It is a sound we will never forget. Hundreds of King Penguins are clustered in an area demarcated by white-painted stones. Some stand tall, point their elegant bills to the sky and trumpet. It is how the males advertise their availability. And we are the only humans within a mile of the colony! Welcome to Volunteer Point in the Falkland Islands!
Volunteer point is home to the largest colony of King Penguins in the archipelago but they are not alone. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, upland and ruddy geese, turkey vultures, variable hawks, Falkland skuas, southern sea lions, and countless small birds also live here.
This is one of the most popular destinations for cruise ship passengers who are ferried from Stanley in fleets of dozens of Land Rovers. They spend a few hours with the wildlife and then leave.
We are very fortunate — we spend the night with the wardens, Derek and Trudi Pettersson. They have two guest rooms in their home, and staying overnight gives us the opportunity to photograph early in the morning and into the evening when the day trippers are gone, and we are alone, surrounded by thousands of birds.
Although it is only 45 miles away, it takes a grueling three hours from the capital, Stanley, to reach Volunteer Point. About half the trip is on a good dirt road but the last part is cross-country, over the peat and grass, bouncing through dips and gullies. The tires on Derek’s Land Rover (known as the Beast), are double the size of a normal wheel, making it a slightly smoother ride.
The scenery along the way is spectacular and includes massive rivers of rocks flowing down from the hills. The rock rivers, which date to the Ice Age, are believed to have been created by the constant freezing, thawing, and heaving of the land. No plants grow between them in this sparse land. They are a geological phenomenon of the Falkland Islands.
After leaving the settlement of Johnson’s Harbour, the track leads up a valley between Mt. Brisbane and North Lookout. When you reach the head of the valley, looking back across the Berkeley Sound to Wickham Heights provides magnificent views of the countryside.
After settling into one of the two cozy guest rooms (the bathroom is a shared facility), we walk out to the colony. Although the birds are used to having people about, there is a strict code of conduct. The King Penguin colony, as defined by the white rocks that encircle it, is out of bounds. You can sit on the ground just outside and wait for the birds to come to you.
In addition to the trumpeting males, the rookery is filled with the soft sound of young chicks piping. The smallest ones hide under the folds of the parents’ skin, sticking a head out to ask for food and diving down the parent’s throat for a glob of squid slime. The bigger chicks still try to get under the fold of skin although they usually end up with their head and tail sticking out on both sides of the adult.
As they grow the chicks develop brown downy plumage, making them look like powder puffs. They are sometimes known as “oakum boys” because their color resembles the oakum used to caulk ships in olden days. They look nothing like the adults.
Adult King Penguins look regal. Standing upright about three feet high, they have the traditional “tuxedo” of black back and white belly with bright orange ear patches around a black face, and orange-yellow fore neck. An orange “grin” line on the beak seems to give them a permanent smile.
Early in the morning, you can see groups of them waddling the half mile from the colony to the sea, where they fish or wash. If the light is right, their reflections in the wet sand are almost mirror images. Then they emerge from the water, all sleek and glistening, to start their trek back to the colony. The long white sandy beach and crystal clear blue water provide the perfect backdrop for photographs.
During mating season both males and females engage in an elaborate display of strutting and bobbing and high pointing when the two birds stand belly to belly and slowly rise to their full height.
Unlike other birds, the King penguin has an unusual breeding cycle with only two chicks born per pair in any three-year period. It takes 14-16 months to fledge a chick. The parents fully share the responsibilities, with one bird taking care of the egg or chick and the other going out fishing. When the chick is six weeks old, it is left in a creche while both parents go to sea to fish. As a result, the rookery is filled with birds of different ages.
The King penguins are very inquisitive. If you sit quietly on the ground just outside the colony, you can be certain that within a few minutes some of the male penguins will come over to see what you are. Some may even peck at your boots. It makes for excellent photographic opportunities.
As the sun sets we wander back to the warden’s house, where a peat fire warms the tiny living room, and a delicious lamb stew is on the table. Before going to bed we set our alarm for 5:30 am so that we will not miss the sunrise over the rookery. A truly magical experience!