Day 5 - Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands - Day 1 Saunders Island (A 5-Penguin Day!)

January 25, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The plan for the afternoon of the 20th November was to land on Saunders Island. This is the fourth largest of the Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands and is run as a sheep farm. The island consists of three peninsulas connected by narrow necks, which are prone to erosion due to storms. So, after stuffing my face with burgers, salad and a hot dog on Deck 5 of the Sea Spirit during lunch, and recovering from the morning's landing on Carcass Island, we boarded the Zodiacs once again and the landing to Saunders was to begin. As with all landings, the team head across first to secure a safe landing site, map out a route to ensure nobody goes where they shouldn't go, and help all passengers out from and into the Zodiacs. 

Saunders Island. The beach is dotted with Gentoo Penguins in this image, with a handful of King, Rockhopper and Magellanic Penguins also. 

The first sight to greet one are the Striated Caracara that come in looking for food scraps. Then, being downwind of the upland region of  this part of the island, the strong scent of penguin poo is apparent. A little trek up the small sandy dune connecting two peninsulas and the penguins became very apparent. Gentoos! And lots of them. The Gentoos are a big penguin, with only the King and Emperor Penguins being bigger. They are also very elegant and have lots of personality. There were a number of colonies scattered across the top of the sand-spit linking the peninsulas. The majority of the birds were simply lying down with their heads into the wind, marking out their nest site, and sitting on eggs. There was a lot of activity in the colonies, with lots of birds coming back and forth from the sea. I spent some time with these birds before heading onwards along the beach. 

Gentoo Penguins

The next port of call was to head over to the edge of the beach and watch the Rockhopper Penguins come out of the water and climb up the steep cliffs to one of their colonies. However, as I slowly made my way along the beach, I came across a small colony of King Penguins!! This was unexpected. Due to the small number here, the expedition team would have rather us see King Penguins for the first time in the massive colonies on South Georgia, rather than the small colony that has established itself on Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands. Needless to say, it was absolutely breathtaking to see these enormous birds (1 metre tall!!) waddle up the beach, stand around in groups, or in pairs, just being themselves. There were last year's juveniles also present, with their downy brown feathers. The first explorers that came across the King Penguin colonies thought the juveniles were a different species and called them Wooly Penguins. It was a real treat to see these magnificent birds. Groups huddled together, just staring into space or at each other; pairs facing into the wind trying to cool down by leaning back on their heels and tails; and adults ignoring their youngsters! As we were going to be seeing hundreds of thousands of King Penguins on South Georgia, I moved on. 

King Penguin

On the way across to the Rockhopper Penguin route on the cliffs, I stumbled across penguin species number 3 of the day - Magellanic Penguin. This would be the last opportunity to see this species, but I was unfortunate in only seeing a handful of these different-looking penguins with their chunky bill and rounder and narrower heads than the other penguin species we had just seen. The Magellanic Penguin nests in burrows amongst the tussac grass on Carcass Island, but on Saunders Island, the grass is heavily grazed by sheep and so is kept quite low. Because of that, the land is prone to erosion and sheep can (and do) put their legs through the soil and collapse Magellanic Penguin burrows. I was mindful not to poke my head into the nesting burrows and to ensure that I didn't collapse the soil into the burrows themselves. So, with that, I moved quickly on. 

Magellanic Penguin

Wondering where the Rockhopper route was? All I had to do was look up and see the "Yellow Penguin" brigade, the Sea Spirit passengers, in the distance! We were all given bright yellow parka jackets at the start of the trip for use on the landings. The parkas are warm and waterproof. However, I found the jacket too bulky for photography and so kept to my own waterproof jacket and lots of layers! As it was easy to spot the Yellow Penguins, I headed over to watch the Rockhoppers go up and also to watch the come back down the cliffs and into the sea. It was generally easy to determine which direction birds were going as they took breaks on the cliffs, meeting halfway and having a chat (squabble!); the generally dirty and stained birds were heading down to the sea having spent time incubating one or two eggs, while the clean birds were heading up and to relieve their mate from incubation duties. Watching the Rockhoppers come in and out of the water were a pair of Snowy Sheathbills who were eating anything that looked edible, including penguin poo. Sheathbills are the only wader found on the Antarctic continent and the only species there without webbed feet! They are quirky looking birds but great fun to watch. I never tired of seeing these enigmatic birds. Dotted along the coastline were a few Kelp Goose as well, feeding and resting on the rocks. 

The Yellow Penguin brigade with the Rockhopper Penguin colony visible up the slope on the right hand side. 

Rockhopper Penguins emerging from the water and on their way up to their colony

Rockhopper Penguins coming down from the nesting colony and heading to the sea.

Snowy Sheathbill

Next part of the island which we were to trek to was upwards to the Rockhopper Penguin nesting colony and onwards again towards an accessible Black-browed Albatross breeding colony. We passed some Upland Goose family groups and Turkey Vultures soaring over the colonies looking for sick, injured or dead penguins to eat. The nesting Rockhopper Penguins held an unexpected surprise: MACARONI PENGUIN! This poor individual was certainly lost looking as it took up a nesting site at the edge of the colony, so we were easily able to pick it out. That made it 5 penguin species in one afternoon! Incredible experience. We spent a bit of time with these Rockhoppers. In amongst the penguins were breeding Falkland Island/King (Imperial) Shags. This was a great opportunity to see this race of Imperial Shag up close. One of the differences to separate the Falkland Island Shag race in the field from the main species is that it has a black cheek rather than a white cheek, such as those found on the South American mainland and seen in the Beagle Channel/Tierra del Fuego. 

Rockhopper Penguins at their nesting colony

The larger, paler Macaroni Penguin sits in the foreground and surrounded by Rockhopper Penguins. The longer, brighter and richer-toned eyebrows are easily noticeable.

Falkland Island/King/Black-cheeked Shag (a race of Imperial Shag)

The walk along towards the Black-browed Albatross (BBA) colony was quite steep and a bit slippy on the over-grazed grass, so care was required. However, the sight that was set out in front of us was mind-blowing. There, no more than 20 metres in front us, was a colony of BBAs sitting on their raised mud nests. It was jaw-dropping. Having spent the previous two days watching them at sea, it was phenomenal seeing one so close and on land. As we arrived at the site, Jim had established an imaginary line along which we were asked to stay behind, ensuring we were the required minimum distance from the breeding birds. Anyone who strayed over the line was quickly asked to move back. This is important for not just the birds, but also to ensure that the company are allowed to visit again, and that all other companies also toe the line and obey the rules for observing wildlife in these incredible places. I wish the same could be said for seabird colonies on certain islands around Ireland that get invaded during the breeding season by photographers who do not give the birds the space they deserve. 

Black-browed Albatrosses on their nests of raised mud; wing stretching on the colony; coming into land with the feet out to act as air brakes; looking out on its domain

While we sat there, a BBA landed in right in front of us and proceeded to walk right up to us. I couldn't believe it. I started shaking, the adrenaline flowing through my veins. I had to take a deep breath, compose myself and start shooting! At one point, the individual was too close to fit in the frame with the 400mm lens and ended up being too close to fit in the frame with the 70-200mm lens I had. Staggering. The size of the bird is difficult to convey in images without anything to compare it against. I think that Jim has photographs of the bird and my feet in the frame, as he was about 20 people up from me. Hopefully, if he did take those shots, they may illustrate the sheer size of these birds. The Albatross continued to look around at each and every person along that imaginary line we were to say behind. It was so special to witness that. Once the bird had had its fill of the yellow penguins, it took a couple of steps and took off with ease into the wind. 

Black-browed Albatross coming up for a look; holding its ground; headshot of BBA; taking off (note a Striated Caracara in the background)

Sadly, it was time to head back to the Zodiacs, as our time was up. The various companies who provide these trips, book time slots in each area where landings are allowed or Zodiac cruises are allowed. No two boats are allowed to be in the same place at the same time. This prevents too much disturbance to the wildlife, but also gives the paying passengers the feeling that they are on their own in these wild and remote places. Giving the whole "expedition" feel. On the way back to the Zodiacs, we spotted some Long-tailed Meadowlarks but also a few Dark-faced Tyrants up the slopes! Nice. New species for me. I scrambled up the slope hoping to get a photograph and managed to get one or two I was happy with. Super little bird and one that could be best described as a cross between a Chat and a Wheatear. We also came across some Striated Caracara sheltering from the wind, which was very strong that day, behind some some sea cabbage. 

Dark-faced Tyrant

Long-tailed Meadowlark

Striated Caracara sheltering behind some sea cabbage

One of the dangers of nesting on an island that is also run as a sheep farm is that there are sheep on the prowl, despite the best intentions of fencing off the nesting areas. Now and again, a sheep can get in and the Rockhoppers are not happy about it. There were also some Brown Skuas hanging around the colonies, waiting for a penguin to become inattentive so that the Skua can get in and steal an egg.

Rockhopper Penguin with an invasive species and some sheep-proof fencing.

Brown Skua surveying the Rockhopper Penguins. This sighting meant I had now seen all the species in the Skua/Jaeger family!

Once we were back at the meeting point to go back on the Zodiacs, more Striated Caracara were hanging around the area, looking for some food. Looking back across to the Rockhopper Penguin and Black-browed Albatross sites, one could see Striated Caracara and Turkey Vultures just cruising along the cliff faces and slopes, looking to pounce and find an easy meal. It was quite something seeing both flying together. The Striated Caracaras hanging around the Zodiac landing area were very tame, coming up and investigating shoe laces, bags, the lifejackets...anything that all!

Striated Caracara

Turkey Vulture and Striated Caracara

While waiting to get on the Zodiacs, and back to the Sea Spirit, I noticed some rusting metal pots. When I asked Jim what these were, he said that they were used by whalers/sealers to boil penguins in order to extract the fat from the birds. I can only imagine that it was very easy for the whalers/sealers to simply walk up to the birds, grab then and pop them into the pots. Even down here has not escaped our cruel ways. 

Penguin boiler.

After a biological wash-down of the footwear, bags, jackets and waterproof pants, I headed for my room, took off the boots and waterproofs and headed to the bar to pick up a Beagle Red Ale and ponder on the day's sights, sounds and smells. Disbelief washed over me as I realised that this was really happening. I was on an adventure of a lifetime. Tomorrow would be a day in Port Stanley. I couldn't wait....


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