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An Antarctic Expedition: Volume II

Wondrous Wildlife amongst the Tussocks

Our next landing around the Falklands was West Point, a small settlement which lies to the northwest of the archipelago. Not only does the island boast some of the most beautiful flora and fauna of the area but is also home to the largest sea cliffs in the Falklands. It is part of the West Point Island group, which includes Dunbar Island, Gibraltar Rock and Low Island. West Point in particular is recognised by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and you can see why. Some of the protected species include the Falkland steamer ducks (Tachyeres brachypterus), striated caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis), Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) and white-bridled finches (Melanodera melanodera), as well as the southern rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) and the black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophris).Endemic to the island is the Felton’s flower (Calandrinia feltonii), a pink-purple flower named after Arthur Felton, who worked closely with botanist Carl Skottsberg in the 1900’s, to identify flora on the island. This flower is often seen on stamps for the Falkland Islands.

MS Fram anchored amidst the fog. West Point, Falkland Islands, 2022.

A lovely couple own and live on the island, often hosting ‘coffee and cake’ for tourists visiting via cruise ship. They also offer a quick zip up to the wildlife colony via Land Rover, as the walk is uphill and can be challenging for some on uneven terrain – it makes for a bumpy ride!

Striated caracara (left), and our mode of transport (right). West Point, Falkland Islands, 2022.

The morning we arrived at West Point, a low, dense fog hung over the island, like a bride’s veil, lingering heavily in the air. The air was moist but fresh and did not dampen our spirits. Visibility, however, was exceptionally poor to the point where we couldn’t see the fluorescent orange fence markers to guide us up to the colony. Instead, the expedition team took it in turns to become human flag posts, offering guidance and a friendly face to point guests in the right direction. Before I ventured up to the colony myself, I was on cake watch. It was my job to rally peckish guests into the house for a spot of morning tea, coffee and a sweet treat. It was no hard feat of course, as nobody turned down the opportunity for a free piece of cake! Luckily, I was swapped out of cake watch before I could demolish the entire spread myself… they were just so tasty! My favourites were the homemade lemon drizzle slices and cherry bakewell tarts.

After snacking on a handful (more like plateful) of treats, a few guests and I hopped into the Land Rover and headed up to the rockhopper and black-browed albatross colony. I was expecting much of the same as the previous landing on New Island, but I was very pleasantly surprised. When I reached the colony, all I could see was the low-lying mist blanketing the landscape before me. As I approached, I began to spot penguins and albatross hidden amongst the thick tussock grasses along the hillside. There were thousands of them, a wash of black and white feathers with odd hints of yellow here and there, dappling the scene. There was a suspenseful silence lingering in the air, with only camera shutters and the odd bird cry to be heard. Guests weaselled their way through the tall tussock grass, keeping a safe distance from the wildlife at all times. They marvelled at their beauty and how peaceful the animals looked, undisturbed by human interaction.

Rockhopper penguins amongst the tussock grasses. West Point, Falkland Islands, 2022.

After visiting the colony, I headed back down the hiking trail to relieve one of my fellow expedition team members from their post (so they could have a spot of coffee and cake too) and made sure guests could find their way back to the zodiacs. The fog had eased slightly but the wind had picked up and it was quite literally chilling me to the bone. I had all my expedition layers on but still had to jig around like penguin every so often to keep the blood pumping. One guest was chatting to me for a while before heading back and asked if he could take a photo of me. I said “absolutely!” and this is what he took. He said even though it was freezing cold, he could see in my eyes that I was still smiling!!

A guest photographed me at West Point, Falkland Islands, 2022.

As I walked towards the ship, I contemplated my morning and how surreal it felt to be so close to the marvellous wildlife found here on the Falklands. I remember particularly thinking about the albatross and how cool it was that I had seen one of the biggest birds on the planet. So, I thought I’d share a few facts about them before I wrapped up this blog entry. Here they are:

  • They are opportunistic feeders, eating mostly anything they can find. Typically, the birds will feed on small crustaceans, fish, squat lobsters, offal and squid.

  • Black-browed albatross usually go for prey near the water’s surface but can dive up to 5m to catch fish.

  • Sometimes, they will travel exceptionally long distances for the best feeding spots – some are more than 200 miles away and they can do this in a single trip!

  • Albatrosses soar on stiff wings, reaching speeds of almost 70mph depending on the winds.

  • Black-browed albatross are monogamous and pair up for life. Their breeding season varies slightly but is usually between late September and November on the Falklands.

  • The females lay a single egg and both parents take turns incubating the egg for roughly 70 days.

  • Fledging usually occurs approximately 4 months after the chick has hatched.

  • Interestingly, they can create an oily substance in their stomachs to spit at predators should they need to defend themselves and their chicks. This can also be used as a source of nutrients during long flights out at sea.

  • Black-browed albatrosses live almost exclusively at sea, only coming towards land to breed, and so they rely heavily on the sea as a rich food source.

  • Much like many seabirds, black-browed albatrosses have a gland above their naval passage which allows them to secrete excess saline solution or salt water from their bodies. It is handy when feeding on the wing, grasping food from the water’s surface.

Black-browed albatross having a snooze on top of a nest. West Point, Falkland Islands, 2022.

So, they you have it. A brief round-up of the wildlife and my time at West Point. It was fascinating to see both the penguins and albatrosses nestled away within the tussock grasses, and equally to see how undisturbed these areas are by humans. Let’s keep it that way!

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