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Falkland Island

After our trip to Antarctica in November 2017, we headed for "Islas Malvinas" or the Falkland Islands, in early December. 

This remote archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean is a British overseas territory and a nature photographer's paradise. King penguins, rockhoppers, albatrosses and several other species of sea birds occupy remote corners of the islands.  The sea flourist with seals and orcas. 

The islands were the site for "the Falkland war", starting 2. April 1982, lasting for 74 days killing 907 soilders.  A wildlife paradise in a young war zone!  Naturally we were excided and hopeful when we entered Latam Airlines flight 895 in Punta Arenas this Saturday morning and headed for Mount Pleasant on East Falkland Island.

CONTENT:

Map
Geography
Biodiversity
Saunders Island
Black-browed Albatross
Rockhoppers
Penguin shower
Imperial shag
Link to gallery
Magellanic penguins
The Neck
One single Macaroni
Striated Caracara
Steep slopes full of birds
King penguins
Snowy Sheathbill
Sea Lion Island
BBC, elephant seals and orcas
Birds on grasslands and fresh water lakes
One the beach again
Penguins once more
Volunteer Point

 

 

 

Falkland map (click for larger version)

The Falklands is not only remote and isolated geographically, it is also isolated with respect to airline communication.  The only way to get there (except for hiking on military air planes from UK) is to book the flight from Punta Arenas (Chile) leaving once a week only, on Saturdays. The return flight is on Saturdays afternoons. Miss the flight and you are stocked for another week.

As you can see from the map, we had picked three top end wildlife location for our stay; Saunders Island on the north-eastern tip of West Falkland, Sea Lion Island off the southern coast of East Falkland and Volunteer Point on the north-eastern tip of East Falkland.  The only way to move between the locations is using small planes operated by FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Airline Service), which has been in operation since 1948 and is really a life line for the 3 000 inhabitants on the islands. The planes (Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander) are very small, carrying 5-6 passengers only each allowed a total luggage of 20 kg (excess luggage must be paid for) and fly if the weather permits. The staff at your accommodation will know when planes are expected to depart. We found the planes and service to function excellent. Do, however, check FIGAS' web site for practical information and book well prior to your travel.

Britten-Normann BN-2 VP-FBM landing at Sea Lion Island

Geography (reference)
The Falkland Islands have a land area of 12,000 km2 and a coastline estimated at 1,300 km. The archipelago consists of two main islands, West Falkland and East Falkland, and about 776 smaller islands. The islands are predominantly mountainous and hilly, with the major exception being the depressed plains of Lafonia on the southern part of East Falkland.  The islands consists of continental crust fragments resulting from the break-up of Gondwanaland and the opening of the South Atlantic that began 130 million years ago.

The Falklands' approximate location is latitude 51°40′ – 53°00′ S and longitude 57°40′ – 62°00′ W. The archipelago's two main islands are separated by the Falkland Sound. East Falkland houses the capital Stanley, the UK military base at RAF Mount Pleasant, and the archipelago's highest point: Mount Usborne, at 705 m. Outside of these significant settlements is the area colloquially known as "Camp", which is derived from the Spanish term for countryside (Campo).

Small settlement and "camp", typical Falkland Landscape

Biodiversity
The Falkland Islands are part of the mild Antarctic zone and show strong connections to the flora and fauna of Patagonia. 63 species of birds breed on the islands, 16 endemic species. Five different penguin species inhabit the Falklands and the islands have a few of the largest albatross colonies in the World. Marine mammals, such as the southern elephant seal and the South American fur seal are frequently seen. The Falklands' flora consists of 163 native vascular species, but the islands are treeless and have wind-resistant vegetation predominantly composed of a variety of dwarf shrubs, often overlooked by visitors.

The beauty and diversity of Falkland's vegetation is often overlooked. Left: Diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum),
right: Flowers of Fachine (Chiliotrichum diffusum). Click for larger version

The islands' only native terrestrial mammal "the warrah" or Falkland Islands Wolf (Dusicyon australis) was hunted to extinction by European settlers. Charles Darwin noted the Falkland Islands Wolf when he visited the island in 1833, but the species has vanished from East Falkland in 1865.

Falkland's Wolf by G. R. Waterhouse (1838), Wikimedia Commons, public domaine



Saunders Island
As soon as we have landed at Mount Pleasent, we repacked our Antarctic luggage, stored some bags at International Tours & Travel (our perfect agency for arranging the Falkland stay) and transferred to the FIGAS plane that headed for the remote Saunders Island. Finally we were heading for some wildlife!

Saunders Island is 131,6 km2 and has a coastline of 106.8 km. It is owned by the family Pole-Evans since 1987 who live and run a farm with 6 500 sheep. On the farm site they actually have two buildings (the Settlement and the Stonehouse) for housing tourists. As soon as we landed, David Pole-Evans himself greeted us warmly and transferred us to the farm shop. The shop was operated by Suzan Pole-Evans and her we bought basic supplies. Shortly after we took off for our first location "The Rookery", a small self-catering cabin, fully equipped with two twin bedrooms on the northern side of the 1384 meter high Mt. Rookery.

Map of Saunders Island (click for larger version)

There are few roads on the Falklands and very few on Sounders Island.  Moving out to The Rookery, we basically drove in the terrain. You should be prepared for humping and bumping while on the Falklands. We safely reached the self-contained cabin and soon found ourselves settled in with the generator running enjoying the stunning view of the Atlantic ocean.

On our way to the Rookery with the farm area in the background and the road to the right. David Pole-Evans (left) and fellow travle mate
and photographer Ragnvald Andersen.

The Rookery

Black-browed Albatross
The highlight of this part of Sounders Island is the colonies of nesting black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophris) that are found only a short walk westwards from the cabin.  It did not last long until we headed off carrying in that direction our camera bags...

Black-browed albatroiss nesting close to the Rookery

This species of albatrosses is the most wide spread of all albatrosses and an estimated 475 000 - 535 000 pairs nest on Falkland or about 70% of the World's total population (IUCN and Bird Life International (2010)).  Usually the species nests on steep slopes covered with tussock grass, but in the Falklands it also nests on flat grassland.  In the Falklands the nesting usually starts from the beginning of September until November.  Besides Saunders Island black-browed albatrosses nest on 12 other Falkland Islands while South Georgia and Chile are other important nesting sites.

Pair of black-browed albatrosses curtising

Adults are large, pure white with a blackish back and upper wings, grey tail and a distinctive black eyebrow streak over and through the eye. With the heavy, hooked pale orange bill they catch their prey.  A wing span of 2.5 meters enable them to glide over the southern seas without much efforts. Just like we have observed when we crossed the Drake on our way to Antarctica nearly three week ago.

At Saunders island the largest colonies are found on the northern slopes of Mt Richard. her about 12 900 pairs of black-browed albatrosses nest taking advantage of the rather steep slopes for take-off and landings. This enormous colony was situated a little further west than we could walk from the Rookery, but we soon discovered several smaller colonies housing a few hundreds birds. Needless to say that beeing next to nesting albatrosses is an impressive event that one shal never forget. The birds are not shy at all but one should of course stick to the general 6 meters limit when approaching the big birds.

Colony of black-browed albatrosses close to The Rookery


Although the population of Black-browed Albatrosses is big, there has over the years been a decrease in the number of birds all up to 2013. Foir this reason IUCN classified the species "endangered" (EN) from 2003 until 2012 when it was given the category "near threatened" (NT). The biggest threats to the population were (and still are) longline fishing, trawling and even volcanic eruption that can cause loss of breeding habitate sites.  In 2017, due to "an extreemly large population" (>600 000 and increasing) and a very large distribution, it was moved to category "Least Concern" (LC). Today the population seems to be increasing and well fit.

Black-browed albatrosses mate for life and return to the same nest in the same colony every year. The 50 cm tall nest is a solid pillar of mud and guano with a little grass and seaweed at top.  One single egg is laid in early October and needs an incubation period of 72 days. 17 weeks after hatching the juvenile is ready to leave the nest.

The large birds spend days and even weeks on the wings and forage far off the coast, especially during non-breeding season.  When they breed, they tend to feed closer to the shore, usually closer than 500 km (at least conserning the Falkland population). Birds from Chile and South Georgia can forage as far out as 3 000 km during non-breeding season!

Nesting black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross flying off Saunders Island

 

Rockhoppers
If you continue west from the albatross colonies at the slopes of Mt. Rookery, you soon come to three large colonies of rockhopper penguins mixed with imperial cormorants.  The two species nest together here.  They mark their presence by making a lot of noise and constantly fighting for space and marking their territories.

Colonies of rockhopper penguins and imperial cormorants at the western slopes of Mt. Rookery (click for larger version)

Rockhopper distribution (reference)

The rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) are split in two species and two subspecies. Southern rockhopper (E. c. chrysocome) and eastern rockhopper  (E. c. filholi) are regarded as subspecies while the northern rockhopper (Eudyptes moseleyi) is regarded as a valid species. The rockhoppers show a southern circumpolar distribution on islands and mainlands around Antarctica (see map and reference).

The southern rockhopper has status as vuolnerable (VU) on IUCN's red list and has had this status since 2008. The population of southern rockhopper declines and has done so by 34% between 1971 and 2007 (IUCN and Bird Life International). According to IUCN ther was a mortality of unknown extent in the Southwest Atlantic in early 2016 before and during the moulting period causing mortality in several locations, including 300-400 dead rockhoppers to be found on Sounders Island.  Climate changes seems to be a significant factor in the decline of the species. Read more on IUCN's site.

According to our host, Mr. David Pole-Evans, the population of rockhoppers at Saunders Island had declined by 75% the last 2-3 years and the ramaining birds struggle to raise chicks.

Southern Rockhopper penguin

The rockhoppers are very temperamental birds that clash constantly in breeding colonies using the flippers, beaks and aggressive sound to mark their territory. This was very obvious to see when we approach the colonies this afternoon. 

When we arrived breeding was already well ahead. Usually a pair returns to the breeding site in October and lay two eggs in November. The eggs are incubated for 32-34 days, but usually only one chick is fledged although there are reports that it is not unusual two rais two chicks among pairs in the Falkland population. Rockhopper penguins prey on a variety of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods.  At the Falklands hybridization occurs with Macaroni (see below) and Northern Rockhopper Penguins.

Breeding southern rockhopper at the colony on the slopes of Mt. Rookery

Penguin shower
One of the most remarkable things at Saunders is to see how the rockhopper penguins have learned how to rins their feathers by taking a natural shower.  The way down from their nesting colonies to the shore below is very steep and just off the rim of the rocky grassland there is an overhang where fresh water drizzles gently onto a rocky platform below.  Here the rockhoppers shower on the way back to the colonies. This is a remarkable behavior not found among penguins anywhere else. My friend Ragnvald got some nice shots that he kindly provided for this story.  Many thanks to Ragnvald!

Shower platform. Photo: Ragnvald Andersen

Penguin shower. Photo: Ragnvald Andersen


Imperial Shag

The Imperial Shag (Leucocarbo atriceps), also known as "Blue-eyed Shag" is native to southern South America.  At least seven subspecies exist. Leucocarbo atriceps albiventer is found in the Falklands (as well as in a few locations in southern Argentina and Chile). Some authors consider the subspecies as separate species.

The imperial shag is distributed widely around the coasts of the Falklands and the estimated population was in the range of 45-84 000 specimens in 1997. We found the species numerously at the Saunders island where it often nested among colonies of rockhopper penguins. The species is extremly beautiful with a ring of blue skin surrounds the eyes and a pair of bright orange, knob-like warts (caruncles) above the base of the bill.

Imperial Shag nesting

 


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Magellanic Penguins
When based in the Rookery, it is a relatively short walk to the large besah found between Mt. Rookery and East Point (see map above). At this site Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) nest in burrows in the ground.  The site is also home to a lot of other bird species and sea lions can be spotted in the sea just off the beach.

View from Rookery looking towards the beach and East Point in the far distance (click for larger version)

The Magellanic penguin is found exclusively in South-America, distributed in Argentina, Chile, the Falklands and occasionally migrating individuals in Brazil. A total of some 1 500 000 breeding pair exist, giving it a conservation status as "near threatened" (NT) on the IUCN-list. Declining of fish population and pollution (especially oil spills) are the major threats to the species.   A pair sticks together for many years and nest in 2 meter deep burrows.  The largest colonies are found in Argentina and Chile where there can be as many as 20 nests per 100 square meters. 

In  the Falklands some 130 000 breeding pairs nest (2002) which is about 25% of the population found here in 1980. We found several breeding pairs in the beach area close to East Point where they nested in burrows in the grassy slopes close to the beach.  They were shyer than the other penguin species we had encountered and rapidly returned to the burrows when we approached.  Luckily we had our long lenses available.

Breeding pair of Magellanic Penguins at their burrow

Group of Magellanic Penguins ready to go fishing

The beach and the grass plains inshore were also home to a number of other birds. Besides the always present Gentoo penguins, we found flocks of Ruddy-headed geese (Chloephaga rubdiceps), a few Upland Geese (Chloephaga picta leucoptera), Brown-hooded gulls (Larus maculipennis), the extremly beautiful Dolphin gull (Leucophaeus scoresbii), Magellanic oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus) and White-bridled finch (Melanodera melanodera) just to mention some species. The place is a paradise for bird photographers carrying long lenses.

Ruddy-headed geese

Dolphin Gull

Brown-headed gull

White-bridled finch

The Neck
The neck is the most famous location on Saunders Island, perhaps even in the whole Falklands? It is a narrow, sandy passage situated between the two mountains Mt. Richards and Mt. Harston lying to the west of Rookery. On both sides of the passage lies a beach.

A small, but comfortable cabin is available for rent from Family Pole-Evans and from here you have easy access to colonies of albatrosses, rockhoppers/shags, gentoo penguins and magellanic penguins.  There is even a small colony of king penguins close to the hut.

Detailed map of "The Neck", by Falkland Conservation, (Click for larger view)

The Neck
The Neck (click for larger view)

The cabin at "The Neck"

We were actually lucky that got a space at the Neck.  Although we wanted to book nearly 18 months prior to departure from Norway, the place was already fully booked.  If you want to visit here, get in touch with Pole-Evans and book the place very early. Luckily and opening became available when we reached Saunders, and we booked at once.  Mr. Pole-Evans transferred us to the cabin after we have bunked up our supplies.

We arrived at the Neck around 10 o'clock. After a rapid check in and start of the generator, we gathered our camera gear and headed for the beach.  Numerous gentoo penguins nested in large colonies and had young chicks at the moment.

Gentoo-colonies at "The Neck"

A colony of gentoo penguin at "The Neck"

With the Nikon 70-200mm it was fun to photograph how the gentoo chicks fed from the mother's mouth. This could be done rather easily without getting too close to the birds. The parent catches fish, krill or squid, partly digests it and when it is ready, regurgitates the food into its beak, which serves as a kind of spoon to place the food into the chick's mouth.  This was fun and interesting to watch and a great scene for the chip.

Feeding the chicks

One single Macaroni
We soon headed out to the large colonies of rockhoppers found on the top of steep cliffs dropping down into the ocean from Mt. Richards.  Here they nested together with imperial shags and next to colonies of black-browed albatrosses. The sceneries were very much like those we have seen while staying in the Rookery yesterday - but with one interesting difference!

One single individual of Macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) nested among the rockhoppers. This were one of a very few macaronies that are found nesting in the Falklands. The main colonies of macaronies are found at cooler sub-antarctic islands of the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula.

Macaronies are known to interbreed with rockhoppers on several locations (White & Clausen, 2002), but the chicks appear to be sterile (as expected).  It was very interesting to observe and photograph a hybrid chick guarded and raised by the macaroni mother.

Macaroni penguin with newly hatched hybrid chick


Striated Caracara
Another interesting and in fact very rare bird that can be frequently found at this location (but also elsewhere in the Falklands)  is the Striated Caracara (Phalcoboenus australis). This is a bird of prey that catches juvenile penguins, dead chicks, dead or wounded lambs or sheep, in fact almost anything that is edible. We found the predator sneaking around in the vicinity of the penguin colonies looking for a potential prey or dead chick.

The species is classified as "near threatened" (NT) by IUCN and its major distribution area is the Falkland Island. In 1997-98 the estimated breeding population in the Falklands was 500 pairs only.  Besides on the Falklands it is known to breed on a very few locations in southern Argentina and Chile.

Striated Caracara

Steep slopes full of birds
On the northern side of Mt. Richards and about 30 minutes walk from our cabin are several colonies of rockhoppers mixed with black-browed albatrosses and imperial shags.  They all nest together. Gulls, caracaras (see above) and skuas fly overhead looking for the possibility to grab an ungarded chick or an egg. This is a windy, steep and slippery place and great care must be taken not to fall off the cliffs.  It is also a fantastic place to sit down and enjoy the bird show. It is just you, the wind and the birds...

Nesting birds on the steep slopes at the Neck

Nesting rockhopper penguin

Imperial shag

King penguins
The Neck is also home to a few king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) , the largest breding penguin in the Falklands.  The species is numerous at South Georgia Island and we were going to meet a spectacular flock of kings at Volunteer Point where we were heading in a few days (see below).  At the Neck there are may be 20 adult specimens. At the time of our visit the small colony had two large chicks, still in their brown plume.  The colony is guarded well and there is a simple fence that tell visitors to keep their distance.

King penguins at The Neck

 Juvenil King penguin at The Neck

The beach facing the open Atlantic Ocean to the east was spectacular.  Here there wer also a lot of interesting motives as the huge waves hit the shore.  This must have been a surfer's paradise.  I experimented with long and short shutter speeds as a group of magellanic penguins walked the beach as a heavy wind was blowing moving sand around.  Not the best conditions for the camera gear though.  I laid low and took a series of photos with speeds from 1/2000 sec all the way down to 0.3 sec, as shown below. Which one do you prefer?

Magellanic penguins at 1/2000 sec

Magellanic penguins at 0.3 sec

The shell of a keyhole limpet (fam. Fissurellidae) washed ashore at the Neck

Snowy Sheathbill
The shoreline at the Neck was also the home for Snowy Sheathbills (Chionis albus), a strange bird that we did also observe at the Antarctic Peninsula. This birds eats almost everything such as tiny marine invertebrates, eggs and carrions, and although it often lives close to the sea it does not have webbed feet and thus have to feed on land.  It is the only landbird native to the Antarctic continent.

Snowy Sheathbill

Saunders Island is a remote place. During our stay here, we did not meet a single person except for our friend and fellow nature photographer Tormod Amuindsen from Vardø (northern Norway) who accidentally dropped in at the Neck!  The remoteness of Saunders Island is the very best thing for this location.  You are left alone with the elements and can concentrate on birds, nature and take in the true atmosphere of a lonely planet.

Now, however, it was time to move on...

Sunset at the Neck


Sea Lion Island
Our next stop was Sea Lion Island situated 13 km south of East-Falkland Island (please see overview map above).  After a pleasant transfer from the Neck to the Settlement arranged and operated by David Pole-Evans, we boarded FIGAS and found ourselves airborne and on the way south. After two short stops and one and a half hours flight, we landed at See Lion Island at noon.

Sea Lion Island (click for larger view)

Sea Lion Island is very unlike Saunders Island.  It is flat, the highest point being only 46 meter avove sealevel, and about 9 square kilometers big. The island is a paradise for bird lovers and is an important nesting site for many bird species. About 53 species of birds can be found here, where 43 are probably breeding (Bird Life International). There are also 56 species of flowering plants on the island.

Some birds are unique to the island, among these are Cobb's Wren (Troglodytes cobbi) that are only found in the Falklands and here only on the outer island that lack introduced predators such as cats and rats.

Cobb's Wren on Sea Lion Island

In fact the island was designated as a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance) in 2006. In 2017 Sea Lion Island was designated as a National Nature Reserve. (Download a pamphlet of the island here).

When we arrived at the small airstrip, we were met by Mickey Reeves, the manager of Sea Lion Lodge where we were going to stay.  Mickey is in fact now also the owner of the island itself. He bought the entire island three months before our arrival!

Sea Lion Lodge

After a fast check in and some lunch we soon found ourselves in the jeep with Mickey taking us for a two hour ride along the island showing us the best photographic sites. This led us to North East Point and the rocky shore found here.  Huge Southern Sea Lions (Otaria flavescens) rested among the boulders below us and Upland Geese nested along the shore.

The northern shoreline with Sea Lion Lodge in the distance

Southern sealion, male. Do note the scars and blood from fighths

While the shore close to North East Point was rocky, the southern coastline close to the lodge had a beautiful beach known as Elephant Corner.  The beach was crowded with elephnat seals and a lot of shore birds. More about this later.

Beach at Elephant Corner looking towards North East Point

BBC, elephant seals and orcas
One of the first places we headed was "Orca Pool", a rocky bay with a rocky pool on the western side of Elephant Cornet (please see map above).  Here killer whales (orcas) hunt elephant seals. 

The beach at Elephant Corner is usually crowded with elephant seals, huge males, large females and smaller juveniles.  The saels play and feed in the orca pool, which is sheltered from the ocean by a partly submerged rocky ridge.  In the middle of the pool there is an inlet, which allows kille whales to swim into the pool on their hunt for a victime.

Kille whales of Sea Lion Islands are well studied. Sanvito & Galimberti (2018) have published a photographic record of the killer whales (a total of 41 specimens) observed and studied here, a study that began in 2013.

Male elephant seal resting on the beach at Elephant Corner

Orca pool with elephant seals, (click for larger view)

Young elephant seals fighting and playing at Elrephant Corner

Sanvito & Galimberti (2018) write this about killer whale's prey and hunting traditions:  In the northern hemisphere various local populations have been shown to be preying upon a single species of fish, like herring or blue fin tuna. In the North-eastern Pacific killer whales prey most on seals, and occasionally on baleen whales. In the Antarctic seas there are populations taking mostly minke whales, other specialized in taking seals, and other feeding mostly on fish species. Killer whales are estimated to eat up to 4% of their body weight every day, a true killer appetite.

Could we be lucky and observe "a kill" in Orca Pool?  When we arrived there, we met a BBC film crew that were hunting with their cameras and drones just this - a killer whale attack and kill.  

In fact BBC showed an orca kill from Orca Pool in 2009 in David Attenborough's "One Life" and writes:

New Tricks
This small pod of killer whales could only survive off the waters of the Falkland Islands by being opportunists. Normally, young elephant seals are safe in the shallows of their nursery pools close to the shore, but the pod of killer whales has a very special female. She returns to the same spot every year, just as the young elephants seals start to swim in the shallows and she knows how to get them. Negotiating the narrow channel into the pool is her first challenge. She waits in ambush in the slightly deeper waters at the mouth of the channel and waits for the seals to venture in her direction. It is extremely risky for the whale, as any wrong decision or change in tide could leave both herself and her calf stranded and in danger......

BBC on the orca hunt. Photo: Ragnvald Andersen

We spotted several killer whales just off the edge of the kelp belt outside the pool.  BBC drone flew over the spectacular mammals waiting to catch the attack.  However, we spoke to the BBC crew afterwards and they told us that they have been here for four weeks and seen two (!) attacks only resulting in one baby elephant seal being killed!  Nature photography and filming is a combination of skill, patience and a good portion of luck!

Killer whale and BBC drone off the kelp edge outside Orca Pool


Killer whales off the kelp bed at the Orca Pool

 

Birds on grasslands and fresh water lakes
Sea Lions Island can be walked. There are paths for hiking across the island.  This is a great opportunity to get close to a number of birds.  We found a number of interesting species in this way, in particular along the rim of Long Pond (one of the freshwater lakes on the island, again please refer to the map above).  Here we came close to the Silvery Grebe (Podiceps occipitales), a stunning bird and the only species in genus Podiceps. The species is Resident on the Falklands with an estimated population of 5-900 pairs (1997), and typically inhabits large ponds without being numerous and common.

Silvery Grebe

The lake was also home to pairs of upland geese (subspecies Chloephaga picta leucoptera endemic to the Falklands) that at the moment had small chicks. Male and female are different in colour and the geese love to graze at the rime of the lake.  Ducks were also present, and we counted at least three species; chiloë wigeon (Anas sibilatrix), which were very shy, crested duck (Lophonetta specularioides speculariodes) with its bright red eyes, and speckled teal (Anas flavirostris), which also had chicks.

Upland geese family

Crested ducks

Speckled teal

The Falkland skua (Catharacta antarctica) is a large, dark brown predatory bird that frequently can be seen hovering over the gentoo penguin colonies on the watch for a lost chick to be eaten.  The big bird carries out piratical attacks on chick, other sea birds and eggs and it can also do swoopy attacks on humans. An estimated 5-9000 pairs occur in the Falklands (1997). On the grassland close to the lodge the skuas were nesting.

Falkland skua nesting

Sea Lion Island is indeed an ornithological paradise!  Not only for ducks, geese and penguins, but even small songbirds are found here. The resident endemic subspecies of black-throated finch (Melanodera melanodera melanodera) is common and feeds on flowers and seeds. It can occur in flocks of several hundreds.

Black-throated finch (male)

Another endemic subspecies that we frequently encountered was the Flakland thrush (Turdus falcklandii falcklandii) that is especially common close to settlements.  The magellanic snipe (Gallinago paraguaiae magellanica) is not endemic, but also found from central Chile and Argentina to Tierra del Fuego, but although quite common on Sea Lion Island, it is often overlooked due to its great camouflaged when sitting in the  bushes.

Falkland thrush


Magellanic snipe

On the beach again
The next day the wind was strong. Very strong!  Gail from south-east caused huge waves to build up and sand grains to fly. Nevertheless we headed on to the beach with our cameras.  Flying sand is dangerous for any camera gear, but still we wanted to do some photography, sheltering the gear as best we could.

 
Gail at Elephant Corner

When we arrived at the beach at Elephant Corner, we found a large flock of the flightless Falkland steamer duck (Tachyeres brachypterus - also known as "The Logger" or "Loggerhead") resting on the beach.  This strange duck has a cousin (the flightless Magellanic steamer duck) living along the coast of southern South-America, but what we had here was the flightless duck only found in the Falklands. An endemic species.

The wings are much too short for flying - the evolution has degenerated them during many years of isolation - but they are excellent for swimming and diving where the Falkland steamer duck is an expert!  The species is also recognized on it's very loud call used for defending the territory by both male and female. Usually it is the immature birds that gather in large flocks like here on the beach this day.  What a strange bird.

Falkland steamer duck, two males and one female


Loggerheads and a single penguin fighting the big waves and strong wind

Close by two elephant seals were fighting in the waves.....

Elephant-fight


Penguins once more
The strong wind calmed after a few hours and we headed for the large beach facing north between North East Point and Cow Point. On the way we were greeted  by hundreds of gentoo penguins that were on their way back to the colonies after fishing in the ocean.  Hundreds of penguins nested in colonies just next to the lodge.

Gentoo penguin feeding it's chick next to Sea Lion Lodge

The northern beach was stunning!  Waves rolled onto the shore and with them followed "jumping" penguins on their way home.  The gentoos are fantastic swimmers, but more clumsy when they are on land. I tried to catch the swimming birds as they came out of the waves, but this is not easy. One tends to be a little bit too slow on the trigger.  Now and then huge southern giant petrels (Macronectes giganteus) flew just above the water looking for a potential catch.

Gentoo penguin emearging from it's ocean burrow

Finally home again

Southern giant petrel

Our stay at Sea Lion Island was coming to an end. We did one last session on Elephant Corner the day after the storm.  A lot of huge sea weed stalks have been thrown up on the beach and this provided nutrient for many waders including the two-banded plower (Charadrius falklandicus), several sandpipers and the magellanic oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus). A pair of kelp gull (Larus dominicanus) was on the watch searching for anything edible.....

Two-bannded plower

Magellanic oystercatcher


Kelp gulls

It was sad to leave this beautiful and interesting island, remote, exposed to nature's wild forces and full of birds. FIGAS left a bit delayed and  although overbooked, leaving some American fellow photographers waiting, we were soon on our way to Stanley heading for our last location in the Falklands.

Volunteer Point
Our tour operator, International Tours and Travel, had arranged to pick us up at the airport in Stanley and transferred us to Volunteer Point, a remote spot and one of the eastern-most locations in the Falklands (please refer to map above). We were in a car, luckily a 4WD. 

The road was fine at the beginning, but after about an hour and a half, the road ended.  "Now we are half way there", the driver said. After this we drove in the terrain, no road what so ever!  Over moors, up and down slopes, removing fences and crossing small streams. No trees!  No roads! Humping and bumping. 

After another hour and a half we reached Warden's House at Volunteer Point, owned and operated by Derek and Trudi Pettersson.  A small farm in the middle of nowhere.  Very cosy, very friendly!  A small room for the two of us, upstairs. Dinner and a beer in the kitchen.  What a good life!

Warden's House at Volunteer Point

Volunteer Point has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Birds for which the site is of conservation significance include Falkland steamer ducks (75 breeding pairs), ruddy-headed geese (100 pairs), gentoo penguins (100 pairs), Magellanic penguins (2000 pairs) and white-bridled finches.

We had come to see and photograph the about 150 pairs of king penguins that breed here, at the most northerly part of their range. King penguins were once nearly extinct in the Falklands, and Volunteer Point contains most of the Falkland population.

Consequently the next morning we were up early and headed down to the beach hoping to meet the kings.  And we were not to be disappointed.  Flock after flock wandered from the breeding colony inside the beach area to the sea in order to have a swim to rinse their feathers and to feed in the ocean.  Like soldiers they marched in lines heading for the ocean.

King penguin breeding colony at Volunteer Point



Marching kings

We spent the whole day at the beach, only interrupted by meals at Warden's House so well prepared by Trudi. The weather shifted from bright sunny to overcast, which was excellent for photography.  I experimented with different focal lengths and angels and tried to catch the kings and the ocean outside as a whole.

Kings on the beach (click for larger version)
Kings on the beach (click for larger version)

Our journey had come to an end. The next morning we drove back to Stanley (yes, the road was still missing) and continued to Mt. Pleasant airport.  We did catch the only plane this week back to Punta Arenas and from there to Santiago.  Soon we would be back in the frozen country, but the kings still remain on the beach at Volunteer Point....

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