Speedwell Island (formerly Eagle Island) is one of the Falkland Islands, lying in the Falkland Sound, southwest of Lafonia, East Falkland.
The island has an area of 51.5 km2 (19.9 sq mi). It is about 17.5 km (10.9 mi) from north to south and 5 km (3.1 mi) wide at its central part.
It is generally low lying and has been used as a sheep farm for more than a hundred years. It is separated from Lafonia by the Eagle Passage, which takes its name from Speedwell Island’s old name.
Speedwell Island is the largest of the Speedwell Island group, which includes the Elephant Cays, George Island, Barren Island and Annie Island.
The island is rodent-free, and thus a haven for penguins including the Magellanic penguin, which is the southernmost distributed species of the banded penguins. Various other nesting seabirds occur. The island is operated as a sheep farm.
History of Speedwell Island
In 1812 the British ship Isabella, captained by George Higton, was shipwrecked off “Eagle Island” (as it was then) Most of the crew were rescued by the American sealer Nanina, commanded by Captain Charles Barnard.
However, realising that they would require more provisions for the expanded number of passengers, Barnard and a few others went out in a party to retrieve more food. During his absence the Nanina was taken over by the British crew and left them on the island. Barnard and his party were finally rescued in November of 1814.
In 1829 Barnard wrote A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures of Capt. Charles Barnard detailing the happenings. The 1837 survey of the Falkland Islands under Lowcay noted that there were wild pigs on the island.
In 1929, Alexander Dugas, a Frenchman employed on Sealion Island committed suicide and his companions felt it necessary to inform the authorities. But the lack of harbours meant that no boat of any size could be kept on the island and so a determined individual called Benny Davis constructed a make-shift craft from wooden barrels and launched it into the surf.
The remarkable sailor set out just before dark, and arrived at Speedwell Island some twelve hours later. He explained that he had simply headed west and then taken his direction from the smell of the cormorants on Annie Island.
More than 40 species have been recorded on Speedwell Island. One of the largest rat-free islands in the Falklands, it has a thriving population of native songbirds including the endemic Cobb’s Wren, and the ponds provide excellent waterfowl habitat. George and Barren Islands hold the most accessible large breeding colonies of Southern Giant Petrels in the Falklands, which are attractive to tourists.
There are significant numbers of Rock and Imperial Shags on Speedwell and Annie Islands, and a colony of Sooty Shearwaters at the northern point of George Island.
More than 10,000 pairs of seabirds breed on a regular basis, which means the IBA qualifies under the A4iii criterion.
Twenty-seven species have been recorded on or near Annie Island. Of these, 24 were either breeding or probably breeding, including eight of the nine native songbirds, only the Falkland Pipit being absent. Canary-winged/Black-throated Finch, Tussacbird and Magellanic Snipe seemed particularly numerous. With Cobb’s Wren breeding and the large number of small landbirds, it is almost certainly free of rats.
The only colonial birds noted were Rock and Imperial Shags, which jointly occupied a colony on the south-eastern cliff.
Endemic subspecies present within the group include White-tufted/Rolland’s Grebe, Upland Goose, Black-crowned Night-heron, Short-eared Owl, Dark-faced Ground-tyrant, Falkland Pipit, Falkland Grass Wren, Falkland Thrush and Longtailed Meadowlark.
Other species of interest
The breeding colony of Southern Sea Lions in Speedwell Pass produces about 90 pups annually and the animals haul out on most islands, including Annie. Southern Elephant Seals also visit the islands, but do not breed. The Tussac-covered Emily and Tiny Islands and the Knob Islets are all heavily used by Southern Sea Lions and Southern Elephant Seals as haul-out sites.
Flowering plants on Speedwell Island have been sampled but not surveyed intensively. On Annie Island, at least 35 species of flowering plants were found in December 2001. Of these, 25 were native plants, including large areas of Bluegrass Poa alopecurus, Falkland Cudweed Gamochaeta malvinensis and the endemic Smooth Falkland Ragwort Senecio vaginatus. The other 10 were common farmland weeds, originally from Europe.
The rat-free status of all islands in this group makes them especially important for small songbirds. Further survey work is needed to establish the presence and numbers of species on all islands in the group. All visitors should be informed about the dangers of accidentally introducing alien species to the islands.
Tourism on George and Barren is well managed. The islands are usually visited by small expedition ships that have a high ratio of staff to passengers. Strict measures are taken to prevent disturbance to breeding birds especially Southern Giant Petrels, which are particularly sensitive and liable to leave their eggs. It is very important that the Falkland Islands Countryside Code is followed, particularly to guard against the risk of fire.