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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Birding Black-and-White: Polar Bears, Ivory Gulls, and Alcids of Svalbard

2018 Narrative

In Brief: The archipelago of Svalbard is superlative. Located high above the Arctic circle, north of Scandinavia, this snow-capped wonderland is home to spectacular wildlife and incredible scenery. Our first-ever tour to this destination was highly successful, despite contenting with dense fog on a couple days: we ended up enjoying six Polar Bears including a mother with two cubs and a courting pair, eight Ivory Gulls including a flock of five gleaming adults, plus tens of thousands of alcids (especially Thick-billed Murres and Dovekies), dazzling King Eiders, singing Purple Sandpipers, plenty of Walrus, and much more! All this set against a backdrop of beautiful Arctic landscapes and enjoyed from our comfortable ship with a fun, easygoing group. This destination is truly a must-visit!

In Detail: After assembling for a delicious dinner at our hotel in Longyearbyen (during which a Rock Ptarmigan zoomed by the window and landed on a nearby rooftop), we tried to pull the black-out shades and grab a few hours of sleep under the midnight sun. Our birding began the next morning right around town, by necessity more than anything – you simply can’t get very far around here without a boat or a snowmobile! That being said, it’s easy to see all the local birds on foot or with a short taxi ride to nearby patches of tundra. The wind was whipping, but we found some shelter in the lee of the dog kennels, where a large colony of Common Eiders kept us entertained. Barnacle Geese were abundant, and we saw several pairs of Pink-footed Geese scattered among them. An apparent hybrid Herring x Glaucous Gull was interesting, as was a second-summer Iceland Gull resting among the numerous eiders. Shifting positions for a better view of the harbor, we quickly located our target King Eiders loafing offshore, and noted large numbers of Purple Sandpipers on the expansive mudflats and Brant on the nearby shoreline.

The wind had us quickly retreating and calling a van to take us a bit further afield in more comfort – a good decision, indeed! Our first destination was Adventdalen, east of town – the tundra was fairly quiet (it seemed like Red Phalaropes and Red-throated Loons weren’t quite settled into breeding grounds yet), but a locally rare Green-winged (Eurasian) Teal and a cooperative Common Ringed-Plover were highlights. Svalbard Reindeer were scattered all across the tundra. The road soon started ascending into the mines, so we turned around and headed for the lagoon near the airport, which held a very obliging pair of Parasitic Jaegers and a couple of Long-tailed Ducks among the abundant eiders and geese.

The valley up to the Coal Miners Cabins was fairly quiet, save for more geese and reindeers, so we headed back to the hotel for a much-needed lunch. We had a couple hours before we had to board the ship, so we walked back down to the edge of the harbor with hopes of photographing King Eiders. They were still a little too far away, but the prolonged scope views were much appreciated! Before long, we found ourselves boarding our home for the next week, the M/V Ortelius. It was hard to ignore the hundreds of Dovekies, Thick-billed Murres, and Northern Fulmars flying around us during the lifeboat drills, just a taste of what was to come…

We awoke the next morning all the way up off the northwest tip of Svalbard, scanning from the stable deck and getting a good sense of the local alcids – something we’d have plenty of practice with in the coming days. Flocks of Dovekies and Thick-billed Murres were a constant sight, and we picked out a couple Atlantic Puffins. We’d already seen some beautiful scenery around Longyearbyen, but it just kept getting better. It was amazing to be constantly surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped peaks and crystal-clear blue water. We headed into a fjord and took a zodiac cruise in the afternoon around the Duck Islands, which was fairly slow for birds, but we did see a pair of King Eiders (I hope I never get sick of these), a small flock of Long-tailed Ducks, and a pair of Red Phalaropes keeping fairly well hidden along the rocky shoreline.

The sun was shining and the wind was calm in the evening as we enjoyed the gorgeous Monaco Glacier, complete with a Bearded Seal loafing on one of the ice floes. I could gush forever about the scenery, but we had more important things to look for…

By the morning, we had made it well into the Hinlopen Strait, where our main target was good pack ice – the main habitat of Polar Bear and Ivory Gull. This year, the main sea ice had retreated far to the northeast of Svalbard, so the crew was hoping we could find ice a bit closer within the strait. Well, let’s just say it took a while! We cruised all the way down to the island of Wilhelmoya, finally getting to solid fields of ice…just in time for the fog to really settle in. We cruised along the ice edge, occasionally making forays straight into it where we could, and eventually (after dinner) the fog lifted just enough for the crew to spot a distant mother Polar Bear with two cubs!! They were far away, but we were happy to watch them in the scope for at least a solid hour before they vanished into the fog again.

Another day “dawned”, which means nothing here because A) the sun is always up and B) it was still incredibly foggy. Nevertheless, we were in good ice for most of the day, so we were hopeful that we would eventually cross paths with something cool! And that happened just before lunch with a Walrus hauled out on the ice, and an attendant juvenile IVORY GULL perched just above it! The ship approached carefully and we had excellent scope views of this iconic Arctic speciality. Svalbard is probably the best place in the world to see Ivory Gull, although they still aren’t abundant or super easy to find. We were happy to have this big target checked off, so the bad visibility for the rest of the day didn’t seem too bad, especially when two more Ivory Gulls (adults this time!) magically materialized out of the fog and flew right over the boat (for some of us, anyway).

By the following morning, we had made it to the mouth of Wahlenbergfjord. We checked the edge of the ice for bears and then headed across the strait to Alkefjellet, where we embarked on a zodiac cruise to the bottom of bird-loaded cliffs. It was quite a spectacle – nearly a hundred thousand pairs of Thick-billed Murres nest on these cliffs, along with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls. The swirling masses of birds flying around, lining the ledges, and carpeting the ocean will not quickly be forgotten! We were also happy to enjoy two Arctic Foxes sneaking around at the base of the cliffs.

In the afternoon, we headed back into the solid ice fields in Wahlenbergfjord, with Polar Bears at the forefront of our minds. Thankfully, our goal was fairly quickly achieved – a pair of Polar Bears loafing on the ice! As the ship slowly moved closer, we were treated to a remarkable experience. The mating season is usually long over by the time cruises are here in June, so we counted ourselves very fortunate to watch the male and female courting for several hours! They chased each other, smelled each other, and occasionally just lay down facing each other, a few inches apart, gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. It was magical!

Harry spotted a third Polar Bear resting on the ice a little way away, but we reluctantly had to pull ourselves away for dinner. Later in the evening, we were treated to a flock of FIVE adult Ivory Gulls flying against a dark gray cloud, truly gleaming – amazing! What a perfect way to end the day.

Our next couple days were spent slowly working our way back down the western edge of Svalbard, making several stops and zodiac excursions along the way. Unfortunately, we encountered some more fog that delayed a few activities, but we managed to make a landing at Smeerenberg and enjoyed a walk on the beach – complete with a gorgeous Red Knot in breeding plumage, a bunch of Ruddy Turnstones, a Common Ringed Plover, and a flyby Iceland Gull. The crew set up a fun BBQ on the upper deck for dinner, in a calm fjord surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped mountains – how many people can say they’ve had a barbeque in the Arctic?

Our last full day included another nice walk around the tundra, highlighted by a very young baby Svalbard Reindeer (maybe 1-2 days old?), plus a couple cute teenage Reindeer, our only Great Black-backed Gulls of the trip, and a pair of Parasitic Jaegers on territory. In the afternoon, a highly-anticipated landing at Poolepynten to view a Walrus haul-out was highly successful – at least 25 of these giant animals were lazily loafing on the beach, complete with eye-watering stench and various loud gaseous noises. And, need I say it again…the surrounding scenery was amazing.

By now, it was time to cruise back to Longyearbyen overnight, where we disembarked after breakfast on our last morning and spent a few hours walking around town enjoying the friendly Arctic birdlife. King Eiders bid us farewell, along with a pair of spiffy Red Phalaropes with hundreds of the Purple Sandpipers on the mudflats…and too soon, we were whisked away to the airport to catch our flights home. It was a marvelous trip with a fun, easygoing group – thank you for coming! I can’t wait until next year!

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