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Arctic Svalbard: A Summer Paradise for Birds

Svalbard is one of the world’s great wild places to see birds. Millions of them trek to the archipelago in summer for the abundance of food, and to breed and to raise their young in relative safety. Then they return with a new generation to warmer latitudes south, ahead of the perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter.

“Every May and June, when the ice retreats and the tundra clears of snow, upwards of three million birds flock to Svalbard,” writes Bruce Barcott in his National Geographic article “Ice Paradise.” The lure north is the biotic machine fueled by the Gulf Stream, Barcott explains. “The warm, salty current … keeps the water mostly ice free and nurtures massive plankton blooms every spring. The plankton lure whales and great schools of capelin and polar cod, which provide food for seabirds and seals.”

Lindblad-National-Geographic-Expeditions

David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.   

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On our summer 2014 exploration of Svalbard on National Geographic Explorer, we were constantly in the company of birds. Fulmars flew in formation alongside, foraging for whatever small pelagic animals might surface in the wake of the ship. Kittiwake gulls were omnipresent, squabbling over fish caught around ice floes and flocking in the hundreds around breaching whales. Guillemots were also ubiquitous, but nowhere more abundantly than in the colony of perhaps several hundred thousand birds nesting on the steep dolerite cliffs of Cape Fanshawe, near the northern end of Spitsbergen island.

While populations may be huge, there is a dearth of variety of birds in the Svalbard region. More than a hundred species have been identified, but fewer than 30 species breed regularly in the archipelago. The Svalbard rock ptarmigan is the only land-inhabiting bird that resides in the archipelago throughout the year, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Birds summering in Svalbard generally come from continental Europe and the United Kingdom, or migrate north from the open ocean as the sea ice retreats. One species common on Svalbard, the Arctic tern, spends winter in the Antarctic, making the circumpolar journey, the longest animal migration, twice a year.

Arctic tern in ice, Svalbard. Arctic terns nest directly on the ground, usually in colonies. They defend their nests aggressively. Photography by David Braun.
Arctic tern on ice, Svalbard. Arctic terns nest directly on the ground, usually in colonies. They defend their nests aggressively. Photograph by David Braun.
The glaucous gull is one of the top predators in Svalbard, nesting alongside birds like kittiwakes and guillemots and helping itself to eggs, chicks. and young birds. Photograph by David Braun.
The glaucous gull is one of the top predators in Svalbard, nesting alongside birds like kittiwakes and guillemots and helping itself to eggs, chicks. and young birds. Photograph by David Braun.
A glaucous gull atop its nest on Spitsbergen. Photograph by David Braun.
A glaucous gull atop its nest on Spitsbergen island. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern Fulmar alongside National Geographic Explorer. The bird flies at the same speed of the ship, seemingly looking camera-toting passengers directly in the eye. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern fulmar alongside National Geographic Explorer. The bird flies at the same speed of the ship, seemingly looking camera-toting passengers directly in the eye. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern Fulmar gliding over the ocean. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern fulmar gliding over the ocean. Photograph by David Braun.

Nagging Cliffs

The first excursion ashore on our Svalbard expedition was to Gnålodden, which features a soaring cliff populated with thousands of birds. “These birds are responsible for the constant noise during the nesting season that has given the place its name (“gnål” means “nagging” in Norwegian),” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute’s website.

The bird cliff Gnålberget is home to thousands of nesting kittiwakes and other birds. Photograph by David Braun.
The bird cliff Gnålberget is home to thousands of nesting kittiwakes and other birds. Photograph by David Braun.
Landing at Gnålodden requires careful monitoring by the naturalists, who scout the area's many blindspots for hidden polar bears. The beach looks out on the spectacularly beautiful Hornsund fjord, which forms part of Sør-Spitsbergen National Park. Photograph by David Braun.
Landing at Gnålodden requires careful monitoring by the naturalists, who scout the area’s many blindspots for hidden polar bears. The beach looks out on the spectacularly beautiful Hornsund fjord, which forms part of Sør-Spitsbergen National Park. Photograph by David Braun.

The landing site was scouted by expedition naturalists to ensure there were no polar bears in the vicinity. The biggest threat, we were told, was from very hungry bears that might approach from the sea, which was why Zodiacs were patrolling the water behind us. All the naturalists were armed with flares and rifles.

Hikers on the long walk are dwarfed by the lower slopes of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.
Hikers are dwarfed by the lower slopes of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.

Passengers could opt for one of three walks: long, medium, or short. I tried the medium, to gauge the level of effort in my heavy boots. We meandered slowly across the moss and muddy landscape, listening to the birds in the cliff and watching them around us.

An Arctic fox looking for fallen eggs and chicks at the foot of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.
An arctic fox looking for fallen eggs and chicks at the foot of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.

The most exciting wildlife spotting of the excursion was an arctic fox, which we watched making its way along the foot of the cliff in search of fallen chicks and eggs. A scavenger and a predator, the arctic fox is a major reason why birds have adapted to nesting in the cliffs of Svalbard.

Birds swirl around the upper reaches of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.
Birds swirl around the upper reaches of Gnålberget. Photograph by David Braun.

This spot is also the location of a cabin used by trappers in years gone by, now preserved both as a museum with furnishings and artifacts and also still used occasionally by researchers. One of the more intriguing aspects of the dwelling was its elaborate defenses against polar bears in the form of heavy poles to barricade doors and windows.

Gnålodden features this trapper cabin, which is kept in good condition and occasionally used by researchers. Magnus Forsberg, a veteran naturalist, gave us a briefing on the history and use of the cabin. Photograph by David Braun.
Gnålodden features this trapper cabin, which is kept in good condition and occasionally used by researchers. Magnus Forsberg, a veteran naturalist, gave us a briefing on the history and use of the cabin. Photograph by David Braun.

National Geographic Explorer is a great platform from which to watch the antics of seabirds, especially the kittiwakes, which could often be seen competing for food.

Kittiwakes in hot pursuit of the bird with the fish. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes in hot pursuit of the bird with the fish in its mouth. Photograph by David Braun.

Kapp Fanshawe

The bird cliffs of Alkefjellet at Kapp Fanshawe in the northern part of Spitsbergen are celebrated for their massive bird colonies. Hundreds of thousands of birds make their nests on narrow ledges on sheer cliffs rising 300 feet from the sea. The water adjacent to the cliffs is deep enough for National Geographic Explorer to get in close for great views. The air was filled with thousands of flying Brünnich’s guillemots, a curious bird that sits upright like a penguin, but which unlike its Antarctic lookalike can fly. The guillemot is also a strong diver, fishing hundreds of feet beneath the ocean surface. It is said it can “fly” underwater a lot more efficiently than it can fly through the air.

The guillemot breeding cliffs assault more than the sense of sight. There is also the strong odor of guano and, of course, a racket of screeching birds.

Thousands of guillemots at the famous bird cliffs of Kapp Fanshawe, Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Thousands of guillemots at the famous bird cliffs of Kapp Fanshawe, Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
The bird cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe soar hundreds of feet from the ocean, and are filled with hundreds of thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes and other birds. Photograph by David Braun.
The bird cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe soar hundreds of feet from the ocean, and are filled with hundreds of thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes and other birds. Photograph by David Braun.
National Geographic Explorer was able to approach close to the cliffs teeming with nesting birds at Kapp Fanshawe. Photograph by David Braun.
National Geographic Explorer was able to approach close to the cliffs teeming with nesting birds at Kapp Fanshawe. Photograph by David Braun.
Brünnich’s guillemots crowd the narrow ledges of the dolerite cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe, Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Brünnich’s guillemots crowd the narrow ledges of the dolerite cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe, Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Brünnich’s guillemots swimming at the foot of the cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe. Photograph by David Braun.
Brünnich’s guillemots swim at the foot of the cliffs at Kapp Fanshawe. Photograph by David Braun.

The Brünnich’s guillemot is a large black and white auk, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute. The birds synchronize the laying and hatching of their eggs so that the fledglings can all jump from the cliffs to the sea at more or less the same time. Curiously, the fledglings can’t yet fly when they jump to the sea, and many fall short, landing on the rocks, where foxes and other predators eagerly gather them up. Baby guillemots who make it safely to the water are escorted south by their fathers, swimming great distances to where they will spend the winter and grow into adults that can fly.

Brünnich’s guillemots in flight. Photograph by David Braun.
Brünnich’s guillemots in flight. Photograph by David Braun.
Glaucous gulls on ice. Photograph by David Braun.
Glaucous gulls on the ice. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes sawrm around a calving glacier, where falling ice can stir up organisms for the birds to feast on. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes swarm around a calving glacier, where falling ice can stir up organisms for the birds to feast on. Photograph by David Braun.
Common eider ducks were among the first birds identified on our expedition through Arctic Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Common eider ducks were among the first birds identified on our expedition through Arctic Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes rest on an ice floe. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes rest on an ice floe. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern fulmars get into the picture of this bearded seal. Photograph by David Braun.
Northern fulmars get into the picture of a bearded seal. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes compete for fish. Photograph by David Braun.
Kittiwakes compete for fish. Photograph by David Braun.
We always knew when a humpback whale was about to surface because the kittiwakes would rush to the spot. Photograph by David Braun.
We always knew when a humpback whale was about to surface because the kittiwakes would rush to the spot. Photograph by David Braun.

In my next post I write about Svalbard reindeer, strange-looking animals with short legs and big black circles around their eyes. Their story is a rare example of conservation success, for they are bounding back strongly throughout Svalbard.

More About Svalbard’s Birds

National Geographic Channel Video: Arctic Bird Attack

 

National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic

Land Of The Ice Bears: An In-Depth Exploration Of Arctic Svalbard

Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.

More about the National Geographic Explorer

Photograph by David Braun
Photograph by David Braun

Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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