Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: The tern

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


Antarctic terns, like most terns everywhere, scrape shallow depressions in the bare earth for their nests. Their mottled eggs mimic earth and sand, and the dowdy chicks, when frightened, freeze and become stones. I search among the jumbled shards of rock for the chicks, carefully placing each footfall so as not to flush a chick or step on an egg. Judging from the scattered down and the streaks of white scat, the chicks are close, perhaps centimeters away. But to me they are invisible. The skuas, equally frustrated, peel off high overhead into the turbulent, invisible gusts, pretending disinterest, but hounded nevertheless by the angry terns. They are defeated; these are no easy, land-bound penguins.

And then I see a chick, huddled behind a windbreak of rock. It is the exact colour and texture of the earth itself. Its instincts tell it not to move, not to blink, not to breathe. Evidently it has been watching me for some time. I pause for a moment. This indeed is a great accomplishment.

Two species of terns visit the Antarctic Peninsula during the summer. The Antarctic and the Arctic tern are very similar in appearance – about the same size and with similar plumage – but their reproductive behaviors are poles apart. The Antarctic tern breeds here and during the winter migrates to warmer seas off the coasts of South America and South Africa. The Arctic tern breeds in the Arctic antipode and is a nonbreeding visitor to Antarctica during the austral summer. Its migration, 18,000 kilometers from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back, is unmatched among animals; it simply couldn’t fly much further on planet Earth. There are several breeding populations of Arctic terns, but the one that frequents the Antarctic Peninsula is probably from the lands that fringe the North American sector of the Arctic Ocean. Starting in October, these birds migrate south via Europe and Africa, then cross the Southern Ocean to the edge of the Antarctic pack ice. By the time they arrive in Antarctica, they are in nonbreeding plumage: slightly white-pated, the edges of their wings a muted gray. Feeding at sea on krill and fish, they take advantage of the East Wind Drift and follow the gyre of the Weddell sea west and north before returning to the Northern Hemisphere in March. Arctic terns do not assume their breeding plumage until March, about the time that the resident Antarctic terns begin to lose theirs. The Antarctic and Arctic terns are therefore at opposite phases of their reproductive cycles during the austral summer.


Arctic tern in foreground. Antarctic terns behind.

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