Sea Lion Island
Sea Lion Lodge is excellent. Food is really good. Great cooking using fairly basic ingredients. Most of the food on the islands is either frozen or tinned as they only get one delivery per month.
There is a large Gentoo Penguin colony only 100 metres from the lodge. Lots of young penguins are taken overnight by the Falkland Skuas, who are also nesting just outside the lodge. Each penguin has two chicks, but so many are predated upon that it takes three breeding pairs to raise just two chicks. Their main nesting site is just a bit of bare ground between the tall tussock grass (where the Skuas nest). Several other smaller colonies can be found on top of various open mounds not far away.
There are small birds wherever we go. Black-chinned Siskin, Black-throated (Canary winged) Finch, Tussac Bird, Falkland Thrush, Falkland Pipit and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant abound. Less common, but not that difficult to come across, are Striated Caracara and Turkey Vultures.
We walk of about 1 mile from lodge to the Northern Beach where most of the Gentoo Penguins return from their fishing expeditions. We actually walk down the Penguin’s track, giving them priority every time we meet them coming in the opposite direction. Some of the Gentoo Penguins will jump out of water as they leave the sea. These are our main photographic targets on this island. From 4 pm to 6.30 pm is the optimum time to catch their return. We visit this (North) beach every single afternoon. The jumping / surfing shots are not that easy to capture, but they are very rewarding when you get one. We find one lonesome King Penguin (a surprise visitor from another island) on the beach. Falkland Steamer Ducks, Giant Petrels and Oystercatchers regularly swim / fly past while we are waiting for the penguins.
En-route to the beach we pass several colonies of Gentoo Penguins above ground, plus groups of Magellanic Penguins that live below ground in burrows. We also pass about 10 Southern Elephant Seals and close to 100 Upland Geese.
We use the lodge vehicle on two mornings for a 3.5 hours excursion. We visit the Sea Lion colony. There are a number of massive males guarding females. Some of the females are just giving birth. They usually mate 3 days afterwards, so it is perfect timing to see the big males. We see new-born pups still attached to the placenta while Dolphin Gulls are tugging at it and pulling off bits for their morning meal. We see Dolphins in the bay and both Northern & Southern Giant Petrels live in close proximity to the Sea Lions.
We then pass by Long Pond where we see Silvery Grebe (with baby on back and the father feeding the baby), Magellanic Snipe, Silver Teal, Two-banded Plover, Falkland Steamer Ducks (flightless), Flying Steamer Ducks, Ruddy-headed Goose and Black–crowned Night Heron. Further on, we see Striated Caracara, Kelp Goose, Cobbs Wren, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers.
Our final destination is Rockhopper Point, the home of Rockhopper Penguins, Pale-Faced Sheathbill (migrant visitor), Dolphin Gull, Brown-headed Gull, Imperial Shag and Rock Shag. It is a great site from where to capture birds in flight. We also see a Peregrine Falcon and a number of Southern American Terns passing by. Rockhopper Penguins nest above the ground on the rocks. Their chicks are well-guarded by their parents. There is a sizeable number of really tightly bunched babies in a crèche that is closely attended by a few adults. This practice is very different to that of the Gentoo Penguins, who do not seem to have any co-operative defensive tactics. One Gentoo parent has two chicks to look after, an almost impossible task when surrounded by a considerable number of aggressive Skuas. They seem to be protecting them much less this year than is normal. Maybe the fishing is not as rewarding as normal and the parents are letting the smaller chicks go. The numbers of Gentoo Penguins appear to be in decline on most islands. The sea temperatures have recently risen by 1.5 degrees and this means certain penguin food species are moving to colder waters. The Gentoo Penguins all seem to have one chick much bigger than the other. They feed the larger one first so that that one has the best chance of survival. It seems that the second one is for insurance purposes. If food is in short supply, then the little one is not their priority. The Skuas are killing so many that they are not eating them. Just the eyes and the brains are eaten. This is a wicked waste and quite shocking to see. We all know that species kill other species to survive, but the amount of killing here has nothing to do with survival. We saw approximately 40 freshly killed chicks one morning alone. Their bodies were untouched. Some of the hungrier Skuas picked their little bodies over later in the day, but it was usually only their internal organs that were of interest.
The Southern Beach is a great place for a morning walk. To get there, you pass by both Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins, nesting Skuas, Kelp Gulls and Upland Geese. Once on the beach we find Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks, Striated Caracara, Two-banded Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper and Magellanic Oystercatchers. Some of these birds are not just tame, but will actually come right up to you. Further along the beach we find a large number of Southern Elephant Seals and our lone King Penguin, complete with a full reflection in a small pool. Some of the group saw Orcas here on the last afternoon.
Our Itinerary 2018
December 30; Arrive Stanley. Air transfer to Sea Lion Island.
Afternoon photography. Overnight at Sea Lion Lodge. (5 nights).
December 31 to January 3; Four full days on Sea Lion Island.
January 4; Air transfer from Sea Lion Island to Saunders Island.
Depart 12.45. Overnight at the Settlement
January 5 & 6; Two whole day visits to the Neck.
Overnight at the Settlement, Saunders Island.
January 7; Road Transfer from the Settlement to the Rookery.
Overnight at the Rookery, Saunders Island.
January 8 & 9; Two whole days around the Rookery (visiting the Rockhopper shower and more). Overnight at the Rookery, Saunders Island.
January 10; Fly to Stanley and road transfer to Volunteer Point.
Overnight stay at Volunteer Point.
January 11; Whole day at Volunteer Point. Overnight at Volunteer Point.
January 12; Road Transfer to Stanley before air transfer to Carcass Island. Overnight on Carcass Island.
January 13; Boat trip to West Point (subject to weather conditions).
Overnight on Carcass Island.
January 14; Air transfer to Bleaker Island. Overnight on Bleaker Island.
January 15; Whole day on Bleaker Island. Overnight on Bleaker Island.
January 16; Air transfer to Pebble Island. Overnight on Pebble Island.
January 17; Whole day on Pebble Island. Overnight Pebble Island.
January 18; Air transfer to Stanley. Half day trip to Gypsy Cove.
Overnight at Malvina Hotel, Stanley.
January 19; Full day trip to Kidney Cove. Overnight at Malvina Hotel, Stanley.
January 20; Breakfast. Depart Stanley.
The Settlement on Saunders Island
We arrive at the Settlement around 3 pm. Self-catering is the only option on this island. First thing we go shopping. Lots of pre-cooked oven-ready meals are available plus a whole array of tins and packets of various foods to choose from. The owner offers to take us on a tour but as it is fairly late we stay local. We go down to the harbour from 3.30 pm to 6pm. Lots of Southern Giant Petrels and Kelp Geese. Striated Caracara (also known as the Johnny Rook), Black-crowned Night Heron, Blackish and Magellanic Oystercatchers, Falkland Skuas, South American Terns and sheep. We watch both Dolphin Gulls and Kelp Gulls taking shellfish up in the air and dropping them on the rocks. Sometimes the shell breaks first time. Sometimes it takes a second or third go. A family of Patagonian Crested Ducks swim across in front of us. Around 40 Southern Giant Petrels are constantly taking off and landing in front of us which is really great. A really relaxed, but productive 2.5 hours.
The Neck on Saunders Island
We lose the next day completely due to rain. We have more than a month’s rain in one day. It was to be our first day at the Neck. The following morning is beautiful, and we arrive at the Neck at 9am and stay until 6pm. It is a wonderful place. There are colonies of Gentoo Penguins as far as the eye can see. Our first photography session is with a group of 20 King Penguins. One has a 2-day-old chick and another has an egg with a small hole in it. There is a chick hatching from this egg. The head and wings emerge after a couple of hours, but it is a further 4 hours until the chick completely detaches itself from the rest of the shell. A wonderful event to witness. I stayed with it for the whole 6 hours. While this was going on the partner of the parent with the other chick returns from the sea. There is much trumpeting from both parties and the newcomer is absolutely fascinated with the tiny chick. The original parent pushes it forward from its pouch and the chick lays across its feet in full view so that the new arrival can see exactly what they have brought into the world. The newcomer is absolutely fascinated with the chick and stares at it intensely with its beak only millimetres from the tiny baby. After a few minutes, something amazing happens. Both parents face each other and push up close together. The new arrival carefully pulls the chick forward from its partner’s feet and gently coaxes it onto its own feet with its bill. There is much shuffling to get the chick inside its pouch and after another minute or so the chick has disappeared inside away from the cold and biting wind. The King Penguins are so careful in the way that they attend to the chick with their beak. Each time they adjust the baby’s position the parent opens its beak and places the top part against one of its toes so that it can have 100% control over what it does with the lower part that touches the chick. There is never any sudden or jerky movement whatsoever. Every movement is done with a calculated finesse. There are lots of Striated Caracara (Johnny Rooks) about. They are looking for scraps that are left around. They seem to prefer to run along the ground rather than flying. They are kept away from the colonies of Gentoo Penguins by the more dominant Skuas. Their main targets are the Magellanic Penguins that nest underground on the hillsides. The Falkland Skuas are constantly harassing the individual Gentoo colonies and are regularly taking either a chick or an egg whenever it is not closely guarded by an adult. We also see 2 crested Caracaras, some Giant Petrels, Magellanic Oystercatchers, Dolphin Gulls, Kelp Gulls and Turkey Vultures. Some of our group walk slightly further afield and find Magellanic Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins and Imperial Shags. There is a huge amount of activity on the beaches with the continual comings and goings of the Penguins that are going, or returning from, fishing while their partners stay at home looking after the chicks. A fabulous day at a really impressive fabulous location.
The Rookery on Saunders Island
After 3 nights at the Settlement we move to the Rookery for 3 nights there. It is a 40 minutes transfer. We leave at 07.30 and are in the house, unpacked and ready to go out by 08.30. Another fantastic day weather-wise and it is our warmest day in the Falklands by a country mile. We have about a mile to walk from the house to the Rockhopper shower. Today turns out to be one of my most enjoyable photography days ever. The Rockhopper shower is absolutely incredible. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to aptly describe it. Everyone on the trip is absolutely blown away by what they see. There is a continual stream of Rockhopper Penguins wanting to use the freshwater shower that is formed by a small freshwater spring trickling down the rocks. There are two showers just a couple of feet from each other and there are never more than two Rockhopper Penguins showering at once. If the Penguin is fairly high ranking (or a bully) he has both showers and does not allow any other Penguin near until he has finished. These guys may take 10 minutes to shower, whereas all the others move on and let someone else in (or are forced to move on by a sharp peck on the backside) after just 1 – 2 minutes. The whole thing is captivating and we spend almost 4 hours there. The entertainment was second to none. There are many other birds there as well. We photograph Black-browed Albatross, Turkey Vultures, Pale-Faced Sheathbill, Dolphin Gulls, Imperial Shags, Southern Giant Petrels, Blackish Oystercatchers without even moving from our position from where we are photographing the shower. The half-hour walk to and from the shower usually takes much longer (nearly 2 hours) as we stop to photograph some of the 12,000 Black-browed Albatross which are nesting all along the cliff-tops. They have an impressive wingspan of up to 8 feet and have absolutely no fear of us whatsoever. Most have a baby in their mud nests which resemble a 1 foot tall chimney pot. Their partners are constantly flying backwards and forwards along the coast. They are so incredibly graceful in the air and you can shoot up at them, shoot down on them or you even can shoot eye to eye with them. Their flightpath is very predictable and they are a really easy target. They have absolutely no fear of us and hardly even acknowledge our presence as we walk by. They regularly fly just a couple of feet above our heads and the whooshing noise that their wings make is something really special to hear. We again photograph the Albatrosses as we return to our lodge and spend time with a Striated Caracara and two Falkland Skuas with a chick, a Long-tailed Meadow Lark and some Magellanic Penguins.
Next morning, as we eat breakfast in the lodge, we watch a mist roll down from the top of the hill and fall into the sea. It was quite thin layer (so it does not make everywhere dark) and it stays with us all day. It makes for some fantastic omnidirectional lighting that allows us to shoot in all directions without changing settings on the cameras. With exception of the flying shots, we re-shoot everything that we had done on the previous day. The detail in the subjects is really good today, and we all enjoy shooting in very different conditions to the day before. Our subjects are virtually a carbon copy, but the photographs are quite different. In the afternoon, we have a lovely hour or so just outside the lodge lying on the floor with Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Long-tailed Meadowlarks (bright red breasts) and Austral Thrushes.
Our third and final day at the rookery. It is a really bright day and very windy, so we avoid shooting the Albatrosses over the edges of the cliffs. The strong gusts of wind could easily blow us over the edge. We go straight down to the shower. The whole lower area is all in the shade there in the morning so it is perfect for the close-up detail in both the Albatrosses that nest all around the shower, and the Rockhopper Penguins that sit around on the rocks before attempting the steep climb to the top. We photograph both of these species eye-to-eye from just a few feet away. We photograph the Rockhoppers in the shower for about three hours and go back to the lodge for a well-deserved late lunch. By a huge margin, these are our best “in the shower” pictures so far. Practice makes perfect. We go out again at 5.30 pm. The light is wonderful and the Black-browed Albatrosses are flying along the coastline, into the wind and towards the sun. Perfect conditions for in-flight shots. We all take advantage of these conditions before retiring for dinner.
We depart from the Rookery at 8.15 am and spend a short time back at the Settlement waiting for our plane. It is a 40 minutes flight to Stanley where the warden from Volunteer Point is waiting for us. The journey to his house takes another 2.5 hours. We have good views of a couple of Rufous-chested Dotterels from the Landrover. We have a quick lunch and unpack before he takes us in his vehicle to show us the various ponds and drops us off near the King Penguin colony. It is a thirty-minute walk from the Wardens House. He has placed a ring of painted stones round the colony to stop people going closer than 4 metres to them. There is also a similar ring round the Gentoo Penguins Colony. These are the only no-go areas for we four photographers staying at the lodge. All day-visitors have to keep to a fairly small roped-off area of the beach, and are not allowed near the ponds or the vast Magellanic Penguin Colony. We start by photographing the main King Penguin Colony. We are awe-struck. Where do we begin. There are 1200 King Penguins here at any one time. It is estimated that, including those at sea, there are over 2000. I walk slowly round the huge colony twice, photographing from every angle as I go. They are so tightly packed that there is almost no bare ground to be seen between them. There are a few of last year’s late chicks that are still covered, head to toe, with a long and thick light brown coat. They are almost fully grown and look like a different species amongst their very colourful adults. There is a constant chattering from the colony that is punctuated by the loud trumpeting from a few penguins every couple of minutes or so. This is one of the most amazing sights that I have seen, and one that will stay with me forever. Another of my distant dreams has become a reality. The other three photographers stay here for a long time looking for glimpses of tiny chicks that have just hatched out. I had already spent 6 hours doing this on Saunders Island, and did not need to do this again. I headed off for the beach. It is an incredibly beautiful beach, about a mile long with beautiful white sand along its entire length. There are large numbers of Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins all along the beach. Some have returned from the sea and some are plucking up courage to go to sea. Every 20-30 minutes three or four King Penguins make their way down to the sea. These are the ones that I am after. They are a little more nervous than other penguins, and I find that the distance from which I can naturally photograph them is more like 25 metres rather than the suggested 5 metres. There are moments just before they enter the sea when they have a complete reflection in the wet sand immediately after the waves have retreated. Many of the King Penguins are really wary of entering the sea and it takes several “false runs” and sometimes several hundreds of yards of walking up and down the waters’ edge before they will commit to their fishing expedition. They remind me of Wildebeest deciding on whether, or not, to cross the Mara River. I manage to get some fantastic shots of these subjects walking up and down the waters’ edge. I find that if I lie on the sand 50 metres in front of them and about 10 metres from the sea, they are happy to walk by me less than 10 metres away. With my really low perspective I get some outstanding shots with the sea as a background. I am even lucky enough to get one group of King Penguins emerge from the sea right in front of me. They stay in the wet reflective sand long enough for me to get some wonderful shots. The rest of my group join me and we all have a great time with a group of King Penguins going up and down the shoreline before finally deciding to enter the water. In addition to the Penguins we photograph Magellanic Oystercatchers, Two-banded Plovers, Turkey Vultures, Dolphin Gulls, Southern Giant Petrel, Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks, Ruddy Headed Geese, Chiloe Wigeon (and babies), Upland Geese, Speckled Teal and Crested Ducks. We have dinner back at the Warden’s house at 6 pm before going out again and photographing for another 2.5 hours until sunset. Another amazing day on the wonderful Falkland Islands.
Next morning, we are up at 3.30 am. We quickly dress and are on the beach less than 20 minutes later. It is still a little too dark for photography, but the potential is enormous. Golden patches of sand are starting to develop along the shoreline. There are huge numbers of Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins entering the water. King Penguins are few and far between. As the light improves we take more and more pictures. Typically, of black silhouettes walking through golden sand. Just before the sun pops out above the horizon, we find 2 groups of King Penguins. There are a few too many for our liking, but we manage to find one or two occasionally separated from the group. Just before we leave the beach we come across 20 or so King Penguins that cannot decide whether, or not, to go fishing. They go into the water and come back out of the water no less than 4 times. Just the shots we need. Well done King Penguins ( aka Wildebeest). We get some really special shots. Everyone is really pleased with themselves for getting up so early. It was hard at the time but we are well rewarded. Some of us head back to the house shortly after 5am and back to bed. Some stay out until breakfast at 8am. At 8.30 the day-trippers from Stanley begin to arrive. We all then return to bed until lunchtime. My legs, knees and back tell me to spend the rest of the day in the comfort of the Warden’s House. All the others are back with the penguins by 2.30 pm, by which time all of the day-trippers have left. So once again we have the amazing privilege of having the whole of Volunteer Point (with virtually no restrictions) to ourselves for the afternoon shoot. Fog descended while we were having dinner, so we abandon the late evening photography session and prepare for a very early departure tomorrow.
We depart Volunteer Point at 5.20 am and arrive at Stanley Airport at 7.45am. We see 4 Hares on our way. These are the first wild 4-legged animals that we have seen. Our flight takes off at 8.30 and touches down on Carcass Island at 9.30. We arrive at the lodge about an hour later and have snacks, coffee and a talk about what is available. Our first impression of the island is that it is not as stunning as any of the other places we have visited. It is a working farm with cattle and sheep and there are no obvious large colonies of birds that we have seen. We go out for an hour and a half before lunch. We spend a while in the lodge garden and photograph Cobbs Wren, Falkland Grass Wren and Black-chinned Siskin. We then find a little bay just behind the garden. It is teeming with birds. We photograph Magellanic Oystercatchers, Kelp Ducks, Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks and chicks, Magellanic Penguins plus both Striated and Crested Caracara. The food here is really special. It is all fresh (flown in on a daily basis) and after a great lunch we take a vehicle ride to explore the northern part of the island. How wrong we were with our first assessment of the island. There do not appear to be any large bird colonies in the north, but we find some real gems on our drive. We are all very pleasantly surprised and the “wow factor” of the Falkland Islands just continues. Our first stop is at a small inlet in search of some Elephant Seals. There aren’t any there but we find something even better. There is a female Sea Lion with a brand new-born pup. She is being guarded by a huge male Sea Lion. The baby suckles several times and the big male poses all around her while this is happening. He is here to mate with her. This usually happens around 3 days after the female gives birth. We keep a safe distance away, but they allow us to lie on the ground and take some beautiful shots with the sea behind. After we have finished with them we photograph the birdlife; Upland Geese, Yellow-billed Teal, Patagonian Crested Ducks, Striated Caracara, Ruddy-headed Geese, Tussock Birds, Black-throated Finch, Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Falkland Pipits, Falkland Thrush, Turkey Vultures, Common Snipe, Kelp Gulls, Falkland Skuas, Canary-winged Finches and Long-tailed Meadowlarks. We move to another bay in search of more Elephant Seals. We find a group of around 50 on the shore. There are a few really big males with the large lump on their foreheads. We have not seen these before. A couple of them raise their heads high and snarl at each other and posture for us. We are delighted as we had been told that we were unlikely to see this happen. We photograph another Cobbs Wren and on our way back to the lodge we see a stunning Variable Hawk. We arrive back at the lodge at 6 pm and I go out for 45 minutes before dinner. I find another gorgeous little Falkland Grass Wren, some Falklands Flightless Steamer Ducks and a large group of Magellanic Oystercatchers. Another absolutely brilliant day.
West Point – Off Carcass Island
Today we have a whole-day boat trip to West Point Island. We are unsure whether we will get the full time on the island as a gale is forecast. We leave the harbour at 9.30 am. We do not photograph on the 15 minutes’ walk to the boat but notably walk past 61 Magellanic Oystercatchers standing together in a space of about 10 square metres. The trip to the island is fairly uneventful and takes about an hour. Our destination on the island is Devil’s Nose, which is a point at the end of the island 1.4 miles away from where we land. Fortunately, we are taken there and back by Landrover. We arrive there at 11 am. It is bright with part blue sky and part cloud, and we are facing into a very strong, cold wind. I put on all seven layers that I have with me. We are shown a path leading into the tussock grass and are told that we should walk down the path where we will see the Black-browed Albatross colonies on our right. What none of have been told, is how to walk through tussock grass. The larger tussocks are 4 – 5 feet wide and also 4 – 5 feet high. Once you get to the end of the path that we were shown (and it ends way before any Albatross colonies) there is no obvious route to take. Sometimes you can push between two adjacent tussocks without too much difficulty and sometimes they are so inter-grown that it is impossible. They are so dense that you cannot see where you are putting your feet (or even see your feet). The tussocks are growing out of a peaty-clay and there is usually a gap between them just wide enough for one foot. Sometimes there is no gap. The Rockhopper Penguins have made narrow “under-grass” pathways which are like tiny tunnels between the tussocks. The easiest way through the tussocks is to try to follow these penguin’s paths. Now add this into the mix. The Rockhopper Penguins are so named because they climb high up rocky faces from the sea by jumping up and down from rock to rock. They do not climb, but continually jump (or hop). They like to do the same between the tussocks, so you are following a path where you can’t see your feet (or what is in front of you) and the ground suddenly rises or drops a foot or two. There is much stumbling and grabbing on to grasses to save yourself from falling. Sometimes the step up is so tall that you can only get up it by hauling yourself up with the next tussock. Sometimes you drop down unexpectedly maybe two feet or so, and what you drop into is six inches of watery penguin excrement that has drained down to the bottom of the dip. It really is a nightmare and there is much retracing of steps and trying to find an alternative route in a similar direction to where we want to go. Eventually we find a colony. It is a bare, rocky area with no tussocks. There are, maybe 50 Albatrosses intermingled with probably around 100 Rockhopper Penguins. Most of the Albatrosses have chicks, some have eggs and some have neither. The Rockhopper Penguin chicks are in crèches supervised by one or two parents. The youngsters are constantly trying to get to the highest point of any rock that they can. Their minders know that they are more vulnerable to the Striated Caracaras and Falkland Skuas up there, and they keep pecking at them thereby forcing them back down to a safer place. This is a constant process. It reminds me of a mother dealing non-stop with naughty children. Each time her back is turned they do it again. We battle our way down the cliff to more colonies. We spend time watching the Albatrosses’ traits. When a partner returns from the sea there is a ritual that is always performed before and after they swap over their duties. They are very vocal, fan out their tails, touch each other’s beaks and groom each other many times. Towards the end one of them will call loudly with its beak wide open. They swap over their duties and repeat the process all over again. This ends with one bird with a wide-open beak before the bird that had been sitting on the nest goes fishing. It is wonderful to see how much they care for each other. They behave like newly-weds. Some of the Rockhopper Penguins take great delight in occupying a vacant Albatross’s mound until they are unceremoniously ejected when the rightful owner returns. We then move further down past another couple of colonies to a place where we are in perfect position to take shots of the birds soaring in every conceivable position in the strong winds. The wind is gusting so strongly that there are times when we cannot keep the camera on the bird because our camera is being blown all over the place. The wind does quieten down every now and then and we get far better Albatross flight-shots than we have achieved to date. We also get the odd Southern Giant Petrel, Falkland Skua and Striated Caracara. It is a really enjoyable couple of hours sat down and getting some great images (punctuated by eating our sandwiches). When the wind is really strong, even though we are maybe 500 feet above the sea, it is blowing fine droplets of seawater from the waves into our faces. It is almost like a very fine drizzle. At around 2pm it clouds over and we get intermittent rain. I don’t feel I can improve on what I have got, so I go to our drop-off point and wait for the Landrover. Some join me and some continue photographing. We are picked up at 4 pm and are taken back to the boat. On the return, we see 3 Commerson’s Dolphins swimming and breaching alongside the boat, a Slender-billed Prion, a Wilson’s Storm Petrel and Falkland Diving Petrels. We arrive back at the lodge around 5.30 just before the heavens open. Another great day that has produced some very different photographs to those we have previously taken.
Next morning, we have a leisurely breakfast until 9 am. We are due to leave at 11 am. It is gusty with light rain in the air. We decide to stay in the hotel to ready ourselves for our next adventure on Bleaker Island. However, half an hour later two things have changed. We are not leaving until 12 am and the sun is now shining. We have a couple of hours in the garden and on the beach and photograph virtually the same birds as we did when we first arrived; Cobbs Wren, Falkland Grass Wren and Black-chinned Siskin, Blackish and Magellanic Oystercatchers, Kelp Ducks, Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks, a single scraggy Rock Shag, Magellanic Penguins plus both Striated and Crested Caracara.
We have further delays at the airstrip. The high winds are playing havoc with the flight schedules. Finally, we get air-born and arrive at Bleaker Island at around 2.30 pm. We are given a tour of the main items to see on the island and reach our lodge at 3.40 pm. The colonies are well spread and some are several miles from the lodge. We hire a self-drive vehicle for the two days that we are here, so the distances immediately become irrelevant.
Three of us decide on seeing the Rock Shags, Rockhopper Penguins and Crested Caracaras in the tussocks close to the lodge. One person does not want to do that so we take her to the Gentoo Penguins at the far end of Sandy Bay. The tussocks are nothing like those we encountered at West Point Island. There is a good path straight through them down to the sea. They are just as big as those that we encountered previously, but they have been planted wider apart. This means that we can always find a way through them and there are no hidden steps up or down to navigate. Negotiating a new track through is not at all difficult. We get some great shots of the Rock Shags. This species had evaded us up to now. We find a place where we can shoot across a deep, narrow ravine where we are almost eye to eye with them. The evening light is perfect (as the owner said it would be). We watch parents return from the sea with bellies full of food. They greet their partner with various grooming and posturing. The original bird soon flies off and the newcomer feeds the chicks. The chicks are getting towards fully grown. We watch in amazement as the chick literally disappears inside its parent right up to its wings. The parent has a huge job to get the chick out from inside it. It is struggling for three minutes or more. It is snatching its head up as high as it can before pushing down on the chick and repeating the process time after time. It looks as if they are completely stuck together and that they will both suffocate. We had been told that this does happen from time to time. We get some amazing flying shots of the incoming Rock Shags and also of a male Crested Caracara that, we were told, has a nest nearby. We sit near the edge of the ravine and we are joined by two Rock Shags. At first, we zoom out and take full body shots, and then zoom in and get some wonderfully detailed head shots. Another new species well covered. There are numerous Rockhopper Penguins all around and we take a few photographs of these before driving to collect our 4th person from the Gentoo Penguins. We return to the lodge for dinner and an early night. The lodge and the rooms are the most luxurious and spacious that we have come across to date. The food is great and we go to bed happy once more.
Next morning, we leave at 9 am. I am driving the whole group and we drive to the north-west corner of the main part of the island, stopping whenever we see anything of interest to photograph. We photograph no less than 30 different bird species; King Penguin (one on his own), Gentoo Penguin, Magellanic Penguin, White-tufted Grebe, Silvery Grebe, Southern Giant Petrel & chicks, Rock Shag, Imperial Shag, Kelp Geese, Upland Geese, Ruddy-headed Geese, Falkland Steamer Ducks, Chiloe Wigeon, Speckled Teal, Patagonian Crested Ducks, Silver Teal, Turkey Vulture, Crested & Striated Caracara, Magellanic & Blackish Oystercatchers, Two-banded Plovers, Magellanic Snipe, White-rumped Sandpiper, Falkland Skuas, Kelp Gulls, Dolphin Gulls, South American Tern, Tussac Bird and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant. We start at the small ponds just outside our lodge and move to the Imperial Shag colony. 8,000 pairs nest in this one colony. Almost half of these birds take off between 9am and 10 am. It was an amazing sight. They fly very low above the ground and with the light behind them, so flight shots were not that easy. Nevertheless, we all take several hundred photos of them. We plan to return there this afternoon. The White-tufted Grebe behaves wonderfully for us and we get some great shots of that on the Big Pond. We then find a colony (there were many others) of Gentoo Penguins right on to top of a hill. There are big “stormy type” clouds behind them. We lay on the floor and there is nothing but clouds behind them. These guys produce some of the best static penguin shots that we have taken on the whole trip. We make our way to the northern tip of the island where we find a few of the 250 nesting pairs of Southern Giant Petrels. Some of them are sitting on young, pure-white chicks. They look very similar to Albatross chicks but, on closer inspection, the beak is very different. We stay a good distance away and shoot from inside the car through open windows. We do not want to disturb these protected birds in any way. Once again, it is such a privilege to be photographing these magnificent birds. We feel like pinching ourselves to make sure that it is really happening. We make our way back to the lodge for a couple of hours rest, and get there just before 2 pm.
We go out again a little before 4 pm and stay out until 6.40 pm. Our first stop is with the 8,000 pairs of Imperial Shags. The light is so different to how it was this morning. If ever there was such a thing as “perfect light”, we have it. There is a steady wind blowing (maybe 20 mph) from exactly the same direction as the sun is coming from. We have bright skies, but a slight haze takes out all the harsh light. We spend three quarters of an hour photographing the birds that are taking off (to go fishing). Every single one of us is getting wonderfully sharp shots and the faces of the birds are perfectly lit up. For the next 45 minutes, we move to the other end of the colony and shoot the birds as they drop down from a great height and land in the colony. The shapes, and twists and turns, of the birds in the sky are amazing. They are absolute masters of dealing with high winds. They are all using their huge webbed feet as rudders to enable them to slow up and drop-down hundreds of feet in order to land. Unlike the Gannets that I have regularly seen at Bass Rock, these guys are virtually inch-perfect every time they land. They get themselves into exactly the right spot, and there is no pecking and biting from their neighbours. They are a joy to watch. I certainly believe that this 90 minutes with the Imperial Shags is the best hour and a half that I have ever spent photographing flying birds. The pictures are unbelievable. I take the rest of the group to the Rockhopper colony which is just 5 minutes away in a car. They photograph Rockhopper Penguins, Rock Shags and a Crested Caracara that is constantly performing for them on a ledge across the narrow ravine. I return to the Imperial Shags. This time I concentrate on the Shags feeding their chicks, the Falkland Skuas and the general predation on the chicks. The feeding is similar to what I witnessed yesterday with the Rock Shags. These chicks do not go as far down their parent’s throat, though, and they never look in danger of getting stuck. I take a number of Falkland Skuas in flight before I spot two Falkland Skuas with a large Shag chick. The chick is still alive and it is not at all pleasant to watch. The Skuas are both trying to make a hole in its side just in front of its wing. When you see a carcase, there are always holes in the side just there. Thee chicks have such thick skins that, once they get through, they eat them from the inside. It is horrible to witness. The poor thing will not die until they have made a hole in its side and they have pulled out its internal organs. I cannot watch any more, and move on further round the colony. I photograph several more Skuas in flight and then look for the predation inside the colony. The Skuas and the Dolphin Gulls work together to cause absolute confusion. There could well be 15 – 20 screaming birds drop down in one place to try to cause havoc among the Shags. Wings are flapping everywhere and the intruders are pecking the Shags and are being pecked back. Most of the time the chicks are safe, but the commotion often makes one of the Shags regurgitate some of their hard-earned food. The Skuas and the Dolphin Gulls compete for this. This is the food source that the Dolphin Gulls rely on. For the Skuas, it is just good fun, and the chicks are their real targets. I see one flying Shag get caught in the air by a Skua, and dragged down to the ground. Another Skua immediately joins in and they are attacking this poor Shag mercilessly. The Shag eventually regurgitates its food and is then allowed to leave to join the colony. Just a bit of sport for the Skuas. The rest of the group re-join me, and after a few more minutes we all return to the lodge for dinner. I find that I have nearly 1,000 “first pass” keepers from 2.5 hours of shooting. I cannot remember ever getting that many in such a short time before. I will have a really difficult task sorting the best of those when I get home. We have fish for dinner tonight. The best meal on the Falkland Islands so far.
We have a 2 hours self-drive photography tour from 9 am until 11 am. We drop one person off at the Imperial Shags and the rest of us revisit the Gentoo Colony on the top of the hill. Again, we lie on the floor and get some great shots with the cloudy sky as a background.
The birds are not quite as active as the day before, but we spend an hour getting some great shots again. We get the parents feeding the chicks, lots of trumpeting, and the parents are teasing the larger chicks into thinking they are going to be fed. Instead of feeding them, they run all round and through the colony with the chick close behind. It really is comical to watch. The reason behind this is that the parents’ first priority was to get the chicks as fat as possible, which in turn makes them grow as quickly as possible so that they get too big to be predated on. Once they have reached that stage, the parents then want them to be fit and able to run (and at the same time build up strong muscles to enable them to swim). We are almost ready to leave when, out of nowhere, there is a Skua attack on the colony. It is unsuccessful, but we get some great shots of the parents defending their chicks. We return to the Imperial Shag colony. We have half an hour before we must be back at the lodge. As the light is not the best for flying shots, we spend our time on the interaction between the Skuas and the colony. There must be at least 50 Skuas within the colony. I would guess that each pair of Skuas will kill one chick during each 24-hour period. It is not all that difficult for the Skuas to snatch a chick. If the chick is young, one parent will stay with it at all times. The Imperial Shags are quite capable of keeping the Skuas at bay most of the time. It seems that, as the chicks get bigger, both parents need to go to sea at the same time in order to be able to feed their offspring. The larger chicks gather together, tightly bunched, at one end of the colony. If they stick really close together they should be fairly safe. The Skuas and the Dolphin Gulls are working as a team just like they did last night and are creating havoc. If a larger chick is separated from a parent it is grabbed by the Skuas. Once the Skuas drag a chick maybe just a metre from its nest it is abandoned by its parent. They just accept what is happening and do not challenge the Skuas. What is really surprising, is that once the chick is within biting distance of another Imperial Shag sitting on its own nest, then that bird will also attack the poor helpless chick. So, it ends up with two Skuas tearing lumps of skin from its back and a Shag pecking its head or anywhere else it can reach. There are several pairs of Skuas eating several chicks. Other pairs of Skuas will attack those Skuas that are eating and try to intimidate them into handing over their prey. They defend vigorously and there is much posturing, wing flapping and loud calling. They are trying to show that they will not give up easily, and without a big fight. We watch a Skua grab hold of a returning Shag’s tail while it is in flight. It pulls the bird to the ground. More than 20 other Skuas and Dolphin Gulls are there in seconds. They all drop on top of this unfortunate bird. There is a huge cacophony of sound with all these birds screaming at the top of their voices. The terrified Shag gives up its catch and regurgitates onto the floor. Every bird tries to gobble up as much of this as possible and the Shag escapes. One Skua chases it and grabs its tail, once again pulling it to the ground. There is no more help at hand as they are all eating what the Shag was carrying. The Shag struggles free and makes it to the safety of the colony. The Falkland Skuas certainly make this a very harsh place to live if you are a bird. We return to the lodge and prepare for our flight to Pebble Island.
Our flight is at 12 mid-day. The plane is short of fuel so we are flown to Stanley to refuel. We have to get off the plane and re-board half an hour later. We fly to Pebble but due to another plane’s imminent arrival, our island drive cannot start until 4 pm. We choose the eastern part of the island for a 2.5 hours-drive. The subjects on the island are well spread and the closest pond is 2 miles away. We ask our driver (the owner) to try to find us Macaroni Penguins and Black-necked Swans. It takes us half an hour to reach the Rockhopper Penguin colony. It is within one of these that we hope to find the Macaroni Penguins. They were sitting on eggs earlier this year, but the eggs disappeared (presumably taken by Skuas). They now both go to sea together, so there is a 50% chance of us finding them there. We pull up about 80 feet from the colony and Ricky immediately spots one of the Penguins. When we get closer we can see two. How lucky we are. There are less than 50 of these Penguins on the whole of the Falkland Islands, and most of those are totally inaccessible. We spend an hour photographing these two wonderful birds from every conceivable angle and then make our way back. We go via Big Pond with the hope of seeing Black-necked Swans. We manage to photograph two of these, but they are very distant. We also photograph a Variable Hawk, Silver Teal in flight, Yellow-billed Pintail, Chiloe Wigeon, White-tufted Grebe, Silvery Grebe and Flying Steamer Ducks. We see many other birds, but choose to leave these until tomorrow. Our main goal, the Macaroni Penguin, was achieved with flying colours, and we also photographed two other species that we had not previously seen.
Next morning, we leave for a full day tour to the eastern half of the island at 9 am. Our main targets will again be the Black-necked Swans and the Macaroni Penguins. The first things that we see are the Black-necked Swans. We shoot two of them swimming on a lake and then in flight. They are very nervous birds. We are much closer than yesterday, but still some distance away from them. We photograph four more on the next pond, once again some distance away. We also shoot two Chiloe Wigeon, a Long-tailed Meadowlark and a Two-banded Plover. The next thing we come across is a juvenile Variable Hawk. We spend more than half an hour with this fantastic bird. It is brilliant. It is looking for insects and hops about, runs and does short flights constantly. We park upwind of it, and it flies towards us several times. It then flies to one of a series of tall posts. It flies from post to post and then almost straight over the top of us. We get some fantastic in-flight shots of a bird that is very difficult to see on the Falkland Islands. We then get good close-up shots of a pair of Flying Steamer Ducks. This is the first occasion that we have got really good shots of these. We have plenty of the Falkland Flightless Steamer Ducks, but not the flying version. They look almost identical, but there are two subtle differences. The flying version have longer wings and a short white bar on each wing. It is quite obvious when you know what to look for, but almost impossible otherwise. We then get to our favourites, the Macaroni Penguins. These are the ones with really striking bright yellow tufts on their heads. They are still in the same place that we left them last evening. We have another hour or so with them. They are more active than yesterday, and move around a lot more. They even step a little bit away from the Rockhopper Penguin colony, which means that we can get some great totally isolated shots of these beautiful subjects. We shoot them individually and as a pair. They groom each other for quite some time. What is apparent is that they have full control over the yellow tufts. They can raise one side, raise both sides and also flatten the tufts round their face, quite similar to the style of a young girl with long hair. They are captivating, and we photograph them from all angles until they both lie down together for a rest. We shoot some of the Rockhopper Penguin chicks in their crèche, while being guarded by a few very attentive adults. We move on to the Gentoo Penguin colony. There is a Turkey Vulture right in the middle of it, eating what is left of an adult carcase. We move on again and find just one female Sea Lion on the coastal rocks. We quickly move on. We then spend more than an hour with Magellanic Penguins that have small fluffy chicks above the ground. The smaller ones are less likely to be above ground. We can see hundreds of older chicks that have moulted out all their fluffy grey/brown hair. These just look like their parents, but are a little smaller. The ones that we want have already moulted out the lower half of their body, but still have what looks just like a furry cape over their shoulders and round their head. They really are so sweet to look at. They have huge “aah” factor. We find a mother desperately trying to coax her two chicks out of their burrow. They are extremely reluctant to come out. What we are witnessing could well be their very first time out in the open. She is bribing them with food. Just a very tiny bit at a time. Each time they make contact with the inside of her beak she eases back a tiny bit more. The chicks will not come out. They keep going back deeper into the burrow when she won’t feed them properly. This process continues. She gives them a bit more each time she gets them another half an inch further. This goes on for half an hour, until she finally gets one chick out. It is literally just a couple of inches away from the hole in the ground which is the entrance to their burrow. She feeds this chick. The second one climbs out and is teetering on the edge, unsure which way to go. It falls back into the hole and the first chick jumps in after it. Minutes later, after a struggle, the parent again gets both chicks out. She feeds one, and then the other. Immediately after being fed the second chick dives into the hole head first. The first one immediately follows. Nothing happens for ten minutes or so. Then, the mum succeeds in getting both of them out together. They are still no more than six inches from the entrance, but she has one chick either side of her. She feeds one chick and then immediately turns her head and feed the other. She repeats this process many times and each chick gets at least ten feeds. One chick is particularly impatient, and it climbs on top of mum’s back and tries to steal the other chick’s food. Mum is having none of it and religiously feeds each one in turn. When she has given them all that she wants to, she stands upright and shakes her head. The chicks are still either side of her, and she presses down on each one with her flippers. The chicks know that there is no more food on offer and both dive into the hole head first. We have just witnessed some very special moments. We photograph more of these part-fluffy chicks standing with their parents, but they are tame affairs compared to what we have just seen.
N.B. The Magellanic Penguins are plentiful at all locations. This was the reason that I left them until towards the end of the trip. Photos similar to those I have described above could have been taken at any location previously visited.
We come across some Silvery Grebes, a Yellow-billed Pintail and a White-tufted Grebe before spotting two more Black-necked Swans. We skirt around the lake and try to come up behind them. Our detour is almost a mile and when we get to where they were, they are quickly heading away from us. We make one more detour away from the lake to try to get in front of them and get into a better position where we are closer to them. As we are approaching the lake we turn a corner and go over the top of a small rise. The two swans are not there but, to our amazement, four more are just in front of us. We finally get some really good photos of Black-necked Swans. We return to the lodge at 4 pm. We learn that we are leaving Pebble Island at 10.10 in the morning, so our photography time on Pebble Island has ended.
Stanley – Gypsy Cove
We depart Pebble Island at 10.10 am and arrive at Stanley half an hour later. We check into our hotel and leave for Gypsy Cove at 2pm having had lunch. Gypsy Cove is a real disappointment. It is not for photographers, it is for people visiting on cruise ships. Everything is fenced off and we are restricted to one gravel path and an area at the top of the hill with a heavy gun left over from the Second World War. It is beautiful scenery, but we cannot add to the collection of wildlife pictures that we already have. It makes us appreciate how lucky and privileged that we have been for the last 19 days.
Stanley – Rockhopper Penguins near Kidney Cove
We have an early breakfast and are en-route before 8 am. We arrive the location at 9 am. There are three small colonies of Rockhopper Penguins. They are very similar to what we have seen before on every island that we have visited. We debate whether we should stay. Our driver spots one Northern Rockhopper Penguin amongst the others. All the Rockhoppers that we have seen up to now have been Southern Rockhopper Penguins. We are delighted to see this guy and stay for 2.5 hours photographing him. He is a very dirty specimen, and he is not easy to isolate with his whole body in view. However, after 2.5 hours we all have some decent shots. We are delighted to have found a new (to us) species and it is a great end to the holiday. We are back in the hotel having lunch by 12.30, and have a lazy afternoon before heading back home tomorrow.