Friday, 10 February 2012

Kidney Island - 50,000 Sooty Shearwaters!

OK, not a Shearwater, but a lot easier to photograph!
 Last week, we received a last-minute invitation to join a boat trip to an island just outside Stanley Harbour.  Knowing that these trips tend to be cancelled due to the weather, we jumped at the chance, and met up with about 10 other interested people at the jetty.  The boat and crew were courtesy of Sulivan's.  Thanks!

It was organised by Falklands Conservation - see their site for bags of information about penguins etc.  Who would have known that some penguins swim about 1,000 miles in the search for food?

We squeezed through the Narrows, the entrance to the harbour; and soon spotted porpoising Gentoo penguins, and huge Black-browed Albatrosses, so the water must be full of food.

At Cape Pembroke, we headed north and then west into Berkeley Sound, where Kidney Island was located, just off the 'mainland' of East Falklands.

Looking west from Kidney Island
The boat steers into the leeward side of the island and we drop anchor in a sheltered bay, watched by some curious sea lions on the beach. The zodiac soon takes us ashore, staying well away from the territorial and aggressive bulls.

The rocky shore is about 6 feet wide, and then the island slopes steeply upwards to about 100 feet. The vegetation is almost 100% huge dense mounds of tussock (or tussac) grass, which grows to about 7 feet in height. This is the natural ground cover on the Falklands but it is now only found where sheep have not been grazing.  It's very disconcerting walking between the mounds as you can't see either where you are going or your feet, due to the dense stalks of grass draping down to about knee height. Sound is also muffled, and if you fall behind your companions, it's quite easy to get completely lost in this natural maze!

Tussac grass grows over 6 feet
As we near the highest point, we stop in a gully to catch our breath and check everyone is still with us. Suddenly, the chap at the front shouts something about sea lions. Before we could react, a huge mound of bouncing fur and blubber careers down a path about 10 yards away, as it heads in a panic for the sea. The thought - “Phew! Glad we weren't in his way!” - was just going through my head, when his companion came rushing down the path we were standing on!

Bull sea lion hiding in the tussac grass
7 feet long. 700pounds. With teeth.

Facing downhill, I had a view of some teeth out of the corner of my eye, and then my legs were cut from under me by the back flippers. But (newly arrived teacher from Belfast) Christine, who had been standing in the middle of the path, was unceremoniously barged aside by the irate bull. Like one of those giant American footballers – 600 pounds of quivering fur coat – travelling at 20 mph: best to get out their way!

Luckily the soft ground and tussock grass gave us a gentle landing, and we were not damaged, although the guys back on the boat were a bit puzzled by our loud shrieks, as we were only supposed to be looking at Rockhopper Penguins!

Having brushed the soft, peaty soil off our clothes, we carried an for a couple of hundred yards to the other side of the island, where a huge slab of cliff gave a colony of Rockhopper penguins and cormorants a “safe” spot for nesting. I say “safe”, but I presume it's chosen because most predators can't easily get at the chicks, but hopping around on a sheer cliff face is not exactly the safest of activities.

Hovering over the packed colony were many Turkey Vultures, so there must be loads of food to sustain that number of carrion-eaters.

Turkey Vulture on the left...

A beak used to be worth a few shillings

Rockhopper chick learning to grip the cliff
  Rockhopper pointing to the exit for the Macaroni penguin....

Macaroni penguin showing off his brighter crown!

Cormorant chicks
Many cormorant nests had 2 or 3 chicks so food supply must be good.
In the distance, we could see “rafts” of dark Sooty Shearwaters, gathering in huge numbers on the surface of the sea. As dusk approached, we headed back to the landing area to await the spectacle.  Kidney Island is one of the few without rats or mice, meaning the ground-nesting birds can safely nest in the burrows.

The flock gathers

Looking west, the sky gradually fills with thousands upon thousands of shearwaters, like starlings except each is about the size of a gull, and flying at full speed in a clockwise direction around the island. “Darken the skies” is an apt description. The only similar thing I had seen was in Cairns, when around 100,000 fruit bats come out of the rainforest at dusk each night, and attack the garden fruit trees.

As each pair of birds have a burrow under an identical lump of tussac grass, I assume the flypast, which lasts about an hour, is to try and identify where their own chicks are holed up, waiting to fed.

Darken the skies....

 Gradually, with each circuit, the birds fly lower and lower, until we have to move from our vantage points for fear of being hit. Even in protected positions, behind tussac mounds, there are a few collisions, as these amazing birds come in like out of control jet fighters on an aircraft carrier....wings flapping frantically, undercarriage down, webbed feet out in front as brakes....See the short video clip below.

As the light fades we hear, more than see, the “thoomp...thoomp” as they come to an abrupt halt on the soft ground around us. If we look down we can just make out the dark shapes scuttling the last few yards to their burrows, from where the chicks start a welcoming chorus.

As there's now a possibility of accidentally standing on the birds, we head down the 50 yards or so to the beach and signal for the zodiac to collect us. As it beaches on the sand, the same 5 huge sea lions are in its wake, curious to see who's disturbing their haven. Only a few feet away, they swam around the boat and splash us, probably realising it was too dark for us to take photos!

The return journey was mainly of stunned reflection at what we'd just experienced. I've seen some wonderful sights in the natural world, but that was up there with the best.

Back at the jetty, the rain was pouring down – how lucky we'd been that it had held off! Home by 11pm – way past our bedtime, but pleasant dreams of circling birds, and the odd nightmare of an oncoming sea lion......

By a strange coincidence, we had booked to go to Sea Lion Island later that same week! More soon.........

Dozing seals

Sea lions
Mutual grooming

Short video of Shearwaters coming in to land.......


  1. Even I would draw the line at swimming with Dolphins down there.
    Great blog Peter. Looking forward to more.

  2. Many thanks, Lily. Yes - it was a bit chilly. Can I ask how you found out about the blog? Word of mouth? (who?) Search? (what keywords?). Cheers.

  3. Great article and pics! I did this trip 30 years ago when I was working in Stanley.

    John Jackson

    1. Thanks, John. Kind of you to say so. By the way, the Government has just introduced a £10 per person landing fee for Kidney island. Not wholly popular in some quarters.