Sunday, January 22, 2012

Part 3 Sub-Antarctic Islands – Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island has world heritage listing and is managed by Tasmanian National Parks. At 34km long it is a mere speck in the ocean, yet it is home to abundant wildlife and unique flora. While we were there the rabbit eradication program was at the stage where baiting had been completed and the hunters were trying to track down the final few rabbits.

Day 7  At sea

Elephant Seal
Day 8  It was a partly cloudy day with calm seas so we were confident that the two landings planned for the day would be possible.  In the morning we landed at the station which is situated on the isthmus near the northern end of the island. On landing we were greeted by a number of Tasmanian National Parks rangers and split into small tour groups. Our group first headed towards the boardwalk and lookout at the southern end of the isthmus. After navigating our way through some lounging elephant seals we stopped briefly to photograph a crèche of young Gentoo Penguins. The ranger made sure we kept our distance as this species of penguin was comparatively shy, so a few group photos were all that could be managed.  Thankfully Elephant Seals are generally passive in regards to humans as we literally had to step around some 4 ton giants to get to the lookout.  From the top the views of the western shores of the isthmus and the station were wonderful. What made it even better was fly pasts performed by Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel and Brown Skuas.  We then headed towards the station itself, stopping to examine some relics from past sealing and penguin harvesting days.
Gentoo Penguin
Very near the road a single adult Gentoo along with its chick were spotted. Even though they we were probably too close In terms of their comfort it was too tempting not to take a couple of images as we were ushered past.  It was ironic that this species chose the area around station to breed given their shy nature.  At this stage some of our group chose to take the opportunity to send some post cards while others waited around for a weather balloon to be launched.  I didn’t come all this way to get caught up in human activities, so with the ranger’s permission headed towards the beach and the wildlife.  This was what it was all about, photographing penguins and seals as they behaved naturally.  It wasn’t long before a couple of skuas fighting over a seal carcass drew my attention.  Their aggressive behaviour and bad habits making for plenty of action shots. Just off the coast on a rocky outcrop several Antarctic terns were flying about and making a lot of noise. Unfortunately as with all good things time ran out and we were ferried back to the boat for lunch. 
King Penguins
During lunch we sailed south and anchored off Sandy bay in preparation for our afternoon landing.  Thankfully the weather had not changed from the morning. We came ashore to be greeted by a cacophony of sound and the now familiar smells.  This was wildlife photography heaven, where to start? Unlike the station area we were free to roam a large stretch of the beach. I was almost in a panic, I knew time was short and yet there was just so much here. With my senses overpowered, I first headed towards a rocky outcrop, where a number of white morph Northern Giant Petrels were roosting. Before I’d made much progress I had to drop to my knees to photograph the “three amigos” as they strolled nonchalantly down the beach towards me. Having being welcomed formally by the Kings I set about getting the Petrel images.
King Penguin
A small colony of King Penguins was situated on the northern end so I made my way in that direction. As I passed a large number of Elephant seal wieners I was assaulted by a barrage of farting and belching. As they huddled together in a great mass, they looked every bit like “orca sausages.” These poor unsuspecting animals will be confronted by pods of Orcas who will devour them, as we would devour a succulent sausage.
The rangers had rolled out a thick rope at the edge of the Penguin colony to act as a boundary beyond which we could not pass. Thankfully penguins don’t give toss for such things and after a close inspection stepped over the rope if it suited them.  I sat down near the rope to observe the action as it unfolded in the colony. It was probably only a couple of minutes before I was joined by a couple of brown fuzz balls. These young birds had no fear and were happily inspecting my boots and the end of the lens. Their apparent bulk makes them look like they will topple over at the slightest touch, however they are remarkably stable. After spending a very enjoyable time with the kings I headed south down the beach towards the Royal Penguin (Macaroni) colony. 
King Penguin Parade

Roughly in the middle of the beach there is an area that the Royals favour as a landing spot as it affords them easy access to a gully and their colony. We were advised not to linger in this area as it would disturb the penguins. It also happened to be an area of great activity as the birds landed and made their way inland. Like others I settled on the edge of this alleyway and took the opportunity to capture images of the penguins’ antics.

Royal Penguin
Royals are real characters, not as curious as Kings, but very entertaining in the way they interact. There was also a very noticeable difference in appearance with some looking aloof, while others looked like little punks with their yellow crest feathers spiking upwards. A little further along the beach a boardwalk led up the hill to a lookout overlooking the Royal Penguin colony. It was an amazing sight with thousands of birds sitting on eggs in what appeared to be a formal pattern. In fact this pattern was a result of the need for each bird to have its own space, so effectively birds remains just slightly out of pecking range. Chaos erupted whenever a penguin returning from the sea needed to make its way back to its nesting site.  No quarter or mercy is given as they run the gauntlet. If a penguin was to get too carried away and move too far from its egg, an ever vigilant skua would swoop like a precision bomber and grab the egg. The number of broken eggs littering the boardwalk edges was testimony to the success of the skuas.
The Royal Penguin Beach Alleyway that leads to their Colony

It was yet again time to head back to the zodiacs and the ship.  I’m not sure whether it was three or four hours that we spent at Sandy Bay, but whatever, it went too quickly. We arranged a quick zodiac cruise down the coast with Nigel Brothers, one of our naturalists who probably knows more about Macquarie than any other living person. It was well worth the discomfort from what had now turned to a bleak and cold afternoon. Soon he had us up close to Emperor shags and a couple of Rockhopper Penguin colonies as we searched the coastline for roosting Antarctic Terns. We missed out with the terns, however, to finish the excursion we cruised along in front of the King Penguin colony where we were able to get views of the birds as they entered and left the water. This also turned out be a great spot for getting up close to the Giant Petrels, as they, like many birds, are much more approachable from the water. During the night we sailed south to Lusitania Bay, the site of a huge King Penguin colony.

Royal Penguin Colony
Day 9  It was cloudy and windy when we woke and it soon became apparent that the planned zodiac cruise to view the penguin colony would not be possible. We satisfied ourselves with distant views before heading north towards Hobart.

Rockhopper Penguin

Days 10 to 12 at sea . These were hardly wasted days as there were very enjoyable and informative lectures from the naturalists, expedition leader and the head of the Rabbit Eradication Program on Macquarie.  As we departed Macquarie we headed into 8 to 10 metre seas, it was going to be a bumpy ride to Hobart.

Day 13  Arrived Hobart mid afternoon .

I suppose the question here is: would I go again? Yes without a doubt, though I think next time I would like to see more of the islands such as Bounty, Antipodes etc. There are some significant risks in going on a cruise such as this. You are so much at the mercy of the weather. It’s not the rain, but rather the wind and sea conditions that will govern whether you can land a zodiac. There is a good chance that you could end up at Macquarie and spend all the time sitting in your cabin. You also need to consider how you will handle the conditions. In these latitudes you will strike bad weather. Whether you get sea sick or not will have a lot to do with how much you can get out of a cruise like this. The positive thing here is that once you hit calm water and you will in the sheltered harbours, or when on land you will quickly recover.  Some people who did get sick at the start improved with time, however a few got sick as soon as it got rough again. The staff will also influence the overall experience. Overall we had wonderful staff that were experienced, helpful and approachable. The biggest problem and also the highlight, was the time spent at the Sandy Bay penguin colonies. It is an experience you will never forget, but it is too short. I could have spent a month on this beach and it wouldn’t have been enough. Lastly you will be amongst passengers with a similar passion for nature; you will make friends and have great company.
We were so lucky with the weather on this trip. To my knowledge we missed no planned landings and only two planned zodiac cruises. We had reasonable weather at some stage on every island we visited except Snares and the wind did not blow on our landing day at Macquarie.

Macquarie Island (King) Shag

We travelled with Aurora Expeditions.

Birds Photographed:
Southern Royal Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Salvin’s Albatross, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Campbell Island Albatross, Wandering Albatross, Yellow-eyed Penguin, Snares Island Penguin, Rockhopper Penguin, Gentoo Penguin, Royal Penguin, King Penguin, Northern Giant Petrel, Southern Giant Petrel, Diving Petrel,  Cape Petrel, White-chinned Petrels, New Zealand Pipit, Tomtit, Tui, Red-crowned Parakeet, Steward Island Shag, Auckland Island Shag, Emperor Shag, Brown Skua. Auckland Island Teal, Red-billed Gull, Antarctic Tern, Kelp Gull, Short-tailed Shearwater and Australasian Gannet.  Birds see but not photographed included; Grey-headed Albatross and White-headed Petrel. I’ve obviously I have not included any of the introduced species seen.
There was no use of chumming/oiling/burley to attract birds, which I think would have greatly improved the opportunity for photography.
I will put more images in the trip report I post on my web site.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

NZ & Australian Sub-Antarctic Island - Part 2 Campbell Island

Looking towards Perseverance Harbour

Campbell Island (11,268ha) is the eroded remnants of a shield volcano and is the southern-most of the NZ Sub-Antarctic Islands.  On Campbell it rains on average 325 days a year, so we were very lucky to have sunshine for extended periods on the two days we were there.  Six albatross species breed here; only Crozet’s Island has more.  Though these species as well as a large number of other sea birds breed on the Island, I only managed decent images of three species of albatross.  To see more you would need to spend longer, or have access to more of the island. After decades of work, it is largely free of feral animals, having become the largest island in the world on which rats have been eradicated.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Day 5. The journey south to Campbell Island was relatively smooth compared to some of our previous days. We arrived in Perseverance Harbour early in the morning. After lunch we landed at the base of the Meteorological station and with light rain falling commenced the 4 km boardwalk to Col Lyell. On the way we got our see more nesting Southern Royal Albatross up close. This walk also gave us an opportunity to see the mega herbs and ground hugging plants at close range in an area not affected by any recent grazing. At the lookout at the end of the walk there were fantastic views over the coast. Admiring the view could only be a short term thing as the cold wind was so fierce that it literally took your breath away. On returning to the landing area we were entertained by another pair of Auckland Island Teal. This was remarkable given that this was the third pair I’d seen so far of this extremely rare bird.

North-west Bay
Looking Along the West Coast
Day 6 A mainly sunny day just when we needed it. Today about ten of us completed a full day’s walk to North-West Bay and then returning on a northern route that skirted the mountains. The first part of the walk was rather challenging as it was very boggy and steep in places. But once we made it to the top of the saddle this was soon forgotten as the views to the North west cape were spectacular. Then as if on cue a pair of Light-mantled albatross appeared to perform their synchronised courtship flight display in the sky right in front of us.

Sea Elephant wiener, or otherwise known as an “Orca sausage” 
The next part of the walk took us along the edge of   the limestone cliffs before dropping down to Capstan Beach. Here we immediately came face to face with the local wildlife. There to meet us unfortunately was a delinquent Sea lion which spent the next 30 minutes harassing us. It chased us about 100 metres around the coast, only stopping when we stopped paying it any attention. This beach was a hotspot for wildlife with Sea Elephant, Sea Lions and a single sick looking Sea Leopard present. The birds seen were a cheeky NZ Pipit, a Yellow-eyed Penguin (Sonja spotted it), Light-mantled Albatross, Red-billed Gull and Brown Skua.

Synchronised Sooties
After having lunch and taking our photographs it was a hard slog through the scrub up the hill. I must admit I just about jumped out of my skin when suddenly a sea lion lurched at me from the undergrowth. Thankfully no one saw my panicked evasion. The amazing thing about these sea lions is they will go kilometres inland and high into the hills for seclusion.  Thankfully the return trip to Perseverance Harbour though physically demanding held no more nasty surprises.

Not long after we’d reboarded our boat we weighed anchor and headed for Macquarie Island. Next instalment  Macquarie Island.

New Zealand Pipit

Thursday, January 5, 2012

NZ & Australian Sub-Antarctic Island - Part 1

Snares and Auckland Islands

The Western Chain

My wife and I were privileged to recently complete a 13 day cruise of the New Zealand and Australian Sub-Antarctic Islands including the Snares, Auckland, Campbell and Macquarie Islands. We were joined by about 50 other passengers including fellow Feathers and Photos member Sonja.  This is the first of a three part trip report.

Auckland Island Teal
Day1 Depart Bluff, NZ. late afternoon.  As we headed south we were soon in the company of Sooty shearwaters, Diving Petrels and the first of the Albatross, Salvin’s and White-capped.

Day 2 Overnight we sailed to the Snares Islands. Unfortunately due to the rough seas, the planned zodiac cruise around the islands was cancelled, so instead we cruised on a route that took us as close as possible to the western chain of islands. It had been hoped to see some of the 1.5 million Sooty Shearwaters take off early in the morning however, like us, most of them stayed away. There were some hardy birds about and I was fortunate enough to grab a few images of a group of Snares Island penguins as they porpoised near the ship. For the rest of the day we continued south into rough seas and 45 knot winds. The only sensible thing to do was wedge yourself in your bed to prevent serious physical injury.  Meal times turned out to be a good gauge of how the rough the seas were with the numbers attending dropping significantly when the seas were up.  Actually sitting down for a meal was a real challenge at times with balance, reflexes and timing all required to avoid ending up in a messy heap.
Yellow-eyed Penguin

Day 3 After a day and night of rough seas it was a relief to find shelter at Enderby Island (Auckland Islands). In the calm water breakfast was a chance for those affected by sea sickness to resurface. Even with most taking the advice and staying in bed there were some bruised and battered passengers about.
As with all the New Zealand and Australian Sub-Antarctic Islands, access is limited to less than 1000 visitors a year and then only under strict permit conditions. You are accompanied by a park ranger who ensures you adhere to the permit conditions. We had great Australian and NZ rangers who went out of their way to ensure our visits were rewarding.
There was a bit of surf at our landing site so I was pleased when the staff made the sacrifice and jumped into the water to ensure we had a dry landing. From a distance we could see a welcoming group of New Zealand sea lions. It only took some fancy footwork and the use of a few unknowing human shields to avoid these frisky sea lions.  Almost immediately someone spotted a pair of Auckland Island teal a few metres away.  Too good to be true, I almost fell into the water in an effort to get lower and unobstructed views.  Water in my gumboots for the rest of the landing would be a good reminder to take more care. After a quick demo from one of the staff naturalists on how to avoid being a sea lion kissing buddy it was off to explore the island.  I was just about to set off when I noticed a Yellow-eyed Penguin emerging from the surf on the beach below. The poor thing got stage fright and retreated slowly , constantly looking back over its shoulder.  I’m glad I had the 500mm handy as this was the only decent view of a Yellow-eyed on the trip. The walk up to West Cape was on a board walk which made for an easy stroll.

Young Southern Royal Albatross Practising Courtship Display
On the way we were entertained by a friendly Tomtit, numerous Pipits and good numbers of Royal Albatross.  Some of the young albatross were in small groups practicing their courtship displays. At the end of the boardwalk,  along the cliff edge, a roosting Auckland Island Shag was spotted.  Some people also managed some images of a Banded Dotterel, however it was gone before I got a look. On the way back down to the shore I took the time to study and photograph the tundra like herb field. The yellow flowering Bulbinella was spectacular, as was the Macquarie Island cabbage. However for me it was the lichens and mosses that covered the rata trees and rocks that stole the show at Enderby.

Mega Herbs
While waiting on shore for our departure we were briefly entertained when one of the adolescent male Sea Lions decided to confront a female passenger. She did everything by the book, however it kept advancing menacingly. She finally managed to extract herself by using her tripod as a prod. When she rejoined us she demanded to know why we had not come to her rescue. To which someone replied “if it was good enough for your husband to stop and photograph you, it was good enough for the rest of us”.  It was more the case that no one was close enough to help.

NZ Sea Lions
Day 4 Having sailed south during the night we woke in the calm waters of Carnley Harbour at the south end of Auckland Island.  The weather didn’t look too bad, so into the zodiacs for a cruise along Adams Island , which is adjacent to Auckland Island.  The unspoilt vegetation right down to the rocky shore looked superb, from which a surprising amount of bird song could be heard. After a short time a pair of Red-crowned parakeets kindly popped onto a low branch for good views.  A little further on an immature Auckland Island shag posed for photos and then a single Auckland Island Teal. 
Enough of this sedate stuff, into the breach we went with a bumpy ride through Victoria Passage to view the magnificent basalt cliffs that are home to thousands of White-capped Albatross and a smaller number of Light-mantled Albatross. I’ve seen scenes like this before, but they’ve been in places in the northern hemisphere, truly mind blowing stuff. The light wasn’t the best for photography, so I just sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.

White-capped and Light Mantled Sooty Albatross Colony
After lunch we had another zodiac trip and this time a landing on Auckland Island at Camp Cove.  A very interesting spot as it is the location of a castaways hut which was built to provide shelter for ship wreck survivors, back in the sealing days.  Not much to report bird wise from this location, just another Tomtit and a much photographed Tui.  The highlight was on the way back to the ship when two very obliging Light-mantled Sooty Albatross allowed a close approach as they sat on the water.  A bit of a bugger as I’d packed my gear away due to the constant drizzle. Not to worry, Light-mantled Albatross are featured in part 2.

Next instalment Campell Island