14 Apr 2018

14 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Sixteen: At Sea From Tristan Da Cunha To St Helena

Today was the first of four full days at sea between Tristan da Cunha & St Helena. It was an ominous start to the day looking at the weather. Fortunately, the weather picked up during the day.
Early morning view from the Plancius
We were now at the start of the warmer tropical waters. At dawn, the sea temperature was 22 degrees which compared with 20 degrees at Tristan da Cunha, 16 degrees at Gough Island, 12 degrees for the two days before Gough Island and a mere 3 degrees around South Georgia & for the first two days after leaving South Georgia. The warmer waters & being back in deep ocean meant we were destined to see low numbers of Seabirds during the day. My personal counts were a single Yellow-nosed Albatross, 2 Sooty Albatrosses, 8+ Great-winged Petrels, 15+ Soft-plumaged Petrels, 15+ Spectacled Petrels & a lone Storm-petrel sp. It was the last day I was to see most of these species with only a couple of Great-winged Petrels & Spectacled Petrels lasting for a final day.
Soft-plumaged Petrel: The last day I was to see any of these great Pterodromas
Spectacled Petrel: I only saw two more on the following day
As well as the last of the cold Southern ocean Seabirds, we saw the first Cory's Shearwater cross the bows in the late afternoon. It was the only one we saw until we left St Helena & started heading for Ascension Island, so was well away from the main Cory's Shearwater waters.
Cory's Sheawater: The extend of black in the wing tip makes this a Cory's Shearwater. There is a lot less white in the outer primaries of Scopoli's Shearwaters. I will come back to the separation of these two subspecies later in one of the future Odyssey Posts
Although we didn't see any Cetaceans during the day, we did manage to see a Blue Shark, as well as, another Shark sp.
Blue Shark: It was probably only 20 metres off the side of the Plancius
Blue Shark: I saw a few Sharks during the trip, but few could be identified. Generally, all I saw was a dorsal or tail fin breaking the surface & on several occasions these were also at some distance in front of the Plancius & they had disappeared underwater before we got closer. However, we did manage to identify some of the Sharks seen & I'll come back to them in a later Post

13 Apr 2018

13 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Sixteen: Blue Whale

It had been a mixed day so far. First there was the disappointment with not being able to get a landing or even a zodiac cruise around Nightingale Island & Inaccessible Island: the two offshore islands of the Tristan da Cunha group. This was followed by some good Seabirds as we left Tristan da Cunha including the chance to get some photos of White-bellied Storm-petrels. Later that afternoon we had a magical, prolonged encounter with a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins in excellent light. The afternoon quietened down & many people disappeared down to the observation lounge towards the late afternoon. I suspect there had been an announcement of a late afternoon happy hour drinks. There were only a few of us were left on the bridge wing, when 20 minutes before last reasonable light, Josh Beck picked up a close diving Whale. It appeared very soon after & this time, Hans who was one of the Expedition team got onto it & immediately identified it as an 95% Blue Whale. Again it dived before I got onto it. The pressure had now increased as seeing a Blue Whale was one of my top targets for the Odyssey. Hans dived into the bridge & asked for the Plancius to be stopped. Fortunately, it reappeared & this time I got onto it. It was close & very big. Hans had also seen it again & happy it was a Blue Whale, he put out an announcement on the Plancius's tannoy: which resulted on people pouring out onto all decks.
Blue Whale: A blurry photo after my initial view. They have a small dorsal fin, especially considering how big they are
Although it was one of my top targets for the Odyssey, I knew that the chances of seeing a Blue Whale were not very high. In the reports I had seen they had only been seen in three out of seven years. What I had forgotten was in two of those years they were seen around South Georgia & in the third it was somewhere on the journey from South Georgia to Tristan da Cunha. So we had already passed through the best waters. There had already been a brief sighting on the 7 April about halfway between South Georgia & Tristan da Cunha, but I hadn't see that. So we were really lucky to have encountered this individual. Especially as it was further North than on the previous successful Odyssey trips. It was later identified as an immature Blue Whale of the Antarctic population (B. musculus intermedia). It seemed quite curious about us & perhaps that's why it hung around the Plancius for the last fifteen minutes of light. It is a pity we hadn't seen it earlier in the afternoon when the light was better, but nobody was complaining.
Blue Whale underwater: It's not easy to see on this photo, but there is a paler turquoise colour to the sea across the middle (horizontal) part of this photo: this is the Blue Whale. It was clearer to see in real life, than this photo suggests. This colouration allowed us to watch its movements underwater when it went into a shallow dive. I was confused as when the Blue Whale surfaced, it looked medium grey, but underwater it appeared to be this pale turquoise colour. I was later told that was down to us being able to see the real colour of the first few meters of sea, without any of the darkness of the deeper sea coming through & so we were actually seeing the sea above it, rather than the Blue Whale
The next time it surfaced was very close to the Plancius. I quickly pulled the 100-400mm in so I would have more chance of fitting it into the picture. Looking at the photos as I write this Post, I was using an 135mm lens & the exposed parts of the Blue Whale didn't fit into the photo, even allowing for only about half of its body was on view above the water. That's the combination of the largest animal every known to science & how close it was.
Blue Whale: This photo shows the large head, the protective ridge either side of the blow hole & part of the long back
Blue Whale: Starting a gentle blow
Blue Whale: Clearly a gentle blow as a strong blow can form a column up to 12 metres high
Blue Whale: This gentle blow quickly disperses. To me, this shows how difficult it is to try identifying Whales on their blow alone, as I don't this wouldn't have been possible to identify as a Blue Whale at a distance on this blow
Blue Whale: The blow was quickly over
Blue Whale: As its head dipped below the surface, we were able to see more of the back. There were a lot of blotchy diatom markings on it caused by algae blooms on the skin (similar to the diatoms markings we saw on the Strap-toothed Beaked Whale). Blue Whales are the only large Whale that shows these diatoms
Blue Whale: The back is so long that we didn't see the dorsal fin before it dived
Blue Whale: A better view of the central back & the dorsal fin
It surfaced on several more occasions, The light was poor & getting worse by the minute and consequently, the photos were not as good as earlier in the encounter. This Blue Whale certainly helped to make up for the disappointments with the lack of landings or zodiac cruises at Nightingale & Inaccessible Islands.

13 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Sixteen: Short-beaked Common Dolphin

On the afternoon we left Tristan da Cunha and started sailing toward St Helena, we had our first memorial Dolphin encounter of the Odyssey. Up to that point, the Dolphin sightings had been disappointing. I had seen Hourglass Dolphins from the Plancius on a couple of occasions, but they had both been very brief sightings. But this afternoon we had a pod of at least ten Short-beaked Common Dolphins which joined the Plancius for an extended period of bow-waving. I had expected we would see Short-beaked Common Dolphins on a number of occasions on the Odyssey, given they are a relatively widespread Dolphin. However, checking their distribution shows that they do not occur in the Tropical central Atlantic, although they do occur along the full length of the African coast. Additionally, they occur in the Southern Atlantic about as far North as Tristan da Cunha & in the North Atlantic as far South as the Cape Verde Islands. This was the only sighting we had on the Plancius during the Odyssey voyage. However, we did get a number of additional sightings on the follow on West African Pelagic. This pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins were just magical & the light was excellent, so sit back & enjoy the photos.
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin:Short-beaked Common Dolphins have this very distinctive pattern with the dark V below the dorsal fin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: A very clean entry back into the sea
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: Close up of the beak of the previous individual
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
The taxonomy of Common Dolphins has changed over the years & a few years ago, Common Dolphins were split into Short-beaked Common Dolphin & Long-beaked Common Dolphin. Marijke said that the very latest understanding seems to be these are just subspecies of Common Dolphin within most of their range. However, some of the Pacific populations are still being investigated as to whether these should be split from Common Dolphin. I'm going to stick with the taxonomy of the Marine mammals of the World Second Edition which splits them. I've spent a fair bit of time in the last few days reviewing my Common Dolphin sightings & do not believe I have seen any Long-beaked Common Dolphins.

13 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Sixteen: The Curse Of Friday 13th

I was up earlier than normal today as the plan was to land on Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha group. This is an amazing island & one that I was really looking forward to visiting. It is uninhabited, but it contains a number of huts which are owned by Tristan da Cunha families as they regard Nightingale Island as their holiday island. It is really a fantastic place for Birding as the island is full of nesting Seabirds including 2 million pairs of Great Sheatwaters & Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. However, the other interest was the chance to look for the island's Passerines: Tristan Thrush, Nightingale Finch & Wilkins's Finch. The two Finches look similar in colouration to the Gough Bunting i.e. a pale yellow-olive Finch. However, whilst Nightingale Finch has retained a relatively normal bill, the Wilkins's Finch has developed a very heavy bill. I guess they could be considered the Tristan da Cunha equivalent of the Darwin Finches of the Galapagos.
Nightingale Island: Large waves were breaking against this rugged island. The island is about a 1.5 miles by 1 mile
The plan the evening before was that there would be a landing & the chance for the fitter people to walk up to the higher elevations of the island to look for Wilkins's Finch. It should be possible to see the Nightingale Finch & Tristan Thrush (which is noticeably darker than the subspecies on Tristan da Cunha) at lower elevations. It wasn't expected to be an easy walk as initially there is a steep muddy path up from the beach (with a rope to hang onto to help the ascent), followed by a walk through head high grass along a path that probably hadn't been walked this year. The Petrels group were planned to be first to land & we had requested that the first zodiacs would contain those Birders who were wanting to get up to the higher parts of the island. I went to bed with high hopes for the morning on Nightingale Island & ready to be on the first zodiac.
Nightingale Island: A zodiac was launched to see if it was possible to get in the zodiacs
Sadly, it all came to nothing. As the Plancius approached the island, it was clear that the swell was too bad to be able to get the zodiacs into the water & land at one of the two safe landing sites on the island. We were told we would have to make do with a circular cruise around Nightingale Island from the Plancius. I was deeply disappointed as had heard great stories from other Birders who had been lucky to land on Nightingale Island. However, when I was reading trip reports from previous Odyssey trips, it was clear that the weather in the South Atlantic was likely to stop landings or zodiac cruises on at least one day around South Georgia, Gough Island & the Tristan da Cunha islands. So far, we had been successful with all planned landings or zodiac cruises & therefore, the odds were against us for this final landing in the Tristan da Cunha islands. Being Friday 13th didn't help for those who were superstitious.
Scanning from the top deck
It was a case of trying to find a good viewpoint & scanning the island from the Plancius. By now I was starting to regard the bridge wings as my daytime home, But I had to consider also finding a position where I wasn't too far from a mate with a scope & tripod. Realistically, we were too far to use the bins to try picking out the Passerines onshore. There were various individuals who were getting brief views of a larger (Tristan Thrush) or smaller (Nightingale Finch) Passerine along the rocks or around the huts. I did get the chance to borrow a scope for a few minutes, but I failed to get onto any Passerines.
Inaccessible Island: It lived up to its name today. This is the only breeding island for Spectacled Petrels and it also hosts another 2 million pairs of Great Shearwaters
After the zodiac cruise around Nightingale Island we carried on to circumnavigate Inaccessible Island. It was clear that it would live up to its name today & that we would not get the chance to get the zodiacs into the water here either. Landings on Inaccessible Island are very rare & zodiac cruises are not common here either. In addition to the different subspecies of the three Passerines found on Nightingale Island, there is also the small flightless Inaccessible Rail on the island. Despite a lot of scanning from the Plancius, there was nothing seen apart from the occasional brief glimpses of a Tristan Thrush (which I didn't get to see).
Inaccessible Island
Having circumnavigated Inaccessible Island, we headed back to Tristan da Cunha, to drop the islanders who had been our guides. It was disappointing, but all zodiac landings & cruises are down to the state of the weather & it was clearly not feasible today: c'est la vie. We quickly dropped the islanders, loaded some fresh lobsters (for the non vegies), some potatoes (for me) & extra beer. Then it was time to start heading North West as we had another 4.5 days of sailing until we reached our next island of St Helena. We still had an afternoon of Birding so after lunch we were back on deck for some seawatching. There was a good selection of the same Albatrosses, Shearwaters & Petrels we had been seeing on the previous few days. However, the most interesting Birds were seeing reasonable numbers of White-bellied Storm-petrels. We had seen Storm-petrels with white-bellies when we were around Gough Island and approaching Tristan da Cunha, however, these had been the 'White-bellied' subspecies of Black-bellied Storm-petrel. Finally, we had some White-bellied Storm-petrels for comparison.
White-bellied Storm-petrel: The leucogaster subspecies breeds on the Tristan da Cunha Islands and perhaps Gough Island. White-bellied Storm-petrels have shorter legs that do not significantly extend beyond the tail. They also have a concave black undertail coverts pattern so the white belly is also curved
White-bellied Storm-petrel: Another view of the same individual confirming the short legs
White-bellied Storm-petrel: A closer crop of the same individual showing the shorter hood of White-bellied Storm-petrels & the shape of the white belly & black undertail coverts
White-bellied Storm-petrel: A second individual with short legs, the narrower hood & the vent/undertail pattern
White-bellied Storm-petrel: Another view of the second individual. They have a narrower rump patch with dark spotting to the longest uppertail coverts: unfortunately, I didn't manage to get a good photo of the rump
White-bellied Storm-petrel: A final individual
White-bellied Storm-petrel: Another view of the final individual
White-bellied Storm-petrel: The last photo of the final individual
A few days earlier we were lucky to have an excellent talk from fellow passenger, Bob Flood, on the identification of White-bellied Storm-petrels & 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrels in the Atlantic: which made this difficult subject seem more straight-forward. One potential feature that Bob may have missed it White-bellied Storm-petrels prefer to fly over areas of bright blue sea, whereas 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrels prefer grey seas.
Bob Flood giving his excellent talk on the identification of Storm-petrels with white-bellies: (8 Apr 18)
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: The melanoleuca subspecies breeds on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands. This one doesn't seem to show the long feet. Black-bellied Storm-petrels also have a larger hood & a clean square cut off between the white belly & the black undertail coverts. Approach to Gough Island (9 Apr 18)
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: The same individual seen on the approach to Gough Island (9 Apr 18)
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Showing the longer legs which clearly extend beyond the tail in flight seen off Gough Island (10 Apr 18)
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Seen off Gough Island (10 Apr 18)
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: The rump size does seem to be variable on these 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrels. This also shows the clearly long legs seen off Gough Island (10 Apr 18)

12 Apr 2018

12 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Fifteen: Gough Moorhen

The last Post covered my views of Tristan Thrush. After getting some quick views & photos, I was waiting for a gap between the arrival of new Birders to pop back to the viewing point in the bushes. However, before I got the chance to have another look, my Ozzy mate, Geoff Jones, arrived & asked to borrow my 100-400mm lens. I got left with his 500mm lens & 1.4 extender (which gave me the equivalent of over 1100mm as the Canon 7D has an internal magnification of 1.6 times). Clearly, I wasn't going to have a chance of getting any photos of the Tristan Thrush when it was only a couple of metres away with this big lens. About this time it dropped into the nearby gully & Geoff and an couple of other Birders followed it down into the gully. This had an immediate bonus as they disturbed a Gough Moorhen that had been quietly feeding there. It was great to see a Gough Moorhen properly, given the minimal views that we had the previous day. Even better was having Geoff's big lens when it broke cover.
Gough Moorhen: Initially it ran across the gully before attempting to hide behind this grassy tussock
Gough Moorhen: The ancestors are believed to have been the Southern African subspecies of Moorhen, rather than the Southern American subspecies of the recently split American Moorhen
Gough Moorhen: Note, the greenish legs. They have had to adapt to this long grassy habitat as there are few ponds on Tristan da Cunha
Gough Moorhen: An action shot as it broke cover along what looked to be a regular trackway
After seeing both Tristan Thrush & Gough Moorhen well, we were happy to wander back to the settlement in search of some food.
Walking back to the settlement
The local bus
A good numberplate TDC1
There was time to look around the settlement before & after a visit to the cafe, the site of some excellent chocolate cafe.
The excellent cafe was very popular
Poster of the view of the settlement
The island family tree
An old hut within the settlement
Most of the homes looked fairly modern
But some were older like this quaint small house
Our home in the distance
These flowers helped to make it look even prettier
Another view of the settlement: which is dominated by the high slopes above it
There were some nice edges to some of the gardens
The volcano erupted in 1961 & lava threatened to engulf the settlement: The lava flow is right next to the settlement
The latest lava flow: The UK government had to evacuate the islanders & they were housed in an old RAF camp in Calshot (which was alongside one of my ex-birding patches from my days of living in Southampton)
Another view of the latest lava flow: Most of the islanders returned in 1963
Time to head back to the quay
Antarctic Tern: On the quay. They have very large bills compared to Common Terns & Arctic Terns
Antarctic Tern: The apparent extent of the white forehead varied with the angle
Antarctic Tern: Flying around the Plancius
Antarctic Tern: A final flypast
Finally, we had to catch a zodiac back onto the Plancius. Leon's father, who was also the island copper, & three other locals joined us on the Plancius as we would not be allowed to land without guides on Nightingale. It was interesting hearing their commentary on the history & natural history of the two offshore islands. We sailed that evening for Nightingale Island.
One of the zodiacs heads back for another group of returning passengers
The harbour entrance
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. This will be one of the final chances to see an Albatross
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. I saw 8 of the 15 species of Albatross recognised by Clements on the Odyssey
A brief view of one of the two peaks of Tristan da Cunha
Another night I didn't see the mythical green flash