This trip started in 1993 with an invite to visit a mate from University while he was working for Forces Radio in the Falklands. I always regretted not having either the time or the money to say yes, so when he and his family moved out there again in 2005 and we found that we could now travel via Chile at much less cost than flying with the RAF from Brize Norton, we didn’t make the same mistake. We had two weeks birding in Chile, the subject of a separate report, then a week in the Falklands that was a very special birding experience.
1. Getting there and getting around
We booked our flights to the Falklands via Santiago (with stops at Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas) through International Tours and Travel (http://www.falklandstravel.com) in Stanley, necessary because flights between Punta Arenas and the Falklands cannot be booked on the LAN website. These cost us around £900 each, though prices vary according to currency values.
We flew to Madrid with Iberia, then overnight to Santiago with LAN-Chile. All the remaining flights – Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Mount Pleasant and the return - were with LAN-Express. The service was excellent and all planes ran pretty much to time. The time of the weekly flight from Punta Arenas to Mount Pleasant varies each Saturday, and for the return leg you need to check the ITT advert on the back page of Penguin News. Check-in and departure on the return leg can involve a long wait, but there is a small coffee-bar (but no alcohol) once you’re through passport control and security.
Mount Pleasant Complex (known to most as MPA, but since it’s a joint facility the Navy and Army get upset if you call it an airbase) is certainly not a commercial airport, but the usual passport and customs rules apply, with a particular emphasis on biosecurity to ensure that you do not introduce plant or animal diseases onto the island.
On East Falkland our friends drove us around, so we did not require a hire car. Apart from the road between MPA and Stanley, which is paved in places, all the roads on the main islands are gravel. We spent a few days on the outer islands using the FIGAS flights, which can be booked through ITT, and operate as a ‘taxi’ service, so travel time can be a little random (and as we discovered, medical emergencies can delay them by several hours). Flights cost £48.60 each from MPA to Saunders (45 minutes), £21.71 from Saunders to Carcass (15 minutes), and £72.45 from Carcass to Stanley (1.5 hours via Fox Bay). Luggage allowance is usually 14 kilos each, but is 25 kg when travelling to Saunders (presumably because of the need to take food).
Accommodation and food
We stayed with friends at MPA for several days, but our other accommodation was pre-booked, which is best done through one of the travel agents on the islands (ours was through MP Travel).
On Saunders Island, we had one night at The Settlement at the east end of the island and one night at The Neck. The Settlement cottage was basic but with a shower, bath and equipped kitchen, and bedding is included.
The Neck is a simple but very comfortable portakabin that originated as a military hill refuge but was taken over by the Pole-Evans family, owners of Saunders, when the army had finished with it. It overlooks a huge gentoo penguin colony and has been extended over recent years so that it houses two bunkrooms (four beds in each, bedding provided), a bathroom (bath but no shower) and kitchen/living room (gas stove, no fridge), with electricity from a solar-powered battery. It is booked up months in advance - we were only able to stay there because of a cancellation and we had tried to book the previous August.
You can pre-order food packs, but we brought our own from the mainland. You can buy some items (fresh eggs and milk, some tinned food) from The Settlement, though the range does depend on when the supply boat last visited. At both places, the accommodation contained plenty of the basics, left by previous visitors, such as tea, coffee and sugar. There is also accommodation at The Rookery, near the island’s north shore, where the very basic hut is being replaced by a cottage that should be complete by summer 2007.
On Carcass Island, there is only one choice of accommodation, in the large home of Rob and Lorraine McGill at the south end of the island. The rooms are large with en-suite bathrooms, and meals are taken around a large farm kitchen table. Much of the food is grown and/or baked on the island, and there is plenty of it.
In Stanley we stayed in the Malvina House Hotel (£55 for a double room and breakfast), a modern place on the harbour front, though the food wasn’t all that impressive. There are several restaurants in addition to those in the larger hotels. We were recommended The Brasserie, which was excellent though not cheap (£73 for a three-course meal for two).
Books and maps
We used the Bradt guide as a general travel guide, written by Scilly birder Will Wagstaff so its wildlife content is excellent, although since our itinerary was already planned, we didn’t use it much. We didn’t have or need a map, although Rob provided us with a photocopied map of Carcass to ensure that we could find our way back to The Settlement after a day’s birding.
We bought the Important Bird Areas of the Falkland Islands (Falklands Conservation 2006), which contains details of all the sites that we visited, and many others besides, as well as information about other wildlife and the conservation issues facing the birds. We used the excellent Helm Field Guide to the Birds of Chile, including the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia by Jaramillo et al., which we found to be accurate and easy to use, supplemented by Birds and Mammals of the Falkland Islands by Robin and Anne Woods. You can get a good range of books and information (as well as good quality clothing and membership) from Falklands Conservation, the islands’ BirdLife International partner, whose offices are above the tourist information centre at the quay in Stanley.
Climate and health
Everyone told us we were lucky with the weather: most of the week was dry and sunny; on windy days (3 out of 7) it was around 10 Centigrade, but without the wind it hit 22 Centigrade. On our day in Stanley it was shorts-and-t-shirts weather, when the previous day had required hat, gloves and coat.
Ultraviolet radiation is a real issue, even though the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is slowly repairing itself. Assume that it will be high throughout the austral spring and summer, even when there is complete cloud cover. Factor 30 sunblock was, on some days, insufficient, and a hat and decent sunglasses that reflect UV are also recommended.
UK mobile phones do not work in the Falklands, although Cable & Wireless do now have network coverage around the mainland settlements for their service (you can buy a C&W pay-as-you-go SIM card to put in your phone). As a result of the increase in military presence, mass media has arrived on the islands, with British Forces Broadcasting Service providing island-wide radio and television feeds from their own output and UK terrestrial tv. It was slightly surreal to drive round East Falkland watching south Atlantic birds and listening to Everton v West Ham on Five Live, while one evening we caught sight of a tv showing Eastenders!
Our only view of the Falklands was memories of tv reports from the 1982 conflict, which we realised as we flew over the islands on the Airbus from Punta Arenas, give you a very misguided picture. From the air, it looked like the Outer Hebrides, with low hills (not as high or rugged as I expected) and vast stretches of pools and peat bog, some of it cut for fuel. And its climate is similar, windy and wet but not particularly cold. Only when you look at a world map do you realise that its farther north than you expect; if it was in the northern hemisphere, it would be just outside Birmingham!
East Falkland - December 2nd: Bertha’s Beach
This beach (IBA FK22, p.132) lies a few miles south of MPA, from where you need to arrange to get the keys to a locked gate on the access track. We walked north along the beach, a 45 minute walk to the gentoo colony, though there is also one to the south. We had great views of the birds on the beach, overflown by south american terns and southern giant petrels, and a few hundred yards inland where around 150 gentoos brooded eggs and chicks while seeing off dolphin gulls. A single magellanic penguin looked rather lost on the beach as we walked back, while magellanic oystercatchers and two-banded plovers ran along the white sand and we saw a Peale’s dolphin in the surf.
3rd: Darwin, Goose Green, San Carlos
After a lazy Sunday morning, we drove around the west side of East Falkland, principally to visit some of the places that we knew only as names from news reports in 1982: Goose Green, San Carlos and Darwin, where we had excellent tea and cakes (known as smoko). It was an opportunity to see some of the endemic species – Falkland skua – and subspecies, turkey vulture, austral thrush and long-tailed meadowlark. We also saw several black-throated finches and blackish oystercatchers.
4th: Saunders Island
We were, literally, confined to barracks through the morning because a medical flight put back routine flights by five hours (and FIGAS were already a plane down after crunching one of their Islander aircraft a few weeks earlier). We eventually flew from MPA to Saunders mid afternoon, in strong winds that tossed the Islander around for the first 15 minutes until we cleared the ridge of hills that form the backbone of East Falkland. By contrast, it was calm and sunny on Saunders (IBA FK14, p. 94), and it was a mere five-minute Land Rover ride from the airstrip to the Settlement. We took a late afternoon walk north along the coast, beyond Port Egmont that was the first British settlement on the islands where now the remains of the stone cottages are occupied by kelp and upland geese. A dead cow on the beach was being ripped open by a turkey vulture, but as the tide came in so did 20 southern giant petrels to continue the job.
A couple of pairs of Falkland flightless steamerducks drifted on the tide, while farther out a dozen black-browed albatrosses rested on the sea. On the land, amid the diddle-dee that dominates the land, dark-faced ground-tyrants were common, magellanic penguins stood by their burrow entrances and a few Falkland (correndera) pipits and black-throated finches had fledged young. Magellanic and blackish oystercatchers called from the beach, where a couple of Falkland-race black-crowned night-herons searched for food among the rocks. As we walked back to the cottage, a juvenile striated caracara perched on low vegetation, while a southern (crested) caracara looked lazily over a field of sheep.
5th: Saunders Island
We were picked up at 10 am and drove the 12 km track in the Land Rover to The Neck, seeing two-banded plovers and south american snipe on one beach. This was the most amazing day of our three-week trip. We had the place to ourselves for most of the day, until we were joined by a Dutch couple that evening.
The view from the cabin sweeps down to the coast, across a wide sand bar and up a western promontory, all covered in hundreds of birds. A striated caracara stomped around on the tin roof and would have walked through the door had we given it the chance. We took a walk before lunch, sitting on the low cliff watching hundreds of gentoo penguins ‘porpoising’ through the bay, squabbling on the water’s edge, preening on the beach and walking across the washed-up kelp to the colonies on the sand bar.
A smaller number of magellanic penguins were at the north end of the bar, much less bothered than the gentoos by the Falkland skuas, kelp and dolphin gulls that hunted for eggs or chicks, while turkey vultures cruised low overhead looking for carrion. A group of 20 king penguins, several with large eggs tucked between their feet and feathered belly, stood at the south end of the bar, both within and outside a low fence that has been erected to ensure the few visitors do not go too close. Among the colonies, several dozen ruddy-headed geese and kelp geese grazed.
In the afternoon, we climbed over the fence behind the cabin and followed the cliff edge north and east, spending lots of time sitting and watching. We soon came to a colony of thousands of rockhopper penguins, some of which shuffled past us to drink and bathe in a stream running down the hill. Several snowy sheathbills searched for carrion and unoccupied nests, while black-throated finches hopped around our feet. Farther on, we came to several colonies of up to 50 black-browed albatross nests in each cleft of the cliff. They wheeled above us, stumbled onto land (one straight into Sandra as she sat on the grass), traded stabs as they walked through the colony and gurgled as each met their mates on the nest. We didn’t walk far that afternoon, probably no more than a kilometre, but had a superb wildlife experience. The largest colony was a mix of rockhoppers, albatrosses and imperial cormorants, the latter regularly tearing turf from around us to line their nests.
6th: Carcass Island
After the hour-long drive back to the airstrip and a 15-minute flight low along the north coast of East Falkland, we landed at the north end of Carcass (IBA FK17 West Point Island Group, p. 110), met by island owner, Rob McGill. During the Land Rover ride to the south end, the island’s lack of rats was evident, with tussac birds, the Falklands race of blackish cinclodes, all over the fields. By mid morning we were greeted by a table laden with coffee and cakes, and then we took a walk south along the bay that is overlooked by the house. More tussacbirds fed around our feet, a Cobb’s wren foraged for insects among the rocks, and we had to be careful amid dozens of magellanic penguin burrows. Ruddy-headed geese and Falkland flightless steamer ducks carefully guarded small chicks, speckled teal and crested ducks roosted in rockpools and a south american snipe stood motionless on the grass just a metre from us.
After lunch, Rob drove us back to the northern tip of the island and we walked back down the west coast. He has fenced off much of the coast to keep the sheep out of the sand dunes, enabling huge stands of tussac grass to recolonise, from which the endemic race of grass wren sang. There are no native trees on the Falklands, its niche occupied by these tall stems of grass that can grow up to three metres. It’s only when you see this that you realise how overgrazed most of the Falklands is – it’s absent from most coasts, yet should form a ring of up to 200 metres around the perimeter.
Among the sand dunes were dozens of elephant seals, flicking sand over their bodies to keep cool and occasionally going noisily head to head. In the more open areas, Falkland skuas and magellanic penguins nested, as did hundreds of kelp gulls around a lagoon. A freshwater pool hosted Chiloe wigeons and a couple of silver teal, while a black-crowned night-heron hunted on the beach. A group of a dozen turkey vultures did the same from the air, and lots of striated caracaras watched from cliff-edge boulders or some of the trees planted nearer to the Settlement. We climbed a rugged ridge of hills, above which saw first a typical peregrine, then a white one, a pale morph of the cassini race (formerly considered a separate species, Cassin’s falcon). Rock cormorants fed in the bay as we walked back to the house, where a southern (crested) caracara was wandering down the driveway as we returned for dinner.
8th: Gypsy Cove, East Falkland
The weather on 7th was grim, so after flying to Stanley from Carcass, we spent the day doing the tourist thing, visiting the Museum and the local shops, which would be closed on 8th, as Battle Day is a public holiday.
The following morning we took a taxi (£5 per person each way) to Gypsy Cove, a nature reserve north of Stanley airport. After a coffee in an old-bus café while we waited for rain to subside, we followed the clifftop trail and had great views of grass wrens, long-tailed meadowlarks and black-chinned siskins, while a dark-faced ground-tyrant perched atop the World War II gun. At least one Peale’s dolphin did a circuit of the bay, around which up to 20 black-crowned night-herons sat quietly on clifftop nests. Most non-birding visitors come to Gypsy Cove to see the magellanic penguins, but thankfully we had arrived before a large cruise ship tipped its contents into Stanley, so we had the place to ourselves, a pleasant way to spend the final morning of our last full day. After lunch, we drove back to MPA via Fitzroy, where a stone Celtic cross commemorates the Welsh Guards killed aboard HMS Sir Galahad in 1982 and a red-backed (variable) hawk flew across the track, a reminder that a trip to the Falklands – for a British visitor at least – should mix stunning wildlife and wild landscapes with recent history.
Black-browed Albatross – 20 Saunders east end, 1000 Saunders Neck, 30 from Carcass
Southern Giant Petrel – 2 Bertha’s Beach, 30 Saunders, 20 Carcass, small numbers Stanley
King Penguin – 20 Saunders Neck
Gentoo Penguin – 160 Bertha’s Beach, 1000+ Saunders Neck
Rockhopper Penguin – 1500+ Saunders Neck
Magellanic Penguin – 1 Bertha’s Beach, 100 Saunders Neck, 70 Carcass, 100 Gypsy Cove
Rock Cormorant – 20 Saunders, 20 Carcass, 30 Gypsy Cove
Imperial Cormorant – 250 Saunders
Black-crowned Night Heron – 2 Saunders, 1 Carcass, 20 Gypsy Cove
Ruddy-headed Goose – 100 Saunders, 2 Carcass, 6 Gypsy Cove
Upland Goose – several dozen daily
Kelp Goose – several dozen daily, most abundant on Carcass
Feral Greylag Goose – 20 Carcass
Crested Duck – 6 Saunders, 30 Carcass, 10 Gypsy Cove
Falkland Flightless Steamer Duck – small number at all sites, most abundant on Carcass
Speckled Teal – 50 Carcass
Chiloe Wigeon – 6 Carcass
Yellow-billed Pintail - 6 Saunders
Silver Teal – 2 Carcass
Turkey Vulture – small numbers daily, most abundant on Saunders and Carcass
Variable Hawk – 2 between Stanley and Fitzroy
Striated Caracara – 3 Saunders, 20 Carcass
Southern Caracara – 1 Saunders, 1 Carcass
Peregrine Falcon – 2 Carcass (1 pale morph cassini)
Two-banded Plover – small numbers on most beaches
Blackish Oystercatcher – small number on Saunders and Carcass
Magellanic Oystercatcher – small numbers on most beaches
Magellanic Snipe – small number on Saunders and Carcass
Snowy Sheathbill – 3+ Saunders Neck
Falkland Skua – common, especially around penguin colonies
Dolphin Gull – small numbers on most beaches
Kelp Gull – common on all beaches
South American Tern – common offshore, especially at Gypsy Cove
Tussac-bird – 80+ Carcass
Dark-faced Ground-tyrant – small number at most sites
Grass Wren – 1 Carcass, 3 Gypsy Cove
Cobb's Wren – 1 Carcass
Falkland Thrush – common at all sites
Falkland (correndera) Pipit – small numbers at all sites
Black-throated Finch – small numbers at all sites, most abundant on Carcass
Long-tailed Meadowlark – common at all sites
Black-chinned Siskin – small number on Saunders and Carcass
House Sparrow – small number around Saunders Settlement and Stanley
Peale’s dolphin – 1 Bertha’s Beach, 1+ Gypsy cove
Elephant seal – 50+ Carcass