Remember “The Wizard of Oz” where a house falls on the wicked witch? On Saunders Island, as gale-force winds and rain blast our shelter, it seems as if we are about to be swooped into the sky.
We are at The Neck, a tiny isthmus of land linking a series of hills on the west side of the largest island in the Falklands Archipelago. Getting here requires an hour-long Land Rover drive over spine-rearranging, steep, rocky, boggy terrain from the Settlement, home to Sue and David Poole-Evans and their daughters.
Our home for the next two days is a green shipping container bolted to the side of the hill with thick cables that are straining and shaking in the wind. The carpeted inside is very basic but quite cozy — two bedrooms with double bunk beds, a common living area, and kitchen, with a gas stove to cook on, a bathroom with shower. This is a self-catering accommodation so you can either have meals sent out from Stanley or buy supplies at the tiny store in the settlement. We opt to buy our supplies — baked beans, bread, envelopes of Cup O’Soup, macaroni.
This may well be one of the most isolated places on earth but we love it. There is no better place to observe and photograph the wildlife.
The next morning the sun is shining through broken clouds. It is still windy but at least the rain has stopped. For the next 14 hours we are out with the thousands of birds that make this remote part of the island their home.
A short walk downhill from the cabin is an area that has been cordoned off. Several pairs of king penguins live here. A few have chicks, peeking out from under the belly skin of the parent, periodically cheeping for food. One king penguin has an egg. We watch as the parents trade responsibilities. This is a very dangerous time for the egg (or the chick). There is a lot of trumpeting and posturing to warn off others as the two birds move belly to belly, providing protection from any interested skua, then carefully roll the egg from the feet of one penguin to the other. The operation finished, the relieved parent regally saunters down to the beach to fish.
The isthmus is a windswept, sandy beach that is an ideal breeding ground for Gentoo and Magellanic penguins. They spend the day scurrying back and forth from the water. A large Rockhopper colony is located on the cliffs, interspersed with Imperial Shags. Higher up the hill is a Black-browed Albatross colony.
Here you can sit at the base of the cliff and photograph the rockhoppers as they jump down the cliff, wash in the rock pools and pop into the sea. Many will stop to examine you before proceeding on their way. The rockhoppers move out to sea in large numbers in the morning and return late in the afternoon, dolphining through the waves in a seething mass before hopping onto the shore and marching back up to the colony.
Clumps of sea cabbage dot the sand where the incoming tide has deposited various species of jellyfish, including one that is at least two feet in diameter. A pod of about 10 Commerson’s dolphins surf offshore, while seals linger in the giant kelp, waiting for a careless penguin. This spot is also popular with large numbers of wading birds, including oystercatchers, as well as varieties of gulls, geese and others.
There are large numbers of scavengers including giant petrels and striated caracaras. On one of the days that we are at the Neck, a BBC film crew (Steve Backshall “Deadly Pole to Pole”) turns up to film a documentary on the striated caracaras, which are actually very intelligent birds.
An American graduate student, Melissa Bobowski, is studying the birds, under the auspices of Keith Bildstein, Director of Conservation Science at the Sarkis Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, PA. They are tagging the birds to see if they migrate as well as studying their behavior. They set up three enrichment games that force the birds to figure out a puzzle in order to retrieve a piece of meat. As we watch, the birds pull on string, open boxes and peck at containers. The first time it takes them 18 minutes to figure out how to reach the meat. By the fifth time, they are doing it in 4 minutes.
The caracaras love hot water so every time we turned on the tap in the kitchen, groups of them congregate by the drain, soaking their feet in the warmth. There are about 40 of them around the area, watching carefully to see if we are careless with our lens caps or hats which, given half a chance, they will whisk off.
Although they seem very endearing, these are still birds of prey. We watch as one attacks a young rockhopper. It is more than I can stand to see, so we shoo it away. But this raises an interesting dilemma. If we were not here, the rockhopper would have been killed; So what do you do when you see an attack on a cute little penguin? Scare away the predators or let nature take its course?
After our stay at the Neck, we are driven to the other side of the island where there is another similar, but slightly larger, cabin, the Rookery. This one is located high on a cliff top, about a 30 minute hike across heath-land and diddle-dee bushes from an enormous rookery of black-browed albatross. The rookery is on top of high cliffs that drop straight down into the sea; these can be quite dangerous on a windy day. You can sit in a hollow amongst the birds and photograph them with the chicks, preening, maintaining their nests, greeting each other.
A bit further along the cliff top are the imperial shags and rockhoppers. The path which they take down to the water is steep and slippery but it is still possible to find your way down to the water’s edge where the rockhoppers like to bathe in a small waterfall. Unfortunately, the days we are there, the wind is simply blowing too hard to risk rock-climbing on a wet cliff face.
In addition to being a working sheep farm, Saunders Island also has a place in history. It was home to the first British base in the Falkland Islands, at Port Egmont, about a 30 minute walk from the present-day settlement. The remains of the settlement are still visible as are the newly restored graves of British defenders killed in a 1769 battle with the Spanish.
We spend our final night on Saunders Island at the Settlement where we are able to feast on freshly laid eggs. After four days of eating out of jars and cans, these are an unbelievable treat! Spending time on this island turns you into an uber-conservationist. We are on an island the size of Manhattan with only about a half-dozen people and millions of birds. It is a privilege to be able to live in their world, watching them go about their business without another human in sight.
IF YOU GO
There are very limited accommodations on Saunders Island. Reservations must be made direct with Sue and David Poole-Evans at email@example.com.