Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Honeymoon at Volunteer Beach

[For new readers....My wife and I moved to the Falkland Islands over 5 years ago, initially for two years.  But we have yet to be bored with the opportunities for work or the wildlife. Plus most of the people are very friendly and helpful.]

This week, we headed to Johnson's Harbour, a massive sheep farm which includes a private nature reserve,  about an hour out of Stanley, with two friends on board. At the end of the gravel road, we waited at the tiny settlement of about 4 houses for the Warden to arrive and transport us in his big 4x4 (SUV) to the House, about 12 miles away, over very boggy untamed ground.

The 12 miles took about 75 minutes to traverse. The main tourist track to the beach was closed due to being too wet, but as the Warden lived at the House, he could use a quiet track which was relatively pristine, as it received little traffic.
The track had been closed for 2 weeks, due to being wet!
One reason it may not have had much traffic during the season, was that it crossed a tidal lagoon. So knowing the local tides was an essential requirement  for arriving at the destination.
This is not due to rainfall - this is a tidal lagoon. The main track is worse!
 After admiring some skilled driving, we arrived at the House, and quickly got down to the 2-mile long beach to see the main attraction - penguins!  It is "PetersPenguinPost", after all!
Indecisive King Penguins
 King Penguins are relatively rare in the Falklands, but this was the biggest colony - about 1,000 pairs, plus hundreds of chicks.
"OK, form a line"
 There are Magellanic and Gentoo penguins, too, but these can be found close to Stanley, and all over the Falklands. The Kings were what we wanted to see.  And the huge numbers also attracted predators such as Sea Lions.....
"Follow me!"

Hallo, 'allo, 'allo!
 We watched a line of penguins waddle into the surf, only to emerge moments later at top speed as a dark shape was spotted in the waves!
The Gentoo wins the race!
Oh dear...

 As well as watching the wildlife, we had hoped our friends would enjoy their visit. It was a sentimental journey for them, as they had first come here on their honeymoon - 40 years ago!
White-rumped Sandpiper and a 2-banded plover
 The Bride's Grandparents had given them a flight in a Beaver float plane to take them to a shack at Volunteer Beach. With a bag full of compo rations from the Royal Marine barracks where the Groom was billeted, along with the other Marines in Naval Party 8901, they set off on their honeymoon.

The float plane landed on the nearby lagoon. As the shack was uninhabited, there was no-one to greet them. So no boat to get them ashore from the float plane in the middle of the tidal lagoon. So the Groom had to give the Bride a piggy-back lift to dry land! 
Feeding time at the creche
 Not only were there no people at the shack, there was no electricity. "I remember playing cards by candlelight", said the Bride. 

The peat stove was fired up and a Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pie was heated.  Baked beans were warmed for breakfast. 
Swimming all day makes one tired
 Two days later, they returned to the lagoon to await the plane.  There was no phone in 1977, so after hours of waiting they gave up, and guessed, correctly, that the plane was grounded by the strong winds.  The same thing happened the next day!  Eventually, the plane arrived and rescued them.
More feeding

We are not allowed inside the white stones.
Anyway, the 2017 visitors had no need to bring rations - champagne was enough. The Warden and his wife provided superb hospitality in their home, with delicious meals and yummy fresh home baking.  Teaberry cheescake is a Falklands delicacy, which I was lucky enough to taste twice on the one day.  It is worth the calories!
Young one
However, we did work some of the calories off by long walks along the beach and cliffs.  Saw more Sea Lions and peregrine falcons.
"Leave it!"
Some people miss all the fun of arrival by the track....

Group beach stroll

House is beside the green trees, right. Volunteer Beach in the centre.
All too soon, the visit was over, and we enjoyed the swaying ride in the Warden's car over the bumpy countryside. Once again, we felt very, very privileged to have been able to visit one of the best wildlife spots on the planet. But unlike many tourist hotspots, there are no crowds and because Man has only lived here for about 200 years, the wildlife is as curious about us as we are about them.

More in a few weeks,
Sea Lions

Monday, 3 April 2017

Interviewing a Python

It's been a wee while, but I have been busy.......


If you go to that site, you'll find my interview with Michael Palin last week. A wonderful man: very humorous, and interesting, and I have been a life-long fan. As I'm often told - I'm a lucky, lucky man!
Blackish  Oystercatcher
He was in Stanley and the Falklands for a few days to research his new book on the Erebus, a ship that sailed around Antarctica, and to the North-west Passage in the early 19th century.
Friendly Falklands Thrush

The ship and its crews had amazing stories to tell. The first voyage found volcanoes on Antarctica, and Captain James Clark Ross named them after his ships, the Erebus  and  Terror.  They also were the first men to see the Ross Ice Shelf, and reach the South Magnetic Pole. The captain of the  Terror was a man called Crozier. Both men are remembered in the street names of Stanley - they were instrumental in founding the place!

The last penguin to leave for Brazil!
 But it was the second and final voyage, under Sir John Franklin, to find the North Magnetic Pole, which placed the Erebus firmly in the history books. The whole expedition was lost for decades - no sign of it anywhere - until some bones were found in remote north Canada....

And only a few years ago, the ships themselves were discovered. So, the hunt continues for clues to the mystery of what happened....
Cockleshell Heroes

Rather unbelievably, on the same day I was talking to Michael Palin, I also enjoyed listening to former Royal Marine Commando, Mick Dawson tell of his 7,000 mile row across the Pacific with Chris Martin. See "189days.com" for full details. Can you imagine ROWING from London to Buenos Aires?????

Last week, he was "merely" kayaking 120 miles around the Falklands with Steve Grenham, to raise awareness of his project (Cockleshell Endeavour) to help PTSD sufferers. The two paddlers (both novices) entered Stanley Harbour followed by a pod of dolphins to keep them company. Amazing.

Please help support these men, without whose sacrifices, the Falklands War and other conflicts would have ended differently.



Sorry for the break. I'm going for another one soon, but there is plenty to get your teeth into while I'm away,


PS - did you spot the April Fool in the Penguin News?

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Zombie Penguins, Peregrines and Leopards!

An occasional slice of life in the south Atlantic.  This week I was lucky enough to be treated to a short trip to Volunteer Point - home to several thousand penguins, peregrines and a leopard......
If you had never seen a penguin in the wild before, would you recognise these furry creatures as members of the species??
Keeping cool at the watering hole
They are, if you haven't already worked out, chicks of King penguins. The breeding cycle of Kings is quite unusual, in that it doesn't follow an annual cycle.  From mating to "leaving the nest" takes about 15 months.
So, a pair of Kings, can only produce 2 chicks in 3 years.
During their early life, chicks are sometimes guarded by a parent; ot other times, left long spells in a creche while the parents forage far and wide for food.
While most of the parents are away, these fluffy "teenagers" mooch around slowly using up their reserves and trying to keep cool in their fur coats.
In a few weeks, they will start to moult and lose these first feathers, and produce the oiled adult feathers which enable them to fend for themselves in the sea.
These chicks have had a few problems this winter, with several hundred dying or being killed by predators such as vultures.  The parents can swim as far as Antarctica, about 1,000 miles south, looking for food, and can be away for a couple of weeks.  While they are gone, the chicks are vulnerable.

 Volunteer Point is a private Nature Reserve within a 50,000 acre sheep farm, about 20 miles due north of Stanley, capital of the Falklands.  However, to get there, one must drive on the rural roads for over an hour, then drive off-road for another hour.
The creche is for penguins only
We were picked up at the road end by the resident warden, Derek, who lives near a 2-mile long beach in a shanty. The shanty is an old shepherd's house, but now it is cosy and hospitable, taking 4 guests at a time. We shared the meals with Derek and wife Trudi, but were free to come and go whenever we wished.
Feeding time
Outside, a few chicks were being fed......

I'm pretty sure, anywhere else in the world, there would be an exclusive and expensive luxury lodge built there. But we had the beach and reserve to ourselves, plus one other visitor, who happened to be a luminary of Polar tourism.
When cruise ships call into Stanley, hundreds of passengers get ashore as early as they can and join the convoy of 4x4 (SUV) cars heading to Volunteer Point. Some pay a couple of hundred dollars each for the privilege, but where else can you get so close to so many breeding penguins in a pristine area?
The main problem with being a day visitor, apart from the cost, is the long overland, bumpy journey for a short time with the penguins. So, it was delicious to be able to relax and know we had all day and most of the next day. Then the fog came in......  :-(
"Does my bum look big in this?"

Penguin feet

The creche is within the white stones.
Four Gentoos

As well as the "stars", the King penguins, there are several hundred (at least) breeding Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.
Out of the mist...

Kings in the mist

Shanty. 10 miles from the nearest road...

Volunteer Beach. 2 miles long. No deckchairs. No people.....

Three Kings....

Two Oystercatchers

Photobombed. Well, it is a sheep farm.....

Moulting Kings

Busy beach

Perfecting Nordic Walking technique

Wall to wall penguins...

In case you get lost....

Penguins everywhere.

Parents with the Incredible Sulk

To youngsters, we might be adults bringing food......

With so many penguins, predators are never far away.

He might be wondering what kind of penguin we are!
The walls of the shanty are covered in stunning photos taken by our hosts. One in particular, is a fantastic portrait of a peregrine falcon landing, wings outstretched, on its nest. We were told we might see the bird if we kept our eyes open....

Peregrine, going fast.....
Amazingly, about 15 minutes walk from the house, we heard an unusual screeching, and looked up to see two peregrines engaged in an aerial display. I nearly managed to get a photo of them both, but they were just a bit too fast for me!
Sea cliffs, home to the peregrines.

Same cliff, with raptor atop....

Falcon food....
After a breezy walk along the cliffs, we returned to the beach hoping to see the sea lion again. What we found was another "first" (after the peregrines) for me!
See that log in the middle of the beach.....?
We were about to tuck into our packed lunch, when I thought the log on the beach looked a funny shape.......
Not a log, but a Leopard Seal. Magellanic penguins consider their options.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be a resting Leopard Seal.....
These seals are top predators, with some very sharp teeth and a penchant for penguins!
Dreaming of penguins....
In a unique occurrence, several years ago, one even drowned a British Antarctic Survey scientist who was diving near an Antarctic base.

As far as I know, Leopard seals only rarely frequent Falklands' waters. But there have been dozens of sightings this year, so I suspect something has gone awry with the normal food chain or distribution of food.  The squid had a very poor year, so it's possible the seals are foraging far and wide. Their home range is Antarctica, and sub-Antarctic islands.
A good bit of track.

All too soon, we were being driven the miles over the rough Camp tracks back to our car at the end of the road. It took about 2 and a half hours to do the 45 mile journey.

A peregrine falcon could have flown from Volunteer Point to Stanley in 6 (yes, six) minutes!

Thanks to Derek and Trudi for their warm hospitality, stunning photos and driving ability; to my wife for organising such a fabulous trip, and to Denise, whom we met there and shared some experiences with - a pleasure to meet you.

How can I follow that?  :-)