The abundant bird life of Svalbard has interested visitors to the archipelago since the islands islands were discovered in 1596. Despite its extreme northern location, Svalbard supports huge populations of birds, especially seabirds and geese. The number of breeding species is not so impressive but the numbers of individuals are impressive indeed. In general, the Arctic hosts a minor but unique component of the world's bird life. Many species are endemic to this region and possess unique ecological adaptations that allow them to survive in the High Arctic.
Most of the species in Svalbard are migratory, coming to the region to take advantage of the high productivity of the Greenland and Barents Seas during summer. Svalbard supports very large populations of seabirds, some of which represent significant proportions of the global population of individual species, and hence are of international importance.
Approximately 3 million pairs of seabirds breed in the Svalbard region. This large avian biomass plays an important role in transporting organic matter and nutrients from the sea to the land. In Svalbard, this is evident by the rich vegetation found below the seabird breeding colonies, which is grazed by reindeer, geese and ptarmigan.
The NORTHERN FULMAR, above and below, breeds in loose colonies on narrow ledges on steep, inaccessible cliffs. Some colonies are large and dense, while others are quite scattered. Breeding fulmars exhibit strong nest fidelity which is often visited outside the breeding period.
Fulmars are primarily pelagic. They are a long-lived species, reaching sexual maturity at about 10 years. Only a single egg is laid which is laid during the last half of May or early June. Incubation lasts 50 days. It is thought that more than half a million pairs breed at Svalbard.
PINK-FOOTED, BARNACLE and BRENT GEESE are all Svalbard breeders. They nest on flat tundra, rocks or offshore skerries. Eggs are laid between mid-May and mid-June. Incubation is about 24-27 days. The Svalbard population of light-bellied Brent Goose is the smallest discreet population of migratory goose in the world.
The LONG-TAILED DUCK is a small diving duck with variegated white, brown and black plumage. It breeds on the tundra, usually near freshwater ponds and lakes. Their nests are often placed in colonies of Arctic Terns which affords them some protection against predators such as Arctic Fox, Glaucous Gull and Arctic Skua.
The COMMON EIDER, below, is a large, heavily built diving duck with a large head, short neck and long, wedge-shaped bill. Males and females have very different plumage, females being very brown. Common Eiders are maritime ducks, which occur along coastlines all year-round. It nests on the ground, preferring flat areas. The nest is carefully lined with plant material and a layer of down. The Common Eider is the most numerous duck in Svalbard. The smaller, more compact KING EIDER also breeds in Svalbard, in much lower numbers.
The EURASIAN GREEN-WINGED TEAL is sometimes encountered. It is found in very small numbers and has bred on occasion in Svalbard.
The SVALBARD ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta hyperborea) is a subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), and it is larger and heavier than either the Rock Ptarmigan or Willow Ptarmigan on mainland Norway. The cocks return to the breeding grounds by mid-March, with hens arriving in early April. South-facing slopes where the snow melts first are the most favored habitats.
The Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan is the only species that remains on the islands throughout the year. A variety of shorebirds breed in Svalbard. The RINGED PLOVER can be found breeding on plains with sand or gravel or tundra, often near water. They are generally solitary breeders, easily disturbed. Eggs are laid at the end of June.
RUDDY TURNSTONE, below, SANDERLING and PURPLE SANDPIPER also breed in Svalbard.
The EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER, below, is infrequently observed and sometimes breeds in Svalbard.
A small population of 100-200 pairs of DUNLIN, above, breed at Svalbard.
Breeding phalaropes include both RED-NECKED and GRAY (Red) PHALAROPES, although the Red Phalarope is most often encountered. Gray Phalaropes prefer wet tundra for nesting. Eggs are normally laid about mid-June.
A typical tundra habitat, above, with mountains in the background. This is an extremely important habitat for many breeding birds, as well as for Arctic Fox.
ARCTIC SKUAS (Parasitic Jaeger) nest on the tundra in solitary pairs. Members of a pair may remain together for years. They often use the same nesting area, year after year. The nest is placed on the ground, often on a mound, allowing for a good view over their surroundings. Eggs are laid in mid-June.
GREAT SKUA is a large, heavily built skua. They usually breed close to the coast, often near a bird cliff or gull colony. It was first discovered breeding in Svalbard in 1976. Since then the population has grown. It is estimated some 300-500 pairs breed on Svalbard.
SABINE'S GULL, above, is one of the rarest breeding birds in Svalbard, but it probably breeds annually. The GLAUCOUS GULL is one of the largest breeding gulls in the Arctic. The GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL is a relatively new breeder in Svalbard, breeding for the first time at Spitsbergen in 1931. Its range has been expanding across all of the north Atlantic during the 20th century.
The BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE, above and below, is a medium sized gull that is easily recognized by its black wingtips, as if dipped in ink, and its tern-like flight. The Black-legged Kittiwake is the most numerous species of gull in the world and the most oceanic in its habits.
Kittiwakes build their nests on narrow ledges and rocky outcrops on cliffs from a few to hundreds of meters above the ground. The colonies are often situated in vertical rocky sea cliffs, where the nests can be built on very small projections or ledges. Both adults build the nest.
In Svalbard, eggs are usually laid mid-June, although some bird may arrive as early as February. About 215 colonies are known in Svalbard.
The BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE is the most common gull on Svalbard. The breeding population is estimated to be 270,000 pairs. The European breeding population is estimated to be 1.2 million pairs and is considered to be stable.
Kittiwakes feed mainly on invertebrates and small fish up to 15-20 cm long. In Svalbard, capelin, polar cod, amphipods and euphausiids are important components of their diet.
In Svalbard, the kittiwake can be observed in all coastal waters as well as at sea, even in ice-filled waters.
The IVORY GULL is a High Arctic species that frequents ice-filled waters throughout the year. The first Ivory Gulls are usually observed around the settlements by mid-March. The birds disperse to breeding areas in May. Ivory Gulls often scavenge the remains of marine mammals killed by Polar Bears. The Ivory Gull is a rare and poorly known species. A bit of luck is needed to encounter this lovely gull. Even more luck is needed to encounter the much rarer, Ross's Gull. Ivory Gull image, below, copyright Morten Jorgensen.
ARCTIC TERNS usually arrive at their nesting grounds when snow is still on the ground, and wait for the snow to melt before laying their eggs. They nest on beaches and on the tundra near the sea. Predators entering a colony are fearlessly attacked.
Many Arctic Terns spend the winter in the pack ice of the Antarctic Ocean. It has the longest migration of any bird species, after the Sooty Shearwater.
A vertical seabird breeding cliff, below.
COMMON GUILLEMOTS (Common Murre) nest exclusively on steep cliffs, inaccessible islands or on narrow ledges and stone pillars at sea.
The COMMON GUILLEMOT is one of the most abundant seabirds in temperate and sub-Arctic areas of the northern hemisphere. Between late March and early May, they return to their breeding colonies.
On the narrowest ledges, it often occurs with Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre). No nest is made. Only one egg is laid. It is pear-shaped to prevent it from rolling off the ledge. If auks are disturbed by a predator, all of the birds will take flight, abandoning their eggs. This is known as a "dread flight" and many eggs or young can be lost due to this type of disturbance.
The breeding population at Bjornoya (Bear Island) was estimated to be 245,000 pairs prior to a decline in 1987. On Svalbard, only about 100-200 pairs breed.
COMMON GUILLEMOT, above and below, bridled morph.
RAZORBILL, below, is rarely observed in Svalbard, although small numbers breed on Bear Island.
BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT (Thick-billed Murre) is a stout, sturdily built auk that is slightly smaller than the Common Guillemot. In summer, the bill is gray-black with a white or blue-white line along the sides of the upper mandible. It is one of the most numerous seabirds in the northern hemisphere. The total breeding population on Svalbard is estimated to be 850,000 pairs.
The breeding biology of the Brunnich's Guillemot is similar to the Common Guillemot. They arrive at their nesting ledges in April to May. Often the ledges are still covered in snow. Egg-laying usually starts toward the end of May or early June. Females lay all eggs at the same time so that the timing of hatching and jumping off the ledges is highly synchronized. Incubation lasts for 32 days. The young jump off the nesting ledges when they are about 21 days old, usually at night, and all together. They are not fully fledged at this age, and follow their fathers for several weeks on a swimming migration to their wintering seas. Fathers molt during this period and are flightless.
The BLACK GUILLEMOT, below, is more tightly associated with inshore waters during the breeding season than any other auk. It finds most of its food in shallow waters less than 30 m deep. This species is the least sociable of the auks, and mainly nests as solitary pairs or in small colonies.
In Svalbard, the ATLANTIC PUFFIN breeds on Bjornoya and along the western coast of Spitsbergen, especially the northern part. After the Razorbill, which only nests in low numbers on Bjornoya and some few colonies on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the Atlantic Puffin is the least numerous of Svalbard's alcids.
The LITTLE AUK (Dovekie), below, is the most numerous seabird species in Svalbard. It is the smallest of the European auks. In flight, Little Auks appear swift, whirring and unstable. They are often observed flying in flocks. The most common call at the nesting site is a loud warble that continues into a shrill chattering sound, "kree ak ak ak ak." In the colonies, these sounds merge into a roaring choir that can be heard at long distances. Little Auks breed in scree and rock crevices. The largest colonies on Spitsbergen are typically located on mountain slopes covered by screes formed through frost erosion. More than one million breeding pairs are thought to occur at Svalbard.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR, below, has bred on occasion on Svalbard.
REDWING, below, has also bred on occasion.
The SNOW BUNTING, below, is the most northerly passerine in the world. It is the only passerine with a wide breeding distribution in Svalbard. Snow Buntings breed over most of the archipelago, except for some far eastern areas. Most males arrive in April. They inhabit both coastal and inland areas.
This is a brief overview of the some of the High Arctic birds of Svalbard that may be encountered on a voyage around the archipelago. Although it is a barren and inhospitable region for most of the year, summer months with unending daylight, come alive with the sounds and sights of thousands upon thousands of breeding birds. Welcome to the High Arctic summer!
All images, copyright Debi Shearwater and Don Doolittle, except as noted. Please do not use without permission.
HIGH ARCTIC CHARTER VOYAGE: 8 - 18 JULY 2013
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