Sunday, 27 January 2013

Anniversary trip to Patagonia.

It's been a year since my wife and I moved to the Falklands.  There's a photo at the end of this blog, that shows the different conditions between now and last January.  We arrived at the end of a prolonged drought and heatwave.  This "summer" has seen rain almost every day in December and January, so we decided to escape to Chile for a week.   One of the benefits of being only 90 minutes away from Patagonia!

I realise the blog has been a bit quiet for a while, so I'm posting some photos of the Torres del Paine National Park, while I sort out some of the 1000+ photos we took last week....
Las Torres ("The Towers", or "towels" as in some brochures)
Slightly bigger than the English Lake District, the Park has as its centrepiece a stunning granite massif.  I'll go into more detail in later blogs, but it is a unique and fascinating geographical and geological region.
A majestic guanaco
 There's lots of wildlife in the park, with about 5,000 guanacos the most visible example.  But we also saw condors, foxes, hares ,etc.

The Cuernos (Horns). A different angle from the photo above.
There's also huge glaciers entering deep lakes, which feed fast-flowing milky-grey rivers.  The park is on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, which is the biggest in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctica.
Lago Grey, or Grey Lake in English.
Retreating glacier exposes complex geology
Meanwhile, back in sunny Stanley....(25C last Sunday - 3rd warmest day on record!)
January, 2012
These photos of my back garden show the difference between the two recent summers.  Last year was a drought, whereas rain has been the feature this year.  Still, the gardens needed it!
January, 2013.  Ready for the horses...
We returned from Chile yesterday with a planeload of tourists who were joining their expedition ship, Polar Pioneer, in Stanley harbour, and then sailing to Antarctica.  Many were interested in what life was like in Stanley.  I explained there were sometimes things we missed, but there were many compensations.

And, as we suspected, all their heavy luggage meant there was little room on the plane for the islands' fresh fruit and veg!   Going shopping later, I found that 6 eggs had jumped from £1.20 to £3 in a week!  That's inflation for you.

We also attended a Public Consultation last night, held  to look into the impact of the oil industry on the islands:  the economy, people and way of life.   It was interesting to hear the different points of view.  For example, some people feel the immigration and work permit rules need to be tightened to stop the Falklands being swamped by migrant workers, while others feel the rules could strangle the economic growth which the new industry could bring.

What surprised me most was that only about 20 people turned up for the consultation: about 1% of Stanley's population.....

More, much more, on Torres del Paine, and the Falklands, in forthcoming blogs.  There might even be the odd photo of a penguin.  Oh, and my efforts to forego alcohol in January have fallen by the wayside, but for (I think) very good reasons.  Excuses to follow.


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Snow Ghost - bigger, badder, biter!

[This is a diary of our life in Stanley, Falkland Islands, while living here for at least a couple of years.  No political rants this week.  (At least, not on here. UK papers are reporting more military aid will be sent to thwart any disruption of the Referendum in March.  Just what tourist want to know!).   For penguins and ponies, read on.....]

Our not-so-little pony friend, Snow Ghost, returned to help keep our garden tidy.  (See November's post - "Snow Ghost: my little lawnmower").  Only, he has grown since November, and his teeth have come through.  So, whereas before he would gently nuzzle me, he now has a tendency to bite.  His favourite spot is the back of the upper arm when you have your back turned to him....
Palamino colour beginning to show...
Luckily, after years of Nordic Walking, my triceps are fairly firm, but it is still a bit annoying, especially when I'm trying to clean up the mess he has made...Still, it'll be good for the garden!
The view from the sink.  He's removed his halter!?
He's also a bit more boisterous than previously, and it didn't help when we had a thunderstorm last week.
Excess energy
Luckily his mother is a very calm and unruffled personality.  She is either eating or disposing of her food at the other end, or both simulataneously.  However, she has sore legs, so doesn't enjoy it when Snow Ghost playfully nips her, as he does when  he wants a feed....
Horsewoman in training....
Blondes have more fun!
Digesting the dandelions....
All has been going well, and our new neighbours kindly offered their grass for fodder, too.  The foal has been a big attraction, with cars slowing down to have a peek, and even a local photographer popping in to capture some scenes.
Paparazzi...(note the fence)
So, it was a bit of a surprise to look out the window this morning and see the mother on her own.  Where's Snow Ghost??    We didn't have far to look, as he was now back in our garden, and it was obvious how he got there!

We're not sure what caused the horse to smash the fence, and he's not saying.  Was the grass greener on the other side?  Or did a local cat spook it? All we know is that it took about an hour to get Snow Ghost back with his mother, who was starting to fret.
Families come out in the evening
Meanwhile, the penguin chicks are growing up fast!  We're away next week, and by the time we return, I think these chicks will be on the beach and waiting to head out to sea, so I won't be able to get close to them until they return next September.
2 chicks, 1 adult
The nest beside the path has finally revealed 2 large chicks, one of whom is already gaining its adult plumage.
Down being replaced by adult plumage
The fluffy down is being cast off in favour of waterproof feathers.  In a few weeks, the adults will go through a similar moult, which means they will have to remain on land until their new feathers come through.  They must have enough food reserves on board to see them through this enforced fast, as they cannot swim to catch fish.  They starve until their feathers are replaced.
Chubby chicks, but a diet is approaching
In Stanley yesterday, it was quite warm and sunny, as is often the case when few tourists are around!  And on the jetty where the cruise ship passengers usually land there were a couple of seals basking in the warmth.
Sunbathers on the jetty at Stanley.  Almost 20C !
Later the same day, we spotted a lone King Penguin on the beach at Surf Bay.  This is very unusual, and it may be that he (or she) is moulting and needs to be ashore for a while.  He seemed relaxed, and not stressed that he was on his own, rather than in a large rookery.

For those who recall my reports of an amazing "lost" city near Lake Titicaca  (see the Bolivia blog, below), I hear there is a BBC4 documentary about Tiwanaku on the 21st January.  For details, see the BBC site, below.  I hope it conveys well the wonderful edifices that contain so many secrets.   Maybe one day, I'll work out an easy way to get BBC iPlayer here.....  (It's not the proxy server issue - it's the lack of bandwidth, plus the BBC doesn't allow it).

BBC4 Programme about Tiwanaku - Lost Kingdoms of South America

Blog about Bolivia -


I probably won't be doing a blog for a couple of weeks.  We're off to southern Chile to see the sights.

Hope you enjoy Burns Night - "Great Chieftain o the Puddin' Race"!  How many countries have a National Writer, whose day is commemorated around the world?


Friday, 11 January 2013

Gypsy Cove Birds + News of England's Drought!

[Having lived in the Falklands for a year now, I am becoming more aware of the attractions, and issues, surrounding the islands.  After the recent political noise, I will try to avoid the rhetoric and stick to Nature in this entry of the blog.  But I will just say I am astonished at a recent headline in The Sun newspaper which calls it "Fortress Falklands".  Don't these clever newspaper people think for a minute on the impact of their nonsense?  Is that helpful in any way?  This week, I met many tourists, most of them Argentinian, and all of them happy to visit the Falklands, and no-one suggested it be "handed back" to Argentina.  Some were embarrassed by their President's rantings.  Many came to see the Argentine cemetery, and many for the penguins....]

At 51 degrees South, we are currently enjoying long sunlit days and evenings, made seemingly longer by my impulsive decision to give up alcohol in January.  I just hope Falklands Beerworks can survive this dip in its revenues....
Black-crowned night heron
So, I have been spending a lot of time away from temptation and enjoying some of the countryside around Stanley.  I sometimes work at Gypsy Cove about 3 miles to the east of Stanley, pointing out penguins to day visitors from cruise ships.
Name that bird....
 But once the tourists leave, the birds relax, and come out to enjoy the evening sunshine...If you have the luxury of time, and sit still, the birds see you aren't a threat to their young, and ignore you, rather than hide in their burrows or nests.
Parent heron with teenager refusing to leave the nest
On the cliffs around the Cove are dozens of nests, now filled with either eggs or giant hungry offspring.  And in recent days, fledglings have been leaving the nest and either following their parents around hoping to be fed, or sitting expectantly beside the nest, waiting for a meal to arrive....  Kids, eh?

Magellanic snipe
Obviously, penguins are the main attraction, but they are only here for 6 months, to breed.  However, there are several species of native birds which stay all year round.
Penguins with difficulty making eye contact
Gypsy Cove looking east to Yorke Bay dunes and thunderstorm.
On the near-vertical cliffs surrounding the cove, herons, rock shags and turkey vultures nest cheek by jowl, which can make it a bit stressful for young herons, and shags, as well as flightless penguins.
Turkey Vulture.  Not cuddly, but keeps the place clean.
By the way, I'm a vulture fan, and feel the world would be a far dirtier place without them cleaning up the environment.   And although not everyone likes them, especially farmers, I found this novel idea for using their acute sense of smell - finding corpses!
Beak touching
But the big attraction on this stretch of coastline are the Magellanic Penguins, which come ashore to raise a new generation between September and April.   The rest of the year, they forage independently off the South American coast.  Then, each austral spring, they arrive back at their old burrow, and meet up with their life partner and produce a couple of chicks.
The usual view of Magellanic penguins
The burrows are cleaned out, and new straw is laid down.  The eggs are incubated and then around January, the chicks emerge, and stay close to a parent while the other goes off for food.
Growing chick
The chicks gain weight rapidly (if their siblings allow), and this is necessary as they cannot swim for their own food until their full plumage emerges around February.  Also around February, the adults moult. So you  can see a lot of miserable penguins then, shuffling around the beach and dreaming of chasing squid!

Penguins in undergrowth.  Burrow in front.
Hungry chick
2 hungry chicks
Big brother trying to get little brother's food.  I know the feeling..
"Feed me!"
So, you have a young family, but one chick is bigger and stronger than the other.  Do you feed both the same, or do you favour the bigger chick, as it has a better chance of survival?  Or do you favour the smaller chick, so that it can catch up with its sibling?
Siblings.  Which one would you feed?
Variable Hawk, hanging on in the gale....
Some chicks (left, without chest stripe) getting close to the sea.

Falklands Thrush
There's been several thrushes around Gypsy Cove this week, some of them fledglings following their parents and hoping to be fed.
Thrush collecting berries

"It's behind you!"

Thrush chick waiting for berries

Not old enough to worry about humans.....
Penguin looking for his burrow
Gentoo penguin, rear, wondering where his mates are...
The penguins at Gypsy Cove are all Magellanic, although the other day, I saw some Gentoos arriving on the beach.  There are a couple of hundred of these in the next bay, so maybe these guys were just on a visit.
Gentoo bachelors come ashore to surprise of a Magellanic penguin.
Camera-shy chicks
This particular nest (above) is one I know well, having pointed it out to many visitors who had walked past it without realising it was there.  And despite working beside it for 8 hours at a time, I had never been lucky enough to have seen the chicks until a couple of evenings ago.  I sat about 10 yards from it for about 30 minutes waiting to see if they would emerge. (I could hear their noisy squeaking).
Penguin path
So, I'm feeling very lucky to be able to see these vignettes.  I've heard of, but can't receive, the new David Attenborough BBC series on African animals.  Having watched wildlife here, I can really appreciate how long it takes to capture those wonderful scenes that his programmes excel at.
Evening sun

And finally, I paid a visit to the Dentist today, and whilst browsing through the old newspapers in the waiting room, I came across a magazine from last February, with the eye-catching headline - "ENGLAND'S DROUGHT - THE LOOMING CRISIS!!"   How have my friends in  England coped with the drought, I wonder?  Do you need some water?
It was Margaret Thatcher Day on the 10th January in the Falklands.  Will the UK also celebrate this in years to come?

More soon