Monday, March 1, 2010

Volunteer Point Long Overdue

A warning before you read this post it is very, very photo heavy. Two weekends ago the children and I headed out to Volunteer Point, John unfortunately was unable to come with us as he was on duty. Volunteer Point is named after the ship Volunteer which called at the Islands in 1815, it is to the north of East Falkland. Part of Johnson's Harbour Farm owned by the Berkeley Sound Sheep Farming Company Ltd, it is one of the largest surviving privately owned farms in the Falklands. Volunteer beach is 2 miles long with white sandy beaches bordered by high grassy banks leading down to rolling greens. We headed out there by helicopter but you can go out by road however, due to the softness of the peat it is apparently a challenge even to the most skilled off road drivers.
On the way out we saw HMS Clyde out on patrol. A big thank you to all who have sent us messages asking how things are down here due to the oil search, but we are fine and no one is worried about the situation. I think as per usual the press are making a mountain out of a mole hill and stirring up the situation.

Almost as soon as we walked down onto the beach we came across our first sight of the King Penguins. Euan is trying to show you roughly how high they are. The colony at Volunteer Point is the largest breeding group of King Penguins within the Falkland Islands, where they are at the northerly limit of their global range. Now here comes the history bit. In 1769 Thomas Pennant, who brought the first specimen away from the Falklands, called it the Patagonian Penguin. Early records suggest that the numbers were never very high at Volunteer Point, and by 1870 they had been almost exterminated from the islands, killed for their oil and beautiful feathers. However, by 1971 they had returned with about 30 incubating adults and nine chicks present. Today there are more than 1,000 breading adults and over 500 chicks being raised each year. The world population is estimated at 1.2 million and they breed at South Gerogia, the Crozet Islands and Kerguelen, Heard and Macquarie Islands.

On the beach there are plenty of skulls and bones to keep even the most hyper ative boy happy. Euan was desperate to bring this one home but thankfully I played the conservation card which states you cannot remove any fossils, stones or sheeps skulls from the island on which they have been found without written consent!

The kings are definitely the grandest of the penguins species. They look like smart waiters with their straight backs and dinnersuit style markings. The yellow on the faces really is striking and almost neon. When you get close to the penguins, their heads have an almost iridescent quality about it and it looks green underneath. Their coats really do shimmer in the sun even without any water on them.

They walk in a very grand manor with their heads generally held high and don't scurry about like alot of the other penguins. They were not at all worried about us on the beach. As I was shooting one set of penguins I got so engrossed in what I was doing I almost didn't see a group that walked right infront of me and I could have reached out and touched them.

I find the children love to see the new species of penguin but soon get bored with Mummy taking yet more pictures, Euan tends to head off beach combing and the girls either create sand angels or build and draw in the sand. You can usually guarantee that Euan will also be knee deep in the water at some stage of the trip. Hopefully not early on otherwise it becomes a rather painful outing for all concerned when the chill sets in. On a good day I even still get a hug which is rather nice.

This particular pair seemed to be very happy to be reunited and starting a kissing routine. The penguin on the right was much taller than any of the others in the group and he certainly seemed to rule the roost with the younger penguins.

What you cannot tell from these photos is the roaring wind that was blowing. You cannot hear anything that people say unless you are within five foot of them. Maddie seemed in a world of her own and it took her a while to realise we had stopped to watch her wander down the beach. Of course as soon as she did realise we were treated to her usual energetic display of dance and craziness.

You have to be very careful not to corral the penguins onto the beach or to panic them into the sea. We haven't seen it yet but at some of the islands the killer whales have been seen taking the penguins straight from the surf.

We were very lucky during the day as there was only two rain showers passing through. The helicopter drops you at the island's house where you can drop your sleeping bags and rucksacks off (these have to be carried on all flights). Further down the point after about a 20 minute walk there is a porta cabin with loos and a fire so you can get out of the rain and warm up for a bit. We stopped in there to have a spot of lunch and collected a few leaflets about the island.
Alot of time is spent watching on the islands and you get lost in your own thoughts as the wind and sand whips around you. I definitely believe that the sea does your soul good and the kids seem to benefit from it as well.

Just past the port cabin is the King Penguin Colony. They have about a 0.3 mile walk up from the beach to reach it. The colony itself has been marked off with white stones by the Falklands Conservation Group and it is the recommended distance from which to view the birds. In truth the birds are not frightened by you at all. They are wary but will happily move about around you on their way up and down. Many congregate outside the circle in small select groups. There were quite a few Magellanic mixed in with the Kings.

The kids found this particular penguin hilarious as he looked like he had been beheaded. He must have spent around 20 minutes like this without moving.

This is a juvenile penguin and is probably about one year old. They will loose their soft brown plummage by their second summer and will then be able to fend for themselves spending up to the next three years at sea. They will return back to Volunteer when they are around 4-6 years old. This particular penguins reminded Euan of Chubaka from Star Wars.

One egg is incubated on the feet of the penguin and this is the critical stage as if they are disturbed the egg can be lost by rolling off the feet. There were lots of penguin eggs around the colony border which the host explained are probably from immature pairs who are in their first year of breeding.

The breeding cycle of a King Penguin takes longer than one year, meaning that a pair can only rear two chicks in any three year period. The brood period is for 34 days and the parents take alternative shifts lasting 4-9 days with one caring for the chick while the other feeds at sea. The guard period is when a chick is never left unattended during this phase, which lasts around 35 days. During the winter the chicks stay onland in creches whilst the adults embark on extended foraging trips, as far south as Antarctica, returning only infrequently to feed the chick. During this time the chick will lose up to half of its body weight, relaying on the fat reserves it has built during the summer for survival.

Above you can see the young chicks warming their heads under their parents roll. Below you can see some of the adults sat on their eggs.

The penguin eggs are quite large as you can see in Maddie's hand. Some of the families down here have been fortunate (or unfortunate apparently) to have scrambled eggs made with them. They are supposed to have a blue tint to them. I am not sure I would want to try them as with all eggs here you don't know when they have been laid. (Our chicken eggs can be up to four months old in the families shop!)

OOOh and look they can be nice to each other sometimes! It was so windy they had to prop each other up to stay still for the shot.

Ellie is about half way down the beach here so it should give you some idea how far the penguins have to travel to get to the top of the dunes. They then have a similar distance to make it to the colony.

This particular King was quite interested in Ellie and spent a while wandering around and checking her out.

After several hours on the ground and a rather chilly exposed wait it was time for us to head home on the heli.It is usually a fight to see who sits in the window seat so we are having to go on a rota. The kids are rather relaxed on the heli trips now and know the routine for getting on and putting on their ear defenders and seat belts.
So much so that Ellie fell promptly asleep only five minutes into the flight. It might have been something to do with the sleep over the night before or all that fresh sea air. I know I was certainly very sleepy when we got home.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Chick,

    Love the pictures. What an experience! I didn't see Fergus rounding them up, I guess dogs don't get to do helo rides. His pal here is getting in lots of practice at chicken harassment. He's still waiting to catch one outside the pen, although he will probably be homeless if he succeeds!

    Tell John not to miss the game next weekend.

    Take care,