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. 

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