Sunday, 18 September 2016

Sea Lion; See Elephant Seals....

[This is an occasional look at life on the Falkland Islands from the point of view of British expats.  One of the reasons my wife and I wanted to live here was the incredible wildlife, so last week, we had a short trip to one of the "jewels in the crown" of outlying islands where the wildlife just gets on with life, and ignores humans........]

By the way, I should say I am incredibly flattered that many people around the world look at this blog. It was only started as a means to let friends back in the UK know what we were up to in the South Atlantic, but I now see from recent statistics that I have readers all over the place! Below is a list of the Top Ten countries by views in the last week -

United Kingdom
Ireland ("Hello, Ireland!" Where have you been?)
United States
Falkland Islands

If I look at the views per month, St Helena and Cayman Islands, two remote British Overseas Territories, also feature.  So, "Hello" to you guys, too, and anyone else that reads this.

Enough waffle.  We had booked our flight on FIGAS, a government air taxi service. Our checkin was at 11am, so in the morning we packed and left the house about 10:50!  We and our bags were weighed, and we took off about 11:30, after waiting on the apron while two RAF Typhoon jets completed their Saturday morning exercises above the runway!
Typhoons at 11 o'clock
Looking west over Stanley Harbour.
Within 5 minutes walk of our Lodge
After about 45 minutes in the air, we landed at Sea Lion Island, and walked the 50 metres to the Lodge. The manager welcomed us, and told us we were the only guests that weekend! Pausing only to have a light lunch, we were soon back on the beach, and coming face-to-face with the main attraction - Southern Elephant Seals. 3 tonnes of blubber and muscle, who annually arrive here to fight other males, and breed.
This guy wobbled back into the sea when he saw us, and we thought we had frightened him.....
Far from it. He followed us for about a mile, along the whole length of the beach, swimming parallel to us just a few yards offshore.
We passed huge colonies of Gentoo penguins that are resident all year round, and then headed through the sand dunes to see who else had arrived.
Female seal making use of the shelter

The seals are monitored by a team of Italian scientists, who spend six months of the year on the Island counting, weighing and observing the seals.  More information and fantastic photos can be found at their Facebook page -

We soon came across some big boys dozing in the dunes.

And the scientists were trying to take tissue samples or, if they recognised the seal, spraying their "name" on them, to make them easy to identify as they roam the beaches in coming weeks.
Scientists on a log watching a seal shelter...
Nice teeth

There were also some vantage points above the beach if you wanted to get close.  I relied on a powerful zoom lens....
Female emerging from the sea, and me avoiding getting between the male and female.....
The male showing an interest in the new female....
How would you like to wake up next to this?
We only saw a couple of females, but have since heard that one has given birth to the first pup. Soon hundreds will be born there. The females will then mate with a dominant bull, and return to sea, leaving the pup on its own, living off its puppy fat, built up from the richest milk in the world.

But Sea Lion Island has so much more. In the 1850s, when fur seals were almost extinct due to the actions of the sealers, penguins became a target for their oil. This contraption above is the remains of where penguins were boiled down for their oil - 1 pint per penguin. Millions were killed in a few decades.
Flying Falklands Steamer Duck
Flightless Falklands Steamer Duck
But the birdlife has recovered and is spectacular, especially in Spring. Winter is still clinging on here, so we saw no Rockhopper penguins, or Skuas, but the resident birds were a delight.
Striated Caracara
Sealions on Sealion Island
Picnic, with Lodge in distance, and caracaras near. Sealions below.
We found a sheltered spot  for a picnic lunch overlooking a beach which sealions like.  Sure enough, a couple of massive bulls were dozing and grooming about 10 metres below us

But while we enjoyed the show, the fearless Caracaras came ever closer, looking for food or anything they could steal.
Our Nordic Walking poles saved us a few times, as the birds tried to work our how to grapple with this new prey species they had found - us!
Circling the prey - us!

They attack prey - usually penguin chicks - by running at them, and they tried the same tactics on us!

Endemic Cobb's Wren
While we were keeping an eye on the Caracaras (also called "Jonny Rook" on the islands), a tiny Cobbs Wren popped up from underneath a rock. These birds are unique to the Falklands and only found where there are no cats, rats or mice.
Snowy Sheathbill
There were plenty of other birds, too. Eventually we found some early-returning Magellanic penguins, making their burrow neat before the arrival of their mate from her winter holidays in Brazil!

About to give birth to a 30kg pup.....
I have just seen on the Elephant Seal Research Group's Facebook page that they have sighted Orcas today. Pods of Orcas patrol the islands and some are expert at taking pup from rock pools.

As usual, we didn't see any, but we may be lucky on another visit,

What we did see was amazing. All too soon, a little Britten-Norman Islander arrived to take us back to Stanley

The sky was cloudless and the sea crystal-clear as we tried to spot dolphins or whales on the way home.
The Lady Elizabeth, stuck at the end of the harbour. Arrived 1912
Soon, we were back in Stanley. The airport must be one of the quickest to get through in the world. Ten minutes later we were home, checking behind the sofa for any stray elephant seals.  But all we had brought back were memories and photographs....


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Bleaker in Winter?

[This is the blog of two Brits, happily marooned on the remote Falkland Islands, near South America, for a number of years. We are lucky enough to work here, and the opportunities for wildlife watching - one of our favourite pastimes - are amongst the best in the world.  This week, we took a 30-minute flight from Stanley, the capital, to a quiet island, Bleaker. It was still winter, and few penguins around, but still lots of wildlife.....]
Looking west along Stanley harbour. FIPASS in foreground. Narrows (harbour entrance) on right
 FIPASS (Falklands Interim Port And Storage System) was a short-term solution to the lack of docking facilities after the 1982 war. It is still used by fishing trawlers and small cruise ships as well as fishery protection vessels.
Bleaker Sandy beach, home for hundreds of penguins.
 Soon we were looking down on what has been rated one of the Top Ten Beaches in the World. It is normally busy with penguins, but it is a few weeks too early for migrating penguins coming home to breed, and the resident penguins are mostly offshore feeding.
Cobbs Cottage 
The island is about 20 miles long and 1 mile wide. Near the centre is a small settlement with the usual farm buildings - shearing shed, manager's house; but also a couple of purpose-built self-catering cottages. We were the only visitors for two days, so had the place to ourselves, apart from the hospitable owners, and the wildlife.
Bleaker settlement
There are sheep and beef cattle on the island, but we had come for the fresh air, gentle walking and the chance to watch native wildlife closeup.
No shortage of sunlight or wind....
 We didn't have long to wait.  After about 15 minutes strolling along the tussac-grassed coast, we stumbled (literally) across a small group of Sea Lions.  I'm not sure who was more surprised. Once we had retreated to a safe distance, the bull of the group decided to watch us while we had a picnic on the beach.
Bull Sea Lion and Pale-faced Sheathbill
 While we ate our sandwiches, another sea lion popped up to see who was disturbing the peace.
Female sea lion
But beyond the sea lions, we suddenly noticed some black fins cutting through the kelp. We thought they were dolphins, but as we got a better view of them, we felt they were almost double the size of the local dolphins. On later checking some field guides, I suspect they were pilot whales, but it's difficult to tell without seeing them close or with other sea mammals nearby.
Either Pilot whales or  Peale's dolphins
As far as we could see, they were all black, but the two local dolphin species, Commerson's and Peale's have grey or white markings .
Pilot Whales?
Striated Caracara, or Johnny Rooks
Whatever they were, they were a joy to watch, as they patrolled the small inlet. 

 Even without the mammal sightings, we would have been happy with the multitude of birds that we saw. Not that many in number, but a large cross-section of the native birds of the Falklands.
Male Steamer Duck
 We can see the Falklands' Flightless Steamer Duck in Stanley Harbour, but it is a welcome sight anywhere.  But you can only see it on these islands! Nowhere else in the world!

Speckled Teal
One of our favourites is the very shy, black-necked swan. Unusually for Falklands birds, these don't like you getting too close and tend to paddle in the opposite direction as soon as they catch sight of you. But this was the first time we had seen them without cygnets, so perhaps they were a bit more relaxed, and we managed to get a couple of good sightings.
Black-necked swan
 The Sheathbill is a normally a visitor from Antarctica, and struts around penguin colonies living off tasty tidbits in the penguin droppings or intercepting food being regurgitated from the adult bird to the chick! Looking like an albino pigeon, the Sheathbill is unlike every other Antarctic bird in that it does not have webbed feet, so how it makes the 600+ mile journey from Antarctic without getting its feet wet is beyond me.
Pale-faced Sheathbill - remarkable bird
 All too soon, we were heading back to the airport to await the Islander aircraft arrive on the grass airstrip.
Bleaker airport, with either Customs or Immigration on the roof
 The landing strip was cleared of sheep, geese, and giant petrels as we watched the small, red plane approach, land gently and taxi towards us.
Streamlined baggage-handling
 Soon we were flying eastwards above Stanley Harbour viewing familiar streets from unfamiliar angles.
I think that's the Pharos leaving the harbour.
A lovely short break to recharge the batteries and enjoy some of the best wildlife in the islands.  Our thanks to hosts Mike and Phyl.