One of the big attractions for a birdwatcher in the South Atlantic is the Falkland Islands penguins. Five species call the islands home and nature writer Matt Merritt made the trip to see them.
Birdwatching in the Falklands isn’t like birding anywhere else. You realise that even as you first drive away from Mount Pleasant Airport, in the otherwise deserted middle of East Falkland – it can be a while before you see your first bird, and you certainly don’t see many until you reach the capital and only town, Stanley.
But that’s OK. You’ll already know that while over 220 species have been recorded in the islands, there are only 61 breeding species, and 18 annual non-breeding migrants. And chances are, five particular breeding species are what you’re there for – the Falklands penguins. To see them, you head to the outlying islands, such as Carcass Island, off the north coast of West Falkland.
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The Charms of Carcass Island
Within a minute of sitting down with a cuppa in our lodge on Carcass Island, I saw what I’d come looking for. Falkland Island penguins. Magellanic Penguins to be precise. Just a few, ambling along a track and quickly out of sight, but thrilling nonetheless, and slightly unreal. The upright pose, the waddling gait and the smart black and white plumage convince you, momentarily, that these must be tiny people in penguin suits, not real birds.
So I followed, down to the far end of the island, and saw plenty more Magellanics, shuffling between the burrows they live in and the white sand beaches.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, Magellanic Penguins marching in a smart black and white line.
If anything, though, the Magellanics were outnumbered there by their larger relative, the Gentoo. Standing 90cm to the Magellanics’ 75cm, these Falkland penguins also have a splash of colour, with bright red bills and orange feet. And if anything, they’re even more anthropomorphic. On reaching the shore, I watched them ‘porpoising’ in the clear waters – swimming astonishingly swiftly before popping out of the surf into an upright position on the sand in a single movement that is equal parts astonishingly agile and ridiculously comic.
What makes the Falkland Islands unlike anywhere else is the fact that the penguins in these huge colonies pay no more attention to you than they do their neighbours, and considerably less than they do to the Brown Skuas, Turkey Vultures and Striated Caracaras (or Johnny Rooks, as the locals call them) that hang around waiting to dine on unwary young penguins, or sick and old birds.
But that’s all part of the experience of being right in the middle of a seabird city. Everything goes about its business utterly heedless of you. The Falklands penguins come and go, often in neat lines of ‘commuters’, lives begin and end just a few feet away, the noisy bickering is as loud and relentless as in any human metropolis, and the smell is appalling. And yet within seconds you’re ignoring it, because what’s happening around you is so enthralling. The hours fly by.
Moving on to Sea Lion Island
Sea Lion Island, well off the south coast of East Falkland, is as close as the archipelago gets to a resort. There’s a proper airstrip and a large modern lodge. And there are, if you’re lucky, four of the five penguin species found in the Falklands.
Magellanics and Gentoos are easy to find, again in large numbers, especially on the sandy beaches. But walk along the rockier shores and it’s probably not surprising that you start to notice Southern Rockhoppers, too.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, Southern Rockhopper Penguins and their chicks.
The Falklands’ smallest penguins, they’re unmistakable, with their punky yellow crests and their habit of, yes, hopping up and down rocks. Watching them make their way back up from the sea, it’s hard to resist offering them a hand, so difficult does their task look. But, of course, they’re experts, and you find yourself just marvelling at their stamina.
Did I say unmistakable? I was wrong. Because in among them, and among Rockhoppers on some of the other islands, are odd pairs of the very similar Macaroni Penguin. They’re slightly larger than the Rockhoppers, with more orangey plumes, but the lifestyle is the same.
I’m making my way back along the beach, thinking Sea Lion Island has shown me everything it has to offer, when the massed Gentoos and Magellanics start to stir. Seals? Sea Lions? Terns? The ubiquitous Kelp Gull, or the much more interesting Dolphin Gull? Or maybe they have spotted an Orca cruising off shore?
Well, yes, all of these are here, but they’re not what’s moving the penguins. As I look up the beach, a long, straight stretch of maybe half a mile, large groups and smaller knots of Gentoos and Magellanics part, and two figures stride towards me.
The Kings of Falkland Islands Penguins
Stride is a stretch, possibly, but it’s more like a stride than anything the other penguins manage. These are King Penguins, the second largest species in the world, and they fully live up to their billing. Their plumage is stunning, with the ice-white contrasting with black that is actually, as you look closer, a mass of sooty-grey vermiculation. And of course, it’s all set off by positively regal yellow-orange patches on the lower bill, cheek, neck and breast.
They advance steadily to within six feet of me and my fellow birder, before one, strangely, lowers himself down onto his stomach in front of my colleague, as if in tribute to our presence. After a minute or two of this, they amble back off down the beach. It’s utterly extraordinary, and my only regret is that there aren’t more.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The largest of the Falkland Islands penguins, the Kings.
Turns out there are. After flying back to Stanley, we find we can book on a trip to see the King Penguin colony at Volunteer Point. I look on a map. It’s maybe 20 miles away as the crow flies, but as the penguin swims, or the Land Rover drives, a lot more. The best part of four hours in fact, as you have to traverse rough country and a coastline indented with deep inlets.
But to see these most magnificent Falkland Island penguins it’s worth every minute of the drive. There, amidst grazing sheep, and with more Land Rovers arriving as the morning goes on, are hundreds of King Penguins. A tip is to go early for a more solo experience as you may be joined later on by cruise ship passengers, if they are in port.
There are up to 1,500 pairs of King Penguins at the height of the breeding season, and although the number we see is a little short of that it’s still staggering to be among so many of these extraordinary birds. Again, they pay little or no heed to the birders and photographers, as they stand around in noisy, chatty huddles, or wander down to the waves and back.
Best of all, there are plenty of this year’s young around, fast gaining the stature of their parents, but still clad in a onesie of fluffy brown feathers. I don’t want to use the word ‘cute’, but what else is equal to this occasion?
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, A King Penguin chick, soon to shed the fluffy brown for a set of striking new feathers.
This is the most northerly colony of Kings in the world, which just makes you feel all the more privileged to be able to see them at such close quarters. The Falklands weather in late summer is, it turns out, not unlike the UK in late summer, so there’s no need to wrap up for an Antarctic trip, but I guarantee you that nothing you ever see back home will ever match the Falklands penguins.
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Published: 24th June 2021