Svalbard – Land of the Ice Birds

Balwyn meeting Guest speaker (and photographer): Andrew Silcocks
25 August 2015

In July/August 2014 Andrew Silcocks was lucky enough to be the bird guide on two Aurora Expeditions cruises in the Arctic Circle. Andrew grew up in Britain, and spent the early years of his career monitoring seabirds on off-shore islands such as Fair Isle and the Shetlands. He has been working for Birdlife Australia for 15 years on the Atlas project, progressing this to a long term monitoring program, with Melbourne Water on wetland birds, and monitoring the Australasian Bittern. Andrew leapt at the chance to visit Svalbard, islands which host large numbers of breeding Arctic birds.

Arctic Tern at Longyearbeyen
Arctic Tern at Longyearbeyen

The tours began at Longyearbeyen, the capital of Svalbard on the island of Spitzbergen. Svalbard is an archipelago to the east of Greenland, of which Spitzbergen is the largest island. It is governed by Norway. Being well in the Arctic Circle the pack ice report is of daily interest summer and winter. Longyearbeyen, on a westerly fjord and with a population of 2000-2500 mainly Norwegian permanent residents, stays largely ice free during the winter due to the warm gulfstream affecting the west coast. Historically the northern and eastern passages around Svalbard are completely blocked by ice in winter; global warming is having an alarming impact on extent of pack ice, with summer cruises having to sail much further north to reach polar bear territory.

Ivory Gull at Longyearbeyen
Ivory Gull at Longyearbeyen

Another township, Barentsburg, has a largely Russian population of approximately 500. Both settlements mine coal, not very profitably but probably enough for heating and electricity. There are few roads, most people getting about on snowmobiles. Dog sleds seem to be almost exclusively for tourists. Out of town polar bears are a real danger, and there are warning signs everywhere. Someone even got bailed up in a toilet block by a prowling bear.

Ten to 12 cruise ships ply the waters around Svalbard each summer, varying in size and luxury. Andrew’s ship, the Polar Pioneer, crewed by Russians, is marketed to the budget traveller. The food was basic but there was plenty of it. The tour leader was a Swiss; Andrew shared the guiding with another naturalist. In addition Andrew’s expertise had to include botany, manning the zodiacs and serving at the bar. Luckily he found that many arctic plants are similar to those in Scotland; probably the drinks too!

The Polar Pioneer departed from Longyearbeyen and headed west on a typical deep fjord towards the ocean. In July, high summer, the hills are still snow-capped and exposed tundra runs down to gravelly beaches. The ship sailed anti-clockwise around the islands of Svalbard towards Kvitoya Island about 70km off the north-east tip.

Calving glacier front
Calving glacier front

In a typical summer the polar ice cap reaches south to Kvitoya, bringing a chance to see the top prize, polar bears. 2014 was ideal to go ashore and explore; every landing party had to be accompanied by two guides carrying flares and a loaded rifle. They encountered polar bears but generally they were indifferent to humans; a few were curious. Andrew reported that in 2015 the ice cap has receded to perhaps 100km further north, and the cruise ships would have had to travel much further to see polar bears on the pack ice. The effects of global warming are a worry for the tourist economy of Svalbard.

During the ten day trip, the participants were taken on expeditions in the zodiacs generally both morning and afternoon. They cruised by cliffs at the melting edge of glaciers, and they landed on beaches, walked close to colonies of walrus and seals, or climbed up slopes to view the distant horizons. July was better than August for birds as a lot depart as soon as they have finished breeding.

Polar Bear threatening Brünnich’s Guillemotor
Polar Bear threatening Brünnich’s Guillemotor

They cruised by the 100 metre high rock cliffs of Alkefjellet where the ledges were crowded with breeding Brünnich’s Guillemot. These birds are powerful swimmers which have been seen as deep as 200 metres. They also may fly 40-50 km to their feeding grounds. Glaucous Gulls and Arctic Skuas were ever present looking for weak or unattended chicks and eggs.

Andrew showed us a marvellous gallery of ice birds. Black Guillemot with their flashy red feet and doing their display dance. Atlantic Puffin with clown-like faces, which exchange boulders for burrows in Svalbard due to the permafrost.

Black Guillemot with red feet
Black Guillemot with red feet

Little bigger than a starling, Little Auks nest in huge colonies approaching 30 million birds, skittish, with squeaky calls and lots of co-preening. The champion Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Northern Fulmar stayed with the ship. Arctic Jaeger were breeding on the tundra. The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull which only comes ashore to breed. They are very approachable. A target bird and hard to spot was the Ivory Gull – Andrew showed its snowy features. Waders were not common; Purple Sandpiper was highest in number, also Dunlin. The female Grey Phalarope was stunning with her bright plumage. Others birds seen were Barnacle Geese, King Eider, Snow Bunting and Ptarmigan, the only bird which does not leave Svalbard in winter.

Little Auk
Little Auk

If you are a keen botanist there is much to delight on these islands, many blooming in the 24hour daylight during the short summer. If you are the slightest bit interested in an Arctic cruise, Andrew revealed that these older ships are likely to be taken out of service in a year or so, and then what? Higher fees? In 2016 Birdlife Australia is planning three trips with Aurora Expeditions: two to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic. Some lucky staff member from headquarters in Carlton will be the bird guide. An attractive idea and well worth considering.

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