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    Loneliness of the Antarctic Birder


    Noah pauses with King Penguins on South Georgia.

    I was prepared for the cold, the heavy desserts, and the stinging smell of penguin guano, but, as a newly hired staff ornithologist on three cruises to Antarctica this season with One Ocean Expeditions, one fact caught me unexpectedly off guard: Hardly any passengers on today’s Antarctic itineraries are birders.

    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.)


    image from http://featherfiles.aviary.com/2013-01-20/f77694d11/ca872b1036d6485387a5a22c0f90f99c_hires.png

    A Chinstrap Penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula.

    But most of the people on board weren’t birders at all, which surprised me. Some of them weren’t particularly concerned with any of Antarctica’s wildlife, at least in the beginning. One woman actually told me at the start of her trip: “I don’t care about penguins. I just want to see ice.”

    Fair enough, but such words made me shiver—and not just from the cold. How could anyone not get excited about penguins?

    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.


    The Antarctic cruise ship, Akademik Ioffe.

    Maybe Antarctica isn’t what it used to be, I reflected. Since the 1960s, the number of tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from a few hundred annually to nearly 30,000; more than 80 different outfitters now run trips to the ice. In some ways, the destination no longer lives up to its hostile reputation. You can book a basic Antarctic cruise for less than a comparable trip to, say, Venezuela, and, for the first time in history, Antarctic voyagers can expect to gain weight on their journey. This December, the temperature on the Antarctica Peninsula was warmer than at my house in western Oregon.

    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.


    Zodiac cruising on a calm Antarctic afternoon.

    The thing that brought the group together was travel. I talked to more than one person who had visited at least 100 countries, and a 14-year-old who had visited 50. When a speaker asked how many people were checking off their seventh continent, about a third of the hands in the dining room went up.

    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.


    A Wandering Albatross inspires future birders.

    So, birds are often a bit of an afterthought in Antarctica—which is funny, because Antarctic bird colonies are one of the most awesome natural spectacles on Earth.

    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?



    Adelie Penguins in a snowstorm.

    I can’t claim credit for converting new birders on these trips; the birds themselves ignite that mysterious spark. But I can say this: Having spent a prior field season in a remote research camp on the other side of Antarctica with only two other researchers for company, it was a different experience to be able to spread my own knowledge to so many fresh ears. It’s fun to see penguins, but it’s almost as fun to see other people see penguins for the first time.

    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!

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    Noah Strycker

    Noah Strycker

    Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah will undertake the ultimate big year, traveling through 35 countries in an attempt to see 5,000 species of birds between January and December.
    Noah Strycker

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    • http://www.natureismytherapy.com Kim Smith

      Noah, I’m so surprised to find out that people visiting Antarctica aren’t necessarily interested in the wildlife! In my mind, at least, that’s the main reason to go there. Really? They just want to look at the ice? Well, I guess I can understand that from a global warming perspective — it might not be there much longer. But to not want to see the animals too? Just incredible.

      Thanks for your efforts to get them to open their eyes to the birds! I hope I can visit there one day to commune with the penguins….

    • http://www.facebook.com/Birding.Aboard Diana Doyle

      Noah, maybe some of the passengers might be willing to participate in a SeaBC Sea Bird Count? I would think it would be rewarding for them to be able to contribute to a citizen science project, spending even as little as an hour on one of the latter days of the cruise, tallying the birds they’ve learned to identify. It creates awareness of seabird conservation, eBird, citizen science, … and it’s fun :-)

    • Ed Furlong


      Thanks for the report from down on the ice. I spent two months doing field work in the Dry Valleys across the Ross Sea from Mt. Erebus in ’90-91, and your photos and comments brought it all back in a rush! My experience was not so bird-specific, but I did get a lot of experiences with skuas, Adele penguins, whales, and Weddell and Leopard seals.

      Some cruise ships were already appearing then, and my limited contact suggested that many tourists were most interested in the built environment, esp. the remaining structures from the age of exploration. That also may have been a function of where I spent most of my time, mostly icebound, but in any case, kudos to you for working so hard to get People’s eyes out of their viewfinder. The animals and landscapes of Antarctica reward long and careful observation with lifelong memories!

    • Mark Galizio

      Noah, How wonderful to log on the ABA website for the first time since returning from Antarctica and see your post! I learned so much from you on the Ioffe and, as you say, the birding was pretty much awesome. But, I also enjoyed your infectious enthusiasm and willingness to share your knowledge with everyone on board. I know that by the end of the trip there were dozens of new birders among our ranks.

      And about your marriage to the penguin, well, what happens in Antarctica, stays in Antarctica

    • http://profile.typepad.com/jeffgyr Jeff Gordon

      Kim and Noah,

      I led 2 Antarctic trips back in the mid-90’s. One, a whole-ship charter by VENT, was composed almost entirely of birders or at least folks with a strong interest in wildlife. But the other was very different. I had a bunch from VENT and Birdquest had another. But beyond our groups, the general population of the cruise was clearly out for bagging their 7th continent and experiencing the environment in the most general way.

      I could never believe the lines of of folks ready to return to the ship from shore landings before the final zodiac load had even disembarked. How could people cut their time in these amazing places so short, only to get back to the same old ship?

      The one landing we did make on the Antarctic mainland, the roles were suddenly reversed. Though there were a few things to look at, it was kind of unremarkable from a wildlife perspective. But, oh, the 7th continenters! They absolutely came to life, clearly viewing that landing as the culmination of their trip.

      If these comments seem critical or dismissive of folks with little interest in birds, I don’t mean them to be. Many of those passengers were fine, fun people. But there was a remarkable difference in the way the birders and the others experienced Antarctica.

      Thanks, Noah, for this post!

    Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
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