The Pacific


Following CPO Steve Copsey's journey south through the South Atlantic onboard HMS York — detailed here — he returns to the UK via the Pacific.

HMS York departed from Mare Harbour in the Falkland Islands on 18th May; an all-too-brief visit had come to an end. We sailed west across the South Atlantic and after transiting through some very heavy seas, which were alive with Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, Giant Petrels and Slender-billed Prions, we arrived at the entrance to the Magellan Straits. As the ship passed through the narrows just south of San Gregorio, I enjoyed the most unexpected sighting of the trip: three Lesser Rheas were standing on top of a small rise just up from the shore. From a distance they looked like sheep as they bent over feeding. However, something about them didn't seem quite right so I rattled off a few shots on the camera. When I zoomed in, one of the sheep had kindly lifted its head and the unmistakeable shape of a rhea had arisen: just one more benefit of digital photography.

Lesser Rheas, Patagonia, 19th May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

Twenty-four hours later we were heading north through the breathtaking scenery of the Patagonian Canal. The birder in me would have preferred to exit the Straits into the Pacific and have the extra two days of South-Pacific specialities, but even I have to admit the Canal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said, not all seafarers enjoy the passage as much as I did and several shipwrecks along the route reminded the ship's navigator of the canal's more unpleasant nature. Not a great many seabirds were to be seen over this period, but several Southern Fulmars, a single Magellan Diving Petrel and three Southern Giant Petrels were more than welcome.

Shipwreck in the Patagonian Canal (Steve Copsey).

The ship finally entered the Pacific Ocean on the morning of 22nd May and to the astonishment of the ship's company, who were expecting sunshine and a calm sea, we ran straight into a force eight storm. I was more than happy as I enjoyed one of the best seawatching days of the trip. Seven albatross species made sure the day would live long in the memory. Salvin's Albatross was a new life bird for me and by the day's end I had seen 26. Northern Royal Albatrosses were also seen in small numbers. There can be a lot of confusion between the two royal albatross species. The dark-winged juveniles cause the biggest headache. Fortunately I managed numerous shots of both Southern and Northern Royals off the Chilean coast and, while I would not stake my mortgage on it, I am reasonably confident I achieved the correct identification in the majority of cases. The three albatross species above breed on the opposite side of the South Pacific and are non-breeding visitors to the Chilean coast. They visit due to the effects of the Humboldt Current, the current described as the most productive marine ecosystem in the world and which flows north along the South American coast from the Antarctic to the equator. This upwelling creates perfect conditions for an abundance of plankton, which in turn results in equally abundant numbers of fish, birds and marine mammals higher up the food chain.

Northern Royal Albatross, southern East Pacific (Steve Copsey).

Salvin's Albatross, southern East Pacific, 22nd May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

Black-browed, Grey-headed, Light-mantled and Wandering Albatross made up the magnificent seven for the day. Slender-billed Prions?—?with numbers estimated at around two thousand?—?were by far the commonest species seen during this and subsequent days. Wilson's Storm-petrels, White-chinned Petrels and Southern Fulmars in three figures provided the supporting cast. Cape Petrels, as ever, appeared to be fastened to the ship, continually wheeling and feeding in the wake.

Black-browed Albatross, south East Pacific, 22nd May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

Slender-billed Prion, south East Pacific, 23rd May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

The next few days provided a similar day list, with the addition of six Red-legged Shags as we neared the coast, and several Chilean Skuas, one of which continually harried an unfortunate Black-browed Albatross, only leaving it be once it had forced the larger bird to crash into the sea.

Chilean Skua chasing Black-browed Albatross, Eastern Pacific, 24 May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

A single Shy Albatross on 24th May was followed by several Buller's the following day, my tenth and eleventh albatross species for the trip. Wilson's Storm-petrels had now taken over as the most common bird; the majority of days I had upwards of fifty birds with small flocks pattering in the ship's wake regardless of the sea state and weather conditions.

The warmth was starting to return now and, as the temperatures increased, new birds came near the ship. De Filipi's Petrels were seen in their dozens as we neared the border of Peru and the odd White-bellied Storm Petrel flitted into view. Peruvian Pelicans and Boobies became more commonplace, with the addition of Hornby's and Markham's Storm-petrels (both new life birds for me). Unlike the majority of storm-petrels, the identification of the latter two was no major challenge.

De Filippi's Petrels, Eastern Pacific, 26th May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

Hornby's Storm-petrel, central East Pacific, 2nd June 2011 (Steve Copsey).

The ship paid a visit to Lima, the Peruvian capital, on the 29th and, as we neared land, large numbers of rafting shearwaters were encountered. Approximately 800 Sooty Shearwaters were put to flight as the ship passed nearby and, on closer inspection, I counted approximately 40 Pink-footed Shearwaters among them. The 12th and last species of albatross for the trip came into view an hour before we docked. Three Waved Albatrosses, the only member of the family to breed in the tropics, came relatively close by but were never as confiding as the birds further south. The long yellow bill, which looks disproportionally large for the bird's head, can be seen at great distance. I was hoping for some decent shots of this species but I had to be satisfied with distant record shots. My last species of penguin also made it onto the trip list as we neared the port of Callao. Two small parties of Humboldt Penguins were out fishing and, as an added bonus, the first Inca Terns of the trip were hovering above hoping to pick up scraps. Grey and Band-tailed Gulls were seen as we docked, along with a single Guanay Cormorant.

Inca Terns and Peruvian Pelicans were perched on the docksides and, as you would expect, Band-tailed Gulls were always in the vicinity of the rubbish skip looking for a free meal. The ship departed from Lima after four days with a very successful visit into the western Andes to reflect on. Heading back into the Eastern Pacific, I enjoyed another great day of seawatching. Six species of storm-petrel were the highlight: Elliot's and Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels now joined the more familiar Wilson's, White-bellied, Markham's and Hornby's. Elliot's Storm-petrel (also known as White-vented Storm-petrel) and Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel can be difficult to identify successfully at sea. Both are relatively small, dark, and superficially similar to Wilson's. Again the digital camera came to the rescue. I sat in the bow of the ship and any storm-petrel that passed by was soon followed by the lens and numerous shots were rattled off. I could then review these in the evening to make positive identifications. In this particular instance the inconspicuous vent of Elliot's and the extensive white on the tail of the Wedge-rumped could both be seen in at least some of the many images.

Inca Tern, Callao, Peru, 30th May 2011 (Steve Copsey).

As we passed close to the Galapagos Islands (I would have preferred closer!), Swallow-tailed Gulls started to appear, with 41 on 3rd June. This species is highly pelagic, so it was a hoped-for life tick. Blue-footed Boobies, another breeder from the nearby islands, now started to be seen more frequently. On 5th June my only Galapagos Petrel of the Pacific was in the notebook; however, it was a significant sighting due to the fact that it was seabird species number 100, so a cause for minor celebration. In contrast to the single petrel, 550 Galapagos Shearwaters were also seen before our arrival at the Panama City anchorage. While waiting our turn to transit through the Canal we had the pleasure of numerous Magnificent Frigatebirds overflying the anchored ships. Small flocks of Neotropic Cormorants passed by and the first Brown Pelicans were seen while viewing an impressive-looking Panama City. Unfortunately our canal transit was scheduled for overnight, so the much-hoped-for jungle specialities that I first enjoyed when I transited on HMS Edinburgh in 2001 were missed. As evening approached, we passed a small party of roosting Royal and Sandwich Terns on an abandoned jetty not far from where we entered Miraflores lock. A single American Crocodile was a very unexpected bonus before night finally fell.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Panama, 6th Jun 2011 (Steve Copsey).

The Caribbean, as usual, was rather quiet. A single Audubon's Shearwater was the only reward for many hours watching. The entry into Key West for a much-anticipated visit produced both Common and Least Terns. A drive through the Florida Keys to the Everglades National Park added Double-crested Cormorant to the tally.

Least Tern, Florida, 15th June 2011 (Steve Copsey).

The next port of call was the old Royal Navy dockyard in Bermuda, always a popular visit for any ship's company, and the penultimate new seabird of the trip was widespread and easy to see: the White-tailed Tropicbird, known locally as the Bermuda Longtail, is a stunning species and very obvious as the adults displayed and chased one another around the harbour. The north Atlantic in late June was not overly productive; I assume this was down to the fact that most northern species were now attached to their breeding grounds. The final stop for York was the Azores and, as expected, Cory's Shearwaters were encountered frequently within 100 miles of the islands. HMS York arrived back in British waters on 6th July and, as the ship passed through the narrows adjacent to Hurst Castle, the final seabird of the trip was seen: three Little Terns fishing inside the Solent. The tally had hit 113.

Cory's Shearwater, Atlantic Ocean, 17th March 2011 (Steve Copsey).

White-tailed Tropicbird, Bermuda, 23rd June 2011 (Steve Copsey).

My target of 100 seabirds for the trip had been achieved and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the five months I was away. There were many highlights over the period, but the lasting memory will be the Wandering Albatrosses of South Georgia.

Written by: CPO Steve Copsey