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.



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