Birds of Antarctica – A Geographic Guide
On a voyage to Antarctica, most people are excited about seeing the amazing scenery, icebergs, seals, whales and penguins. However, the incredible birds found during our voyages also offer quite a bit of excitement, and the moment we set sail on our journey we get to enjoy some of the abundant flying birdlife of the Southern Ocean.
Ushuaia is home to some spectacular species and birders might want to have a few extra days to look for some of the land birds, such as the endemic Magellanic Woodpecker, Austral Parakeet, Thorn-tailed Rayadito and even the world’s most southerly hummingbird, the Green-backed Fire Crown. Along the shoreline of the Beagle Channel male Kelp Geese often stand prominently on rocks, their pure white plumage and bright yellow legs are very conspicuous. Always look carefully nearby, as the female is bound to be close, she is dark with wonderfully barred feather patterns to blend in with the kelp. Flightless Steamer Ducks abound, they are a large duck with very short wings and instead of flying if danger approaches, they flap over the water surface, creating a wake of broken water and looking just like a paddle steamer.
Right at the harbour in Ushuaia we often see Dolphin Gulls with their bright red bills swooping to check out any scraps and competing with Chimango Caracara that perch on lamp posts. These small hawk-like birds are the most common raptor in Patagonia and are smart and adaptable. As the ship leaves the quayside, Kelp Gulls swoop down to grab at squat lobsters dislodged from the seabed by the ship’s bow thrusters.
The Beagle Channel
As soon as we begin our journey in the Beagle Channel we start to see some of the ocean wanderers, birds adapted to spend their lives at sea, only going ashore to breed. Our first sighting is often juvenile Northern Giant Petrels, large dark birds with a fierce eye and robust bill with a reddish beak tip. With a wingspan of 2m / 6ft6’’ they the largest of the order Procellariiformes, the tube-nosed seabirds or petrels. Black-Browed Albatross are also always in the channel, sitting like large ducks if there is no wind. They are the most common and widespread of the family, magnificent flyers with dark plumage from wingtip to wingtip, pure white body and head, black tail feathers and a raffish dark eyebrow and yellow-orange beak.
The islands in the Beagle Channel are home to Rock Shags (with black necks and red eye rings) and Imperial Cormorants (white-necked and blue-eyed) that fly back and forth and towards the entrance of the channel, we pass an island made white by nesting South American Terns. We often see our first penguins as Magellanic Penguins are often found here. As we come towards the entrance of the channel Sooty Shearwaters begin to skim the wave tops. These dusky plumaged birds breed in huge numbers in the Falkland Islands and also on many of the islands at the Southern tip of South America. They migrate thousands of miles each year outside of the austral summer breeding season they head north, as far as northern Norway, Greenland and Labrador, covering 14,000 km (8,700 miles) each year.
THE DRAKE PASSAGE
For many waking up in the Drake passage can be un-nerving as the ocean is in motion, but it is always worth going straight out onto the stern deck to see what is following us – almost always a gaggle of Northern and Southern Giant Petrels. Distinguished by the colour of the tip of their beaks (reddish in northern, greenish in southern) and subtle plumage variations, both species go greyer with age. Only the Southern Giant Petrel has a nearly pure white morph – about 10% of Southern Giant Petrels have this plumage variation (old sailor’s call them white nellies). Giant petrels are like the vultures of the Southern Ocean, feeding on carcasses at sea and land, but also on fish, squid, and offal thrown from fishing boats.
Out in the open ocean is where we find the truly magnificent giants of the bird world – the two species with the longest wingspan of any bird- exceeding 3m (10ft) – the Royal and Wandering Albatross. Like the giant petrels they can be hard to tell apart at sea. The two species of Royal albatross, Northern and Southern, have a black line on their bills and the Wandering Albatross has a pink/ochre patch over their ear coverts, tend to have some black tail feathers and the underwing pattern is subtly different as well. They take up to seven years to reach sexual maturity and their plumage pattern changes each year, getting whiter with age. They remain out at sea for the first four or five years of their lives, resting on the sea, or even on the wing. They have a bone spur that acts as a wing lock, so they do not use any muscle energy to keep their wings out and use the edge of waves to soar over the sea surface. They can circumnavigate the globe on one feeding flight when they have a chick to feed.
In the Drake Passage as well as more common black-browed albatross we look out for Grey-headed Albatross and the exquisite Light-mantled Albatross. Both species breed in South Georgia. Soft Plumaged Petrels skitter on the wing and Prions hug the waves. Tiny Wilson’s Storm Petrels dance over our wake, dipping down and scooping food particles from the ocean surface. Looking like swallows of the ocean, they are one of the most numerous birds in the world.
After crossing over the Antarctic convergence where the colder Antarctic water meets the slightly warmer waters of the Subantarctic, we begin to see different species. We have the excitement of our first porpoising penguins and we are often joined by a trail of Cape Petrels, with their checkerboard black and white plumage. Hidden amongst the big flock we need to be vigilant for the brown wing-edged Antarctic Petrel, that fly with their cousins.
Reaching Antarctica and the calmer waters and channels between the islands we lose our ocean wanderers but begin to see birds associated with the continent – Brown and South Polar Skuas, Kelp Gulls, and Antarctic Shags. We try to spot the exquisite pure white plumaged Snow Petrels and enjoy the spectacle of flocks of Southern Fulmars gliding over the sea surface. There is always so much birdlife to see and enjoy on a trip to Antarctica!