Kings of the Beach

Well that seems to be another summer that’s gone.  It’s been a really busy one and I’ve been away for most of it but a return to home and the office for a few weeks not only offers the opportunity to catch up with the mountains of administration that all walks of life necessitate, but also some time to try to get stuck into a mountainous backlog of processing.

It seems apt to be looking at some stuff from the tail end of last year since it’s the season that lies immediately ahead once again, and the 3 weeks in question spent in the Falkland Islands were among the highlights of the last year as a whole:  they are an archipelago deeply rooted in the memories of my generation for sure.

Part of the anticipation of the trip was that I have always held a belief, as a long time bird enthusiast and of seabirds in particular, that to spend some time photographing what I called a proper penguin (king or emperor – the immediately identifiable ones I guess) and time in a large albatross colony were a rite of passage that I needed to go through.  Emperors still await (that would/will hopefully be my dream trip) but the Falklands promised both these opportunities and in putting the itinerary together for the group I had travelling with me I had ensured we had a good amount of time to really focus on these south Atlantic specialists.

The king penguin has made a really steady increase in numbers here and although focussed almost exclusively in one location, Volunteer Point, numbers are now in the order of 1000 breeding pairs.  This is nothing compared to the monster colonies of South Georgia but is still very impressive and I was really excited all the way through the 3 hour drive from Stanley for the first of four days to be spent there in the course of the trip.  The last 2 hours of his were spent navigating the bogs that make up the majority of the islands it seems and I was very grateful to the 4WD and expert driving of Nobby who was looking after us for these journeys.  It wasn’t the best of weather but I was like a teenager with a new toy as we settled on the beach after arriving, back into the wind and rain and my very first king penguin in front of me at last!Blog 1

Pretty soon there were a pair, one in the sea and small groups gathering on the shore too and things were well and truly underway.

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It was clear that the time here was going to be all I had hoped for and more.  I have always believed that when putting trips together it is better to spend a really good amount of time at the best locations rather than try to go everywhere and end up undergoing things at the places that are working best.  All it needs is a bad or disappointing day and that could be it as nowhere works perfectly all the time.  This proved to be a good call here as over the course of the four full days spent at Volunteer there were not only a myriad of different opportunities as a consequence, the time needed anywhere to really get under the surface of the place and how it works behaviour and timing-wise, but it also allowed time for the weather conditions to change and offer variety in terms of lighting too, and although the bright overcast light worked well there were different images to be gleaned when the sun came out.

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It almost looks tropical with that sea colour!

The breeding cycle of the King Penguin is almost unique in that they take over a year to raise their young and as a result are only able to breed in 2 out of each 3 years.  This means that at almost any time of the year you will find birds in an array of stages of the breeding cycle in the colony and so there were groups of breeding adults but also sub-adults coming into their second year, fully fledged and just preparing to head out to sea for the first time and for pretty much the next 10 -12 months.  It meant that the beach was a busy place of birds coming in and going out but also gathering to socialise.

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At times it looked like they were almost on some sort of military parade and some of the grouping really did take on an array of anthropomorphic characteristics well worthy of caption competitions.

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They were also very curious indeed as Sue found out!

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A few hundred metres inland from the white sands of the beach was the main colony and here there were an array of different stages of the breeding cycle to be discovered with some already standing on freshly laid eggs, some late youngsters from the previous year, one year olds who hadn’t quite got the courage to leave the creche area yet and some adults in their “between breeding” spell undergoing a full moult; a process that takes around a month during which time they basically stay ashore in the colony full time.

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These ranked masses provided a whole new context from an image perspective and I was really glad on the last day when the wind changed direction and they faced the right way for these large group shots: they reminded me of the warriors guarding the emperors tomb in ancient China. Mind you I don’t think he would have wanted any guards looking as scruffy and unkempt as those mid-moult did.

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The youngsters were equally lacking in the general cuteness stakes at this time of year and even when put side by side with an adult which confirmed the similarities in terms of conformation it was hard to imagine that in just a few weeks time they too would moult and turn into their prettier elder relatives.

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Given his shape it was equally hard to believe that this particular one had had too much of a hard time in the juveniles creche while its parents were at sea fishing for it in the winter that had not long finished.

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Those mid -moult and transition to adulthood looked the most peculiar and at times they would pounce on an unsuspecting adult in a quest for food too, one that was turned down as they were on their own now.

Blog 14aBlog 15Mind you there were occasional spats between adults too. One minute they would be standing there seemingly at peace in their interaction then one would stand up on its toes to show off its height and slap the other.  It was very comical to watch but only occasionally did a more aggressive beak prod take place and the surprise of the victim was clear to see.

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Mind you it wasn’t long before they had kissed and made up.

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Whenever I spend any time with any large, numerate and extremely approachable subject I am always keen to pull together a number of more intimate portraits as well as behavioural and environmental images and the combination of settings and therefore backgrounds gave additional opportunities to do this.

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In the last of these he was catching a quick 40 winks and I loved the way he did so with his feet in the air and his tail spread on the ground to stop him falling over.

The weather in the Falklands is capable of changing very quickly and it’s also a place where the wind blows almost incessantly too.  As a consequence there was plenty of time spent sheltering in the hut on the beach when the downpours were just too much, but they never lasted too long as the wind always seemed to blow them through quickly enough and on a couple of occasions when the rain stopped and the sun came out the resulting storm light was simply breathtaking and a great chance to use the Lee Grad filters I had been kindly given by them to try out before the trip.  These are some of my favourite images of the total trip, the combination of light, blowing sand and a stunning subject was quite breathtaking and I hope they do the moments justice.

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When this light coincided with low tide there were also a few fleeting reflections on the beach to be found too.

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My time at Volunteer Point well and truly lived up to all my expectations and it’s a place I am equally as excited to be looking to revisit towards the end of next year when I will be running a trip there for Natures Images once again.

I hope to cover the second rite of photographic passage here in another blog in the next week or so but in the meantime the final word for this one has to be with the undoubted king of this particular beach.

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2 thoughts on “Kings of the Beach”

    1. Thanks as always Lyle. It was a great 4 days – actually split 2 at the beginning of my trip and 2 more at the end so the anticipation lasted for even longer!

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