August 5th – Svalbard Revisited #8


All have been factors: heat(!), tall trees, simply the colour green, a flock of blackbirds, traffic, continuous noise….But the factor that most brought home to me that I had returned was the sight of stars blazing overhead in a black sky. I sat on the deck with a gin and tonic and contemplated them , rising in the East and welcoming me home. Although I had “felt” their presence, I hadn’t seen them in 2 months and they were….well, they were simply marvellous.

Ireen and Julie - dining outside on our last night in camp.

During the past week most of our efforts had been invested in closing up the project: putting on the last few chick loggers, breaking down the camp (and then picking up the mass of equipment a couple of days later), entering a pile of data, doing (an extremely tedious) inventory of all the equipment – right down to the number of remainng Eppendorf tubes and cable ties – sharing pictures, and saying good-byes. And then it was a day of flying: 3 “jumps” – Svalbard to Oslo, Oslo to Reykjavik, Reykjavik to Toronto – leaving at 4:50 AM Norwegian time and setting down in Toronto at 7:00 PM Canadian time (there’s a 6-hour difference). It’s good to be back.

I’d like to sum up the experience by going through a pictorial chronology of the birds we were studying – Thick-billed Murres (or Brunnich’s Guillemots as they are termed in Europe):

Typical nesting colony of Thick-billed Murres.

 The Murres, which are 39-43 cm long and weigh between 800 and 1200 g, arrive at the cliffs as early as late April, often when the ledges are still covered with snow making it impossible for them to start laying.

A very pale egg - they come in many hues.

Eggs are laid in late May/early June. The eggs are all laid at about the same time so the the timing of hatching and jumping of the chicks is highly synchronized. The single egg is pear-shaped to prevent it (usually) from rolling off the nesting ledge.
Incubation takes about 32 days and is performed pretty well equally by both sexes.

This egg is just beginning to hatch - see the hole and crack at the big end. J. Fluhr

The hatching process can take 1-2 days. The chick has a very hard white “bump” at the tip of its upper mandible that it uses to make and enlarge the hole. When the chick starts to get out of the shell, it begins to vocalize with its parents and you can hear it “cheeping” inside the shell.

Responding to the “cheeping” coming from inside this hatching egg, a parent has brought back a fish (Blenny) with which to feed its chick.              






This chick is approximately 2-3 days old.

A newly-hatched chick; note the white tip on its bill that it used to open its shell.  The diminutive young chick has a dull “salt and pepper” colouration – making it look very much like a rock…but not necessarily the best camouflage on a background of pink, guano-covered rocks.




The drooping right wing (it appears to be hangind down) indicates that this bird is sheltering a chick underneath it.


 The “drooping wing” posture was sometimes the only way to know that a bird on a hard-to-see ledge was harbouring a chick.




A Herring or Capelin.


 For the next 15-24 days, the parents will share the job of provisioning their chick with fish and other seafood (e.g., shrimp).





 Although we did not see shrimp being fed to the chick last year, this year they were a common sight. In fact, the only food I saw one chick receive over the course of a number of days was shrimp.

Photo by B. Merkel

Note that the fish was almost as long as the chick. 

Photo by B. Merkel

We were constantly astounded, absolutely astounded, by the size of the fish a chick could consume – in many cases we figured that the fish went end to end…literally.

Photo by J. Fluhr

 This chick, which is around 15 days old, is just starting to moult into its black and white plumage – it’s already a pretty good size.





4 of the 5 chicks of a part of G-West Ledge.


 The upper 3 chicks, in their “miniature adult” black and white plumage, all jumped within 3 hours of each other on July 25th. The younger bird (the lower of the 4) went several days later.




The partially grown wing feathers of a chick that is ready to jump.


 The flight feathers have a lot of growing yet to do. Still, this wing has enough feathering to allow the young bird to glide from its elevated perch to the ocean below – and possibly up to 75 to 100 m out into it.




Minutes before the jump.


 I would like to know what mental and/or physiological processes push these young birds to the edge and then on to the ocean below.




Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon with these birds is the “jump” – leaving the ledge for a life on the water. We were unable to obtain a good, watchable video of this event ourselves but the following video at least gives you and idea: 

 Guillemot chick Lundy dropling

And that’s it for this year. Next year we’ll be looking to retrieve the loggers on the adults that we put out and in 3-4 years we’ll be looking for the return of the chicks that we banded and/or put loggers on this year. These will give us a good picture of where  these birds have been in the intervening year(s) – possibly off the coast of Newfoundland in the Winter.






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