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Anything but bleak

It seemed that I was to keep the windy weather with me for the rest of my time in the Falklands. Although in fairness, this is exactly what to expect from the furious fifties. As the passenger arriving on Carcass Island got off the plane looking rather green, I was a little apprehensive about my flight to Bleaker Island – my stomach is sensitive at the best of times – but thankfully, at the worst it was a little bumpy. Or perhaps my seat up front with a friendly pilot and cracking views across the islands was enough to distract me until we touched down.

One of FIGAS' eight-seater planes; a lifeline for connecting the islands

Bleaker Island is a working farm with wildlife and sustainability at its heart. The island is long, flat, and on the other side of the country to the Jasons it certainly felt a world away. Any incline was slight and gentle, and the rugged terrain of the west was in places replaced with carefully grazed carpets. A small herd of cows and the ubiquitous merino sheep kept things neat and tidy.

Map of Bleaker Island showing location of the settlement (house), landing strip (plane) and shag colony (bird). Inset shows the Falklands archipelago with Bleaker highlighted by a circle

My home on this island was a static caravan. It was a treat to have the space to myself and I immediately set about claiming every surface with equipment and samples. The best feature of my new home, however, was the proximity to the shag colony. A mere four minutes’ walk to the east – a few minutes more in a head wind – and there they were. One of the Falklands’ largest shag colonies nestled half a kilometre inland. An unusual move for a coastal bird but a welcome sight for me. This would be my quickest and easiest commute yet.

The shag colony winding towards the red-roofed settlement just metres away

Walking to the colony, shags whizzed past my head in streams, making the most of a clear path through the settlement towards the sea. A daily spectacle. Once through the gate keeping the birds safe from the livestock, the noise picked up. If the wind hadn’t been howling, the honking would have been deafening. Over 4,000 nests sat alongside the farm track, framed by diddle-dee heathland. Some late or failed breeders sat tight on their nests, keeping their precious eggs warm and hidden from view. But for many, the parents could no longer fit on their nests, their broods large and despite their best efforts, were too big for the nest themselves. Chicks were spilling out, exploring their surroundings, and snuggling for safety with their siblings and neighbours. The colony was a riot, and a thrill to witness.

Shag chicks now outnumber the adults

Fluffy shag chicks gather in creches away from their trampled nests whilst parents work hard to keep hungry mouths full

With so much life comes death, however. The track leading past the colony was scattered with the hollowed-out shells of chicks who never made it past the nest. The feast is for the brown skuas who patiently sit alongside the colony, waiting for the perfect opportunity to relieve a vulnerable nest of its contents. The dolphin gulls, with their conspicuously red bills, loiter behind the skuas, hoping for leftovers. It’s always a challenge to see predation in action. We felt the sting and worry of it on Grand Jason as we watched sea lions pick off potentially-tagged rockhoppers as they returned from the sea. But these interactions in nature are exactly what makes ecosystems so dynamic and fascinating. And ultimately, it’s what keeps them all going.

Brown skuas fiercely defend territories along the outside of the shag colony

Beyond the shags, skuas and honey-scented nassauvia is a coastal fringe of tussac fenced off from the grazers. The landowners are trying to bolster this important habitat, and the newly planted stands have settled in well. Still at a manageable height, a path weaves through the fronds to the rocky coast and the rockhoppers. Several small colonies spread south, sheltered by the tussac edge. The fluffy chicks all gathered together in creches. Many enjoyable hours were spent watching them scurry around after each other, jumping into the air in sudden bursts before splaying out face down on the rocks to regain some energy. It seems to be the favoured sleeping style of all penguin chicks, but can be quite unsettling until you realise they are not, in fact, all dead.

A rockhopper chick takes a nap in the corpse position

A rockhopper penguin catching droplets of rain in its bill during a shower. A relatable joy

Did I mention that it was windy? And it always seemed to be a head wind, which made going anywhere exhausting. I allowed myself to begin recuperating on Bleaker, so my explorations were limited. The sea lions and the southern half of the island would have to wait until next year. But I couldn’t miss a visit to the iconic mile-long Sandy Bay. I took the long way round, exploring the coast above the low cliffs. They gradually dropped down to white sand which contrasted dramatically with moody skies. Interrupting the blue-green ocean, white surf broke along the beach’s entirety. These breaking waves along the shore are what gave the island its name – Bleaker was actually Breaker until a probable typo on a map shifted it to what it’s known as today.

The islands’ namesake breakers at Sandy Bay

As I walked along the top of the sand, I frequently had to give way to penguins. Magellanics warily wandered from their burrows towards the sea whilst gentoos hobbled their way towards their colonies. At the top of the beach I sat on a rock and watched as penguins appeared as if from nowhere, surfing the waves and leaping into the shallows. A visiting king penguin dozed among a gathering of magellanics. The residents tested the king’s patience as they poked at this curiously large creature. But it’s chosen spot was clearly worth the bother as the king refused to find a more peaceful place to nap.

Gentoo penguins emerge from the surf as if from nowhere

A lone king penguin being harassed by a magellanic

Despite the generally boggy landscape across the Falklands, one feature which I hadn’t yet come across elsewhere was the existence of ponds. And with ponds came waterbirds. There were ducks and geese a plenty. Outnumbering the now-familiar upland geese were the bizarrely shaped ruddy-headed geese, and I finally got to glimpse Chiloe widgeon and silver teal. Swans, grebes and flying steamer ducks can be seen on the main pond during calm days. Perhaps I’ll be lucky to spot them all next year.

A ruddy headed goose having a stretch

By the time the sunset rolled round, I was often well and truly settled in my pjs for the evening. But if I learnt anything on this first visit to the islands, it’s that the Falklands does sunsets exceptionally well. In the spirit of making the most of the trip, as my time in the South Atlantic neared its end, I dragged myself out for one final sundown. And it was worth every wind-blasted second.

A complete sei whale skeleton bathed in the evening sun

Falklands shags roosting on the old pier at sunset

1 Comment

Peter Young
Peter Young
Oct 14, 2023

I have many happy memories of Bleaker Island and its residents. Thanks for reviving them. Also got to see black-necked swans there and whales just offshore. But a highlight was watching about 4000 shags taking off at dawn for a day's fishing. Like a mass scramble of fighter planes heading off to do battle with an incoming invasion fleet. Thanks for sharing.

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