July 27th – Svalbard Revisited #6 & #7


It’s been a hectic two weeks; a race against time and the conditions – for the chicks and for us. The weather, in fact, has been lousy – lots of rain and wind. The birds are adapted to these conditions and don’t seem to be unduly bothered by them under normal, undisturbed circumstances, but we’re pretty averse to clambering around on rock cliffs when they’re wet and slippery. Also, the birds may be adapted to these conditions and have evolved behaviours to deal with them – like parent birds drooping their wings around a chick to keep out the wind and wet – but if we disturb these behaviours by scaring the parent off the nest or catching it for study purposes then the consequent exposure experienced by the chick may be devastating. So, we had to pick our spots, wait for the rain to end and the wind to drop enough to do our work.

We continued to put GPS units on adult birds and then recaptured them a few days later in order to see where they are going to feed. Here’s a map showing the travels of one of the first of these birds:

Track of a feeding Thick-billed Murre.

The bird has done all of its foraging out in the waters of Isfjorden in front of the cliffs at Diabas. The distance from Diabas to the land mass directly to the north is 11 km. The long line running southwest along the coast is not a foraging trip by the bird – it is us, having retrieved the GPS unit, returning it to Longyearbyen by zodiac.

We also have put a number of “loggers” on chicks. Like the adult loggers (but smaller), they should give us a picture of where the bird has been for the next two years (the life of the battery in it). Following are a series of pictures showing the process of attaching one. It is strapped tightly to the metal band and then glued to the band as well. Here’s Julie and Charlotte at work:

Julie handling the bird while Charlotte scribes (and will later take a blood sample).

Processing these birds, with the many things that we need to do, requires a lot of team work. Charlotte took a week off from the “Kittiwake Team” to get some experience with murres – and was a great asset.




First we need a bird…….

This murre chick is around 12-14 days old. It's waiting for a band (and a logger).


Julie attaching a metal band to a murre chick.

GLS logger - will track the bird's movements for the next couple of years.


A plastic tie will afix the logger to the specially drilled band







The tiny unit is in place. The end of the tie just needs to be snipped and the unit glued.


Finished product.

The bird, now banded and ready to go, logger and all, will be carefully returned to its nest. The whole process has taken about 12 minutes.





Of course, the real excitement comes when the chicks reach a point when they are ready to leave the nest. This is usually at around 15-24 days after hatching. By this time the young birds have lost their “salt and pepper” plumage and are black and white miniature versions of their parents. Following are a few pictures showing chicks of different ages – you will be able to see the difference:

Same picture as above - note the "salt and pepper" colouration.

The next steps for this bird will be  to put on weight, grow enough wing feathers to be able to flap/glide far enough to hit the water, and moult into its black and white plumage.





Note the difference in size and colouration in these two young birds.

Note that the older bird on the left has even begun to develop the white line that runs along the top mandible. All the “salt and pepper” feathering is gone.






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

Note the difference in age of the bottom chick. We’re not sure what happened to the 5th chick – whether it jumped or was predated. The top 3 chicks all jumped within 12 hours of each other on July 25th – a day with perfect conditions.




Two have gone; the top bird is getting ready: "damn that's a long way down!"

At this point, it would be safer for the chicks to jump as the loss of their neighbours would leave them more vulnerable to Glaucous Gull depradations.





Minutes before the jump.

This chick jumped within a few minutes of this photograph. For about the last two hours it had moved back and forth between this spot and the little rocky knoll beside it – which gave a full view of the open fjord.

And then, on its last climb up, it rocked back and forth a couple of times and then launched itself. It dropped quickly and then planed out, landing about 75 m out at sea, its male parent right on its tail.

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

July 25th was a special day for all of us. We noticed that there were perfect “jumping conditions”: no wind (it had dropped completely from the morning’s gusts) and the tide was high. Seeing this we knocked off early to try to get a sight of young birds jumping. At the stage, although they are black and white like their parents, they have only about a quarter to a third of their weight and their wing feathers, although partially grown in, are not capable of sustained flight. In fact, they allow the young birds only to glide out beyond the rocks at the base of the cliff to the open water where they land with an awkward splash. We were hoping to see a few jumps but, in the course of 3 hours, we saw at least 50 chicks hit the water and some of these we were able to watch right from preparing for take-off to landing. (Heck, some of them we had watched from being an egg to landing.)

To be successful, there are a number of things that have to happen:

  • the chick must co-ordinate its jump with the male parent (the parent that always accompanies it and will be with it for the next 6 weeks). The chick starts a unique vocalization that is quite distinctive and, I think, cues the parent that it is thinking about going.
  • it is essential that the bird not jump on its own – suicide if it does. I have seen this happen a few times and the chick has always been snapped up quickly by a Glaucous Gull and gulped down (sometimes after some fairly grisly “softening” by the gull to allow for the swallowing of the bigger ones). It is a sad sight actually to see a young bird swimming back and forth in the water close to shore, “cheeping” pathetically…and never responded to by the parent. (I’ve even seen a parent quizically looking around the nest ledge with a fish in its mouth while down below its chick is calling – but making no connection.)
  • the parent needs to be there not only to protect the chick from gulls but also from other murres. In some instances, but not all, other adults will mob and assault the chick, sometimes quite viciously, and it takes an aggressive defence by the parent to protect the young bird and get it through the hostile maze and out to sea. Sometimes chicks do not survive these attacks.
  • it must be a “clean” flight from the perch to the water. In one instance a chick hit a ledge when it dropped and tumbled 50 m down to the ground/rocks below. We thought the fall would have killed it but we soon saw it marching bravely for the water. But….the mishap had separated it from the parent, who did not realize it, and it was helpless against a gull attack.
  • it is important that the adult get the bird away from the coast and out to sea as quickly as possible. Close to shore the chances of gull predation are much greater. Also, the congregations of potentially hostile adults seem to be closer to shore – those out farther seem focused on feeding. (Having extra adults around, while sometimes a threat, can, at times, be a good thing. Often the jump is followed by a Glaucous Gull whose aim is to snatch it up as soon as it hits the water. At these times, the extras will aggressivley thwart the gull’s attempts. Unfortunately, they then sometimes attack the chick.)

Photo Gallery:

Beluga Whale.


We have seen at least two groups of Belugas: a group of 7 large adults (males?) followed about 20 minutes later by a female and gray-coloured calf.





A pod of 7 Beluga Whales drifted swam by directly below us.


The second group consisted of 18 individuals – a seeming mixture of males and females with at least 4 young.





Benjamin, from the Kittiwake/Dovekie Team rejoices when he learns he's been chosen to spend time with the "Big Team" at Diabas.

Ben was “Mr. Sunshine” – the only sun we’ve had in the past 2 weeks was during the 6 days he was with us.






Charlotte, also from the Kittiwake Team, spent the last 6 days with us.

Although she didn’t bring actual sunlight, her sunny disposition was enough. Note the placid water behind her – on the 25th.






Two tides meeting.

We found that these junctures of incoming and outgoing tides were a good spot to look for feeding murres, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes.






Spectators watching the jumps.

The pervasiveness of tourists/visitors in this area is very interesting to me – something you just don’t see in the Canadian High Arctic. A delightful family of 6 and 3 photographeers showed up to join us in watching the July 25th jumping spectacle.




More spectators.








Distant clear skies framed by the sea and nearby clouds.




3 thoughts on “July 27th – Svalbard Revisited #6 & #7

  1. Fascinating….nature red in beak and claw. Are there Jaegers up there? More or less effective predators than the gulls?

  2. Hi
    Yes Arctic Skuas (known to us as Parasitic Jaegers) are common. While they are a pest to the murres, sometimes causing them to give up the fish they’re taking to their young, they’re more of an irritant. I’ve never seen one kill a murre for food – they just want to steal from it. Hence the name “parasitic”.

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