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The Antarctic Sun
January 5, 2003
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Non-human life form seen at Pole

By Mark Sabbatini
Sun staff
Skua flying at South Pole
A skua flies near one of the runway markers at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Dec. 29. Stray birds find the Pole about once every other year on average, straying hundreds of miles from their native habitat.
Photo by Scott Smith/Special to The Antarctic Sun Photo by Scott Smith/Special to the Sun (See full-size image>>>)

T he conspiracy theorists have it right: Every so often residents at the South Pole experience the shock of seeing a life form that absolutely is not human.

It happened again last week, as a skua that apparently strayed hundreds of miles from its natural habitat was spotted in the vicinity of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The birds are common along the shores of Antarctica – at least 800 miles (1,280 km.) away – where there is plenty of food for them, but it is the first sighting in two seasons at the Pole.

There are no bird experts at the Pole – hardly a surprise, since winged creatures aren’t supposed to be there – but the collective opinion is wind or other weather factors help push the occasional skua way off its intended course. Tracy Sheeley, the station’s communications supervisor, said a bird’s chances of making the long return journey without food are generally poor.

“It’s nice to see a non-human life form for a change,” said Sheeley, a resident of Talkeetna, Alaska, who is working her fifth season at the Pole. “People are always excited, but that poor little guy is doomed.”

The good news is the skua spotted Dec. 29 was still able to fly and was relatively plump, indicators it was in better health than some previous birds, according to several people who have spent multiple seasons at the station.

A number of people said they spotted the bird late in the morning or early in the afternoon before it flew off toward field camp sites a few miles away. There were no sightings mentioned after Sunday evening.

“Compared to the other ones I’ve seen down here, that one looked good,” said Scott Smith, a plumber who recalled four skua sightings during the eight seasons he has worked at the station.

But the skua was hardly finding life easy: Smith said it was trying to eat one of the orange flags along the station’s ice runway when he saw the bird.

Ruth Ofstedal said she and three co-workers went looking for the skua after Smith told them about it. She said they found the bird resting on a snow berm along the ice runway before it eventually flew off toward the new elevated station being constructed.

“Some people want to keep it as a pet,” she said. “Of course they’re fantasizing.”

The Antarctic Treaty forbids disturbing native wildlife, so well-intentioned thoughts of assistance are not possible.

Skuas, closely related to the gull family, typically have a wingspan of about four feet and weigh two to four pounds. They are known as scavengers who eat sea life, steal penguin eggs and clean up carrion for nourishment.

On a very rare occasion they may find food scraps at a settlement – an incident at McMurdo Station years ago where it “rained” chicken bones dropped by raiding skuas is local legend – but the chance of a stray morsel from the South Pole’s tightly closed outdoor waste bins is essentially zero. A few workers suggested the skua spotted at the Pole might fare better under the South Pole dome, where some food waste is temporarily stored in large open boxes, but doubted the bird would find its way there.

Late October to mid-December is typically the breeding season for skuas, with eggs hatching in late December to late January. The estimated lifespan of the birds is about 11 years.

There are two species of skuas found in the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic (also known as the brown) and the south polar. The latter breed is more commonly found in Antarctica, although they are often seen following ships at sea and have been sighted as far north as Greenland and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Deneb Karentz, the National Science Foundation’s science representative at McMurdo, said she spotted one a few years ago during a boat trip near San Francisco.

By early Sunday evening the skua spotted at the Pole had made its way toward the SPRESO camp about five miles away, landing near a goose windsock being used at the ice drilling site. A few miles away, Paolo Rapex, an electronics engineer from the University of Rome, said he also spotted the bird about 328 feet (100 meters) from his research camp at about 6 p.m., thinking at first it was a rock until it moved.

“I stopped the skidoo and it was a very big bird,” he said. “It circled us and followed the road. It was an incredible sight because we didn’t expect it.”

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