TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
6 - 20 January 2002
Sunday 7 January
We met at Brize Norton and ate in the Gateway Refectory prior to the flight.
Monday 8 January
A long delay to the aircraft's departure from RAF Brize Norton was a little too familiar but once again worked in our favour. Arriving for our refuelling stop later in the morning meant that there was a much better chance of seeing the Ascension Island Frigatebird. A total of seven was seen. The last was an immature bird at quite close quarters as it flew past us heading downwind.
After an uneventful flight we arrived at Mount Pleasant Airport, East Falkland, at 4.15pm. The weather was a sultry 20ºC with a warm, brisk, northerly breeze. Our first birds on the scenic drive to Darwin were Upland Geese and a pair of Correndera Pipits dancing a little 'welcome' jig.
Some group members could not resist a walk around the enchanting settlement at Darwin before dinner with the result that a creditable total of 26 species was recorded at the call-over afterwards. These included Antarctic Giant Petrel, Antarctic Terns, Rock Shags breeding precariously on the piles of an old jetty, Black-crowned Night-heron, Kelp Goose, the endemic Falkland Flightless Steamer-ducks, a Silver Teal found by Peter, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Kelp Geese, Falkland Thrushes and Long-tailed Meadowlarks.
Ken and Bonny Greenland gave us a fabulous welcome, not only in their friendly and homely hospitality but also in the form of a local mullet risotto followed by baked chicken pasta and a vast mixed-fruit pavlova.
Tuesday 9 January
The following morning we awoke to bright sunshine and no wind... absolutely idyllic conditions for our first morning in the islands. The choice of Darwin as a start to our holiday was voted a hit as people wandered around the area watching new birds such as Magellanic Penguin (looking quite like a diver in the water), Ruddy-headed Geese, South Polar Skuas, Dark-faced Ground-tyrants and Black-chinned Siskins.
They say that in the Falklands you can have four seasons in a day and we believed it when, while waiting at Darwin International Airport, we were forced to take shelter in the air traffic control centre (Ken's vehicle) as a thunder storm, much needed torrential rain and hail, descended on us.
We were still able to see a female Red-backed Hawk sitting on an aerial, our first TVs - Turkey Vultures - and five Black-necked Swans fly past.
Antarctic giant petrel
South polar skua
South American tern
After a 25-minute flight to Pebble Island we set off in rather cramped conditions to explore the eastern end of the island. Our first stop was to watch a Snowy Sheathbill picking around in the settlement harbour, just 100 metres from the lodge. It was accompanied by a pair of Kelp Geese and Antarctic Terns in the bay.
Searching the many ponds was difficult due to a strong wind which was blowing up huge waves but we were able to watch White-tufted Grebes, Speckled Teal, Black-necked Swans and a flock of mixed waders which included several White-rumped Sandpipers, although our views were not good.
One stop to look at Southern Giant Petrels patrolling a beach resulted in a cry of delight from the back of the vehicle. Several Magellanic Penguins were spotted close to their breeding burrows on the hillside behind. We studied them with great pleasure, later looking down a burrow to see the strange head movements of a bird trying to work out what was blocking its limited view on the world.
Our journey onto Tamar Point finally ended at another penguin breeding site - a rookery of Rockhopper Penguins, surely one of the great character species of this trip. Settling down below the cliff they were nesting on, we ate a packed lunch (with delicious home-made bread sandwiches) watching the penguins coming ashore onto rocks pounded by the surf.
What a terrible ordeal. Their progress was watched through the water as the birds took breathing leaps from the foamy waves. They shot towards the rocks leaping out of crashing breakers to scramble ashore in an almost mad panic. Rightly so, for we could see a Southern Sea Lion patrolling in search of a penguin meal. At one stage we suspected that the Sea Lion's mission had been successful when a Giant Petrel splashed into the sea close to where it had surfaced to feed on something we could not see.
The Rockhoppers made it ashore and after spending some time preening, climbed the cliff with their curious but athletic two-footed hops. The colony was a mass of activity as scores of fluffy chicks had formed several crèches, huddling together as they sheltered from the strong wind. When a parent arrived, however, its youngster broke away from the others to feed.
King Cormorants share the colonies with the Rockhoppers and they too were coming and going. Many flew in close to the ground giving opportunities for great action photographs.
The Travelling Naturalist has strict rules about photographing wildlife based on the simple premise that we should never get so close to a creature that it responds to us. As always, our group was impeccably behaved as some slowly approached the rookery to get pictures of penguins and cormorants. The birds cared not a jot and the exercise was a success for all concerned.
While this was going on, Tim took some of the others along the cliff top to look for a Peregrine's nest. They were successful with views of the tiercel (male) and much larger female.
Our next stop was at Cape Tamar where a colony of about 22 Southern Sea Lions was basking in the hot sun on a rock. The big dominant male 'beachmaster' was surrounded by an adoring bunch of females while about four slightly smaller males looked on in envy. One crept up on a sleeping female at the edge of the group, but his nerve was not strong enough and no further advance was made. Several larger young Sea Lions were play-fighting on the edge of the rock splashing in and out of the water like young children on an away-day to Blackpool.
Tim's gaze was constantly out to sea and he pointed out lots of Black-browed Albatrosses which came sailing past. They were not alone, and soon we were watching the occasional Sooty Shearwater and White-chinned Petrel passing the point. A Greater Shearwater was also spotted. Suddenly, with great delight, Tim pointed out scores of Slender-billed Prions passing quite close to the cliffs - such a rare sight that they were the first Tim has ever shown to clients and only the second time he has seen them.
It was with great surprise that we realised the time was 5.30pm and the journey back had to be started. A stop on the way back resulted in good views of White-rumped Sandpipers which were spending the northern winter in the Falklands after a 10,000 mile flight from the Canadian high arctic regions.
The off-road adventure involved a great deal of bumping around plus the opening and closing of 32 gates - all worth it for the truly wonderful wildlife experience. The day ended with yet another memorable meal prepared by our hosts Edmundo Gonzalez and Sandra Alarcon who were helped by Sam Pickard (who was also our driver) and Ruth Mackay.
Wednesday 9 January
A wonderful sense of silence and peace descends on groups of wildlife enthusiasts when they settle down to watch nesting Black-browed Albatrosses on Saunders Island.
The phenomenon applied to our group as, in perfect weather and light conditions, we watched the lives of these most magnificent birds at close quarters.
People took rolls of pictures as the birds got on with their daily lives - mutual preening, bill fencing, tail fanning and calling; feeding their chicks or just sitting on their nests with the babies' heads poking out from beneath the adults' tummies - and all the while albatrosses returning to the colony were drifting past looking for their nest sites.
The trip from Saunders Island airstrip to the colony takes about 40 minutes but we stopped a couple of times as plants were shown to Margaret and other interested group members by our hostess Susan Pole-Evans.
Our time at the albatross colony was just over two hours, much of which was spent admiring the albatrosses. We did get to see other wildlife, however, in the form of the big Rockhopper Penguin rookery a mile or so along the cliff-top. Four Red-backed Hawks were seen hovering above the escarpment or drifting past.
Ian had a great day, spotting three Peale's Dolphins cruising past close to the base of the cliffs, and our first Striated Caracara. In fairness, the bird found Ian at the penguin rookery and landed at his feet, after eating some spare sandwiches a mile away where the Landrovers were parked. It had made the journey much faster than us.
On the way back to the airstrip we saw our first Crested Caracara. We were stalking a pair of Chiloe Wigeon when the bird went over.
We were looking at wildfowl on a big lake when Tim spotted our first Yellow-billed Pintails among a big flock of Speckled Teals and assorted geese.
Birds of Saunders Island
Antarctic giant petrel
South polar skua
South American tern
On returning to Pebble Island some of us went beach-combing along Elephant Bay, finding a few dolphin vertebrae half-buried in the fine sand.
Imagine our surprise when suddenly three Commerson's Dolphins appeared about 200 metres off the beach and proceeded to body-surf the waves until they were just a stone's throw away. We could see the white and black patches clearly as the animals surfed through and along the waves, or occasionally rolled over the surface. One turned on its side and slapped its tail fluke on the sea's surface, while another leapt clear of the sea. We enjoyed watching them for about 20 minutes before they went out to sea.
It was a perfect finale to a wonderful day.
Thursday 10 January
Pebble Island is probably the only place in the world where birders can see six species of penguin in a day. This record had been set by a group the season before and we set off to equal it. Sadly, we fell short when we discovered that Macaroni and Erect Crested penguins were missing from the colony at the far western end of Pebble Island.
We were not downcast, however, having seen Gentoo Penguins making a long trek from the sea to their colony far inland. We watched hungry chicks chase adult birds around the colony until eventually the parents relented and fed them. This technique is to build strong leg muscles in the youngsters to prepare them for the long journey to the sea which they will do once adult feathers have grown.
A King Penguin, which was flat out on the ground sleeping with its flippers outstretched, woke and started braying loudly for a mate, each attempt ending with the bird dropping its head onto its chest, as if exhausted. It is unlikely to be successful in its calls for company and remains Pebble's rarest nesting bird - at half a pair.
Rockhoppers were next on the itinerary and we delighted in watching the birds come ashore through kelp beds and, on this occasion, smooth seas before doing their two-footed hops up the cliffs to join the other adults and big crèches of chicks.
The colony was patrolled by skuas which occasionally dropped down to snatch one of the many addled eggs lying in the colony. We admired the birds' fortitude as they cracked open the rotten eggs and ate the contents.
It was with great reluctance that we tore ourselves away to take a late picnic lunch on a stunning headland overlooking a colony of Southern Giant Petrels. Miles from the settlement, surrounded by views across the other Falkland Islands, with vast skyscapes and no sign of humans anywhere (even the beaches are pristine clean) It all seemed like paradise.
We were not alone for long as a Crested Caracara settled about 100m. away and called repeatedly, occasionally throwing its head back across its shoulders while giving a strange strangled cough.
Our journey back was punctuated with stops to look at two South American Snipe, a big party of Black-throated (Canary-winged) Finches, a Sedge Wren and a Common Snipe.
The latter was so tame that not only were people able to crawl to within two metres for a photograph, but Tim also assumed the same position on the other side of the snipe to get a picture of group members taking their shots.
After a stop for refreshments, we went back to some of the ponds visited earlier in the stay to take advantage of the calmer conditions.
Our reward came in the guise of 13 Black-necked Swans, 20 Chiloe Wigeon, five Silvery Grebes and more than 70 Speckled Teal. Another wonderful day had ended well.
Birds of Pebble Island
Antarctic giant petrel
Variable (Red-backed) hawk
South American snipe
South polar skua
South American tern
Friday 11 January
The group was split due to aircraft scheduling taking them from Pebble to Sea Lion Island. To Tim's embarrassment, while waiting for the second half of the group to arrive, he spotted a bull Orca some distance away and pointed it out to the first party. Naturally, by the time the second wave arrived, the animal had gone.
The afternoon was spent looking for it, although the new arrivals were not told that an Orca had been seen. The search was in vain, and the news was broken to everyone over a drink in the bar. Tim pledged to do his best to find some the next day.
Sea Lion Island is one of the Falklands' most popular sites for experiencing wildlife, made so by the wonderful hospitality of Jenny Luxton and her team of Chilean helpers - Juan, Adela, Jessica, Roberto and little Robertino. Meals are fantastic and the standard of accommodation exemplary. Indeed, the contrast between Sea Lion Island's wild places, birds and animals, and the fantastic hotel and food, is probably the most commented on. Understandably then, Sea Lion was voted a great place, despite the bad news about the Orcas for some.
Blackish Cincloides, known as Tussock-birds locally, were abundant and the Falklands' endemic Cobb's Wren was also found. But it was mammals which stole the show. Almost 50 huge Southern Elephant Seals were found on one beach along with a Southern Sea Lion. The animals were mainly bulls which had come ashore to moult their winter coats.
Birds were stunning too with seven large colonies of Gentoo Penguins, and lots of hole-nesting Magellanic Penguins, some with chicks standing outside their burrows. There were two small but active colonies of South American Terns, more than 15 Striated Caracaras feeding on a dead penguin, while the tussock grass was alive with Black-throated Finches, Falklands Thrushes, Tussock-birds, Dark-faced Ground Tyrants and Black-chinned Siskins.
Our post-lunch walk eventually reached Long Pond where we saw Silver Teals, Silvery Grebes, Chiloe Wigeon, Speckled Teals, and Yellow-billed Pintail. Rufous-chested Dotterel were abundant on the diddledee moorland with a few Two-banded Plovers, lots of Black-throated Finches, the ubiquitous Tussock-birds and several tame Common Snipe.
After dinner we went out looking for Short-eared Owl and were fortunate to get poor views of two. A star-watching session saw many of us gazing at Omega Centauri, the Southern Cross, Jupiter and its prominent moons, Saturn with its rings, the Orion Nebula and Betelgeuse.
Saturday 12 January
Desperate to ensure that the second party caught up with Orcas, Tim was above Elephant Beach at 5.45am looking for the world's largest dolphins. Elephant Seals on the beach were extremely active, fighting and roaring in the surf and challenging each other to chest-slapping duels. But they were not Orcas.
Suddenly, close to where the bull had been seen the day before first one, then two more scimitar-shaped fins appeared at 6.45am. The bull's harem had moved inshore. John was the only late-party member up at the time but he had good views. Pauline followed 45-minutes later, closely followed by Ian and Cindy by which time the Orcas were attracting attention from large numbers of Giant Petrels, Skuas, Kelp Gulls and terns as they fed, probably on fish. It was such a relief that everyone had seen them.
Pauline gave a call on the way out to the Sea Lion cliffs - for a Barn Swallow which had been blown off the coast of South America 300 miles away and was now seriously lost.
The Orcas were still feeding at breakfast-time and they were added to our lounge lists. They were still feeding two hours later when we arrived at the Sea Lion cliffs and could see the huge animals in the same spot but now two miles away. They were joined later in the morning by the bull and an immature male and the party continued feeding until 1.45pm, the longest we have ever watched a single pod of Orcas.
The whole morning was spent watching the Sea Lion colony, a fascinating experience. The big bull 'beachmasters' frequently bellowed at each other but stopped short of the fights which had produced the many deep cuts and scars that marked each one. Often we had the chance to look into their foul-looking mouths. Strangely, the females, bunched in harems dominated by the males, also occasionally fought and bickered with each other. As these encounters took place the small black pups were scattered in all directions but amazingly did not seem to get hurt, even when picked up, shaken and thrown across the beach in the melee. Other pups were found by mothers returning from the sea and suckled eagerly.
In among all this activity, one female was giving birth. The hind flippers of its baby appeared between the mother's flippers and gradually over a 10-minute period, the infant was born. Dolphin and Kelp gulls which had watched the event swooped in to eat the amniotic sac. The mother picked up her pup, seemingly not so carefully and moved in the direction of her nipples a few times but was clearly still uncomfortable. Eventually, however, the baby suckled to our relief. Giant Petrels moved in to clear up the afterbirth.
The backdrop to all this activity was the enjoyment of wildlife of all sorts as it passed or settled near us. A female Peregrine sat on the cliffs nearby allowing us excellent views. Once thought to be a separate species called Cassin's Falcon, the Falklands race is extremely dark and big. A large part of their diet is made up of prions caught far out at sea. Often the birds return with two prions, suggesting that they kill the first and leave it floating while catching the second.
A few Elephant Seals were close to the Sea Lion colony while Black-chinned Siskins, Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Patagonian Crested Ducks, and Kelp Geese with their brood of goslings all added interest. A pair of Falkland Flightless Ducks engaged in a bitter and violent battle, the drakes pecking each other's necks and beating their stumpy wings.
We finally decided to leave and walked up to the Rockhopper Penguin rookery close to the HMS Sheffield memorial. The sea was calm but there is always a heavy swell and we looked in amazement as the penguins made their way through foamy surf onto a rock platform at the base of cliffs before hopping up to the colony - shared with 3,000 pairs of King Cormorants. We were able to admire their deep blue eyes as they returned to feed young.
Our walk back to the lodge included a stop at Long Pond where the wind had sent many of the previous day's ducks scurrying for shelter in a large reed bed. We were still able to see Speckled Teals, Chiloe Wigeon, Silver Teal and Silvery Grebe. Flocks of juvenile Rufous-chested Dotterel were on the banks of the pond. The last birding event was at Small Pond where we tried to turn a Flightless Steamerduck into one which could fly, without success.
Sunday 13 January
We had a 'go as you please day' today with Jenny Luxton and Tim taking people out to wherever they wanted to start walking. Sea Lion cliffs was the most popular site where the female Peregrine was joined by her offspring. Pauline counted three Snowy Sheathbills among the colony.
Peter and Tim identified the steamerduck seen in the small pool yesterday as Flightless Steamerduck but there was no sign of the Barn Swallow. Among the now familiar species, Margaret and Roger saw Chiloe Wigeon on a wind-swept Long Pond, as did Cindy and Ian.
The Silvery Teal were under attack from a Kelp Gull during the day and Roger described how the adults were springing up to five feet from the water to ward off the intruder while the ducklings dived out of the way, coming up in a tight bunch between their parents.
Food features strongly in the delight of a Sea Lion stay but even by their high standards tonight's barbecue meal was voted one of the best so far. The barbecued lamb and spare ribs were mouth-wateringly good. The only sadness was knowing that we had just one day left.
Monday 14 January
Tim led a walk from Beaver Pond, where the old Beaver float planes used to land, back through the three miles to the lodge. We crossed a shingle bank which separates the pond from the sea, inspecting whale and dolphin bones. Cobb's Wrens and Tussock-birds were abundant.
On the seaward side we found the first of about 50 Elephant Seals hauled up to bask in the sun while they moulted. Not that there was much sun. The day was cool and windy, although it was in our backs. The walk took us through high tussock-grass on occasion and it was easy to see what a mistake the early settlers had made in allowing it to be eaten away by sheep with resulting erosion in many places. The tussock provided us and many animals and birds with shelter from the elements.
Among the residents were Magellanic Penguins, Austral Thrushes, Black-chinned Siskins, Tussock-birds of course, and several Elephant Seals enjoying a nap.
Jenny had asked if we could investigate the status of Crested Caracara and a Peregrine on the north coast and this was achieved satisfactorily - three Caracaras were seen on the wing, indicating successful breeding, and a Peregrine rose up from its nest site beneath an inaccessible tussock-topped cliff to investigate us.
Ian and Cindy had chosen to spend the day watching Elephant Seals while John had gone out to observe his favourite animals - the Sea Lions, although their position further up the beach made observation difficult.
We were all pleased to learn that out flights out of this wonderful island the following day were not until early afternoon. FIGAS, the Falkland Island Government Air Service, announces the flights and who is on them on the local radio station each evening and some of us had heard our names read out on the broadcast.
Tuesday 15 January
FIGAS scheduling gave us two afternoon flights out of the island, a real bonus as we were able to individually visit our favourite spots for a final farewell.
John and Pauline, Roger and Margaret went up to the Long Pond for ducks and plants, Ian and Cindy spent the morning with Elephant Seals while Peter and Tim visited the Sea Lions and Peregrines.
An early lunch was provided for us and afterwards we all moved to another group's table and demanded another meal, much to Jessica's consternation and general merriment among the groups.
Birds of Sea Lion Island
Antarctic giant petrel
South polar skua
South American tern
After excellent flights to Stanley, our last in the Islander aircraft, we spent the afternoon exploring the town before meeting for a drink at the famous Upland Goose Hotel. We were staying at the slightly better Malvina Hotel where the party atmosphere continued over a delicious dinner which featured several traditional Falkland dishes.
At the roll-call afterwards a creditable seven species, including our first House Sparrows since Darwin, was recorded.
Wednesday 16 January
Our first full day in Stanley was full of delights. We started a 'free morning' with a visit to Falklands Conservation and the Visitors' Centre, with a bit of shopping to support the local economy.
Curator John Smith welcomed the group by showing us around an Antarctic shelter-hut which had been brought to Stanley and erected in the museum grounds. It was, he said, a time capsule from the 1950s when life in the Antarctic was considerably different from today's. Four people lived in the tiny hut which had bunk beds, magazines of the era still lying on the down-filled sleeping bags, a minute kitchen, porch complete with ski sticks and pinups of Bridget Bardot - fully dressed of course.
A swift visit to the museum proper revealed many aspects of island life from its natural history to the 1982 conflict. It is a great tribute to John who learnt some of his conservation techniques in Tim's home of Guernsey.
The weather was calm, warm and overcast for the afternoon trip to Cape Pembroke and Gypsy Cove. We were driven down to the lighthouse by Tony Smith and Jackie Summers - some of the group climbed the lighthouse for a view over treacherous rocks below.
Meanwhile, however, Tim had found a few feeding Brown-hooded Gulls over the kelp beds, a much wanted addition to our list.
They were accompanied by lots of South American Terns, Kelp Gulls and a huge flock of about 400 feeding King Cormorants. We watched in amazement as the cormorants all dived together and resurfaced in synchrony. Sea Lions on an island behind provided interest as the flock repeatedly disappeared.
Out at sea there were large numbers of Black-browed Albatrosses, some extremely high in the sky. They were accompanied by Sooty Shearwaters which breed on the tussock islands in the area - including Kidney Island which we hope to visit in a couple of days time. The shearwaters were present in huge numbers and many passed so close we could see their silvery underwings through binoculars.
Sweet-singing Sedge Wrens were abundant in the grasses at our feet and around the lighthouse - the first we had seen since Pebble Island. Rain started to fall and we moved back into the vehicles and set off to Gypsy Cove. It was only a light shower, however, and by the time we reached our destination the late afternoon had become sunny, warm and balmy.
Gypsy Cove is a picture-book beach with white sand, clear water and lots of Magellanic Penguins, some of which could be seen 'flying' at great speed under water. Their chicks were out of the burrows, some flapping their wing-flippers to gain strength, others sunbathing as they moulted from the fluffy brown down of juveniles into the more adult immature plumage.
Falklands Thrushes, Dark-faced Ground-tyrants, Black-throated Finches and Long-tailed Meadowlarks were in attendance.
The scene was so peaceful that one of our group nodded off in the diddledee while others explored being rewarded with views of a Black-crowned Night-heron colony.
We made stops on the way back to the hotel for pictures to be taken of Yellow Orchids, Gentians and Fachine bushes.
Sunset over a peaceful Port Stanley was beautiful with long red cloud streamers across a seemingly endless sky. It was a super end to a great day.
Birds of Cape Pembroke and Gypsy Cove
Antarctic giant petrel
South polar skua
South American tern
Thursday 17 January
Everyone was amazed when we drew back the curtains to see fog. It is weather almost unheard of in the Falklands and was harbinger to a brilliant day.
We left the hotel at 8am in two Landrovers which headed a convoy of four vehicles bound for the Volunteer Point. New roads meant that the first half of the journey was comfortable and covered the 35 miles quickly. The second half was across moorland, bumpy and fascinating for the wonderful views we had of mainland East Falkland.
Flocks of Black-throated Finches sped away from the approaching vehicles and occasionally we glimpsed introduced European Hares which have done far better than Rabbits in the far south.
Three birds of prey rose from the carcase of a dead lamb - two were Turkey Vultures but the third was a Crested Caracara which perched on a diddledee clump about a mile away before deciding that the coast was clear to return to its meal.
We stopped to look at a Sedge Wren, several Red-backed Hawks and ducks in some of the creeks and ponds before finally arriving at the point.
What a sight greeted us... King, Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins all hiking across a narrow sand-spit to get to their respective colonies or breeding burrows.
About 300 Kings were gathered in a large loose flock, most supporting eggs on their flippers as if breeding on ice, one or two with tiny grey chicks peeping out from between a parent's legs. Some were braying in the same way as the bird on Pebble Island - head thrown into the air for the main trumpeting call and then suddenly dropped onto the chest as if exhausted by the effort.
A few Kings were in their juvenile plumage, looking like brown busbies. Others were adults in moult, standing shedding their old plumage to create a snow-like smattering of feathers across the grassland.
The Gentoo colony was full of well-grown chicks. So full in fact that the crèches ran into each other creating the appearance of a huge schoolroom. Some chicks played truant, chasing their parents around the outside of the colony until being rewarded by a feed.
Our group spread out and sat quietly to watch the penguins, take pictures and swap notes as we bumped into each other.
Dropping down towards the beach, the view which greeted us was like the D-Day landings in Normandy with hundreds of what looked like people running out of the surf and slowly making their way to the beach-head. Happily, they were not under fire as these were mainly penguins returning to their nest burrows or colonies.
It was fascinating to see that the slow-moving Kings were agile and torpedo-like in the water. The sand was brilliantly white and a blue sky reflecting on the sea gave stunning aquamarine colours to the view. But it was also sparklingly clear and we could see all three species of penguin swimming into and out of the beach area.
In a corner of the beach more than 100 White-rumped Sandpipers had gathered with about 40 Two-banded Plovers, feeding on the sand and barnacle encrusted rocks as the tide dropped.
The day had been perfect and allowed us to study carefully and at close quarters, the life-history of our fourth penguin species of the trip.
Birds of Volunteer Point
Antarctic giant petrel
Variable (Red-backed) hawk
South polar skua
South American tern
As it grew dark, however, a strong wind got up beating the surface of Stanley Sound into angry-looking white-topped waves. We were assured by Anne and Eddie Chandler, guests of Tim's who joined us for dinner, that it would not last the night. But at 10.30pm it seemed like a full gale and we went to bed depressed about our chances of a boat trip the following day.
Friday 18 January
We need not have worried... Anne and Eddie were correct. The day dawned calm, fine, sunny and hot. It was perfect for a boat trip, even for the most dubious sailors among us.
The plan was to motor across Berkley Sound to the end of Volunteer Point and then describe a great loop out to sea, ending at Kidney Island close to the entrance to Stanley Sound. All went wonderfully well, producing what was for many of us the best day of the trip.
As we left the sound, with Tim cutting up squid and sardines for the 'chum', two Peale's Dolphins marked our passage by leaping from the water and then surging along the waves in our wake.
We were able to contrast their dark grey backs and sides with the much whiter flanks of Commerson's Dolphins when the latter were spotted leaping from the sea some way off, close to the cliffs at Volunteer Point. Another two joined us at the point as we were watching a large male Southern Fur Seal which had long whiskers. They repeatedly shot out of the water in front of us doing barrel-rolls before crashing back into the sea. The lone Fur Seal was a mystery as a colony of more than 100 should have been present on the rocks yet neither Wavedancer's skipper Mike Evans nor his crewman Den Loveridge could find them. A single Common Tern - distinguished by its white winter-plumage forehead - was seen.
We headed out into the ocean, steering a wide arch back towards Kidney Island. As we reached a water depth of 100m., Tim started scooping his fish mixture into the sea making an oily slick which attracted birds up to the boat.
Within a few minutes we had a huge gathering of more than 150 Black-browed Albatrosses around the boat, some immersing themselves completely to get the scraps of food. Some had the all dark bills and grey collars of immature birds. Seeing these majestic albatrosses at extremely close quarters allowed close-up pictures to be taken, although nothing could capture the excitement of being close to some of the world's most enigmatic seabirds.
Soon other birds started joining them and we enjoyed close views of Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels close to the boat. Kelp Gulls, terns and even Magellanic and Gentoo penguins joined in the fray.
Tim looked up from his chumming work to spot the first tiny seabird - a Grey-backed Storm Petrel pattering across the water. A Greater Shearwater was seen shooting past, although views were not good. Suddenly a Wilson's Petrel put in appearance - the last new bird of the pelagic session.
After running out of chum we spent a little time watching the albatrosses sitting on the water waiting (in vain) for our next offering before bidding them farewell and heading off to Kidney Island.
An unexpected and greatly appreciated welcoming committee was waiting on the beach for us. A 'pride' of Southern Sea Lions bounded off the beach as our boat moored about 100m. away. Some sped out to get a closer view while others waited in a kelp bed for us to motor past in a zodiac.
They swept past, around and under the inflatable, diving gracefully in the clear water. As the boat was grounded on the beach for us to get out some splashed out of the shallows a few metres away to watch us, jostling for position and holding friendly bouts at the water's edge.
Our advice had always been not to set foot on a beach which had Sea Lions but these were non-breeding youngsters who were inquisitive rather than aggressive. If one came too close we walked towards it whereupon the animal beat a hasty retreat of a few metres. As we ate our packed lunches the Sea Lions all along the beach - about 15 males and 25 females - continued their games with each other oblivious to us.
Eventually we left them in the company for our boatmen and went of to look for a Rockhopper Penguin colony. A long and difficult walk through the tussock to the other side of the island resulted in our final views of these character birds.
Birds of the pelagic trip and Kidney Island
Antarctic giant petrel
South polar skua
South American tern
Our final day in the fabulous Falklands was one of the great highlights of this Travelling Naturalist holiday and proved that the island's oldest marketing slogan has stood the test of time: The Falkland Islands, where Nature is Still in Charge
We really were truly sorry to tear ourselves away from the enchanting wildlife islands.
Two hours out from Ascension on our way home the aircraft developed a fault in its weather radar and we returned to spend 27 hours as guests of the RAF. This gave us the opportunity to hire a minibus for the afternoon and explore the island.
We had all seen three of the island's limited range of land birds: Common Myna, Common Waxbill and Island Canary, during the morning.
We watched mating Green Turtles in the bay next to Georgetown Jetty where there was a huge shoal of Blackfish, a tropical species true to its name but with a thin blue v-shaped line at the tail. A species of Garfish, a surface-feeding Smelt which looked like Mullet, forked-tailed Silverfish and a species of Bream were also seen. In the town we found a feral Donkey seeking shade by standing in the fire-station, while a look out sea revealed a couple of Red-footed and several Masked Boobies.
Our drive up Green Mountain was hairy - hairpin bends giving rise to hair-raising moments for some. The view from the Governor's Residence close to the summit was worth the effort and we also achieved good views of White (Fairy) Terns nesting on sheer rock faces, land crabs peeking out of crevices in rocks and a feral cat, one of the scourges of the island which New Zealand scientists are trying to eliminate.
Our tour took us through Two Boats and out to a point from where we could see Boatswainbird Island, the only breeding site of the Ascension Island Frigatebird. They were swarming around its top like bees from a disturbed hive.
A cooling breeze brought many passing seabirds close to the shore. Frigates were passing behind us and we were able to study their plumage - which showed that most were juveniles. Brown Boobies drifted past only a few yards away, so close that binoculars were not needed. Masked Boobies were passing in long strings, just like the similar Northern Gannets back home except that some were close enough to see the back trailing edge to the wing. Another Red-footed Booby went past along with several Black and Lesser Noddies. Two Bottlenosed Dolphins were seen by most of us as they went past but a search for breeding Sooty Terns was fruitless. A European Rabbit was added to our mammal list on the way back.
We took off for home, tired and seriously inconvenienced, but happy that the stop had been so productive.
Annotated list of species
PENGUINS Sphenisciformes Spheniscidae
King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus
Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua
Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome
Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus
GREBES Podicipediformes Podicipedidae
White-tufted Grebe Rollandia rolland
Silvery Grebe Podiceps occipitalis
ALBATROSSES Procellariiformes Diomedeidae
Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris
Darwin (1 on 7th); Tamar Point, Pebble Island (200 on 8th); Saunders Island (1 colony 8 miles long, 12,000+ pairs on 9th); West end Pebble Island (10 on 10th); Sea Lion Island (30+ on 11th); seawatching, Sea Lion Island (00s on 13th and 15th); Cape Pembroke (200+ on 16th); Volunteer Point (4 on 17th); pelagic trip (150+ on 18th).
SHEARWATERS & PETRELS Procellariiformes Procellariidae
Antarctic Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus
Common daily, colonies of 60 pairs Pebble and 15 pairs Sea Lion islands.
Slender-billed Prion Pachyptila belcheri
Cape Tamar, Pebble Island (100+ on 8th).
White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis
Greater Shearwater Puffinus gravis
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus
Cape Tamar, Pebble Island (20+ on 8th); seawatch Sea Lion Island (100+ 13th + 15th); Cape Pembroke (00s on 16th); pelagic trip (30 on 18th), Kidney Island to Stanley (00s on 18th).
STORM-PETRELS Procellariiformes Hydrobatidae
Grey-backed Storm-petrel Garrodia nereis
Pelagic trip (1 on 18th)
Wilson's Storm-petrel Oceanites oceanicus
GANNETS & BOOBIES Pelecaniformes Sulidae
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra
Red-footed Booby Sula sula
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
CORMORANTS Pelecaniformes Phalacrocoracidae
Rock Shag Phalacrocorax magellanicus
Imperial Shag (King Cormorant) Phalacrocorax atriceps
FRIGATEBIRDS Pelecaniformes Fregatidae
Ascension Island Frigatebird Fregata aquila
Ascension Island (7, one close fly-by, on 7th; Boatswainbird Island 1,000+ on 20th)
HERONS, EGRETS & BITTERNS Ciconiiformes Ardeidae
Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax
SWANS, GEESE & DUCKS Anseriformes Anatidae
Black-necked Swan Cygnus melanocorypha
Upland Goose Chloephaga picta
Common to abundant daily, first bird seen and last, tasted good when on the menu at the Malvina Hotel.
Kelp Goose Chloephaga hybrida
Ruddy-headed Goose Chloephaga rubidiceps
Common daily in family parties up to 10 birds.
Falklands Flightless Steamerduck Tachyeres brachypterus
Chiloe Wigeon Anas sibilatrix
Speckled Teal Anas flavirostris
Common on freshwater ponds almost daily.
Crested Duck Anas specularioides
Seen daily in small numbers.
Yellow-billed Pintail Anas georgica
Saunders Island (10+ on 9th); Long Pond, Sea Lion Island (2 from 11 to 15th).
Silver Teal Anas versicolor
NEW WORLD VULTURES Falconiformes Cathartidae
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Common in groups of up to 30 birds daily.
HAWKS Falconiformes Accipitridae
Red-backed (Variable) Hawk Buteo polyosoma
FALCONS & CARACARAS Falconiformes Falconidae
Striated Caracara Phalcoboenus australis
Crested Caracara Caracara plancus
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Tamar Point, Pebble Island (pair + juvenile on 8th); Sea Lion cliffs, Sea Lion Island (female + 2 fledged young - tiercel was dead - 11 to 15th); north shore cliffs, Sea Lion Island (1 on 14th).
OYSTERCATCHERS Charadriiformes Haematopodidae
Magellanic Oystercatcher Haematopus leucopodus
Blackish Oystercatcher Haematopus ater
Common on coats, seen daily.
PLOVERS Charadriiformes Charadriidae
Two-banded Plover Charadrius falklandicus
Common on heathland and sea shores. Seen with young daily.
Rufous-chested Dotterel Charadrius modestus
Common to abundant daily.
SANDPIPERS Charadriiformes Scolopacidae
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Common and extremely tame on Pebble and Sea Lion islands.
South American Snipe Gallinago paraguaiae
White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis
Darwin (2 on 7th); Tamar Point, Pebble Island (8 on 8th); sand spit, Sea Lion Island (8 on 13th); Long Pond, Sea Lion Island (9 on 15th); Volunteer Point (100+ on 17th).
SHEATHBILLS Charadriiformes Chionididae
Snowy Sheathbill Chionis alba
SKUAS Charadriiformes Stercorariidae
South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki
GULLS Charadriiformes Laridae
Dolphin Gull Larus scoresbii
Common daily... often found and studied by John.
Kelp (Dominican) Gull Larus dominicanus
Brown-hooded Gull Larus maculipennis
TERNS Charadriiformes Sternidae
South American Tern Sterna hirundinacea
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Off Volunteer Point (1 on 18th).
Black Noddy Anous minutus
Brown Noddy Anous stolidus
White Tern Gygis alba
OWLS Strigiformes Strigidae
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus
OVENBIRDS Passeriformes Furnariidae
Blackish Cinclodes (Tussock-bird) Cinclodes antarcticus
TYRANT FLYCATCHERS Passeriformes Tyrannidae
Dark-faced ground-tyrant Muscisaxicola macloviana
SWALLOWS Passeriformes Hirundinidae
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
WAGTAILS & PIPITS Passeriformes Motacillidae
Correndera Pipit Anthus correndera
WRENS Passeriformes Troglodytidae
Cobb's Wren Troglodytes cobbi
Sea Lion Island (abundant around the coast, 11 to 15th); Kidney Island (5 on 18th)
Sedge Wren Cistothorus platensis
10.1.2002 West Pebble Island (1 on 10th); Cape Pembroke (10+ on 16th); Volunteer Point (2+ on 17th).
THRUSHES Passeriformes Turdidae
Austral Thrush Turdus falcklandii
STARLINGS Passeriformes Sturnidae
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Ascension Island (abundant on 20th).
OLD WORLD SPARROWS Passeriformes Passeridae
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
WAXBILLS Passeriformes Estrildidae
Common waxbill Estrilda astrild
FINCHES Passeriformes Fringillidae
Black-chinned Siskin Carduelis barbata
Island Canary Serinus canaria
Ascension Island (common on 20th).
BUNTINGS Passeriformes Emberizidae
Canary-winged Finch Melanodera melanodera
TROUPIALS & ALLIES Passeriformes Icteridae
Long-tailed Meadowlark Sturnella loyca
Patchy distribution, common most places but not found on Sea Lion Island.
RABBITS & HARES Lagomorpha Leporidae
European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
Ascension Island (1 on 21st).
European Hare Lepus europaeus
EARED SEALS Carnivora Otariidae
South American Fur Seal Arctocephalus australis
South American sea-lion Otaria byronia
CATS Carnivora Felidae
Wild (Feral) Cat Felis silvestris
Several around the Falkland Island lodges except Sea Lion where there are none.
Green Mountain, Ascension Island (1 on 20th)
EARLESS SEALS Carnivora Phocidae
Southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina
MARINE DOLPHINS Cete Delphinidae
Orca (Killer whale) Orcinus orca
Peale's dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis
Bottlenosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus
Two seen from cliffs overlooking Boatswainbird Island, Ascension, on 20th.
Commerson's dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii
Ascension Island (more than 15 pairs in three sites).
One in a bedroom, Ascension Island on 20th.
INSECTS AND OTHERS
Hundreds in grass and heathland habitats daily.
Agrotis Moth sp
One individual on 9th, another of a different species on 10th.
First ever recorded in the Falkland Islands seen by Roger and Margaret Long on Saunders Island, 9th.
Small individuals seen on Pebble Island on 10th and in Stanley 16th.
One seen on Pebble Islands on 10th
Max of 10 seen on Sea Lion Island on 12th.
Giant Clocker Weevil Caneorhinus biangulatus
Three on Ascension Island - one dead in the shower block.
All seen from the jetty in Georgetown, Ascension on the 21st. Blackfish seen from other sites around the coast.