I have spent the last two weeks in the Falkland Islands focusing on a number of different species. It is a fabulous place and ever since taking up photography a few years ago I have looked forward to photographing Penguins at some point and this was my first real chance. The islands are home to 5 different types of penguin, however my primary target to work with was the stunning King Penguin.
Out of all the different penguin species in the world, the King Penguin has to be one the most spectacular. Stunning colours, detail and an impressive size standing up to 100cm tall. On Volunteer Point there is a colony of over 1000 breeding King Penguins which is the highest northenly area to see this amazing scene.
During February, the parents are still raising their chicks who are growing bigger by the day. One of the adult enguins will go out to sea for up to five days depending on where the fish are and return with a full crop for the family. I spent much of my time on the shore awaiting their return from fishing and trying to place myself at the right point along the 2km stretch. When the King Penguins appear from the surf, there is a thorough cleaning regime before they walk back to their nesting site. The birds would occasionally show display and courting behaviour once they had finished preening.
With the prospect of 14 hour days in the Falklands in February, there is a superb opportunity for many images. However, the light is harsh during the day, but within the time I was away I was fortunate to have some great light to work with and tried to take some slightly different images of the Kings. Situated on Volunteer Point along with the King Penguins are over 1000 Gentoo Penguins. These are fairly wide spread over the Falklands, but for me they really do fit up your sterotypical penguin requirements: Funny, charasmatic, colourful and inquisitive.
From the four species of penguin I was able to photograph, the Gentoo was by far the most bold. There were times where even my wide angle lens was too close, and although I said at the beginning of the blog that my primary target was the King Penguin, the Gentoo fast became my favourite over the course of the trip.
Different to the King Penguin, it seemed that both the Gentoo parents would be out fishing from dawn until dusk and leave the newly born chicks to fend for themselves on the beach. Towards the end of the day the parents would return in large rafts from fishing out at sea. This is a great spectacle, as on rougher days, the Gentoos would erupt out of the surf at the last minute and land upright on the their feet on the beach! As you can imagine, the speed of this is extraordinary and a great way of avaiding the waiting sea lion in the waves.
Once the Penguins have finished thier cleaning regime, they begin the slow waddle back up to the sheltered parts of the dunes to feed the chicks. The open beaches can be harsh, with the wind in the Falklands relentless. Once the chick has been successfully fed at the end of the day, the same process repeats itself the next day.
Anywhere around the Falklands where it is suitable to burrow you will find the Magellanic Penguin with up to 100,000 pairs. With so many beautiful penguins and bird life around, this is the one penguin that could be easily overlooked. However, nick-named the ‘jackass penguin’ it calls out like the sound of a donkey which cannot be ignored. The Magellanic Penguin was the most timid of all the species when out in the open, but when next to their burrows they would become increasingly bolder.
The last species of Penguin which I was fortunate enough to be able to photograph was the very iconic Southern Rockhopper. As they mature they develop longer yellow plumes along their eye strip which make them very recognisable.
February is not the best time to see Rockhoppers at their best. Most the of work raising the chick has been done, the parents are now out at sea for days looking after themselves and only on ocassional days will re appear on the coast line. When they do return it is a great sight with the penguins hopping up large rock faces out of the crashing waves. I was able to spend a few evenings at one of the colonies on the islands photographing them as the last rays of the days light were shining through their plumes.
The King Penguin is not the only stunning bird that lives in the Falklands. The black-browed Albatross was another subject I was really looking forward to photographing within the few weeks. My last Albatross sighting was off the coast of New Zealand 3years ago so I was keen to improve on my shots from that trip. The areas where the Albatross choose to nest are photographically challenging, always looking down upon the birds from the steep cliff edge, or so tucked away in the tussock grass that composing an image was really difficult. Every opportunity I had to photograph this bird on the trip I took as I was determined to come away with some images.
Although the morning and evening light was good for most of the days with the albatross, I was waiting for the moment where I could compose an image with a clear background and at eye level with the bird, without looking up or down the cliff face. Fortunately, on my third morning at the breeding site this individual landed just beyond the level of tussock grass only sitting for a minute before stretching its 2.5 metre wing span and taking off out to sea.
These Albatross mate for life and form a special bond as they are able to live up to 70 years. I was pleased to photograph some courtship behaviour with the male preening the females cheek in good light. They can not reproduce until they are into their 5th year, so the youngster will tend to fledge the nest when they are old enough and perhaps not step back on land for up to 5 years.
The last focus of my trip was aimed at the largest seal in the world, the Elephant Seal. I had no idea what to expect until I first laid eyes upon these sea elephants, but the sheer size was breath taking. The big males can weigh up to three tons and achieve adult status with a bulbous nose after 8 years. From a photographic point of view there was a huge amount of time spent looking at motionless and expressionless monsters on the sand, but after a few days I was able to photograph some fighting behaviour aswell.
During mating season the big males will compete for females by rearing up and clashing into eachother. With such a huge bulk this is a very impressive sight, and worth visiting the Falklands at the right time of year for this spectacle alone.
Although the Sea Elephants have got size on their side, my first encounter with a large male sea lion was just as impressive. A powerful looking predator, this individual was resting in the tussock grass up in the sand dunes.
Whilst spending so much time on the coast I had the opportunity within my stay to produce some images of the Imperial Cormorant which is very recognisable from its bright yellow display on its head. There are vast groups of these birds nesting amongst the cliffs with the RockHoppers and Albatross and show similar characteristics to the Puffin when they come into land.
One of the worlds rarest birds of prey takes up residence in the Falklands where they are numerous. The Striated Caracara is incredbily intelligent and inquisitive, and you could not open your packed lunch without one swooping in moments later! With the lack of trees in the Falklands, I was always on the lookout for a shot with an aesthetically pleasing perch.
The Falklands is a place you could visit time and time again and always see something different. This was a successful start to my Penguin porfolio and it would be interesting to return at a different time of year where the birds would be at a different stage in development and behaviour. I would like to thank Derek, Trudi, Rob, Lorraine and Jenny for their fantastic hospitality and guiding on this trip. After a long day of photography in the cold wind, a warm meal in the evening does just the trick! I will now be heading to Kenya in March to focus on one of my favourite groups of animals…the big cats, so keep an eye on the blog for the next update.