Our exhilarating morning on West Point Island now over (see previous post), Pamelia and I climbed out of the black Zodiac, reboarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, "bio-secured" ourselves by rinsing our boots and lower pant legs at the disinfecting station, shed our winter gear and headed to the ship's dining room for a deliciously hearty lunch of carrot-ginger soup and lasagna and a series of wasn't-that-amazing conversations with our fellow Antarctic-bound expeditioners.
By 3 p.m. it was time to leave again.
Less than 48 hours into our nearly three-week voyage, we were discovering that each day would be filled with explorations and discoveries—even when we didn't leave the ship. The journey to Antarctica would be fully as memorable as Antarctica itself.
We put our winter gear, backpacks and life jackets back on, rinsed our boots again at the disinfecting station and rode a Zodiac to another of the 780 islands that make up the Falklands. This small one—just two miles long and six miles wide—was called Carcass Island and was owned by a farm family.
Scarcely had we had stepped out of the Zodiac when we saw the first ducks, shags and oystercatchers. Soon we noticed smaller birds flitting around rocks on the shore. Simon, the expedition ornithologist, had told us before we left the ship that Carcass Island was one of the rat-free—and thus more small-bird-friendly—oases in the invasive-rodent-plagued Falklands. "We're going to see Cobb's wrens," he promised.
The Cobb's wren is one of the Falklands' two endemic bird species, meaning native to the islands and not found anywhere else. It is considered vulnerable to extinction because of its limited range and the Falklands' rodent problem, which dates back to the arrival of Norway rats on ships in the 1700s. (Norway rats can swim far enough that they spread from island to island.) Because the Cobb's wren nests on or near the ground, the rodents eat its eggs and chicks. That and the loss through animal grazing of tussock grass, part of the wren's nesting habitat, have reduced the Cobb's population to several thousand pairs.
The bird's moniker comes from Arthur Cobb, a Falklands farmer and the author of Birds of the Falkland Islands: A Record of Observation with a Camera, who in July 1908 on Carcass Island shot one with a gun, not a lens, while using rice (for reasons unknown) as his charge. The specimen was sent to the Natural History Museum in London, where it was named after Cobb.
We watched a family of the islands' other endemic birds, Falkland flightless steamer ducks, venturing out into the Carcass Island bay. As mentioned in an earlier post about the flying steamer ducks we saw in Ushuaia, Argentina, these birds are called steamer ducks because they churn their wings through the water to help propel themselves, suggesting a paddle steamer.
By venturing only a few dozen yards up and down the rocky beach, Pamelia and I saw and studied one bird after another. Many seemed curious about us. When I sat down on the rocks, a small brown tussock bird walked up to me, pecked my boot, hung around and finally moved on. He and other birds did the same with our fellow expedition members.
We all were learning a valuable lesson that trip organizer and renowned zoologist Mark Carwardine and other expedition leaders would repeat to us throughout the voyage: When out in nature, stop, sit still, watch and listen. Wildlife will come past you or even to you. Pamelia and I had learned this in the past from both great American naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich (perhaps the most astute observer of nature on the planet) and a young Maine naturalist friend, Luka Negoita, who would spend 30 minutes quietly each day at what he called a "sit spot" in the woods, just observing and listening.
And so we watched and listened and learned. Here are more glimpses of our Carcass Island afternoon:
While some of our shipmates visited the farmhouse for an afternoon tea, Pamelia and I stayed on the beach until the last Zodiacs were leaving. Back on the ship, we rested up. Tomorrow we would be hitting two more spots in the Falklands.
"Two-banded plovers are known to nest here along the road," reported Simon, the ornithologist, the next morning as a cold, driving rain pelted us. We had stepped out of a shuttle bus to see the rusting wreck of the ship the Lady Elizabeth and briefly look around en route to Yorke Bay, Whalebone Cove and Gypsy Cove, bird nesting sites not far from Stanley, the islands' capital.
This would be a quieter morning, a time to observe several more birds—nesting rock shags, black-throated finches, austral thrushes, turkey vultures, dolphin gulls, upland geese and others—and appreciate some of the delicate flora: dwarf heath plants, pale maiden (the Falklands' national flower), great burnet, arrow-leafed marigold, native strawberry, pig vine, and a vast range of lichens, ferns and mosses.
Some of our English shipmates compared the landscape of rocky cliffs overlooking white sand beaches, dunes and turquoise waters to that of Cornwall. The idyllic setting had one jarring element: signs declaring the beach off limits because of land mines that might be left over from the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.
After a couple of hours of exploring, we traveled by bus to Stanley, the quaint and very British capital, for a couple of hours of traditional sightseeing. At the Historic Shipyard Museum we learned more about the 1982 war (through the eyes of civilians who experienced it) and also about the lone land mammal that was native to the Falklands, the warrah, which was hunted to extinction in the 1800s.
Around noon, snow began falling as we ate a picnic lunch on the empty Stanley town green, with a dolphin gull perched on our table hoping for scraps. It was an are-we-really-here? moment. We'd had a few of those already, but many more lay ahead as we set sail for South Georgia, the rarely-visited Serengeti of Antarctic wildlife.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood
Coming next on the blog: Have you ever been through a cyclone in a ship?