New Island is one of the finest wildlife areas in the Falklands, largely because of its variety and density of bird life. More than two million seabirds inhabit the island and its surrounding smaller islands.
Significant populations of several globally threatened or endangered species breed there: Magellanic, Gentoo & Rockhopper penguins, more than 13,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatross (often sharing their rookeries with King Cormorants), Striated Caracara and small numbers of Giant Petrel and Sooty Shearwater. For this reason, the reserve holds Important Bird Area (IBA) status. Overall, the island has 39 regularly breeding species of bird; 65% of the total breeding species found in the Falkland Islands. Seabirds make up the largest numbers, followed by geese, passerines, birds of prey and shorebirds.
Passerines, or song birds, such as the Falkland Thrush, Falkland Pipit, Meadowlark and Black-chinned Siskin are common and breed successfully on the reserve. Pipits, Meadowlarks, Grass Wrens and the Black-throated Finch in particular rely on good stands of tall native grasses to make their nests in. Re-vegetation on the island has ensured that these species now have plenty of breeding habitat.
The Short-eared Owl can be found on New Island, and this bird also nests and roosts in cinnamon, tussac and blue couch grass, although it is possible that the owl’s success may be limited by the presence of a large number of Striated Caracaras.
On the shoreline it is possible to see large numbers of Pied and Blackish Oystercatchers, Crested Patagonian Ducks, Flightless Falkland Steamer Ducks and Kelp Geese, with flocks of the tiny Two-banded Plover and an occasional Sand Piper. Dominican and Dolphin Gulls, sometimes neighboured by South America Terns, can also be found breeding on the reserve’s coast, usually moving breeding site from year to year.
The sheer, exposed cliffs provide the perfect home for the elusive Peregrine Falcon. Red-backed Buzzards share the slightly more accessible cliff edges, building large nests of diddle-dee twigs.
After dark, the night comes alive with calls from petrels returning to their burrows from long foraging trips at sea. Hundreds of thousands of Thin-billed Prions flock back to greet their partners or to feed waiting chicks. The much larger White-chinned Petrel and the Sooty Shearwater are uncommon on New Island, but small numbers do breed, sharing the hillsides with their smaller relatives.
“Johnny Rook”: The Striated Caracara is a rare and intriguing bird of prey originating from Southern South America… a powerful and intelligent raptor with an often rook-like, comical character. Locally nick-named “Johnny Rook”, this caracara has made a stronghold on New Island since its persecution was banned.
In 1972 when Ian Strange took over New Island, no Striated Caracaras were breeding on the island. By the mid-1980’s still only 7 pairs were recorded as breeding. At our last count in 2007, 85 territorial pairs of Striated Caracara were recorded on New Island with the majority breeding successfully every year. In the last few years, the Crested Caracara has become more apparent on the reserve also. The Striated Caracara lays 2-3 eggs in early November and young fledge around early February.
Thin-billed prion: New Island hosts the largest breeding colony of this species in the world. Prions breed all over the island, from hill tops to sea level.A relatively detailed survey was carried out in 2001/02, giving an estimated 1,081,000 apparently active nest burrow entrances on New Island South (Catry et al. 2003). Similar numbers most likely occur on the Northern half of New Island, meaning that the reserve holds a potential breeding population of over 2 million Thin-billed Prion pairs! Further survey work in the future will confirm if this is so, but New Island remains one of the most valuable nesting sites for this small, burrowing petrel to be found anywhere in the world.
There are no native land mammals in the Falkland Archipelago, although several have been introduced. Marine mammals however are fairly abundant. The New Island reserve protects an important percentage of the Islands’ breeding population of the Falkland Islands Fur Seal, and is an important feeding ground for a number of other marine mammals including large groups of Peale’s Dolphin (often a different pod in each of the Island’s many bays) and small numbers of Killer Whales and other cetaceans. Sea Lions also frequent New Island’s tussac-fringed shores. Commerson’s Dolphins are less common around New Island but may be found nearby in the sheltered bays of Weddell Island. During the late summer, it’s common to sight Sei, Fin and Minke whales on their migration north.
New Island’s natural environment and its wildlife suffered a great deal due to the exploits of man prior to 1972. Because of extensive stock grazing and the introduction of non-native grasses, the island presents an interesting example of the re-establishment of native vegetation following the removal of this stock. The island will probably never revert to its original pristine state, but as a model for the study of re-vegetation it is perhaps unique. Today, there are many encouraging signs of native grasses such as tussac, cinnamon and blue couch grass re-colonising areas that were seemingly held by well-established stands of invasive species such as Yorkshire fog.
For marine species, the island’s extensive coastal environment provides a wide range of habitats for kelps such as the Giant Kelp and Tree Kelp and algae such as Durvillea antarctica, Durvillea caepestipes and a sea lettuce species which is the main feed of a common Falkland shorebird, the Kelp Goose.
A thorough botanical survey of New Island was carried out in 2010/11, and the survey report can be found by clicking here.