June 27th; Svalbard Revisited #2 & #3

This year we have a short “turnaround” time: back from camp on the Wednesday night and spend the next 36 hours catching up. Shower (yes!!!), laundry, call Canada, sleep in a soft bed, data entry, food shopping for the next 6 days, data entry, replenish banding supplies, and a lot of other nit-picky details. And ‘presto’, you’re heading back to the field. So….to make a long story short I didn’t get around to posting a blog entry last week. Things haven’t changed so I think my strategy will be this: instead of a bunch of writing, I’ll mostly post pictures and fill these in with descriptions of what I’m doing and/or what you’re seeing in those pictures.

Brunnich's Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) - the bird I'm here to study - are handsome, sleek birds...and very feisty in the hand.


I’m in camp with an exceptional “crew” of 4 very bright and very talented young women:

Ireen is from Germany and is just about to start a PhD in marine eco-toxicology.

Ireen going for a dip in the +1 C water....what is that saying? No sense, no feeling?

Ireen at cliffside.







Stephanie is about to start a Master’s at the University of Quebec at Rimouski.

Stephanie taking in some rare sunshine.







Stephanie with a Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre)








Cindy, from France, is half way through her PhD, studying both Brunnich’s Guillemots (in Svalbard) and Adelie Penguins (in the Antarctic).

Cindy holding back the wind.

Cindy feeling the cold.










Julie, also from France, is working on a Master’s modelling population dynamics in birds.

Julie, escaping from working on her Master's to help in the field.







Julie and guillemot.










And now for the two (visiting) males – token members of the Diabas Guillemot Team:

Sebastien, our fearless leader, showing off the latest in camouflage wear.

 Sebastien Descamps, whom I first met in the Canadian Arctic at East Bay on Southampton Island, heads up the project for SEAPOP/NPI.


Steffi, a genuine sled dog, lent to us as an early bear warning system, watches the action on the cliff.

 Steffi, who is 11 years old, was lent to us by one of the “logistics guys”, Jens, at Norsk Polar Institut. He is an extremely affectionate dog and has taken readily to the loving that everyone showers on him. I’m not sure how good he will be at scaring away bears but he’ll let us know when/if they’re coming.


Ireen and Stephanie relaxing in the door of the dining tent.


As the term Diabas Guillemot Team suggests, we’re at the cliffs at Diabas, on the south side of Isfjorden, about 20 km east of the main Svalbard town of Longyearbyen to study Brunnich’s Guillemots. The cliffs, which run for about half a kilometer, are home to about 1600 Brunnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres as they’re known in North America). They are one of the most numerous seabirds in the world with a circumpolar population of over 6,000,000.

Typical nesting colony of Thick-billed Murres.

It is amazing how these birds can spend so much of their incubating time with their chests propped against the cliff wall, helping to position their large (very warm) brood patch over the egg. 





We have spent the last 2 weeks at the murre cliffs at Diabas looking for previously banded individuals, banding new ones, mapping nests, and then monitoring these nests for eggs or signs of predation – the main predator being the three to four pairs of Glaucous Gulls that patrol back and forth along the colony. On a set of 20 birds we put data loggers that will be retrieved next year and will tell the story of where that bird has been in-between.

Red and white identification plastic band.

These bands can be picked out with binolculars and read at up to 50 m.

A very pale egg - they come in many hues.


Note the very conical shape of the egg which keeps it from rolling off the ledge…usually.





To incubate the  egg, the bird (and both parents take part) pull the egg up onto the top of their feet and then lower their brood patch over top of it. When handling some of the adults I’m surprised at how hot their feet are.



This bird has a data logger attached to the colour band on its left leg. Next year we will retrieve it to see where it has spent the non-breeding part of its life. Many Svalbard birds evidently winter off the coast of Newfoundland/Labrador.



But not so handsome or sleek when covered in a neighbour's guano.Note the guano covering this bird (in stark contrast to the bright, clean bird at the top). In the murre world, it's a lot cleaner at the top.


 This was a large storm that hit us for about 36 hours. It brought wind and rain…and big waves. A similar storm last year ate up 5 m of beach.
 We have had a spate of bad weather over the past 2 weeks. Despite being a “polar desert”, this area of Svalbard has been getting it’s share of precipitation: snow, sleet, rain, drizzle, low cloud. These conditions, often exacerbated by wind, make it difficult to work on these birds (and you don’t want to tak them off their nests for long as the eggs will chill).

There is not a lot of beach between our tents and the lapping waves.


Ireen and Stephanie trying to hold back the wind.Although they're fooling around here, Ireen and Stephanie spent a couple of hours prior to this reinforcing the tents.








Sun on the mountain - a signal that the storm has just about passed.


The approach of a second rain storm (this one without the wind)

This new weather system brought 36 hours of rain.

Fresh snow in the mountains after two days of rain down below.

We continue to get lots of visitors (although the tourist season is just ramping up now). One of the things that really amazes me is the number of large vessels that cruise into Isfjorden and to Longyearbyen.
This particular boat comes by the cliffs regularly.

The boat hangs around at the base of the cliff until we catch a bird or two and then motors off to another site.

Note the individual balconies for the first class cabins (the white decks). And is that an indoor swimming pool at the top from of the boat – all that glass? This boat was just returning from the head of a glacier deep in the fjord. Can you imagine watching it from that pool!?
And when I’m not after seabirds I look around for the only passerine in town – Snow Buntings. Evidently the Snow Buntings that breed on Svalbard spend their Winters in the steppes of Central Asia.
Snow Bunting nesting sites are few and far between. There is one in this rock pile, just in front of the pointed rock just to the left of centre.
Hidden well down in a crack is this lovely nest and 5 eggs.
Although the topography is the same day in day out, I never cease to be amazed at the subtle variations you see with the differing conditions:
The valley behind the camp.

1 thought on “June 27th; Svalbard Revisited #2 & #3

Leave a Reply