The beautiful, snow-white traveler that has visited the South Pole
What you need to know about the Snow Petrel
Our Expert Says… "When you travel through areas with lots of sea ice you will often see these lovely birds flying around your ship and your Zodiacs. Your guides will usually give a call on the public address system onboard so that everyone has the opportunity to come out on deck and appreciate the amazing site of Snow Petrels in large numbers."
The iconic Snow Petrel was first described by a naturalist sailing with Captain Cook’s expedition of 1777. It’s very distinctive because it is, indeed, snow-white over its entire body except for its black eyes and bill, and pale blue feet.
The snow petrel holds the distinction of being one of only three birds observed flying over the geographic South Pole - the other two species are the Antarctic petrel and the polar skua.
Snow petrels have a wingspan of only 75cm (30”) or so, and their flight involves more fluttering than their larger cousins as they are unable to generate as much lift for gliding. They tend to flock together, and it’s not usual to see groups of snow petrels perched on icebergs!
They have established breeding colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula and on several of the Antarctic islands. Despite the large overall population (thought to be some 4 million strong), snow petrels don’t congregate in huge breeding colonies like some other seabirds. They make nests in rocky crevices or other sheltered spots, and lay their eggs in December.
Like other petrels and fulmars, snow petrels make a waxy stomach oil that they use to feed the chicks, and also to sustain themselves on long overwater flights. They can also projectile vomit this strong-smelling liquid at predators as a defense mechanism! Their main diet consists of small fish, krill, and other crustaceans, as well as carrion if the opportunity presents itself.
There are few predators that adult snow petrels need to be concerned about, but like many other seabirds, their chicks are vulnerable to being killed and eaten by aggressive scavengers like brown skuas.