A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

The Norwegian Arctic: Spitsbergen & the Svalbard Archipelago II 2022

July 2-14, 2022 with John Coons guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
A highlight of the trip was our zodiac cruise along the face of the huge nesting cliffs at Alkefjellet where there are massive numbers of Thick-billed Murres filling every ledge. Photo by participant Don Taves.

We had great fun exploring the fjords, bays, glaciers, and pack ice of Spitsbergen and Svalbard in search of wildlife aboard our ship, Ortelius. We got our trip underway in Longyearbyen where we walked the coast road in the afternoon of our arrival. Here we had nice encounters with Parasitic Jaegers, Common Ringed Plover, nesting Common Eiders, Dunlin, and a brilliant male King Eider that ended up flying right past us. The next morning we walked up past town and came upon good numbers of Pink-footed Geese with goslings as well as Barnacle Geese with babies. We boarded the ship that afternoon and set off on our adventure.

Our first landing spot was the historic site at New London where we found a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers nesting on the tundra and Red-throated Loons, as well as two Ruddy Turnstones which are quite uncommon on Svalbard. Across the fjord at Ny Ålesund we had a nice fly-by Ivory Gull and a Red Phalarope swimming around quite near us. The next morning found us walking into the Dovekie colony at Fuglesangen where we had close up experiences with many of these Little Auks, which was a real highlight. Sailing up to the pack ice that night and arriving in the morning yielded a handful more of the fantastic Ivory Gulls as well as our first Polar Bear which was walking on the ice. Here we reached our northern most point at 81º 27' latitude.

Heading south from the pack ice, we made a handful of landings in fjords before sailing into the Hinlopen Straits. At the magnificent bird cliff at Alkefjellet we were enjoying the tens of thousands of Thick-billed Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes from the zodiac when Christophe spotted a Polar Bear swimming at the base of the cliff. We followed it until it hauled out onto a split in the cliff where the bear attempted to raid some murre nests to no avail before getting back in the water. That was really cool! Just after lunch we landed at Torrellneset and had a nice visit on the beach with a large number of huge tusked Walrus. We continued to the south and sailed between the islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya. Along the way we saw another 5-7 Polar Bears on the slopes and one of these thwarted one of our landings.

Our final two days on the ship found us at Gashamna for a walk, and this is where Alex joined some others for a Polar Plunge. A very pleasant zodiac cruise that afternoon was capped with a nice experience with a Humpback Whale. Our final landing the next day found us in Bellsund for a walk on the gravel spit and tundra with more reindeer and our first Arctic Fox.

All went well disembarking the next morning in Longyearbyen and having a couple of hours in town before heading to the airport and our flight back to Oslo. The trip seemed to pass too quickly. Much thanks to all for the great spotting along the way and good conversations with wonderful meals on the ship. It is fun sharing the ship with such an international group of passengers. Also, much thanks to our Expedition Leader, Christophe Gourard, for going out of his way to get us to sites with the best bird potential. I hope you all enjoyed your time in Oslo after the trip and we can get together again soon.


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

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

PINK-FOOTED GOOSE (Anser brachyrhynchus)

On our morning birding in Longyearbyen we found many of these local waterfowl along the road above town that goes up the valley. Many had goslings in tow.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We first saw this male King Eider way out in the bay at Longyearbyen but we were fortunate to have it fly past a bit later. We saw a handful more later in the trip. Photo by participant Don Taves.

BARNACLE GOOSE (Branta leucopsis)

We saw a good number of these geese around Longyearbyen at the beginning of the trip, then a handful here and there at landings during our time on Ortelius.

KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)

Our first was a male swimming in the fjord near Longyearbyen that eventually flew right past us. We then saw two males and a female in the bay at Ny Ålesund that were hanging out with some Common Eiders. This is truly a beauty.

COMMON EIDER (NORTHERN) (Somateria mollissima borealis)

We saw this species nearly daily with good numbers around Longyearbyen where we had many chicks following females while males were hanging out in the fjord. Some females were still sitting on nests as well which looked nice and cozy with all the down.

LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)

We saw a few pairs of these local breeders. Our first were in the bay at New London and we saw pairs at Sorgfjord and Dolerittneset as well.

Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta hyperborea)

Becky and Alex saw a pair along the road past the cemetery during our free time afternoon before boarding the ship.

Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)

COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula hiaticula)

We had nice looks at this Old World equivalent of Semipalmated Plover in Longyearbyen during our afternoon of birding, then again the next morning. We saw a few more in locales later in the week as we sailed around Spitsbergen.

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres interpres)

A pair were seen along the rocky stream just above the bay at New London on Bloomstrandhalvøya. This is a quite uncommon species here in Svalbard.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Pink-footed Geese are quite local in Svalbard but we had a good number of them along the road above Longyearbyen on our first morning there. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.

SANDERLING (Calidris alba)

Thus is another species that is rarely encountered in Svalbard. We saw two along the beach at Kinnvika that were in their rich rufous plumage that they only have for a short time in the breeding season. This is said to be the furthest north nesting bird in the world and it was a real treat to see it.

DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)

Our only sighting was a breeding plumaged individual at a freshwater pond along the coast road near the Dog Town in Longyearbyen.

PURPLE SANDPIPER (Calidris maritima)

This was by far the most common shorebird we encountered. After seeing several along the coast road in Longyearbyen, we saw them at many of the landings where we heard and viewed a few in their display flights. Not many birders see this species on its breeding ground so the bird is named for its grayish-purple winter plumage.

RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)

Perhaps the most colorful bird of Svalbard; we saw a female on the little pond in Ny Ålesund that cooperated for photos, then two more at the little bay at Dolerittneset. The Europeans on the ship call this Gray Phalarope since they never see it in this bright plumage.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

GREAT SKUA (Stercorarius skua)

We didn't see many of these powerful looking predators. We found two perched and flying about on Moffen Island as we scanned from the ship and another at Kinnvika. It would be tough to be one of the nesting birds on the isolated Moffen Island, where they would constantly be on the watch for the pair looking to raid the nests.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Ivory Gull is one of the most special birds of the trip and after our first fly by at Ny Ålesund we saw several flying about and landing in the pack ice. Photo by participant Don Taves.

POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus)

One was seen perched on an ice floe in the early morning as we approached the pack ice, then we saw another that flew past us at Kinnvika but we didn't spot it until it was already flying away so we didn't get a great look.

PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)

We saw a handful during our trip with the first at Longyearbyen where they were probably at a nest. These showed well and even landed in the road in front of us. We also saw a pair at Gashamna where there were two fuzzy gray chicks seen in the tundra.

LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus)

At our landing site at New London we had great views of a pair at a nest on the soft vegetation just up from the beach. Another pair were seen further back from the shore. Doug also spotted one flying near the pack ice. This is a quite local species in Svalbard with only a few known nesting locales.

Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)

DOVEKIE (Alle alle)

These tiny alcids are one of the great birds of Spitsbergen. We saw them each day from the ship, but one of the highlights was visiting the Dovekie colony at Fuglesangen. Here, we walked up to the boulders and sat with these entertaining birds as they came and went in small flocks, called and bowed to each other, and got to within 25 feet of us. Called Little Auk by the Europeans, this is another bird that is rarely seen in breeding plumage by birders and it was a real treat to hang out with them.


Certainly the most abundant bird we encountered on the trip. We saw hundreds and hundreds flying by the ship each day. But the highlight was a visit to the huge bird cliff at Alkefjellet where there are estimated to be 65,000 pairs nesting. Here they were also swimming quite close to our zodiac. This bird is called Brunnich's Guillemot by the Europeans.

BLACK GUILLEMOT (MANDTII) (Cepphus grylle mandtii)

We also saw these every day from the ship, but in far fewer numbers than the Thick-billed Murres. A few that we saw closely on ice floes during zodiac rides showed their bright red feet and some of us saw the red mouth lining as well. It was a surprise to see a mostly white individual swimming about in the fjord at Burgerbukta. This bird was essentially all white with some smudges of gray on the chest and head and with dark eyes and red feet.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We were incredibly fortunate to get great looks at our Polar Bear at the Alkefjellet bird cliffs where this incredible mammal attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach the Thick-billed Murre nests. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.

ATLANTIC PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica)

A quite familiar species that we saw on several days of the trip. Everybody likes a puffin. Most were seen flying past the ship or swimming nearby. These birds nest in burrows in the tundra where they are protected from the roving skuas and Glaucous Gulls.

Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)


This is another bird we saw every day of the trip with good numbers on some of the cliffs high above us. We had great close views of several during the zodiac rides near the glaciers.

IVORY GULL (Pagophila eburnea)

Perhaps the most emblematic bird of the High Arctic. Soon after landing at Ny Ålesund we saw one of these ghosts appear above the rocks where it circled a time or two before flying directly away and across the inlet. We had better views near the pack ice where we estimated from 6-10 individuals near the ship. These sightings were over a few hours so there might have been the same individuals involved. We did have a group of three that were hanging out together. This species has seen a dramatic decline in numbers in the past couple of decades.

SABINE'S GULL (Xema sabini)

A quite uncommon bird, our only sighting was one we saw from the ship on Moffen Island as it landed and made a few short flights. Unfortunately, we could not get closer.

GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)

There were good numbers seen on some days and at least a few on all days. This large gull replaces raptors on Svalbard and goes after young birds including eider chicks and their eggs.

ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)

Seen just about daily, Arctic Terns were nesting in a few of the places we visited and we had to divert around the areas as they dived on us.

Gaviidae (Loons)

RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)

We saw a couple or three pairs at New London and at Ny Ålesund. When we finally got nice light on them we sould see the red throat pretty well. Later in the trip one was also seen at Dolerittneset.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Though we saw several swimming from the zodiacs, most of the Atlantic Puffins we encountered were flying next to the ship. Even the non-birders on Ortelius were keen to see this well-known species. Photo by participant Don Taves.
Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)

NORTHERN FULMAR (ATLANTIC) (Fulmarus glacialis glacialis)

We were, seemingly, never out of sight of these from the ship. There were always a fair number circling Ortelius. Nearly all were of the gray morph that gets higher in latitude than the whitish form.

Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)

NORTHERN WHEATEAR (GREENLAND) (Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa)

Don spotted this quite rare species for Spitsbergen amongst the rocks behind the cemetery in Longyearbyen. There ended up being two individuals but when we walked closer they had amazingly vanished.

Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Our day in the pack ice and far from land was the only day we didn't have at least one sighting of this handsome bird. We first saw them in Longyearbyen where they were singing from roof tops.


COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

BLUE WHALE (Balaenoptera musculus)

One was seen in the 6:30 am range as we approached Fuglesangen, then Alex saw one on our pack ice day. Both of these got away quickly.

HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

We had a nice experience with this behemoth during our zodiac cruise near the Bugerbukta glacier. Then later, after boarding the ship, it made a close pass.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Our morning sitting amongst the many Dovekies (or Little Auks) was memorable for the sights and sounds of this tiny seabird. Photo by participant Don Taves.

ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)

At our last landing of the trip at Recherchebreen where we walked on the gravel bar in front of the glacier, the Danes spotted one feeding on a Reindeer carcass way up the slope. We ended up with nice scope views from below. Our scope became very popular with all the other passengers here.

POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)

Perhaps the most sought after item on the trip for the majority of passengers. We saw our first at a good distance on the pack ice. This bear did not have much interest in us and continued to walk off over the ice. Two days later we were on our zodiac cruise at the bird cliff at Alkefjellet with Christophe driving. We came around a bend in the cliff and Christophe spotted a male bear swimming about 60 feet away. We followed it and it climbed out of the water at a break in the cliff and proceeded to walk around the steep slope trying, in vain, to get to some of the Thick-billed Murre nests. It really put on a great show before getting back in the water. The following day as we cruised by Edgeøya we spotted a fair number of bears on the slopes of the island. I believe the ship's tally was ten sightings along this stretch over a few hours.

WALRUS (Odobenus rosmarus)

Another of the iconic Arctic animals. We saw our first in the water and on the beach at Moffen Island. Three days later we landed at Torellneset and walked up to a large group that were lounging on the beach showing their tusks quite well. We then had another great experience at Dolerittneset where we were on the rise above the beach looking down on a fair-sized group.

HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)

We had our best view of one near the landing site at New London.

RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)

At least one was seen on the ice as we cruised the floe edge.

HARP SEAL (Phoca groenlandica)

We also saw this one along the pack ice edge. This species tends to have its head emerge high out of the water when it surfaces.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We had several encounters with Walrus during the course of our trip. We saw piles of them on the beach where they seemed to enjoy just lying around, but they were more entertaining when swimming together. Photo by participant Becky Hansen.

BEARDED SEAL (Erignathus barbatus)

We saw a few of these, the largest of the seals in the area. The long whiskers are pretty distinctive on this species.

CARIBOU ("REINDEER") (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus)

We saw a fair number of this endemic subspecies in the Longyearbyen area and again at Ny Ålesund. I don't think we saw them again until we got to the Recherche glacier on our last landing. This form is smaller and shorter legged than those of Greenland and northern Canada.

Totals for the tour: 29 bird taxa and 11 mammal taxa