Nature’s Home writer David Lindo has just returned from his first visit to Antarctica with Hurtigruten – and it was spectacular before he even reached the ‘white continent’…
There was something weirdly nerve-wracking about embarking on a trip to Antarctica. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I stood on the top deck of Hurtigruten’s MS Midnitsol.
We were going to a place that even now has been visited by relatively few people. My trepidation was in fact, extreme excitement, a feeling that I had not experienced in a long time.
Petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses
The first part of the expedition was stunningly scenic. Cruising the Beagle Channel, eyeing up the Chilean Fjords was a joy.
But when we got to the open ocean to cross the notorious Drake’s Passage, the fun really started. It’s the best area for observing petrels, shearwaters and several species of albatross. It was also dubbed, by mariners of old, as the most treacherous stretch of sea that you are ever likely to traverse.
During the 36-hour crossing the sea conditions can be bad or terrible. And this time it was terrible. We skirted the edge of a storm that sent mighty waves lashing over the bow of the ship.
I decided to brave the voyage without seasickness medication – and I found that being on deck watching for birds was a great antidote for nausea.
I was richly rewarded for my on-deck diligence. I jumped with glee as I watched thousands of sooty shearwaters fly past the ship in streams, heading for Cape Horn and further north. Riding the slipstream with them were large and ugly southern giant petrels - the size of a small albatross.
As we neared the continental shelf the profusion of seabirds increased. White-chinned petrels were joined by the attractive southern fulmar, piebald cape petrels and blue petrels that careered along the surface of the waves.
Also riding the air currents were black-browed albatrosses, occasionally joined by grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. On rarer occasions a southern royal albatross might swing into the vista before disappearing as quickly as it came.
I even found a couple of wandering albatrosses, the king of all travellers. With a 3.5-metre wingspan they made the black-brows look like gulls. A careful search of the rolling waves revealed tiny Wilson’s storm-petrels meticulously searching the water’s surface for morsels.
As we drifted beyond Drake’s Passage and into Antarctic waters, in came marauding brown skuas and kelp gulls along with patrolling Antarctic terns and scudding Antarctic cormorants.
Icy monsters of the Antarctic
Nothing can prepare you for when you set eyes upon your first iceberg. Stunning, amazing, fantastic are all superlatives that quickly get used up within the first five minutes. The silence as we drifted past these monsters was deafening.
Circling around some of the ice floes were ghostly snow petrels, and lying on the floes themselves was the first of hundreds of crabeater seals. A ‘blow’ in the distance turned out to be a group of humpback whales.
But it was seeing the majestic mountainous Antarctic continent itself that really took my breath away. Our visit was to the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula that, if you could imagine, was like visiting a tiny spot on the western coast of Ireland knowing that there was a vast swathe of unknown land that stretched as far as Moscow!
This trip really felt like an expedition into the unknown. We made landings into guano-reeking gentoo penguin colonies, with a few chinstraps and even a lone king penguin that should have been breeding in South Georgia, at least a thousand miles to the north.
I could write a book about my Antarctic experience. But instead, I will wait for the next time I get to visit this enchanting, fragile and hostile place. One thing is for sure. Antarctica is the sort of place you have to visit at least once in your life.
Hurtigruten has supported the RSPB for over five years. By booking a voyage at www.hurtigruten.co.uk and quoting UK13HRRTRSPB5, 10% of the cost of your booking* will be donated to the RSPB, supporting seabird conservation – and you’ll also receive a 5% discount. So far, supporters like you have helped to raise £80,000 through their expeditions with Hurtigruten. Why not make a difference for wildlife with your holiday?
*Offer valid only on Classic Voyages and on direct bookings; terms and conditions apply.
Heathlands are home to some of my favourite wildlife, so I love them. This wildlife can be tricky to find, so that makes me love them even more!
They are beautiful places, ablaze with yellow in spring and purple in summer. When the sun shines, they can be real heat traps and that’s exactly what we enjoyed yesterday at the RSPB’s wonderful Arne reserve in Dorset – one of the finest heathlands around (in my opinion).
This week, I thought I’d pass on some of the things that I have learned from my successes, and failures, when it comes to looking for secretive heathland birds, elusive reptiles and some very smart insects and spiders. These are just some of the stars of these special places. There are hundreds of species to find, and enjoy, though.
Meeting up with the rest of the Nature’s Home team at Arne gave me the chance to put some of my fieldcraft skills to the test and I was feeling the pressure. The team were hoping for reptiles but if it is too hot, too cold, too early or too late, you can easily see nothing at all...
Sand lizards are bigger than common lizards and the males are bright green in spring! (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
I’ve blogged previously about adders and it was one of those days when it warmed up really quickly, meaning that the adders had almost certainly warmed up before we met up at 9am and were sheltering away deep in the heather and gorse. Sand lizards are a different matter though. Having a superb close experience with a gorgeous “spring green” male the day before, meant I was keen to see more. The green really blows you away when you see it and it is a great way of picking them out among the heather.
We drew a blank at the first piece of heath we visited. It was very flat and the cold north-easterly wind that blew straight across it meant that basking conditions just weren’t good. We needed some undulating terrain and some shelter and the north end of the reserve provided just that, with all sorts of dips and south facing slopes for lizards to enjoy.
The rustling of dried leaves might reveal the presence of a lizard, such as this male sand lizard (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
The guys were enjoying the beach and I wandered off to come face to face with... you got it, a male sand lizard. A call to Jack and everyone arrived and the little beauty continued to show – one of six I saw at Arne. Listen for rustling among the heather and then wait for them to cross a gap. If you find a basking one, stand still – and enjoy!
Scratching the itchWind is not good for Dartford warblers, but I always think a bit of heat and sunshine is. The gorse thickets around the heaths provided several of these beautiful birds singing their scratchy songs and flicking up on top.
Listen for the scratchy notes and then scan the tops of heath and gorse for the charismatic Dartford warbler (Ben Hall rspb-images.com)
Yellow gorse flowers, red-pink front and slate-grey back makes for a rather fine colour combination set against a blue sky. Top tip for Dartfords are to learn their scolding contact and alarm call and their warbler, then just sit and wait. They also follow stonechats around from time to time, so keep an eye on those significantly easier to see heathland specials which are incredibly noisy at this time of year.
Eyes to the groundKeep your eyes to the ground when you’re walking on sandy heathland tracks because a world of action is going on down there. Green tiger beetles can flip up at your feet like little jewels and I was over the moon to find the very rare heath tiger beetle on my Dorset visit. Lots of solitary bees and wasps dig their tunnels in the soft soil of the paths. Once you’ve found the holes, you just need to wait for the occupants to either come - or go!
You'll find some lovely little peaty pools in heathlands ands these are full of life. A raft spider had come out to balance on the water's surface just before we left. What a beast! Sundews, damselflies, palmate nets and much, much more could be lurking, so peer into a pond when you get the chance because there is always something to see.
The raft spider, balances on the surface of the water in peaty heathland ponds (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
After dark delights
The heathland nightshift includes one of our most mysterious birds: the nightjar. I thought that the bit of heath behind our bed and breakfast had some good potential, so just after nine, Jack and I headed out to get away from the road noise in the middle of the heath. Once we’d gone far enough, there it was: The distant “churring” of a male nightjar. We hurried round the path while there was still enough twilight for a glimpse and sure enough he was doing a few circuits, flashing the white patches on its wings and tail in the hope of catching the eye of a female. After great views of it perched in a pine, all went silent. The very clear night and plummeting temperatures told me that he was going to wait until some females arrived back from Africa, and there were a few more moths on the wing to munch on, before he put in much more effort!
The nightjar is unique in a UK context. The bristles around its beak are perfect for trapping insects (Graeme Madge rspb-images.com)
See it yourselfJune, July and August are also terrific months for heathland wildlife, so there is plenty of time yet in magic May, and beyond, for you to put your skills to the test on our heathland gems on an RSPB reserve. I hope our July Nature’s Home heathland feature will whet your appetite too. I haven’t seen it yet myself but I hope Anna, Alun and the guys have slipped in a lovely photo of a sand lizard somewhere!
With spring migration easing up, the second half of May is a great time for enjoying some of the spectacular insects taking to the wing. The problem this year has been the lack of sunshine and a cold north-easterly airflow, but as I finished weeding the vegetable beds in the garden yesterday, I realised that not only did I deserve a wildlife hit as a reward, but temperatures were soaring. It was time to head down to the river and hopefully take in some dragonfly action.
Winged jewelsI live just half a mile or so from the beautiful River Ouse, so within 10 minutes, I was making my way among the snowdrifts of cow parsley lining the banks watching out for the explosion of colour that is my local speciality: the scarce chaser. After a good half a mile walk, I’d clocked up 11 of these bright orange beauties in the lush waterside vegetation soaking up the sun’s rays. They were all freshly emerged, so the males have yet to turn their powder blue colour. I think they are much smarter like this. I even watched one making its first ever flight, rising up uncertainly form the reeds and touching down with some relief high in a hawthorn. Its wings were still a little soft and its body not quite fully hard.
Hairy dragonfly by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com). You have to get really close to see the hairs...
Banded demoiselles were out in force, with the males’ black striped wings giving them an almost tropical look and common blue damselflies were just that – common... and blue!There was time for the second local speciality: a hairy hawker with a male patrolling up and down a sheltered, and particularly warm, navigation channel.
With a new species of sawfly for my list – these colourful insects love the flowerheads of cow parsley and hogweed – and all those dragonflies in the bag, I was very pleased with my haul. Definitely the right decision to go and mess about down by the river for an hour. With views of a male cuckoo and a Cetti’s warbler, plus 4 red kites overhead, it was one of the trips that would look great listed out in my diary.
Things were about to get even better though. I lifted my binoculars to scan over the gravel pits to the west and noticed a good number of swifts feeding high in the sky. Then I started to notice “giant swifts” snatching up dragonflies in their talons as they flew – hobbies!
Hobbies may gather in numbers over wetlands and meadows in May as insects emerge in abundance (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
First scan revealed four birds – a great count. The second was 11 and then after three or four more scans of the skies, I’d seen 23 hobbies all in the air together. What a sight to see on my doorstep. It was hard to leave them, but it started to cloud over and they began to disperse as their food supply presumably dwindled. A friend of mine was watching 61 hobbies at RSPB Lakenheath Fen at the same time so it was a great day for these smart falcons to be feeding up before splitting up into pairs and heading off to breed.
Hobbies grab dragonflies in their talons and strip off the wings before tucking in to the tasty treat (Richard Allen rspb-images,com)
Discover the wildlife on your doorstepIt’s the perfect time of year, and weather, for getting out and seeing what you can find close to home. If you’d like some more inspiration about finding wildlife on your patch, please check out my latest book, Wildlife on Your Doorstep, which is based on my wildlife watching adventures within 5 miles of my home. It’s available from the RSPB shop and I’ll be sharing extracts from it on the blog over the summer to offer more ideas for making the most of the long days ahead. You'll be amazed how much you can find without having to travel far!