People travel to Antarctica for many reasons, but the birds definitely top a lot of lists.
In fact, you don’t even have to be a penguin lover to be impressed by all the bountiful bird life in this surreal, snow-swept region: Wandering albatrosses, Antarctic petrels, and south polar skuas are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
We at Oceanwide Expeditions have been providing polar expedition trips to the Arctic and Antarctica for over 25 years, and among our most consistently popular voyages are those that feature a wide range of bird-watching opportunities: Whether it’s the Arctic cliffs of Alkefjellet or Antarctica’s Snow Hill Island, the abundance of bird life in the polar regions is often a surprise to first-time visitors.
See also: Fun Facts About Penguins
Here are ten of the most popular birds we encounter (not including penguins, which we cover elsewhere) during our voyages to the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic.
1. Wandering Albatross
These beloved seabirds have the largest wingspan on the planet, roughly 3.5 meters (11.5 feet). As such, wandering albatrosses can fly great distances without even flapping their wings, using less energy in flight than they do sitting still.
2. Great Shearwater
We tend to spot these talkative seabirds around the remote Tristan da Cunha island chain, eating squid and fish, fighting over the scraps left behind the fishing boats. Only later in the season do we also see them farther south, between the Falklands and South Georgia.
3. Antarctic Petrel
The world’s southernmost breeding seabirds, Antarctic petrels (like others of their species) appear to dash over the water before taking flight. This is actually how they got their name, which refers to the water-walking Saint Peter.
4. Southern Fulmar
We most often encounter these tube-beaked birds around the South Sandwich Islands, South Shetlands, and South Orkneys. Southern fulmars like to gather in flocks along with Cape petrels, hunting for krill around whaling and fishing vessels.
5. South Polar Skua
These aggressive seabirds often attack people who get too close to their nests. But when south polar skuas are not breeding, they’re almost never seen on land. We tend to spot them around the Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands, and the Ross Sea.
6. Blue-Eyed Shag
Keeping year-round nests as long as the ice holds out, blue-eyed shags (also called imperial shags) are the only Antarctic species to do so. Blue-eyed shags used to be a welcome sight to sailors for this reason, since seeing them hinted at land nearby. These birds rarely venture far from their nests.
7. Antarctic Tern
These seabirds are close in appearance to Arctic terns, except that the Antarctic variety have gray wingtips instead of black. They’re also stockier than Arctic terns despite being still quite small, only around 31 – 38 cm (12 – 15 inches) long.
8. Striated Caracara
Also known as Johnny rooks, these dark-plumed raptors are naturally curious and will fearlessly approach humans. Striated caracaras are one of the world’s rarest raptors and the southernmost breeding bird of prey. We see them in the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
9. Cobb’s Wren
These small wrens are one of only two birds endemic to the Falkland Islands, the other being Falkland steamer ducks. Named after local bird writer and farmer Arthur Cobb, Cobb’s wrens have such a small population that they’re often given to inbreeding, which occasionally results in albinism.
10. Antarctic Prion
The largest of the prion species, Antarctic prions also go by the name “whale birds,” because they sift the water for crustaceans in the manner of baleen whales. We see these seabirds in the Antarctic islands as well as sub-Antarctic South Georgia.
For More About Antarctica’s Birds
This list represents only a small selection of the birds and seabirds we have the chance to see during our standard Antarctic expeditions. For a more detailed list, check out our 33-bird article, Birds of the South. Or if you’re interested in the Arctic species, see our 29-bird Birds of the North article.