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Falkland Islands 2020 Trip Report

Day 1. We arrived in Stanley without incident, leaving Punta Arenas, Chile, on schedule. Everyone had spent a day or two in Punta Arenas prior to this flight, covering the possibility of a flight delay in the US. This bit of prudence is so important, as weather in the Northern Hemisphere could cancel or delay a flight, and if you miss the one flight a week to the Falklands, on Saturday, you'd have a week in Punta Arenas to spend before you'd catch another flight. Ironically, a flight cancellation will impact us at the end of the trip. Read on!

Day 2 – Carcass

Our group arrived at Carcass via two flights separated by several hours, with one scheduled for 8:30AM and the second for 10:30 … but we were on island time. We arrived at Carcass in time for a late, 1:30PM lunch, and afterwards we did a short orientation outdoors to point out places to go and what everyone would find. While we were doing this I spotted a Grass Wren, a fairly non-descript but uncommon songbird, on a perch, and I suspected it was nesting.
After our orientation I moved towards that location, flushing out the bird from a thick grass/weed cluster where it was nesting. The bird didn’t go far, then flew off, caught an insect, and returned, diving into the cluster to avoid being harassed by other songbirds intent on stealing its food.
Settling down in the high grass that overlooked some favorite perches where the adults would often land before heading to the nest, most of us got some great shots, quite close, as the Grass Wren repeatedly brought in food.
Afterwards, I headed up the dirt track that led to the dock where a flock of Long-tailed Meadowlarks repeatedly returned to a dusty area where they dust-bathed. This red-breasted bird has always been my nemesis, as I’ve never had a good opportunity despite many chances. Today I finally got lucky, and had some great close-up views of an adults with red-breasts, immatures, and in stills and in video.
After dinner Mary and I walked the same route looking for Short-eared Owls, and we saw one, flying high at dusk, and heading out to sea to reach a distant shoreline.

Day 3 – Carcass

After breakfast, on a relatively clear but windy day, we headed to the opposite side of the island where we’d seen a Variable Hawk as we arrived yesterday, and where there are large groups of Elephant Seals. I drove one of the two vehicles, with our host, Rob McGill, driving the other. I mention this because on the way back I misjudged passing through a farm gate and scraped the passenger side of the Landrover. Rob, the best host we’ve had anywhere in the world, barely flinched when I told  him about the accident. I think he flinched a bit more when he saw the  damage to the fence gate, however. That was a costly error on my part!
Our location was windy, blowing hard and cold. I headed towards the distant mountain to look for the hawk, but after a half-mile of stomping, with the base of the ridge still far away, I settled at a small seep where birds stopped in for a drink or to hunt insects. I’d never had luck with Falkland Pipets before, but again, luck held and I had multiple opportunities, on still and in slow-motion video.
The group did well with Elephant Seals, a nesting Skua, Patagonian Sierra Finches, and, for Mary, a Two-banded Plover. At noon we headed back for lunch, where I whacked the fence with the side of the Landrover as I went through the gate. I did some damage to the door, and even more damage to my reputation. I simply cut the turn too quickly, and was sloppy in the driving. Later, we reembursed Rob, the owner of the island, for damages. Yikes!


PM. After lunch everyone headed to the nearby lagoon, which was at a major low tide. I was hoping to photograph an Oystercatcher in flight, and although I missed a few, seeing them too late, I had one fly by close which I succeeded in catching.
Several of us had luck with Grass Wrens, one at the old site and another which I found when I flushed a bird as I walked along a trail. Magellanic Penguins were surprisingly cooperative, quite relaxed as I snuggled in some beach rocks, close to a pair of Ruddy-headed Geese.
Black-chinned Siskins were feeding their chicks, and at one point, while I waited for a Meadowlark, a female fed two fledged chicks. In slow-motion video, we could see how the female shook her head to cough up from her crop a bolus of seeds which she then fed to the two chicks, both wagging their wings as they begged. I finished the day with another immature Siskin that hung from a grass seedhead, picking seeds delicately that only slow-motion video revealed.

Day 4 Carcass and Saunders

Today was a transfer day to our next island, but FIGAS (Falkland Island Government Air Service) had our group split by several hours, with some flying at 9AM and another, my group, at 2PM. Most everyone took advantage of a bit of rest, working on images, or at Saunders, shooting around the farm.
I headed to the beach, passing on more songbirds as I felt I’d done better than I ever had before, and decided to work on Oystercatchers. Tide was going out, and a fish weir gradually appeared from the receding waters. I settled on a rock nearby, and soon a Magellanic Oystercatcher flew in and began probing for sea worms. In the course of an hour the Oystercatcher caught multiple worms, giving me a chance to do hi-spd video and stills.
Later, a Black-crowned Night Heron materialized on the weir rocks, and began fishing at the small pool that still survived at the weir. In a few minutes it captured two small minnows, again letting me capture the action with video and still.

PM. At Saunders, we headed to the beach where we had an exciting session with a large flock of Giant Petrels scavenging in the bay. We were hoping to catch Petrels as they ran across the water, either to return to the carcass or running away, with several birds chasing a luck one that had pulled out some meat.

Day 5 Saunders

We awoke to a clear sky, sunny and warm day … a real treat in the Falklands. After breakfast we headed out to one of the Rockhopper Penguin/Black-browed Albatross/King Cormorant colonies for a day trip. The weather cooperated throughout the day.
Shortly after starting the mile-long hike to the colony, we spotted a whale. With its rather short, rounded tail flukes, short, rounded pectoral fins, and lack of a fin, we immediately ruled out the obvious choice – humpback, for our very sighting of one of the world’s rarest great whales – the Southern Right Whale. Several times it lolled in the kelp, lazily raising a fluke or fin, and several times popping its head rather high out of the water, nearly spy-hopping. It was an exceptional show, visible from our vantage on a cliff overlooking the  sea.
The Albatross chicks are now about a month old, about the size of a chicken and perhaps 1/4th the size of the adults. Several chicks clacked their beaks with annoyance as we passed by, an indication that other tourists may have been too close to the chicks closest to the trails paralleling the cliff. Approaching low and slow, and really taking one’s time, you can move quite close to a bird and never cause a clacking, but most folks won’t scoot on their butts across rocks, pausing often to let a bird grow accustomed to one’s presence.
This colony of birds is most famous for ‘The Shower,’ where Rockhopper Penguins returning from the sea gather to literally shower in a fresh water spring that creates a mini-waterfall on one of the rock ledges. Getting down to the shower is a bit tricky, and the area around the shower has wet and slippery spots where, if one isn’t careful, a serious fall could happen. I had to ask one of our participants to please keep away from the edge, as he was backing up to shoot, without looking, and where a fall could have  been fatal. Everyone survived the excursion, and for most the shower was the highlight of the day.
Albatrosses were great, and I did multiple attempts at slow-shutter speed pans, attempting to capture a sense of  motion. I was marginally successful. While shooting some nests, adults would swoop in, flaring before landing, and making great shots.
At 4:30PM we called it a day, tired and happy, and returning to the lodge for a massive spaghetti dinner, and an early turn in to bed for most.

Day 6 Saunders at The Neck

Yesterday’s bluebird weather was harshly replaced by rain, fog, and eventually high winds. Everyone was concerned that FIGAS might not fly, although eventually flights were resumed and everyone made their connections.
We headed to The Neck in a rain, and spent the morning just settling in. At 2PM the weather cleared sufficiently to go out, and we headed to the small King Penguin colony, about a dozen adults present, with two or three freshly hatched chicks and several eggs. I waited in hopes that a pair would transfer an egg – one adult brooded, while the other Penguin trumpeted, then spent most of its time clacking its bill rapidly, as if soliciting a transfer. It never occurred.
Looking for a different angle I had a Gentoo parent and chick feeding just feet from me while I was sitting, getting a great transfer of a huge gob of krill.
I headed to the beach where I met the rest of the group, clustered at the Rockhopper Penguin landing area where we attempted, with some success, to catch penguins surfing in. Later, I climbed the cliff to make a short cut to the colony where I looked for the Macaroni Penguin I saw in October. Cormorants were feeding, sword-swallowing their chick, with the baby’s beak almost reaching the breast of the  adult as it probed for food.
A Striated Caracara fed nearby on a penguin chick carcass, and I finished the day here, with high winds kicking up and a fresh fog and rain covering the high country.

Day 7 Saunders at the Neck

With the passing of the  rain, the wind came, seemingly near gale force at times and intimidating when we started the day. Most of us headed to the high country and the Rockhopper and Albatross colonies where, we hoped, the force of the wind would be deflected. For the most part, it was.
We headed to the more distant colony, a mix of King Cormorants, Black-browed Albatross, and Rockhopper Penguins. The chicks of both the penguins and Cormorants were half-grown, with the penguin chicks mostly in small creches, and the chicks of the cormorants still in the nest, most attended to by an adult.
Mary and I were the last two at the colony, and while I waited for a time-lapse movie to finish shooting, a King Cormorant flew in, harassed and beaten to the ground by a Skua. Both of us grabbed cameras and started shooting, as the Skua repeatedly hovered over the cormorant before swooping in to attack. At one point the Skua had a death grip on the cormorant, with our shots clearly showing the beak encircling the bird’s neck, but it escaped. Several times the cormorant tried fighting back, but when it finally escaped, it did so by scrambling right to us, with the Skua in pursuit. The Cormorant stopped just feet away from us, between our legs and our packs, while the Skua stayed about eight feet away. Gaining its strength, the bird took off, and the Skua resumed its chase, but stopped when the Cormorant dropped into the middle of the  colony where the numbers of  other birds gave it protection.
On the way back, Mary pointed out a pair of Albatrosses building a nest, and I spent the rest of the morning at this colony, composed entirely of Albatrosses. The pair would move a few body lengths downhill, would grab grass or mud or clumps of an old nest that they eventually devastated, and toss the material ‘over their shoulder,’ closer to the nest. They repeated this process, moving the stuff closer, or one, sitting on the nest, would stretch out and grab and pull at the material.
Adults would periodically arrive, where they would groom their chick and, eventually, cough up a meal. On almost all occasions, feeding would be elicited by the chick tapping at the adult’s beak, who would eventually dip low, head downward, and appear to be pulling up, gulping up, feed. After a couple repetitions of this dipping, the adult would regurgitate a meal, its beak raised over that of the chick’s, who’s beak was positioned as a catcher, almost like  a spoon.
One adult surprised me. After feeding its chick it sat nearby, and my attention went elsewhere. Later, I noticed an adult by another nest, who extended its bill close to the chick, who pecked at the beak in solicitation of food. The adult didn’t feed, but wandered back to the nest I was originally watching the feeding behavior. This was its nest, but it was amazing to see both the adult attending to the  other chick, and that chick acting as if it were the parent. Other chicks, when adults passed nearby, would act aggressively at passing adults, the same behavior that we see when humans walk too close.
PM. In the afternoon, we headed to the Rockhopper haul out area. The winds were weaker but the sea was tumultuous, and locating birds in the waves was challenging at times. Returning birds would follow the usual pathway that led to a crevice the birds had to hop across, with one falling into the crack. Mary was worried, but I’d seen this happen before, and seconds later the bird scrambled out of the slit and resumed its place in the line leading to the cliffs.
The wind stopped, and a cloudy sky cleared, and the last hour of  the day was warm and calm. I headed down to the Gentoo beach alone, and shot silhouettes of birds against the sunset sky, and chicks chasing adults as they begged for food. Magical.

Day 8 Saunders to Bleaker Island

We had a late morning flight to Bleaker, a rather flat island with a wonderful diversity of subjects. Nick, the son of the owners of the island, took us around on a reconnaissance, for a sea lion haul out, a heron and Rock Cormorant colony, and the Rockhoppers and Gentoos.
After lunch we headed to the Southern Sea Lions, one of the most accessible haul outs of sea lions we’ve had in the Falklands. Although the over-all impression we had, at the time, was that they were doing nothing but sleeping, when we later reviewed our images we did quite well, with sea lions snarling at one another, walking, scratching, and providing a wonderful portrait of a grizzled bull.
From there we headed to the beach where we hoped to film Gentoo Penguins surfing in for the evening. We didn’t have many birds, and no great breaching leaps, but we did have some wonderful shots right at the edge of the surf. Magellanic and Rockhopper Penguins were along the beach as well, with wonderful light to round out the afternoon.

Day 9 Bleaker Island

We started our day with the Black-crowned Night Heron and Rock Cormorant nesting area, with perhaps the best shots we’ve ever had of the herons. While the nests were lower down on the cliffs, and in shade at the time, we had several birds on the cliffs, in the tussocks, and along the rim of the cliff, providing great portraits. The light was perfect for the Rock Cormorants, and red-faced adults argued or tending their chicks.
From there we headed to the Rockhopper Penguin colony where we found the partial albino chick, as well as adults and chicks at the nest. Rock Cormorants streamed by constantly, in snaking V formations, that we could frame against the white water of waves breaking on the rocks far below us.
I had my first good opportunity to use Olympus’s Live ND (Neutral Density), an electronic version of a glass ND filter. The advantage here was that I could see the effect that various shutter speeds produced, so when I timed a receding wave just right, I had misty, ethereal ‘angel hair’ cascades streaming off kelp-covered boulders. It took a little experimentation to get my settings right, but the  results were great.
Our last stop of the morning was an enormous colony of King Cormorants. Three colonies, separated by different aged chicks but running together as one vast pattern of birds, contained thousands of birds. They were active, flying passed us, carrying nest material or heading back out to sea. Skuas and Dolphin Gulls soared overhead, always on the lookout for an unguarded chick or egg. Deb filmed Skuas killing one chick. Because of the grazing of Upland Geese, and perhaps Sheep, the area around the colony was cropped low, providing an incredible take-off area for birds. Positioned just right, one could have birds racing down the runway right at you as they began their flights.

PM. We started the afternoon with another session with the King Cormorants, perhaps an even more rewarding session than the morning’s. I crawled up close to a pair of Skuas that had killed a cormorant chick for some interesting wide-angle shots, while others filmed adults feeding chicks.
We headed back to the Gentoos, and Mary got a great series of scores of birds marching towards her in a line as they headed across the flats, the tail end of  the column still on the beach. A Sea Lion surfed to shore, and Deb got a nice shot of the sea lion roaring, and Mary caught the sea lion as it surfed in to the beach.
Sand was an issue, as the wind was fierce, and I used my toothbrush when we returned to the lodge to dislodge sand from  the camera. While a few Gentoos surfed in, the shooting for these birds, at the beach, was disappointing. I think the wind made the shooting almost intolerable.

Day 10 Bleaker to Sea Lion Island

The morning was warm and calm, and with a mid-morning flight everyone stayed at the lodge in preparation for flying to our next destination. I headed out to check on the three Rockhopper colonies, in a futile search for the Macaroni Penguin that occasionally visits. I had intended to spend some time with the King Cormorants, but with no wind  and with the warmth the birds were inactive. I returned to the lodge to edit.
Our flight to Sea Lion was short, and after lunch we headed to the Gentoo beach where we spent the afternoon, until 6:30 for some, attempting to catch the penguins as they surfed and exploded from the waves. We were reasonably successful. Mary used Continuous Low and AF, and did fairly well, and I used ProCapture Low, betting that with my reaction time I’d catch more penguins as they began a leap. Our results were similar, but I still think my method was a bit more effective!
After dinner I checked out the Elephant Seal beach, but aside from one bellowing/burping young male, the seals were inactive and I spent little time in the failing light.

Day 11 Sea Lion Island

It rained hard throughout the morning, giving everyone some much needed rest and time to cull and sort images – a seemingly impossible task with the number of images we’ve made.
After lunch everyone scattered, with some checking out the Elephant Seals, others looking for Snipe, and I spent much of the time with the Gentoo Penguin colony, filming chicks chasing the adults. Sometimes three or four would follow one adult, until one by one they dropped out until only one was left, which was fed. Several different chicks climbed a tussock grass ball, then defended the perch from others until they lost interest, and slid back to the sand to join the others.
In the late afternoon everyone headed back to the beach for more Gentoo surfing. The surf was high, and the shooting challenging once again, but we managed some success.
After dinner, Mary and Deb headed to another Gentoo colony for silhouettes, while I was side-tracked by a cooperative Snipe that was calling from a small clump of vegetation that elevated it above the surroundings. The light, though failing, was still golden on the beach and I raced there in hopes of catching the last birds surfing in. I got there just in time to see the last group arrive, but I did manage some nice penguin landscapes.
As I walked back in the twilight I encountered a Giant Petrel in the grasses, feeding on a large Magellanic Penguin chick. The bird was fairly tolerant until I tried sitting down, when it retreated. A close look at the carcass revealed little left to eat.

Day 12  Sea Lion Island

After breakfast we headed to Long Pond, hoping to find a Silver Grebe. A curtain of rain, nearly black in tone, hung on the southern horizon, but aside from a brief shower the rain missed us. We spotted the Grebes, but they were far out in the pond and mere record shots when the rain started, and everyone, except Bun and I, headed back to the vehicle. As it rained, one of the Grebes swam in close to shore, eventually moving directly below us on the bank. I could hear peeping seconds before I saw the adult pick a feather from the shoreline. Grebes feed their chicks feathers to line their gut, and just a moment or two later the Grebe’s chick popped out from under the wing of the adult. The chick swam along side the adult for a short time before climbing back on board. The other adult appeared, and for the next ten minutes or so the second adult returned repeatedly with a small insect which was transferred to the chick. The rest of our group joined us while the feeding was still occurring, so everyone got lucky.
From there we headed to the Sea Lion colony, where, from a vantage above on the steep cliffs, we could photograph a couple of bulls and several cows with small, black pups. Mary got a nice shot as a nursing pup had a stream of milk squirt passed.
We headed back to the lodge, spying a Peregrine Falcon on the moor, but aside from one shot through the window, the bird flew off quickly. We had another Variable Hawk, too, but it was extremely shy.

PM. After lunch I headed to the Gentoo colony where I photographed marching penguins approaching me that I shot from ground level. I used the flip-out screen of the Olympus so  I could lie comfortably and hidden in the tussock grass as I watched the screen and, with one hand, fired and focused. The shots were spectacular.
On the way to the Gentoo surfing beach I found  the family of Ruddy-headed Geese with the small chicks. I laid on a mound and shot with my lens over my chest, keeping a low profile. The geese obliged, grazing, then swimming and approaching me, then feeding in the low vegetation close by.
At the beach the wind and surf was challenging, and I don’t think any of us did as well as we had yesterday. Mary and I, at separate spots, spent some time in a sand pool where, with patience, we had frame-filling shots of Sanderlings and Two-banded Plovers.
I contemplated skipping dinner to take advantage of more penguins and golden light, but as dinner time approached the clouds built up in the west. I headed back with Mary, but as we ate the sky cleared and I raced back to the beach, a 10.5 minute speed walk, to discover that almost all the penguins were already ashore. Not wishing to duplicate yesterday’s work, I headed inland, photographing landscapes and vegetation instead. On the way back to the lodge a Skua conked me on the head, flying in from behind without a cry or warning. I was wearing a hat and a hood, so I was padded, but it was still a stiff bang, and almost producing a headache. After that first attack the bird flew on, satisfied.

Day 13 Sea Lion to East Falklands

Our group was split with our flight times separated by a four hour gap. Deb, Mary, and I headed back to Long Pond, hoping for more Grebes, but also hoping for another chance at the raptors and the Dotterel. The grebes were far off, but we did have luck with the other species. At the cemetery, a Variable Hawk was perched on a tree. I headed around, hoping for a front view, while Mary and Deb moved in directly. The bird was tolerant, and Mary and Deb got some nice shots. Eventually the bird flew off, but I blew the shot, using ProCapture and firing just as the bird began its launch. The trick to ProCapture is to wait until the bird is high in the air, or even out of the frame, before firing. Instead, I shot at lift-off, and just caught the bird as it began to lift its wings.
Mary spotted a Peregrine Falcon again, feeding on something in the distance. While we waited it took off, and we managed some distant shots. Although we had a couple chances with Dotterels, are best was one Deb spotted that was quite tolerant. So our little field trip was quite successful.
When we arrived back at the lodge we discovered that the first flight was delayed, and later we learned that our flight was delayed as well. We had much of the afternoon to spend in the lounge, waiting for the FIGAS flight.


Day 14. The Macaroni Penguin rookery

We had the option of visiting Volunteer Point, where several hundred King Penguins are nesting in that species largest colony in the Falklands, or driving to another location where a few pairs of Macaroni Penguins are nesting. Since we had good shooting of King Penguins on Saunders, and no one in our group (except Mary and I) had seen a Macaroni Penguin, we chose the alternate location.

The drive is around the same distance as Volunteer Point, but few drivers visit this remote location. In contrast to Volunteer Point, where 50 vehicles and a commuting helicopter may be present on some days -- especially if a cruise ship is in port, our location has no visitors except for those led by our guide. We were alone when we arrived.

The colony had changed radically from our last visit, two years earlier. The Southern Sealion colony was gone -- perhaps we were too late in the season, and only a few large bulls lounged at the top of the cliffs in a grassy meadow. The King Cormorants were gone - that exciting colony had vanished. There were Rockhopper Penguins, but their numbers were down, too. As Mary and I scouted the location we were depressed, and worried that we made the wrong choice in coming here.

We were wrong! Because the shooting opportunities were reduced, our group concentrated on the Rockhoppers and a pair of Macaroni Penguins that were simply wonderful. One of the Macaronis, when its mate would wander off, would follow a Rockhopper with a chick, looking for all the world as if it was trying to parent the chick, or kidnap it. The chick wasn't too happy, and the adult Rockhopper was usually annoyed, but for us, it was fun to watch the interaction.

We stayed to mid-afternoon when everyone was sated, and we headed back to the lodge to finish packing for our travel home the following day. We were in for a surprise.

The weather forcast for our flight out of the Falklands was dire. High winds, which create a rotator wind effect as winds from the North roll over the boundary mountains, often close down the airport. Winds were forcast for the mid-afternoon, and the flight was canceled. We would spend another day in Stanley.

Day 15. Stanley

We awoke to a windless morning, and we were griping about the airport being cancelled unnecessarily. Everyone was on their computers, attempting to rebook or reroute themselves, since the flights from Santiago were now missed. I was staying in Chile, as was Tom and Deb, for our second Puma trip, but Mary and the rest of the group were heading home.

Those flying LAN - a United affliate -- were OK, and were rebooked without cost. Mary was flying Delta from Santiago, and she had to buy an entirely new ticket - and between the taxi, lodging, food, and the new air ticket, we were out nearly $2,000. The wind picked up in the afternoon, and we felt a little better about the cancellation, although the South American LAN pilots would have flown in if they could (so we were told).

The extra time did give everyone a chance to pick images and we did a slide show at dinner, and that was a great ending for a great trip, despite this hiccup.

Day 16. Stanley to ...

Having now paid for a new non-refundable ticket, we worried that this flight might be cancelled as well. It wasn't, and we escaped the Falklands without incident. The following day, however, high winds did return, and intra-island flights were cancelled. We were gone, but we felt lucky hearing that news!

 

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