From Incan Ruins to British Overseas Territories

After returning to Quito from Ingapirca, we spent a day packing and visiting with our hosts and now dear friends before setting off for our fieldwork off the southeast tip of South America. Sadly, our bikes had to stay in Ecuador this time!

We flew into Santiago a day early, so we wouldn’t miss the once-per-week flight to the Falklands. Our visit coincided with the city’s 475th birthday, so we spent our whirlwind twenty-four hours listening to live bands in the plazas, eating ice cream, and strolling the central fish market.

After two short flights, we arrived in Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, on Saturday afternoon. Roughly two-thirds of the Falklands population lives in the small port town, which has its history as a repair port for boats rounding Cape Horn. Nowadays it’s a squid fishing port and home to a growing tourism industry. The following morning we boarded a twin engine prop plane for our interisland flight and flew low over East then West Falkland to avoid the prevailing westerly wind on our way to Saunders Island. Our captain, born and raised in the Falklands, dexterously landed us on the dirt airstrip, nose angled into the crosswind and only straightening at the last second before touching down. Once on the ground, we met David and Suzan, the island’s owners and our lovely hosts, who drove us into the Settlement in Land Rovers.

Saunders Island is a working sheep farm with roughly 8,000 sheep, a number significantly less than in decades past. The Pole-Evans family has embraced wildlife tourism on their island and are major supporters of the Striated Caracara research. (Side note: Suzan supplied the majority of the data Katie used to present at the Raptor Research Foundation Conference last November).

Katie recording feeding rates of the Johnny Rooks in the kelp wrackWe based ourselves out of a guesthouse at the Settlement, a building which is also used for the British Armed Forces R&R. Using either ATVs or hitching a ride in their Land Rover, we would every few days drive the 10 mile stretch on dirt track out to our second research site, the Neck. The Neck is home to four species of penguins (Magellanic, Rockhopper, Gentoo, and King), Black-browed Albatross, Imperial and Rock Cormorants, and of course, the Johnny Rook. The “Rooks” aren’t really Rooks at all, but they reminded early European settlers of their local birds back home and were thus given their nickname. These Johnny Rooks are actually Striated Caracaras, the southernmost raptor in the world, and the bird we came to Falklands to study.

Over the next three weeks we trapped over 100 Johnny Rooks, 70 of which we banded. To band them, we used lamb-baited noose traps staked to the ground that attracted the birds and quickly caught their legs while they fed. Once we caught one, we immobilized it and brought it into the banding shed to process. James helped me handle them, whispering lullabies to keep them calm while Katie fitted them with a small yellow plastic “ankle bracelet” that had an identifying letter and number. Since male and female Johnny Rooks look the same, I also took blood samples to send to a lab to determine their sex. If we recaptured a previously banded bird, we still reweighed it to track its health over time. We also built an aviary and began recording behavioral data that Katie hopes to use in her future research. The Rooks were loads of fun — they approached us with crow-like curiosity, laid in the grass next to us while we took our breaks, scampered across our metal roofed hut at the Neck, and generally piqued our interest to learn more about their individual behavior and social nature.

When we weren’t working with the birds, we explored the Settlement and got a taste of farm life. During our stay the family gathered several hundred sheep to sort and ship to the off-island abbatoir. We had the good fortune of watching a few get sheered and experience the tough reality of a few being slaughtered and cleaned. The direct result of the latter, meant we ate fresh lamb with unbelievable regularity on the island. Vegetables were hard to come by, but we became accustomed to the early evening thud of a bag of chops landing on our counter as one of the family members generously dropped it off. We were also never in want of milk, since the family milked and gifted us two liter jugs each morning. The ghost of calories lost on our previous six weeks of cycling had returned and was attacking with vengeance.

It’s hard to imagine, but while we studied the Johnny Rooks all day, we had penguins casually walking hither and thither, Commerson’s dolphins riding the crashing waves, albatross and giant petrels gliding low, and whales blowing offshore. The magic of this place already has us thinking about how the next time we return, we’ll bring our bikes and cycle from Stanley across the two main islands linked by a ferry and meet David’s skiff for the final leg to the island. We’re also thinking that if the tide and the weather’s right, we’d like to swim that stretch as well, being without a doubt the first people to do so. There’s something about being at the birthplace of expeditions that inspires us to dream of our next.

On our immediate horizon, it’s time to pack up from the South Atlantic and return to Quito to collect our bikes and head to Colombia. We’ll have to shake our Queen’s English and dust off our Spanish while we’re in the skies.