Turquoise water lapped the shore as we stepped onto the white sand beach of Carcass Island, in the northwest of the Falkland Islands. Ahead, shaggy tussock grass gave way to a pastoral landscape of low-lying vegetation. I inhaled the lush, fragrant air, feeling the sun warm on my face, and listened. As the crash of the waves faded away, my senses were overwhelmed by a symphony of birdsong. Caracaras circled overhead, Magellanic penguins waddled through the surf, and tiny brown songbirds flitted among the tussock grass. The birders seized their binoculars, and our exploration began.
Situated 300 miles off the coast of South America, the remote Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) are a treasured destination among nature, wildlife and history enthusiasts alike. Where else can you observe five penguin species from the warmth of a white sand beach, cruise in a Zodiac alongside a pod of Commerson's dolphins, hike among blooming gorse fields to an albatross colony, and enjoy a quintessential British teatime with locals – all in one day? Yet most will agree that it's the birds of the Falkland Islands that make them truly remarkable – and a highlight of an expedition to the region.
In March, a black-browed albatross chick gazes out to sea from its nest on Saunders Island. Once it sheds the last of its down, the chick will be ready to try flying for the first time.
A black-browed albatross rests atop its nest on West Point Island, while travelers with Quark Expeditions capture views of the colony.
Ever inquisitive, a striated caracara perches on a hilltop on Saunders Island.
Although I've never been a birder, the avian life of the Falkland Islands blew my mind the first time I traveled there with Quark Expeditions nearly ten years ago on an expedition to the Falklands Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. The islands' unique location, temperate climate, and abundance of food make the Falkland Islands an important breeding ground for a surprising variety of birds found in South America and Antarctica, plus a growing number of species that are fully endemic to these islands. Although the main islands of East and West Falkland have experienced major environmental impacts by humans, the outer islands remain pristine havens for birdlife. What's more, these islands are rarely visited, and only accessible by small boat - which is why an expedition by ship and zodiac is the perfect way to travel there.
On a recent expedition that took me through the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on the way to Antarctica, our first stop was Carcass Island – a great place to catch a glimpse of some of the Falklands' most elusive birds such as the endemic Cobb's Wren and the Magellanic Snipe. There was a magical quality to the warm air as we roamed the island; birds seemed to appear everywhere we looked. As the keen birders quietly roamed the tussock grass (counting over 30 species), others admired groups of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins resting on the beach, endemic Falklands Flightless Steamer Ducks bathing in the waves, and bright red long-tailed meadowlarks feeding in the grass. The whole experience was animated by the constant melody of singing birds.
A long-tailed meadowlark near the bright, blooming gorse on West Point Island. Photo by Quark Expeditions' ornithologist Sarah Gutowsky.
A traveler takes in the sights of Carcass Island during an expedition to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica.
A tiny Falklands Grass Wren on Carcass Island. Photo by Quark Expeditions guide Jens Wikström.
Magellanic penguins on the beach at Saunders Island.
I've learned it's a thrill for many birders to spot a new species—especially one you can't find anywhere else. According to our onboard ornithologist Sarah Gutowsky, it's the diversity of species that make the Falkland Islands unique, which is a strikingly different experience compared to most of the other destinations visited in the Southern Ocean, where abundance often trumps diversity.
"Many of the birds on the Falkland Islands are endemic sub-species of what is on the mainland of Argentina," Sarah explained. "For people interested in taxonomic uniqueness, these islands are a hotbed. Once the birds arrive from the mainland, they'll settle for many generations, differentiate slightly, cease to interbreed with mainland populations, and become unique. That wasthe case for fourteen different species on the Falklands - endemic sub-species. New research shows that number is actually twelve, as new birds are deemed endemic."
Quark Expeditions' ornithologist Sarah Gutowsky interprets penguin behavior for guests on the beach at Carcass Island. Sarah has studied seabirds for over 10 years, holds a PhD focused on the albatross of the North Pacific, and is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, studying Arctic seabirds.
A rockhopper penguin calls triumphantly from its nest on Saunders Island.
Even if you don't yet consider yourself a birder, the dense congregations and sheer proximity of bird species in the Falklands are an astounding spectacle. At West Point Island, we witnessed thousands of black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins nestled together on a dramatic cliff face. Weaving through a maze of tussock grass alongside the colony, travelers can get up close and personal with these majestic albatross, which often soar mere feet overhead with seven-foot wingspans as they prepare to land. Every time I visit, I find myself utterly absorbed in these close encounters with the albatross, coupled with the entertaining antics of the zany rockhopper penguins – before a fluttering background of wind, waves, and endlessly soaring birds. It's a profound, emotionally moving experience, and one that could never be replicated through images – you simply have to see it for yourself.
A Quark Expeditions guest enjoys a panoramic view of the black-browed albatross colony on West Point Island.
At Westpoint Island, a black-browed albatross tends to its young chick. Albatross chicks hatch in December, and remain on the nest until early April, growing and strengthening their wings for a life at sea.
A curious rockhopper penguin on Saunders Island.
A Quark Expeditions guest photographs the courtship ritual between a pair of nesting black-browed albatross on West Point Island.
Traveling in remote wilderness areas, I often find that the world-class expertise of my colleagues at Quark Expeditions plays a key part in illuminating our encounters in the natural world. During our recent voyage to the Falkland Islands, we were privileged to be traveling with penguinologist Tom Hart, part of the dedicated research team behind Penguin Watch and Seabird Watch. During our first day in the Falkland Islands, he revealed some groundbreaking new research: that both the rockhopper and Gentoo penguins of the Falkland Islands had just been discovered to be endemic, doubling the known number of endemic bird species!
“This stuff's hot off the press,” explained our ornithologist Sarah. “The genetics show that these species are unique. There won't be any guidebooks that reflect that yet, and it may not be widely accepted by everyone – but think of the remaining twelve endemic sub-species. Ultimately, many of those will probably be delineated as full endemic species – the work just hasn't been done yet.”
As we returned to the ship exhilarated after a full day of exploring in the Falkland Islands, it was riveting to understand how expedition travel can overlap with real-world science and research. Although the Falkland Islands are internationally known for their avian diversity, this new research may soon transform them into an even more important birding hotspot. This ongoing legacy of exploration and discovery is something we can experience for ourselves in the Falkland Islands – turning us all into informed ambassadors for the precious places we visit.