Sunday, 6 November 2016

Zombie Penguins, Peregrines and Leopards!

An occasional slice of life in the south Atlantic.  This week I was lucky enough to be treated to a short trip to Volunteer Point - home to several thousand penguins, peregrines and a leopard......
If you had never seen a penguin in the wild before, would you recognise these furry creatures as members of the species??
Keeping cool at the watering hole
They are, if you haven't already worked out, chicks of King penguins. The breeding cycle of Kings is quite unusual, in that it doesn't follow an annual cycle.  From mating to "leaving the nest" takes about 15 months.
So, a pair of Kings, can only produce 2 chicks in 3 years.
During their early life, chicks are sometimes guarded by a parent; ot other times, left long spells in a creche while the parents forage far and wide for food.
While most of the parents are away, these fluffy "teenagers" mooch around slowly using up their reserves and trying to keep cool in their fur coats.
In a few weeks, they will start to moult and lose these first feathers, and produce the oiled adult feathers which enable them to fend for themselves in the sea.
These chicks have had a few problems this winter, with several hundred dying or being killed by predators such as vultures.  The parents can swim as far as Antarctica, about 1,000 miles south, looking for food, and can be away for a couple of weeks.  While they are gone, the chicks are vulnerable.

 Volunteer Point is a private Nature Reserve within a 50,000 acre sheep farm, about 20 miles due north of Stanley, capital of the Falklands.  However, to get there, one must drive on the rural roads for over an hour, then drive off-road for another hour.
The creche is for penguins only
We were picked up at the road end by the resident warden, Derek, who lives near a 2-mile long beach in a shanty. The shanty is an old shepherd's house, but now it is cosy and hospitable, taking 4 guests at a time. We shared the meals with Derek and wife Trudi, but were free to come and go whenever we wished.
Feeding time
Outside, a few chicks were being fed......

I'm pretty sure, anywhere else in the world, there would be an exclusive and expensive luxury lodge built there. But we had the beach and reserve to ourselves, plus one other visitor, who happened to be a luminary of Polar tourism.
When cruise ships call into Stanley, hundreds of passengers get ashore as early as they can and join the convoy of 4x4 (SUV) cars heading to Volunteer Point. Some pay a couple of hundred dollars each for the privilege, but where else can you get so close to so many breeding penguins in a pristine area?
The main problem with being a day visitor, apart from the cost, is the long overland, bumpy journey for a short time with the penguins. So, it was delicious to be able to relax and know we had all day and most of the next day. Then the fog came in......  :-(
"Does my bum look big in this?"

Penguin feet

The creche is within the white stones.
Four Gentoos

As well as the "stars", the King penguins, there are several hundred (at least) breeding Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.
Out of the mist...

Kings in the mist

Shanty. 10 miles from the nearest road...

Volunteer Beach. 2 miles long. No deckchairs. No people.....

Three Kings....

Two Oystercatchers

Photobombed. Well, it is a sheep farm.....

Moulting Kings

Busy beach

Perfecting Nordic Walking technique

Wall to wall penguins...

In case you get lost....

Penguins everywhere.

Parents with the Incredible Sulk

To youngsters, we might be adults bringing food......

With so many penguins, predators are never far away.

He might be wondering what kind of penguin we are!
The walls of the shanty are covered in stunning photos taken by our hosts. One in particular, is a fantastic portrait of a peregrine falcon landing, wings outstretched, on its nest. We were told we might see the bird if we kept our eyes open....

Peregrine, going fast.....
Amazingly, about 15 minutes walk from the house, we heard an unusual screeching, and looked up to see two peregrines engaged in an aerial display. I nearly managed to get a photo of them both, but they were just a bit too fast for me!
Sea cliffs, home to the peregrines.

Same cliff, with raptor atop....

Falcon food....
After a breezy walk along the cliffs, we returned to the beach hoping to see the sea lion again. What we found was another "first" (after the peregrines) for me!
See that log in the middle of the beach.....?
We were about to tuck into our packed lunch, when I thought the log on the beach looked a funny shape.......
Not a log, but a Leopard Seal. Magellanic penguins consider their options.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be a resting Leopard Seal.....
These seals are top predators, with some very sharp teeth and a penchant for penguins!
Dreaming of penguins....
In a unique occurrence, several years ago, one even drowned a British Antarctic Survey scientist who was diving near an Antarctic base.

As far as I know, Leopard seals only rarely frequent Falklands' waters. But there have been dozens of sightings this year, so I suspect something has gone awry with the normal food chain or distribution of food.  The squid had a very poor year, so it's possible the seals are foraging far and wide. Their home range is Antarctica, and sub-Antarctic islands.
A good bit of track.

All too soon, we were being driven the miles over the rough Camp tracks back to our car at the end of the road. It took about 2 and a half hours to do the 45 mile journey.

A peregrine falcon could have flown from Volunteer Point to Stanley in 6 (yes, six) minutes!

Thanks to Derek and Trudi for their warm hospitality, stunning photos and driving ability; to my wife for organising such a fabulous trip, and to Denise, whom we met there and shared some experiences with - a pleasure to meet you.

How can I follow that?  :-)