Saturday, February 28, 2009

Antarctica, Day Three: Carcass Characters

From home base in Ohio, Kenn and Kim write: Our first landing of the trip was on the morning of January 9, on Saunders Island in the Falklands (see previous post on "Punks and Saints" posted on Feb. 18). That afternoon we made a second landing, on nearby Carcass Island, also situated in the northwestern part of the Falklands archipelago. Carcass Island isn’t as grim a spot as its name might imply; it was named for a British ship, the HMS Carcass, that visited the region in the 1770s.

Today the island is mostly occupied by sheep farming, but it still has a lot of birdlife. Undoubtedly there’s the occasional real carcass around (sheep fall victim to a variety of mishaps, after all, and various sea creatures wash up dead on the beaches), so there’s an open niche for scavengers. A common scavenger here was the Striated Caracara. This bird also occurs in southern South America, but it’s easier to find on the Falklands than anywhere else.
The adult Striated Caracara always seems to have a disheveled look -- at least, in several trips to the Falklands, Kenn has yet to see one that looked clean and crisp. They’re always messy. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard.
The orange on the skin around the face indicates the adult. In a closeup view, it’s also easy to see the whitish streaks, or striations, responsible for the bird’s name. Incidentally, closeup views are easy to obtain; Striated Caracaras are ridiculously tame. The local name for the bird here on the Falklands is "Johnny Rook," and it’s not always used as an affectionate term. At one time there was a bounty on Johnny Rooks because they were considered pests around sheep farms, and their numbers were seriously depleted. Now the species has recovered somewhat.
Young Striated Caracaras (a.k.a. Johnny Rooklets) have duller skin on the face, browner plumage, and fewer white striations.
On Carcass Island we found what appeared to be a nest, with three large young Striated Caracaras, apparently just about full-grown. They were squabbling over some unmentionable scrap of carrion that one of the parents had brought, and they looked and acted just about as gross as the adults. Not all birds can be beautiful, you know, but they all can be interesting.
Much of Carcass Island (and the Falklands in general) was originally covered by thick clumps of tussock grass. On Carcass, the owners have fenced off some areas of this grass to keep out the sheep, and these grassy places are the domain of the Blackish Cinclodes, locally known as the Tussac Bird. Actually, like many island birds, this cinclodes is very adaptable, scavenging on the shorelines, around seabird colonies and seals on the beach. Sometimes it seems determined to come up and eat your shoelaces. No long lenses needed to photograph this bird.
South America has many species of cinclodes, all associated with open country, often on rocky open areas above treeline in the mountains or along shorelines. These birds belong to the ovenbird family (about which we wrote back in early January, in Buenos Aires), a large family restricted to the American tropics; no species has ever been found north of the Mexican border, so it’s hard to describe the group by reference to North American birds. The Blackish Cinclodes is one of the dullest cinclodes but it makes up for drabness with its cheeky personality.
A specialty that we sought here was the Cobb’s Wren. The first time that Kenn was in the Falklands, this was still considered just the local form of House Wren, and it may go back to that status any day now. Certainly it looks like a washed-out version of the familiar House Wren, although its bill is longer. We looked for Cobb’s Wren in the tussock grass and eventually found it out on the shoreline rocks, bouncing around on the kelp next to the tidepools. It makes sense for these island birds to take advantage of the rich food resources in these areas; a couple of years ago, we watched Yellow Warblers doing the same thing in the Galapagos.
Lest you think that Carcass Island’s birds were all drab brown things, of interest only to hardcore bird maniacs, we should mention that we also found more Magellanic Penguins nesting here. This cozy scene, with an adult and two young resting in the entrance of their nesting burrow, was not far from our landing site.
And here, because we can’t resist, is a closeup of one of the baby penguins!

2 comments:

  1. I'm not sure that, had I been a sea-going swabbie in the 1700's, I'd have cheerfully shipped out on a ship called the HMS Carcass.

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  2. Awe! Baby penguins are soooo cute. :)

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