We all stand in the waist high tussock, enjoying the incredible array of life spread out before us. Eventually I have had enough sun and feel it is time to hike back around towards the island’s isthmus where we landed, to see what else there is to find. In a cove there is a constant stream of gentoos returning from the sea (and some departing), leaping out of the water onto rocks. Back at the gentoo colony that I saw first this morning, the parent of the same dead chick still guards her offspring, keening occasionally and charging the caracara that continues to try to pick off a piece of the chick’s carcass. It is a sad scene. The fortitude of the gentoo in the face of such inevitable and foregone tragedy is astonishing.

After some hours ashore I am now pretty hungry, and eat three sandwiches that the crew has brought ashore to the landing as I sit beside the ocean and realize how fortunate I am to be on this spectacular island. I shoot some videos of the rocky coastline before returning to the boat. I realize that, photographically, Steeple Jason is one of the richest settings I have ever seen. I could easily have used every lens I own, from 15mm fisheye to my longest telephoto. As the M/V Polar Star motors away from the island, black-browed albatrosses and giant petrels fly alongside. After sunset I stand on the deck and photograph them with a flash, making some interesting images. We are now on our way to South Georgia Island, a three day sail.

All of my photography from the trip is linked to the location where the images were taken. If you have Google Earth, you can see all of my photos from Steeple Jason overlaid at the exact location they were taken.

Next: En Route to South Georgia Island
Previous: Carcass Island, Falkland Islands
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset

Albatross, Falklands, Southern Ocean

One of the unexpected joys of the trip for me was the albatrosses. Before this trip, the only albatrosses I had seen were Waved Albatross in Galapagos (but only sitting on nests) and some distant albatrosses as we motored at sea to Guadalupe Island. Now that I have had a chance to really see them, soaring as they do over the open ocean, I love these birds. On this night we had just left the enormous rookery of black-browed albatross at Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands, on our way to South Georgia Island. While eating dinner I noticed out the dining room window how the sky was growing pink, and I could see albatrosses occasionally flying by the window. I rudely chugged my wine and gobbled the rest of my dinner, made some weak excuse to my dining companions that I would be right back, and quickly made my way to the stern with my camera setup. I stood out there in the fading light and fresh air making a set of what I think of as “painterly images” of albatrosses and petrels.

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea.  The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37" long with a 79-94" wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic, Thalassarche melanophrys

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea. The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37″ long with a 79-94″ wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic
Image ID: 23962
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

I used a Canon 1Ds Mark III camera with a 300 f/2.8 lens and 1.4x converter. The light was growing faint making it easy to match the available light of the waning dusk with the artificial light from the camera’s flash. It was about an hour after sunset, a time when the pastel colors in the sky become quite saturated. I popped a little flash on this beautiful seabird and dragged the shutter to give the shot some blur. I shot several hundred of these images and managed many keepers, each using the fading colors in the sky as a canvas ranging from pink to purple to yellow depending on which direction I pointed my camera.

Another one, about 20 minutes later, color is different since this was aimed higher and in a little different direction:

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea.  The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37" long with a 79-94" wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic, Thalassarche melanophrys

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea. The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37″ long with a 79-94″ wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic
Image ID: 23965
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

Next: Sunset Arch, Southern Ocean
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Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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