Before the trip to Antarctica, I tried to read up on the birds we’d see, but by the old gods and the new, there are a lot of kinds of birds, and after some studying, I concluded that most of them live in or migrate near Antarctica.
So I tried to focus on penguins and the biggest, majestickest seabirds like your albatrosses and petrels. And even then, sheesh, there are like ninety. (Okay, according to my best field guide, about 30 – 7 penguins, 5 albatreaux, and 19 petrels, some of which, annoyingly, are called fulmars, prions, or shearwaters.) And then there are some terns, including the Arctic tern that migrates all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back, as well as the Antarctic tern which is lazy and stays in Antarctica all the time
Plus cormorants, which are also called shags, which the British passengers on the ship thought was pretty funny but which look just like the cormorants we see on prairie lakes in Minnesota.
The birds I didn’t read about before the trip but should have, though, were the skua. What freaking beasts! Though they lack the tuxedo coloration of your penguin or the insane wingspan of your albatross, their plumage is understatedly attractive.
On the wing, though – that’s when the skuas look like the predators they are, effortlessly riding the winds
And watching for a penguin to briefly neglect its egg or its chick. Then:
Turns out that skua eat a lot of things besides penguins, such as smaller flying birds like terns, fish they either catch on their own or steal from other birds, krill, even food waste that ships throw overboard. When edible calories are as scarce as they are in the Antarctica, you’d better be willing to eat anything!
Still, I could not stop thinking about and watching the penguin hunting. Our naturalists, sensitive to the spectacle of the skuas stealing and shredding adorable penguin chicks, talked quite a bit about it: “The skuas are just feeding themselves and their young,” “It’s the circle of life,” &c, &c.
All true, and even kind of touching. Skuas (like penguins!) mate for life and take assiduous care of their own young. Here, Mami and Papi Skua sip meltwater from a pool on Deception Island, then fly back to their nest to hydrate sus bebes.*
But the predation was also riveting, a passage in an Attenborough nature documentary that’s being lived out, not filmed. The skuas were beautiful in the air
And then they would plummet to the rocks and … Well, it was ugly. But natural.
* For some reason, I think that in the Antarctic Peninsula, todos los animales hablan español.