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Thursday, 12 July 2012

A few Arctic Birds

Notes and photos by Linda Thom

Northern Fulmar
Many of Svalbard’s birds have graced our patch of blue (or grey). On leaving Miefjord and turning past the last isle of Northern Norway, I looked for a Fulmar, aka ‘the Albatross of the North’. This graceful offshore flyer is a little bigger than a Kittiwake Gull but makes the latter look like a laggard in the air. Several times on our trip we saw Arctic Skuas (also called Jaegers) harass a gull in an aerial battle in the hopes the gull would regurgitate its catch. The Skuas never bothered a Fulmar. Sitting on the water a Northern Fulmar resembles a gull in profile but is medium brown on the back and wings and has a breathing tube on top of the bill like an albatross. Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas have dark brown heads, backs, wings and tails with a lighter underside and distinctive brown ‘necklace’. They are somewhat larger than their gull targets.

Skua chasing Gull
The Arctic Tern may be the most famous of all Arctic avians. These slightly built silvery birds with black caps and red bills fly 25,000 miles from here to the Antarctic and back each year. They are also remarkable in that they can hover like a hummingbird and may do so continually as they search for prey close to shore. They are also feisty, as Don can attest: they will dive bomb the top of a person’s head if that person wanders anywhere near their nest. They will also dive bomb a polar bear’s nose with lacerating effect and have been known to drive bears from nesting areas (!).

Imagine our delight as we witnessed white and black birds as plump as chickens accompanied by their brown mates feeding along the shoreline: Eiders, whose ancestors supplied the stuffing of Grandma’s down quilts.

Female Common Eider
After getting used to smaller birds I was amazed one day to hear, then see, what at first seemed to be a Canada Goose but was in fact a Barnacle Goose. It appeared to be smaller but otherwise similar in proportion, voice and coloration. The two are easily distinguished by the head markings. The Barnacle has notably more white on the face than just the wide chin strap of the Canada. The Barnacle geese are just hatching their goslings now. These youngsters have a hard time surviving the predation of gulls, skuas, foxes and polar bears. We learned from a biologist that bears will not only raid nests, which we observed, but nab goslings from underneath while swimming.

Barnacle Goose
Ubiquitous in these environs are Guillemots. We observed two versions: 1) black with white wing patches and bellies, highlighted by red legs and feet; and 2) a slightly larger bird, again black, but with white bars near the tail, white undersides, black legs and feet. Both species frequently fly in small groups, often in line astern. They appear to glitter in the sun as their rapidly beating black wings make their white bellies seem to flash on and off.
Arctic Tern

An even more rapid wing beater is the beloved Puffin which resembles a miniature black and white football with wings and a very round, colourful head. Amazingly for their size and plumpness, Guillemots and Puffins can easily pass a boat moving at 25 knots. A last note about Puffins: they are camera shy and almost always dive just as you are about to press the shutter!

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