As one of the last great wildernesses, Antarctica has abundant bird life set in spectacular scenery, and certain species that are unique to the region, such as the snowy sheathbill, and the Emperor and Adélie penguins. There are 46 species of birds in Antarctica in total, plus any number of stragglers from other climates to be spotted.
What birds live in the Antarctic?
The starting point for most bird spotting in Antarctica is Ushuaia in the Tierra del Fuego, which is the gateway to the Antarctic Peninsula, home to twelve million penguins. The relatively favorable climate there plays host to a wealth of other birds and the 1,000-mile trip from Ushuaia offers birders a fantastic opportunity to spot Shearwaters, three species of petrel (including Storm Petrel and Diving Petrel and the diminutive Prion, also known as the whalebird), and at least four species of albatross (including Royal, Wandering, Black-Browed and Grey Headed Albatross). You are almost certain to see Royal Albatross around the Ross Sea area and Black-Browed Albatross on and around South Georgia.
Wandering Albatross. Source: Canva
These large, heavy birds do not beat their wings much in flight, to conserve energy. South Georgia is also a good place to see three of the albatross species nesting, at any time during the summer. You are likely to find large colonies of Black-Browed Albatross nesting on the hillsides, and the fledglings take five-and-a-half months to be reared. The largest breed is the Wandering Albatross, and the chicks fledge in November and December. A great place to spot Wandering Albatross is in the Drake Passage on your way to Antarctica. There are usually also abundant petrels and skuas at every landing site, and if you are lucky a sheathbill might even land on the ship. The Snowy Sheathbill, also known as the Pale-faced or Greater Sheathbill, is the only land bird native to Antarctica. They are omnivorous and live along rocky reefs, often scavenging carrion, and lay two or three eggs which hatch around February.
For many expeditioners, a highlight of a trip to Antarctica is observing penguins in their natural habitat, and there are seven or eight species of penguin to spot (out of 18 species worldwide). Most species of penguin take to the land in early spring (November and December) to court, lay eggs and rear their young.
Emperor penguins. Source: Canva
Emperor and Adélie Penguins are only found in Antarctica, while others, for example the boisterous Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins, visit from subantarctic islands such as the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to breed in the relatively mild climate of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in the early spring, laying their eggs in November and December.
There are an estimated 2.2. million breeding pairs of King Penguins in South Georgia. They are smaller than Emperor Penguins, standing at around 37 inches tall and weighing about 25 pounds. They are distinctive for their orange cheek blaze and black feet. Colonies of hundreds of thousands of these magnificent birds can be found raising their chicks all through summer, most hatching in January. King Penguins are very approachable, as they have not yet developed any fear of humans.
Gentoo Penguin. Source: Canva
Gentoo Penguins are a similar size to King Penguins but have orange feet and a white patch over their eyes. There are about 300,000 breeding pairs and they can be spotted in both Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic. They live in large, gregarious colonies and can be seen in abundance, vigorously defending their territory, along the coast of the northern Antarctic Peninsula.
Adélie Penguins are present on the northerly pack ice in Antarctica during winter, returning to the coastline and islands in summer. They have relatively short courtship rituals and breeding season for penguins, laying their eggs in November. Both parents take care of the eggs and chicks jointly until the young ones join a creche at about three weeks old. They then take to the sea in February.
There are about seven million pairs of chinstrap penguins in the Southern Hemisphere, so you are very likely to see some on an Antarctic expedition. They forage on pack ice and their dives usually last under a minute. They are quite fast in water (18 mph) and when ashore slide around on their bellies on the ice, using their feet to propel themselves.
Macaroni Penguins. Source: Canva
The distinctive Macaroni Penguins with their orange crests are similar in size to chinstrap penguins. There are vast breeding colonies of them on hillsides and rocky cliffs in the Falklands, South Georgia, South Sandwich and South Orkney islands.
Rockhopper Penguins are smaller than Macaroni Penguins and also crested, although the feathers are yellow. By far the biggest species of penguin is the Emperor Penguin, which can be 48 inches tall and weighs up to 100 pounds. However, they are not as easy to spot as they only live in the interior of Antarctica, for example in the areas around the Ross and Weddell Seas. They are one of only three species of bird which nest in Antarctica. The male incubates the eggs and the two parent birds take turns to go on long hunting trips once the chick is hatched. There are only about 200,000 breeding pairs of these birds in the wild.
Magellanic Penguins are rather shy, scampering to their nesting burrows if spotted. They are present in the sub-Antarctic in the Falklands, and sometimes also South Georgia and the South Shetlands, although mainly found in abundance around the coast of Argentina and Chile.
By actively exploring the white continent on foot, you can approach penguins in their natural habitat and perhaps even camp out on the ice overnight. Or experience the best place to enjoy the company of King Penguins.
What seabirds live in the Antarctic?
South Georgia is also home to another bird-watching favorite, the Blue-Eyed Shag, also known as the Imperial Shag, which has a blue or purple ring on the skin around its eyes. It looks a bit like a slightly small, black and white cormorant, as they are a related group of species.
South Polar Skuas. Source: Canva
On sub-Antarctic islands and places where the ice has receded, multitudes of petrels, prions, fulmars and shearwaters gather to nest in summer. Petrels are the most southerly breeding birds on earth and their name is a reference to Peter, the apostle who supposedly accompanied Christ when he walked on water, because of the way they skit across the surface, pattering their feet. Antarctic Petrels nest on high cliffs and icebergs in October and November, where they lay a single egg, which hatches in mid-January, and the chicks fledge in March. Pure white Snow Petrels also nest in Antarctica, as do South Polar Skuas.
Antarctic Petrel. Source: Canva
Apart from these classic Antarctic bird species so beloved of birders, there are also many other noteworthy breeds to spot, many of which are migrants. For example, the pomarine jaeger, which overwinters in tropical oceans, also gulls, herons, egrets and bitterns, yellow-billed pintail ducks (on South Georgia), Snow Geese, gulls and terns.
Pomarine Jaeger. Source: Canva
Why not take a classic air-cruise, traveling for 8 days through truly spectacular scenery, combining sightings of penguins, seals and whales between the South Shetland Islands and the western coast of Antarctica? Or a more leisurely two-week expedition to the Antarctic Circle to see a massive colony of penguins on the shore? Or 13 days to sail past huge rookeries of penguins surrounded by towering glaciers.
The ultimate birder’s trip is perhaps a 22-day expedition cruise including the Falklands and South Georgia, on which you will see King, Chinstrap, Gentoo, and Adélie Penguins.
On board all of these cruises you will be accompanied by experienced guides, naturalists and birders who will ensure you have the best possible bird-watching experience.