The Falklands, an archipelago of more than 700 islands, offers a unique experience for nature lovers – birdwatchers and wildlife photographers in particular. A Falkland Islands wildlife tour to this corner of the South Atlantic takes you into a world where nature abounds. In fact, in terms of penguin numbers alone, there are roughly 250 birds for every member of the Falkland Islands’ human population!
East and West Falkland, the biggest landmasses in the archipelago, are surrounded by hundreds of islets of differing sizes. Their rocky inlets and coves provide globally significant breeding sites for many southern hemisphere birds and marine mammals. Even around the main sites of human occupation and patches of farmland there are large areas of unspoilt sub-Antarctic habitat. No one sets foot on many of the islands, so the natural world thrives undisturbed. Many parts of the islands have been designated as Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International.
Why are the Falkland Islands Important for Wildlife?
The Falkland Islands have a remote location in the South Atlantic Ocean. They are one of the southernmost outposts of regular human habitation. They lie off the tip of South America and have a landscape of grassland and dwarf scrub heath that supports very specialist flora and fauna. This is one of the best and most hospitable places in the world to see King Penguins and Elephant Seals. And the nutrient-rich waters around the islands attract an abundance of seabirds and marine mammals.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The magnificent bull Elephant Seal is the largest pinniped in the world.
Ecotourism is important to the islands’ economy and Government works with Falklands Conservation, other smaller conservation organisations and local residents to preserve biodiversity and manage fragile land and sea environments.
This amazing landscape is home to 227 bird species, of which 60 are breeding. It is an intriguing place for entomologists as there are also more than 250 species of insects, including the endemic Queen of the Falklands Fritillary butterfly, and 43 types of spiders.
Botanists, too, find much to excite them on these islands. There are nearly 280 flowering plants serving the invertebrates, including the rare and delicate Antarctic Eyebright. And there are more than 180 vascular plants and 21 species of clubmosses and ferns to see. Five endemics are known so far, including Dusen’s Moonwort Fern, but more are regularly being discovered.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The sub-Antarctic flora provides protective habitats for a multitude of species.
The region’s unique Tussac Grass, which grows around the coasts to a height of between two and four metres, creates a micro-climate that shelters nesting birds and the invertebrates they feed on.
Which Birds Make the Journey to the Falklands Worthwhile?
The chance to see the stern-looking Black-browed Albatross should not be missed. The Falkland Islands host the world’s largest breeding colony of these impressive seabirds. At 440,000 in number, they represent 80 per cent of the planet’s population. And there are nine other, non-breeding albatross species to admire as well. As they are migratory, the time to see Black-browed Albatross is between September and April, the southern hemisphere’s spring and summer.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The Austral spring and summer are the times to see Black-browed Albatrosses.
Penguins are another compelling reason to organise a Falkland Islands wildlife tour. Five species breed on the islands – King, Magellanic, Rockhopper, Gentoo and Macaroni. Local wildlife experts can advise where each species tends to congregate and help guests to achieve good views while safeguarding the birds from disturbance.
The Falklands have three endemic bird species to add to a keen birder’s life list. Cobb’s Wren is a small bird that is very approachable. It hops about the rocks of the shoreline and in amongst the Tussac Grass, not particularly bothered by a watching photographer.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The tiny Cobb’s Wren is one of the Falklands’ endemic birds.
The much larger flightless Falklands Steamer Duck, also known as the Logger Duck, haunts low-lying coastlines where it can shelter from the forceful westerly winds that often buffet the islands. There’s a lot of bird to shelter, too, as the males are some of the largest ducks in the world.
A third, rare avian species that inhabits only the Falkland Islands is the Tussac-bird. Its official name is Blackish Cinclodes (Cinclodes antarcticus antarcticus) and it was recently split taxonomically from its Patagonian cousin Cinclodes antarcticus maculirostris to make it the third Falklands endemic. This all-over brown bird is often found picking amongst beached seaweed around seal and sea lion basking areas. Like Cobb’s Wren, it is not shy of people and will approach in the hope their footsteps in the sand have scuffed up a tasty titbit.
Birds of Land and Sea
These are not the only special birds you can encounter on a wildlife trip around the islands. Great and Sooty Shearwaters build their nest burrows in the Tussac Grass, while White-chinned Petrels lay their eggs on the peat above. Of a similar size to Black-browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels cannot fail to impress as they scavenge on morsels discarded by the local fishermen.
On land, the Striated Caracara rules the cliffs and rocky mountain outcrops. And the crags also provide nest sites for the Southern Caracara. Five types of geese graze the sparse grasslands of the interior. The Ruddy-headed Goose found a refuge on the islands from the non-native predators that drove it almost to extinction on the South American mainland.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, A Southern Caracara swoops down from its rocky perch.
And the interesting smaller birds must not be forgotten. Long-tailed Meadowlark, Grass Wren, Black-chinned Siskin, White-bridled Finch and Correndera Pipit are all names to conjure with. Many of the passerines found in southern Argentina and Chile are also present on the Falklands. And, as may be expected from its position in the South Atlantic with its Roaring Forties winds, the islands are fertile hunting grounds for small to medium-sized vagrants.
And When You’re Not Watching Birds…
The number of marine mammals in the Falklands is awe-inspiring. Orcas, Commerson’s, Hourglass and Peale’s Dolphins are regularly seen fishing in shallow waters around the islands. And there are other dolphin species out in the deeper waters. Whales galore pass by – Sei, Southern Right, Humpback, Blue, Fin and Sperm. Ferry trips between the main islands are a good way of spotting many of these amazing cetaceans.
Seals and Sea Lions are also a big draw. Many different species are found all over the islands, with large concentrations at breeding spots and favourite haul-out areas. On Sea Lion Island you can find 95 per cent of the Falkland’s Elephant Seal population. These are the largest pinnipeds in the world, with the bulls, in particular, displaying immense weight and power.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, The female Elephant Seals are a quarter of the size of the males.
More widely distributed around the islands are the Southern Sea Lions, especially on sheltered beaches where they can be seen sunning themselves. South American Fur Seals prefer the rocky shoreline along the north and west coasts. All three species breed on the Falklands. Numbers have fallen in the last century due to commercial fishing fleets in the South Atlantic and the effects of climate change depleting their food supply of fish, krill and squid. However, the breeding colonies still present an impressive sight and sustainable tourism and careful habitat management are helping to preserve them.
Travelling to the Falkland Islands
There are well-established routes to the Falklands from South America, and from the UK via the Royal Air Force base at Brize Norton. Many cruise ships in the Antarctic include the islands in their itineraries.
Photo Credit: Falkland Islands Tourist Board, A young Gentoo Penguin beginning to show its adult plumage.
The best Falkland Islands wildlife tour experience is to be had in small groups led by local expert guides. Safeguarding the health and wellbeing of the Falkland’s flora and fauna, while ensuring guests have an unforgettable experience, is the primary object of responsible tour operators.
For most tourists a visit to the Falkland Islands and its wildlife is not the quickest and easiest of trips to make, but the rewards for the effort are high. Unspoilt landscapes, unique habitats and encounters with animals that are less wary of a human presence – so long as it doesn’t get too close – make for one of life’s great adventures.
Sponsored by the Falkland Islands Tourist Board
Original Date of Publish: 2nd May 2021