Sunday, 25 November 2012

Volunteer Point - Penguin-lovers Paradise!

[This is another in the series of observations from a UK expat living with wife in Stanley, Falklands.  November saw our first visitors from the UK, and so we had to show them the best of the islands.  They had already seen "David Attenborough" moments on Sealion Island, when Orcas snaffled seal pups for breakfast.
Would some penguins be of interest?....]
Johnsons Harbour.  Tranquil
The long spell of sunny, warm weather which had started around Remembrance Day, continued last week,  as we headed to Volunteer Point with our visitors from the UK.   Setting off at 8am in John's, our driver/guide, large 4x4, we drove into the hinterland of East Falklands, known as Camp (from "campo", Spanish for a field).  After about 90 minutes of undulating gravel roads, hills, and stone runs, we reached a fence which marked the end of the public road network and the start of the 54,000-acre farm, across which we would have to traverse to reach the penguin beach.
With added South American film crews....
Although only about 30 miles north of Stanley as the helicopter flies, our destination requires good navigational and driving skills, as there are only rough tracks to follow.  At Johnsons Harbour settlement, we were joined by 3 more 4x4s containing local guides and TV crews from Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.  "Hola", I said, practising my embryonic Spanish.  For some reason, they didn't interview me, but they did seem to spend a lot of time talking to the camera when in front of sheep or penguins.....
Eventually, once legs ahead been stretched and cigarettes extinguished, we set off in convoy for another 2 hours of bumpy driving, stopping frequently so that the epic journey could be recorded for Latin American viewers.
"By the left, quick march"
At long last, the sea came into view, and as we drove along a grassy bank above the long, white sandy beach, more and more penguins appeared. Soon, we were joining them on the beach, watching as they dithered at the waters edge - some of them never having swum before; others were well aware of the dangers in the surf.
This way?
 Like many social birds, some penguins seem to find safety in numbers, and it is rare to see individuals walking about.  The desire to stay in a group was evident, but where to go?  Who to follow?
Or that way?
Hotly pursued by camera crews, the King Penguins waddled into the shallow water, only to emerge a few moments later, as if surprised at the water temperature!
Come on in, the water's lovely!
Falklands Conservation have put tracking devices on some penguins, and these have enabled scientists to show that penguins from this beach swim over 1200 miles to Antarctica and back in search of food.
The water IS cold...
Other Falklands penguins travel further.  Some of the penguins I saw at Edinburgh Zoo last year were born on this beach!
No point in getting out of your depth.
The King Penguins, unlike other species, are to be found here all year round, as they have a complex breeding cycle.  The parents' role can take around 13 months, so only 2 chicks are born every 3 years.  The adults also need to moult to develop new feathers.  The chicks also moult from their downy feathers over several weeks.
Photographer filming himself.  It's not about the penguins!
So, at any time of the year, this beach presents an insight into the life of penguins on dry land.  As well as King, there are also large rookeries of breeding Gentoo penguins and Magellanics in their burrows (although we did see one whose nest was above ground!).  However, Magellanics leave the land around March, and Gentoos disperse more widely once breeding is finished.
"I'm a bird.  I can fly!"
All this activity and variety provides a fascinating day out for the visitor.  The Gentoo and Magellanic penguins are currently sitting on eggs, and some Kings are doing so, too.   But the vast majority of birds seem to be adolescent chicks, waiting for their first set of adult plumage to appear.
"When's breakfast, Mum?" "Give me a chance - I'm not up, yet!"
And, as ever, chicks are hungry.  If the parents are ashore, they pester them for food, repeatedly pecking and mewing to gain attention......
"Feed me!"
So, we spent a few hours just wandering around, taking care not to get too close to the penguins.   But this isn't always easy, given their curiosity, and lack of fear of humans (despite our rather bad record of exploiting their cousins for oil.....)
New season all-in-one mohair outfit
Topping up the tan....
Larry and Laura (sitting) take it all in.
You shall go to the Ball!
Some penguins get adult feathers sooner than others....
The cool look this summer....Adult feathers start at the feet, and work up!
Chatting with the kids...
Chicks need to keep cool, but also keep their feathers dry.
We noticed a large number of chicks congregating around some ponds, dipping their feet in, presumably to keep cool in the warm weather.
Life-guard at the pool
Kings, with Gentoo in background
The Kings are the stars, as the Gentoos find out.
Left, right, left, right.......

Several hundred photos later, finally leaving the beach.
Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away from our feathered friends.  The 4x4s were waiting and the film crews had more shots to take of cars going up hills and through puddles...The convoy set off across featureless pastures.
Opening wire gates is not as easy as it sounds......
Returning across the farm, the landscape didn't seem all that familiar, so we were glad we'd used the services   of John, a former Royal Marine who had settled in the Falklands in 1985, after a spell on duty here.  He gave some insights into the way of life of Falklanders, and showed us how to open and close the (to us) unusual wire gates, dotted across the farm.
Filming the capabilities of a Land Rover...
On the way back to Stanley, we saw the smoke from large grass fires in the distance.  The ground has been tinder-dry for weeks, and these fires had, apparently, been started by tracer bullets fired during "live" Army exercises.

The wind fanned the flames for days, and despite the efforts of over a hundred military and civilian fire-fighters, the fire spread for over 20 kilometres.  We could see and smell the smoke in Stanley, 25 miles away.

However, just as the excellent weather had started as our friends arrived, so it broke just after they left. Violent wintry squalls returned to dampen down the flames and remind us why penguins like to breed here!

Endless blue skies and countless penguins.  A grand day out!  I think our friends enjoyed the trip.  They've plenty of photos to sort through during a damp British winter.......

Hasta Luego

Friday, 23 November 2012

Pebble Island - Penguins, Petrels, and more penguins....

[Continuing the tales of our sojourn in the South Atlantic.  Working and living in Stanley, Falkland Islands.  Seeing as much scenery and wildlife as we can fit in.  This weekend - early November - we have a 3 day break on Pebble Island....]

On another post, I've described the moving memorials to killed servicemen (of both sides of the Falklands War) on Pebble Island. We spent a day with the lodge owner, Allan White, touring the west of the island for about 9 hours.  It's about 20 miles by 2 miles.  There are 5 residents, and we were the only visitors......
Crested Caracara, outside our bedroom window!
As well as war memorials, we came across seemingly-deserted beaches, only to find dolphins surfing in the waves, giant petrels on their nests, penguins in their rookeries, and a host of other wildlife dotted around the island.  We also looked for pebbles, as the island is known for the semi-precious stones (although these should not be taken away nowadays!).
Magellanic Oystercatchers
On the second day, after a delicious breakfast from Jacqui (soon to be offering hospitality to the Duke of Kent, who stayed the following week), we set off to walk to the eastern end of the island, about 8 miles away.

We started by walking along the 4 miles of sandy beach, passing Oystercatchers trying to distract us from their nests, and watching the petrels gliding on the updrafts from the dunes - never flapping their wings, despite the 30-knot headwind.
4-mile beach, with incoming storm, which missed us.
The settlement, with the Lodge on the right.
Gorse is the only shelter in the Falklands
Oystercatcher nest
Petrel patrolling the beach
Continuing eastwards, we walked over short grass and  low scrub, filled with Magellanic penguin burrows, and with cows and sheep grazing peacefully above them.   Young birds, like Oystercatchers, ducklings and goslings were well in evidence, as were dozens of newly-born lambs.
Relaxed Magellanic penguin
Some penguins get nervous when the neighbours appear.
After 3 hours walking, we stopped for a spot of lunch on the cliffs.  Looking back to the settlement, we could still make out the bright red and yellow buildings, about 5 miles away.  Later, we found that the beach was a semi-circle and not as straight as we'd thought.....
Oystercatchers displaying!
Refreshed, we carried on a couple of more miles to the rockhopper rookeries, where Allan would meet us with the Land Rover.  We were glad we had decided to avail ourselves of his offer to pick us up....
Sophie's beach -  Petrels, Penguins and Peale's dolphins here.
Dolphin gulls
Brave gentoo penguin
Southern Giant Petrel, with lunch.
The penguins do sometimes approach us.

Rockhopper inspecting our boots.
Rogue Macaroni penguin hiding among the Rockhoppers (centre).

"Over there are some penguins.  Use the telescope!"

Whoa, guys.  Tourists about!
Penguins crossing

Lookout Penguin.
Turkey Vulture
The Turkey Vultures seem to be either loved or loathed.  Many locals blame them for attacks on lambs, and Falklands Conservation is doing a lot of work to research this.  I have to say, on our visit, we saw lots of lambs, even one newly-emerged from the womb covered in blood, and no vultures seemed interested.  There were many carcasses of upland geese which had died during the winter so maybe the vultures were replete.....
Rockhopper amongst Imperial Shags.  Quite stiff quiff competition! 

This way to the rookery
Rare leucistic Rockhopper
Of the thousands of penguins we've seen, this is the only one without the normal black and white plumage.  It does look strange, but it seems perfectly healthy, returning to the same rookery for about 5 years.
An explanation of the condition can be found here - 
Annie amongst the Rockhoppers
The Rockhoppers usually share a breeding ground with shags or cormorants, as they provide "cover" from predators like skua, and safety in numbers.  The cormorants nests - mounds of dried mud - are often used by the penguins if abandoned by the original owners.
Some birds squeeze onto the nest....
...while some go beak to claw.....

Rockhopper eggs are no longer taken by people.

A rare hybrid penguin, on an egg - a very rare sight.

So, having had our fill (for the time being) of penguins and petrels, we headed back to Stanley in the small Britten-Norman Islander plane.  The wind was gusting to 40 knots, and take-offs and landings were extremely short and exciting!  But the pilots here are used to the conditions, and make about 10 take-offs per day on grass strips.

In about 40 minutes we were at Stanley Airport, and 15 minutes later, home.  That storm had drenched the town, but we had had glorious sunshine all weekend.  Now to sort the photos.....

Coming soon.......   Our first UK visitors arrive!   Kidney Island delivers its special treats again!