In a previous post about my trip to the Falklands, I wrote about the mammals of the islands (and great they are too!) but I have to write about the birds too. The Falklands, quite simply, must be one of the most amazing birdwatching locations in the world and not just because of the penguins.
I have to admit here that I do keep a list of birds I see, but as part of a larger list of wildlife I encounter each year including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. My target was to see at least 50 species that I had never seen before and I very nearly got there. I saw 52 species on the islands but these included three that we have in the UK; peregrine, house sparrow and mallard (the latter two were introduced by settlers). So 49 wasn’t a bad final total and, if added to the two species I saw on Ascension Island (common myna and yellow canary), I got just over my target (if cheating a little).
In someways, the Falklands is a bit like another place I have visited for the wildlife, Iceland, as there is not a huge number of common species but the islands have a mass of individual birds to make the place spectacular. The birds are also very tame and have almost no fear of people, which makes getting up close (within limits) very easy. Being a group of small islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, you might think that seabirds would dominate but there is also a good range birds associated with freshwater and inland areas. It’s very difficult to know where to start describing all the bird species so I will mention just a few; the highlights! Geese were everywhere on the islands, and of the four species, the upland goose is the most ubiquitous (and quite tasty – I had upland goose pate a couple of times). The steamer ducks including the flightless Falkland species are also widely seen and they are part of the typical island coastal scene.
There are few raptor species in the islands but those that are there can be spotted quite frequently. Turkey vultures are seen more than most and it’s common to see small groups of them circling high above the settlements while others are found alone, quartering the long grass. The variable hawks are in many places and, like buzzards, seem to like sitting on the top of high perches like telegraph poles. Peregrines are less frequently observed but I had a dusk encounter with one when I was wandering back from the rockhopper colony on Saunders Island; it circled slowly around me, checking me out, before landing a short distance away. It let me get very close before it took off and disappeared over the hill.
The caracaras also have to be mentioned and no visit to the Falklands appears to be complete without being targeted by one of the striated variety, or Johnny Rooks as they are known locally. I was the focus of their unwanted attentions on a number of occasions with them usually trying to steal my sunglasses or lunch (never successfully, gladly). They are quite comical, yet cunning, and when they know they have been spotted, will act nonchalantly and pretend to be uninterested but will suddenly aim straight for you if you get distracted. They can be quite fearsome and don’t stand any nonsense from each other or, in fact, much larger birds like the impressive south giant petrel. Their screeching at each other and general commotion while quarrelling over food was a very common sound down on some of the beaches I visited.
One of the most impressive birds around the islands is the southern giant petrel, or ‘stinker’ to the locals. These huge, dark, sinister-looking birds with great long wings (2 metre span) are carrion eaters and spend their days gliding along the coasts or across the inland moors searching for their next meal. Graceful in the air, they are awkward on the ground and look almost prehistoric, with a strange dance when they try to claim possession over a carcass.
However, they are not quite as big or as the beautiful the black-browed albatross with a wingspan of up to nearly 2.5 metres. There are around 400,000 pairs in the Falklands and I saw them at two of their large colonies on West Point Island and Saunders Island. It was breathtaking to see these huge birds coming in to land against very strong headwinds and sometimes gliding just inches above my head. The sound of them calling to their mates is also one of the sounds of my trip and I could spend days sat within the colonies watching them come and go.
The colony of imperial shags on Bleaker Island was one of the most impressive sights with thousands of birds tightly packed together with only pecking distance between their round nests. The constant stream of birds arriving and leaving the colony increased as dusk came and the sight of the moon rising behind them against a lavender sky is one of the most vivid memories of my trip. These birds look to be black and white but in the right light, their plumage turns to almost metallic iridescent greens and blues.
Where there are large numbers of nesting birds, the Falkland skuas are sure to be found. The dumpiness of the birds on the ground belies their ferocity and they can have a go at humans as well as their usual feathered quarry. Walking around the outside of a penguin colony, the ground was usually dotted with the broken shells of the eggs stolen by the skuas.
Lastly, what many people seem to come for – the penguins; you just can’t ignore them. It was great to see all five Falklands species and most in good, or even stunning numbers. The rockhoppers are the most approachable of the species and will often come to inspect you and make it hard to keep the regulation six metres away. They are also the most comical of penguins and seeing one of them sneezing must be one of the cutest sights in the animal world. There are good-sized colonies on a number of the islands I visited including Pebble, Saunders, Bleaker and Sea Lion.
Another of the best memories of my trip was approaching the colonies at the Rookery on Saunders Island, just as dusk was falling. I walked along the hillsides above the ocean hoping that cresting the next rise would reveal where the rockhoppers were but it was the sound, then the smell, that reached me well before the sight. I could hear and smell them from at least 100 metres away and below at least two rises. As they came into sight, the huge colonies laid out in front of me, with the ocean and further coast of the island set as a backdrop; the setting sun dropping behind the hills. The macaroni penguins, which look very similar to the rockhoppers, are very limited in numbers on the islands I visited and I only saw them on Pebble Island, with them having to be pointed out to me. The magellanic and gentoo penguins are much more wary than the rockhoppers and less approachable. They tend to run off well before you get close to them but I managed to get some nice scenic shots of gentoos on some of the beaches. The gentoos and magellanics nest in smaller colonies than the rockhoppers but, again, I saw them on a number of the islands I visited including Pebble, Saunders and Bleaker.
Without doubt, the king penguins are the most beautiful of the Falklands species. They are also the most difficult to find. Whilst they can be found on Saunders Island, I was staying quite a good walk away from their colony, so I made the very memorable trip from Stanley out to Volunteer Point. It takes over two hours to drive to the point, half on the dirt tracks and half off-road – getting there is an adventure in itself. However, seeing them in their colonies and on the nearby beaches is one of the must see scenes of the Falklands.
There is so much more to write about the birds of the Falklands but I don’t think I quite have enough time. I might return to this subject in due course but I will also have to return to the islands to see them again! The following is the complete list of birds I saw in the Falklands:
Flying Steamer Duck
Falkland Island Steamer Duck
Southern Giant Petrel
South American Tern
Dark-faced Ground Tyrant
Falkland Grass Wren