Notes from the Field: Penguin Conservation Work Begins in the Falklands

When I was told that more people have landed on the moon than on North Island in the Falklands, I was thrilled that I would be able to join those lucky few. Though it may be just a tiny speck on the map in the south Atlantic Ocean, the Falklands are a new horizon for penguin conservation.

Detroit Zoo penguin keeper Charlie Ramsey and I headed to this remote island for a December 2016 expedition on behalf of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) extensive worldwide wildlife conservation efforts. We joined officials from Falklands Conservation (FC) to conduct baseline population surveys of southern rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross and other sea birds and wildlife on North Island and five other islands nearby that were recently acquired by FC.

The DZS has partnered with Falklands Conservation for several years, and with the recent opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, working with this organization directly in the field was a natural next step. The Falklands are critically important for several species of penguins that are also found at the Detroit Zoo, such as rockhoppers, gentoo and king penguins – but threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism. It is thus essential to establish marine protected areas, and the DZS is working with Falklands Conservation reach this goal.

To get to our destination, we first flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, then to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, where we hopped on a small six-person airplane to Weddell Island and then boarded the ship, Le Sourire, for a four-hour trip to the western edge of the Falklands. Over the calm seas, our journey was highlighted by dolphins playing in the ship’s wake, and as we approached North Island I could see why so few people had ever landed there. In addition to the sheer cliff faces, the only landing spot was occupied by sea lions. We had to scramble up the rock face and then work through thick tussock grass where the animals were resting. I had been warned not to get between sea lions and the ocean, and as they barreled down to the water after being disturbed, I could see why.

We safely arrived at the first penguin and albatross colony. In addition to gathering albatross fecal samples and penguin feathers for diet analyses, we also wanted to test how well a drone could be used for population surveys of the colonies. Charlie expertly flew the drone up to 275 yards high and at distances over 875 yards away, capturing incredible images of the colonies that were close enough to count individual birds and far enough away to see additional colonies over the whole island. The drone proved a very cost-efficient way to survey the island and shots of the cliff sides also helped the folks with Falklands Conservation to better appreciate how much they were being used by nesting birds.

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North Island was the focus of our expedition because it has not been grazed by sheep or cattle and remains relatively pristine. We also used the drone to assess the recovery of tussock grass on three other FC islands which varied greatly in condition. One had been only lightly grazed and tussock remained in dense stands as at North Island while the others were quite barren with tussock only starting to recover. Facilitating this recovery is one of the primary focuses of Falklands Conservation, and pictures from the drone will provide valuable metrics for comparison.

By the third day at sea, the weather had become more typical for the Falklands, with periods of relative calm interrupted by hail squalls. The rough seas prevented a return flight from Weddell Island so instead, we headed north to the ship owner’s farm near Dunbar. This proved fortuitous because the next day as the weather calmed a bit, we were able to observe two large colonies of gentoo penguins before the flight back to Stanley. We also had the opportunity to visit the rescue center which cares for oiled penguins. At the moment, the center only cares for a few penguins at a time but with increased oil development planned in the area, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in oil emergency responses, and with potential disasters looming in the Falklands, there may be opportunities for us to partner with FC in the future, using our training, experience and expertise in this area in addition to conducting further research.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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