Sunday, December 21, 2008

Because today was a sea day, we got a late wakeup. The boat was really moving around - we were in some sort of storm. Better now than in South Georgia, though. It was a lazy morning until 10am, when Christoph gave us a lecture on the birds of Antarctica. and South Atlantic Islands. This was helpful because many of the birds look very similar to the uninformed (such as us). There are 150 to 200 bird species in the area, and of these, 10 are vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Also, about 70% of these birds are seabirds.

He started with the penguins. As far as distinguishing between a King Penguin and an Emperor Penguin, the Emperor is a little bigger (although weighs twice as much), the distribution different, and the orange/yellow on the Kings is brighter, and more separated, than on the Emperor. The Gentoo Penguins have a white spot above their eye, with an orange beak and orange feet. The Chinstrap Penguin (which we expect to see a lot of) has a chinstrap - a black band on its throat. The Adelie Penguin has a white circle around the eye and a very short bill. Macaroni Penguins have a yellow unibrow, as opposed to two separate eyebrows like the Rockhopper Penguins. The Macaroni Penguin also has a pink patch just behind its bill. Also, the Rockhoppers have more of a mohawk or spiked hair than the Macaronis. Cristoph told us that the Magellanic Penguin can be distinguished from the Jackass Penguin because the Magellanic Penguin has multiple black stripes on the upper chest, not just one.

Then we discussed the Albatrosses. The Wandering Albatross and Royal Albatross are difficult to distinguish at sea, but on land the Royal Albatross has a black stripe on its beak, and the Wandering Albatross has a faint yellow behind the eye. The Black Browed Albatross is easier to spot, because the black goes all the way across from wing to wing. The Grey Headed Albatross is one of the easiest to distinguish, since it has a grey instead of white head. Additionally, it has a black and yellow bill instead of an orange bill. The Light-mantled Albatross is also easy to distinguish - the coloration is much different.

There are quite few petrels, of varying sizes and colors. Distinguishing between the Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, the distinction is at the end of the bill, where the Southern Giant has a greenish tip, and the Northern Giant has a pinkish tip. The Antarctic and Cape Petrels look similar, but the Cape Petrel has more spots on the back. The Snow Petrel is completely white, with a black bill, and breeds in South Georgia. The White-chinned petrel is almost all grey-black, with white bill and chin. The Sooty Shearwater looks similar to the White-chinned petrel, but does not have a white chin. The Soft-plummaged Petrel is a smaller birds, so more difficult to identify, but has a black ring between its chin and its chest. Distinguishing between the Antarctic Prion and Blue Petrel is difficult, but the Antarctic Prion has a black tail as opposed to a white tail. Also, the Antarctic Prion has a black stripe going across the eye. The difference between Wilson's Storm-petrel and the Black-bellied Storm-petrel is that the Black-bellied has a white underside (yes, that is ironic). There are some black dots on the belly of the Black-bellied Storm-petrel The Common Diving-petrel, Magellanic Diving-petrel, and South Georgian Diving-petrel are nearly identical, but they do have different areas they live in. Beak and nostril shape is pretty much the only distinguishing characteristic. These will actually fly through waves on the ocean, as opposed to drifting over the top.

Lastly we discussed some of the other more common birds in the area. The Dolphin Gull has bright red legs and a bright red beak - we had seen some in Ushuaia. The South Polar Skua is found farther south thatn the Chilean Skua, and is a little darker. The Southern Skua and Brown Skua are difficult to distinguish, but again their ranges are different, one being in the Falklands and one being on the Antarctic peninsula. The Antarctic Tern and the South American Tern are also distinguishable mainly by range. The Imperial Shag has a blue ring around the eye, and a yellow patch on top of the bill. The Rock Shag has orange markings around the eyes, and a small white patch a little behind the eyes.

We spent most of the morning and the afternoon just sitting around in the bar, working on the diary, chatting with the other travelers, reading books. In the afternoon, the expedition leaders brought out some Christmas decorations, and whomever was interested assisted in decorating the bar and the dining room. Later in the afternoon they announced there were some birds flying around the boat, and that we might want to go out on the deck and look. We did go outside, and the weather was actually quite pleasant, although there were giant waves behind us, fortunately pushing us along rather than impeding our progress.. We had slightly better luck getting flying bird photographs today than a few days ago, but still nothing really nice. We got shots of either a wandering or royal albatross (they look nearly identical from the underside), what we're pretty sure is a wandering albatross, what we definitely believe is a wandering albatross, and two more of that same bird.

Shortly after we came down off the deck, the sun went away, the wind really picked up, and we just hoped that this storm wouldn't delay us getting to South Georgia on time. At the afternoon briefing, Anja told us that she was hoping we would make it to South Georgia by the afternoon of the 23rd. Many people on the ship are quite antsy - we've been spending far more time at sea than on land, and really only 1 of the 2 days we've been on land have we been on an "expedition." The other day we were in a city that had a mine-field studded beach with penguins on it. Anyway, we ate dinner, and afterwards they showed parts 3 and 4 of Life In The Freezer. It was very good, and had a lot on South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula, but we could have done without some of the more graphic images of the food chain, even if it is a part of nature.

Ironically, despite the fact this was the longest day of the year (the second one we got this year), this was actually one of the shorter days we had on our cruise since the Falklands was the northernmost place we visited.