The Outer Limits

Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt blogs from his trip to the Falklands

As a child, there are certain birds you imagine will always remain within the covers of books.

For me, this was never more true than of albatrosses. I could, in my wildest daydreams, just about conceive of trekking to see Andean Condors, or birds-of-paradise, or kookaburras or roadrunners. Some of those daydreams have even been fulfilled.

But albatrosses? No. Not being of seafaring stock, the chances looked just too slim. Even if I was ever to find myself in the southern oceans, their utter vastness would be too much. Needles and haystacks sprung to mind.

The odd Black-browed Albatross turned up in Scottish Gannet colonies, justifying their presence in European field guides. But that just made it worse. So near, yet so far. The now-legendary ‘Albert Ross’, a bird that returned to the northern UK until the mid-90s, was just too early for me to twitch. The nearest I got was watching the Fulmars at Scarborough, or Hunstanton.

All of which lent a dream-like quality to the short boat trip across from Carcass Island to West Point Island. Off the north-west corner of West Falkland, they’re isolated even by Falkland standards, but of course that’s what makes them perfect nesting sites for some of the world’s most extraordinary seabirds.

So, suddenly, as you get close to West Point’s towering cliffs, you realise that the large flocks on the water all around are not yet more Kelp Gulls. They’re bigger, they sit higher in the water, and as soon as you get the binoculars on them you can see that they’re meeting your gaze with a stern, disapproving glare. Black-browed Albatrosses.

That would have been enough. Not the odd bird, but hundreds, some just feet from the boat. I could have gone home a happy man. But what makes West Point a must-visit if you’re in the Falklands is the fact that those first views of flocks feeding at sea are just the starter. The main course is utterly extraordinary.

You can walk or be driven the short way across the island to the promontory of Devil’s Nose, but whichever you choose you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Around 500 pairs of Rockhopper Penguins and 2,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatrosses nest here on the steep, grassy westward-facing slopes (you can imagine the clamour, and the smell). It’s a measure of how staggering the albatrosses’ presence is that you can find yourself forgetting the penguins are there, charismatic as they are.

Part of that is because of the contrast between the albatrosses’ frowning, slightly intimidating appearance, and their ultra-confiding behaviour. Time and again, as you push through the thick tussock-grass, you find yourself within touching distance of one.

Sometimes it’s the adult birds, and it’s a wonderful chance to get an idea of their very considerable size (think Gannet, or a smallish goose) and the beautiful subtleties of their plumage.

More often, it’s a grey, downy youngster, sitting atop a pedestal nest. Care needs to be taken not to startle the birds, because a youngster that falls off the nest won’t be fed, but they seem pretty unflappable, if you’ll excuse the pun.

The chicks take 120-130 days to fledge, after which they head out to sea, only returning after around three years. After that, they take another seven or so years before they actually breed – the intervening time is spent in practicing courtship rituals.

The long journeys that lie ahead are all the harder to take in as you watch the young birds. They’re even clumsier on the ground than their parents, who use little downhill grass runways on the hillside to launch themselves into the air.

Once they ,do, though, they’re transformed. Those immensely long, narrow wings are merely twitched every now and then as they find and ride the air currents swirling around the cliffs. As you watch, you become aware of certain fixed flightpaths being used by bird after bird, each aerial highway shifting position slowly over the course of an hour or two.

And of course, you’re sat high but perfectly safe on the cliffs, with albatrosses flashing across above and below you. Gaze out to sea, and as far as the horizon there are albatrosses skimming the surface of the waves. For all you can tell, they stretch away in a swirling, At times you can feel you’re gliding out there too, so complete is your immersion in this overwhelming experience.

There’s one final disorientating contrast to take in, in that five minutes after being in the midst of this extraordinary mass of bird-life, you can be enjoying a very British cuppa and cake in the island’s farmhouse.

That mixture of the homely and the genuinely fantastic is typical of the islands, but nowhere is it so pronounced as on West Point. If you’ve come this far, from home and those childhood daydreams, make sure you go that bit further, to the outer islands, and the outer limits of your birding imagination.