June 26th – Letter from Svalbard #4(a)

Reindeer on the way to the office.

I got some feedback from a reader who suggested that I should go a little lighter on the bird stuff and a little heavier on the camp life. So I will indulge him….to a degree.

Although we set out for the camp at Diabas last Monday, the trip actually started on the Sunday with a trip to the (well-stocked) grocery store to pick out the food we’d be having. Our meals would be simple and easy to prepare given that we have a 2-burner propane stove. [As it turns out, a wonky stove – we have to lean our weight or a 20-kilo stone on the tank fitting to get any gas to go through the line.]

Monday morning we loaded everything into the zodiac and climbed into our full-body survival suits and set out. The suits are amazing as they will keep you dry, afloat and warm for 4 or more hours should a disaster befall you and you end up in the frigid water. This should be more than ample time for rescue teams to locate your satellite beacon – which is attached to your suit. Our ride out was a little hairy as we went into a head wind pushing against an outgoing tide, producing large choppy waves.

'Home' - 5 days a week. Note the perimeter fence.

Once at the beach, the first thing is to unsheath the rifle in case of the presence of a bear, then everything is unloaded, the zodiac beached and secured, and the supplies and personal gear stowed.

Female Snow Bunting sitting on her nest in a cliff fissure - 75 m above the ocean.

Getting to ‘work’ requires a half hour hike up over a ridge to the cliff face we’re working on – home to about 1600 breeding pairs of Thick-billed Murres (as well as Puffins, a few Dovekies, several Barnacle Geese, and even Snow Buntings – but I digress into birds…..sorry about that.

Patches of purple saxifrage are everywhere and brighten up the dun-coloured landscape.

Work for the past 5 days involved catching and processing as many murres as we could get. To do this, I tie into an anchor embedded in rock and, tethered to a climbing rope, move to the cliff-edge from where I catch the birds with a noose-pole – essentially a long fishing pole with a small noose made of fishing line which I try to put around a birds neck. When it flies up, the noose tightens and I can bring the bird in to a spot where I can capture it. The bird is then taken back up to the top where I do all the processing. This includes quite a few steps, many more than we carry out at the Ruthven lab. The sequence goes like this: measure respiration rate; band (if new) or determine the old band number (if previously captured); measure the tarsus; take feather samples from the chest; measure the wing (flattened wing); clip the 8th primary from one wing; measure the head + bill; measure the culmen; measure the gonys; take feather samples from the head; take blood samples from the tarsus; weigh the bird; redo the respiration rate; release it. At that point give the bird a score for activity level and aggressiveness. I have been able to get this down to 10 minutes but getting down to and up from the cliff-edge plus patiently waiting to noose a bird means that we are able to do about one bird per half hour.

Troubles with the stove.

Lunch – sandwiches made at camp, boiled egg, carrot(s), cheese, and a few cookies washed down with water – is eaten around 1:00. We then continue working, either banding or trying to resight previously banded birds – until around 6:00. Restowing all the equipment takes a half hour, the trek back to camp takes a half hour. So it’s at least 7:00 before we begin thinking about supper. My partner this week has a large number of food allergies, so meals have been VERY simple – lots of calories but not very tasty ones…..

The sun is 'sinking' in the west (i.e., moving through the western part of the sky) - time for supper.

By the time everything is cleaned up and the day’s data organized, it is about 10:00. The sleeping bag is very attractive at this point. Sleeping though is difficult. The sun is always up so, unless it’s cloudy, it’s uncomfortably hot in the tent and BRIGHT. It’s hard to get used to.

After a fitful sleep my alarm goes off at 7:00 and another day begins. Friday we set out for Longyearbyen in the late afternoon. We had knocked off early as there was a strong, cold wind blowing up the cliff-face making catching and observing very difficult. Launching and loading the zodiac in a breaking surf was difficult but once we got away from the shore and headed for town we had the wind and waves at our back and, thus, a relatively easy time of it. Friday night it was wonderful to shower and then crawl into a soft bed in a semi-darkened room.

For the birding buffs: 2 interesting sightings this week included a wildly displaying Ringed Plover and a magnificent Pomarine Jaeger that went by right at head height 50 m away from me at the cliff-edge.

Tour boat - I am probably the most photographed man in Svalbard at the moment.

For me, one of the BIG surprises about this whole trip has been the number of tourists that are around. It makes sense: Svalbard is in the high Arctic but is readily accessible from Europe at reasonably cheap rates. One of the side trips that many tourists take is a boat ride to see the mountains and glaciers….and birds. The boats come in all sizes but a stop for most of them is at the base of ‘our’ cliff – where, not only can they see lots of birds, but they can also get to see me in action. I’m pretty sure I’m the most photographed man in Svalbard. I always try to keep the audience happy by leaning out over the cliff-edge and nabbing a murre. I’m fast becoming the Indiana Jones of Svalbard birding…..

Tour boats come in all sizes - Svalbard is, in fact, quite a popular sailing destination.


1 thought on “June 26th – Letter from Svalbard #4(a)

  1. Hey Uncle Rick,
    We have been reading your blog and its great to hear from you. It’s nice to know what you’ve been doing in Svalbard and that you are enjoying the experience. Things here in Ontario are going well, however it has been an extremely hot and dry summer. We hope you have a great remainder of your trip and hopefully we will talk to you soon.

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