Everything started from a conversation with a keen photographer John whom we met in the park couple of years ago. John mentioned his recent trip to the Falkland Islands and showed his brilliant photos. The name of the islands came across again while gathering information about remote wildlife locations. The decision was made – our next trip must be to the Falklands – a land of penguins.
We started booking accommodation and flights six month in advance which was a bit late but luckily everything was sorted more or less as we wanted. All the bookings we've done ourselves without a hassle.
Travelling to the Falkland Islands from London means spending lots of hours in the air. We had four flights during two days till we’ve reached Stanley - the capital of the Falkland islands. The first 13 hour flight was from London to Buenos Aires.
We've heard stories about awful airplane food, dehydration, uncomfortable seats, lack of sleep and etc. Well, what can we say... The food was good, the wine was nice, the seats were ok, we slept 3-4 hours, the neighbours didn’t bother us and it was fantastic to listen to our favourite songs somewhere high in the sky under dimmed airplane light.
From Buenos Aires we took another 3 hour flight to Santiago where we made an overnight stop.
The following day we had our flight to the Falkland Islands with a short stopover in a Chilean city Punta Arenas. LAN Airlines fly to the Falklands only once a week - on Saturdays.
It is worth mentioning that there is a direct 18 hour flight from Oxfordshire, UK. It is bit pricey and on this occasion we’ve decided to save £1500 for our other trips.
Stanley is a small seaside town with the resident population of 2115, while the total community of the Falklands is 2932 people. There are also about 1500 British military personnel located about 30 miles (48 km) from Stanley (because of the conflict with Argentina).
The Falkland Islands are a group of about 740 islands but only 15 are inhabited. We’ve decided to stay at three locations: Sea Lion Island, Saunders (Neck and Rookery) and Volunteer Point.
We were not keen on travelling too much as we wanted to spend as much time as possible with the photographing object. Our practice showed that even short flights could take away up to half a day of our precious time.
Sea Lion Island was our first destination. It is just five miles (8 kilometres) long and over a mile (around 2 kilometres) wide. The island can be reached by a 40 minute flight from Stanley with a 8-seater plane operated by Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS). Airstrip is next to the lodge - the only hotel on the island.
Sea Lion Island holds more than 90% of the Falklands Southern Elephant Seal population and without a doubt is the most important breeding site in the Falkland Islands. Breeding season is between September - November, followed by the moulting season during which seals loose fur and skin in large patches.
When moulting occurs seals are easily susceptible to cold, so they stay on land rather than in cold waters.
There are no ruthless fights during the moult. From time to time seals will have arguments over a better spot on the beach or enjoy a bit of wrestling in the water.
Young elephant seals can also be spotted along the coast of the island.
Orcas are one of the main predators for Elephant Seals. October, November and December are the best month to see them. We were very fortunate to spot one too.
Sea Lion Island holds small colonies of Southern Sea Lions. Unfortunately their population suffered a steep decline due to massive hunting and even at peak times there are less than 100 of the animals. So the name of the island "Sea Lion Island" is a little bit misleading. The colonies can be observed from a distance.
More images and information about seals in the Falkland Islands can be found in our blog.
Sea Lion Island supports a variety of Falkland breeding birds, especially on the beaches, rocky shores and in the tussac grass. Tussac grass grows up to 3 metres tall and usually is found around the coastline. There are no cats or rats to predate ground nesting birds on the island.
Cobb's wren, unique (endemic) to the Falklands, and Tussacbird (Blackish Cinclodes) are the most common birds.
Wherever we wandered the Tussacbird was always present looking for food.
Other small birds like Black-chinned siskin, White-bridles finch (known as Black-throated finch), Dark-faced ground-tyrant, Falkland pipit are fairly easy to spot too.
Permanent ponds and boggy ground provide important habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.
Persistent drumming of Snipe can be heard in wetlands.
The highlight of the Sea Lion Island without a doubt is penguins. There are breeding colonies of Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins. Gentoo penguins are most common on the sandy beach east of the lodge. We loved watching them.
Big numbers of Magellanic penguins can be
found to the south of the island.
They live in the burrows like rabbits and prefer soft soil, peat, tussock areas or greens.
Heading southwest from the lodge there is a small path through the tussac grass leading to a small pond which is one of the favorite bath spots by Magellanic penguins.
Another favorite place was a spot on the coast were they used to gather in small groups to “discus things” .
Rockhopper penguins also breed on the Sea Lion island. A small colony can be seen on a very windy and rocky coast where huge waves crash over the sloping cliffs. Photography of this little beauty is quite a challenge there.
Close to the Rockhopper Point there is large and noisy colony of King Cormorants (known as Imperial Shags or Blue-eyed Shags).
Rock Cormorants nest nearby.
There is so much to do and see on the Sea Lion island that sometimes it was difficult to find time to rest. The last day before our departure we only slept 1 hour because we wanted to enjoy every minute of sunrise. Of course, the following day we were a bit sleepy and “zoned out”. In a way it was good as we didn’t feel any discomfort of a bumpy ride to our next destination – Saunders Island.
At Saunders we stayed at two locations: the Neck (three nights) and the Rookery (two nights).
The Neck is a sandy narrow strip that joints Elephant Point to the main part of Saunders Island.
The majority of penguins at the Neck are Gentoo with few King penguins and occasional Macaroni.
One of the main sights at the Neck is Southern Rockhopper penguin colony. It can be reached in 10 minutes from a self-catering cabin.
Rockhoppers hop great distances to their nesting sites up steep cliffs and incredibly easy get around rocky and dangerous places.
With hungry chicks to feed adult Rockhopper penguins head out to the sea to forage daily. Predators are not only in water but also on land. Southern Giant Petrels wait for a right moment to attack Rockhoppers.
This Rockhopper got away but may not survive.
Striated Caracara hangs around penguin colonies all the time. It tries to spot week bird or just anything left behind.
At the Neck climbing up the coastline there is another colony of Rockhopper penguins mixed with King Cormorants.
Walking further down you can find another attraction of the Neck - numerous, relatively easy accessible colony of Black-browed Albatross. Albatrosses lay one egg in the nest made of mud and guano. This tall pillar later is occupied by a chick.
Further down we were very happy to spot even a Crested Caracara.
Long-tailed meadowlark and Falkland Thrush manage to survive on the Saunders with the rats and few cats around but Cobb's wren for example is absent here.
Closer to the Elephant point there are couple colonies of Skuas, black-necked swans could be spotted on the lake as many shorebirds along a coast.
The Rookery was our next destination on Saunders. Rockhopper “shower”- a stream running off the mountains - is the main sight of the island.
Admittedly upon reaching the Rockhopper colony we had a bit of a shock because we could not see the “shower”. Only later when we started climbing down the cliff following the penguin highway we spotted a stream and yes, there were penguins taking a refreshing shower.
These little chaps sometimes need to wash their bodies not only from salt but also from smelly guano.
Up the cliff there is a healthy Rockhopper population where cute chicks provide hours of enjoyment.
King Cormorants nest tightly in the neighbourhood of Rockhoppers.
Such colonies provide not only interesting observations but also super strong smells from guano, urine and regurgitated baby food. Skuas hang around the colonies looking for food.
Albatrosses are magnificent birds with a 2,5 m (8 ft) wingspan that enables them to glide effortless.
Saunders is without a doubt an unforgettable place; wildlife and the views are amazing and it actually feels as if you are thousands of miles from everyone else.
Volunteer point was our final destination which we've reached a day later than planned. Due to a thick fog our flight from Saunders island was cancelled and we were accommodated in the Settlement - a place were the owners of the island live.
The journey to Volunteer Point from the capital took us about 3 hours on an unpaved road and over rural countryside. This location is a home to the largest King penguin colony in the Falkland Islands. Around 1000 birds breed here (world population is 2.2 million breeding pairs).
As we visited the colony in late January it was an incubation and brooding period for penguins.
On the beach there was more activity from penguins during morning or evening hours.
Volunteer Point is also a home to 2000 pairs of Magellanic penguins. We spent lots of time watching Gentoo penguins and particularly enjoyed so called “chick chase” when Gentoo chicks run after their parents to get fed.
This constant begging for food drives adults mad and chicks several times a day are shouted at with frustration.
Lots of interesting photos of Gentoo penguins and their cute chicks are in our blog.
Over 40 bird species have been recorded around Volunteer Point area. The highlights for us were Peregrine Falcon and Night Heron.
Overall our stay at Volunteer Point was brilliant and after two glorious weeks our visit in the Falkland Islands was over. From Stanley airport we flew to Santiago and after a day’s break we took a final flight back to London.
We were fortunate enough to visit some beautiful places but the Falkland Islands without a doubt would have to be on the top of our list. It sank so much to our minds and hearts that even two weeks later we can’t stop having dreams about penguins...
We have written the following blogs about our trip in the Falkland Islands:
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