Friday 30 June 2023

Arctic Birding

 Wednesday 28 June

Arctic Birding

Having passed North Cape, the northern most point of mainland Europe, our cruise ship headed even further north into eh Arctic Circle to reach our destination, the Svalbard archipelago and its largest island, Spitzbergen. Finally docking in the largest town, Longyearbyen, at 8am we were able to experience almost fourteen hours in this far northern land of Norway.  During our final journey north to our destination we were to see scores of Fulmars alongside and above the ship.

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis

Once of the ship around 10am we headed straight to the purpose built bird hide (their “Bird House”) overlooking the river below and the countryside to the north.  The grassy swathes to the right of the road immediately produced the first of a good number of Snow Buntings.  Whilst mainly females feeding nearer to the road, we did catch the occasional glimpse of a distant male.  Later, we were to see a few more to try and get a better photograph.

Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis (male below)

A couple of both Barnacle Geese and Eider Ducks as we made our way to the hide and then, looking at the riverside below, a Ringed Plover.  No sooner seen than another Snow Bunting alighted alongside to forage amongst the rocks. 

Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula

Above the water a couple of Arctic Terns were searching in the waters below for food.  Lovely close views and only interrupted when a pair of Barnacle Geese flew past. The, almost out of nowhere, a single, very large, Glaucous Gull landed on the water before moving across to alight on the far side. 

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus

Leaving Jenny to rest and read her book in the hide, I the continued my walk out of the town as far as boundary marker indicating no further passage unless accompanied by an armed ranger as the area, mainly in winter months when the ice has reformed, does have a resident number of Polar Bears!  The grassy areas on the inland side of the narrow road held very many breeding Eider Ducks, most still on eggs with their nests within feet of the roadside.  Many accompanying drakes but some eggs had already hatched and the newly-born ducklings were making the most of the available water.

Eider Duck Somateria mollissima (male at front)

In addition, more and more small numbers of Barnacle Geese albeit larger groups were to be found on the water side of the road as I moved away from the town itself.

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis

Stopping to watch some of the fishing and settled Arctic Terns I found a feeding Arctic Skua

Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus

Its meal was short-lived as a pair of Glaucous Gulls arrived to drive the skua away so they could enjoy that the meal that the Arctic Skua had, presumably, stolen from the Arctic Terns.

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea

Just beyond this encounter I found my first Purple Sandpiper on the damp weeded grass below.  On the opposite of the road there must have been at least three score Eider Duck nests.  Even three Husky teams were being harnessed for an exercise run and all around the area, wherever you found housing, you found “abandoned” snowmobiles, often resting on palettes, awaiting the next snow season which is expected to arrive between late August and early September.

Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima

Resting on the last signpost to steady the camera, I then tried to get a record shot of the single Snow Goose that was resting amongst a flock of about twenty Barnacle Geese.  Whilst the bird had been standing when first seen, it was now hunkered down and appeared to be fast asleep with no sign of head nor wings, just what looked like a large white “lump.”

Distant record shot of Snow Goose Anser cygnoides

So time to make my way back to the hide, collect Jenny and explore this last outpost of civilisation with the very small filling station advertising itself has being the furthest north filling station in the world!  Again, no shortage of more Barnacle Geese, Eider Ducks, Arctic Terns and Snow Buntings.

However, biggest surprise of all, not the second Purple Sandpiper but the lone male Shoveler resting on the small pool near the beach.  What was a Shoveler doing in this part of the world?  And then, making our way towards the house, a sitting bird in the distant grass looking all the world like a strange Black-headed Gull until the bins noted the beak, shape of the head and markings, not to mention the larger size.  To my mind, although looking very white, a female Arctic Skua on her ground nest.

Plenty of individual birds but not many species but, on the other hand, what species!

Birds seen:

Barnacle Goose, Snow Goose, Shoveler, Eider Duck, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Arctic Skua, Glaucous Gull, Fulmar, Artic Tern, Snow Bunting.

Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus on nest 

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea

Barnacle Geese Branta leucopsis and with goslings

Male Eider Duck Somateria mollissima 

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus

Shoveler Anas clypeata

Female Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis
Male Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

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