July 17th – Letter From Svalbard #6

Svalbard is a land of constantly changing moods. S. Descamps

It has been a busy week!! The further north you go, the smaller is the window that is available to birds for successful breeding. And for the people studying those breeding birds, the size of the window dictates the work load. In the week before this one, the Thick-billed Murre chicks began to emerge….en masse. Ideally, banding should take place when they are between 7 and 12 days old because between 14 and 25 days old there is a very good chance that the young birds may launch themselves off the cliff heading for the sea. This is OK if their parent is with them but suicide if it isn’t. So, while we wanted to band as many chicks as possible, we didn’t want to incite them to jump. This meant that this week would be the time to catch and band them. On Monday we banded the 4 that we knew were the right age. We held off on Tuesday as the majority were still a little young/small and banded 15 adults. Wednesday we started in earnest, banding 16 chicks and 6 adults. Banding these birds is much more time-consuming than banding passerines at Ruthven. We catch only one bird at a time (although we may take several chicks together); we’re taking more measurements and enough blood for 3 different studies (on adults only – still well within the tolerance level for these birds, on chicks we take 2 drops so their sex can be determined). So between roping up, catching the bird, processing it and releasing/returning it, it works out to about half an hour per bird. When you add half an hour travel each way to and from the campsite, half an hour for lunch, and an hour of feeding observations – Wednesday was a long day.

Thursday was a day of high winds and heavy rain - the storm eroded 3 m. of beach.

Thursday threw a spanner into the works – a virulent storm out of the north hit bringing high winds, big waves and daylong rain. If you look carefully at the above picture you will see that the waves are lapping at one of the logs surrounding our fire pit – a little later that log would be carried away. We weren’t able to do any work Thursday and hung out in the main tent or napped.

Sitting out the storm - Ludo reads in the shelter of the main tent.

And Cindy enters data.

This meant that Friday would have to be a ‘Big Push’ day. Fortunately I had arranged with the ‘Kittiwake’ team to come out and give us a hand and, much to our delight and despite bad zodiac conditions, they arrived at 8:30.

The arrival of the Kittiwake Team: Julie, Thibaut, and Lorelei.

We wasted no time in getting started.

Using a noose pole to catch a Thick-billed Murre. S. Descamps

Catching murre chicks involved my having to climb down onto the rock towers and cliff ledges to get them.

I maintained, perhaps, the most exciting job: catching the birds. Adults I get with a long noose pole but this just doesn’t work with chicks so I had to scale down to the various towers and ledges, bag the birds, and then return them to their nests when the processing was done. [(Many) years ago I took a rock climbing course which has proven to be incredibly useful.] For this day I gathered chicks up in bunches so that I didn’t disturb the colony too much. It was kind of interesting actually…. In one instance I gathered about 8 chicks from the top of one rock tower and, while they were being processed by the team above, I just sat there. The adult birds returned within half a minute and, seeing that I wasn’t an immediate threat, sat there with me, within half a metre. Several had fish in their bills as they looked around quizzically, wondering where their progeny had gone. As soon as I returned the chicks to the ledge and climbed out of there, the adults sorted out whose chick was whose and life continued as though nothing had happened.

The Big Push Team at work.

Banded Thick-billed Murre chicks ready to be returned to their ledge.

Julie with a "leetle babeee" murre chick.

It turned out to be a really big day: we banded 37 chicks and 13 adults for a total of 50 birds! This raised our week total to 57 chicks and 38 adults.

Thibaut banding #50 for the day.

Releasing #50.

It was very important to get these chicks banded. On the Wednesday (July 13th) I saw 3 young birds take the ‘big jump’ to the sea accompanied by a parent. Although only about a quarter to a third of their adult size, they spread their tiny wings and sort of plane down to the sea surface, landing with a moderate splash. Right away they make a couple of shallow dives and then head out to sea under the close protection of their parent (often it is the male that stays with them). In one instance the parent wasn’t quite close enough and a Glaucous Gull was on the chick, grabbed it and started flying away with it. The parent murre took off in hot pursuit and, fortunately for the chick, the gull dropped it at the water’s edge where the adult murre recovered it and the two swam out to sea, the young bird seemingly none the worse for the experience. The key to this strategy for the murres is for many of them to jump at the same time. This overwhelms the predators, who will get some, but most chicks will make it through to the open sea and relative safety. If this ‘co-ordinated jump’ took place before we could band them….our chick numbers would be a lot less.

Over a million Dovekies are estimated to breed on Svalbard.

Saturday was a different experience. I went to help the Kittiwake team with their work on Dovekies. There are huge numbers of these little birds on Svalbard as they nest in the boulder fields directly beneath cliffs. Catching them though isn’t nearly as exciting as catching murres: we spread out noose carpets on flat rocks that they tend to stand around on and hope that they walk on them and get their feet entangled in one of the numerous fishing-line nooses attached to it.

Noose carpet set out to catch Dovekies.

Sometimes it works and sometimes……We caught 10 in the course of 8 hours. These feisty little birds, which weigh less than a quarter of a murre, have lots of energy! One thing we were trying to do is find out what they are eating and feeding to their chicks. This is relatively easy to do: Dovekies carry food to their young in a ‘gular pouch’. Essentially, it is a pouch under their mandibles that can stretch to contain a large amount of food – when it’s full it looks like a goiter. When we catch a bird with a swollen pouch, we gently coerce it to regurgitate the contents into a small plastic bag. This is later in the day frozen, to be examined by an expert on marine life. The samples appear to contain a variety of small copepods and very small fish. [This would not be a job that would hold much appeal to me…]

Photo Gallery:

Me banding one of the adult Thick-billed Murres. T. Petry

Purple Sandpiper - most common shorebird in the area. S. Descamps

We had a flock of 14 Purple Sandpipers around the camp on Thursday….enjoying the storm and what it was washing up on the beach.

Apparently, 1,000+ Ivory Gulls nest on Svalbard. - S. Descamps

When threatened, Barnacle Geese lead their young into the sea. - S. Descamps

A mystery to me is how the geese that nest at the top of the cliffs (and this seemed to be a common practice) get their chicks from the top to sealevel. Do they make the big trek around and down to the base of the cliffs and the beach or do the little ones jump, like Wood Ducks from a hole in a tree? It’s still a mystery….

When not in the field, we live in a dorm in Longyearbyen that houses a flow of researchers from a variety of disciplines – and you never know who you might run into. This morning I had breakfast with Harald Strøm who is, perhaps, the top seabird researcher in Norway. Later, at the university office, he showed me some of the data he was generating from the use of data loggers which are fixed to the coloured bands on some of our birds’s legs. Thick-billed Murres from Svalbard spend the Winter off the west coast of Greenland and many spend the Winter off the east coast of Canada, between Nova Scotia/Newfoundland/Labrador and Greenland. Further, Black-legged Kittiwakes (and some Ivory Gulls) show the same pattern. Thus Canada’s East Coast is an important wintering area not only for Canadian birds but also for European birds. This causes me a lot of concern: we need to be monitoring/protecting these areas. Recent cutbacks in the budgets of the Canadian Wildlife Service are a step in the wrong direction. A significant oil spill in that area could have catastrophic effects on the world population of some seabird species.

2 thoughts on “July 17th – Letter From Svalbard #6

  1. Rick,
    Your photos and stories are amazing. I am glad you are posting! Sounds like you are having fun.
    Take care,

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