Sunday, November 14, 2010

: ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 4 - 5, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

The Falkland Islands lie 490 miles east of Argentina Patagonia and
comprise 778 islands. Two main islands, East and West Falkland dominate
the archipelago's geography. These islands are of major importance for
marine mammals and birds, including many seabirds and 14 endemic taxa,
two of which are currently recognized as species, and are the stronghold
of the Ruddy-headed Goose, Striated Caracara, Blackish Cinclodes and
White-bridled Finch, all of which are highly range restricted, very rare
and, in some cases, extremely difficult to find in mainland South

Early morning on 6 November, found us navigating the Wooly Gulf which
separates West Point Island from West Falkland Island. Very playful,
COMMERSON'S DOLPHINS escorted us along our way, porpoising out of the
sea. We commenced our first landing at the Settlement on Carcass Island
which lies to the northwest of the Falkland Islands archipelago and
takes its name from the HMS Carcass which visited in the late 18th
century. Present day owners, Rob and Lorraine McGill, have lived on the
island for 31 years, and continue the conservationist traditions
established long ago. Being a rat-free island, we had high hopes of
finding many of the smaller land birds absent from islands which were
invaded by rats, decades ago.

We were not disappointed at all! Immediately at the landing site, we
were greeted by many "tussacbirds," BLACKISH CINCLODES, busily gathering
nesting material. Sometimes they landed right at our feet, completely
oblivious to our presence. A MAGELLANIC SNIPE sat motionless in the
short grass, acting as though we might not have seen it. Cameras were
clicking off at rapid fire. In the non-native, yellow flowering gorse,
male and female WHITE-BRIDLED FINCHES (formerly Black-throated Finch)
were feeding young in the nest. Only a few feet down the first trail, a
singing COBB'S WREN, a Falkland Island endemic, was belting it out!
Overhead STRIATED CARACARAS, also known as JOHNNY ROOKS, by the locals,
soared, along with TURKEY VULTURES and one RED-BACKED HAWK. At the
water's edge, CRESTED DUCKS with golf ball sized chicks meandered on the
white sand, UPLAND GEESE with 8 goslings fed on the grassy knolls,
RUDDY-HEADED and KELP GEESE, also with chicks were wandering about.
shrubby gorse. The endemic Falkland Flightless Steamer-Duck was dozing
on the beach, while a DARK-FACED GROUND TYRANT was plucking insects near
the kelp line. Don found a BLACKISH OYSTERCATCHER sitting on eggs and a
MAGELLANIC OYSTERCATCHER with small chicks! And, heck, we had not even
made it to the slopes were the MAGELLANIC PENGUINS nest in burrows! All
of this was under brilliant, warm sunshine with no wind. Finally, we
enjoyed the traditional Falkland Islander tea and cake spread with Rob
and Lorraine at their settlement. No less than 40 types of tea cakes
were served up! We returned to Plancius and dubbed this, our first
landing, a five star landing!

After a hasty lunch, are repositioning of the ship, we next landed at
"The Neck" on Saunders Island. This island is owned by Tony and David
Pole-Evans. Saunders is the second largest offshore island within the
archipelago, and is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, notably 11,000
breeding pairs of BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSSES and four different species of
penguins. On our short visit, we would only be able to see a small
sampling of this wildlife. Our major targets were the nesting
albatrosses and ROCKHOPPER PENGUINS.

Low tide made for an exposed long, white beach loaded with KELP and
DOLPHIN GULLS. JOHNNY ROOKS were already up to wrecking havoc with our
gear at the landing site. A single trypot led the way beyond sand dunes
dotted with GENTOO PENGUINS incubating eggs to the far side of the neck.
Amongst them, were several KING PENGUINS, including two "oakum boys."
Here, we climbed a steeper, grassy hillside with grazing sheep to the
ROCKHOPPER PENGUIN colony. This hillside was covered with nesting
MAGELLANIC PENGUINS, most of whom were inside their burrows. Humankind
has not been kind to penguins, in years' past. Penguin hunters
frequented the island, attracted by the abundance of breeding colonies.
This trypot was once used for boiling down penguins for their oil.
Apparently, it took eight Rockhopper Penguins to make one gallon of oil.
This is a stark reminder of past prosecution. On this sunny day,
protected by conservationist land owners, we were privileged to witness
these breeding penguins. Today, 272,000 pairs of Rockhopper Penguins
breed in 52 colonies in the Falklands, making the archipelago the most
important place on Earth for this species. After shooting many
photographs of the Rockhoppers, we continued hiking to the Black-browed
Albatross colony. Once we arrived, we settled in to watch the
albatrosses who were quietly sitting on eggs in their columnar nests of
soil and grasses. Eighty per cent of the global population of
Black-browed Albatross breed in the Falklands. IMPERIAL SHAGS were
gathering grassy nesting material for their nests amongst the
Rockhoppers. Despite the presence of rats on this island, Don and I
THRUSHES on the hike down to the shore. On the beach, a single WEDDELL
SEAL was snoozing. This is an unusual sighting so far north. We could
see Rockhoppers climbing the rocky cliffs to the colony upslope. Indeed,
the cliff is striated with the claw markings of hundreds of thousands of
climbing Rockhoppers. Hiking back to the landing site in a light
drizzle, Donna and I paused to watch a male Gentoo Penguin who
methodically provisioned his nest with any tiny piece of dirt or pellet
he could find. His mate sat patiently on two eggs. Suddenly, Donna
spotted a FALKLAND SKUA with a penguin egg in its beak! The skua landed,
and repeatedly circled the egg, trying to break it. Finally, it flew
away without success. Reluctantly, we returned to our shipboard home
after a fully sensational day in the Falkland Islands.

Rockhopper Penguins forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

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