A Wildlife Haven
Just north of the Antarctic convergence lies the Falkland Islands, which is a major biodiversity hotspot for Subantarctic wildlife. We planned a week here to observe animal behavior, including various species of birds and marine mammals, and understand the impact of invasive species on several outer islands. In contrast, some islands, like Carcass, have been free of invasive species, and certain birds including the Cobb’s wren have thrived here. The variation of the same species depending on their localized threats within this relatively small geographic region gave me a unique perspective of an ecosystem’s breadth and limitations.
Albatross and Rockhoppers
West Point Island harbors a large population of black-browed albatross as well as a sizeable colony of rockhopper penguins. We trekked across the island to a point called Devil’s Nose with the only accessible albatross colony on the island. Climbing through the tussock grass, we could hear the calls of the rockhoppers as well as the albatross. Eventually, we reached the edge of the colony, staring eye to eye with lone albatross chicks. Since it was the middle of the day, most of the breeding adults were foraging miles away, and many chicks had been left by themselves.
As the day progressed, hundreds more rockhopper and albatross parents returned to the colony, situated atop a steep cliff, by various means. The albatross put on a spectacular show as they landed on an area big enough for their seven-foot wingspans near their nest. They would then walk around other nests to get to theirs that had a hungry chick.
The rockhoppers, however, had to arrive on a cliff far from the colony and maneuver their way through the tussock and many albatross nests. When the rockhoppers finally reached their own chick(s), they engaged in a game of penguin tag, as the chicks chased the adult around for minutes. As I was watching this behavior, I assumed the adult was either irritated or wanted to preserve their limited food. However, a later fact-checking session revealed that they attempted to build up the chick’s strength by forcing them to run around the colony. By experiencing this behavior firsthand, I gained a better understanding of how the Falkland’s ecological cycle had adapted perfectly to the needs of these particular species.
The mile-long stretch of sand on Leopard Beach offered us a panoramic view of Carcass Island. I walked towards the edge of the beach first, so as not to disturb the returning gentoo penguins. These birds darted out of the water trying to evade sea lion predators. They have to work as hard to get away from the shallows where they are most vulnerable to sea lion attacks. Each penguin takes a different approach, though. Some skyrocket out the wave, riding it until it breaks, and others take a group approach, entering with many other birds to confuse predators. This behavior demonstrates the effort penguins exert to preserve the wellbeing of their young.
As I attempted to get a close-up video of this behavior, I set my phone down in the middle of the beach, camouflaged it with rocks and sand, and waited for more birds to return. Penguins were continuously arriving from the water, but on the mile long beach, it was impossible to tell where they would exit the sea.
Eventually, I got lucky and a gentoo bumped right into the camera, which was followed by another two penguins walking right in front. Watching the penguins demonstrate curiosity about my phone, which was probably a foreign object to them, made me rethink the triangular interface between humans, animals, and the environment. It also showed me how we are all interconnected.
South Atlantic Biodiversity
The Falklands Islands and the surrounding ocean are a critical wildlife habitat and harbor some of the most dynamic and intriguing species on earth. These species include five varieties of penguins, several kinds of albatross, and many marine visitors, like elephant seals and right whales. Although the South Atlantic is remote, the region has unfortunately endured a variety of threats including fishing, whaling, and oil exploitation.
Foundations like the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) are working to protect this biodiversity. SAERI now protects this area from threats through scientific research that helps the Falkland Island Government make ecological sound policies and by making sure that all fishing and oil exploitation is properly managed by the authorities. We talked with a marine ecologist on staff that gave insight into some the foundation’s most important projects. The foundation is doing some critical work for the preservation of the region, including a dolphin census, oil exploitation risk study, and a long-term penguin behavior survey. As an ecological sanctuary, the Falklands and the surrounding marine ecosystem is uniquely complete and foundations like SAERI are helping to protect it.
Hundreds of thousands of sooty shearwaters return to their burrows on Kidney Island at sunset.