Saturday, March 3, 2012

Macquarie Island 2011

This report is from a trip I did in November 2011 but I want to add it now because it was such a wonderful, long-anticipated trip. The text is already on the Birding-Aus website but I have added here a few of the photos from the trip.

Back in 1968 I bought a book called “Macquarie Island” written by J. S. Cumpston and published by the Australian government’s Antarctic Division. From that day on I wanted to go to Macquarie Island. This year, 43 years later, I got there; and it was WONDERFUL.

The trip started, as all trips do with the planning, expectations and homework, this time lasting just on 12 months between when we booked until we got on the Heritage Expeditions ship, Spirit of Enderby, or as she is formally known to her Russian owners, the Professor Khromov.

In Dunedin Harbour

On 18th of November 5 of us gathered in Dunedin and the trip began. As all good trips should begin, the sun was out, the water was calm and the passengers wandered around getting to know the ship and each other. Prime birding spots such as way up in the bow, on the stern deck or on the top deck above the bridge were sussed out and assessed for birding potential.

Wedged in and holding on north of Macquarie Is

When we went to bed after the first afternoon the forecast was good and when we awoke we were at The Snares Islands. The Enderby’s crew had everything under control and the zodiac cruise was better than any description I had read. It was a magic day of penguins, sealions and sunshine.

In the zodiac at Snares Island

Leaving Snares and heading to Auckland and Enderby Islands the sun was out and the wind had picked up a bit so that the albatross, prions and petrels were all performing as they should, gliding smoothly across the wave tops and arcing high in the blue sky. Magic. On the Islands we enjoyed the long walk through the megaherbs and stunted trees whilst being beguiled by cormorants, albatross, snipe and parrots. Of course the sealions believe they own the island and charged us intruders, bellowing and flashing long yellow canines in bright red mouths as they came. All their bluster ended up as bluff but they were convincing enough to get the adrenaline flowing. To have half a ton or so of roaring blubber and angry red-mouthed teeth lurch at you, very fast, until they are only a metre or so from your leg is quite some experience.

Auckland Island Snipe
Mostly bluff but .....

On the trip to Campbell Island the wind continued to strengthen and our time on the island was enjoyed in misting rain, wind and low clouds. When we left that afternoon and cleared the cover of the island we saw that things were seriously different. The blue sky was gone and the strong winds had increased to gale strength. The portholes on the lower level had their steel covers lowered and bolted, the deck doors to the bow were locked closed and warnings came over the intercom to hang on and be careful as we moved around the ship.

When the storm hit

Sadly for the birding we were now largely confined to the bridge, though occasionally we could find a sheltered corner of the top deck where we could huddle. This need to try and see birds other than through the salt encrusted windows caused me my only moment of concern; Detlaf and I were just going on deck as the ship decided to do a major role. Detlaf was still in the open doorway and braced but I was just outside on the wet deck and, as the boat heeled, I grabbed his outstretched arm and a nearby rail while my feet slid down the deck toward the ocean. As the ship righted herself we both decided that the open deck was not the place to be. Back in the relative comfort of the bridge we were told that the wind was blowing to 50 knots gusting to 70 knots and the ship had heeled over 37ยบ!

First the bow

.... and then all over the bridge

Late in the evening after nearly three days at sea we arrived at Macquarie Island. Our first landing was at Sandy Bay where the Royal and King Penguin rookeries are. It was overcast and rainy but in the shelter of the island the sea was calm. On shore the magic is hard to put into words. The wildlife, and it is seriously wild, is totally unconcerned by human presence, in fact it seemed to count us as much of a curiosity as we found them a total enchantment. Picture standing on a black-sand beach getting the briefing and warnings: “Do not go within 5 metres of the wildlife and do not touch them HOWEVER if they come to you, be calm and respect their presence”. At this point a sea lion pup had ambled in and was standing, so to speak, in the middle of our group. While taking off my life jacket I became aware that a skua was pecking at the toe of my boot. As we walked down the beach Royal Penguins approached and pecked at our clothes and camera gear. To sit down was to invite the sea lion pups to waddle up and cuddle on ones legs. To lie down was to welcome them to climb right up and peer at your face with the biggest, deepest, heart-melting black eyes you have ever seen. By now the sun had come out and the view of 1,000s of penguins in their rookeries and on the beach was spellbinding.

Royal Penguin Colony

King Penguin Colony

Yes, the trip was as much as I hoped for. The only let down was a surprise to me, and others, that was there was no one on board from Heritage who had knowledge of or real interest in the seabirds. I have now re-looked at their promotional material and we were not on a "birding trip" it seems. Sigh! The possible upside in the end was that there were only about 10 manic birders on board (we named ourselves the Bridge Club) so we had plenty of room. It also meant that we worked hard to identify the birds rather than being "told" what they were. This, for me, resulted in learning heaps about IDing pelagic birds under difficult conditions. For this reason I am personally glad that there was no pelagic seabird guru on board though many members of the Bridge Club with less pelagic experience would definitely not agree with me. Oh, and two members of the Bridge Club were from Sweden and we learnt that in Swedish “bird watching” is, phonetically, “fogel skoerdning”. So that was it, all bird watching was abandoned as we embraced manic fogel skoerdning for the rest of the trip.

The Bridge Club during the storms

Sadly, with no on-board birding support we did not know to look for the nesting cliffs on Campbell Island so when we passed them at 0500 I was still in my cabin. I had done heaps of homework before we left so I think this was the only bad miss I had.

The weather during the trip was so terrible (exciting and fun for me) that about 40 of the 50 on board never left their cabins or the lounge, with some 4 or 5 sleeping in the lounge each night. The doctor was giving 3 people anti-nausea injections and a couple of people were wearing cut and bruised faces caused by falls. Dinner at sea each night was down to 20 +/- people. It would have been nice if the weather had moderated for the leg from Macquarie to Hobart so that the birding could have been better, but hey.

The birding highlight for me was having so long in Aus waters, about 140 nm coming into Macquarie when we arrived, 200 nm as we left and then 200 nm as we approached Tassie. The only bird I regret missing was Grey Petrel and only one was seen as we left Macquarie.

I also found out that none of the field guides show accurate pictures of the Broad-billed Prion. The bird has a much more pronounced dark brow than the books show as well as having a black “bridle” line from the base of the bill to behind the eye. They are quite unmistakable with their large black bill and overshot forehead. The best representation in a field guide that I could find is the one in Pizzey and Knight, and even that is just average.

Broad-billed Prion

We also watched Southern Royal Albatross sitting on the water and going through their bonding routine of “Sky-calling” while some 500 nm from their nearest breeding islands. I always thought that these birds that partner for life only met once a year near the breeding islands. I now think that they might also travel the southern oceans together in their monogamous, life-long pairing.

Southern Royal Albatross

My birds of the trip were the Broad-billed Prions that I saw in Aus waters, the rest of the Bridge Club selected either Light-mantled Sooty Albatross or Royal Penguin. Between Dunedin and Hobart I saw 72 species in total and 40 species within Australian territory.

And my trip is still going on as I sort through 3,400 or so photos, deciding which to keep and which to trash, sending emails, checking field guides, completing Atlas forms, dreaming of sea lion faces and just remembering.

Ah, what a trip. Magic. Fantastic. Enchanting. And all the other superlatives and adjectives that one can come up with. I was not disappointed after the 34 year wait, but I now need to go back in five or six years to see what the poor denuded hills look like now the rabbits are gone.

Antarctic Prion
Northern Giant Petrel
Antarctic Tern
Campbell Island Teal
Professor Khromov at Campbell Island
They love to cuddle when they are small .....
and to fight when they are big
Gentoo Penguin
King and Royal Penguins
Juvenile King Penguin
when you topple forward the beak hits first
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Macquarie Island Shag
eyes you can fall right into
Mega herb
Mega herb
Mega herb
New Zealand Fur Seal on Snares Island
Red-crowned Parakeet
Rockhopper Penguin
Royal Penguin on egg
Royal portrait
Sea-lions gruff
it is not wise to sit to close to the water
Dinner time
Shy Albatross cauta
Wandering Albatross