Notes from the Field: Saving Seabirds in the Falkland Islands

On a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands – the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) second in two years – I met with the governor of the islands and commissioner of the nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips CBE. We discussed the need and potential for penguin conservation work in the region, and the important role that the DZS can provide. Through our partnership with organizations such as Falklands Conservation (FC), which is working to conserve rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins – three species of penguins living in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center – and other seabirds, we can not only provide financial support but also scientific expertise in the field. Additionally, we teach, engage and inspire millions of Detroit Zoo visitors about these incredible animals, their plight in the wild, and what people can do to help.

The Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America, provide critical habitats for several species of penguins and other wildlife. However, threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism, and it is essential to establish marine protected areas and assess the impacts ecotourism brings. On our recent expedition with Falklands Conservation, we set out to monitor the population of penguins and other seabirds living on several islands off the easternmost coast of the Falklands – some which had never been visited and others that had not been visited for more than 10 years. The islands were close to the military port near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, but rather remote, and landing on some of them was quite difficult because of the sea swells and cliff faces. In fact, we weren’t able to land at all on one of the islands called The Mot, and instead used a drone to effectively document the birds’ habitat.

We made some important observations on these excursions. As the sun went down during our drone visit to The Mot, we noted the return of hundreds of sooty shearwater birds returning to their burrows. Shearwaters are a threatened pelagic sea bird and an important indicator of well-managed fisheries, so documenting the location of a new colony was significant. We also documented the first records of Cobb’s wren on another island, which are ground nesting birds endemic to the Falkland Islands and important indicators that the land is free of rats and mice. These rodents have been introduced to many of the islands and have devastated populations of Cobb’s wren and other ground nesting birds. Additionally, we were heartened to see that the habitat at another island, Motley, has recovered tremendously from earlier sheep grazing. The plant life on this island was diverse with rare flowers such as yellow orchids and hairy daisies. Gentoo penguins were also observed at Motley, so it is possible and promising that a previously observed gentoo colony nearby is expanding.

The DZS hopes to establish a long-term project site at the Falklands to analyze the impact of ecotourism on penguin breeding, health and welfare. Tom Schneider, the DZS’s curator of birds, and I investigated several potential sites that have king and/or gentoo penguin colonies. We also had the opportunity to visit the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility, which was designed to accommodate small-scale wildlife rescue efforts, often involving oiled penguins. With increased oil development on the horizon, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The DZS has produced educational panels that will be displayed at the facility which detail its history, the impact of oil pollution on seabirds, the extensive process that goes into caring for oiled birds, and several success stories of birds who have recovered and been returned to the wild.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which leads and supports wildlife conservation work on six continents.

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