Friday, 17 February 2017

As Viewed Through a Car Window


A rare, but gratefully received, day of sunshine and relative mildness tugged me into the bright green expanses of East Norfolk. The break in my lethargy did not extend so far as to actually indulge in exercise - no walking involved today – but instead I thought I would slowly drive along the many narrow lanes spider-webbing the northern slopes of the Yare Valley to see what I could find.

First stop the marshland near Acle where I hoped, vainly as it turned out, to catch sight of a short-eared owl. Whilst no such yellow-eyed, sharp-taloned hunter gave itself up, I was quite impressed with the large numbers of swans bedecking the fields either side of the A47. Most were mute swans feasting on the tops of some root crop, but in the distance I spotted a pair of Bewick’s swans and beyond them it looked like several of the herd had rather straight necks; too far away for any meaningful identification.



Ranks of rooks and jackdaws, splattered like notes on a musical stave, probed the soft earth of a field containing several shaggy horses. Above those of their number intent on ridding the marshland of invertebrates, courting pairs flew. I watched some of these lovers twisting and cavorting in the fresh February air, flinging themselves through the void with abandon. The dancers would career towards one another, banking to avoid a collision at the last possible moment, before plummeting earthwards, regaining full control a few metres above terra firma to land sedately amongst their brethren.  I don’t think I’ve ever consciously watched this behaviour before and admit to being quite taken with their aerobatic prowess. Corvids are a common inhabitant of the Yare Valley with many thousands littering the fields throughout the year. This culminates in the amazing spectacle of huge numbers flocking to roost at Buckenham, where in my youth, I used to like listening to their caws and yelps as they commenced nesting during the lengthening days of March. The memory of idly strolling across the damp marshes in the dusk of a late March day, the sun slowly sinking into a wash of pinks and greys, the distant sounds of the rooks and courting lapwings echoing across the expanse, will always be with me. Perhaps it was some kind of heightened sense associated with youth, but I remember almost being able to taste the changing season. When those kinds of sensations fill your mind and body it leaves a mark; in this case a deep affection for these lowland areas that still evoke feelings of space and the wild.

Near Reedham I simply had to stop the car to gaze at the wonderful sight of hosts of gulls following a plough. Rank upon rank of white and grey birds milling around the slowly moving tractor as so much paper tossed in the breeze. The black-headed and common gulls were joined by more corvids, starlings and woodpigeons seeking to take advantage of juicy morsels exposed by the newly turned earth. A lone Chinese water deer patrolled the edges, presumably looking for succulent roots on which to feed. So much life here.


At Buckenham, wigeon brightened the ditch edges, all pristine, paired up and ready for their flight north. Their breezy whistling always lifts the spirits. Distant flocks of pink-footed and white-fronted geese were spooked by a marsh warden, spiralling around, yelping and braying as they do, until they judged the human far enough away to represent no threat; then returning to earth with large feet and broad tails splayed out to brake the decent.  And watching all of this from its perch in a tree on the edge of a copse was a peregrine: the slate grey hunter that spends the winter culling the abundant wildfowl. This bird sat sedately preening for the duration of my stay, no doubt it had feasted well during the morning and was in no hurry to seek further prey. It wouldn’t have to look far; hundreds of wigeon, teal, shoveler, pipits and peewits went about their business within easy striking distance: no more than a few beats of the peregrine’s powerful wings. 




Welcome signs today that spring, if not exactly sprung, is coiled and ready to pounce. It has been quite difficult getting enthused about local wildlife after the bounty of South America, but with the joyful melody of skylarks greeting the mild afternoon I turned for home, quite content with what a late winter day here in my humble homeland had provided. And all without getting out of the car.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hickling Harriers


It is cold here. Bitterly cold. A raw easterly wind whipping in from the North Sea a mile or two away; the boundary between the flat lands of eastern Norfolk and the miles of cruel grey water marked by a line of raised dunes seen as a smudge of dull green on the horizon. The scene before us a patchwork of reed bed, course grazing marshes and fen, interspersed with twisted and stunted hawthorn. The closest you can get to a barren wilderness in this part of the world for there are but scant traces of human activity: a forlorn and long abandoned wind pump, its skeletal sail arm pointing defiantly skywards; a single distant house rendered almost invisible by its light coloured walls blending seamlessly into the gathering murk. Nothing else, just the wild open landscape unique to this Broadland haven.  


Us five friends have trudged to this spot, nothing more than a raised bank bordering a drainage dyke, to witness one of nature’s most thrilling and humbling spectacles; the winter roosting of the harriers. We are quite early, 90 minutes before true dusk, but already the leaden, squall-laden skies are casting their shadows over the marshes. Light is poor, visibility far from ideal, but we know the birds will come to seek out this quiet sanctuary to spend another bitterly cold night. And we don’t have long to wait before harriers sail in. First a dark marsh harrier, then a brighter male both gliding on slightly raised wings, buffeted this way and that as they cruise low over the boggy ground. Then delight; a ringtail hen harrier, its bright white rump shining as a beacon through the gloom. A flock of fieldfares appears in a nearby tree and jinking parties of smaller birds, perhaps finches or maybe yellowhammers, are flushed by a buzzard which perches atop a bush before joining another pair of harriers purposely heading towards their roosting zone.

Whilst our attention is focused on the raptors, a pair of common cranes glide over us, dropping down into a hidden pool where they are instantly consumed by the tall ranks of thick reed; lost to sight. These birds are doing well here, naturally arriving as a party of 9 nearly 40 years ago they found the place to their liking and took up residence. Slowly and painfully, with many false starts, the birds began to breed until we now have over 40 gracing the rich and fertile acreage around Hickling and Horsey. In recent years maybe 10 or so pairs attempt to raise young with varying degrees of success, allowing the birds to expand their range into other Broadland reserves and further afield into neighbouring counties. This success story owes all to the sterling efforts of local conservation bodies and landowners. Cranes have recently been artificially reintroduced to Somerset, but it must be remembered that in this remote corner of Norfolk where the harriers circle over the reeds and the bittern still finds refuge, we have had majestic cranes for decades. And they always manage to thrill us.

Things begin to hot up now with more harriers drifting into view, amongst them a simply beautiful, ghostly grey, resplendently perfect, male hen harrier. What truly gorgeous creatures they are, these birds of wild open spaces, moor, heath and marsh. This one drops to the ground seemingly finding his supper, an unlucky pipit perhaps, before he reaches the roosting zone. Through my telescope I can just make out his head tugging at the flesh of the prey he has caught. Such rare birds these and we are privileged to be able to see them in such a setting.

On past visits, on milder, sometimes even bright, winter evenings, the harriers, merlins, barn owls and cranes can put on a wonderful show with massed spiralling as a new bird joins the throng. Merlins arrow into the roost and will happily harass the much bigger harriers, chasing them across the vast open sky in sport. They choose to spend the chill of the night perched atop small hawthorn bushes whereas the larger raptors will roost on the ground or on low branches of dead and broken willows. The owls quarter the fields silent and relentless whilst the sky slower darkens and the stars come out to play. Not today though; the wind chill is numbing our hands, cutting through coats, hats and gloves and making our eyes water. We decide we have seen enough and head back along the narrow, lonely lane to the reserve centre.

Before this place became well known and over visited I used to walk back alone along this lane, bordered by high dark hedges, with all kinds of ghoulish fancies running through my mind. I defy anyone to make this lonely journey and not look over their shoulder every 100 yards, just in case there may be something following; a darker shadow amongst the gathering gloom, an echo of footsteps or an unnatural rustling in the bushes. Hard not to speed up against all reason to reach your car before darkness falls complete. It is the workings of M R James; the fleeting glimpse of something unholy, for nobody knows you are here and your screams will be lost amidst the howl of the wind.

For us five folk though, chatting as a group, we had no such concerns. We instead were lucky enough to see three more cranes, a family party probably, fly towards the broad before we sought welcome refuge ourselves in the warmth of the local pub. Back to civilisation, cosy and comfortable whilst close by there were the harriers roosting in the reeds, steeling themselves silently against the chilling bitterness of a moonless February night.   

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Pampas

Let's sit here you and me and let the breeze of a summer afternoon wash over us, bringing with it the heady scent of jasmine, the rustling of leaf burdened trees that toss and sway hither and thither, the soporific cooing of pigeons and the droning of winged insects. Billowing puffs of white clouds are pushed across an azure sky and the resident dogs flop resignedly onto the cool tiled terrace waiting for the heat of the afternoon to abate. It's hard to keep your eyes open. This could be England on an idyllic July day, the landscape is familiar enough, but we are instead in the pampas lands of Argentina; the treeless plains, where the song of blackbirds, chaffinches and thrushes gives way to kiskadees, ovenbirds and the piercing screeching of parakeets.

Perhaps we should go for a stroll; shake off the effects of a heavy lunch and too much wine. We can keep cool. We'll walk in the sun-dappled shade of the eucalyptus and sweet scented pine where the rufous horneros, the national bird of this country of gauchos, cattle and tango, wail at one another with maniacal laughter and build their domed nests of mud atop a stout bough. Wherever we go chimango caracaras chase and scold, expertly riding the air currents on dainty wings, twisting and tumbling as they squabble for territory, food or attention. If we look skyward we can see a pair of their larger relatives, the Southern caracara soaring over a belt of trees. The other birds don't like them; it seems wherever they go they attract a mobbing group of martins. 


After a few minutes we come to the wide open fields of the Estancia where cattle graze contentedly on the lush grasses. The fields are big, their size allowing drier grasses space to ripple in the wind as waves on a turbulent sea. It is a flat, open landscape, reminiscent of parts of my beloved Norfolk, yet somehow wilder and untamed. Here the farming is less intense, things have room to live and breathe.
For all that, water is the lifeblood and here on a summer's day water is in short supply. Close by is an oasis, a natural hollow forming a doughnut ring of moisture with a raised dry Island at the centre covered in a jungle of tall thistles. 


Life is attracted to this area which for its size holds far more than it reasonably should. Be still and watch. Birds come to drink; sparrows, finches and flycatchers, a pair of moorhens, more gaudily coloured than ours at home but the same shape and with the same habits, peck their way from one side to the other. Did you see that small ripple? At first nothing, then a small striped head pokes out from the carpet of purple pond weed: a pied billed grebe. It is carefully keeping an eye on us and keeping the rest of itself submerged; hidden from perceived danger. But we're not here to harm, simply to observe. And it works. The moorhens feed their fluffy chicks just in front of us, bright yellow finches come down to sip the thirst quenching fresh water, a gangly limpkin grunts from atop a small bush, brightly coloured ducks drift warily by, past martins collecting mud for their nests. So much in such a small space.




We should move on. Further along the track our attention is taken by the squawking of parakeets. Here in some tall pines they have built their nests, large communal affairs of coarse twigs wedged into the junction of branch with trunk. Noisy birds that somehow seem out of place in such an environment, but a colourful addition to our growing list. Let's scan the fields and see what else we can find. The fence posts are a good place to start. They always seem to hold a good selection of the smaller species and there in front of us is one of the most beautiful of creations you are ever likely to see, a forked tailed flycatcher. Nature has given us many wonders over the past five weeks, but surely this modest little bird ranks up there with the penguins and the condors. With long tail plumes catching the breeze, It is simply exquisite. But there's something more, look over to the left. That's not a caracara, it's a bigger more purposeful hunter. A harrier, a long-winged harrier, quartering the fields with piercing eyes coming closer with every shallow wingbeat. The breeze causes this hunter to tack this way and that and we get stunning views as it battles the air currents. Happy? Good. But we still have another treat to share.



Back at the house there is a sheltered garden where an array of agapanthus is in full bright blue bloom. This in itself is a treat, but there are even brighter jewels to find. Hummingbirds! Shining irredescent emerald green, darting around the flower heads to sup nectar. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of their movements as they whirr on short pointed wings, probing their long beaks into the flower spikes.  It seems the birds make a circuit every few minutes to entertain us as they feed. 



And we, my friends, have ourselves completed the circuit. We have travelled over the past few weeks from tropical Brazil through sub-Antarctic islands, barren wind torn steppe, glacial splendour and the temperate farmlands. We have seen mighty waterfalls, stood gazing at star strewn skies, been caught in torrential downpours, scorched by fierce southern summer sun and blown off our feet by unrelenting winds. Orcas, penguins, toucans, condors and radiant butterflies we have seen. Happy, courteous, charming people we have met. And we have barely scratched the surface of what the continent of South America can offer. I hope you have enjoyed taking my hand as we have experienced these things; I've certainly found writing them down a therapeutic and enlightening experience. Finding the words to capture the moment has allowed me to understand what I have felt as the days unfold. Thanks for staying with me.





Friday, 9 December 2016

Freezing Glaciers and Flaming Flamingos

El Calafate, a pleasant enough medium sized town in Argentine Patagonia, is named after a berberis. This plant is profound hereabouts and the berries are used for making liquor, for putting in pies or simply for eating (don't try this at home folks). Another pinprick in the romanticism of my imagination. I expected the name of this lakeside town in the deep South of Argentina to mean 'The Gateway to Heaven' or something. Instead it is named after a small shrub. We find ourselves here for a couple of days having been driven for 6 hours or so from our last base in Chilean Patagonia. The drive was uneventful, along long straight roads, except for a frustrating wait at the border stuck behind a coach load of Chinese tourists. Here we queued for the best part of an hour whilst some bored national guardsman decided whether or not to stamp our passport. Petty officialdom drives you mad at times. It wouldn't have been so bad had he not stopped what he was doing every couple of minutes to chat to his mates. South America!



We played tag with this particular bus full of orientals on the long drive across the empty, harsh, wind-blasted steppe. We overtake them and stop for coffee/toilets, they pass us and we find ourselves behind them again. We arrive at our hotel and guess who arrives a few minutes later. Good fun. The landscape all around though is very barren. Ranches, or Estanchias, are huge; they have to be. There is simply nothing to sustain sheep or cattle unless you have a lot of land over which they can roam looking to eke a few calories from stunted grasses. Now and again water, in the form of a narrow river, will create an oasis of green and suddenly the landscape is transformed. But only for a few kilometres; it soon reverts to barren wilderness. Ancient glaciers have carved this land, gouging out huge valleys and escarpments, leaving behind hundreds of miles of bare rock, boulders and gravel. The thin layer of soil accumulated over millenia struggles to support life. We saw very little.

However it was to a glacier, a real active one, that we were taken yesterday. The Perito Moreno Glacier to be exact, an hours drive along the blue lake Argentina, Lago Argentino, that is formed by the melting ice that falls from the glacier's face. It is an awesomely impressive natural monument, forming the focal point of a National Park of wooded alpine slopes and meadows that are able to flourish due to the sheltered nature of the valleys and the abundant rainfall. No rain today though. A boat, uncannily full of Chinese tourists.......,.no can't be, takes you within 300 metres of the north face ( it cannot get closer for reasons of safety) where you can look in astonishment at the wall of ice towering 70 metres above you. The glacier itself is some 5 kilometres wide, a fact difficult to grasp when all you can see is a wash of white. There is nothing to give it scale until what looks like a small snowball breaks away from the face. It takes a second for the sound, a loud sharp crack, to reach you and then for the boom as the boulder of ice, not a snowball after all but a mass probably weighing tonnes, splashes into the lake. Snap, snap, snap but the pictures struggle to convey the sense of magnificence.




After the boat trip, that weaves between ice bergs of wonderful smooth shape and electric blue radiance, we were taken to an area that overlooks the glacier's both North and South faces. Here some stunning views are to be had looking back along the snaking river of slowly moving ice into the heart of the Andes themselves. The ice moves at the rate of 1.5 metres a day and is always disintegrating as it funnels into the narrow channel at the mouth of the lake. The accumulated ice we were looking at fell, as snow, between 400 and 900 years ago. These kind of facts numb the mind. To think the chunks of ice we were watching plunge into the near freezing water were laid down possibly at the time Norwich Cathedral was being built; it has taken all that time to slowly, but grindingly surely, reach the end of its journey. You can only stand and stare.




Every few years the press of ice, forming a chevron, blocks the flow of water in the lake. When this happens a huge bridge forms which eventually collapses under its own weight. That sight must be quite something; the noise can apparently be heard 50 kilometres away. I believe it. We were lucky to witness one or two sizeable collapses ourselves and the noise is truly frightening. The raw power of nature is something man can never really conquer.


That was yesterday. Today we fly to Buenos Aires. In fact I'm writing this blog from the aircraft cruising high in the heavens, buffeted by a strong crosswind blowing from the bowels of the Andes. I'm sitting here with another group of Chinese folk - surely they can't be the same ones - amidst coughing, spluttering and sneezing. If I don't catch something it'll be a miracle. And why are those skirts the air stewardesses wear so damn sexy. We had the morning to kill before we caught the flight, so walked the short distance to the Laguna Nimez nature reserve, an area of wetland and shallow dunes beside Lago Argentino where Chilean flamingos dwell. Here we walked the circular trail in the teeth of a howling wind ( the same one rocking our 737), which was not very pleasant. However the birdlife more than made up for the inconvenience of once again having your eyebrows blasted to a place roughly above your ears. 

There were certainly flamingos on the lagoons, shining pretty pink and red as they fed or stood on a single leg huddled into the wind. The mineral rich waters must provide ideal conditions for the algae upon which they feast to proliferate; the birds were certainly sporting rich livery. Other than adding bright colour these living croquet sticks were not doing very much. No, the chief entertainment was provided by a pair of cinereous harriers and a mottley group of chimango caracaras occupying an area of reed fringed water. I've never been privileged to have such beautiful graceful birds come as close. So close I could not track their movements through the camera viewfinder which they filled as a blur when they sped past. The harriers presumably had a nest secreted amongst the short reeds and spent a lot of time seeing off the scavenging caracaras, providing dramatic chases for our delectation. Once the male brought in a prey item for the female, a chick of some water bird, and the pair made a food pass just a few metres from where we stood. The female then nearly hit me as she buffeted her way back into the reeds. Incredible. Back home it is sometimes possible to witness this kind of behaviour with our marsh harriers, but never anywhere near as close and never with birds that are so tolerant. Such an unexpected and uplifting episode. Snap, snap, snap and perhaps on this occasion you can capture the sense of the magnificence played out before us.






Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Big Feet

We've moved from a windswept Falklands to a windswept Patagonia. A hiccup or two on the way with cancelled flights, missed pick ups and frantic telephone calls and emails. But all came good eventually. The first short leg of this stage of the trip (shortened even more by the aforementioned cock ups) finds us on the edge of Torres Del Paines National Park in Chile ensconced in a delightful complex called Patagonia Camp.  One or two of the waiters live up to the name, but everyone is very friendly, efficient and welcoming. Patagonia apparently means Big Feet, and there was me thinking romantically that it meant 'Land of the Towering Peaks' or some such. It was, so we are told, given such a mundane, nay stupid, name by early European settlers because the natives were considerably taller than the average 16th Century Portuguese/Spaniard; malnourished midgets all. Ferdinand Magellan is credited with being the first European to set eyes on the Patagones Indians chiefly by seeing huge footprints on a beach. Hence the name given to the region. And the name has stuck.



Whatever, the landscape is magnificent, the view from our luxurious tent (yurt) breathtaking, the colour of the lakes the deepest, purest blue, disconcertingly several shades darker than the sky reflected therein. Torres del Paine means Towers of Blue and it is this overriding colour that gives the park it's name. I feel quite pampered as I lounge about surrounded by cushions of all shapes and sizes, mock fur rugs covering the floor, tapestries draped on the walls and a selection of nibbles and a bottle of red left by the maid. And all I have to do is raise my head to see this.....



We only have a single full day available to us here and elected to spend it on a 5 miles 'fauna' walk offered by one of the resident guides. The starting point for this particular hike is about a 90 minute drive from the lodge taking you through some rugged terrain with walls of stratified rock thrust at crazy angles into the rarified air. These rocks are testament to some violent activity when our planet was much younger and record the laying down of sediments which contain evidence that once this whole area formed the sea bed. Look closely and fossil remains of marine creatures can easily be seen.
The impressions from a moving vehicle are ones of wide sweeping moorland through which dark masses of granite emerge and career towards the heavens. The tallest peaks are covered in an icing of glacial white where cloud forms to the leeward side creating tendrils of wispy smoke flowing as if from a factory chimney. Here and there are stands of stunted, skeletal trees, victims of past fires, and dried, wind blasted depressions where water can pool for a while before evaporating into the atmosphere.

And a glance upward will sometimes reveal a black form of a soaring condor surveying the wide open terrain, it's home and domain, for any animal that has found living here beyond its ability.



Our stroll across the steppe would have been lovely in the subtle warmth of an English spring day, but here the wind sheers across the stunted vegetation, slamming into your face and rendering everything an effort. Your hat is tugged helter skelter threatening to blow away and take your head with it. Life is hard out here and the trail littered with skulls and bones of guanacos, some of which may well have fallen prey to a puma but most probably succumbed to the ravages associated with living on the edge of existence. The wind and dry conditions apparently result in a slow rate of decomposition, so bones and the hides of dead beasts linger. Once the scavengers have picked the carcass clean.

However the circle of life continues and it the season for giving birth with many newly born calves wobbling around on unsteady feet. For newborns they seem quite large, but I guess they need to be well able to begin their life of non-stop foraging almost straight away. It is also the mating season with the males chasing one another, necks outstretched, jumping, biting and generally showing off to impress the females and set up a seat of dominance.







After a while we climbed onto a ridge which as well as affording a spectacular view of the massif, also contained ancient cave paintings made when these lands were inhabited by native Indian peoples. Knowing my desire to see a puma, our guide said I should continue on the trail and cross the sign that instructs people not to proceed further. Ummmm ok. So, there I was slowly edging along a path leading to a puma den when a pale sandy coloured form poked it's head out from behind a rock. Catching my heart as it leapt from my mouth and stuffing it back in my chest, I was mightily relieved to discover the beast was only a stray Guanaco that ambled on its way unaware that the human being watching it was glad he had a spare pair of trousers back at base. I beat a retreat. No puma for me and I reasoned 1. Surely the guide would not have put me in danger, and 2. The guanaco would not have been browsing within 3 miles of the scent of a big cat. But then this is South America where health & safety is not even a glint in a government's eye and of course guanacos are eaten by Pumas every day so can't be that clever. The chances of seeing a puma are virtually non-existent though unless you know exactly where they are and are prepared to stake it out for as long as it takes. But later our driver showed us some video he had captured on his mobile of a puma hunting in front of his van in broad daylight, making a kill right there and then. Right place, right time.





Our walk complete, we were being taken to our picnic spot when I happened to glance out the minibus window to notice three large brown forms standing beside a dead animal. It took me a couple of seconds to realise what I'd seen and a further few seconds of frantic gibbering to convey to the driver that we should stop and reverse 100 metres down the track. He did so and there just off the road we were able to scramble out and watch three young condors tucking into a dead guanaco. This was more like it. As we watched in awe the efficiency of these huge birds in cleaning up deceased animals, a total of four adult birds drifted slowly over our heads and inspected the scene. One landed and proceeded to assert its dominance, landing in the middle of the youngsters and quickly feasting on the prime flesh. A few squabbles added spice, the birds snapping at each other with bills slick with fresh blood, so I too snapped away to my hearts content. The results are not too clever, but believe me trying to hold a heavy camera and lens still in the teeth of a forceful gale, shooting into a heat haze, is really not easy. You can get a good feel for the scene though I hope.






The remainder of the day was spent driving through the park admiring the impressive, ice capped, mountains and general scenery. We also saw some wildlife, notably a couple of harriers and some male rheas with their herd of chicks. One had 13 young to contend with and seemed to think walking them along the road was a good idea.








Tomorrow we move on yet again to visit Argentine Patagonia. Getting a little travel weary if truth be told, but I'm sure the long hours of driving will be worth it. I'll let you know in due course.



Sunday, 4 December 2016

King Pins

Everywhere we have been on these islands folk have told us how lucky we have been with the weather. You can tell this is part of the British Isles because the weather is always the main topic of conversation. And we have been lucky, we know that. Until today. Today the never ceasing wind reached a new strength, gale force, and the sun deserted us. This is what a typical Falklands summer day is like; challenging.

We were picked up from Stanley, an enigma of a place if ever there was one, after breakfast and bumped and bounced for nearly 3 hours over what was essentially open moorland. There are no saloon cars here for once outside the settlement and into 'camp' the roads quickly deteriorate. First there are a few miles of packed dirt and gravel and then nothing but a faint track where yesterday's Land Rover/Toyota/Ford 4x4 slowly ground it's way to the beauty spot known as Volunteer Point. As your head whacks into the hand grip one more time and your back wrenches as you are jerked this way and that, it's hard not to wonder what the hell you are doing this for. But then a sliver of golden sand comes into view and you know the journey is nearing its end. The excitement mounts as you see your first Magellanic penguins outside their burrows, notice giant petrels tacking into the strong wind and hurtling across the treeless ground on long aerodynamically perfect wings, hear the braying calls of  other birds huddled together in their nesting groups. You've arrived and are free to roam for the next 4 hours, or until the wind, the rain and the blasting sand beat you into submission.

The reason we have endured this bouncy castle treatment is to visit a colony of king penguins. Their breeding cycle lasts for over 12 months, so there is always activity here making it a popular spot with tourists. Cruise liners now visit the deep waters of Stanley Harbour on a regular basis providing rich pickings for locals that transport punters to this spot in a fleet of vehicles. Today though the weather has prevented one of these ships from docking, so there are a total of only eight of us spread out over several acres of beach, shallow dunes and moor. We know the other four folk, couples from Spain and Holland, because we have bumped into them in the lodges on other islands as well as several times wandering along Stanley's only street of interest. It's like having a small gathering of friends. 

Swathed in thick layers, scarf wrapped around ears and mouth, hat pulled down, jacket zipped up to its full extent, we trudge towards a smudge of black and white birds nestled against a rise in the ground. 


Each colony is encircled by a ring of painted stones beyond which you may not pass, but this doesn't matter. The penguins, many of them large beach ball chicks, have spilled out of the exclusion zone and adults are all around, some preening, some courting, others just loafing. They all allow close approach before suddenly starting as if they have only just noticed a 6 foot human nearby, looking briefly concerned they shuffle away on big leathery feet to a safer distance, perhaps 2 feet away. In some cases it is a question of the birds coming to you, moulting chicks still half covered in thick light brown down that approach from behind and chase after you as you try to beat a retreat. Close up those beaks are quite long and look very sharp. There's no real danger but we don't fancy a nip.




There is so much going on all around that it is difficult to keep up, best then to simply sit down and let the action unfold. At least for as long as you can bear the howling, cruelly unabating wind.

After an hour or so we seek shelter in a portacabin which serves as a mess hut for the drivers and a refuge for red faced, dripping nosed visitors. A warming cup of coffee and a sandwich, stories swapped about previous adventures traipsing across the islands and other parts of the globe and we're out again for a stroll, or rather hunched trudge, down to the seashore. Here a group of South American terns are busy fishing in the shallows, gracefully dipping into the froth to pick off some stranded morsel. The beach itself holds a few two banded plovers, very handsome birds, and several white-rumpled sandpipers, migrants to these parts. And of course there are parties of penguins making their way to and fro, wind blown swirls of loose sand curling around them as they stoically make their way.






Back in the colony we spend our remaining time simply admiring the vivid colours of the kings. A lot of birds have just completed their moult and are in pristine condition with vibrant deep ochre face and chest patches that gradually fade through shades of lightening yellow into a bright white belly. When seen up close quite stunning.




But it is the massed ranks that really impress. Tightly crammed they form a tapestry of jostling colour, a  bubbling cauldron of activity like so many yellow topped king pins. Was our own three hours of jousting to get here worthwhile? You bet it was.