The natural history of the Falkland Islands is world famous. From time immemorial, the isolation and rich seas of the archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean has made it a very important feeding and breeding site for countless sea birds and marine mammals.
Unfortunately, the short-sightedness of early European whalers, sealers, and settlers brought great change and destruction to much the wildlife, both flora and fauna. Sealers virtually eliminated the vast colonies of fur seals and elephant seals that once existed here, and whalers nearly extirpated the whale stocks that traditionally migrated to these waters for summer feeding. In addition, the settlers present a familiar story. They slaughtered wildlife and introduced non-native pests…some accidentally (mice and rats) and many on purpose (cats, dogs, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, etc.). They also transformed much of the island flora to more familiar grazing grasses and other human-oriented flora, which of course had a significant effect on the native species. However, today’s situation is vastly improved because of modern-day values and conservation practices that have helped re-establish some of the original natural history. In fact, many species have made impressive comebacks, even though the numbers are perhaps a fraction of what once existed here.
The islands contained no trees when the first Europeans arrived, but there is some evidence of possible past forestation long ago. All the trees found in the archipelago today have been introduced by Europeans. Much of the famous tussac (tussock) grass was purposely burned off or allowed to be overgrazed and destroyed by sheep, and today only about 20% of the original cover remains. However, conservationists are now working hard to reintroduce native tussac to several sites around the archipelago and some successful results are already being realized.
One of the biggest problems faced by the Falkland Island wildlife is rats. These ravenous rodents have greatly reduced many or most of the colonies of burrowing and ground nesting birds in the islands, and efforts are now underway to eradicate rats on many of the key, offshore islands. Techniques for controlling rat populations have improved greatly in recent years, so there is real hope for the future of the burrowing sea birds.
In spite of these problems facing the Falkland Island ecology, there are many very impressive wildlife sites located on the more isolated islands that you can see on tour to Antartica. Most of these islands were not subjected to sheep farming and remain in a more natural state, providing us with great opportunities for nature walks that take us through some of the native vegetation zones and give us a chance to see the amazing adaptations the flora has had to make to survive in these wind-swept islands. Many of them today receive special protection and conservation status, either as private reserves or government-owned nature reserves and sanctuaries. These are the preferred sites where we concentrate our nature-oriented activities, especially in the western region of the archipelago for it is on these islands where we find the spectacular breeding sites of the black-browed albatross. The geological formations of eroded sedimentary mountains have created ideal sites for cliff-nesting birds. Their chosen settings for nests are always on the edges of sheer cliffs or open-faced slopes facing the prevailing winds. Just being at any of these sites is an exciting and invigorating experience, and watching the departures and arrivals of albatrosses at a nesting colony is unforgettable, especially when they swoop right over our heads and we can hear the wind in their feathers.
Of course, there is much more to see in the Falklands besides the albatrosses. The islands contain more than 60 species of breeding birds, some of which are unique or rare in other areas, such as Tierra del Fuego. In addition, another 80 to 100 bird species can be seen as migrants and vagrants. It is a bird watcher’s paradise.
The Falkland Islands is perhaps the best place in the world to observe the endearing rockhopper penguin, which often breeds in conjunction with the black-browed albatross. It is mindboggling to watch them climb up the long, steep trails cut into the sandstone bedrock by millions of little penguin feet over thousands of years as they come and go at their nesting and molting sites. There are also populations of gentoo penguins, king penguins, and Magellanic penguins to be found scattered about the archipelago.
Another one of the premier species to see here is the flightless steamer duck, a large, common duck that has lost the ability to fly. It found that there is no need to migrate to and from the islands, so it makes due with just swimming and diving to survive.
Typical for island groups, much of the wildlife is quite tame and approachable. This makes photographers very happy. Other species on anyone’s special list are the Johnny Rook or striated caracara (a very bold bird of prey), beautiful kelp geese and upland geese and ruddy-headed geese, imperial cormorants (which nest with black-browed albatrosses), numerous shore birds, and inquisitive little song birds, including the dark-faced ground tyrant, tussock bird, black-throated finch, Cobb’s wren, and long-tailed meadowlark.