July 31st – Letter From Svalbard #8

A young Thick-billed Murre and its parent head out to sea.

All week light westerly winds continued to blow pack ice into Isfjorden filling it with floating chunks ranging in size from basketballs to islands measuring hundreds of square meters. The ice has a major impact on the ecology, bringing with it a change in the fish and the animals associated with them.

My first walrus. -T. Petry

One benefit was that I got to see my very first walrus. It was 4:30 in the morning and I was awoken by a loud snuffling coming, seemingly, from just outside the tent. My first thought was polar bear and I reached for the rifle but that fear quickly subsided when I realized that it had to be coming from the water. I then figured belugas. When I got out of the tent I found the sea was like glass dotted with ice chunks and pans, all bathed in golden sunshine. And there, not more than 150 m away, was the walrus, pulling itself up on a pan. Marvellous creatures.

Slinging gear back to town. -L. Jolicouer

Another benefit is that we were unable to take the zodiac to and from Diabas – instead we had a 10-minute helicopter ride each way. It was just wonderful to fly along the deep valleys and up over the passes with small glaciers on one side or the other.

A pod of 42 Beluga Whales moved along the coast right under us.

Later that day, working on the cliffs, we had a pod of 42 belugas pass by almost directly beneath us – within 50 m of the shore. We could see them clearly as they dove and resurfaced. I would like to know what brought them into the fjord and what they were following.

Exploring the ice. -C. Cornet

At times the ice choked the area in front of the murre cliffs. -L. Jolicouer

Looking out to the ice. -L. Jolicouer


The weather all week tended to be clear and sunny. Even so, the ice had a chilling effect on the air so that when we were doing our work on the cliffs, which are always in the shade in the morning and afternoon, we had to bundle up, as even the moderate wind was chilling.
In terms of work, it was a pretty relaxed week. We had only 10 bands to work with which severely curtailed the number we could catch and no coloured bands for chicks, which was unfortunate as we could have banded at least another 50 with little trouble.
This week, though, was chick-fledging week. Last week I described a couple of fledging attempts that didn’t work out. This week I would like to describe a couple that did:

Murre chick - still a little young for fledging: note the juvenile light feathering on the head.

I was doing a behaviour observation on a particular adult, which was brooding a chick, when its mate arrived with a fish. The young bird showed no interest in taking the fish. Instead, it was actively approaching the edge of the cliff ledge, looking over it and making the ‘fledging call’ – a unique call that the chick makes when it is getting ready to fledge and which, apparently, its male parent (and maybe the female parent) can recognize should they get separated. The two parents, after several tries, exchanged the fish between themselves but didn’t eat it. [I think it was the male that brought the fish and gave it to the female to free himself up to make the ‘jump’ with the chick – research has shown that it is always the male that accompanies the chick when it jumps and for the next few weeks at sea.] And then, bang-o, at 14:58 the chick jumps, spreads/flaps its under-formed wings and makes a long curving descent to the water below. All the way down it is accompanied by its two parents and 3 other adult birds. Upon impact the adults rally around the chick. Good thing as within two minutes a Glaucous Gull made its first attempt to snatch the young bird. It was driven off by three of the adults. The best strategy is for the parent to lead the young chick out to sea, away from the cliffs, decreasing predation opportunities by gulls but today the birds were thwarted by the ice. On several occasions the young bird became trapped in the ice or ice-sludge and each time the gull made an attempt to grab it – and each time two or three adults went at the gull while one remained close to the chick. Finally, at 15:18, they entered a large open lead that allowed them to make for deeper water and put some separation between themselves and the gull’s perch on the ice. I lost sight of them at 15:20 well on their way out to sea, the Glaucous Gull flew off along the cliffs looking for easier prey.

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

The second instance appeared to be just good parenting although it might just have been luck. I was doing a feeding observation. For over an hour a chick had been giving the fledging call indicating that it was getting ready to go. But every time it approached the edge, the parent bird got in front of it and, with wings drooping around the chick like it was brooding it, edged it back onto the ledge. Several times, right after the adult had done this, a gull went flying by. And then, right after the gull went by and around a bend in the cliff, the parent got out of its way and the chick made the leap. The young bird made a beautiful flight of close to 100 m which carried it well out from the shore. It was immediately joined by its parent who quickly steered it out toward the open sea. Within a couple of minutes they were well away from the shore. The gulls never saw them.
In one two-hour period I was able to observe 16 ‘fledging events’. All of them were successful in that the young birds landed with a parent; if there was a gull predation attempt it was thwarted; and, when last seen, the young bird was well out to sea.

A quite young murre chick.

Friday evening we started to pack things away and Saturday took the camp down. It was a sort of bittersweet thing as it had been our ‘home’ for 7 weeks and we had enjoyed some very good times there. But…..it was time to go. [And, to be frank, I’m ready to go…. the warblers in Canada are on the move!!!]

Taking down the camp. L. Jolicouer

Open air dining. -C. Cornet

In getting ready to write this report, I went over some of my earlier posts and I noticed a glaring omission: in the July 17th entry I forgot to report some information I learned from Halvard Strøm about Svalbard’s Snow Buntings. I had assumed that they head pretty well due south to spend the Winter in, say, northern Scotland. But no….they head south east and spend the Winter in the steppes of Central Russia. Amazing!!

Snow Bunting chick peeking out from its cliff-top nest - a crack in the rock. -C. Cornet

Photo Gallery:

Dramatic cloud formations from the previous week.


Midnight sun caresses a peak at the head of Bjorndallen.

Looking west along Isfjorden toward the open ocean from the Dovekie colony at Bjorndallen.

At the helm. -L. Jolicouer

Dovekies carry food to their young in a 'gular pouch'. -L. Jolicouer

Ludo with a Kittiwake chick at Grumantbyen.

Feeding observations were a daily ritual. -L. Jolicouer

Ringed Plovers nested close to the camp. -L. Jolicouer

Ludo with an adult Thick-billed Murre.

Northern Fulmar - the 'tubenose' is very evident. -L Jolicouer

This marks the end of the Letters From Svalbard series. In fact, as I`m finishing this one off I`m sitting in Tromso in northern Norway – the first of four legs on my way home. Banding reports from Ruthven will start later in the month. 

One never tired of taking in the landscape. -L Jolicouer


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