Notes from all over

I haven’t written much since just before the end of my time in the Antarctic. It has been a rather busy time, as it always is and I have managed to go away and have little snatches of holiday on the last few months. My last trip in the Antarctic was defined by strong winds and amazing sunsets, with lots of humpback whales and a few killer whales to add into the mix. My ankle had started healing well and I was able to go out a bit, which was really cool as the penguin chicks were also at a really cute stage.

 My last night on the ship was super special as my “soul sister” Nicki was joining and she was in Ushuaia the night before, so we had a chance to see her. I didn’t think that we would see each other again as she was working on another ship. She has come back to the fold now and I am happy that I will get the chance to work with her in the Russian Far East. So many people think that living a life traveling to remote areas is a glorious way to spend one’s life and, indeed, it is quite extraordinary, however, it is a transient lifestyle, where one isn’t grounded in one place and having stable relationships is not something we rely on. It is tough, where one makes close friends (as we share cabins, one invariably becomes friends (or not) with one’s cabin mate). At the end of the contract, though, you never know whether you will see them again, or it may be over a year before you work together again. What I enjoy about the ship that I work on, is that we have a core group of expedition staff and we all get on, so when I join the ship it is like coming home to my family. It is however, a still a very artificial and superficial environment. One expedition staff member used to say in his introduction that he was part of a witness protection program and this was the best way to protect his identity. Well, he is not far off the mark, because if you don’t want anyone to find you, working on a ship like this is a brilliant way to do it.

After leaving the ship, I had to lug my 40kg of luggage and further 20kg of hand luggage, being slowed down by the moon boot, through Buenos Aires, Atlanta and onto Boston and Providence for a week of IAATO meetings and getting a chance to get to work with my new colleague Amanda. We are now a total of 5 women, making up the secretariat, most of us 40 somethings and fortunately we all get along particularly well.

 Finally, in mid-February I came home to my wonderful house and garden and even though I struggled horribly with jet lag for about 10 days, it was great being home. IAATO Work of course starts the very next day and we all know that the next few months will be hard stressful work in preparation for the Antarctic Treaty meeting and 10 days later our IAATO annual meeting. So when the pressure is on, the best thing to do is go on holiday. This is exactly what I did at the end of February and it was probably the first real holiday I had had for nearly a year. I went up to Zimbabwe with three bird club friends, to meet another couple of bird nuts, who I met on a similar trip to Mozambique and who I like immensely. Birding with this bunch is NO HOLIDAY. Up at 5:30 (sometimes we got to sleep in to 6) every morning, and out birding pretty much the whole day (with a packed lunch) until evening. I was toasted and went to bed at 8pm every evening. We went to many different habitats from wetlands, grasslands, and  indigenous forests. One of the most spectacular sights was going into a township area at dusk and watching thousands of Amur falcons coming in to roost. The sky was filled with birds coming in to the tops of the trees and the noise of all the falcons calling (a very high pitches Kew kew sound) and having a chat before bed time was particularly memorable. The locals thought we were very odd, as they probably never notice them. I don’t think many believed us when we told them that these birds had flown all the way from Siberia and China. We saw 254 species in 9 days, I don’t know how many lifer I had, but it was certainly well over 20. My favourite group of birds are the sunbirds and the Miombo Double collard, variable and bronzy sunbird are all new for me and what spectacular birds they are, so I have to put a few pics of them in, even though they were very far away so it had to be zoomed and cropped a lot, they are still stunning. The friends I was with are

 Zimbabwe is an interesting place to visit, as it is a hugely depressed economy with a 90% unemployment rate. It boggles my mind how people survive. They have moved onto the use of the US Dollar and every dollar that you get is black with grime it has been used so much. Everything is close to being between two and three times the cost of South  Africa, although at least there are supplies of most things. I did read last week however that Robert Mugabe has decreed that the importation of fresh fruit and vegetables is not permitted. I am not sure where the locals are going to get supplies from as just about every farm we drove past is overgrown, unproductive and destroyed. Farms where it was obvious were previously functioning are lying bare, with tunnels for growing tomatoes just a skeleton of their former selves, the shade netting hanging in shreds. The Zimbabweans who live there (over 6 million have fled to South Africa), are friendly and work within the constraints of their environment. It is a shame to see such a wonderful country being systematically ruined by a dictator and his cronies who are only interested in lining their own pockets and don’t care for the population. I will need to write a separate blog on Zimbabwe and how this grip of terror is implemented, it is a stranglehold that affects everyone right down to the poorest. 

 Even though it was a very busy time, I came home refreshed and ready to get stuck into work. Being home and moving from a ship job to a desk job is a bit of a transition but I try not to think of it and just get on with it as best as I can.

My next mini-adventure was a long weekend down at our little place in Wakkerstroom (which a friend once called a pixel, because it is 40m2 on a 10 000m2 stand). For those of you who don’t know where Wakkerstroom is, it is about 300km South East of Johannesburg. It is a tiny town, with a large wetland and 23 species of endemic birds (Birds only found in South  Africa), two of which (the Rudd’s and Botha’s lark) are only found in this area. My purpose of going down was to scatter some of my mom’s ashes there, as it was a very special place to her, as it is to me. It happened to be a long weekend and even though we hadn’t planned on it, it was the 4th Wakkerstroom music festival. I am amazed that such a small community can have a music festival at all, let alone one that attracts such amazing talent. Our first concert was a violin recital by a matric student at Roedene school, whose rendition of Cesar Frank’s violin sonata was awe inspiring. It was held in the tiny Catholic church, which seats 50 people (although we are lead to believe that services only have about 8 parishioners). It is in this church that there is probably the most beautiful stained glass window I have ever seen, and I have been to many churches around the world. Perhaps it is because the design is so close to my heart, as it depicts Wakkerstroom, its wildlife, culture and landscape. So I have included iPhone pictures (not very good ones). See how many creatures you can spot and which you can identify. There are crowned cranes, bald ibis’, cape clawless otters, dragonflies amongst many other species. A friend from Wakkies had heard I was coming down and asked if I would give a talk on birds of the Antarctic to the bird club, I agreed thinking there would be 15 people or so, well, there were well over 50 (probably because of the music festival) but it was quite gratifying having such a response. The Saturday was a relaxing day, going to a guitar duo playing everything from Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody to Brazilian dances. It was so brilliant, I bought their CD. We went to the vlei birding in the afternoon, until the Gala concert in the NG Kerk, in the centre of the town. A beautiful sandstone building, seating 450 people, it was packed. The 2 hour concert was a selection of short pieces by each of the performers during the weekend. A truly uplifting experience. The Sunday, we were taken on a special trip by Glenn, who took us on a drive way up to a farm where there is a lookout with an almost 360 degree view of unspoilt grassland. How privileged we are to live in South Africa. On our way back to town we stopped at another farm where they do Bald Ibis monitoring (The bald Ibis is another special for the area). This is a breeding site, which is not presently occupied, but has a lovely waterfall. As dusk was approaching and the town had emptied out of all the “Foreigners” who had come to watch the concert, we headed down to the vlei to one of my favourite hides, where I spent some quiet time and scattered some of my mom’s ashes. For those of you who have been through this process, it is incredibly emotional, even though it is almost a year since my mom died. As we were leaving the sky was turning a deep red creating amazing reflections on the water.

 I have been really busy with talks while here and gave a talk on Climate change and the polar regions to about 350 people at Monash  University, I was amazed at the turnout and hope that I made some people think about the impact we have on our planet.

 I have had two other mini-breaks, one to St Francis Bay, which is a beautiful spot and where I could simply relax, go for walks and spend time putting this presentation together. It always takes me way longer than I anticipate, as I have to decide on a few pictures out of hundreds – and when one is handicapped with a severe case of indecision, it takes hours. I went down to Wakkerstroom a second time just for one night and met up with some special friends again and we had such a wonderful time.

 My next adventure is about to begin, with 2 weeks at the Antarctic Treaty meeting (Not that it means all that much, but these meetings are always over my birthday, which kind of sucks). Then I am home for 10 days, go to Providence in the US for 10 days for our IAATO annual meeting, home for 10 days and then off to Japan, the Russian Far East and Alaska to join the ship for 2 months. I can’t wait. So jet lag and sleeplessness will be my friend and I am sure I will be a zombie by the time I get to Japan, but it is all very exciting. I will be joining our new ship, the Silver Discoverer and this is a new itinerary for me, so in between IAATO work, I will be reading and preparing lectures for the ship as well.

So there is a snippet from my life for the first few months of the year.

I hope all is well in your world

Clouds and Duncan

 

Killer Whales in Dallmann Bay

Greetings

I don’t have a load of time to write but thought I would post some photos of an amazing pod of Orca who were around the ship as we were leaving the Antarctic on a recent trip. There was a pod of over 15 Orca including some calves, which are significantly smaller than the adults. The yellow orange is due to diatoms (Like algae) growing on their skins. The KIller whale is an apex predator (Top predator) and in the Antarctic they specialize in eating seals and penguins.

Enjoy

Orca (Killer Whales) in Antarctica

Orca (Killer Whales) in Antarctica

_MG_9263 orca small _MG_9215 orca small _MG_9251 orca small

Clouds and Duncan

Polar Plunging – One of the craziest things I have ever done

On most trips to the Polar Regions we offer guests the opportunity to do the polar plunge, this is their chance to leap into freezing cold water so they can say they have plunged in the Antarctic or Arctic. I have participated in this silliness many times, including at the North Pole (90 degrees North) where the sea was freezing around us and the sea temperature was less than -1degree Celsius (sea water freezes at -1.9C). I remember with this plunge that I did a pin dive and ended up going vey deep. The water is so cold it absolutely takes your breath away, but when you are under water you cannot grasp. I remember opening my eyes and the water was completely black, because we were surrounded by ice and no light came through the water column. I thought to myself, if I didn’t know which way was up I would be very disorientated. Anyway, I shot to the surface and took a massive gasp of air and pulled myself out of the water pretty smartly.

So why, you may ask do I do the plunge once a season. It is a question that is very difficult to answer. Sometimes, it is because I promise to join someone in the frivolity or it is just a case of “Because I can”. But, actually, when I think about it, it is probably the craziest and perhaps dumbest thing to do. The feeling when you get out, though is one of exhilaration, which is probably due to the fact that you no longer feel any of your extremities. I suppose it is a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall it feels good when it stops. The strange thing is that when you get out it feels really warm, even if the temperature is below zero. Sometimes it does take a bit before one starts warming up and your hands and feet ache as the blood slowly returns.

An interesting fact about people who swim longer distances in such cold temperatures is that the body temperature continues to drop, even after they are out of the cold water and under a hot shower, so if you leave the water with a body temperature of 35C (already 2 degrees below normal), your temperature will continue to cool and you can become seriously hypothermic. I am never in the water for long enough for this to happen.

This year I jumped at 81 degrees North (1000km form the North Pole) in 0C water and in the Antarctic at 65 degrees South in -1C water where the air temperature was -4C. It is a load of fun and there is lots of jollity and laughter at people’s facial expressions and comments as they surface from the water. It always amazes me how many people come out of the water saying, “Wow, it’s cold!” Well, this is the Antarctic, the water is below freezing, what did you expect :-) .

In the end, everyone enjoys themselves and for those brave souls who do the plunge, you can go back home and have the bragging rights to say that you swam in the Antarctic.

Of course, what I do Duncan also does, so here are the photos of us plunging in the Antarctic. I decided to imitate a penguin and where a penguin suit (Why make a fool of yourself jumping into freezing water, when you can make a complete idiot of yourself and jump in wearing a penguin suit?)

_MG_8192 polar plunge

Clouds and Duncan do the Polar Plunge

Clouds and Duncan do the Polar Plunge

My advice: If you are ever travelling in the Polar Regions and you have the opportunity to do the polar plunge, DO IT! Remember, you regret more the things you didn’t do, than the things you did do.

Love from the freezer

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

Iceberg Graveyard – Postmodern ice sculptures

And through the drifts the snowy clifts

Did send a dismal sheen:

Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—

The ice was all between.

 

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!

                        The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

                        Samuel Coleridge Taylor, 1798

 

I have recently rediscovered the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and I love the imagery of all the ice and icebergs in the fog and mist, where these forms appear through the fog as shapes that must have terrified the ancient mariner, who has been swept into an unknown part of the world. Cruising around icebergs is one of my all time favourite activities and a couple of days ago we were in a place called Pleneau Bay, named after the photographer on one of Charcot’s expeditions south of the Lemaire channel in the early 1900s. It is an area that traps icebergs, as they can’t get up the Lemaire so they get swept into this bay where they spend the rest of their days. Many staff call it an iceberg graveyard, I like to think of it as an iceberg retirement village, as this is where icebergs come to melt away and be one with the ocean once again.

For me the delight is being able to “read” an iceberg. If you know what to look for, you can tell the whole life history of an iceberg and it bring understanding to beauty.

Why are icebergs blue?

So starting with the colour. Why are icebergs blue? Many icebergs have a spectacular blue shining through. The reason for this is that as light passes through the iceberg, the colours of the light spectrum are absorbed by the ice, except for the blue lightwaves. This is a bit of an illusion, because if you chipped a small block off a blue iceberg, it would look clear, as all the lightwaves would get through the ice.

Look at how blue some icebergs are.

Look at how blue some icebergs are.

The morphology of icebergs – reading the life history of an iceberg

When looking at the shape of an iceberg, the first hint at it’s life story is looking for the waterline. Icebergs erode faster under the water than they do above the water, so where there is an horizontal line that is where the water would have come up to. If the iceberg is grounded, the waterline may be horizontal but well above the level of the water, depending on the tide. As an iceberg thaws under the water, or chunks of it break off, so the fragile weighting of the iceberg changes and it may tip over slightly causing the waterline to be diagonal and there may be many waterlines, depending on how many times the weight of the iceberg has shifted. Look at the photo below and see how many water lines you can see.

Look at the different horizonal and diagonal waterlines

Look at the different horizonal and diagonal waterlines

Ice has a density 9/10ths that of water, that is why approximately 10% of an iceberg is above water and the rest is below water. Sometimes we can see down through the water of it is clear and we can see how much is below water, but an easier way as to look at the waterline of an iceberg that has tipped onto its side, such as the iceberg in the picture below. The section on the left of the almost vertical waterline is the section of ice that would have been above water and the section to the right would have been below water when the iceberg tipped.

Everything on the left past the waterline would have been oabove water, the rest below

Everything on the left past the waterline would have been oabove water, the rest below

Organ pipes in ice?

Then one can look to see if there are bubble channels or bubble rills. These look like organ pipes if they are well formed. To understand these one needs to think of where icebergs come from and of course they form from the simple snowflake. As snow falls there is a lot of air trapped around it, as it is covered in more snow, most of the air is forced out, but there is still some air in the snow, which form small bubbles of air which become more and more compressed. This ice then travels to the ocean in the form of a glacier, which then calves off to form an iceberg. When the iceberg melts under the water, these little air bubbles are released and as they are released they expand and shoot to the surface. As they shoot to the surface, they erode channels in the ice. Eventually, all the bubbles start to follow the same channels causing these channels to become bigger and bigger, eventually causing these organ pipe type formation. Or course if we see these formations above the water, it means that the iceberg has tipped over completely (As this formation occurs under the water).

Below are photos of icebergs showing the organ pipe like bubble channels.

_MG_8376 organ pipes small _MG_8373 organ pipes close up

These photos all show bubble channels from expanding air bubbles shooting to the surface, one is a close up of these channels

These photos all show bubble channels from expanding air bubbles shooting to the surface, one is a close up of these channels

Icebergs looking like golf balls.

Well, they dont really look like golf balls but they have dimples similar to golf balls. The other formation that we see is this dimpling effect, shown on the photos below.

In this case the iceberg is melting below water and the freshwater from the iceberg melt is a different density to the sea water and water of different densities don’t mix very easily. So small pockets of freshwater, that has melted from the iceberg, melt the iceberg at a different rate to the salt water and form these little pockets that look like dimples on an iceberg.

Dimples in ice

Here are some other photos taken during the cruise (Including one of Duncan with one of our guests). See if you can tell the life history.

_MG_8390 Sylvia and Duncan _MG_8446 iceberg 1 _MG_8458 iceberg 2

A selection of differnet icebergs from Pleneau

A selection of differnet icebergs from Pleneau

Love from the Freezer

Clouds and Duncan

 

Cruising Hope Bay

Cruising Hope Bay

Hope Bay is in the Antarctic Sound and is where the Argentine station of Esperanza is located. We decided to do a zodiac cruise around the Adelie penguin colony, which has probably 75 000 breeding pairs of penguins, that is excluding the chicks and non-breeders. It was an amazing experience with falt calm conditions and hundreds of penguins going down into the water, coming out of the water, cleaning themselves in the water and porpoising in huge groups. I could watch them for hours. I was on a boat with Alex, our historian, driving and another 6 guests and we had a fabulous time weaving our way around the ice and watching the antics of the penguins.

Alex reminded me of a cruise last year, where we we saw a snow petrel. I love these birds and we don’t see them often. I was explaining to the guests how in birding terms that would be a “mega-tick”, basically a bird that is quite rare and that you have to go to extreme lengths to find. A gentleman in my boat who was probably in his late seventies, tall and elegant, with wispy grey hair combed to one side, a real English Gentleman takes his wife’s hand and says in his very formal, dulcet tone “Darling, you are my mega-tick” it was one of the most lovely things I have ever heard on a zodiac.

I love zodiac cruising! I am posting some photos of the lovely Adelie Penguins that we saw on our cruise

Adelie penguins at Hope Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

Adelie penguins at Hope Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

_MG_8980 small _MG_9017 small _MG_9053 small _MG_9059 small _MG_9064 small _MG_9149 small _MG_9134 small porpoising

Love from the freezer

Clouds

 

 

Massive tabular icebergs in the Antarctic Sound

The Antarctic Sound on the Antarctic Peninsula where one can encounter massive tabular icebergs

The Antarctic Sound on the Antarctic Peninsula where one can encounter massive tabular icebergs

Yesterday we were in the Antarctic Sound which is a fascinating place. It is in the Northern part of the Antarctic peninsula, where there is a very wide channel allowing huge tabular icebergs to get blown in from the Weddell sea on the eastern side.

Tabular iceberg in Antarctic Sound

Tabular iceberg in Antarctic Sound

Tabular Iceberg in the Antarctic Sound

Tabular Iceberg in the Antarctic Sound

These massive icebergs are probably 20m high above water and 200m below water. Ice has a density 9/10ths that of water, which means that approximately 1/10th of the ice is above the surface. These icebergs originate from the ice shelves and the fore have a flat top and very steep flat sides. The ice shelves originate from the continental ice sheet which constantly flows very slowly into the ocean. Once it reaches the ocean it starts to float and then will break off and be carried away by the ocean currents. When the Larsen B ice shelf broke off over 35 days in 2002, over 3250km2 of ice broke off the ice shelf. This was the equivalent of 750 billion tons of ice, however it would not contribute to seal level rise. Why. You may ask, will the sea level not be affected with so much ice being broken off? Well the answer is easy, just as ice cubes float in a glass of water, so these massive ice shelves are floating in the ocean, even though they are attached to land. Because they are floating, it means that their weight has already been taken up by the oceans. Any new ice that Comes off the continent now, will contribute to sea level rise. The loss of these ice shelves, even though they don’t contribute to sea level rise, do have a big impact on the speed at which the continental ice slides into the ocean. It has been found that the continental ice is now moving 4-5 times faster due to the loss of the ice shelves, which used to act as a plug slowing them down.

The icebergs we saw were hundreds of metres long and wide, but some of the truly massive ones are many kilometres in length and will take decades to melt. In fact they give them names like B 52 according to where they came from, and track them by satellite they are so big.

Our captain took the ship around a very beautiful tabular iceberg, which had many large icicles down the sides, where melt water had frozen. They are magnificent to look at but very difficult to photograph due to their enormous size.

 

Huge Tabular iceberg in the Antarctic Sound

Huge Tabular iceberg in the Antarctic Sound

A blog from the Outside

It is always good to have a different view of the cruises that we do. We (expedition guides) love the places that we travel and we love to share that passion with people with a similar interest. Here is a link to the blog of a cinematographer who was on the ship with us on our trip to the Antarctic peninsula from 12-22 December 2014. There is a link to a short video in which Clouds is also featured.

The work of Chris Stanley is truly exceptional.

Blog post: http://amberpacificstudios.com/2014/01/12/antarctica-expedition/

Direct Video Link: http://vimeo.com/83960502

Ralph Grizzle was also onboard and he is a travel journalist with his own blog. I am pasting a link here to his summary and at the bottom of the page are links to his day by day descriptions of our voyage. He describes the trip so eloquently, if you ever want to know what it is like from a guest perspective, read his blog. I am pasting the link below:

http://www.avidcruiser.com/2014/01/07/final-posts-antarctica-summing-trip-lifetime-go/

In Ralph’s words “No matter how high the cost or how low the mercury dips or how you choose to cross the Drake, get yourself to Antarctica to experience the world’s largest and most pristine wilderness area. Doing so may change your life. At 56 years old, the only life change I experience is whether to have red wine or white wine with dinner each evening (I usually go for red). Seriously, no matter what your age, you will not come away from Antarctica unaffected by what you have seen and experienced”

Antarctica is a very special place and I am extremely priviledged to be able to travel there and get paid for it.

Cheers for now

Clouds

Look who came to visit – Turkey vulture

As we were leaving the Falkland Islands a huge bird landed on the control panel on the bridge wing outside. We often have birds landing on ships, but normally they are small diving petrels or prions which are attracted to the lights on ships. Well, I was in for a surprise when I was called to the bridge to see the latest bird that had landed on our ship, it was none other than a turkey vulture. These birds normally soar with thermals (air that heats up, becomes less dense and starts to rise, giving the bird the lift it needs to fly without using too much energy). There was a strong wind blowing that day and the bird had obviously been blown away from the islands where it normally lives. I took some photos from inside the bridge, but when we were close to him, he flew to the other side of the bridge. He could clearly fly, but was using us as a resting platform before trying to get back to the Falklands. The next day he was nowhere to be found, so we can only surmise that he left us and made his way home.

 

Turkey Vulture on the bridge wing

Turkey Vulture on the bridge wing

 

Look at that bare face to burrow into carcasses and hole through the nostrils to smell so well

Look at that bare face to burrow into carcasses and hole through the nostrils to smell so well

I am putting in two photos that I took of the vulture and I have taken some really cool facts from a couple of websites which will show you what an amazing bird this is.

 

The Turkey Vulture has a wide distribution right to the Falkland islands just east of the tip of South America

The Turkey Vulture has a wide distribution right to the Falkland islands just east of the tip of South America

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Population Status: Least Concern
Body Length: 25-32 inches (63-81 cm)
Wingspan: 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 feet (1.6-2 m)
Weight: 2 to 4-1/2 pounds (0.9-2 kg)

Did you know?

  • The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
  • Not everyone sees vultures as a creepy harbinger of death—many see them as sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma. They regard vultures are precious animals that release the soul from the body. However, in parts of urban India, where vultures have become scarce because of accidental poisoning by a livestock anti-inflammatory drug, not enough vultures remain to meet the demand and some people have turned to burial.
  • In cowboy movies the bad guy usually threatens to leave the hero in the desert for the buzzards, meaning the vultures. Although buzzard is a colloquial term for vulture in the U.S., the same word applies to several hawks in Europe. In fact, the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) of Europe is the same species as the Rough-legged Hawk of North America

Amazing sense of smell

  • The Turkey Vulture is one of the few birds able to use its sense of smell to locate food. Though Turkey Vultures have a lot in common with other New World Vultures (vultures found in the Americas), they do have a very unique characteristic that is all their own. They have an amazing sense of smell, which they use to detect dead animals, sometimes from quite far away. Look at a Turkey Vulture’s nostrils, or nares, and you will notice that their nasal passage is completely open on each end. This is a characteristic New World vultures share, which other raptors don’t have.
  • The part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. Its heightened ability to detect odors—it can detect just a few parts per trillion—allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy.

No voicebox

  • Turkey Vultures don’t have a voicebox. They can’t sing or call. Their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts.

Flight

  • Though they look awkward and ungainly on the ground and must work hard to gain flight, they are graceful and elegant in the air, soaring in beautiful teetering flights across the sky. They rarely need to flap their wings.
  • They say “the early bird catches the worm” so it is lucky that Turkey Vulture don’t rely on worms to survive. Turkey Vultures are not early morning fliers, which has more to do with their flying style than anything else. When vultures fly, they tend not to flap their wings very much. Rather, these large birds spend most of their time soaring on rising air currents, called thermals, in search of food, or simply traveling from one place to another. Thermals are caused by warm air rising, which occurs later in the morning after the sun rises, so Turkey Vultures have the perfect excuse for “sleeping in.”
  • Once a Turkey Vulture is up and soaring, it is almost unmistakable due to its distinctive flight pattern. These birds are easy to identify as they teeter gently from side to side with their wings held open in a slight “V” shape.
  • Vultures in the Americas look a lot like the vultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with broad wings, bare heads, and the habit of eating dead meat. But surprisingly, they’re in different taxonomic families, meaning they’re not particularly closely related. They evolved many of the same features as they exploited the same kinds of resources in different parts of the planet. This process is known as convergent evolution.

Feeding and their featherless heads

  • Turkey Vultures have featherless heads. When feeding, vultures sometimes need to stick their heads deep into the cavities of dead animals to get to the juiciest bits! At times like these, a bald head is very useful – otherwise bits of flesh, blood, or other fluids might get stuck on their feathers, creating quite a mess. Though vultures spend a lot of time preening, or cleaning their feathers, it would be impossible for them to clean their own heads. A Turkey Vulture’s bald head also makes it easy for us to identify. a bright red head and pale beak are distinguishing characteristics of this species.
  • Turkey Vultures are almost entirely carrion eaters, which means they feed on animals that are already dead. They have been documented killing very weak or very sick animals, but this is rare. They are not a threat to livestock or pets. Though the vultures prefer to feed on medium to large animals, such as deer or sheep, they can be found in roads feeding on road-killed animals as small as squirrels and lizards.
  • When searching for a meal, they often fly low over an area, using their sight and acute sense of smell to find food. Vultures are social feeders, which means many vulture species might join together to feed on a large carcass. Other scavenger birds, such as eagles and ravens, might join the feast as well.

Keeping cool – would you pee down your legs?

  • In addition to their bald heads, Turkey Vultures have other unique adaptations. To keep cool, Turkey Vultures will sometimes pee on their own legs! This is called “urohydrosis” and they do it for two reasons. First, because Turkey Vultures don’t sweat like we do, they need a way to cool off in hot weather. When the urine evaporates from their legs, it has a cooling effect. Second, their urine contains properties that might help kill any bacteria on their legs and feet that they may have picked up when walking all over their dinner. Though it might seem gross to us, it actually helps keep the vultures clean.

I took this information from two very good websites which can be accessed using the links below

http://peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/Turkey_Vulture#sthash.iU6hZsxg.dpbs

 http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/lifehistory

A surreal existence – the life of expedition guides

Can you imagine a life where you are exposed to the most incredible wonders of the natural world. Spending 10-14 hours a day sharing these experiences with 100 people, folk who will spend 10 days or a fortnight with you and whose life will be changed by what you can show them. Your accommodation and food is provided and you bond with your guests, who are mostly here because they have the same passion as we do for the unspoilt wilderness. Our job entails driving zodiacs, our little rubber inflatable boats that can land us anywhere, guiding people ashore and explaining all that we are seeing, as well as lecturing on our specialty and talking to our guests about our experiences.  We are expected to know a huge amount of information about every area that we travel in, so it is a constant learning environment, which I enjoy immensely, as many of us share information and some of the latest papers on different topics. An ideal job perhaps, but one that leads to a rather unique transient lifestyle. Many expedition guides don’t have roots, their belongings are with their parents or friends, when they are on holiday, they go travelling to other remote destinations, you make many friends, but many of the friendships are rather superficial, seldom does one have deep intimate conversations with other expedition guides. Your colleagues will come and go, depending on the length of your contract and you may or may not see them again. I will often bond with guests, who then leave and I will probably never see them again, although sometimes we manage to remain in touch.

There are times when we are tired or jaded and you don’t want to go outside into a 30knot wind and big swell, and blizzard and the temperatures are well below zero before wind chill. There are times when you don’t want to put on your happy face and constantly be upbeat. But that too is part of the job. Even if the weather is good, there may be a call for whales and there are times that I think that I don’t want to go out unless they are pirouetting , however, I go out and am infected by the excitement of those who haven’t seen this before.

When one gets home, it takes quite an adjustment to living a normal life with a routine and where you have weekends off. You get a chance to catch up with your friends (Something very important to me), although many staff don’t have many friends at their homes (they don’t really have homes).  It is almost impossible for staff working any length of time in the field to have relationships, unless it is with a colleague, which puts other pressures on ones working environment.

How do you explain to people back at home what you experience and what your life on the ship is like. Well, I think it is impossible and have given up trying. Sometimes I will show my photos to friends and I enjoy giving talks explaining what we see, otherwise I change my life for a regular 8-5 desk job with its own pros and cons.

Many people think I go on holiday for 2 or 3 months at a time. Well, it is a 24/7 job, with no breaks when you feel tired or sick. No breaks from people when you get all peopled out. I am however, incredibly privileged to work in the areas I work, to work with the people I work with and to meet the guests who share our excitement. If I can influence a few people every contract and give people an experience that will change their view on what is important in this world, then I have achieved what I set out to do and experienced the world most people never get to see. I love my job and in spite of the rather unconventional way we live our lives, there is something addictive to  this crazy and surreal existence.

With love from the freezer

Clouds

The closest I will ever come to Paradise

The closest I will ever come to Paradise

These were the words of a guest today, when I asked her about her day. This is the impact of South Georgia, whether it is for the history of Whaling and Shackleton, the amazing landscapes, the abundance of wildlife, with hundreds of thousands of King Penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, macaroni penguins. The list is endless as to why this is my favourite place on the planet.

The torn ligaments in my ankle are taking their time to heal and today it was more sore than ever and the swelling was back, so I will have to take it easy over the next couple of sea days. I didnt go out yesterday or today and although I would have liked to, I have been here many times before, so I just looked at the view from the ship.

I looked at my where’s Clouds section from 11 January last year and I had put in a place marker with the words “We are heading into an A1+ storm. Baton down the hatches” less than 24 hours later we were reeling after a massive wave broke one of the bridge windows. It was a traumatic time for us, and one that brough many people closer together than would otherwise be the case.

We are leaving South Georgia now, as we were on this day one year ago, but the weather forecast looks reasonable and we are looking forward to a good crossing (Let’s keep our fingers crossed).

It is really difficult for me to post photos here with the limited bandwidth of satellite internet, so if you would like to recieve periodic newsletters with photos, please email me at followingclouds@gmail.com.

Love from the freezer

Clouds