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Pretty Good for a Five-Species Day

Text by Hugh Powell, Images by Chris Linder

I’ve been in Antarctica for two weeks, traveled more than 800 sea miles, and enjoyed daylight the whole time. And yet my trip list is still well under 10 species. But what species they are!

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In addition to a warm jacket and a pair of convertible mittens, I brought along Peter Harrison’s Seabirds field guide. Most of the range maps use a typical world map that ends at the Antarctic Circle. Our ship is about 600 miles south of the end of those maps.

For most of the world’s seabirds that makes sense, even the hardy seabirds of the Southern Ocean. For the few that do go farther south, the book’s range maps switch to a polar projection. Instead of a rectangular world map with North America in the center, it shows a circle with the whole continent of Antarctica at the center.

Exactly five species get that treatment: Emperor, Adélie, and Chinstrap Penguins, and Snow and Antarctic Petrels. I’ve seen four of these so far, and I don’t have much hope of seeing Chinstrap Penguins, as they occur around most of the continent but don’t dip south into the Ross Sea.

I’ve seen three other, wider-ranging species as well. These include the rascally South Polar Skua, which reconnoiter our ship even when we’re many miles out to sea. A few also hang out at McMurdo Station, where even penguins are unusual sightings, and dive-bomb anyone who tries to go outside with a sandwich.

A bit farther north I was surprised to see Wilson’s Storm-Petrels scampering among the wave tops with their incessant darting flight. These birds breed on the islands around Antarctica, but they’re a familiar sight in the North Atlantic, just a few miles offshore from many parts of the East Coast.

As our ship approached Cape Adare, where one of the scientists is studying deepwater currents, we started to see rafts of Adélie Penguins lounging in the 33-degree water. Some were rolling over on their backs and scrubbing their bellies with their flippers. Cape Adare, at the north end of the Ross Sea, holds the world’s largest Adélie Penguin colony, with roughly 150,000 pairs.

Now we were far enough north to see big, dark, albatross-shaped birds. But these didn’t fly with the majestic, rolling-and-soaring motion of an albatross; they hugged the water surface and labored on long, flapping wings. As they got close I could see their pale bills topped with a tube that seemed as wide as a flute. These were Southern Giant-Petrels.

After two weeks spent mostly out of sight of land, I still haven’t gotten tired of our two most frequent companions, Snow Petrels and Antarctic Petrels. The larger of the two, Antarctic Petrels, are harlequin-winged—brown leading edges and white trailing edges, with matching brown-tipped white tails.

But it’s the gorgeous Snow Petrel, white as a sleigh blanket, that I watch the most. Perhaps it’s this bird’s unexpected icy brilliance that captivates me, or the way it takes on every shade of gray as the weather changes, just as real snow does. But I think it’s the hopefulness of encountering something so delicate and utterly fearless in these great spaces between Antarctica’s mountains.

These two often pace our ship, the Snow Petrels in groups of 7 to 20; the Antarctic Petrels in numbers up to 100. They drift outside the portholes, motionless but keeping pace with us at 12 knots. On calm days they ring our ship with stiff beats of their wings. As the wind freshens they criss-cross above the bridge and then glide down into the swell, so steady in their trajectory that the occasional buffet or gust is the only reminder that these are tiny birds.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library