My third site for the season was Saunders Island. Off the northwest of West Falkland, the flight from Stanley took about an hour and I got to ride up front with the pilot, which always feels like a treat. The landscapes became more rugged and dramatic as we flew west, with cliffs and mountains rising from the turquoise waters and large ponds breaking up miles and miles of diddledee. Occasionally we’d spot sheep or an isolated shepherd’s hut but not a road in sight.
On arrival we grabbed the food boxes from storage which I’d had shipped out in advance, and Amandine, who’d arrived a few days earlier, joined us as we made our way to the Neck, a wide flat area with beautiful white sand beaches to the north and south, a hill on either side and penguins everywhere. We were taken to the ‘Swiss Hotel’, a huge overhanging rock on the hillside which provided a good shelter for cooking whilst we set up our tents on the flattest spots we could find nearby. But as you can probably imagine, being on the side of a hill not much is flat at all. The slope, along with the cold wind threatening to break poles or blow us down to the sea, meant that it wasn’t the best sleep I ever had. The view, however, was breath taking and it claimed the title of the most beautiful spot I’ve ever pitched a tent. The setting sun painted the clouds above the opposite hill a warm peach, penguins lined the beach below and littered the hillside around us, and waves crashed against the shore, almost drowning out the noise of the magellanics and the wind. Almost.
It was a slow start to deployments. The campsite was a couple of km walk from the colony, down one hillside then back up another, and after the first night’s camping we weren’t our most sprightly or organised. The second morning brought rain, so I stayed wrapped in my sleeping bag until the sky started to clear. By day three we could finally have a full morning with the shags. The afternoons were spent sampling skuas, black-browed albatross and rockhoppers. I was surprised to discover that albatross, despite looking like big chunky birds, are actually just clouds of feathers. The colony sits on the side of a hill overlooking the beach providing a stunning view, particularly on a sunny day when the colour of the sea just popped. During recaptures the weather was especially kind – almost too kind to the poor fieldworker sweltering beneath many bird-proof layers – and in the rolling swell below commerson’s dolphins could be seen surfing the crystal-clear waves.
The shags breed amongst southern rockhoppers, as they do in many colonies around the islands, and we were very lucky to spot an unusual visitor amongst them. As we were cautiously edging our way down the rocky slope to reach the shags at the bottom, Amandine stopped me in my tracks as the rockhopper hopping its way up the hill with ease was different to all the rest. Instead of short yellow plumes sticking out behind its head, it rocked a surfer-dude look with long plumes cascading down to its shoulders. A northern rockhopper, usually found breeding in Tristan de Cunha almost 4,000 km northeast of the Falklands. Occasionally one or two appear in the Falklands but they’re very much a rare treat, so we were incredibly fortunate to stumble upon it.
As well as rare rockhoppers, I was pleased to be able to spend some time with the small colony of king penguins. A few were incubating eggs while the rest were in various stages of moult, each looking as itchy and uncomfortable as the next. Their beautiful crisp colouration (and the extra fluffy bits) make them very photogenic birds, which is just as well because behaviourally, they didn’t do much other than preen and stand about. But it’s because of this that I’ve decided kings are my soul-penguin. The other species are far too energetic for me to relate to.
All the colonies I’ve visited previously have been in walking distance of my accommodation, but Saunders is so massive that to visit every colony requires either an off-road day trip from the settlement, or a switch up in accommodation to bring you closer to the birds. The colonies I tagged in were at the Neck, but there are others scattered around the island which I was keen to count. Whilst at the Neck I took a sunny hike out west to Elephant Point where I came across an unexpected colony nestled into the rocks at the end of the island but ran out of time and energy to find the colony I’d actually set out to count at the Holy City. After all my tags had been deployed, we moved back to the settlement from where we took a trip to the south of the island. This was very much an off-road drive and seemed to take us all day. The colony there had moved in recent years, and we found the birds settled on a very steep hillside, making for an interesting scramble in oversized wellies. Another day trip took me north to the Rookery. As well as counting shags in the much more accessible colonies there, I spent a bit of time at the infamous ‘rockhopper shower’. A small stream of freshwater runs down the hill and off an overhanging rock on the rockhopper’s route up from the sea. It provides the perfect stop for a drink and to wash salt from their feathers.
During my first week on the island I’d packed, unpacked and moved between four types of accommodation, though thankfully everything else was more comfortable than the tent. This added to the exhaustion of having worked every day for the past 30 days, so by the time Christmas rolled round I was glad for a couple of days of proper not-even-thinking-about-shags rest. There was still prep to do for the next site, but with all tags retrieved, it was nice to hide from the wind and catch up a little with home.
Christmas brought with it an unexpected visitor in a red jacket. No, not Santa. The island had their first Christmas day cruise visit, with the guests of the Hertigruten Roald Amundsen hopping ashore at the Neck. The landowners go out to meet and greet the guests, so on this occasion I went with them. One of my friends from Handa, a Scottish island very close to my heart, happened to be on the boat volunteering for PenguinWatch, so it was wonderful to spend the afternoon catching up with him, helping him survey the gentoos and meeting his colleagues. The weather was absolutely miserable, with rain and howling wind which only stopped after they left of course, but it failed to dampen anyone’s spirits.