Serious birdwatchers will go to great lengths to add to their life lists, venturing deep into jungle and bush. But few of them — indeed few people at all — ever have the opportunity to pursue their hobby on the southernmost continent on our planet – Antarctica.
Whether you are a committed twitcher, or just have a general interest in avifauna, the Antarctic desert has a sparse, but striking landscape. The low temperatures, long periods of darkness and shortage of potable water make it an unlikely habitat for animals, and even more impressive that a number of vertebrates do live here.
The birds you are most likely to see are the penguins, which live as happily in the water as they do on the land. Many of the species — king, chinstrap, gentoo and emperor penguins among them — breed in Antarctica, and the emperor penguin is the only penguin to breed here in winter.
The tallest and heaviest of penguin species, the emperor penguin can reach 120cm in height, and weighs as much as 45kg. Mainly found on the islands of the Weddell Sea, a place rarely visited even by expedition ships, we can arrange special cruises here, with a helicopter laid on so that you can reach the magnificent colonies on Snow Hill Island.
There are colonies of Adélie penguins across Antarctica, though the largest populations are in the eastern part of the continent: it is estimated that there are 4.5 million breeding pairs of this species in total. Breeding along the Antarctic coastline from October to February, the Adélie is unusual in that the mother lays two eggs at a time, and once they’ve hatched, they join penguin crèches until they have grown their juvenile plumage and are mature enough to go out to sea. If you travel to St. Andrew’s Bay in South Georgia, you will see thousands of penguins, including the Adélie, though as an Adélie penguin migrates an average of 13,000km around Antarctica over the course of the year, it is easy to see them in other locations too.
Perhaps the most entertaining in appearance, the rockhopper penguin has a crest of feathers on its head, as though it has had a particularly bad haircut. One of the smallest species of penguins, there are populations of rockhoppers as far north as South America’s Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands, so if you do take one of our Antarctic cruises, you might well see them even before you leave land.
Penguins are not the only birds you can see in the Antarctic, however. The vast albatross, its wingspan reaching as much as 3m, is no less iconic. The wandering albatross can fly 10,000km in a two-week period, soaring above the southern oceans, and in the summertime they come to Antarctica to breed. Each female lays an egg only every other year, but when they do, both the female and male birds stay near to the nest for several months, tending to their chicks.
The best spot for birdwatching in Antarctica is undoubtedly South Georgia. More than 70 species of birds have been recorded there, and they are particularly active during the summer months when the days are long and they come here to breed in safety. You can expect to see snow petrels, one of just three species which breed exclusively in Antarctica; diving petrels and storm petrels too; there are shearwaters and cormorants, herons and egrets, skuas and jaegers and gulls. Expert naturalists onboard the expedition ships will help you identify each of these remarkable species, educating you about their migration paths and breeding habits, and also helping you capture the best photos.