lørdag 5. september 2009

An exploration of eastern Svalbard

In June, July and August I was working for The Norwegian Polar Institute, and one of my tasks was to count bird colonies on the eastern side of Svalbard. This was a real Arctic adventure, with real Arctic weather conditions. To be driving a Zodiac (rubberboat) through bands of drift-ice, and to be kind of anoyed each time I saw a polar bear was things I had not been thinking of happening to me. But I got to experience both of these and much more. Here I will show some of the wildlife we saw on the trip, and tell a little about what we experienced during the two weeks we were on board the boat S/S Arctica.

There are some birds that most people think of when it comes to the Arctic, and we saw most of these on this trip. One bird that I have been fascinated by for quite a long time now is the Arctic Tern. Many would say that it is more of a nuisance than anything else because of the aggressive behaviour it shows at its breeding grounds, but I quite like this little bird that travels from Antarctica to the Arctic each year to breed. We found several colonies of this aggressive bird, where the biggest was about 300 pairs.

This adult Arctic Tern was hovering above us, and vlearly telling us that it didnt like our prescence close to its nest at Engelsøya in Storfjorden. During the minutes it took us to count the birds that were present at the island this individual and its partner attacked us several times with pecks and fly-overs.

This second-year Arctic tern was one of about 60 second- and third-year birds that were present at Håøya in the Tusenøyane archipelago. Second- and third-year birds are quite rare to see on mainland Norway, but on Svalbard they are quite frequent where there are terncolonies.

The weather conditions were not exactly of this Arctic Tren chicks choice, but it shows what tough birds they are. This picture was taken at Bölscheøya 21.07., and shows that small babies on Svalbard have a tough life until they have fledged and can fly south to better climate.:)

This Arctic Skua was photographed at Ryke Yseøyane. I took this picture with my 105 mm macro lens, and this show how close these birds dared to come to inspect us. This is by far the most numerous skua at Svalbard, and breeds almost all over the archipelago.

The Great Skua is a ferocious predator, and when it comes to avian predators on Svalbard, this is the supreme predator. They vary in agressiveness, and some can be quite scary when you aproach the nest. But this individual and its partner were more reluctant to come close to us when we passed close by theire chicks.

And as this picture shows, the Great Skua chicks did not have the best weather either. Just like the Arctic Tern chick, this one did not like to walk around on the fresh snow that just had come down on the 12. of July.

The Long-tailed Skua is the most elegant (or at least I think it is) of the skuas. Several of them were flying by when we were sailing in the Tusenøyane archipelago.

This third-year Pomarine Skua came flying by together with three other Pomarines in the middle of the drift ice, far from any islands. They were frequently seen on the entire east-side of Svalbard, with the largest flock of nine individuals.

This picture is of an adult Pomarine Skua of the dark morph, and this individual shows the caracteristic "spoon-shaped" tailfeathers that make this species easy to distinguish from other skuas.

This third-year Black-headed Gull was allso seen at Bölscheøya. It was quite easily distinguishable among the Black-legged Kittiwakes that it was feeding. This is a rare bird on Svalbard, and in terms of Svalbard this was probably the rarest bird we saw.

We were two proper birders on the trip, and this species was probably the most wanted of the about 40 species of birds we saw on the trip. This Sabine's Gull was one of eight on a island that I will not specify by name. The reason why I won't give up the name of the island that we found these birds at will be explained under the next pictures.
This is a quite rare sight on Svalbard. This island which housed four pairs of Sabine's Gull is the second largest breeding-colony of this species that is documented on Svalbard. Nests and eggs of Sabine's Gulls are only known from a few places on Svalbard. All in all there are probably only between 10 and 20 breeding pairs of Sabine's Gulls on svalbard. And this is the only place in Europe that they are breeding.
This picture is probably one of the most exclusive and rare pictures that I've ever taken. This shows one of the four pairs of Sabine's Gulls courting each other. I don't know of anybody else that have got a picture of courting, European, Sabine's Gulls. This pair had not yet laid theire eggs when we were there, but the courting clearly showed that they were considering doing something with that. The four pairs on the island had each their own territory, but only two of the pairs had laid eggs yet, and one of the pairs probably had one more egg to go nefore they were done laying.
Pictures like this are produced by several people each year, espescially during the autumn when the Sabine's Gulls fly south to their wintering grounds. But if it was to be commonly known where this colony was, the traffic of tourists that go by this island could endanger the survival of this colony. This is the reason why I am not giving out the name of this island.
Even though I was stood quite close to the birds, the pictures that I wanted were quite hard to get. This is one of the few OK pictures I got of the overside of the Sabine's Gulls. This shows the caracteristic pattern on the wings, combined with the hood, that make them stand out from flocks of other species of gulls.
Brent Geese were one of the species that we were to look for at the Tusenøyane archipelago, but sadly this was the only adult we found that were raising chicks. The Tusenøyane archipelago was thought to be the stronghold of Brent Geese in Svalbard and Europe. But if that is so, then the breeding population of European Brent Geese has allmost disappeared. The trend of these geese have gone down the last thirty years, so we were not very surprised that we did not find very many birds on nests or with chicks. Of what I have been told it is not the breeding grounds that is the bottleneck for the Brent Geese, but the wintering grounds are where the problems are. The seaweed that they rely on is suffering from human impact, and if nothing is done with that problem, there is a possibility that we will not have breeding Brent Geese in Europe in a few years.
These Black Guillemots from Bölscheøya allso managed to come in on this blog. These purely black and white birds, with brightly contrasting feet and inside of beak in red, were frequently seen everywhere we went. These three were sitting close to one of the counting-points we did on Bölscheøya.
Brünnick's Guillemot is one of the most numerous birds on Svalbard and in the Arctic. They often came flying like this in line.
The similarity to the Common Guillemot is easily seen, but the heavier body and the white stripe on the upper half of the beak easily distinguish this one out as a Brünnick's. The largest colonies of this species on Svalbard numbers more than hundred thousand birds. The largest of them all may contain as many as 450 000 birds.
Fulmars were allways flying around the boat when we were out sailing. They are quite amazing to watch when they glide in between the waves and exploit the winds that the waves generate to push them up into the air again without flapping the wings a single time for minutes on end.
Fulmars may appear to look like gulls at a distance, but when you get them up close they are quite unlike anything else you could see around Svalbard.
After we turned around Sørkapp, and started the trip up the West-coast of Spitsbergen we managed to see some of the giants of the ocean. This is generally the first sign you get of these "giants of the deep", a massive blow of air and water into the air as a 20 metres or longer Finwhale appears after having been searching for food below the surface.
This is the simplest way of determinig species of whale, the color and size of the back-fin.
Even though we found it quite nice that a flock of White-beaked Dolphins joined the flock of Finwhales, the whales did not like it very much. The dolphins tried to steal food from the whales, and as a response to that the whales were rolling over as they came to the surface, splashing their flippers and doing everything they could so that the food would not be stolen by the dolphins. It was a amazing experience to see these huge whales aplash around like that.
The White-beaked Dolphins did just like I have seen on TV many times before. They started "bow-surfing" as soon as they came up to the boat.
This gave me the possibility to take some quite interesting photos which show both their speed and their elegant bodies.
This pale grey spot behind the fin is the best way of determining that it was White-beaked Dolphins that were playing around the boat.
Another marine mammal that we encountered was this lazy creature. The Whalrus looked just as I had thought it would look; hungover after a big meal of fermenting molluscs. The smell of Whalrus can best be described as a badly kept outdoor-toilet with really bad ventilation. They were burping and farting like if they were in a contest, but I guess that is just what they do so I wnot hold it against them:)
These tw guys were lying out in the middle of the drift-ice, minding their own buisniess when we came by. They didnt mind us and didnt think of us as any problem. And when they got tired of us looking at them they just fell into the sea and disapeared down into the dark and freezing cold water.
These three curious young guys suddenly appeared around our sailboat.
And when there are youngsters around, you know that they will splash around in the water.
The King of the Arctic was kind enough to show himself to us at several occasions. This one is standing on a piece of drift-ice.
And here is a picture from before he walked away from his bed in amongst the stones. He is clearly showing that he is big enough to beat up any of us.:)
Most of the adult bears, just like this huge male, did not like to have humans around them. So most of the bears we encountered turned around and walked away from us. But this one obviously had bad memories from previous human encounters, and ran away as fast as he could.
Some bears were, like this one, more interested in sleeping than for us to bother him. The only problem we had regarding that was that in some of the areas we were supposed to count birds there were bears "everywhere". At most there was up to three or four bears on one island. This did not make our work easy, but we got to do lots of rubber-boat-driving in icy water where the danger was made even bigger by the polar bears lying on land. But that is what makes you a man, isn't it?
The King of the Arctic is looking out over its icy kingdom.
This young bear was posing quite much like a beer-comersial for Mack beer-brewery.
In this picture the bear shows off its huge paws. It was coming closer and closer to where we were, maybe hoping for something to take nibble of?
Polar bears can look remarkably much like dogs when you get to see how they react to different situations.
What is that smell? Hmmmm.....
This was the first ever Polar Bear I got to see. The captain called us up on the radio and said; "Eastern team, eastern team! There is a Polar Bear coming in your direction! Where are you. I am coming to pick you up!" Of course this got my heart to speed up it's rhythm, and obviously my polish companion was feeling the same. We took the quickest route which was not going towards the bear. We got picked up by the captain, got back to the boat, and the other team also came on board. After having discussed this allmost-encounter with a Polar Bear we started to get ready to sail away. But just as the anchor was pulled in, we saw the bear coming back. And we all got out our cameras and enjoyed the view of the first bear of the trip. The final number of bears seen on the trip got up to 34 individuals. Which is not a bad number for 15 days.

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