Antarctic Birds

"First you fall in love with Antarctica, and then it breaks your heart."   — Kim Stanley Robinson, first line of his book Antarctica.
On this page:
There are 6 species of flying birds nesting in the vicinity of Dumont d'Urville. Here they are:

Antarctic skua (Catharacta MacCormicki)


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skua (Catharacta maccormicki) bathing in a freshwater lake after returning from the sea, in order to remove the salt.

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Lone skua.
Overview

Size: 140 cm (wings spread)
Weight: 980 to 1900 g
Distribution: continent and Antarctic islands
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: all the main islands.

Left: skua (Catharacta maccormicki) bathing in a freshwater lake after returning from the sea, in order to remove the salt. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Right: Lone skua. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

All skuas around DdU are tagged during some hilarious catching parties. They are very intelligent predators, feeding mostly on marine life and penguin eggs and chicks, although they don't hesitate to rummage in the trash or even enter the cuisine to steal. One of them once got drunk drinking a cocktail bowl the chef had left out to cool down ! It couldn't take off anymore and kept hitting buildings.


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Skua chick wandering around.
Biology

Arrival: September.
Egg laying: November to January.
Hatching: December to January.
Departure of chicks: February to march.
Food: eggs and chick of Adelie penguins, but feeds also at sea (fish) and out of human wastes.
Distribution at sea: Antarctic waters. Comes to Antarctica in winter, but most stay near the sea-ice.
Particularity: it's the specie seen most inland (some have been seen at Dome C). On the islands it occupies the same place than the birds of prey. They are very opportunist.

Right: Skua chick wandering around. Image available as a free wallpaperPurchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Skuas don't nest, they just lay their eggs on some flat ground and defend it fiercely against intruders. The chick wanders around as soon as it can walk. If you get too close, they start posturing and screaming, then they attack you from behind, eventually hitting you on the head or sometimes stealing your hat to throw it in the sea.


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Couples of skuas perched on higher rocks looking for some lone penguin egg or chick for dinner.

Left: Couples of skuas perched on higher rocks looking for some lone penguin egg or chick for dinner. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Skuas will not usually attack adult penguins or even chicks protected by their parents, but they keep an eye for abandoned chicks. Usually chicks are abandoned when one parent fail to relieve the other. A parent will spontaneously leave the nest and eggs/chicks when the motivation to feed overcomes that for incubating the eggs or caring for the chicks. The abandoned chick then wanders around issuing heart wrenching 'Piu! Piu!' calls. The chick gets rejected and even attacked by other adult penguins, and when it starts being weak skuas usually attack. I once saw a skua eat an Adelie penguin chick alive, while the chick was still calling desperately for its missing parents (picture on left)...


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Skua eating the innards of an abandoned and still alive Adelie penguin chick.

Left: Skua eating the innards of an abandoned and still alive Adelie penguin chick.

Research

All the couples on the archipelago are tagged and have been followed for 25 years. Many of them were seen in other places (in particular McMurdo).


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Couple of skuas in the sunset
Protection

World population: a couple thousand couples.
Archipelago's population: 35 couples on the islands, plus 30 to 200 visiting birds, depending on the seasons. Since the closure of the waste dump, the population of visiting birds has dropped.
Threats: none.
Care: skuas defend eagerly their chick, attacking any intruder approaching their nest. Better to turn around...

Right: Couple of skuas in the sunset Image available as a free wallpaper



Giant Antarctic Petrel (Macronectes giganteus)


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Giant petrels on their nests.
Overview

The other predator bird, besides the skua, if the giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus). It is also the biggest flying Antarctic bird by far. They are becoming increasingly rare and there are only a few couples left around DdU.

Size: 2.2m of reach
Weight: 3.5 to 5 kg
Distribution: Antarctica and sub-antarctic islands.
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: Petrel island and Rostand island.

Left: Giant petrels on their nests. Image available as a free wallpaper

Biology

Arrival: August
Egg laying: October
Hatching: January
Departure of chicks: April
Food: predator at sea, follows the ships, often carrion eater on the land (except in Antarctica).
Distribution at sea: from Antarctica to tropical seas.
Particularity: the biggest of the 95 species of petrel, and the longest living one. A bird tagged in 1952 is still alive. They breed for the 1st time around 10.


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A giant petrel in flight. They can fly in storms without problem, but if there's no breeze, they are so big that they can't take off.
Protection

World population: 38 000 couples, but only 300 in 4 places in Antarctica.
Archipelago's population: dropped from 80 couples in 1960 to 12-15 couples since 1970.
Threats: it is a specie very sensitive to man and interference (the 4 spots where they are found in Antarctica have had a population drop of 75%).
Care: it is forbidden to approach the nests.

Right: A giant petrel in flight. They can fly in storms without problem, but if there's no breeze, they are so big that they can't take off.

Research

Since 1970, chicks are tagged and there are only two controls a year, from a distance, in order to understand their population decline.



Cape Petrel (Daption capense)


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Cape petrel in flight.
Overview

The black and white cape petrel (Daption capensis), about the size of a pigeon, nests on high rocks and defends its nest by sending the content of its stomach on any wandering animal (that includes us), as far a 3 meters away ! And since it eats fish and such, it is not an experience you want to try twice. Whether this is an actual self-defense mechanism or merely an understandable reaction to the sight of us dirty explorers is open to debate.

Size: 90 cm of reach
Weight: 360 to 550 g
Distribution: Antarctic and sub-antarctic islands.
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: all the main islands.

Right: Cape petrel in flight. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Biology

Arrival: October
Egg laying: November
Hatching: January
Departure of chicks: February
Food: squids and krill.
Distribution at sea: Antarctic to subtropical (winter season) seas.
Particularity: adults and chick make an oil from their food and they are able to regurgitate it against predators, up to several meters away.


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Cape petrels on their nest. They nest on higher rocks, in the open, a couple hundred meters from the base.

Left: Cape petrels on their nest. They nest on higher rocks, in the open, a couple hundred meters from the base.

Protection

World population: unknown, more than a million couples.
Archipelago's population: 497 couples in 84, 297 couples in 90.
Threats: none right now, but they are fearful.
Care: due to the construction of the airstrip, 180 couples have lost their nesting site. 160 artificial nests have been built on Claude Bernard island, some with success.

Research

The study restarted with the construction of the airstrip. The birds dislodged have been tagged and are being followed. On the artificial colony visual, acoustic and olfactive decoys are used.


Storm petrel (Oceanites oceanicus)


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Wilson petrel (aka storm petrel) resting on a rock.
Overview

Size: 40 cm of reach
Weight: 34 g
Distribution: Antarctic and subantarctic
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: all the main islands

The storm petrel (aka Wilson petrel, Oceanites oceanicus) is the smallest Antarctic bird, about 10cm in length. It is also the bird that has the longest migration circuit in the world: in July/august it goes to the Arctic to feed, and in December/January it comes to Antarctica to breed, always living in summer. They can be seen flying around at sunset and are very hard to take pictures of.

Left: Wilson petrel (aka storm petrel) resting on a rock. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Biology

Arrival: November
Egg laying: December and January
Hatching: January and February
Departure of chicks: March
Food: organic wastes, small krill.
Distribution at sea: Antarctic to subtropical seas. Spends July-August in arctic.
Particularity: although its small size, this specie lives an average 15 years. Each year it migrates a huge 40 000 km. They are very sensitive to snowfalls that can block the access to the nest; the chicks can thus fast for a month.


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Rare picture of a Wilson petrel in flight.
Protection

World population: may be the most common bird in the world, with estimations up to a billion birds.
Archipelago's population: 1500-2000 couples.
Threats: None. 160 couples lost their nests due to the construction of the airstrip.
Care: Never capture a bird on its nest, since there is a 50% probability that it leaves it.

Research

They are tagged irregularly. 120 nests are followed each year without manipulation.

Right: Rare picture of a Wilson petrel in flight.



Snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea)


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Snow petrel on flight.
Overview

Size: 80 cm of reach
Weight: 200 to 300 g
Distribution: continent and Antarctic islands
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: all the main islands

The all-white snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea), about the size of a pigeon too, nests under rocks and, like the Cap petrel above, defends its nest by actively throwing up on intruders ('you'). In that case the bird throws a special orange oil, stinking of fish and impossible to remove. I helped put tags on those birds, and after 3 showers I was still stinking like hell. The ornithologist just gave up washing altogether !

Right: Snow petrel on flight. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Biology

Arrival: September
Egg laying: November
Hatching: January
Departure of chicks: February
Food: fish and krill
Distribution at sea: stays near the ice
Particularity: very large size variation (x2), rare for a bird. Nocturnal. Nests generally under rocks.


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Snow Petrel cleaning up the sea salt off their feathers by rolling in snow.
Protection

World population: unknown, several hundred thousand couples.
Archipelago's population: 987 in 84, 840 in 90.
Threats: none. 270 couples lost their nest due to the building of the airstrip. Artificial colonies were build to receive them.
Care: do not scare birds passing near their nests in the evening.

Left: Snow Petrel cleaning up the sea salt off their feathers by rolling in snow. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Research

This specie has been studied for 30 years, on 3 colonies (250 nests); thousands of birds have been tagged and it is probably the biggest demographic study in the world. The study of the criterion of choice of partner in this long-lived specie (20 years average) show a faithfulness of nearly 100% from year to year.


Antarctic Fulmar (Fulmarus Glacialoides)


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An antarctic fulmar (or southern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides) removing the snow from its nest after arriving in spring. Those nest are on the cliff just below the building where we slept.
Overview

Size: 127cm of reach
Weight: 740 to 1030 g
Distribution: continent and Antarctic islands
Reproduction areas on the archipelago: Petrel island

Left: An antarctic fulmar (or southern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides) removing the snow from its nest after arriving in spring. Those nest are on the cliff just below the building where we slept. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Biology

Arrival: October
Egg laying: December
Hatching: January
Departure of chicks: March
Food: squids and krill.
Distribution at sea: Antarctic and subantarctic seas.
Particularity: it's one of the only specie of petrel that nests on cliffs. Its equivalent in the northern hemisphere, the Atlantic fulmar (that looks very similar), is in full demographic expansion and has colonized French coasts only 20 years ago.


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Antarctic fulmar being controlled by an ornithologist
Protection

World population: probably several thousand couples, but the Antarctic population is low.
Archipelago's population: 60 couples (variable). Stable or in slight increase.
Threats: since there is only one small colony, they are not to be disturbed.
Care: do not approach the colony.

Research

Specie followed for 27 years. Two controls a year. Chicks are tagged and measured in March.

Right: Antarctic fulmar being controlled by an ornithologist Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

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Pictures of the penguins and other animals seen around the base.