The Falkland Islands: A Birder’s Grail Destination

Photograph by David Nicolas
Photograph by David Nicolas
Photograph by David Nicolas
Photograph by David Nicolas
Photograph by David Nicolas
Photograph by David Nicolas

The Falkland Islands: A Birder’s Grail Destination

The otherworldly, windswept Falklands are home to such a vast and diverse array of wildlife--including five species of penguins--that the archipelago has become a grail destination for adventurous birders and nature lovers.

By Scott Weidensaul/Photography by David Nicolas
Published: May-June 2013

If there is a universal in the Falkland Islands, it is the wind. Blowing in from the Southern Ocean, born in distant Antarctica and pregnant with drizzle, it scythes across this treeless, grassy archipelago more than 300 miles off the coast of Argentina. At times it blows a furious gale against which one can barely walk; at other times it's a brisk breeze that merely rips the cap from your head. In just a couple of days I'd already grown accustomed to its endless keen and sharp edge, but what stopped me short this time was something new and baffling--the way the wind seemed to make the ground itself shimmer, like rippling water. 

Looking closer, I realized the ripples were trillions of tiny feathers blanketing the ground in an even white layer and piled up in ankle-deep drifts wherever there was a gully or depression. Taking a few more steps I topped a small rise--and discovered the answer to the mystery.

Thousands of gentoo penguins--three feet tall, attired in classic penguin monochrome but with white caps--stood around a small and shrinking pond, digging their orange beaks deep into the molting feathers of their backs and sides. The wind picked up fresh squalls of down, blowing them across the dunes and toward a nearby beach, where hundreds more penguins hurried back and forth between the colony and the ocean surf, waddling along on thick, tangerine feet.

Although I moved among them, the gentoos paid me no heed at all. The turf underfoot was short and dense, a Pollockesque abstract of intersecting white streaks of penguin guano and greenish curlicues of goose poop. Ignoring these as best I could, I sank down, reclining on the soft ground as though on a couch.

Having disregarded me to this point, the gentoos suddenly decided I was the most interesting thing in the colony. Immediately scores of them started plodding my way, necks outstretched with lively curiosity, tripping over one another in their haste. They jammed around within a foot or so of me, bobbing their heads and making small, murmuring sounds; I was lying so low that I found myself looking up at them. A few pecked inquisitively at my rain pants, while one leaned down and peered into the barrel of my telephoto lens, staring, it seemed, at its reflection. They constantly shook their heads with quick, sharp snaps to dislodge the droplets of highly saline water that drip endlessly from the tips of their bills. This is how penguins void excess salt from the water they drink. But it gave me the disquieting sense of general disapproval from a crowd too polite to actually say so.

I was on Sea Lion Island, the most southerly of the more than 700 islands that make up the Falklands--a world a naturalist could spend a lifetime exploring, from craggy inland peaks and flower-spangled marshes to isolated rocky outcrops surrounded by lush kelp forests teeming with fur seals and porpoises. For a week I would hopscotch among the outer islands on the government air-taxi service (the only way to reach most of the archipelago), visiting some of the places that have made the Falklands a grail destination of mine for decades: huge colonies where five species of penguins can be found; wetlands crowded with waterfowl few birders have even heard of; remote bays where strange raptors try to steal the hat off your head; and nature reserves where elephant seals and sea lions treat you like just another member of the herd.

All of which was marvelous, but--typical of the way that the Falklands defy all expectations--the most unforgettable moments came unexpectedly at the very end, not on some far-flung shore but on a small islet just a short boat ride from Stanley, the capital. There we stepped back into an older, wilder world--like Eden before the fall, where the maniacal laughter of thousands of birds fills the dark, and where roaring sea lions lie hidden within a jungle of grasses. The Falklands, I was quickly learning, are truly one of the most remarkable places on earth.

  

For a place that's not really on the way to anywhere, these islands have been the focus of an unseemly degree of international strife and bloodshed over the years, most notably Argentina's 1982 invasion of what it calls las Islas Malvinas. The subsequent 74-day war with Great Britain freed the islands (at least, that's how the then 2,000, mostly U.K.-descended residents viewed it) at a cost of more than 900 lives.

If North Americans know anything about this place, it's probably a vague recollection of that war, and little else. Few--even hard-shell birders--realize what an ornithological treasure the Falklands are. They provide relatively easy access to subantarctic specialties like penguins (five species, including the huge and stunning king), immense colonies of albatrosses and shearwaters, weird almost-falcons known as "Johnny rooks" that hunt in wolf packs, and endemics, like the flightless Falkland steamer duck, found nowhere else. A few North American migrants even appear here, including white-rumped sandpipers that travel as much as 9,000 miles to reach these islands. 

Lying in the gale-tossed region below 50 degrees south latitude that sailors dubbed "the Furious Fifties," this archipelago is comprised of two large, ruggedly mountainous land masses split by a deepwater channel--West Falkland and the generally lower, more rolling East Falkland--and more than 700 smaller islands, encompassing about 4,700 square miles in all. 

Claimed by England, Spain, and France, the Falklands have been argued over for centuries. In the early 1800s Argentine gauchos chased feral cattle across the grassy moors. The HMS Beagle docked here twice, in 1833 and 1834. In both cases, the young gentleman naturalist aboard was decidedly underwhelmed. The islands, Charles Darwin said, presented "a desolate and wretched aspect," but both times Darwin missed the breeding seasons and their immense colonies of penguins, albatrosses, seals, sea lions, and elephant seals.

Upland geese were my first taste of the extraordinary tameness of Falklands wildlife. One morning at daybreak I strolled out across East Falkland's meadows. Flocks of geese barely budged from my path, the white males crisply barred with black. Long despised by sheep farmers as competitors for grass, the upland goose is one of three birds in the Falkland Islands, including feral mallards and domestic geese, with no protection; in fact, you can order wild goose prepared half a dozen ways in local restaurants. Yet in spite of centuries of persecution, they remain abundant and almost absurdly naive.

Such naivete, I was to learn, is the hallmark of almost every creature in these windswept islands (home to more than 20 Important Bird Areas identified by BirdLife International). I spent ridiculously happy hours sitting amid thousands of striped Magellanic penguins, which brayed like donkeys from the entrances to their nest burrows; with mated pairs of king penguins, blue-gray and orange, trumpeting in unison over their fuzzy chicks; with king cormorants and rockhopper penguins on a rocky cliff high above the sea, the breeze making the golden head plumes of the penguins dance and shimmer.

On Sea Lion Island, where I had my close encounter with the gentoo penguins, Audubon photographer David Nicolas and I eased through a forest of tussac grass, a uniquely Falklands ecosystem--immense, tight-packed grass clumps that rose on trunklike columns high above our heads, forcing us to squeeze and snake between them as we pushed through overlapping curtains of their down-hanging leaves.

The silence was broken by the loudest, longest, deepest belch I'd ever heard, a basso profundo that made my bones rumble. Peering warily behind a screen of tussac, I found a southern bull elephant seal--18 feet long and probably weighing four tons--looking at us sleepily; it opened its pink mouth and thundered another majestic burp that made its pendulous snout quiver, and then slumped down against its six compatriots, all snoozing in the tussac.

Even by Falklands standards, Sea Lion Island has a lot of birds--and that's because of what it lacks. The main land masses, and many of the larger islands, have been grazed hard by sheep, cattle, and horses, which devoured much of the native tussac groves that once rimmed the Falklands. Introduced predators, including foxes, cats, and rats, reduced birdlife to an even greater extent. As a result, it's only on the islands without these aliens that you get the fullest sense of what the Falklands were like before people.

Carcass Island is such a place. As with Sea Lion and most of the outer islands, the easiest way to get there is with FIGAS, the government-run air-taxi service. Our nine-passenger prop plane flushed a loafing flock of upland geese from the grassy pasture that served as a landing strip. We were greeted by Rob McGill--a cheerful, weathered man wearing short sleeves, despite a biting wind.

In 1974 McGill and his wife, Lorraine, both native Falklanders, bought this 4,680-acre island, which has been a sheep operation for more than a century. For 21 years they raised livestock and ran a hostel for boarding school students. When they needed to bolster their income, they became among the first to fashion an agricultural/tourism compromise that's now common in the Falklands--working farms that take in summer guests. The McGills still run plenty of sheep and cattle, but they also converted their lushly landscaped farmhouse into a lodge known for its food as well as its wildlife.

Carcass was nothing short of spectacular. Falklands thrushes, which look like brick-colored robins, haunted the thickets around the McGill home with black-chinned siskins. Kelp geese--the females boldly barred in black, the males an immaculate white--drank from a rivulet of freshwater running down to the nearby cove. Rob has replanted enormous areas of tussac, restoring critical habitat. At Leopard Beach hundreds of gentoo and Magellanic penguins sat stoically atop tall dunes, their hunched backs turned to the wind-driven sand, the evening light low and buttery. Nearby, lines of gentoos headed toward their colony. Like many gentoo nesting sites, they lay half a mile inland and almost 600 feet up the rocky slopes.

Striated caracaras--oddly long-legged raptors related to falcons, known locally as Johnny rooks and found only in the Falklands and on Tierra del Fuego--patrolled the outskirts of the gentoo colony. Striated caracaras take big prey; we saw a pair with their three grown chicks consume what was left of an upland goose, which like penguins are a large and formidable quarry for raptors, though not for these pack hunters. They were long persecuted in the Falklands but now enjoy wider legal protection.

Each day a new FIGAS flight, each day a new island, but always the birds. The five species of penguins in the Falklands comprise one of the most diverse assemblages of these engaging birds in the world. It includes a small population of macaroni penguins with flamboyant yellow head plumes that fall back from their foreheads like shaggy bowl-cuts. Only a few hours' drive from Stanley lies the world's most accessible colony of king penguins, at Volunteer Point. We saw hundreds of pairs gathered around their brown, wastebasket-sized chicks or incubating large, white eggs. (Because it draws thousands of cruise-ship passengers a year, the king colony was also the only place in the islands where I saw the usual trappings of a wildlife attraction--designated parking areas, toilet facilities, and white-painted rocks surrounding the nesting area with signs asking visitors not to enter. In most of the Falklands, though, it's just you and the wild animals.) 

 

Our last stop--a small island named Kidney--lay just a 30-minute boat ride from the capital of Stanley, around the easternmost cape in the archipelago. While we transferred to an inflatable Zodiac, Craig Dockrill, a lanky Canadian ecologist who was wrapping up two years as the CEO of Falklands Conservation, a group dedicated to protecting the islands' wildlife, assured us that Kidney Island would make a fitting finale to an already remarkable trip.

The tussac forest on Kidney's steep slopes is ancient, overhanging the narrow cobblestone beach where we unloaded our camping gear. The notion of "old-growth grass" may seem oxymoronic, but some of these clumps may be centuries old at a minimum, Craig told us in a low voice as we began burrowing our way uphill through the dense vegetation.

Visibility was a foot or two in any direction. The air was humid, heavy with a pungent wet-dog smell. Its source was hidden just beyond the screen of tussac, where we could hear the crash of very big animals moving heavily but quickly all around us. 

Craig stepped carefully forward, parting the drooping curtains of long, damp grass that hung like palm fronds. He started to whisper something about being careful, but his warning was lost in a great roar just an arm's length in front of him. He backpedaled into me as the huge, furry head of a southern sea lion--a 600- or 700-pound bull, bellowing an angry challenge--punched through the grass screen a few feet away.

The damned thing's head was the size of a recliner; I could see its long, deeply stained canine teeth as we tumbled backward. I realized later that I'd been close enough to smell the fish on its rank breath. Then the grasses closed over the bull, and we could hear it pounding away through the vegetation. Knowing that sea lions almost never attack humans was scant comfort.

"We'll go this way," Craig said, brushing himself off and turning 90 degrees to the left. My heart was pounding, but Craig spoke as though he was choosing a flavor at an ice-cream stand: I'll have the vanilla, thanks, not the sea lion.

For Craig, who came to the Falklands in 2009 after working in the Arctic and Africa, this was a workaday routine. He led us by an erratic route, skirting more and more sea lions, to the heart of the 80-acre island and to a derelict cottage, built in the 1930s for men who harvested the grass for horse forage. We would use this for cooking but sleep in tents, because of walls still covered with old asbestos.

The area around the cottage was also the prime hangout for dozens of southern sea lions. They had mashed much of the grass flat, and bawled and bellowed at us as we tried to slip past as unobtrusively as possible. Dusk was falling, and we had an appointment to keep. Having pitched our tents up the slope a hundred yards from the cabin, Craig ushered us down the length of the island--with the occasional detour around an angry sea lion.

"Good, they're just getting started," he said, pointing out to sea. I realized the air out there was full of birds--thousands of sooty shearwaters, gull-sized seabirds related to albatrosses. In the northern summer they range as far north as Greenland, rarely coming within sight of land. But now, in February, they were tending their eggs and chicks in burrows beneath the tussac. Once the sun set--and with it, the threat from hungry giant-petrels and Falkland skuas--the shearwaters would be landing.

Soon the air around us was a wheeling mass of shearwaters, more pouring in every moment. The flock was staggering, yet when I glanced down for a few seconds to jot a quick note and then looked back up, the number of swift-moving crossbow shapes seemed to have doubled. Another glance down at my notebook, and it doubled again. And again. And again. Biologists estimate that 50,000 shearwaters nest here on Kidney Island, and in the gathering dusk it seemed that almost all of them were in frenzied flight just above our heads, a great gyre of birds materializing out of the twilight.

 

Soon we heard sounds--the heavy thuds of duck-sized birds smacking down through the tussac and hitting the ground around us, hard and awkwardly. When a shearwater plunged down right beside us, we flipped on our headlamps in unison, pinning the bird motionless for a moment in the intersecting beams. Glossy gray-brown with a slender, hooked bill, its tapered wings still akimbo from its graceless landing, the shearwater stared back at us with shiny black eyes. David snapped a hurried photo, just as the bird pivoted and disappeared down a burrow into the damp ground below a tussac clump.

The shearwaters also began to gabble, each bird making a slightly manic laugh, a series of rising, two-note calls: a-ha a-HA A-HA! Soon it was too dark to see them. But now the chorus of lunacy was ringing in our ears; when we shone our headlamp beams straight up, layers of shearwaters were still slicing through the air.

The headlamps also showed a fine, drifting curtain of fog rolling in from the sea, obscuring the sky--and, we realized, eliminating any chance of navigating by the stars back to the old cabin. We were surrounded by grass clumps nine or ten feet high and as much as 200 years old, enmeshed in thickening fog. There was no high ground from which to see, and no paths to follow except for the meandering tracks of the sea lions, which crisscrossed the island with no rhyme or reason.

I, for one, was completely lost in this confusing world of grass and mist. Craig scrambled up onto a low tussac clump, though, cocking his head. "Hear that?" he asked, gesturing to our right. "That way I can hear the surf, and that way"--he pointed off another way into the darkness--"I hear a lot of sea lions. Most of the sea lions were around the cabin, so as long as we keep the surf to our right and the sea lions more or less ahead of us, we should be okay." 

Still, it took another half-hour to work our sodden, sweaty way back to the old grass cutters' cabin, ringed by complaining sea lions whose eyes shone flat and glassy in our headlamps. But once we'd shed our rain gear, Craig lit a camp stove and whipped up an amazing batch of beef and rice with fresh veggies and Thai curry, spicy and hot, and almost miraculous, given the setting.

I was still a little stunned by what we'd just witnessed, and Craig nodded his head in sympathy as he dished up steaming bowls for each of us.

"I know just what you mean," he said. "It's like that here in the Falklands. Just when you think you've seen the best, you go to some new place and realize, 'Oh, well, actually . . .' "And with that he produced a final miracle--a couple of tall beers from his food bag. With them we toasted the Falklands while the sea lions growled and the shearwaters laughed. It was just another night in Eden.


Making the Trip: Falkland Islands

General travel and tourist information Start with the Falkland Islands Tourist Board and Falklands Conservation.

Getting there Because Argentina restricts travel to the Falklands through its airspace, the only flights for Americans are via LAN Airlines in Chile, which provides once-a-week service on Saturdays from Santiago via Punta Arenas. When searching for flights, use the airport code MPN (Mount Pleasant, the main Falklands airfield). 

Entry requirements No visa is required for U.S. citizens, but you'll need a passport, a return ticket, and proof of sufficient funds. Chile charges a reciprocity fee for Americans (currently $140, cash or credit card), payable upon entry and good for the life of the passport. The Falklands charges a PS22 (currently about $33) departure fee; note that there are no ATMs or currency changers at the airport, so have cash on hand.

Getting around The FIGAS air-taxi service allows visitors to island-hop as needed, with flight times determined the prior evening (your host will call to confirm). Weather is always an issue, and fog frequently grounds FIGAS flights. Plan to spend at least a night in Stanley prior to your homebound flight, so you're not stranded on an island and miss a jet that won't be back for another week. FIGAS also has a 20-kilogram (44-pound) limit for all baggage, including carry-ons.

Vehicle rentals Two local companies provide "hire cars" for use on East Falkland: Falkland Islands Company and Stanley Services Ltd.

Accommodations Stanley features several hotels and motels, as well as B&Bs (also known as homestays) and a hostel. In the outer islands there are a few lodges, like those on Pebble and Sea Lion islands, but more common are homestays, "settlement houses" (farmhouses, where you stay with a farm family), and "remote houses" (cabins), some of which are still heated with peat. Remote houses and many settlement houses are self-catering, meaning visitors must provide their own food; bring everything you need from Stanley. There are no formal campgrounds, but primitive camping can be arranged with private landowners or homestays.

"Smoko" and "camp" "Smoko" is a midday break for tea or coffee and snacks that started as a cigarette pause for sheep shearers. And Falklanders refer to anywhere outside of Stanley as "camp," from the Spanish word campo (countryside).

This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Land Before Time."

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