October saw me finally fulfil a long term admission of going to Snow Hill in the Weddell Sea to photograph emperor penguins.  The trip started with a flight to Buenos Aires then onto Ushuaia where I had a day to spare. I decided to try and find a bird that had eluded me on previous trips to Patagonia, the splendid Magellanic Woodpecker.  I went to the Tierra del Fuego national park on a lovely afternoon, and it wasn’t long before I heard the telltale drumming in the woods. I was very happy to see the superb male woodpecker, who was really tame allowing to approach quite close. His partner was also nearby, and just as tolerant.
The other bird that posed nicely for me was the black breasted buzzard eagle, circling over the woods near my hotel.
Next day, it was all aboard. I have previously tried to get to Snow Hill but was thwarted, so this time,I booked onto an ice breaker, the magnificent Russian ship, Kapitan Khlebnikov. This ship has the classic shaped hull of an ice breaker. That is, quite flat with no stabilisers. This helps her break through the ice, but makes for a very interesting ride in open seas! Crossing the Drake Passage is never easy, but the combination of the ships hull and the stormy weather with force 11 winds and high seas made for a very interesting 2 days. My cabin mate Srikant had a berth running along the long axis of the ship, and spent half the night falling out of bed. My bunk was across the ship and led to me sliding back and forth, hitting my head on each big wave! We finally reached the ice in the Weddell Sea and after a further day breaking through this, we were close enough to Snow Hill Island to attempt to reach the Emperors next morning.
The last leg required a helicopter flight from the ship to a base camp on the sea ice, from where we could walk the last mile or so to the colony. Use of the helicopters required good weather so I was very relieved to wake up to a beautiful sunny mild morning. All set!
We flew to base camp, then carrying everything for the day, walked across the ice towards the colony. The first sight of it was fantastic. Seabird colonies are always busy and noisy places, and this was no exception. Out on the open ice were several hundred adult emperors with their chicks.
The noise consists of a combination of the high pitched whistling begging calls of the chicks, along with the trumpeting calls of the adults. As you approach the colony, isolated adults wander past on their way out to open water to get food. The wonderful characteristic waddle is so nice to see.
Unlike many other places where I have photographed penguins, these birds were on sea ice, so that made for a much ‘whiter’ landscape with stunning blue icebergs frozen into the sea. Very photogenic.
The colony consists of large numbers of chicks generally standing around and waiting for a parent to come back from the sea with food. There are then a number of adults, just seemingly hanging around!  When an adult does come back, it is amazing that they find their chick and feed them.
Groups of chicks often group together into little creches.
The individual little birds are particularly cute on their own as well!
When the parents come back to the colony they greet each other with this beautiful ritual with bowing of their heads, the slightly bemused looking chick standing in the middle.
It was wonderful to be able to spend three whole days with these stunning birds. It might seem enough time to get as many photos as anyone could want, but of course, it is never enough! I was constantly looking for birds isolated from the colony in clean snow etc etc. It was then with some sadness that we were told of some very bad weather approaching the Drake Passage meaning an early departure to get to back safely to Ushuaia.
It was a truly special trip and wonderful experience to be able to spend time in one of the wildest and remotest parts of the world with one of the truly great species alive on our planet.  There is of course always a concern with any species like this relating to mans impact. Emperors live on krill, the small shrimp like creatures that form the cases of the whole Antarctic food chain, for penguins seals and whales. Commercial fishing is really having a massive impact on this with huge ships for countries like Norway and Japan using state of the art technology to find and catch enormous quantities of krill. This is now sold in health food shops and used for things like pet food. PLEASE don’t encourage this by buying krill products, it will have a huge impact on the whole ecosystem.
If any of you reading this are inspired to go to the Antarctic and especially Snow Hill, do it, you want regret it!