Want to Go on a Snipe Hunt?

Giant snipe.

I have a vague childhood memory of being involved in a snipe hunt in the woods behind my house. I don’t remember much, except that a large paper bag was involved, and that no snipes were actually captured that night. For those not familiar, a snipe hunt is a prank played on a gullible person and involves trying to catch a nonexistent creature called a snipe.

On the Brazil trip last month, I joined several other people on a hunt for an actual snipe: a species of South American bird called the giant snipe. And we actually found one. But more on that in a moment; first, a look at some of the other birding we did that day, followed by a slide show of some of the highlights.

After our somewhat disappointing outing to Macaé de Cima the previous day, Thomas, the lodge manager at REGUA, suggested an excursion he thought we might find more productive: Read more

Birding the Atlantic Forest

Elizabeth is the one who found the ecolodge called REGUA and suggested it as a place to spend a few days before the main trip started. It’s in a beautiful location; the image at the top of this page is of the view from REGUA of the Tres Picos mountains. REGUA has a great reputation for the work it’s doing to help restore the Atlantic Forest—you can see a cool video about it, narrated by Michael Palin, here. It’s also known as a destination for birders.

In our first full day at REGUA we met up with a pair of birders from the U.S. who had come there to hike one of the trails, specifically to see one particular bird species that REGUA is known for: the grey-winged cotinga, a bird that’s endemic to the Atlantic Forest. The couple had come to the lodge after their hike to pay the $10-per-person fee for day visitors, and we struck up a conversation with them. Small world: It turns out Read more

Two Weeks in Brazil

In late June I went to Brazil for two and a half weeks to do nature photography, focusing mostly on birds but also some other wildlife. I spent the first half of the trip in an area called the Atlantic Forest, and the second half in the Pantanal, an enormous wetland that’s home not only to hundreds of bird species but to jaguars as well. In fact it’s one of the few places where you can see jaguars in the wild. Anyway, I thought I’d share with you a more or less day-by-day account of the trip.

I signed up a year ago for the trip, a photography workshop offered by Glenn Bartley. Soon after, I heard that my friends Elizabeth and Steve—whom I met on a photography workshop on St. Paul Island last summer—had signed up for the Brazil trip too. And not long after that, Elizabeth asked if I’d be interested in joining them in going down a few days early to do some shooting on our own. Before I knew it, I had signed on for a total of 18 days in Brazil. Read more

Penguins: The Rules of Engagement

My friend Cathy called my attention to a story that ran in the Washington Post the other day, titled “Antarctica is Such a Trendy Vacation Spot That Chinese Officials Made a Don’t-Touch-Penguins Rule.” Apparently Chinese tourists are flocking to the Antarctic in such large numbers that China suddenly realized it didn’t have any guidelines for their behavior, which, as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, it’s supposed to have.

I’m actually not sure how you could manage to visit Antarctica without encountering the rules for being a good visitor. On our trip last month, we had a mandatory briefing on the second day we were on the ship, well before we reached Antarctica. The briefing is a requirement of the International Association of Antarctic Trip Operators, or IAATO, which works very hard to keep Antarctica pristine.

We were required to vacuum our outerwear and backpacks before heading onshore.

There was stuff I’d never thought of, such as the need to decontaminate your outerwear so that you don’t inadvertently bring new plant species on shore. Our expedition leader cited a study of 55 voyages to Antarctica, in which 30 percent of visitors were found to have plant seeds clinging to them—usually on their footwear, backpacks, or camera bags. The seeds belonged to 250 different species of plants. So later that day we all headed to the ship’s lounge, where we used portable vacuum cleaners to go over every inch of any gear or outerwear that we planned to take on shore—with special attention to Velcro, which is a big culprit when it comes to carrying seeds. Read more

The Penguin Post Office

A highlight of a trip to Antarctica is a visit to Port Lockroy, which is not only home to a colony of Gentoo penguins but also the headquarters for a British operation called the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. One of the small buildings at Port Lockroy has a gift shop and a post office, where you can mail postcards and have them bear an actual Antarctica postmark. It’s called the Penguin Post Office—and if you don’t believe me, just read its more than 100 reviews on TripAdvisor.

(PBS did a Nature special on the Penguin Post Office in 2015. You can watch a short, fun trailer for it here.)

We didn’t get to visit Port Lockroy, as it turns out—but we still got to mail postcards from there. Many of us had purchased postcards back in Ushuaia, and others bought them on the ship. The ship’s reception desk had the correct British Antarctic Territory stamps for sale (click on the image at left to see the stamps larger), and once we wrote the postcards and affixed the stamps, we returned them to the reception desk. Someone from the ship’s crew then took the postcards over to Port Lockroy for us on one of the ship’s Zodiac boats. We were told that the postcards first go to London, then on to their intended recipients—and will arrive in about two months.

Another attraction at the Penguin Post Office is that you can get your passport stamped there. Here again, we didn’t get to visit the post office, but we were told we’d get our passports stamped anyway. (Because of immigration formalities that I never fully understood, we had turned over our passports to the ship’s front desk at the beginning of the cruise and didn’t get them back until we disembarked.)

Some of us spent a little time speculating as to how, exactly, they were going to get all of our passports stamped at Port Lockroy. We had visions of them stuffing 200 travelers’ passports into a dry bag and taking them on a rubber Zodiac boat, powered only by an outboard motor, across icy Antarctic waters, in unpredictable weather, just to get a novelty stamp on each. What could possibly go wrong?

I never did find out, but I’m guessing that when they dropped off the postcards to be mailed, they borrowed the passport stamp and brought it back to the ship, where some unlucky crew member spent an hour stamping each and every passport. Whatever the case, when we got our passports back at the end of the trip, sure enough, one of the pages in the back had a new stamp on it: Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

Sometimes, Photos Don’t Do It Justice

One of the most memorable experiences on the Antarctica trip was one for which I have hardly any photos. Or, I should say, hardly any photos that really capture just how amazing the experience was.

We had visited Port Charcot and Danco Island that day and were supposed to be cruising toward Deception Island, our next day’s stop, when we encountered a pod of humpback whales. Earlier in the trip—actually at our very first briefing on the Le Boreál—the expedition director, Klemenz Pütz, had said, “If we encounter whales that seem playful, we may reduce our speed and stay with them awhile.” And that’s exactly what happened.

I have no idea how many whales we saw that evening. I originally thought it was maybe five to seven, while others put the estimate in the hundreds—so I’m probably not the one to ask. (In my defense, I just figured we were seeing the same five to seven over and over again.) Certainly “dozens” would be a safe estimate. Whatever the case, even the crew said they had never seen anything like it.

The passengers all crowded onto the deck at the bow of the ship and Read more

Let the Penguin Come to You

Chinstrap penguins at Half Moon Island. Photo by Stephen Porder.

Months ago, when I was Googling things like “Antarctica photography tips” and “how to photograph penguins,” I remember reading an interesting piece of advice: Let the penguin come to you. Penguins tend to be curious and unafraid, and sometimes if you sit still, one of them may come up close to you.

One of my colleagues on our just-completed Antarctic trip practiced a variant of that approach at Half Moon Island, and got some terrific images as a result. Stephen Porder was the lecturer accompanying the Brown University contingent (he’s a faculty member at Brown), and brought his 12-year-old daughter along on the trip. Toward the end of our visit to Half Moon Island—site of a large colony of chinstrap penguins—Stephen and his daughter decided to head down the hill from the penguin colony and just hang out for a while at the beach, where a few stray chinstraps were bathing. That’s where he got the photo of the chinstrap pair at the top of this page. Then he shot the sequence of six images below, showing a single chinstrap swimming in the shallow water, emerging from the water, and shaking itself off just a few feet away from him.

Really sweet images, and unlike any others I’ve seen from the trip. Nice work, Stephen. I’m jealous!

Antarctica Photography with an iPhone

Somewhere in Antarctica. iPhone photo by John Cannon.

In one of the photography lectures I gave onboard our ship to Antarctica, I showed some simple edits you can do to your smartphone photos—tweaks you can make right on your smartphone, with no need for a laptop and Photoshop and all that. You can crop, straighten crooked horizons, add contrast, improve the color saturation, and so on.

One Penn State passenger who took the instruction to heart in a big way was John Cannon. He was taking some pretty great photos with his iPhone to begin with, but he really became enamored of playing with them in the iPhone’s photo editor, and frequently would show me the results he was getting. And each time he did, I’d love the image so much that I’d ask him to Air Drop it to me immediately. (Not familiar with Air Drop? Remind me and I’ll do a post on that sometime.)

The photo at the top of this post is one of John’s, and so are the ones below. Read more

More Seabird Photos

After four days of getting in and out of Zodiacs for excursions along the Antarctic Peninsula, we’re back on the ship fulltime, cruising the Drake Passage. The way we spend our time has changed accordingly. Some people have used the days at sea to catch up on sleep, attend lectures, watch Antarctica-themed documentaries in the ship’s theatre, or make appointments at the ship’s spa.

For about three or four of the ship’s passengers—and I’m one of them—it’s a great opportunity to work on photographing birds in flight.

I still don’t fully understand why certain seabirds tend to follow ships, but I sure love it when they do. Yesterday alone I saw lots of cape petrels, a black-browed albatross or two, a white-chinned petrel, a smaller seabird called the Antarctic prion, and a wandering albatross. When I copied the images from my memory card onto the external hard drive I brought with me, I discovered I had shot 1,084 photos. Of birds. In one day.

When you’re photographing birds in flight, you do tend to shoot a lot of photos. You shoot in a burst (in the case of my Nikon D500, 10 frames per second), and once you can get the autofocus to lock onto the bird, you just keep shooting as long as you can keep the bird in your viewfinder. Then along comes another bird—or the same bird circles around and comes back—and you repeat the process.

The vast majority of the photos I got are very much deletable—the bird is out of focus, or it’s way overexposed, or it’s flying away from me (in other words, a butt shot), or one of its wings is cut off by the edge of the image. Quite a few images show nothing but ocean, with the bird long gone. But I did get some keepers, and you can see them below in slide-show format.

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We Hit the Jackpot at Half Moon Island

The lousy weather of two days ago messed up our itinerary bigtime, but everything worked out great in the end. The original plan called for us to land at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island on Friday morning, then head north to Half Moon Island to see the chinstrap penguins in the afternoon. From there we would head through the Antarctic Sound and visit a colony of Adélie penguins at Paulet Island on Saturday morning, in the afternoon visit Brown Bluff and make a true continental landing.

But the snowstorm and high winds on Friday stranded us at Deception Island for most of Friday. The captain had to cancel the Half Moon Island visit, and then had to cancel the Paulet Island visit, but we still held out hope we could at least visit Brown Bluff.

But then when we entered the Antarctic Sound yesterday morning (right around the time I was visiting the bridge), the winds kicked up ferociously. The expedition leader later showed us a visual of the Beaufort Scale and pointed to the worst possible category—hurricane force—and said that that’s what we experienced. Trees would have been flying, he said Read more