Tag Archives: falklands

Black-browed beauties

In my last post here I talked about my high levels of excitement when spending a number of days photographing King Penguins during the course of my visit to the Falklands last year. They were only half of the story though in terms of my anticipation – the other half belonging fairly and squarely with the chance to spend some time in and among breeding Albatross.

There are 22 species of albatross, some 17 of which are classified as globally threatened.  They are the ultimate sea-faring birds, spending huge amounts of their lives flying across the roughest seas of the planet, those that wrap themselves above the continent of Antarctica.  They are the stuff of legends (think Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner) and for a long-term bird lover before taking it up professionally photographically, a further rite of passage.

During the 3 week trip, I had planned for us to visit two colonies of Black-browed Albatross, the predominant species of the Falklands and where some 70% of the worlds population actually breed. The first of these, the ice-breaker if you like, was a reasonably small colony but nicely located one and planned on a day when there would be no other visitors so we had the place completely to ourselves; it was on the island of West Point.  After a short walk from the landing point with the local warden we reached the brow of a hill and looked down to the gathering below, perched almost perfectly on top of a dramatic coast line.

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Like a white scar cutting through the surrounding tussock grass, an array of birds were perched on their cone-like nests, intermingled with Rockhopper Penguins filling in the spaces it seemed, all seemingly calling or clacking their beaks at each other; looking up the perfect early summer sky was full of gliding birds as well – all in all a truly uplifting sight.

After initially taking the scene in I felt I really needed some time to simply soak up what I had come to experience – we were going to be here all day so there was no rush – and so I made my way through some of the tunnels in the tussock grass to an extreme edge of the colony and found a single bird sitting patiently and simply sat down.  My camera stayed in the bag for a full 30 minutes or so as I simply absorbed where I was and just how special it felt to be sharing this small corner of a remote island in the south Atlantic with this stunning bird.  Who knows how far it had flown in its life to date – countless thousands of miles no doubt – or what weather and conditions it had experienced too; for now it was just the two of us here on the cliff top and both seemingly totally at ease with each other too. The camera dod come out of the bag eventually and I was treated to some great wide-angle images, an attempt on my part to really give a sense of just what it felt like to share this time and space.

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As with all of the birdlife here, fear of human presence didn’t really seem to come into play so providing I showed respect and acted sensibly all the birds here remained very relaxed at all times.

The skies above were full of birds gliding too and fro and given a combination of their low flight paths and huge wing spans of some 2.5 metres I found myself in the unusual position of using a wide-angle lens to photograph them in flight too!

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Throughout the day I found myself watching as much as photographing, enjoying the opportunity to capture simple portraits, little aspects of behaviour such as grooming, and given the incredible bonds that these birds have once they have committed to being a pair for life, the high levels of affection they demonstrated towards each other too.

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West Point was an amazing place to spend the day with these beautiful birds – their naming extremely clear given the subtle striping across their eyes.  It was though just the appetiser, because 24 hours later, given the opening in the weather that I had planned in hope for basing us at this western edge of the Falklands for a number of days to allow it to come, I was again on a boat and headed to the far north-west of the archipelago, a journey of some 6 or 7 hours, and to the remote and uninhabited island of Steeple Jason.  This is a place that has long been very high indeed on my bucket list; it’s a challenge to get to (the boat journey is pretty much head on into the prevailing winds and they most certainly can blow down here, although local boatman Michael Clarke did a great job of getting us there and back safely – thanks) and totally uninhabited.  With permission and accompanied by Rob McGill, the warden responsible for it though, we had a 48 hour opportunity to visit what is home to the largest colony of Black-browed Albatross in the world – some 200,000 pairs.

The shape of the island is testament to its location and the weather it has to cope with, it’s narrow high escarpment cutting down its centre like the scales standing proud on a dinosaurs spine.

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Head to its westerly end though and after battling through the surrounding tussock grass, the sight (and sound)  of the colony is simply breathtaking.

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There are birds here as far as you can see – all of the white in the above shots are birds on the ground and in the same density as those in the foreground.  A walk around the edge of the tussock grass you can see edging the colony here simply revealed more and more over the horizon and wrapping off towards the far side of the crags.

When faced with monumental choice like this it is very easy to be overwhelmed photographically.  My first thoughts, and appreciating just how lucky we clearly were being in terms of the clear blue skies, was to capture the bigger picture – the setting and scale of these first two images.  Sticking with the setting which is equally as breathtaking I then concentrated on some contextual portraits as well as looking to isolate individual birds with both long and short lenses, looking to work as creatively as I could with the light and angles available.

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Before I knew it the sun was starting to set, warming the light but also casting shadows across the colony too so after one last set of shots it was time to retire briefly to the research hut and among the food that we had brought out with us the somewhat surreal option of Waitress frozen cheesecakes among the fare!

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Sleep for me was brief, such was the level of adrenalin still flowing, and as the sun rose a few short hours later, we made our way round to the other side of the island to work with the new days light direction – effectively the other end of the colony.  Again it involved a walk through the tussock grass (it is mostly over 3 metres high so a tussle to get through in places) and as this cleared and the rest of the colony was revealed the true scale of this place really hit home.

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The white stripe here that is stretching out and round the far distant point is all breeding Albatross.  The previous afternoon had been spent round the corner and none of these birds had been visible at all – they are all additional!  The total colony stretches some two and a half miles around the coast here, and look in the far distance and you can see how it is starting to stretch up the side of the hill too.  I have been lucky enough to visit some amazing seabird colonies in my life but nothing like this!

As the sun crept up into the sky, gradually lighting the colony, it was back to work with the combination of lenses looking to capture place, work with said light and isolate behaviour.

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The interaction process is not only a reinforcement of the bonds of a relationship, but for the first season ashore in adulthood it is actually a process birds go through in terms of finding and selecting a life-long partner so it is a serious business of courtship too and a joy to watch.

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Before I knew it it was mid-day (time flies so fast when you are completely absorbed) and time to leave: my 24 hours here was done and the long boat trip back awaited.  After one last shot of the truly amazing scene the return journey was one full of reflection – what an experience, what a sight, what a stunning spectacle of the natural world and more than that what a privilege to have been able to experience it.  Now I just can’t wait to go back: the birds will be returning to their colonies about now but for me it’ll be another 12 months until I get to go back but it’s most certainly worth waiting for.

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Kings of the Beach

Well that seems to be another summer that’s gone.  It’s been a really busy one and I’ve been away for most of it but a return to home and the office for a few weeks not only offers the opportunity to catch up with the mountains of administration that all walks of life necessitate, but also some time to try to get stuck into a mountainous backlog of processing.

It seems apt to be looking at some stuff from the tail end of last year since it’s the season that lies immediately ahead once again, and the 3 weeks in question spent in the Falkland Islands were among the highlights of the last year as a whole:  they are an archipelago deeply rooted in the memories of my generation for sure.

Part of the anticipation of the trip was that I have always held a belief, as a long time bird enthusiast and of seabirds in particular, that to spend some time photographing what I called a proper penguin (king or emperor – the immediately identifiable ones I guess) and time in a large albatross colony were a rite of passage that I needed to go through.  Emperors still await (that would/will hopefully be my dream trip) but the Falklands promised both these opportunities and in putting the itinerary together for the group I had travelling with me I had ensured we had a good amount of time to really focus on these south Atlantic specialists.

The king penguin has made a really steady increase in numbers here and although focussed almost exclusively in one location, Volunteer Point, numbers are now in the order of 1000 breeding pairs.  This is nothing compared to the monster colonies of South Georgia but is still very impressive and I was really excited all the way through the 3 hour drive from Stanley for the first of four days to be spent there in the course of the trip.  The last 2 hours of his were spent navigating the bogs that make up the majority of the islands it seems and I was very grateful to the 4WD and expert driving of Nobby who was looking after us for these journeys.  It wasn’t the best of weather but I was like a teenager with a new toy as we settled on the beach after arriving, back into the wind and rain and my very first king penguin in front of me at last!Blog 1

Pretty soon there were a pair, one in the sea and small groups gathering on the shore too and things were well and truly underway.

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It was clear that the time here was going to be all I had hoped for and more.  I have always believed that when putting trips together it is better to spend a really good amount of time at the best locations rather than try to go everywhere and end up undergoing things at the places that are working best.  All it needs is a bad or disappointing day and that could be it as nowhere works perfectly all the time.  This proved to be a good call here as over the course of the four full days spent at Volunteer there were not only a myriad of different opportunities as a consequence, the time needed anywhere to really get under the surface of the place and how it works behaviour and timing-wise, but it also allowed time for the weather conditions to change and offer variety in terms of lighting too, and although the bright overcast light worked well there were different images to be gleaned when the sun came out.

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It almost looks tropical with that sea colour!

The breeding cycle of the King Penguin is almost unique in that they take over a year to raise their young and as a result are only able to breed in 2 out of each 3 years.  This means that at almost any time of the year you will find birds in an array of stages of the breeding cycle in the colony and so there were groups of breeding adults but also sub-adults coming into their second year, fully fledged and just preparing to head out to sea for the first time and for pretty much the next 10 -12 months.  It meant that the beach was a busy place of birds coming in and going out but also gathering to socialise.

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At times it looked like they were almost on some sort of military parade and some of the grouping really did take on an array of anthropomorphic characteristics well worthy of caption competitions.

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They were also very curious indeed as Sue found out!

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A few hundred metres inland from the white sands of the beach was the main colony and here there were an array of different stages of the breeding cycle to be discovered with some already standing on freshly laid eggs, some late youngsters from the previous year, one year olds who hadn’t quite got the courage to leave the creche area yet and some adults in their “between breeding” spell undergoing a full moult; a process that takes around a month during which time they basically stay ashore in the colony full time.

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These ranked masses provided a whole new context from an image perspective and I was really glad on the last day when the wind changed direction and they faced the right way for these large group shots: they reminded me of the warriors guarding the emperors tomb in ancient China. Mind you I don’t think he would have wanted any guards looking as scruffy and unkempt as those mid-moult did.

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The youngsters were equally lacking in the general cuteness stakes at this time of year and even when put side by side with an adult which confirmed the similarities in terms of conformation it was hard to imagine that in just a few weeks time they too would moult and turn into their prettier elder relatives.

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Given his shape it was equally hard to believe that this particular one had had too much of a hard time in the juveniles creche while its parents were at sea fishing for it in the winter that had not long finished.

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Those mid -moult and transition to adulthood looked the most peculiar and at times they would pounce on an unsuspecting adult in a quest for food too, one that was turned down as they were on their own now.

Blog 14aBlog 15Mind you there were occasional spats between adults too. One minute they would be standing there seemingly at peace in their interaction then one would stand up on its toes to show off its height and slap the other.  It was very comical to watch but only occasionally did a more aggressive beak prod take place and the surprise of the victim was clear to see.

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Mind you it wasn’t long before they had kissed and made up.

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Whenever I spend any time with any large, numerate and extremely approachable subject I am always keen to pull together a number of more intimate portraits as well as behavioural and environmental images and the combination of settings and therefore backgrounds gave additional opportunities to do this.

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In the last of these he was catching a quick 40 winks and I loved the way he did so with his feet in the air and his tail spread on the ground to stop him falling over.

The weather in the Falklands is capable of changing very quickly and it’s also a place where the wind blows almost incessantly too.  As a consequence there was plenty of time spent sheltering in the hut on the beach when the downpours were just too much, but they never lasted too long as the wind always seemed to blow them through quickly enough and on a couple of occasions when the rain stopped and the sun came out the resulting storm light was simply breathtaking and a great chance to use the Lee Grad filters I had been kindly given by them to try out before the trip.  These are some of my favourite images of the total trip, the combination of light, blowing sand and a stunning subject was quite breathtaking and I hope they do the moments justice.

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When this light coincided with low tide there were also a few fleeting reflections on the beach to be found too.

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My time at Volunteer Point well and truly lived up to all my expectations and it’s a place I am equally as excited to be looking to revisit towards the end of next year when I will be running a trip there for Natures Images once again.

I hope to cover the second rite of photographic passage here in another blog in the next week or so but in the meantime the final word for this one has to be with the undoubted king of this particular beach.

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