Antarctica: Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula
Like nowhere else on Earth
If you are looking for the most extensive trip lists of birds and animals in the Antarctic this is the trip for you. This offers the very best sites in Antarctica, and is a must for both world listers chasing endemic birds, as well as photographers looking for the greatest wildlife spectacles in the Antarctic region. A combination of the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula provides the ultimate mix of sites to create the best trip lists in the region for birds and also other Antarctic wildlife, as well as providing a spectacular photography tour. While the Falklands and South Georgia provide opportunities to chase endemic and specialty species like Falklands Steamerduck and South Georgia Pipit respectively, they offer much more than that and it is well established that they host some of the most impressive wildlife concentrations on the planet. Standing among hundreds of thousands of King Penguins on South Georgia and on the Falklands are experiences found almost nowhere else, and make these islands perennial favorites among birders, photographers and other wildlife enthusiasts.
Simply put, this tour offers the very best scenery and wildlife opportunities in the region, and is therefore appropriate for families, avid birders, and all levels of wildlife photographers.
A shorter, 11-day tour, covering only the Antarctic Peninsula is also available. If you would like to know more on this please contact the Tropical Birding office.
Please note that although our intention is to visit all of the areas listed below, the weather is extremely unpredictable in this region, and there may be situations where we are unable to land safely and visit all of the areas listed. This will be at the discretion of the experienced expedition leader who is skilled in operating in this region, and will always be accepted completely, as they understand best the risks of undertaking landings in various conditions.
Day 1: Arrival in Ushuaia.
PLEASE NOTE: Although the cruise does not start until the following afternoon, we recommend arriving this day to ensure even with any major delays you can still make it on board for this truly amazing cruise. Tropical Birding will arrange your hotel for this night, although meals are not included until we board the boat. On this day and the following morning there are no activities planned unless you are joining the pre-extension.
Ushuaia is the southernmost city on mainland South America and the self-proclaimed “End of the World”. It is also a great place to catch up o any last minute shopping for this fantastic Antarctic cruise as outdoor outlets and camera stores line the main street in Ushuaia. So you will not leave for this once in a lifetime experience unprepared. If you are a birder and cannot keep your binoculars restrained within your luggage there are also birding possibilities close to town. The coasts around Ushuaia host regular groups of Kelp and Upland Geese, and flocks of Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, in addition to Chilean Skuas and both Kelp and Dolphin Gulls. Ushuaia is also home to the local White-throated Caracara which can sometimes be found scavenging around the city. Just outside the city is Tierra del Fuego National Park that hosts South America’s largest woodpecker, the massive Magellanic, as well as White-throated Treerunners and Thorn-tailed Ryaditos, while the Martial Glacier that looms over the city is home to the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch.
Day 2: Departure from Ushuaia through the Beagle Channel.For those not on the pre-tour extension we will meet in the hotel lobby at 15.15 in order to transfer to our cruise ship for sailing down into Antarctica. After familiarizing ourselves with our comfortable home for the following 18 days we will set sail down the Beagle Channel. As we make our way slowly along this channel that runs into the vast Southern Oceans we will be on the lookout for Magellanic Penguins swimming off the bow, along with Rock Shags, Imperial Cormorants, Chilean Skuas, and there is sure to be abundance of South American Terns too.
Day 3: At Sea to the Falkland Islands.We will continue our journey towards the promise of the Falklands. There are always birding possibilites en route, as we traverse a rich area for pelagic birds that could include some of the “giants” of the Southern Ocean, like Wandering and Southern Royal Albatrosses, as well as Sooty and Great Shearwaters. If we experience calm seas we4 will also keep watch for cetaceans breaking the surface like Peale’s Dolphins or Sei Whales.
Days 4 – 5: Falkland Islands.
Although not true Antarctica, we will get our first taste of Antarctic birdlife as we experience some large penguin rookeries, although unlike down on the “White Continent” there is a profusion of other life on these islands too. The diversity on these subantarctic islands is impressive with more than sixty species having been recorded nesting in the archipelago. We will make landings in various areas to target not only the nesting seabirds and penguins but also target the special landbirds of the Falklands, which make for a markedly different experience from further south on this trip, where no landbirds occur.
The Falklands is home to a number of specialties and endemic taxa, with some 14 endemic tax known. Although only a few are currently recognized as species they are all of interest all the same in the dynamic, ever-changing world of taxonomy. Some of specialties we will focus our attentions on include Striated Caracara, Cobb’s Wren, Ruddy-headed Goose, and the unbelievably confiding Blackish Cinclodes that can even sometimes be observed walking across people’s shoes! Other landbirds in the island include Long-tailed Meadowlark, Correndera Pipit and Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant.
Falkland Steamerducks are also to be expected as they are fairly common on the islands. In addition to these specialties we will also see breeding Black-browed Albatrosses, visit colonies of Rockhopper Penguins at West Point and Magellanic Penguins at Carcass Island and enjoy views of many of the Southern Giant Petrels that breed on these rich subantarctic islands. Other attractive species that we will search for include the handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel and striking Two-banded Plover, in addition to a number of commoner species also easily found on Tierra del Fuego, including Magellanic Oystercatchers, Dolphin Gulls, and Chilean Skuas. In contrast to Antarctica at this time of year ice will not dominate the scenery but lush grass-covered hills and rocky cliffs that play host to the profusion of breeding seabirds, like petrels, albatrosses, and cormorants. Birds though will not be the only wildlife on offer with Peale’s and Commerson’s Dolphins possible offshore and South American Sea Lions are possible along the scenic coastlines. We also plan to make a landing in the capital of the islands, Stanley that is steeped in history and also has a fascinating museum.
Days 6 – 7: At Sea to South Georgia.Although two days at sea sounds daunting this can actually be some of the more fascinating days of the tour, as the regular seabirds in the area peak our interest, and we also have a shot at some interesting whales and dolphins and the chance of the odd rarity too. The mix of fauna on this crossing is not uniform either as the Antarctic Convergence” that is an invisible line that demarks the change from the warmer northern waters of the subantarctic to the cooler waters of the Antarctic. With this change comes a change in the birds present, and so we will see a distinct shift in species over the two days. Scanning for pelagic birds in the warmer waters should produce constantly attendant Black-browed Albatrosses around the ship, although the Gray-headed Albatrosses should only begin to appear as we approach the cooler waters further south. In addition to these mollymawks we have good chances to see some of the great albatrosses up close, as Wandering and Royal Albatrosses both feed in these rich Southern Oceans. Likewise, Slender-billed Prions are generally found in the warmer northern waters, and should be replaced by the cool water Antarctic Prions as we cruise south. Other birding possibilities include Black-bellied, Wilson’s and Gray-backed Storm-Petrels, and even the white-tipped Blue Petrel as we enter the cooler southern waters. Rarer species that have been recorded on this route include Great-winged, Kergeulen and Atlantic Petrels and will be vigilant for any rarities in the mix. Birds are not the only focus though as this can be a rich area for cetaceans too and from our comfortable position on the bridge we will survey the seas for Minke, and Fin Whales or even an Orca.
Days 8 – 10: South Georgia.South Georgia is the place where we expect to see one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet: the vast King Penguin colony of Salisbury Plain (weather-permitting), where some 200, 000 birds nest! The site of this massive colony is one of the most incredible experiences anywhere on Earth and will provide long-lasting memories and a bewildering array of photographic opportunities.
Sitting alongside these regal birds is likely to be Snowy Sheathbills and Brown Skuas, and Southern Giant Petrels always on the lookout for any feeding or scavenging opportunities that inevitably arise from a colony of this size. Relative to the Falklands South Georgia is depauperate for passerines, having just one breeding species, the endemic South Georgia Pipit. This is the southern most passerine on Earth and we will make a special effort to see this very special bird. Other specialties include the South Georgia Diving Petrel and South Georgia Shag both of which will also search for on this beautifully rugged island. The main attractions though will also be the seabird colonies, with four species of penguins nesting on Georgia, including millions of Macaroni Penguins and thousands of Chinstraps too. The Light-mantled Albatross also breeds on the island and we are sure to run into these beautiful albatrosses during our time there. For those with a historical bent we also have planned excursions to the grave of famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, and will also stop in at the old whaling station of Grytviken.
Days 11 – 13: At Sea via the South Orkneys. Weather-permitting we will visit the South Orkneys en route to the ice continent, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Whether we manage to land or not some exciting birding is on offer though with the “Angel of the Antarctic”, the delicate Snow Petrel, as well as the rare Antarctic Petrel possibilities alongside further chances at the prion-like Blue Petrel that we hope to pick out from the more numerous Antarctic Prions en route, along with more albatrosses. If weather allows we will stop of on Coronation Island for its large Adelie Penguin colony and graceful Snow Petrels.
Days 14 – 17: South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula.We will begin our Antarctic exploration in the South Shetland Islands, with a starkly contrasting environment to the Peninsula that we head to later. Icebergs forgotten, the beaches here are covered in blackish, volcanic sands, and flanked by red rock cliffs that provide vital nesting habitats for seabirds. The rock faces play host to Cape Petrels, Antarctic Shags, and Southern Giant Petrels of both the common dark morph and the strikingly different ivory-white morph too.
Visits to colonies will give us further chances of comical Chinstraps and playful Gentoos, and perhaps too a small number of Macaronis too that have a tiny population in the Shetlands. However, other wildlife might steal the show as monstrous Southern Elephant Seals loaf along the shore in “piles” and regularly react to each other in agitated fashion, bearing their substantial teeth, revealing their bright pink, saliva-covered gapes, and exhaling a stream of steamy breath. Ugly yes, but also one of the great sights in the Antarctic and one that should leave a lasting memory of these true giants of this polar region. In the South Shetlands a number of landings are planned and, weather-permitting, we may stop off at the islands of King George, Half Moon, Barrientos, Livingston, or Deception.
Arriving at the White Continent, in Paradise Harbor or Hope Bay, is an exhilarating and breathtaking experience, as it is the most pristine and gorgeous wilderness continent on Earth. We will arrive early at the bridge to take in the awe-inspiring sight of our first blue icebergs littering the chilly channels that traverse the coasts of the peninsula. Cameras are sure to be deployed regularly as we capture these amazing Antarctic scenes, that will be a daily feature and provide numerous landscape photographic opportunities.
We will use our Zodiacs to explore the host of waterways that hold the finest of Antarctica’s wildlife. The icebergs also provide resting places for the seals of the pack ice, notably Crabeater Seals, and the predatory Leopard Seal. The latter uses icebergs to survey the surrounding seas, keeping a watchful eye out for any passing, unsuspecting penguin. One of the great sights in Antarctica is seeing the thrill of a Leopard Seal on the hunt, and we will be watchful for this as we scan the channels and ice floes for any action from our Zodiacs. The beauty of using the powerful Zodiacs is they allow us to take a front row seat to the action, and offer up awesome photographic possibilities of all the action happening right around the boat. Our boat staff also keep in regular contact with each other. If another Zodiac hits a hot spot for wildlife activity, we will not miss out as radio communication will bring us into contact with the action shortly after.
We will make a number of landings and excursions on islands around the Peninsula, and also plan to step on continental Antarctica itself, including at the southernmost post office in the World in Port Lockroy that is surrounded by hundreds of Gentoo Penguins, and comical Snowy Sheathbills scurry around amongst them looking to scavenge and prey on anything they can. We will also visit a vast Chinstrap Penguin colony, and wander amongst these tuxedo-wearing birds and watch on as they regularly throw their heads back and call to each other in a comical shows that will be played out within just a few feet of us. Although there is a five meter rule in these parts in reality these curious penguins have not been informed of this and often break ranks wandering right up to us as we walk among them.
Our fourth penguin possibility will be the white-eyed Adelie Penguin, as a substantial colony exists on the Peninsula and will provide us with further close-ups of these odd sea-faring birds, while they come to land to breed, where they often seem out of place and ill at ease, although provides for a wonderful wildlife spectacle as they attend to their chicks and wander awkwardly across the ice. We will also see these penguins swimming near the colonies, a perilous time as Orcas and Leopard Seals cruise the waters looking for the weak among them. At these times the penguins then appear quite different and masterful in their true home, the cool seas off Antarctica, and we will revel in “pods” of Gentoos porpoising gracefully through the channels within reach of our boats, in stark contrast to their clumsy appearance on land. These landings will allow us to walk among the birds, and animals, and get incredible close ups likable to experience of the Galapagos, where fearless birds and seals sit beside us while we click away to our hearts content. Few trips offer as many photo opps. as Antarctica, and it is certain no matter what camera gear you bring on board you will walk away with a large number of memorable images. It is actually recommended for those with digital SLRs to bring several lenses to cope with the myriad subjects on offer from mid-blowing landscapes to spectacular wildlife activities played out by the boats and on land.
In addition to the penguin shows that will be a surefire highlight for all types of people on board, we will check the ice floes and bergs for other wildlife like a mottled Weddell Seal or a mob of Antarctic Minke Whales breaking the calm surfaces, or the huge fluke of a Humpback Whale breaking the skyline. The first hint of any of this and our Zodiacs will be deployed and head out in pursuit, as like almost nowhere else on Earth (except for the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador), the animals of Antarctica are extremely approachable and often at ease surfacing right beside the Zodiacs, or even passing right underneath for a truly exhilarating wildlife experience.
Of course though, the appeal of the staggeringly beautiful scenery too here should not be underestimated. More than anywhere else the wildlife can take a supporting role to the truly incredible landscapes that only the Antarctic can offer. Vast blue bergs litter the seas, huge snow-covered peaks flank the channels, making even wildlife-less moments unforgettable. No coffee-table book, brochure, or photo can truly prepare you for the amazing sights that await on the peninsula, where the scenery is of such spectacular beauty that it is worth the journey alone for this.
Everywhere on this tour the photo opportunities abound, and it will be with some regret that we have to leave this continent behind and head back north and to the substantially different reality of life north of the Drake Passage.
Days 18 – 19: Drake Passage. During these two days we will pass through some big wave seas as we pass through the “Furious Fifties” and the amazing seabird spectacle that accompanies it. These two days at sea could be quite different. Initially we will be in the cool waters south of the Antarctic convergence that marks the change from warmer northern waters into the cooler waters north of Antarctica, that will provide further chances at Gray-headed Albatrosses and Pintado (Cape) Petrels too be around in good numbers as will White-chinned and Soft-plumaged Petrels, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, and Antarctic Prions. We might also pick up a Light-mantled Albatross cruising these cooler waters. If the seas are calm we will also have a good shot at picking up our first cetaceans breaking the glassy surface, with Hourglass Dolphin, Sei and Fin Whales, and even Orcas all being possible. For those wishing to photograph seabirds these days provide a great opportunity as some of these mighty ocean wanderers will pass by at extremely close range, while the ship cruises gently past us.
Our second day will involve traversing through the warmer northern waters that will provide ample opportunities to catch up with the great oceanic “journeyman” like Southern Royal Albatross and the largest flying bird on Earth, the Wandering Albatross that boasts a wingspan of over 3.5m (more than 11 feet)! Along with these we should also find Black-browed Albatrosses, the most common species of albatross in these Southern Oceans, along with regular Sooty Shearwaters turning up in our wake, and maybe even Great Shearwaters as we round Cape Horn.
Day 20: Ushuaia and Departure.In the morning we will dock again in Ushuaia and connect you with your international flights home. For those departing on later flights we will provide storage facilities in town so you are again free to explore this city at the end of the world before returning to normality once more!
Tierra del Fuego Pre-Extension (5 days)
Day 1: Arrival in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a morning arrival in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on mainland South America, and dropping our bags in our nearby hotel we will head to the national park just outside the city. Beautiful scenery awaits with snow-capped mountains cloaked in rich Southern Beech forests, and dotted with glassy, montane lakes. Our main target here will be the massive Magellanic Woodpecker, the largest in all of South America, with males being up to 18 inches in length. These beech forests also hold the cute, nuthatch-impressionist, White-throated Treerunner and odd Thorn-tailed Ryadito too. We will also check the coasts and lake shores for Upland and Kelp Geese, Magellanic Oystercatcher, Flying Steamerduck, Imperial Cormorant, Rock Shag, Crested Duck, Red Shoveler, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes. A trip to a local dump might does not sound particularly interesting but can be surprisingly good for the local White-throated Caracara trying to scavenge all it can along with the far more common Chimango and Southern Caracaras, and maybe a few Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles too. These birds can be surprisingly photogenic as they wait patiently for tipping to begin.
Day 2: Northern Tierra del Fuego. We will start early and take a long drive up to the north of Tierra del Fuego island which will put us in range for a number of other bird species confined to the north of the island. En route we may see our first Guanacos (a powerfully built relative of the camel), and note Fire-eyed Diucons perched along the roadside fenceposts. Once up into the north of the “land of the fire” we will be on the lookout for the rare Ruddy-headed Goose hiding out amongst massive flocks of Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, and scour the grasslands and coastlines for a swathe of new birds, including the handsome Rufous-chested Dotterel and striking Two-banded Plover. On large saline lagoons we will also keep an eye out for pink shapes peppering the lakes, as Chilean Flamingoes occur on these Fuegian wetlands. Other possibilities include Least Seedsnipe, Short-billed Miner, and some distinctive ground-dwelling flycatchers like Chocolate-vented Tyrant and Cinnamon-belied Ground-Tyrant. We will overnight in the town of Rio Grande.
Day 3: Return to Ushuaia. After some further scouring of the coasts and lakes on the north of the island, we will return to Ushuaia for another two nights.
Day 4: Beagle Channel Cruise. Today we will take a relaxing boat trip out into the Beagle Channel, that runs eastwards out into the Drake Passage from Ushuaia. This pleasant cruise will give us our first chance at getting up close and cozy with penguins, notably Magellanic Penguins that we will not encounter on the Antarctic Peninsula. Walking among them will bring us not only wonderful views of these fearless black-and-white birds but also provide memorable photo subjects for those with lenses on board. We should also pick up our first oceanic birds like Black-browed Albatross, as this species tends to occur closer inshore than its larger, more pelagic, cousins that occur out in the Drake Passage, and we’ll also have a chance at picking up our first hyper-active Magellanic Diving-Petrels fluttering low over the water. Birds will not be our only focus though as a colony of South American Sea Lions along the channel should also peak our interest too. Although for most walking among penguins is likely to be the highlight and a precursor of what is to come on our Antarctic adventure.
Day 5: Martial Glacier and Start of our Cruise.(Please note: This day is also day 2 of the full tour itinerary listed above). In the morning we will take a chair lift up to the Martial Glacier that looms large above the city of Ushuaia. A walk around below this impressive glacier may yield the scarce Yellow-bridled Finch, as well as Dark-faced and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, and the recently split Buff-winged Cinclodes (from Bar-winged). The rare White-bellied Seedsnipe also occurs on the mountain, although we will need some extraordinary luck and patience in order to find it. In the afternoon we will return to Ushuaia to meet up with the rest of the group in our hotel, and board our vessel in Ushuaia Port for our impending Antarctic cruise.
CLIMATE: Freezing cold (around zero degrees Celsius) to mild, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Rain, snow, and sleet possible at any time. PLEASE NOTE THAT COLD WEATHER CLOTHING IS AVAILABLE FOR HIRE FOR USE ON BOARD, INCLUDING JACKETS, BOOTS, AND WATERPROOF PANTS/TROUSERS. PLEASE CONTACT THE TROPICAL BIRDING OFFICE BEFORE THE TOUR TO ARRANGE THIS.
DIFFICULTY: The cruise trip is not at all physically challenging. Most activities involve rides on zodiacs and easy walking. The ocean crossings can be rough, and seasickness for those prone to it is a real possibility. For the pre-extension there are a couple of optional hikes in the mountains (e.g. Martial Glacier), although most of this is accessible to all. On this day you can opt to stay around the base of the glacier and avoid the steeper walk.
ACCOMMODATION: Excellent on board facilities and also in Ushuaia.