Friday morning saw an early start and off to the heli to Bleaker island. We had booked to stay at Cassard House, the Rendells new lodge. It is luxurious in a very un-Falkland way – open plan and airy, with modern bathrooms and all mod cons. We chose the easy walk up to the imperial cormorant colony before lunch and watched a frenzy of nest building as diddle dee and tussoc was stolen from nearby moorland and nests established whilst neighbours simultaneously stole supplies to improve their own creations. Fascinating to watch the ensuing angry arguments and posturing; and at the same time the elegant and fantastic courtship behaviour - winding of necks, rising and falling of heads, coral orange combs contrasting tropically with iridescent flashing blue eyes. Thousands of birds bustling together on a cliff top; and here and there, an egg appearing. One or two Skuas were starting to arrive, preparing to take their gory share..
We couldn’t resist walking into the tussoc at the edge of the cliffs and finding the Rockhoppers. Just back for the season, they too were nest building, stealing tussock and chasing each other angrily away from chosen nest sites, partners, or choice pieces of tussock. Very noisy and busy, but endearingly curious as always, they were happy to sit close to us, walk up and inspect us, and carryon their business apparently undisturbed.
Back to the house for lunch and then off to find Seal lions – but no luck. Presumably out fishing; we ended up watching Southern Giant Petrels swooping along the cliffs in the draught, and being entertained by Magellanic penguins just back for breeding, busily sorting out their burrows and reclaiming their homes. We discovered a young Night Heron and watched him fishing, spotted two sleeping Oystercatchers and a flock of Snowy Sheathbills, stark white against the slate black rock.
So back to the Rockhoppers for a proper look – and on to a second colony perched on the cliff edge with a breath-taking view out to sea which I don’t suppose they appreciate. The weather was bright but very cold and windy, and the sea and the cliffs conspired to produce tall walls of shining white spray, shooting high towards the sky. The cliffs here are dramatic shelves of rock which allow you to step down and down until you are offered out towards the swirling crashing green water; impressive and intimidating.
We had ordered the Bleaker meat packs that night, intending to use the BBQ in the barn across the field. A huge pile of (very) low carbon footprint meat duly arrived, but while Bill dutifully stoked charcoal , we didn’t venture far from the house and enjoyed the warmth and rest on a very cold evening.
Saturday morning was bright but still finger- numbingly cold, with a skin- freezing wind. We set off to walk to the Gentoo colony, passing Big Pond (typically imaginative) and spotting silver grebes and black necked swans. Magellanic penguins poked up from their burrows in and amongst the cows and sheep, and after a very cold night, petrels and vultures were cruelly on hand to clear up new born lambs who had died from hypothermia overnight. It was heart rending to see the mothers fight off the scavengers until they realised the futility of their instinct, eventually running back to the flock.
The Gentoo colony is at the far end of Sandy Bay (see earlier !) and the penguins have established a highway between beach and colony which they bustle up and down. Nest building was in train, but many were already sitting and were intent on protecting their one or two eggs, standing up regularly to check between their toes, and then carefully lowering their warm bellies over the nest. Some Skua activity could be seen, with an odd egg out in the open, but in general the colonies were calm, although those penguins without mates were regularly chased crossly through the nests and ejected.
We headed back for a cup of tea, spotting an Upland goose sitting bravely on her nest low down in the Diddle dee. We stumbled upon her, but she held her nerve and stared us away. The nests are beautiful soft feather and down creations, with 6 or 7 brown eggs. Islanders will collect and eat these eggs and they are plentiful, and apparently good for baking. A Rufus- breasted dotteril jumped around in front of us, and as we headed back we were buzzed by a Hercules; the ADC and team had convinced the Herc guys to take them up, and they had come to find us. (We later discovered they were either being sick or hanging out of the side door, terrified, in danger of their ears blowing off!
After warming up we borrowed Mike’s Rover and headed back to the Gentoos to watch the evening exodus; from late afternoon, the penguins all head out of the water and back up to the colony for the night; it is addictive to watch raft after raft of flying birds leap from the spray. The wind was up, and the crashing waves offered a dramatic backdrop. Another stream of photographs of penguins and waves - what will we do with them all. Alexis found her machine gun button, and took around 30 shots for each click. I hope she can edit ruthlessly..
Mike and Phyl were staying on the island and kindly invited us over for a drink; their cows were calving, and all hunkered down in the tussoc at the back of the house. What an amazing location to live; windows on all sides, sea front and back, penguins burrowing nearby, and huge sunsets stretching across the front of the house. Phyl had seen a sea lion catching mullet earlier – rising up out of the sea, fish in mouth, to celebrate his catch.
A night of jigsaws and bananagrams, and lots of sleep.
On Sunday we drove to the Southern edge of the island – craggier and loftier cliffs than in the milder centre of the island – and it was good to witness the contrast. We did spot a few sea lions, but they kept their distance, although with the blue sky now breaking through, the views themselves were sufficient. Gentle pottering and sheltering from the bitter wind for the rest of the morning – and then back to Mount Pleasant to regroup.