Loneliness of the Antarctic Birder
Don’t get me wrong; there are always a few. Each boatload of about 90 passengers on my three trips included several birders serious enough to maintain a life list. A couple of hardcore types were usually lurking around the ship, and those few invariably spent their time hanging out in a tight group on the panoramic top deck, eyes glued to albatrosses and penguins in one drawn-out fit of ecstasy—yes, Antarctica is a mind-altering destination as a birder. (My advice: Just go. It will change your life.)
When I mentioned this to a fellow crewmate, he didn’t seem concerned. “All the serious birders came to Antarctica 20 years ago,” he said. “They checked it off their lists. Seen one penguin, seen ’em all.” He’d spent time with other expedition companies down south, and it was always the same story: These days, Antarctic cruises are populated more by general tourists than wildlife enthusiasts.
It’s possible that all the serious birders are now patrolling remote fringes of the ABA Area and third-world jungles, having already ticked their Antarctic lifers as my crewmate suggested. But the paucity of birders in Antarctica probably simply reflects our own small numbers compared to the exploding popularity of Antarctic travel in general. My ship was packed with curious software engineers, diplomats, photographers, business owners, and travel buddies, overall one of the most diverse and interesting groups of people I’ve ever encountered. Very few Americans (another surprise); they came instead from all corners of the planet, with by far the largest groups from Australia and Great Britain.
And adventure, plenty of adventure. This season, I hiked with one of the first women to cross Antarctica on foot; dug a hole in the snow and slept by penguins; flew a kite in the middle of the Drake Passage; drove a Zodiac through a field of moving pack ice; got covered in Humpback Whale snot; drank a glass of whisky chemically recreated from Shackleton’s personal stores with half-million-year-old glacier ice—and toasted Shackleton’s grave; stripped down to boxers and swam with icebergs; and got formally married to a penguin in front of a hundred people (what happens in Antarctica…). Every day on the ice is all out.
I thus made it my mission to interpret Antarctica’s birds to everyone, not just the few diehard birders. “I want you to all become bird appreciaters,” I began my first seabird talk. “All I ask is that you spend enough time on deck to learn to identify a Wandering Albatross. And, when we get into a penguin colony, go ahead and take 5,000 photos—but then put the camera down, sit quietly, and spend half an hour just watching them.”
At first, I couldn’t tell whether anyone was paying attention. My on-board bird presentations competed with polar photography groups, historical visits, bar talks, movies, Pictionary games, and endless five-course meals.
But after the first couple of shore landings at penguin colonies on South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, even the most urban voyagers snapped into bird mode. The diplomats started asking questions about seabird identification. The engineers couldn’t stop showing off their photos of penguin chicks. Evening bar conversation trended from where-have-you-been to what-did-you-see-today discussions, often centered on birds.
The great thing about Antarctica’s birdlife is that anyone can become a quick expert. With practice and coaching, it’s possible to learn all 30 regular Antarctic birds by the end of a week in the field—even with no prior birding experience. I couldn’t stop smiling when an Israeli woman approached me on the bridge one morning and asked, in halting English, “Is that a Southern Giant-Petrel?”
The other great thing about Antartica's birds, of course, is how incredibly awesome they are. Just before Christmas, I watched a grown man cry while watching two adult Emperor Penguins on an ice floe. Big, real tears welled up in his eyes. How many times do birds get that reaction?
Back home, I received an email this week from one of the season’s most enthusiastic birding converts, a student from a university in Michigan.
“In the real world, as it turns out, there are more birds than simply a dozen large, easily distinguishable flying creatures,” she lamented, having returned to the States with a new, birdy mindset. “I’ve been reduced to pointing helplessly and exclaiming, ‘Look! A bird… of some sort.’”
Aye, that’s the spirit!