Grand Jason was the first of my study sites, and probably the most intense chapter of the trip. Or maybe that should read ‘in-tents’, as our accommodation was exactly that.
The Jason Islands group are remote, even for Falklands’ standards, and require a plane, an overnight stay and then a multi-hour boat trip in calm conditions to reach them. But it’s worth it. As you approach, every one of the islands towers out of the sea (well, except Flat Jason…) and the waters come alive with seabirds: Wilson’s storm petrels, giant petrels, diving petrels, thin-billed prions, Falklands shags and black-browed albatross. It’s enough to make you want to stay on the water all day, but the birds swirling around the islands lure you towards the promises of the land.
After passing carefully through the reef with Elephant and South Jason islands on either side, Grand comes into view. The southeast corner appears to rise out of the sea in an imposing peak, but on closer inspection, a sheltered bay lies at its base. The perfect spot for dropping anchor and lugging all of our gear over the rocks and onto the gentle slope. Hundreds of kilos of kit later, we set up camp in the coastal fringe of tussac and, to avoid fires, designated a little rocky beach as the kitchen.
Tussac stands can grow up to 2m tall so can provide an excellent source of shelter from the weather. Wild gusts occasionally whipped down the hillside over our tents and towards the sea, but otherwise, we were fortunate with the conditions – the 90km gusts forecasted one night thankfully never materialised. But winds weren’t the only thing threatening our sleep. Tussac is a vital habitat for many species of birds which breed in, beneath or around the stands. This includes the loud, braying-like-donkeys Magellanic penguins which emerge from their burrows and sing their song from evening all through the night. And they have fleas. Fleas which find their way into your tent and will happily munch away on human skin. Coupled with uneven, sloping ground, you can imagine how easily sleep might evade you.
But what a privilege to be surrounded by so much amazing wildlife on an island which so few people get to visit, let alone live on for three weeks. Our meals in the kitchen were accompanied by a snoozing black-crowned night heron, endemic Cobb’s wrens, tiny teals, and occasionally a sea lion would pop by for a visit. A cleverly curious striated caracara, known locally as a Johnny rook, investigated our food store and decided it wasn’t a fan of peanut butter. Perhaps it just wanted the challenge of opening the jar with no hands. Kelp geese, endemic flightless steamer ducks and upland geese all paraded their chicks around us. And Magellan snipe and Wilson’s storm petrels fluttered like bats over our tents at night, the snipe ‘drumming’ with their tail feathers to attract a mate. Across the bay we could see gentoo penguins marching to and from the sea, always under the watchful eye of Falklands skuas, whilst giant petrels commandeered the flats beyond.
The star of the show, however, was ‘the colony’ on the southern edge. Only a 15-minute walk from camp, this became our second home. But it likely looked quite different a decade ago. In 2013, a wildfire ran through this part of the island. Incredible efforts from islanders managed to limit the damage to the island and the nesting seabirds – and I mean, really incredible given that the island is uninhabited and tens of kilometres by sea from the nearest tiny settlement – but still the flames took a good chunk of the tussac with it. Thankfully the tussac is regenerating but is yet to become the impenetrable wall that it once was.
As you approach the tussac edge, your appetite is whetted with circling black-browed albatross in the sky above the unknown landscape beyond. Inching closer, you can hear them – ecstatic cries of southern rockhopper penguins and the urgent squawks of the albatross. Then finally you can see the birds. A slope leading towards the sea, edges defined by tussac and everything within filled with birds. Evenly spaced, huge white albatrosses sit high on their pedestals, while small but mighty southern rockhoppers fill the gaps in between. Beyond the colony are more patches of birds. And more. And more. Scattered all along the southern coast of the island for about 4km.
Grand is the third largest black-browed albatross colony in the world, and you certainly get a sense of that from the top of the ridge. Once you’ve seen the size of an albatross up close, you can really put a sense of scale to the small patches of white birds edging the sea down below. Both albatross and rockhoppers are spread across the island, but the shags, the birds I was there to see, are only in one area. Thankfully, it was the patch closest to home. When you first reach the sloping colony, a steep scramble down through rocky tussac brings you to a large expanse of rocks and slabs, separating the birds from the ocean. This is a rockhopper highway, and often we’d have to wait a while for the penguins to pass us by, heading either to or from the ocean (wildlife always has right of way). As the days passed, and our visits to the colony increased, we became more rockhopper ourselves, learning the safest, quickest and driest routes to traverse the boulders, often scratched smooth from thousands of years of penguin traffic. At the other end lay another steep slope of rocky tussac, but atop is the bustle of another raucous colony. Albatross, rockhoppers and best of all, shags.
We were blessed with the most beautiful sunsets on Grand, and fortunately, the colony had the best view in the house. We’d often be there of an evening, waiting for our study birds to come home, and were rewarded generously for our overtime efforts. With nothing to interrupt the horizon for thousands of kilometres, fiery skies were filled with the unmistakeable silhouettes of albatross swarming through the colours of the rainbow. It was a real treat swapping the long, dark nights of a Scottish winter for long, sunny days of the south. Maybe I should do this more often.