July 10th – Letter From Svalbard #5


Catching murres with a noose pole. L. Guery

The last two weeks have been very hectic – weekdays in the field, weekends helping on other projects (Kittiwakes, Dovekies) or entering data or getting ready for the coming week.

Field work largely consists of banding/monitoring at the Thick-billed Murre colony at Diabasodden but we took Friday and Saturday of last week to do counts at several large seabird colonies in other parts of the fjord:Tshermakfjellet, Alkornet, and Nøisdalen. Norway has put into place a national monitoring of seabird populations that has been ongoing since the 1980’s, to help reveal as early as possible important environmental pressures acting on the populations. The 3 sites we visited are only part of a larger (and expanding) series of spots that are being monitored. The Norwegian government takes its environmental responsibilites very seriously – it’s VERY unfortunate that Canada doesn’t. [The recent slashing of the CWS budgets by the current federal government is very disappointing….to say the least.]

The face of Alkornet - note the Kittiwakes wheeling high overhead.

Approaching Alkornet which overlooks the entrance to Isfjorden - breeding spot for thousands of seabirds.

Looking west through the entrance to Isfjorden - next landfall: Greenland.

Alkornet is a large mountain that marks the north arm of the entrance to Isfjorden and is home to thousands of seabirds – especially Black-legged Kittiwakes and Thick-billed Murres. In 2005, the colony was estimated to contain 22,000 Murres and 14,000 pairs of Kittiwakes. These numbers have been in steady decline since then with this year’s count indicating a 10% decline over even 2010’s count. [Even though Thick-billed Murres seem really numerous on Svalbard they have been ‘red listed’ in Norway due to their precipitous decline.] It would be impossible to count the entire colony – the mountain is very large – so we count two small triangles on its face – the same areas that have been counted since the ’80’s.

The field crew on the way to Noisdalen.

Both Alkornet and Tschermakfjellet (in 1988: 1100 Kittiwake nests and 8500 Murres – we had more Murres this year) sit well back from the ocean so I’ve had a hard time figuring out why the Murres breed there. Young Thick-billed Murres leave their nest at the age of 16-25 days old, when they are only a third of their adult size. They literally just jump from the nest, usually followed by their parents who will tend them until they can fend for themselves. At Diabasodden, where I’m working, this is fine as they will likely land in the water, but at these other two sites they will land on the scree below the cliffs and then will have to walk a long way to the sea. This will leave them very susceptible to predation by Arctic Foxes, Glaucous Gulls, and Parasitic Jaegers. There would seem to be many other locations that overlook the sea that would be more suitable….

Noisdalen is a very interesting site for a Northern Fulmar colony. It is several kilometers inland from the coast and is situated in cliffs overhanging a gorge carved out by a river. It was a beautiful walk into the site, along which we discovered a fox den.

Noisdalen canyon - a thriving Northern Fulmar colony kilometers from the sea.

If you look carefully at the above photo, you will see a couple of groupings of Barnacle Geese on the snow below – adults and goslings.

We are also counting birds at our various study sites. At Diabas we have about 1700 Murres, which is close to last year’s total (1750) but the Kittiwake colony at Grumantbyen is hurting: last year the gulls had a reproductive success of 0.82 based on 34 nests. This year, while it’s too early to calculate reproductive success, there are only 19 viable nests – predation has been high; the team there started by monitoring over 40 nests.

Ludo weighing a chick using his glove and a pesola scale.

At Diabas, there has been a major shift in our focus as the eggs we have been following have almost all hatched and we are starting to band the chicks.

A newly-hatched Murre chick.

A Thick-billed Murre chick - a few days old.

Thick-billed Murre Chick. L. Guery


Annotated Photo Gallery (most photos thanks to Lorelei Guery):

Great Skua - an uncommon visitor to Diabas.

Parasitic Jaeger - common now that the adult murres are feeding chicks: they try to steal the fish they're bringing. - L. Guery

Although we had been seeing Parasitic Jaegers with some regularity, once the murre chicks hatched and were being fed by their parents, the jaegers have become regular visitors with up to 3 pairs cruising the cliffs. They are ‘kleptoparasites’ – they chase/attack the murres carrying fish until the harried murre drops its catch which the jaeger quickly retrieves.

Black-legged Kittiwake - seemingly common but declining i numbers. L Guery

Bearded Seal - seen regularly and supposed to be good eating..... L. Guery

Black Guillemot - another common breeding bird here. L. Guery

Northern Fulmar; 100's, possibly 1,000's pass by every day. L Guery

Atlantic Puffins are very common. L. Guery

These comical-looking birds are very common in the area. I’d love to catch one just to see how it compares in the hand to murres.

Glaucous Gull: the major avian predator on Svalbard seabirds. L. Guery

The Glaucous Gull takes the eggs and young of most seabirds in Svalbard. They will also take adult Dovekies and, probably, young Snow Buntings that are just fledging and aren’t particularly manoueverable when they first leave the nest. These gulls will also feed on any fish/copepods that they can catch (or steal from other birds).

A recently fledged Snow Bunting. L. Guery

Murres arean’t the only birds that are hatching young. Snow Buntings have been hatching at various locations for the past 2 weeks and, starting at the beginning of this past week, eggs of Barnacle Geese, Dovekies, and Black-legged Kittiwakes have all begun to hatch – en masse. Synchronized hatching tends to ‘overwhelm’ predators – there are simply too many young birds for the predators to capture and eat. So the death of a few will ensure the life of many others.

Haute cuisine at the Diabas camp. L. Guery

The end of the day - burning the garbage and contemplating the meaning of life. L. Guery

Getting ready for the zodiac trip back to Longyearbyen - the funky survival suit is a must. L Guery

Survival suits are simply….fantastic. I’ve had a few pretty hairy rides either out to or from camp. The suits keep you warm and dry. Further, should you end up in the drink they will keep you safe for several hours – enough time for the helicopter to find your emergency beacon broadcasting (the estimate is that it would take 1 hour from the time you turned on the beacon to the time you were found).


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