South American glimpses 5-6

Subject: South American glimpses 5-6
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Fri, 14 Nov 2003 13:59:05 +0100


The Falklands are a windy place, and I am so definitely not a born sailor,
so although Anna and Kjetil wanted to show me all kinds of things via their
yacht the Ægir, in the end we only sailed one day, to Kidney island N. of
Stanley, one of the first islands in the Falklands to be protected, and one
of the so-called 'tussac islands', i.e. a place that has never been heavily
grazed and that consequently has kept its original vegetation of the very
tall (>2m here and there) Tussac Grass Poa flabellata. These are long-lived
grasses, forming dense monospecific stands, with each tussock standing on
some sort of fibrous pedestal, which can become up to 1m high. The ground
in between is largely bare and often very soggy. In addition, it is riddled
by burrows from the many nocturnal seabirds than nest here. Tussac islands
are therefore so definitely not the easiest place on earth to walk across,
as we soon found out.

We anchored on the protected inside of the island, where extensive kelp
beds house large numbers of Brown-hooded and Kelp Gulls and South American
Terns, while also Crested ducks are usually present. The tussac vegetation
starts directly at high water. On the bouldery shore in the intertidal
below the tussac jungle Falkland Steamer Ducks with small ducklings rested,
Oystercatchers piped, and two species of song birds were much to the fore:
the all-dark Tussac Bird (a Cinclodes) a species that absolutely has no
fear of man at all, and Cobb's Wren, the also very local form of the House
Wren, almost as tame. Both species nest among the tussac pedestals and
clearly forage to a considerable extent in the intertidal; their density
decreased towards the interior of the island. There, small birds were
Falkland Thrushes more often than not.

As said, walking among and through the tussac is quite exhausting,  one's
views are much restricted by the tall grasses, and spice is added by the
knowledge that sea lions (of definitely uncertain temper) may lurk
anywhere---fortunately the ones we saw we saw in time.  We slowly worked
our way towards the outer shore of the island, and were lucky on the way to
catch a glimpse of the local Short-eared Owl, one of those mysterious bird
species with a very very wide and almost global distribution (How do they
do it??). More frequently we came across Turkey Vultures, birds that also
nest on the tussac; even these were often so tame that I could photograph
them without the benefit of a long lense.

On the outer steeper coast of the island we came across small colonies of
the feisty Rockhopper Penguins, with a single Macaroni Penguin standing out
by its larger size, while King Shags nested on the headlands, and a few
Sheathbills foraged in the intertidal. Offshore, we could see a steady
movement of flocks of Sooty Shearwaters, one of the species nesting on
Kidney island in large numbers.

During the return sail the wind increased and this at once resulted in more
seabirds around the Ægir. Giant Petrels ('Stinkers' ) are regular
everywhere in the Falklands, but now they were joined by Black-browed
Albatrosses, Sooty Shearwaters and even a few Antarctic Fulmars and a
single Cape Pigeon. Inshore, these were exchanged with King and Rock Shags,
Kelp Gulls and terns, while we as always were followed by 'puffing pigs',
the stark black and white Commerson's Dolphin, the last miles back to Stanley.


The different outlying settlements and islands in the Falklands are
connected by the Islander flights, small airplanes taking cargo and 4-7
passengers. So, on Monday 3 November, we shared a plane with i.a. a pig,
and flew to Saunders Island, one of the large offshore islands, north of
W.Falkland. From the settlement, we  were humped cross country the 11 km to
The Neck, a narrow part of the island, with sandy beaches both on the south
and north side. Here there is a portacabin, that serves as 'home away from
home' for guests.

This is one of the most wonderful places to be for a birder where I have
ever been. The somewhat higher, largely bare ground between the two
beaches---the Neck proper-- has a largish number of rookeries of Gentoo
Penguins, that go to either of the beaches to forage, so that there is a
constant stream of penguins crossing the area. They panic easily away from
the rookery, but are much bolder inside it, so that one can sit and watch
the proceedings at leisure without any problems, providing one keeps quiet
and calm. Most of the birds sit on eggs; returning birds do not always seem
to find the shortest route to their own nests, which invariably leads to
some squabbling, although these may well be the most peaceful of the
penguins. Every now and then a bird stretches upwards and breaks out in the
characteristic call of the gentoos.

On the hillsides around the grass is kept short as if this was a golf
course, thanks to the many sheep (ca 6500 now on Saunders, down from 9000
after a few very dry summers) and the many geese, mostly Upland Geese.
Droppings cover this lawn almost everywhere and most furnish much extra
nitrogen. Magellanic Penguins have dug out their burrows here, and one
hears their braying in the mornings, and nesting geese often profit by
using the hollows of abandoned penguin burrows as a sheltered nesting
place. Now, however, only a few geese were still sitting (very tight
indeed), and most were proudly walking around with their goslings, with the
ganders chasing all other geese from the vicinity of his brood.

A small flock of 12 stately King Penguins also  kept house here; most were
already starting to moult and consequently kept ashore, but a few still
went out for a swim now and then. They had produced only a single young,
still in its dun-coloured wide down-plumage, and this 'oakum boy' for some
reason often wandered into the nearest gentoo rookery and kept their
company for hours.

The larger and more exposed north beach is fringed by very low dunes with
sea cabbage (A hairy grey-leaved Senecio), and here Magellanic
Oystercatchers nest and in some cases already had small young. The
oystercatchers warn with very 'sore' pipings and display with raised tails
(quite unlike our oystercatchers in Europe), but the young unexpectedly did
not bother much about these warnings and went on exploring, seemingly a
very dangerous strategy, esp. as there are also pairs of Antarctic Skuas in
these foredunes. Dolphin Gulls and Brown-hooded Gulls rummage in the wrack
washed ashore high up inthe intertidal, but I could not find any talitrid
amphipods here.

Around the corner, where the cliff-sides become somewaht higher and
steeper, there are large colonies of Rockhopper Penguins, often nesting in
mixed rookeries with King Shags, while the lower and steepest areas are
occupied by the tall mud nests of the Black-browed Albatrosses (of which
there are ca 11 000 pairs on Saunders). The Rockhoppers come ashore on a
very exposed shore, so even during the calm days when we were there,
landing was no sinecure. But these small and pugnacious birds do not seem
to fear anything: they claw themselves ashore (the rocks have many places
clear grooves after their sharp claws) and undauntedly start walking and
jumping up the steep slopes to the colony. Being much more of a fighter
than the gentoos, there is a constant turmoil in the colonies as birds try
to walk to and fro their nest places; nest material is quickly stolen, as
soon as an owner is absent for a moment, and raucous greeting ceremonies
take place here, while fights break out close by. The birds go to drink in
the small streams running down the hillside and even avail themselves of
the showers formed by these rivulets cascading over large boulders.

Now and then penguins seem to fly away from the colony. But these are of
course the colourful King Shags that share the rookeries (usually, but not
invariably, in definite subcolonies of their own). These birds are
beautiful to watch in their finest spring finery, with blue eyes and orange
caruncles like headlights on both sides of their heads, otherwise they are
black above and white below, and have a jaunty shag-crest. The pairs often
indulge in 'neck-flirting', waving their necks together in sinuous
patterns. As said, they fly up from the nesting locality where possible,
but if they have to walk out, they adopt a very comical posture and are
clearly leary of all the penguin bills around, no doubt having experienced
already that these mean business.

Tha albatrosses are a chapter apart; I sat for a long time close to a
section of the colony and watched the ludicrous and complicated dosplays of
these large and somewhat ungainly (on the ground!) birds. The displays,
most persistently indulged in by the younger birds that were not connected
to a nest, are quite complicated and ofen gloriously strange---there
clearly is a pattern, but it takes more than a casual half hour now and
then to unravel this pattern. When one sits quietly close to a colony,
incoming birds may land quite close (1-2m away) and then they usually sit
down to ponder their next move for a while; they do not walk all that
easily (need frequent rests) and are usually somewhat reluctant to pass too
close to humans. In spite of their huge bills they look basically quite
friendly birds, but maybe not over-intelligent.

The comical 'dirty pigeon-chickens', the Snowy Sheathbills (quite common
here, although they do not nest in the Falklands) walk everywhere through
the colonies, looking for a chance to steal food, abandoned eggs or feed
from dead birds. These Sheathbills, however, also were very actively
feeding along the tideline on the sandy beaches and on the rocky shores
around low water, where there could be as many as 25 together. No doubt a
much greater danger to the penguins was represented by the Antarctic Skuas,
who constantly patrolled the colonies from the air and seemingly had no
problems at all in procuring penguin eggs, which they ate at certain very
special places, greener than the surroundings and with many many rests of
eggs lying around. Also the Turkey Vultures were always present, but I am
uncertain of what exactly they  got out of the colonies; i never saw them
catch, take or eat anything. The smaller birds, primarily Falkland Thrushes
and Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, probably mainly were chasing the numerous
flies in the rookeries. A special case is Johnny Rook, the famous and
ill-famous Striated Caracara, these birds are absolutely unafraid of people
and steal all loose objects that one is not careful enough to keep a close
eye on; fortunately here there were only two, and they were easy enough to
monitor; they often sat on the roof of our cabin. the other Caracara, the
Crested, also occurs here, but we saw it only a few times, just as 'The
Hawk' the Red-backed Hawk.

At low water we sieved amphipods from the sandy North Beach, where there
was a rich and interesting population of sand-living species, and the next
morning we walked along the hillsides to a beach where five large fat young
elephant seals trained for the indolent life these animals always seem to
lead, at least when ashore, by dozing and sleeping. On the way back we
found the funny Ladies Slippers flowers, a golden-flowered small
Calceolaria, and found the only finches of the island, the beautiful
Black-throated finches, with their monotonous (or rather bi-tonous) song.

The last night we spent in the settlement, sleeping in the Stone Cottage,
with its 150 years one of the elder houses on the island. David Pole-Evans,
the owner,  had told us that there had been both Black-necked Swans and
even Coscoroba Swans in The Big Pond, a freshwater lake a few km from the
settlement. But in the fierce winds of this day we saw no swans at all,
although we discovered two pairs of the charming White-tufted Grebes, and
diverse families of Speckled Teals, as well as a few new flowers, Vanilla
Daisies and a wild Primula, the Dusty Miller. On the shore near the
settlement, where a river ran out, we found tens of Kelp Geese, loafing as
usual. These birds seem to have much better time than the Upland and
Ruddy-headed Geese , that seem to graze virtually all day.

Saunders island, and especially The Neck is a wonderful place to watch
birds at leisure. And what interesting birds!!

                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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