Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Seabirds

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)


Today, halfway from Patagonia to Antarctica and just south of the Convergence, I watch seabirds from the bucking prow of the Barao de Teffe and muse on the complex interactions of water and air. The bow cuts the Antarctic surface water; sixty meters below me is the warm deep water; a kilometer and a half or so below me is the lightless and practically unknown realm of the bottom water.

A ship sailing through the roaring forties towards Antarctica is always trailed by a coterie of seabirds. Almost all are broadly classified as tube-nosed birds, a reference to the salt-excreting glands on their bills. The tube-nosed birds include the petrels, prions, albatrosses, fulmars, and the aptly named shearwaters. They dust the sea for days and nights on end, like gnats on a stormy lake. In the chaos of wave and bird, and from the pitching deck of a ship, it is often difficult to tell one species from another unless you are close enough to observe the way they feed and the way they fly. These behaviors also reveal the separate niches of these birds, their ways of avoiding direct competition with each other.

Southern Giant Petrel (photo: wikimedia)

Southern Giant Petrel (photo: wikimedia)

The giant petrels, which with a wingspan of 2.4 meters are the largest of the petrels, glide on locked wings, always tilted, so that one wing tip appears to softly touch the sea surface, then they soar, again always tilted, and dive again. The Antarctic prions cur furrows in the water with their heads; they have broad bills with laminated palates (like those of a flamingo’s beak) that filter plankton from the water. The narrow-billed prions fly slowly, tipping like stiff-winged kites over the sea surface, and pick individual plankton from the first few centimeters of water. If there is an abundance of plankton, or a sheen of mucus and oil from the exhalation of a whale, the prions will abandon wing and alight on the sea to feed. Rafts of these birds hint at bounty below. The South Georgia diving petrels, small and pudgy, fly with rapid wing beats and short glides. Sometimes they fly straight through the wave tops, in and out of the crest before it collapses. But more characteristically they plunge into the sea in pursuit of individual krill or other large plankters. The pure white snow petrels are so perfectly adapted to their environment that they fade into white snow and sea spray. They fly with fast, urgent strokes, actually palpating the undulating sea surface with their sharp wing tips, feeling the shifting swells and waves. The southern fulmars are gray like cloud shadows and fly with pulses of wing beats interrupted by long, lazy glides. When they alight to feed, they stall in the wind with outstretched wings and drop, folded feet first, into the sea. The pintado petrels patter the water with webbed feet. Their backs are the color of sea foam on dark water; their bellies are pale as sky. This is their camouflage; each bears an inverted sea, sky and horizon on its body in a realm that is only sea, sky and horizon.

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