We had a great time exploring the High Arctic of the Svalbard Archipelago! Bears, walrus, whales and, of course, birds all came together for a truly great experience. We arrived to nice weather in Longyearbyen, the furthest northern true town in the world. After checking in at the hotel, we did a bird walk and got our first taste of Arctic birds. We saw Snow Buntings right in town before walking to Longyearbyen's outskirts, where we also went the following morning. There we found nesting Common Eiders, a pair of Parasitic Jaegers, Barnacle Geese, a few Dunlin, Common Ringed Plover, and a quite uncommon Tufted Duck. In the afternoon, we boarded Plancius and headed out.
Over the next seven days, we had many great encounters. Our first morning outing on the ship was a zodiac cruise around Smeerenberg Glacier where we came upon several male King Eiders, the most colorful bird in Svalbard. In the afternoon we walked to a haulout of about 45 Walrus that gave us great views. The following day, at unassuming Mushamna we had great views of two Ivory Gulls on a half frozen pond.
We had our first good Polar Bear on the Andøyane Islands in the afternoon, that Cathy spotted swimming towards land. A pair of Rock Ptarmigan and a visit to the huge bird cliff colony at Alkefjellet were on the docket for the next day, before we headed to the pack ice where we found loose ice floes piling up, which was not conducive for finding more bears. But we did have a nice encounter with two very rarely encountered Bowhead Whales.
Our following day ended up with a return to one of our earlier areas, where we had a fantastic experience with a female Polar Bear and her two cubs, as well as a nearby male. On our last day, we stopped at Alkhornet where we saw a large number of Svalbard Reindeer and a confiding Arctic Fox.
It's not just the wildlife that makes this place so special. The scenery alone would merit a trip here, with deep cut valleys and mountains that have been carved by ice. I think some of the fjords we entered are some of the prettiest places I have ever seen. Overall, the crew and staff on our ship were extremely hospitable and they went out of their way to fulfill our wants and desires. It was very strange to get back to Oslo and see the sun low on the horizon and some semblance of darkness; now we are back to total darkness for many hours each night, but we'll always remember those long days. I hope to see all of you again soon!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
PINK-FOOTED GOOSE (Anser brachyrhynchus)
We saw these a few times during the trip. The first ones were flying overhead in Longyearbyen and we saw more at Mushamna.
BRANT (ATLANTIC) (Branta bernicla hrota)
Two individuals flew over our ship while we were scanning the small flat Moffen Island.
BARNACLE GOOSE (Branta leucopsis)
Though we saw some scattered about on the peninsulas and islands we visited, the most and best views were along the coast road in Longyearbyen during our forays there.
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula)
A male, with tuft and all, was on the pond near the Dog Town on our first afternoon in Longyearbyen. It was not there the next morning when we returned. This is a rather rare but regular visitor to Svalbard.
KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)
After chasing our first one around near the Smeerenberg Glacier, we ended up seeing these quite well a few other times, including about 35 individuals in total, swimming and flying, near the glacier.
COMMON EIDER (NORTHERN) (Somateria mollissima borealis)
This handsome duck was seen most days in pairs or groups of 6-8 individuals, but we had a lot more along the coast road in Longyearbyen where there were many on nests near the Dog Town. The presence of the sled dogs, even though they are in a large enclosure, seems to be enough to keep the Arctic Foxes from raiding the nests. Though others reported seeing a fox grab an egg or two from some eider nests near the periphery.
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
We saw our first at Mushamna, then in the afternoon we found a group of 14 individuals in the little bay on one of the Andøyane Islands, which translates to "Duck Islands."
ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta hyperborea)
At Faksevågen, we walked up to a ridge and after a lot of scanning a male, then a female, were spotted amongst the rocks above us where they stayed for quite a while. The male was still all white, while the female was in its highly camouflaged brown plumage. Meanwhile, those that stayed on the beach saw three males up the slope as well. One always feels fortunate to encounter this secretive species.
COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula hiaticula)
We only saw a few, with most of the sightings near Longyearbyen and then one on our last zodiac cruise at Skansbukta.
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
We saw three individuals working along the edge of a pond just past the Dog Town on our first afternoon. These are local breeders here on Svalbard. These birds were in nice plumage with black bellies.
PURPLE SANDPIPER (Calidris maritima)
There were plenty of these along the tidal flat in Longyearbyen, where one scope view had 14 individuals. After leaving this area we only saw ones and two on several days for the rest of the trip.
RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)
Our only sighting was a pair that flew completely around our zodiac in the little bay in the Andøyane Islands.
GREAT SKUA (Stercorarius skua)
We saw a few flying about harassing terns, with our first ones near Smeerenberg Glacier and again that same day at Amsterdamøya.
PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)
These were seen several days with our first ones near a nest in Longyearbyen, then what was certainly another nest at Alkhornet on our final full day. All the ones we saw were the typical light morph individuals.
DOVEKIE (Alle alle)
While we saw several in pairs or groups of 10-15 flying next to the ship on several days, we were hoping to get to a colony of these "Little Auks" where we could see them up close. Our visit to the colony at Fuglesangen got interrupted by the great encounter with the Polar Bears. We ran out of time to make a landing but did cross the choppy water to the colony where we saw a few large groups of 100+ individuals flying overhead and calling.
THICK-BILLED MURRE (Uria lomvia)
This species was in big numbers every day from the ship. Known mostly on the ship as Brunnich's Guillemot, we had nice close views of those on the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet where they were taking up most of the ledges. This species is essentially the northern equivalent of penguins from the southern hemisphere.
BLACK GUILLEMOT (MANDTII) (Cepphus grylle mandtii)
We saw these daily from the ship or along the coast during our landings. Simply called Guillemot by the Brits and most in Europe, we had many nice views and could see the bright red feet when they were standing on ice floes. They had not yet settled in to begin the nesting process at Alkefjellet.
ATLANTIC PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica)
We saw many from the ship on most days, but the best views were those swimming close to us near the impressive cliff formations at Skansbukta on our final zodiac ride. We even saw a few fly up and land on the cliff ledges.
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla)
This was by far the most common gull we encountered, seeing hundreds and some days thousands. At some of the bird colonies we saw many high up on the cliffs, above the Thick-billed Murres, where they will be nesting soon. We did encounter at least a couple of immature plumaged individuals that have a dark nape and more black in the wing.
IVORY GULL (Pagophila eburnea)
We had nice views of two of these quintessential Arctic birds at the partially ice-covered pond at Mushamna. These white birds were flying about and landing on the white ice, where the black eye and black legs were visible. Numbers of this species have crashed in the last 20 years due to build up of PCBs in the fat of seals, on which they get much of their diet after following Polar Bears.
SABINE'S GULL (Xema sabini)
A single bird took off from Moffen Island and flew past us, never giving a good view while we scanned after dinner.
ICELAND GULL (Larus glaucoides)
A single first year, all white, individual suddenly appeared next to the ship as we were cruising along the broken up pack ice. It landed briefly in front of the ship before disappearing.
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)
This large gull replaces raptors in much of Svalbard and is the marauder of bird colonies and duck nesting areas, in hopes of finding an isolated chick. We saw these everyday of the trip.
ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)
Another species we saw everyday. They were generally unaggressive when we encountered them ashore, meaning that their nesting had not started yet.
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)
We saw a few, with a pair at Grahuken and another pair at Mushamna.
NORTHERN FULMAR (ATLANTIC) (Fulmarus glacialis glacialis)
This species was common throughout from the ship. Many individuals did long looping flights around Plancius for an hour or more. We saw a few light morph individuals but nearly all were the more gray dark morph.
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
The only passerine we encountered on the trip. They were most numerous right in Longyearbyen, even hopping about on the sidewalks. We did see them away from town as well, where we heard their nice song.
COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
About 5-7 of these small whales with the curved dorsal fin were spotted during the trip.
BOWHEAD WHALE (Balaena mysticetus)
One of the trip highlights was getting great looks at two of the three Bowhead Whales that we saw near the pack ice. This species has made a bit of a comeback from nearly becoming extinct due to hunting for nearly a century. It is one of the rarer large whales in the world, and a real treat to see.
ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)
A couple of folks saw one cross the parking lot of the hotel in Longyearbyen on our first morning there, but we had a great encounter with a rather curious individual at Alkhornet on our last day in the field. After trying to get a good view for a while, the fox ended up approaching us, then lying down on the tundra for a brief snooze. These are rather tiny creatures and it is hard to imagine they make it through the harsh winter in Svalbard.
POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)
We had a fantastic experience with four Polar Bears near Ytre Norskøya. A female and two cubs, that seemed rather large to still be nursing, were lying on a snow patch amongst some large boulders when a male bear came swimming up to the shore and climbed over to a Minke Whale carcass and proceeded to start tearing off pieces of meat and eating. The female and cubs first high-tailed it up the slope before working their way down and behind the male to the shoreline. We had great looks at all but the sight of the three bears right at the waters edge was particularly great. Our first nice encounter was in the Andøyane Islands where we went in search of a male bear that was initially seen from the bridge of Plancius. It went over a low island so we started searching by zodiac. Cathy spotted it swimming and we followed in for a nice encounter that seemed good at the time but was surely overtaken by the four near the carcass. The great aspect of this was that all five of these bears seemed plump and healthy.
WALRUS (Odobenus rosmarus)
Another iconic Arctic mammal; we had a nice visit with about 45 individuals at the haul-out site at Amsterdamøya. We then saw a few more here and there during our sailing as the trip progressed.
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
We saw a couple, with one in the sea off of Longyearbyen, and then nice close views of one at Grahuken.
RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)
One popped up for some of us who were on the top deck as we cruised the pack ice.
HARP SEAL (Phoca groenlandica)
One was also seen along the pack ice as we cruised along.
BEARDED SEAL (Erignathus barbatus)
We saw a few of these large seals. They have distinctively long whiskers that give this species its name.
CARIBOU ("REINDEER") (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus)
Many were seen in a variety of places including right near, and in, Longyearbyen. The large group we saw at Alkhornet was the most we saw in any place. This subspecies is a bit smaller with shorter legs than the other forms in Canada and Greenland.
Totals for the tour: 27 bird taxa and 10 mammal taxa