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Birdwatching in Antarctica

If you’re a birdwatcher, you’ll already know that birdwatching can take you into some pretty stunning environments, but birdwatching in Antarctica is near the top of the list. You’ll most likely be in Antarctica on a cruise and, while no doubt you’ll be agog at the ice, at the abundant and naïve wildlife, the dramatic and rugged scenery and a palpable sense of remoteness and isolation you can only get by being at the end of the world, I’m sure the keen birdwatcher in you will kick in and make plenty of time for keeping an eye out for our feathered friends.

Your ship will cast off from Ushuaia in the late afternoon and there will be welcome drinks and briefings and dinner, but it may be dark as you make your way down the Beagle Channel. If so, the start of your Antarctic birding adventure will have to wait until morning when you wake up to find yourself in the Drake Passage.

Tips for observing sea birds of the Drake Passage

The first thing you’ll notice as you get your bearings and look to the horizon is that there is no land in any direction; the next is that out here in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as the Southern Ocean, there are birds everywhere around the ship (of course, these are all pelagic birds which spend their lives at sea except for when the time comes to breed). Time to run back to your cabin to fetch your camera and binoculars, and don’t forget your beanie and gloves – it can get chilly out on deck.

If you stand out on an exposed, windy spot in a stiff Southern Ocean breeze you may not last long out on deck. A good place to head for the deck at the back of the ship – “aft”, the old salts say – not only will this offer some protection from the biting wind, but many birds seem to be following the ship, so this is prime position.

I’m sure at first you’ll either look for or notice the larger birds such as petrels and albatrosses, which are more obvious than others. You may need to train your eyes to pick out the fleeting, darting little specks against the shiny, black waves.

As I mentioned earlier, many birds appear to be following the ship, either in the expectation of cadging a morsel or two – a habit learned since early whaling days when seabirds trailed whaling or fishing boats for whatever may have been discarded, or perhaps because the ship creates a lee that makes it easier for the birds to cruise as they search for food on the ocean’s surface, much like a slipstream.

As many birds are flying along at more or less the same speed as the ship this can provide plenty of opportunities to observe or photograph them. Then there are birds that appear from the horizon and either fly across the ship or speed past it in the opposite direction; these birds often don’t give you a second chance so you really need to keep an eye out to the horizon all around the ship rather than focusing only on the birds before you that surround the ship.

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Wandering albatross – Drake Passage

Birds of the Drake Passage and Antarctica

So, which birds can you see? Here’s an overview of some of the most common sea birds you’ll see as you travel along the Drake. 


Let’s start with the larger species and work our way down from there. I’m sure you’ll be excited about the possibility of seeing the ‘great’ albatrosses, specifically the Royal Albatross, but also the Wandering Albatross, the loping giant with the broadest wingspan in the world.

I was on the Drake Passage for four days and only saw ‘great’ albatrosses on one of these days (but got many good sightings of them on that day), so you have to be out on deck looking for them. They may appear on the far horizon off the back of the ship or they can fly in out of nowhere, but you’ll know them when you see them as their size is unmistakable, as well as by the mottled white patch across their upper wing.

Trying to tell them apart presents something of an identification challenge as the key difference seems to be that a Wanderer has a faintly black-tipped tail (whereas the Royal’s tail is all white), and the Royal also has a thin black line on its lower beak which you can virtually only make out with the aid of a high-resolution zoom lens.

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A light-mantled albatross. 

The medium-sized albatrosses such as the Black-browed Albatross, the Grey-headed Albatross and the sootier Light-mantled Albatross appear to be much more numerous and were seen on all four days.

Whereas the ‘great’ Albatrosses tend to keep their distance from the ship, these medium albatrosses come much closer, especially the Light-mantled which came so close that on numerous occasions I found myself having to zoom out to fit the bird within the frame, having felt its wingtips practically touching the end of my lens. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration but I’m sure you’ll become intimately acquainted with this gregarious bird.

Albatrosses are special because of their size and for the graceful way they glide barely above the wave crests, needing nary a single half-hearted flap, as well as for the way they soar from side to side in the ocean winds, from down near the ocean’s surface where it seems they are practically dipping their wingtips into the water, to banking high against the horizon, that iconic shot where they’re at full tilt showing you their full upper wing or underwing – click!

Giant Petrels

Giant Petrels fly in a very similar way to albatrosses, banking high and also wave-hopping. They are fascinating, with a large, reptilian beak, and different blotchy colour variations, depending on their age. There are Northern and Southern Giant Petrels but I must admit that I couldn’t be bothered trying to determine which variety I kept seeing (the ornithologist on the ship’s expedition team affirmed it was always the Southern version), whereas identification of the various albatrosses was much more fun.

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A Southern Giant Petrel glides through the air. 


There are a few medium-sized birds, the most numerous of which is the Cape Petrel, which is unmistakable for the blotchy white patches on its black upper wing. These birds know how to flock together, and every now and then they may sit on the ocean at some inexplicable signal, holding a party of sorts as they bob up and down.

There is also an Antarctic Petrel but I only saw this bird on one day of the four, although it seemed to like hanging around the ship and offered me numerous fly-pasts at a relatively close distance.

Antarctic Prion

Of the smaller species, the Antarctic Prion is the most plentiful. I fell in love with this plucky little bird, taking on the wild Southern Ocean with a body about the size of a Starling yet with a heart the size of an albatross. The prion has a beautiful M-shaped pattern across its upper wing which is awe-inspiring when set against the dark blue ocean only a foot or so below.

The Blue Petrel looks very similar to the prion with the same pattern across its wing and also pure white underneath. What sets them apart is that the petrel has a grey patch across its face whereas the prion has a noticeable white line across its eye. After a day or two I also noticed the petrel has a different flight strategy, flying in fast, frenetic arcs above the water whereas the prion tends to glide closer to the surface.

Storm-Petrels are out here too, but are much less obvious as they don’t follow the ship. However, if you do notice a small black bird hovering over the water in the near distance, chances are it’s a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, but on one occasion I photographed a bird which, after a prolonged session of identification in the ship’s library, turned out to be the very similar Black-bellied Storm-Petrel.

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Gentoo penguin – Yankee Harbour, Antarctica

Sea birds of Antarctica and the South Shetland Islands

As the ship approaches the outer islands of the South Shetlands group, it’s as if a demarcation line has been crossed; the pelagic species of the Drake Passage have vanished and now there’s a new list of truly Antarctic birds to make.

It’s actually not a terribly extensive list – in four and a half days exploring the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula there are only nine or ten species you are likely to see, but the numerous opportunities you are given for observing and photographing them in this incredible environment should make up for the relative lack of diversity. Antarctica is an incredibly harsh place for an animal to live; I’m surprised there are any birds there at all.


Let’s start with the penguins. Who doesn’t love penguins? Even non-birdwatchers love penguins. They’re slightly pudgy and mammalian; they can’t fly but they’re still birds. When you go ashore in Antarctica it’s usually to see and experience the wildlife and the incredible scenery first-hand.

A zodiac drops you on a pristine, remote shoreline where there’s snow and there’s ice and there’s mountains and there’s…… wow…… hundreds and hundreds of penguins.

Penguins form colonies for the purpose of breeding throughout the Antarctic summer, and these colonies can hold many thousands of breeding pairs. They’re an assault on the senses to be sure, particularly olfactory. These penguins have been out all day eating pilchards and the like and, well, there’s no way to put too fine a point on this, the end result smells – peeeuww.

But, I’m sure you’ll overcome any revulsion once you find a nice place to stand, keeping a respectful distance (there’s a 5-metre limit you need to observe so as to minimise your impact), and just watching and observing their antics and behaviour – hours of entertainment.

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A chinstrap penguin in Orne Harbour, Antarctica

Types of Antarctic Peninsula penguins

There are three main species of penguin you should expect to see when you visit the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands – the Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap Penguins (there are half a million King Penguins on South Georgia and also on the Falklands if you’re lucky enough to go there).

They’re all medium-sized penguins which means a lot smaller than the Kings and Emperors but a lot bigger than the Little or Fairy Penguin that most Australians are used to. There isn’t much in the way of birdwatching nous or experience required with these penguins – when you make a landing, they’re just there.

You generally have an hour to an hour and a half ashore so there’s plenty of time to explore the colony and observe. The main skill seems to be in being able to get back to the ship having taken only 300 or 400 photos – a more photogenic wildlife image than a lone or a cluster of penguins is hard to find.

Less common penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula

Although King Penguins breed in the Falklands and South Georgia, and Emperor Penguins live in colonies in the interior of the continent far to the south, you should not get your hopes up that you might see any around the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, which are a long way from their regular hunting grounds.

That said, we were lucky. One of our zodiac drivers spotted a lone Emperor resting on an ice floe and within minutes there were a number of zodiacs lined up to watch from a respectful distance.

Sub-Antarctic Skua

Of course, whether you’re ashore or cruising Antarctica between shore visits, there are other birds to keep an eye out for. When visiting the penguin colonies it’s hard to miss the sub-Antarctic Skua, a dark chocolate brown bird that is definitely the villain of the piece; a predator that will pluck a penguin’s egg off its nest given a zephyr of an opportunity.

I witnessed just such a snatch-and-grab right before my eyes – very sad for the nesting parents but it was like watching David Attenborough live on stage. Fortunately penguins lay two eggs each season – one as insurance cover for just such an occasion. Skuas can be seen patrolling the rookeries and cause a bit of mayhem and squawking if they land near nests.

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A sub-Antarctic (brown) skua. 

Pale-Faced Sheathbill

Another bird that hangs around the rookeries is the Pale-faced Sheathbill. Normally I have a kind word to say about practically any bird but the Sheathbill eats and lives on penguin guano and, let’s face it, has a face ‘only a mother would love’.

Its saving grace is its snowy white plumage which means it virtually disappears if you can get a shot of it against pure snow. Also around the rookeries are kelp gulls, the least exotic bird in the region as they are reminiscent of the garden variety coastal gulls that swoop to steal your chips.

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Pale-faced Sheathbill – Mikkelsen Harbour, Antarctica

Antarctic Tern, Shags, and Petrels

Antarctic Terns and Antarctic Shags (cormorants), similarly may not get the birdwatcher’s heart racing but they are at least regional variants of these familiar species. My favourite bird in coastal Antarctica is the Snow Petrel, a pure white seabird about the size of a blackbird. It’s a slim bird quite elegant in flight, with an undulating flight pattern as it scans the shallow coastal waters for a tasty snack.

That’s it folks. If you do happen to be heading down to Antarctica – lucky you! – don’t forget to pack your binoculars and keep your eyes out for the ample birdlife.

Want to check out seabirds on your next overseas adventure?  Contact us to plan your Antarctic cruise of a lifetime.

Words and photos by Peter Miers


Written By chimuadmin
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