Svalbard Island sits well above the Arctic Circle north of mainland Norway. Its main town, Longyearbyen, boasts signs that it sits at 78 degrees, 13 minutes of latitude (it also advertises the fact that, because it is north of the Arctic Circle there is no tax!). Svalbard is home to a rich Arcitc avifauna – species poor but rich in the numbers of the species it does have. Since arriving early in the morning of the 13th, I have seen only 20 species, but I have seen literally 1,000’s of some of these species.
But let me back up a little. It was a marathon getting here: 4 flights in the space of 30 hours – Toronto to Frankfurt to Oslo to Tromso to Longyearbyen. I left Toronto at 6:30 PM on the 11th and arrived in Longyearbyen at 12:30 AM (in bright sunshine) on the 13th. I got little sleep on the flight to Frankfurt so the rest of the time seemed a little scattered. But I do remember the Swifts at the Frankfurt airport. I was surprised by all the trees in and around Tromso despite the fact it is well above the Arctic Circle (however, its weather is strongly affected by the Gulf Stream which runs up the coast of Norway). Tromso, the most northerly university town in the world, is very scenic and has some really good birding….and wildflowers. People here seem to bicycle everywhere (and, I heard subsequently, in all seasons).
But the real jewel is Svalbard Island. The flight in went over the southern part of the island giving terrific views of the snow-clad mountains and glaciers. Longyearbyen sits on an arm of Isfjorden. Most of the snow was melted in the area and the Snow Buntings are singing loudly and almost at all times (although they may take a break in the very middle of the “night” for several hours).
My time here has been hectically consumed: yesterday a trip up the coast by zodiac to an abandoned coal-mining settlement, Grumantbyen, where there is a small colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes nesting on the window sills of one of the buildings – it looks like it’s a hundred years old but the sign says 1956; the Winters must take a toll! There we practices catching birds with a noose-pole, banding them, taking various morphometric data, and taking blood samples.
Today we had a crash course in the use of zodiacs. How to put them together, maintain the motors, run the engines, and drive the things. This including jumping into the ocean with our survival suits on to see what it feels like (and to build up some confidence in the suits I would imagine). Getting out of the water back into the zodiacs was the trickiest part…The course is absolutely necessary as we will be using them to go up and down the coast to our study sites. Tomorrow we will take them to Diabasodden, a thick-billed Murre colony where we will first set up our camp (this will be my site) and then start catching murres. It will be a long day.
In-between courses and trips we have been meeting as a team to go over the various study protocols and data entry necessities…and then squeezing in a little birding: Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Goose, Greylag Goose, Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, King Eider, Purple Sandpiper (the most common shorebird here), Dunlin, Red Phalarope, Great Skua (saw this magnificent predator kill and eat a Dovekie), Parasitic Jaeger (a pair is nesting in a field right on the edge of town), Black-legged Kittiwake (everywhere), Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Dovekie (“Little Auks” in Europe – literally thousands of them), Atlantic Puffin, Black Guillemot, Thick-billed Murre (“Brunnich’s Murre” in Europe – thousands), and…..(wait for it)….Snow Buntings(!)