Falkland Islands, Austral Summer 2015

On the evening of the first of January 2015 we met at Frankfurt Airport to head south to one of the magic destinations for Nature and Wildlife Photographers, the Falkland Islands.

We, this meant seven participants of my Wildlife Photography Workshop (Falkland Islands Foto Workshop) and, of course I as guide and instructor. I have never seen Frankfurt airport as empty as during this evening, a good and relaxed start for our adventure far away on the southern hemisphere.

The workshop was organized together with Juergen Stock from Auf Kurs! Inselreisen in Hamburg. Juergen has a great selection of wonderful trips into the polar regions, check out his page!

 

Why the Falklands? The Falklands are teeming with subantarctic wildlife like penguins, albatrosses, many different seal species and much more. Moreover land based travel and accomodation is possible, which is essential for good photography. The archipelago is connected to the world by two airlinks, one from Brize Norton in the UK (this is a ministery of defense "MOD" flight....) the other from Santiago de Chile with LAN. We chose the LAN option and flew from Frankfurt via Madrid to Santiago de Chile, further on to Punta Arenas in Patagonia and finally Mount Pleasant Airport on the Falkland Islands. It is a really, really long flight, even if one stays one night in Santiago.

I am deeply attached to these islands. My first visit was iaround 1995 and then it was a real adventure. No guidebooks, no internet, only the MOD flight, no information no nothing. Mark, a good friend of mine living in London, drove me to the military airbase of Brize Norton and I used the air movement squadron to fly down south. Since then I am hooked on wildlife photography. The reason why I am now a professional photographer are the Falklands Islands.

Since then I was there many times, visited the island of South Georgia, Campbell Island, Enderby Island and many more places in the subantarctic region. I doubt that there are many people around, which know these places as good as I do. And I still love to go there!

Fotoworkshop auf den Falkland Inseln

Interessiert selbst einmal diese einmalige Inselgruppe mit allen ihren Tieren zu erleben und zu fotografieren?

2017 bieten wir wieder die Falkland Island Fotoreise an. Es ist ein einmaliges Erlebnis und es gibt im deutschsprachigen Raum keine verlgeichbare Reise!

 

 

 

Our Itinerary

 

When I planned the destinations for the workshop, I went for the places I like most, can accomodate 8 people and are easy to reach by FIGAS or 4x4. I do not think, that anybody in our group regretted the choices. Each place has something very special, which nobody wanted to miss!

  • Darwin
  • Sea Lion Island
  • Bleaker Island
  • Saunders Island - The Neck
  • Stanley
  • Volunteer Point
  • Stanley

Darwin was our first stop after arriving at Mount Pleasant Airport, highly recommended and a very good start for our group. In a way it would have deserved more than just a couple of hours.

From Darwin we flew with FIGAS to Sea Lion Island, great for wildlife, but at the moment poor as a Lodge. If Sea Lion is managed like this over a longer period, it will go down the drain and will be swept away by other, better places! Bleaker was a great change, perfect accomodation, Mike and his team was a great host, the toothfish was excellent, we had a really good time there!

After Bleaker it was time for The Neck on Saunders Island. It is a self catering cabin at a unique location. But as a guide it was a bit risky to chose this location as it is very small, basic but comfortable. However everybody was stunned by the wildlife around the hut and it was a big adventure nobody wanted to have missed.

We had been a bit unlucky weatherwise and Volunteer Point, our last stop, was one big wet piece of peaty bog. I have never seen Volunteer like that. As there is no accomodation for 8 people, we had to be a bit inventive.... Thanks to Derek 4 of us slept in the little Shanty and the rest "wanted" to stay in small tents. Due to the massive rains camping was not the right option, however we slept on the floor of the Portacabin used as a shelter for day visitors. It worked well and the four of us had two great nights there, with a penguin burrow right under our floor. Walking back at night from the Shanty to the portacabin watching (we have been very careful with our torches!) penguins at night was very special. It definitly was a unique experience....

After Volunteer we went back to Stanley.

The main locations

The Penguins - funny creatures in a really wild environment

 

There is no doubt, that the penguins are the birds why most people travel down to the Falklands. There is no better place in the world to watch penguins on arms length having good land based accomodation. On the Falklands four species nest regularly a fifth can be seen from time to time, but nesting often fails.

  • Gentoo Penguins
  • Magellanic Penguins
  • Rockhopper Penguins
  • King Penguins
  • Macaroni Penguins (not regularly breeding)

It is hard to say, which one I like most, they differ so much in character! I dedicate each of the four a small gallery....

 

Rockhopper Penguins, a bunch of raucous, curious, enduring and rock hopping birds

 

The gallery follows more or less the Rockhoppers daily routine. Coming out of the sea after fishing, climbing up the cliffs and finally a glimpse of the life in a Rockhopper Colony. The colonies of Rockhopper Penguins are often high up above the cliffs of an island. What an amazing effort!

The chicks have been already grouped in creches (kindergarten), which created nice photo opportunities of these wooly looking young birds. The pictures may give you an idea, but it hardly can add the tremendous noise these little creatures are able to produce! Enjoy!

My photography Falkland 2015

As I mentioned already, I have been on the Falklands already many times and have a good collection of Falklands wildlife. Nevertherless I was looking forward coming back to the Falklands, the experience is just something you will miss after a while.

Besides being an instructor, which limited my time in the colonies (and also my energy), I wanted to create pictures, which differ from what I have in my files and what is done usually on the Falklands. Moreover I had the Pentax 645Z in my arsenal, not only the wildlife-proven Canon equipment.

What I see so far most of my ideas worked quite well. The goal was not to do just the classic "penguin sits on nest or stands on beach", but to create denser, slightly more complex (dangerous, if it is to much) pictures. Pictures with the focus on the faces or to play with fore/background blurring and to try to place an animal in the context of a colony or another animal. Second was to use medium wideangle more often. Some of the shoots are reshoots of some of my older material, which I wanted to do better. You can judge on your own, whether you like it or not.

More on equipment "what worked and what did not work" later.

Magellanic Penguins - burrow breeding banded Penguins

 

Rockhoppers climb up the cliffs and breed in open colonies, Magellanics dig burrows in the grassy and soft coastal plains and dunes. They form loose colonies and you have to be very careful not to crash into one of the burrows, when you have to walk across a colony.

Somehow I ended up with not so many good pictures. The main reason was that the best places to shoot Magellanics have been our first locations and I was first very busy as a guide and second did not feel well. Anyway I managed to get some good shots.

Magellanics are the species which tend to panic easily. Other penguin species let you know when you are to close and you can back off without causing any confusion or panic, but Magellanics are different. Sometimes it is hard to understand, why a group of Magellanics, even if you are far away, start to rush to the sea. Next time, they do not care and pass you, without even looking. Therefore be careful with Magellanics!

Weather

The Falklands are not in Antarctica, there are no glaciers and you can leave your expedition down jacket at home. The climate can be compared with northern Scotland or the Shetland or Faroe Islands, but drier. In summer it rains much less than most people think, normally......

We did not have so much rain on the outer islands and we could go out to shoot every day for many hours. The wind however was brutal this year. Nearly everyday we had stormy conditions with south westerlies or south easterlies. This means the wind is cold, very cold and sends greetings from Antarctica into the northern latitudes. In summer the wind direction tends normally to be more northern. The wind was so strong that giving instructions outdoors on location was just impossible and I lost my voice after two days. I really regret this as I planned to discuss some techniques on location not only in our accomodation. Taking pictures was possible, but within certain constraints. Most of the time we had winds force 5-7, gales even stronger. And in places like the Neck this means very tough conditions!

I must pay all of our group a big compliment. Whenever it was possible they stayed out in wind, rain and sun and where as long as possible at the places where the action was! Tough group!

The rain (and again strom) hit us hard at Volunteer. This place was just one big swamp and south easterlies sent us hail stones every hour. Some amazing pictures where possible due to the dark clouds, but a bit less rain and wind would have been appreciated.

Phoebe and King Penguin battling the elements at Volunteer

King Penguins - the stoic royals of the Falkland Islands

 

Yes they are pretty and they seem to know it!

The Falklands are the only place to see King Penguins without using cruise ships. They are very, very numerous on remote islands like South Georgia, Crozet, Kerguelen or Macquarie and are forming colonies of several 10.000 pairs. When the chicks have hatched and the parents are in the colony this means close to 100.000 birds in one place. It is an amazing sight (and smell), I have seen such colonies on South Georgia and I will never forget it.

The colony on Falkland is a bit smaller and in a grazed environment, but you will still enjoy it, they are just very pretty birds.

The Rockhoppers are incredible agile and noisy, the Kings are slow and all movements are deliberate. Definitly no high frame rate required! Courtship is very ritualized with slow movements and takes a long time. It is relaxing to watch them as you have to slow down to their pace. We watched a group of about 40 Kings for two days and they still could not decide whether to go into the ocean or not. No, they where not in moult! I could not understand their behaviour, sometimes there are sea lions lurking in the water but not for 48 hours. No idea what they where thinking!

The wet and stormy weather was very demanding, but it also created very powerfull photo opportunities, dark clouds, sun and flying sand. Judge yourself!

Courtship and more

and some more

Equipment - what worked, what failed

After all the royals on the Falklands, I think it is time to talk a little bit about the equipment used or not used. Normally the Falklands are not so hard on the equipment, but the days at The Neck and Volunteers with winds of 80 km/h or more blowing sticky sand into zipped pockets, nose and ears and on body and lenses, too, where different.

To make it short, nothing failed, all worked til the end!

I had brought following gear:

  • Canon EOS 7D II
  • Canon EF 100-400 II (the brand new one), EF 600 I (the very old one)
  • Pentax 645 Z (medium format)
  • Pentax 645 FA 150, FA 200, FA 400, FA 45-85, DA 28-45
  • I do not mention the Canon lenses and the Canon body ment only as backup
  • Tripod
  • Laptop, 3 external USB 3 disc drives, many batteries and many sd and CF cards

Some statistics frome lightroom, the numbers are rounded and do not add up. Overall I shot about 14000 frames resulting in 460 GB of data, a bit less than expected.

  • Canon EOS 7D II
  • Canon EF 100-400 II (the brand new one), EF 600 I (the very old one)Pentax 645 Z (medium format)
  • Pentax 645 FA 150, FA 200, FA 400, FA 45-85, DA 28-45
  • I do not mention the Canon lenses and the Canon body ment only as backup
  • Tripod
  • Laptop, 3 external USB 3 disc drives, many batteries and many sd and CF cards
Canon EOS 7D II10.700
Canon EF 100-400 II (the brand new one)10.500
Canon EF 600 I (the very old one)80
Pentax 645 Z (medium format)3800
Pentax 645 FA 1500
Pentax 645 FA 2002400
Pentax 645 FA 4000
Pentax 645 FA 45-85700
Pentax 645 DA 28-45700

 

 

 

Canon

The 7 D II worked as expected, some notes:

  • extremely fast and accurate AF, well done Canon
  • very good frame rate
  • very good exposure metering in all situations
  • usability is due to small body size and many knobs on the back limited (I had to disable some)
  • with gloves very difficult to change settings
  • good viewfinder (for APS-C)
  • sensor noise a bit dissapointing
  • dynamic range dissapointing, way behind competition
  • you need external grip to handle big lenses on tripod (small body size)
  • Canon Service should be mentioned, fast reliable, friendly, high quality

The new EF 100-400 is simply speaking a very good lens and perfect workhorse for wildlife. Sharp wide open, very sharp stepped down, good AF suitable also for flight shots, perfect zoom range. The IS could cope well with the windy conditions. A bit heavy but solid. The weatherproofing did not stand up to its promise. The external moving parts had to be taken apart due to the sandblasting on Volunteer and Neck beach. Nothing ended up in the optical elements, but I think there is still some room for improvement. The new lens hood is not a big step in the right direction. I doubt that it was a wise decision to introduce a locking mechanism for the lens hood. For me it was just cumbersome! I hardly can believe, that a bunch of engineers can not come up with better ideas or materials.

The old EF 600 I was absolutely disapointing on the 7D II, I have to check wether it was due to front/back focus, heavy winds or just bad luck. I used it only once, as the wind was way to strong for such a lens.

Pentax

The Pentax 645 Z is an unusual body for the Falklands and is as different to the 7D II as you can imagine and therefore can hardly be compared. In a way they make a superb team! There where no surprises, as I use the body for about 5 months now. It worked really well, showed no sign to succumb to the weather and produced lovely images. Most of the times I used the body in AF single mode, the AF was fast (of course many times slower than the Canon body) and precise. It was perfect for slow moving or static obejcts. The image quality and resolved detail is still amazing. Sometimes I tried AF continous, but this setting is more or less useless for animals as the AF points are all centered in the middle of the sensor. When usable, it worked ok, not great, but ok. Thats the downside of using components designed for APS-C bodies in medium format (but it is the only way to produce such a body at such a competitive prize point)

Usability of the body is by far better than the 7D II, sometimes bigger is better. I really like the TAv mode in wildlife or street photography and I do not understand why Canon has nothing comparable (Nikon has...). All the same I consider the older 645D much better than the 645Z regarding handling. The video mode resulted in very strange design decisions, which make the handling sometimes a pain.

Examples are the strange switching of modes of the 4-way controller or the different way to zoom in/out in live view or "normal display mode". Sometimes I do not understand engineers.....

 

The lens I used most was the FA 200, why not the FA 400 or FA 150? Due to the constant stormy conditions I simply prefered the stabilized 100-400 on a 7D II for the longer focal lengths. The better "theoretical" image quality of the Pentax combo would have been lost very often due to camera shake. Using a tripod in such conditions is, strange but true, is also not advisable. It is just to difficult to handle and the gales will result always in camera or tripod movements. It is a real pity that I could not use this lens. Next time.... The FA 150 was left in the bag, as changing lenses was often hardly possible without risking sand and dust entering the mirror box, therefore I decided to follow the save path. Mount the lens indoors and leave it there. And the FA 200 was just more flexible and very close in terms of image quality to the FA 150. The FA 200 performed very well, no complaints. The results are outstanding, I have never seen details of feathers better than with this combo!

I used both the old FA 45-85 and the new DA 28-45. No surprises there, the stabilized DA 28-45 is a bit wide for the Falklands, but the stabilizer was a real plus. The size and weight of this lens is again a strange decision. I have no idea about designing lenses, but this wideanlge zoom lens has a weight and size comparable to the 100-400 telephoto zoom by Canon. The 645Z is marketed as outdoor medium format system. Now designing a new lens with such a size/weight is a strange step!

One more very strange design decision by the Pentax engineers is the new design of the rubber coating of the zoom ring. Its pattern is so "narrow", that it hardly can be cleaned. I still try to get the sand grains out of the rubber coating. Nice idea to have two different rubber coatings for the zoom and "distance" ring, but it is poorly implemented. Why didn't they stick with the proven pattern of the FA zoom lenses? They have different rubber coatings for the rings as well, but much better for cleaning without any compromise in handling.

All wideangle King Penguins shots on Volunteer beach and the wideangle Rockhopper pics have been done with this lens, check it out. How good it really is, I will see during my next trip to Iceland in February.

Pentax 645Z - conclusion

  • good handling in such an environment, but some design decisions are simply regrettable
  • bigger is better (compared to the 7D II)
  • TAv mode is a blessing for wildlife photography
  • AF single works very well (of course no match for the 7D II)
  • AF continous hardly usable (the 7D II is worlds apart)
  • improved frame rate is good enough for many situations (of course not for real action shots)
  • exposure metering (matrix) in "white out" conditions (albatrosses, sunny sandy beach) is about 2 stops wrong and quite unreliable, very poor for such a body
  • dynamic range is superb (miles apart from 7D II), shadows can be opened tremendously
  • sturdy, withstood the sandblasting without any problems
  • last but not least I have to mention the not existing professional service of Pentax/Ricoh. I would even pay a couple of Euros to have a defined Service level. Having to send in parts of Pentax equipment means not to know whether you will have it back after 2 weeks or 2 months (I got my Canoan gear back after 5 days!).

Examples Pentax

Real world examples, all hand held in windy, mostly stormy conditions, sharpening never optimized for a picture, in lightroom 50, 0.8, 50, noise 6. The pictures are sometimes clipped. Lightroom information is always included in the 100% crop, to see aperture, focal length and shutter speed. Click to open 100% view of crop.

Examples Canon

Real world examples, all hand held in windy, mostly stormy conditions, sharpening never optimized for a picture, in lightroom 40, 0.8, 35, noise 6. The pictures are sometimes clipped. Lightroom information is always included in the 100% crop, to see aperture, focal length and shutter speed. Click to open 100% view of crop.

But now back to the fourth penguin species, Gentoos!

Gentoos, quick walkers, disputatious and sporty with their chicks

 

Gentoos are numerous and can be seen at many places in the Falkland Islands. They are very active, noisy, curious have interesting behaviour.

Unique is the way the parents feed their older chicks. They do not simply look for the chicks and feed them, that would be far to easy for good Gentoo parents. They have a different, very interesting, sometimes funny way to feed their half grown chicks:

 

They find the chicks, entice them and run away in full speed, sometimes right through the colony. The chicks follow in hot pursuit, stumbling, getting up again and so on. Good training for the kids and fun to watch, but not easy to photograph

 

Gentoos have another rather unique ability within all the other penguins. If the first clutch is lost, they often are able to produce a second clutch. This means, that you have all stages of chicks in a colony during Januar. Some parents are still on their eggs, some have very small chicks, which are not yet left alone and some are already in creches.

Enough words, now the pics!

Many thanks to

Before we see the last sections with pictures, it is time to say thank you to our hosts and all the people who contributed to this unforgettable 2 weeks on the Falkland Islands (in order of appearance)!

  • Graham and his team in Darwin, it was a perfect welcome for all of us
  • Mike and his team from Bleaker, many thanks for the Shogun, the excursion to the Giant Petrels and the excellent kitchen (wonderful toothfish!)
  • Suzan and David, it was a tough ride in pouring rain to the Neck......
  • Derek and Trudy for accomodating 8 people in such a small place with wonderfull food
  • Lisa and Adrian for their friendly and reliable taxi service

Black-browed Albatrosses - elegance or arrogance or both?

 

Of course it is wrong to use human emotions to describe animals, but it is simply impossible not to do so. Albatrosses are somehow immaculate birds, elegant and arrogant, pretty and tender and much more. Their courthship and greeting rituals are amazing, but their beaks are sharp as a razor, lots of contradictions!

Albatrosses are one of the few species, where you do not have many options on the Falklands. There are other places than Saunders and Carcass/West Point but there are difficult to go to. Therefore you it is a simple decision between two locations, if you want to watch these unique birds without difficult logistics!

 

Greeting and courting

Chicks

In flight - elegant and awkward

real beauties

 

After the elegance, it is time for a change. There are many attributes for the next species, but hardly elegance. At least not on land!

Southern Elephant Seals

 

January is a perfect month for all the birds, but it is not the best time for the gigantic Southern Elephant Seals. The big harem bulls are out on a wellness trip in the oceans to gain some weight, same with all the mothers. They return for moulting end of January. The weaned pubs have changed the land for the sea, only very view hang out on the beaches. All the same you still see plenty animals on the beach and this is impressive enough. Mostly medium sized bulls are beginning the moult and doing some mock fighting to train and establish a pecking order for the future.

It is worth checking the beaches and elephant corner is the place to go!

Cormorants and Geese

 

Somehow this year was no year for the King Shag and the numerous geese and ducks on the Falklands. Strange because there are so many different and pretty goose species.

At least I have got some good shots especially from the Falkland Island Flightless Steamer Duck, one of my favourite species on the Falklands!

The Predators

 

Where there is life there is death also. But before I mention, what we normally associate with predator, I have to talk about penguins again. Penguins are fierce predators, underwater killing machines. Buildt like torpedos to catch shrimp, squid and fish. They are cuddly and a bit awkward on land, but this changes in the environment where they live, when they do not breed.

No back to the birds preying on the young penguins, cormorants and all the other birdlife. "Real" birds of prey like falcons and buzzards do live on the Falklands and we have seen some, but the dominant predators are Striated Caracaras, one of the most endangered bird of prey world wide, Falkland Skuas and Giant Petrels. At all locations we had our share of photo opportunities of these species.

As usual the Caracaras have been curious and you really have to make sure nothing is left on the beach. Bags, cameras, tripods, everything is examined in a minute (and torn apart if possible). Be carefull. The Skuas are not as aggressive as their brethren on the northern hemisphere, but you still have to take care. If you get to close to a Caracara or Skua nest you will be divebombed, no fun, if you look at the talons of Caracaras!

Giant Petrels can be seen flying all the time, but their nesting areas are well protected, as any disturbance will be a reason for the birds to move the colony. On the Falklands these birds are really shy.

The line between predator and scavenger is blurred and all of the mentioned will kill and take carrion, whatever is easiest! Giant Petrels are considered "real" scavengers, but there are many stories, where trustworthy poeple have seen Giant Petrels taking penguin chicks. The only real scavenger I have in the little galery is a bird, which is seldom loved, the Snowy Sheathbill.

Whats left?

I am sure, that you now have a much better idea, why the Falklands are such a unique destination for naturalists, birders and of course photographers.

What else is to say?

I will be back in austral summer 2016/2017, again as a guide. The workshop can be booked already, tell your friends! This workshop was fully booked quite fast.

Contact me or Juergen (Falkland Foto Workshop), if you are interested!

Check out the Gallery with the pictures of the participants of this workshop. It is very interesting to see the Falklands through the eyes of different persons! Both pages are maybe the best collection of Falkland wildlife on the web!

At the end some shots of Stanley, where we had not much time this year and of Valparaiso, where be spent a wonderfull day before going back to Frankfurt!

 

Martin Zwick, February 2015

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