The Falkland Islands: A Birder’s Grail Destination

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

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.

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