Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Falkland Islands & Ascension trip: third week

Monday 19th Feb
Wet, cold, nasty all day.

Finished loading Cetacean effort data and started on Vascular Plants. Quite a lot of subspecies and introduced species missing from plant checklist. Took most of the afternoon to sort them out.

About 6 “jiggers” turned up in the afternoon. These are specialised squid fishing boats. Their sides are lines with alternating short and long booms with clusters of lights. They are apparently floating generators which chuck out more lighting power than a small city. The lights attract plankton and the plankton attract squid. They have a continuous belt of lures which goes over the bow and is hauled in at the stern. Lures consist of a ball of luminous plastic surrounded by barbless hooks. The squid attack the luminous ball and get caught on the hooks. When they are dragged up over the stern they discharge their ink – which is one of the reasons the boats look so filthy – the other is all the rust. The incoming lures go over a high roller then downhill and the squid then slip off the hooks (hence why they have no barbs) and go down a chute to be processed. These ones are apparently from Taiwan, but they also come from Cambodia, China, Malaysia, etc. Selling them fishing licences is a mainstay of the Falklands economy. Some years the squid don’t come as far as Falkland waters and thet is an economic disaster for the islands. But conditions on board are very bad. The hands aren’t fed – they are expecyed to feed themselves on what they ca catch (apart from squid). 10 jumped ship during the night – seeking asylum. 8 made it, 2 disappeared, presumed drowned.

Tuesday 20th Feb
Weather lousy again. Wet and cold. Lots of heavy rain during the night – everywhere very wet.

Lots of activity with port authority boats in the harbour - planes and a helicopter also involved.. Apparently they have divers out looking for the bodies of the two missing sailors. Some more jumped ship last night, but made it ashore.

Big cruise ship in today, so Stanley very busy. It is rather wet, so the tourists coming ashore all look rather miserable and bedraggled!

Spent all day and much of the evening finishing loading three vascular plant datasets. About 25,000 records in total.

Wednesday 21st Feb
Much nicer this morning. Sky fairly clear and plenty of sunshine, but still quite cold. Clouded up during the day, but stayed dry and cleared again later to give a very pleasant evening with spectacular sunset.

Gave a presentation in the morning to people from Agricultural and Environmental Planning Departments in the Agriculture Departments building (hut). Seemed to go quite well and there seems to be enthusiasm for Falklands Conservation taking on an LRC type role and managing biodiversity data on behalf of other sections. Seems there is quite a bit of littoral data and other datasets on introduced species. Helen from Environmental Planning (who I met on Carcass Island) seems keen to get this on a proper footing and the data more widely available to support EIAs and planning work. All looking quite positive. There seem to be fewer issues about data ownership here at the moment, and being a fairly small community who all know each other, less of a problem about communications and who is doing what than is perhaps typical of the environment in which a British LRC operates!

Decided to go to Gypsy Cove again this evening. Forecast for tomorrow looks poor – wet all day again – so this may be my last chance. Left work at 4:30, got back and changed. Rang for a cab, but they were too busy and used my only 20p for the phone! Decided to head off into the centre and try and find one – which worked out in the end, but slowed me down a bit. Eventually got out there, this time for £5, by about 5:45.

Seem to be more Magellanic Penguins than ever. The huddle on the shore was there, as last time, but there seemed to be many more on the beach and the edge of the water. Feral Geese and Upland Geese again and Black Chinned Siskin in the gorse. Rock Shag colony still has well grown but unfledged young. Turkey Vulture sat on the end and Dark-faced Ground-tyrant in the rocky areas.

Sat and looked at the sea for a while, but very little about. Steamer ducks, Rock Shags, a few Kelp Gulls, but mostly parties of Magellanic Penguins scattered over the sea. No sign of any shearwaters this time.

Walked round Yorke Bay round the back of the minefield fence. Very ice views of a Variable Hawk and a very well marked Long-tailed Meadow-lark, also several small flocks of Black-throated Finch. Quite a lot of Fox-and-Her-Cubs along the track. Very nice dramatic low sunshine through gaps in the cloud contrasting with quite heavy dark grey clouds in the east. Dunes look very good in the low lighting so lots of photos.

Eventually turned up towards Stanley Airfield across the moonscape of the old quarry area. Quite a lot of Rufous-chested Dotterel about over the bare, stony area. Went across the top and then down towards Whalebone Cove and the Lady Elizabeth. Several small lochan type pools here. Several Speckled Teal about. Walked along the shore round to Boxer Bridge. Upland and Ruddy Headed Geese numerous as before.

Just over the bridge, another Variable Hawk was sat on a telegraph pole making buzzard-like, mewing noises. This time I managed to find the path along the shore and followed it back to the east end of Stanley. Kelp Geese, Steamer Ducks, several parties of Crested Duck and a couple of Black Oystercatcher along the shore. Black Oystercatchers has a high, vaguely curlew-like call.

Got back about 9:15pm.

Thursday 22nd
Nice day for a change. Sunny, reasonable temperature and little wind. Largely blue skies.

In fairly early today and loaded the new Breeding Bird Survey data. Just under 1,000 records from an Access database. Teaching session with Brian. Had a session with Nic and Isaac on management, data structure, etc. Spent some time writing up instructions on how to manage the species dictionary for Nic and Isaac. Nearly everyone is going to Volunteer Point tomorrow – and they have invited me to go along, so this looks like my last day in the office. Worked out about right – I have just about run out of things to do anyway.

Lot of Dolphin Gulls about today – about 15 sat on the jetty at lunchtime with a couple of Kelp Gulls and a male Kelp Goose. Turkey Vulture on the way in. Not many Giant Petrel around today.

Went for a walk before tea along the front past the Jhelum. Lots of Kelp Goose pairs, just a few Upland Goose towards the W end of town. The family of 4 Magellanic Oystercatcher was in the same place by the Battle of the Falklands 1914 Memorial, another single one further on. About 6 Crested Duck at various places along the shore. Usual Rock Shag on the Jhelum and also Rock Shag flying up and down and fishing amongst the kelp. Steamer Ducks mostly seemed to be a way out amongst the kelp.

Friday 23rd Feb
Weather very nice first thing with a completely clear blue sky, but by mid-morning it had clouded up somewhat and the wind got up from SW. All in all a pretty nice day, bright and with patches of sunshine breaking through. Supposed to get cloudy and windy later.

Up at 7am for earlier breakfast and then round to Kay’s for pickup at 8am by Nic. Went round to office to meet up with the others. Two Falklands Conservation land rovers and another from the Environmental Dept., driven by Helen, going – 10 people.

The drive to Johnson’s Harbour was easy – though mostly on gravel roads. This makes it very dusty and the last few miles had frequent gates. Coming out of Stanley, past Mount Tumbledown and Mount Kent, mine fields line the road for several miles. Past these rocky hills, the landscape is pretty flat to gently undulating moorland with patches of diddle-dee heath, but more often white grass moor, with some “stone runs” – areas of bare stones, mostly in stripes. All in all rather dull and uninteresting, even on a nice day. Must be very bleak when the weather is poor.

By the time we got to Johnston’s Harbour, there were four other tourist land rovers – so we had a convoy of seven for the off-road part. This is about 10 miles and very rough and slow going, so it takes 1½ - 2 hours. The problem is that it is heavily used and so rather churned up. Hence an awful lot of manoeuvring round wet bits and people often got stuck and had to be winched or towed out. Certainly not a route to try on your own! A few Dotterel about as we got nearer the coast and Falkland Pipits were abundant.

We got to the Volunteers Shack about 11am. Nic and Isaac had two colonies of Gentoo to count here. I went to the first one with them then wandered over to the main King Penguin colony area.

Volunteer Point is a rocky peninsular connected to the mainland by a fairly narrow sandy neck – which is where the King Penguin colony (and two large Gentoo colonies) are located. The inlet behind it is quite large, but the entrance at Volunteer Sands on the far side is narrow so has very powerful tidal currents. Whilst the Volunteers colony area is low and sandy, the point itself is rocky and covered in moorland,

Lots of South American Terns flying over, many carrying fish. Apparently, their colony is inland a bit on a pebble beach towards the head of the inlet. Lots of Upland Geese and some Ruddy Headed about, also a flock of about 20 feral Greylag. The beach on the seaward side is wide and covered in Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins, both breeding on the adjacent sandy grassland slopes. Plenty of Skuas and Dolphin Gulls about as usually seems to be the case at colonies. Also many Two Banded Plover and quite a few Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant hoping about.

The second Gentoo colony is on the slope above the landside shore of the inlet on quite a steep slope above a pebble beach. The King Penguins are at the outer end of the neck where the ground starts to rise to the point. There is a port-a-cabin where the warden takes the money (they charge people £15 a head to visit the colony) with some display boards and the colony has a ring of white-painted stones round it that you are supposed to stay outside of. About six land rovers (not counting our three) parked by the cabin and lots of people taking photos.

King Penguins are very photogenic and also quite noisy and smelly. This colony (500 pairs) is quite spectacular. The are asynchronous breeders so there were a few eggs rolling about and penguins incubating (the egg is held on their feet underneath the brood pouch) as well as birds brooding young chicks and big, fat, brown well grown chicks. It takes 16-18 months from egg to fledging so they are here all the time. They are very vicious towards the chicks. If one moves, it gets pecked at by adults from all sides.

It was noticeable that there were quite a few Turkey Vultures hanging around in the air or perched on fences. Apparently they try to grab eggs.

The two Falkland Conservation land rovers went on over the top of the poit to Volunteer Sands on the far side to count another Gentoo colony. This is a very wide sand bar partially blocking the entrance to the inlet with dunes behind it. There is a large Gentoo colony and another small colony of Kings with about 50 birds and 15-20 chicks. This is located on a pebble ridge quite well back in the dunes. Lots of geese, skua, gulls and plovers.

Back to Volunteers and then northwards again to Cow Bay. This is the next bay northwards from Volunteers, reached by crossing the next moorland covered headland, and is a long, wide sandy beach with dunes behind it. There is a smallish Gentoo colony at the far end (included in the Volunteer Point IBA). Very nice spot with lots of Magellanic Penguins as well as the Gentoos and several large flocks of Two-banded Plover along the top of the beach. Ground tyrants were also very abundant. A young Dolphin Gull was following an adult along the tide line begging, but not having much luck.

Began to head back about 2:30, first to Volunteers and then the off-road part back to Johnson’s Harbour – slow going as before. Saw at least three variable hawks on the way back: one distantly in the air, one sitting beside the road was a very dark individual almost completely dark brown except for some red on its back, and the final one was in flight, but not far away, had the red back, grey wingtips and an almost completely white tail. “Variable” seems to be a good name from them.

We were hearing all day that the air-bridge flight is delayed again. It is at Ascension island, but expected high cross-winds at MPA by this evening are preventing it from leaving. By 4pm there was still no news of when it might leave Ascension. So it looks like the departure time tomorrow may get put back.

Saturday 24th Feb
It seems that the Brize-Norton flight in not due in until 16:10 this afternoon and won’t go out again until 9am on Sunday (check-in by 6am!). So I have an extra day in Stanley. Luckily, there is nobody due in the B&B tonight, so I can stay in the room.

Turned out to be a really nice day. Sunny, almost clear skies, light SW wind. Clouded over a bit after 4pm.

Spent some time early on, whilst waiting to hear what was happening with the flight, on the computer sorting out photos. About 10:30, decided that it was a nice day, so I needed to get out and the walk I wanted to do was Pembroke Head. So the plan was to walk out to Boxer Bridge, then all the way along the south shore, past the Airfield, and round to the lighthouse and then back along the north shore and eventually over to Whalebone Cove (without going as far as Gypsy Cove).

A very big cruise ship (“Rotterdam”) in, so Stanley very full of people, Saw Anna at the Jetty Centre organising people onto buses for “bird walks”. Some Black-chinned Siskin on a wire. Then got picked up by Brian, who gave me a lift out to the Fish Dock – where the fishing boats are on display. As he dropped me, Isaac came along on his bike – so a chance to say goodbye to several people.

Then walked along the coastal path to Boxer Bridge and then on along the southern shore. Nice Variable Hawk soaring about overhead – very pale individual with a white tail. Also some nice Black-throated finch (photo). Another Variable Hawk, this time a rather dark one with a very red back. Crossed the airport road – large flock of House Sparrows in the marram grass.

Went across to the beach at Surf Bay. Series of sandy coves with kelp thrown up along the tide line. Lots of birds on the kelp – Long-tailed Meadow-lark, Falkland Thrush, Black-headed Ground-tyrant hoping about on the rocks and Rufous-chested Dotterel. At least three Turkey Vultures flying and sitting along the shore – hanging in the wind.

Not a lot along the shore. A few Rock Shag flying about and a few perched on rocks. Occasional Magellanic Oystercatcher. In one small bay, a Yellow-billed Pintail was flying round in circles and perching on the sea briefly several times. Another group of Turkey Vultures perched on the kelp near the end, photographed one of them. Also Flightless Steamer Duck near the end.

Arrived at the lighthouse about 14:30. Sat and sea-watched for a while. Lot of Black-browed Albatross well offshore, flying everywhere, also some large groups on the sea. Giant Petrels, Imperial Shag, Skuas, and the odd (Magellanic) Penguin. Also a scattering of Sooty Shearwater, but well out and difficult to pick up. Also a group of Imperial Shag perched on an offshore rock with two attendant Skuas. Rock Shag also flying past and a pair of Steamer Duck a long way offshore.

Headed off round the north shore past Top and Bottom Tussac Islands. Rats have apparently been successfully eradicated from these by a Falklands Conservation led scheme. Tussac Birds have come back, but no sign of Cobb’s Wren – it is feared that they might be too far away from a source of colonisation.

The north shore is a lot rockier with big patches of bare, rocky ground. In these area, Dark-faced Ground Tyrant flitting about. Also some quite large groups of Dotterel, one had about 30 birds with quite a lot of young birds amongst them.

The mine-fields start at the sandy coves opposite the west most of the Tussac Islands. There was a group of Peale’s Dolphin in this first cove. Watched for a long time, maybe six animals involved. They were patrolling backwards and forwards across the cove, coming quite close inshore at times. Showed dark backs with a hooked fin which was paler along the trailing edge. At one point the whole group were rolling about in kelp and the white bellies showing and also making quite a few puffing and snorting noises (photos). Eventually disappeared out towards the island. Single Black Oystercatcher on one of the reefs and Steamer Duck also in the bay.

Worked my way along the back of the dunes (outside the mine-field fence of course!). Quite a few Long-tailed Meadow-lark, Tyrants and some groups of Black-throated Finch. Another Variable Hawk cam along – again a pale bird with a white tail. Further along where the dunes are widest, quite an area of dune pasture behind and up the slope and this was absolutely covered in geese – mostly Upland with a few Ruddy-headed.

Eventually turned inland over the road from Gypsy Cove (which was quite busy) and past the old quarry – which was full of old cars, kitchen goods (washing machines, etc) and old cars. Over the top and then down to Whalebone Cove. Put up a Magellanic Snipe from one of the small pools.

Crested Duck and Steamer Duck in the bay and some more Dotterel along the top of the shore.

Got to Boxer Bridge and was offered a lift back into town – which I was very glad to accept since this is the tedious part of the walk. Dropped in the middle of town – Black-chinned Siskin (3) again seen on a wire. Got back about 5:30pm. The GPS says 25km (with maybe 8km of that being by the two lifts), so over 10 miles of walking.

Got a phone call mid-evening. Pick up tomorrow will be 5-5:15am.