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.
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.