From small snow petrels to the great wandering albatrosses, the seabirds of Antarctica are some of the most well adapted species on the planet, thriving in the strong sub-zero winds and icy waters of the polar region.
Penguins aren’t the only birds that populate the Antarctic. In fact, the cold, nutrient rich waters draw in millions of birds all year round, making this region a veritable birder’s paradise. Seabirds of all different shapes, sizes, and colors can be seen weathering the elements here in the southernmost part of our planet.
The rocky cliffs of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands (especially South Georgia & the Falkland Islands) make for the perfect home for these birds. Like most seabirds, they flock in the thousands or hundreds of thousands to the same breeding sites every year, where they can be seen performing stunning courtship displays and plunging into the polar waters to fish.
Because there are very few natural predators (aside from other birds hoping to snatch an egg), the populations of these southern seabirds are very healthy, numbering between 10,000 (in the case of the Antarctic Skuas) to over 4 million (for the snow petrels). One threat that both the giant petrels and wandering albatrosses face is the longline fisheries, in which they become tangled and drown when scavenging their food. Although this is a serious threat, it has not severely endangered the overall populations of these birds.
Like most animals that call the White Continent their home, the birds’ diet is based in the ocean itself. Krill and other invertebrates are the cornerstone of their diet, which also typically includes fish and squid. Some of the larger birds even eat carrion, eggs, and chicks. In the competitive Antarctic food chain, the food is abundant, but getting to it can be the hardest part. While the petrel species tend to make shallow dives, the larger birds are pirates and often steal food from feeding chicks or other birds.
: The majority of the Antarctic seabirds build meager nests out of small piles of stones on rocky islets and in crevices of the rugged island cliffs. Because of the considerable population size, real estate is often hard-fought and precious, but temporary, lasting for just one breeding/ nesting season.
One exception to this nesting behavior is the Blue-Eyed Shag, which builds an impressive nest of mud and seaweed that can last for years when maintained and repaired by the returning Shags.
To survive on the icy shores of the polar seas, these birds have evolved unique adaptations that allow them to thrive. The biggest advantage birds have is their feathers, which are able to quickly wick water from their bodies and dry after they have dived for food. Since blood doesn’t flow through the feathers, they insulate while not losing any body heat. Other than the snowy sheathbill, all other Antarctic birds have webbed feet, which makes them adept at diving to get fish, krill, other invertebrates, and crustaceans.
Some birds you will likely spot as you cruise through the southern ocean are:
- Snow Petrels (Pagodroma nivea): These small birds are aptly named for their snow-white feathers and beautiful resemblance to doves.
- Cape Petrels/ Cape Pigeon (Daption capense): A cousin of the snow petrel, cape petrels share many of the same behaviors like nesting in colonies along rocky cliffs, but are distinguished by dark gray heads and flecks of gray in their feathers, which gives them their alternate name, the cape pigeon.
- Giant Petrels (Macronectes giganteus): The biggest of the Antarctic petrel species actually resemble the albatross in many ways, like their size, appearance, and diet.
- Blue-Eyed (Imperial) Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps): The piercing blue skin around the eyes earn these southernmost cormorants their name. These birds are notorious thieves, often stealing nesting materials from other shags’ nests to make their own.
- Antarctic Skuas (Catharacta maccormicki): Also known as the South Polar Skuas, they can be aggressive and territorial. When scavenging for food, they have been known to make other birds regurgitate their food. If something unwanted gets too close to their nest, a flurry of threatening displays and admonishing squawks can be expected.
- Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis albus): Because sheathbills are the only Antarctic birds without webbed feet, they are unable to fish. This has made them some of the least picky eaters in the Antarctic, willing to feast on nearly anything they can find, from carrion to eggs and even leftover food that has not been fully digested by other birds.
- Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans): The monogamous albatross is perhaps the most impressive bird in the Antarctic, with a wingspan between 3 and 3.5m (10-11.5 ft). Their unique ability to soar allows them to conserve energy on journeys of thousands of miles that can last between 10-20 days as they scour the seas for food. Very few other animals can travel such great distances, and over a lifetime (around 60 years) it has been posited that no other animal travels as much as they do.