Published: February 15th 2010January 9th 2010
We have arrived back in Ushuaia where the temperature has reached the tropical heights of 9C , this is high summer here - one month ago, when we were skinny dipping, it was 2C. We are back here to meet with up with Dave & Di and board the Professor Multanovskiy, a small Russian ice-strengthened ship, that will be our home for the next 19 days.
The first task after we board our ship and pull away from Ushuaia is the Safety Drill, which involves us all donning our life vests and cramming into the 2 life boats, its very snug and that's without the crew in there with us - its a good ice-braking exercise (no pun intended!!). That over we can retire to the bar to meet our fellow passengers. Out of 49 passengers 42 are American and 46 are very keen birders, this makes us decidedly the odd ones out. We knew this before we signed up and it doesn't seem to matter, everyone is happy to answer our basic questions on what birds we are seeing and how to tell them apart, we even get lent a very expensive pair of binoculars to improve our birding
skills. There are rumours that 2 mad English people have ridden all the way from Alaska to Ushuaia on a motorbike so everyone is looking round trying to suss out who that could be!! Most of the others have travelled extensively to weird and wonderful parts of the world to track down new birds so there's lots of travel conversations to be had - some of them make me look like a novice traveller!!
Our first destination is the Falkland Islands over 450 miles away so its going to take 36 hours or so to get there. Luckily its sunny and calm so we spend time outside, with the binoculars, being educated on the birds circling us. Its quite strange, we have been at sea in these parts before so the birds are familiar to us but many of the birders are seeing them for the first time - it sort of feels like it should be the other way round. Still, familiar or not, they make an impressive sight constantly circling round the ship - the little storm petrels flapping their wings and fluttering just above the water, the albatrosses with their giant wings outstretched gliding effortlessly past
out at sea
Cape petrols circling the ship
without having to flap their wings. For additional entertainment we have occasional pods of Peale's and Commerson's dolphins frolicking around the ship and a couple of sei whales..
When we awake the next morning we are in amongst the islands of the West Falklands and heading towards our first landing at Carcass Island. To get ashore we have to get togged up in our thermals and waterproofs and head down the gangway into the small zodiac bobbing around at the bottom of the steps. Its then a bouncy bumpy ride to the beach where we dismount and paddle ashore. Its quite exciting as there are lots of birds and plants that occur here and nowhere else and over the next 2 days we get to explore 3 islands that are very different from each other.
Carcass Island is rat free so all the small ground birds still inhabit the island and they are so inquisitive that you don't even have to track them down they just hop right up to you to check you out. The first bird we saw as we landed on the beach was the Cobb's wren which is the one everyone is excited about
out at sea
a royal albatross gliding past
as it only occurs here. After a nice long walk through the tussock grass landscape (very typical Falklands landscape), spotting lots more birds and negotiating magellanic penguin colonies, we end up at the one and only farmhouse on the island where the kitchen table is laden down with cakes, scones and biscuits - a traditional Falklands Island tea.
On Steeple Jason its a glorious sunny afternoon which brings out all the colours in the landscape; the pinky red of the sheep's sorrel, the brilliant orange of the lichens on the rocks, the yellows and purples in the wild-flowers and all against the deep blue of the ocean. Its a lush and vibrant landscape, almost a wild-flower meadow in places but that's not why we are here - no its the world's largest colony of black-browed albatrosses that have drawn us here. There are tens of thousands of breeding pairs stretched out along the coastline sitting on their nests looking after their fluffy grey chicks. They are exquisitely beautiful birds with their simple black eye-brow marking standing out against their white head feathers - they look like they must have spent hours applying their make-up to get such perfect lines.
out at sea
a giant petrel flying by at close quarters
The skies are crammed full of birds and its a wonderful sound as they swoop over your heads when coming into land. Scattered in amongst the albatrosses are a few rock-hopper penguins with chicks that are almost as big as the adults. They all seem to get on quite amicably.
Saunders Island is so nice and full of different wildlife and landscapes that we spend the entire day there walking along the white sandy beaches, climbing the hills and being entertained by the penguins and caracaras. Striated caracaras are supposed to be birds of prey but they act more like parrots playing the comedian with a very mischievous nature. You can see them eyeing you up and the second you look away they will pounce and try and make off with the contents of your backpack. They seemed to particularly enjoy the game of knock over the Wellington boot, extract the brightly coloured woolly sock from the depths of the boot, then throw it around and chase it all over the beach tugging at it to see who ends up with possession.
The rock-hopper penguins are just as comical. They are busy negotiating a near vertical rock face from their
typical Falkland's tussac grass landscape - with our little ship way off in the distance
colony on the top down to the sea at the bottom. They are small in size (18 - 20ins) but are big on character - they are like little bulldozers, if another penguin is in their way they just bat then with their flipper and keep going. Its quite an island for penguins- in addition to the rockhoppers we see gentoo colonies, a few King penguins and a colony of magellanic penguins poking their heads out of their nest burrows in amongst the grazing sheep. Its quite a comical sight, sheep and penguins together.. Those of us who stretched our legs and walked up to the top of Mount Harston saw several rufous-chested dotterels which seemed to be quite a big deal, there were lots of groans from those who didn't go. If we hadn't been with the birders we would have missed it, it would just have been a bird flitting past.
All in all it was a great 2 days exploring the Falklands and its finished off by a spectacular red sunset. Now we are back at sea heading out to South Georgia 860 miles away - that's a long time at sea (about 3 days but
a Cobb's wren greets us on the beach
my brain doesn't want to hear that).
There are more photos below