Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Falkland Island Chronicals- some birds that actually fly in the air.

I realize that all of the birds described so far in the Falkland Islands, well,  don't fly in the air.  Penguins fly in the water.  So, it is time to highlight the conventional flyers. There were some I expected to see, and a few surprises.

The first birds to "greet" us at Saunders Island were a mob of Striated Caracara. They are pretty unafraid of humans and always on the lookout for a hand out. This guy was just feet away.

Our hosts often feed them, and they always finished off any leftovers from our meals. That may offend some, but it does reduce their preying on the hapless penguin chicks. When one of our members left his tripod outside unattended, one Caracara began to chew on the padding on the tripod legs.  They will try to eat backpacks, hats and just about anything other than a rock.

The other bird that preys on the nesting birds is the Skua.

When I walked too near one of their ground nests, the male got very aggressive.

Both Skua and Caracara regularly harass the nesting birds with close flight passes, as seen below. This is a colony of King Cormorants.  If the parent is startled and lifts up, the chick may be grabbed.  They will also form a mob to overwhelm a given nest.

Among the most graceful, elegant flyers are the Black-browed Albatrosses.  They are big  - 31 inches long with a whopping 95-inch wingspan.  Imagine one effortlessly soaring just a few feet over your head. That is one of my most unforgettable experiences of the trip.

They were not shy and would often approach closely, if I was sitting on the ground. If resting along a trail, they would silently mark your passing with a stoic gaze.

When we arrived, many of the Black-browed Albatross were beginning courtship.  They would posture and preen. It appeared that the pair bonds were not always firmly formed yet, as one would notice a rival and decide to pursue that opportunity.  They all looked alike to me, but the birds obviously saw more than I did.

But, the bonds do become firm and nesting begins with construction of a nest. When finished, the nest often was so uniform (as seen below on right) that it could have been formed on a pottery wheel.

Now, the albatross is a  famous wanderer of the open ocean, only coming to land to breed. There is another fabled wanderer that did make a few brief appearances along the shore.  I have to share my only good image of a Giant Petrel.  They are nearly as big as the above albatross.

Notice on the top of the bill that there is a prominent tubular passage; that is a salt gland which functions to desalinate ingested water.  The salt is expelled from the passage.  Wow!

Now, let me close with two birds that I did not expect to see, and whose plumage and behavior captured my interest.  Early in the trip, I saw this King Cormorant fly past me with a large clump of debris headed for a densely populated rookery.

Like all cormorants, they are fast on the wing.  The orange pad above the beak - called a caruncle - was striking.  Getting close to one, there was more to admire.  There was a blue sheen on the head below an upturned crest and a very blue eye ring.

I became driven to capture more flight photos of this bird streaking back to the nest with a treasure of nesting material.  It proved difficult. Even though they followed a pattern, the sheer number of birds and the small variations in its path, made it hard to anticipate the millisecond when the bird was just right.  Cannot imagine doing this with slide film; it took a hundred images to get a few good ones.

 At the end of the nesting season, there are totally bare areas that the cormorants have stripped clean down to the roots.

There was another cormorant whose nesting behavior made it impossible to observe closely.  The Rock Cormorant nests on tiny ledges in otherwise vertical rock faces.  We saw only one such place across a finger of the sea bounded by two such vertical walls. It was about 80 feet straight down to the sea below. Oh, and it was very windy.  I treated the edge of the drop with caution.

There must have been some similar ledges on our side, as there was an adult and juvenile on the edge of the drop. Again, they were not the least wary of us.

This basically covers all of the larger birds, leaving some smaller birds that offered more unexpected delights.  They will be the subject of the next post.

Paul Schmitt

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