Friday, February 09, 2007

Ascension Islands and Falkland Islands - the first week

Sunday 4 Feb 2007

Left home with Dorothy & Simon about 2:15. Went to see Geoff & Tessa in Appleford for tea. Arrived Brize Norton around 8pm. Flight left more or less on time at 11pm. Aircraft was a 747 chartered from XL (an Icelandic Company). Around ⅔ full, so something like 300 people. There is 25th Anniversary of Falklands War celebrations in progress and many veterans and journalists on the flight.

Monday 5 Feb

Arrived Ascension Island approx. on time at 7:30am. Everybody got off and into the transit compound. Indian Myna – two on ground and fences around trees and bushes planted next to car park. We were told it would be around 1½ hours. Then, around 9am, it was announced that there would be about a 12 hour delay because of weather in the Falklands. We were taken to Travellers Hill transit camp and allocated rooms. They fed us in the Mess, provided water, etc – all very well organised.

Ascension looks very dry and barren. Large piles of dry ash all around, some bigger ash cones – mostly completely bare. Dominated by Green Mountain which is tree covered towards the top and was capped in cloud for most of the time. Away from the ash cones, the flatter areas are mostly larvae flows with rather variable amounts of vegetation. Some areas look like piles of very coarse dark ash and are almost bare, but most is a rocky jumble of black basalt with dense vegetation between bands f black rock – mostly Mexican Thorn/Mesquite shrubs and Prickly Pear with Agave flower spikes being the tallest plants. Horrible stuff to try and walk through because of the dense prickly vegetation and the very uneven and sharp larva underfoot.

Weather was hazy sunshine. Apparently 25ºC when we landed and 30ºC by middle of the day, but with a continuous strong breeze. The sun went down very quickly around 7 – 7:30 and it got dark quite fast – just like it is supposed to in the tropics.

Walking around Travellers Hill camp: Myna is very common and very noisy. Large birds, bigger than a blackbird, with conspicuous yellow bill and big white wing patches when they fly. Song sometimes sounds startling-like, but usually fluty and blackbirdish. Usually singing from a high perch like a rooftop or an Agave spike. Common Waxbill – saw two on the ground under pines around some cabins, later on there was a flock of around 12 in the same area. They are small and fly in quite a tight flock with typical finchy twittering. Yellow Canary: first saw a female feeding on seedpods of a Leguminous tree. Looks bigger than a sparrow with a very noticeable pale eye stripe and deeply forked tail. Latter saw male on the ground. Male unmistakeable, bright yellow. Fairy Tern: about 4 flew past whilst we were sitting on the patio of the Mess after lunch. Very white with noticeably prominent, black, eye. From a distance, they looked like white pigeons flying past rather than terns.

In the afternoon a bus took us to Georgetown for a couple of hours. Walked along the beach and around the harbour and anchorage. Very tropical with steep, white sandy beaches and very blue sea. Black larva rock sticking out of the sand. Quite big rollers crashing in. Green Turtle tracks and pits very numerous and obvious everywhere along the beach, even here beside the town. Some of the tracks and disturbed sand from digging looked very fresh, so presumably from turtles that came ashore last night. Ascension Sally Lightfoot Crabs also very obvious. They seem to feed on the rocks just at the edge of where the waves are breaking and scuttle off across the sand when disturbed. Quite large and very attractive with dark purplish carapace with golden spots. Masked Booby: one flew past quite close in. Looked like a big gannet with obviously black face. Brown Booby: one flying along the breaker line around the anchorage. Came past very close. All dark, a bit smaller than the masked, with a white face and belly. Mynas common round the town and also canaries seen several times.

We were picked up from Travellers Hill at 7:45 and taken back to the airport. Eventually left at 11pm for another overnight flight.

Tuesday 6 Feb

Arrived Mount Pleasant Airport about 6:30 UK/Ascension Island time, which is 3:30 Falkland time. Sorting out baggage and getting through immigration took a long time, so about 6am before we left for Stanley on Falkland Island Tours bus. Got to B&B about 6:45. Had a cup of tea and a shower and headed into the Falkland Conservation office about 8:30. Had a bit of a walk round at lunchtime (12:30), but left early (3pm) after general introductory presentation and slept for about 3 hours. Had a longer walk along the shore from about 7:30 – 9pm. B&B is very warm. Lady of the house is very pleasant and motherly and it looks like I will be well fed. I can leave my suitcase whilst I am away next week. Only glitch is that she didn’t have me booked for Friday night and Stanley is very full with the 25th anniversary stuff. Anyway, she can find me a camp bed for the night, so I won’t be on the street.

Very windy, going around from NW in the morning to W by evening. In the middle of the day it was windy enough to take effort to stand against. Sunny in the morning, but increasingly cloudy and bursts of heavy rain during the afternoon. Brightened again during the evening, but drizzle coming in as it started to get dark by 9pm. Quite cool. Forecast for the weekend is wet and cool! Just hope the wind dies down before then, otherwise there might be problems with flights to the islands.

Southern Giant Petrel: passing constantly. Couple sat on the sea close inshore at lunchtime. Look like very big fulmar. Dark brown, very straight wings held flat. Look big and awkward. The large, pale bill is very prominent and the face usually paler.

Rock Shag: several on the water and flying past. On the water they look just like shag/cormorant, but in flight the white breast is obvious. One sat on a jetty quite close in had obvious red eye.

Upland Goose: about 4 pairs from bus when we stopped to drop people at Hillside Camp above Stanley. In the evening there was a pair grazing on grass next to shore at east end of Stanley. Male looks quite white, but the grey back is obvious even at a reasonable distance. Females are quite attractive.

Kelp Goose: abundant all along the shore. The all-white males stick out for miles. The dark females are less obvious – but always seem to come in pairs. Females show a lot of black and white in flight.

Crested Duck: party of about 6 resting on shore amongst Kelp Geese. Medium sized, non-descript brown duck.

Falkland Steamer Duck: pair by Dive Centre on the way in. Several floated by past the office window during the day. Look like a bigger scoter-shaped diving duck. Big colourful beak is very obvious.

Turkey Vulture: 3-4 around Hillside Camp on the way in. 1 over east end of Stanley as we drove in.

Dolphin Gull: several around harbour at lunchtime. They look very dark and grey in flight. Haven’t got a good look at one perched yet.

Kelp Gull: numerous all along the shore and flying past. Just an ordinary looking, large, black-backed gull.

South American Tern: several flying about over the harbour and centre of town at lunchtime and early evening. They look big – sandwich tern size, but more like common/arctic shape with long forked tail. Noisy, call very typical tern-like.

?Falkland Pipit? – pipit like bird along the shore as I set out in evening, but didn’t get a good look. I guess that the small passerine birds are keeping their heads down with the strong winds and rain.

House Sparrow: numerous around buildings in Stanley. Calling everywhere.

Wednesday 7th Feb

Weather quite variable. Started off sunny but cold and remaining quite windy, but not as much as previous day. Clouded up and there were heavy bursts of hail during afternoon and early evening with patches of sunshine in between. Then cleared again around sunset with the wind dropping. But remained cold all day.

Woke up rather early – presumably because 5:30 still feels like 8:30. Went out around 6am for a walk westwards along shoreline past war memorial, Governor’s House and the wreck of the Jhelum to the western edge of the town and then back along the streets higher up.

Wet into work about 8:30 and spent the morning with Anna and Isaac going through basics of data entry, ut found mapping wouldn’t work – crashed Windows XP with an error caused by an endless loop in one of the graphics driver DLLs.. After lunch, spent most of the afternoon trying to get new graphics drivers for their portables. Successful eventually.

Got back about 5pm and took ‘scope and camera down to the shore intending to photograph shag nests on the wreck. But several hail showers and poor light. Got some pictures of Kelp Goose and Logger, but then gave up when it was clear a succession of hail showers were coming in.

Southern Giant Petrel: passing all day.

Rock Shag: about 8 nests on the wreck of the Jhelum and a nest on the remains of a jetty in front of Capstan Gift Shop near the Jetty Centre. These have well grown young.

Black-crowned Night Heron: 1 perched on wreck of Jhelum.

Upland Goose: several pairs first thing in the morning on grass just behind the shore. Pair on the water with about 5 large young near western edge of town.

Kelp Goose: pairs all along sea front. Photographed one pair near Govenor’s house.

Falkland Steamer Duck: several pairs along sea front. Photographed a pair with Kelp Geese above.

Crested Duck: several on sea along front in small parties of 1 to 3.

Turkey Vulture: 1 flew over the B&B whilst I was having breakfast, about 8am

Dolphin Gull: two on jetty outside office mid afternoon. Very good views.

Kelp Gull: all along front in the morning. Less obvious later in the day, but odd birds going past all day.

South American Tern: small parties passing and calling all day. 2 adults and a juvenile perched on jetty in front of office mid afternoon.

Dark-faced Ground Tyrant: 1 on a garden fence close to B&B when I first went out in the morning. Looks rather chat-like in shape and stance, but dark head quite noticeable.

Falkland Pipit: 1 running about on jetty outside the office mid afternoon. Looks like a very ordinary, streaky pipit!

Falkland Thrush: 3 in a small field on way down to shore from B&B, several more seen in gardens. Looks like a female blackbird – same size and shape.

Long-tailed Meadowlark: pair feeding on roadside strip of grass along suburban street. Bigger than I expected and the red breast of the male not very prominent most of the time when it has its head down pecking about in the grass.

Black-chinned Siskin: pair on a house lawn flew up into a pine tree beside the house. Male quite smart yellow bird with obvious black head, but the female pretty non-descript small finch.

House Sparrow: abundant throughout Stanley.

Thursday 8th Feb

Rained heavily in the night and heavy showers continued on and off all day, with a very heavy hail shower mid-afternoon. Wind still strong and cold with powerful gusts during squalls. Some sunny spells between showers and quite a bit of sunshine during evening with wind dropping a bit around sunset.

On the way into the offices, Turkey Vultures were very prominent with about 3 heading off over the water away from Stanley. Usual birds passing the office window during the day: Rock Shag, Upland Goose, South American Terns, Kelp & Dolphin Gulls, Logger but also several Turkey Vultures during the afternoon.

Left at 4:30 to get picked up by a taxi at 5:15 to go to Gypsy Cove. There about 5:35 (£4). Several Turkey Vultures on the way. Very windy and cold, but sunny on and off and no serious rain – couple of brief showers. Magellanic (Jackass) Penguins immediately obvious with a large crowd on the beach, many in the sea and another group on the slope leading up from the bay with many large chicks packed into a crèche. Scattered birds all over the place with some at the entrance to burrows right beside the path. The name “Jackass” is appropriate – they through back their heads and bray like a donkey – very loud and prolonged and can be heard a long way. Also very aggressive and I saw several birds attacked pretty vigorously – presumably because they strayed too close to a somebody else’s burrow. Flock of about 20 White-rumped Sandpiper also on the beach with a single Two-banded Plover and several Kelp Gulls. Round the corner from the main beach, where it gets more rocky, several pairs of Upland Geese amongst the penguins. Lot of twittering from a small group of Black-chinned Siskin around several large gorse bushes. Difficult to get a look at them, but I think they may have been feeding well grown young. The headland has Tussac grass growing up the slope and Tussac Birds were about. Very black, starling size and with rather direct, fast flight. One young bird almost perched on me. Twp steep rock outcrops had 20-30 pairs of Rock Shag with well grown young. Also Steamer Duck on sea at the base amongst Kelp beds.

Went round to Ordnance Point and the WWII guns. Sat and looked at the sea for a while. Lot of Kelp Gulls about, Giant Petrel passing frequently, but also lots of Sooty Shearwater. Watched them for some tie, but couldn’t see anything else with them. On the way back round, had a good view of Dark-faced Ground Tyrant on the rocks and there were two more flitting about on the beach amongst the sandpipers. Also 3 European Hare sprinted off over the heath.

Started walking back along the back of the dunes following the minefield fence. Several small birds – mostly Siskin, but I had a good look at what I though was a female bunting and eventually had a good view of pair of Black-throated Finches (which are really true buntings). The male is a really splendid bird. Also several Long-tailed Meadowlark. Group of 4-6 medium sized dark birds flew away several times, but didn’t get a good look. May have been Tussac Birds, but they sounded like thrushes, so they were probably Falkland Thrush.

Crossing over a rocky bit towards Whale Bone Cove, I saw a bird of prey land on a tall rock. I was able to walk right up to it and it just sat and looked at me. After a consultation of the book, decided it was a Variable Hawk. It eventually flew off in typical buzzard-like flight.

Then walked along the edge of Whale Bone Cove past the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth – a cast iron sailing ship. Crested Duck, Flightless Steamer Duck and Kelp Goose along the shore and lots of Upland Geese pairs and family parties scattered about over the heath behind. Light beginning to go now, but one group of geese looked different and I eventually got the scope on them and the book out and decided they were Ruddy-headed Goose. Several more flew in and joined them making about a dozen. They are smaller than the Upland Goose and, although rather like a female Upland, the chestnut on the head is very distinctly divided from the grey of the back and they have less white. Another couple of Hare in the same area.

Once I reached boxer bridge and crossed back to the Stanley side, it was just a long and rather unattractive slog back into town passing through the dock, container park, refuelling dock and other scenic spots. A siskin and another pair of Black-throated finch on wire fences were about all. Dark by the time I got back at 9:15. The GPS said that I had walked 9.5km. Well worth doing, despite the dodgy weather, but I could have done without bthe last 4km after crossing boxer bridge!