Antarctic Animals Part One: Birds

When I visited the Arctic the cry of the Arctic Tern punctuated every move and here at the bottom of the world it is just the same. Every day I hear that unmistakable squawk and can easily spot the elegant swooping shape of the little white Tern with its black cap. (They weigh approx 130kg with a wingspan of 85cm).

There are Arctic Terns and Antarctic Terns, they all winter at one end of the planet and swap over to breed at the other end, a mighty migration of 35,000km and the furthest by wing of any animal.

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Me filming Arctic Terns in Svalbard 2017

I have seen Kelp gulls here which look pretty similar to your average Brighton Herring Gull; the interesting thing about Kelp Gulls is the limpets they eat, the biggest I have ever seen and each one is polished on top and inside as if it has been individually made by a ceramicist and decorated with lustre ware glaze.

The commonest birds on Deception Island seem to be the Antarctic Cormoronts known as Blue Eyed Shags, as the name suggests they are easily identified by their blue eyes and in flight their long neck sticks out with the wings far behind on the small body.

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Skua. About as tall as my knee

There are plenty of Skuas around, chunky bullet shaped birds known to be aggressive and dive bomb people’s heads. The nesting pairs at Deception seem to be quite used to scientists going about their business, other than warning you off by swooping near your head if you get too close, they keep calm.

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Skuas at the blue lake moss carpet

One of our sample sites up behind the Argentinian station was on a moss carpet near to the nest of a pair of Skuas with a baby. They had squawked and flapped at us a few times and when they were happy with our distance from their offspring they flew away to go hunting.

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Baby creeping up

The baby however, which was one of the ugliest chicks I’ve ever seen, was most curious about us and our kit, it kept stalking nearer and nearer on its scaly too long legs. We knew the parents would have a fit if they returned to find the baby near us so had to try to shoo it back to the nest without looking as if we were attacking it and whilst taking temperature readings and moss samples and trying not to really scare it. Luckily the scraggy baby got bored and returned to its sorry looking nest by a piece of driftwood before Mr and Mrs Skua got back. We could sample the rest of the moss without fear of incoming talons and beaks.

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Baby Skua’s nest

From the bows of Hesperides I have seen the legendary Albatross, birds of myth and legend believed to be the reincarnated souls of men lost at sea. It is hard to tell exactly which species we have spotted they all look similar, soaring fast right down to the water so that it looks as if they skim the waves with the tips of their wings. My photographs are not worth seeing.

I think we have seen Royal, Sooty, and maybe – I hope – a Wandering Albertross which has a peach patch on its cheek.

Looking out onto the never ending waves of Drake Passage from the ship I cannot get any scale on these birds, I know they are huge, having a wingspan of up to 3.5m and weighing up to 11kg but against waves and sky there is nothing to gauge size against.

The only time I have had something to compare the size of the Albatross to was when visiting the Chinstrap penguins on Deception Island.

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Freezing walk to the pinguinera on Deception

I try my best not to anthropomorphise wild animals but with penguins it is basically impossible. Their faces are, as with many birds, fairly expressionless but their bodies and wings, seemingly so unfit for purpose on land are bursting with character.

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Teenage penguins looking scruffy

They live in a horrible place, on top of a cliff in the icy wind, a place full of squawking pecking fighting neighbours in a stinking pile of shit and feathers with enormous birds circling overhead ready to pick off the weakest.

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Setting off

Looking stoically resigned and each appearing to have got dressed in a suit a little to small for his form they go about making the journey to the sea and back.

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Up and down the cliff

(In the pic above you can see the red rock which is the lava from the volcano where it flowed down to the sea. The green bits are where things are growing on the areas covered in penguin poo. While I was at Deception there was a group of scientists studying the special moss that grows here. The yellow thing is one of our bags.)

Down the cliff they go, a near vertical cliff littered with the remains of their kind who did not make it, through the jagged rock pools they go, waves crashing onto their bent heads and hungry sea lions waiting to gobble them up.

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Didn’t make it

They go to hunt fish and krill at sea, to return, make the journey back through the rock pools and past the sea lions up the cliff and to regurgitate their supper into the gaping mouths of their scruffy chicks.

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Pink poo from krill

Then they turn their little black backs to the wind and have a short rest before shuffling off to do it all again.

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I saw a scene in the fog, of a penguin standing by a rock looking on as a huge bird pecked at some dead thing, presumably its chick. It brought a tear to my eye as I thought of all the effort that awkward dedicated shuffling body had put into its baby.

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Death Rock

Anyway, the point was, the bird was HUGE. Chinstraps are about 75cm high – man for scale below – and this Petrol was gigantic – Albatrosses are even bigger.

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Man for scale

I visited the other Pinguinarea at Neptune’s Bellows and it seemed much nicer, maybe just because the weather was better. We were dropped at the beach before climbing up the cliff along with all the penguins who carried on regardless, walking slowly and determinedly up the near vertical slippery cliff on their quests to feed the demanding teenagers at its summit.

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Nicer day

I’ve seen a few Gentoo Penguins which are a bit bigger than the chinstraps.

In other bird news we have spotted Storm Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Black – browed Albatross.

I was hoping to see a Snow Petrel but no luck as yet.

Below is me drawing penguins on Deception Island, a chilly experience.

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1 thought on “Antarctic Animals Part One: Birds”

  1. Wonderful descriptions B, your writing is so amusing, lyrical and atmospheric.
    Monday morning, and I am taking a feather from the penguins book by following their stoic example ! X


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