A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

The Norwegian Arctic: Spitsbergen & the Svalbard Archipelago 2023

July 4-16, 2023 with John Coons guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
Flocks of Dovekies were regularly seen from the ship in the fjords and at sea. Svalbard is one of the best places to see this bird in breeding plumage. Photo by participant Amy Sheldon.

We enjoyed a great voyage in the High Arctic during our circumnavigation of the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. After gathering at our hotel in Oslo and having time for a morning bird walk we flew to Longyearbyen, the furthest north actual town in the world. That afternoon and the next morning we had time for some birding along the tidal flats where we got our arctic birding underway. Longyearbyen was experiencing a "heat wave" where the temperatures were near 60ºF. It seemed all the locals were on their porches barbecuing and it seemed odd to see people wearing shorts around town. We also learned the wheeled sled tours pulled by sled dogs were cancelled due to the potential for dogs overheating in the warm weather.

We boarded Plancius in the afternoon and after the mandatory safety and life boat drills we sailed out of Isfjorden where we watched Thick-billed Murres, Atlantic Puffins, and Northern Fulmars quite close to the ship. Soon afterwards we spotted some spouts on the horizon and caught up to a magnificently giant Blue Whale and a Humpback surfacing not far off our bow. We sailed up the west side of Spitsbergen and made our first landings in Kongsfjord at New London where we had great views of Long-tailed Jaegers on the tundra, Red-throated Loons, Ruddy Turnstones, and Pink-footed Geese before sailing across the fjord to the international research village of Ny Ålesund. Arriving at the pier, an Ivory Gull circled the ship and we enjoyed a bright female Red Phalarope at a small pond in the village. The following day we found ourselves on the north end of Spitsbergen investigating a few sites. Lots of Dovekies were around the ship before we did a zodiac cruise near the Monaco Glacier and in the afternoon we walked to an interesting thermal spring where we found a pair of well-camouflaged Rock Ptarmigan along the slope. That evening we had another, and even closer, Blue Whale.

For many, the highlight of the trip is getting to the pack ice. We arrived to the ice the following morning and cruised through broken floes as we scanned the horizon. Not long after breakfast we spotted a Polar Bear on the ice with the remains of a larger pinniped. We came to a stop and relished the view for couple of hours as two other Polar Bears arrived and had a brief "who's in charge here" skirmish before they all settled down. Meanwhile, at least six Ivory Gulls and a few Glaucous Gulls were nearby in an attempt to grab tidbits of meat. It was a fantastic scene! It was here that we reached our northern most point, 80º 39' North latitude.

Over the next few days we sailed south through the straits between Spitsbergen and the islands of Nordaustland and Edgeoøya. We did a zodiac cruise along the cliffs at Alkefjellet where thousands and thousands of Thick-billed Murres were on the ledges just above us priming for nesting season. Black Guillemots swam around us and we had nice looks at an Arctic Fox. We had great views of the huge Bråsvellbreen ice cap and its towering waterfalls and we saw our sixth Polar Bear on an ice floe with another seal carcass and Ivory Gulls.

We went ashore on Edgeøya and visited a Walrus haulout, where we also viewed a pod of Belugas from the ship. A couple of our landings were thwarted by low tide and surf on the final day, but we enjoyed a walk on the tundra at Alkhornet below a large Black-legged Kittiwake colony as many Svalbard Reindeer, some curious to us, leisurely grazed. We disembarked the ship the next morning and, with flight schedules being different this year, spent another night in Longyearbyen where we had another walk, seeing a fair number of Dunlin with the Purple Sandpipers.

Our morning flight got us back to Oslo and we had a forested trail walk in a light rain near the hotel before having our final dinner and recounting highlights of our voyage. It was very odd to see trees again and to see the sun set after our 24 hours of daylight.

The staff on Plancius was incredibly friendly and helpful and the meals were wonderful. It was equally wonderful to sail with all of you and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

A list of our Norway birds are at the end of 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

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

PINK-FOOTED GOOSE (Anser brachyrhynchus)

We had a few encounters with this somewhat local species, including at a freshwater lake with 390 individuals at Russebukta.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Perhaps the most quintessential arctic bird is the Ivory Gull. We saw a handful during the week, with six seen with the three Polar Bears on the pack ice. This composite shows two of our sightings; left is a photo by guide John Coons; right is an image by participant Amy Sheldon.

BARNACLE GOOSE (Branta leucopsis)

We saw a lot of these on the days we made landings. Many had chicks and we commented on how much those in Longyearbyen had grown during our nine days away on the ship.

NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)

Quite a rarity for Svalbard; we saw a male that had first been spotted in June hanging around the ponds near the dog town. We could not relocate it when we returned after our time on the ship.

KING EIDER (Somateria spectabilis)

We saw four females in the tidal area at Russebukta, then two more on our last morning on the ship in Bellsund. There was a male with a female but it was a ways off. We also had a few fly by during our zodiac cruise at the Monaco Glacier.

COMMON EIDER (NORTHERN) (Somateria mollissima borealis)

These were seen everyday of the trip except for the day we spent in the pack ice. There were lots along the coastline and ponds in Longyearbyen that were sitting on nests or had small ducklings. The Glaucous Gulls and Parasitic Jaegers really make it tough on the young eiders.

LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)

We saw a handful on several days of the trip, with our first sighting being five individuals off the shore in Longyearbyen. This is always a great bird to see in breeding plumage.

Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta hyperborea)

Scott and Jean saw one on their walk towards the cemetery in Longyearbyen, then we had a close view of a male above the warm springs at Bockfjorden.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Dunlin are uncommon nesting birds on Spitsbergen. Our only sightings were on freshwater ponds near the coast in Longyearbyen. Photo by guide John Coons.
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)

COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula hiaticula)

Surprisingly, we only saw this species in Longyearbyen at the beginning and end of our trip. It seemed birds were late nesting this year so they may not have gotten to some of the potential sites in other areas of Svalbard.

Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres interpres)

We saw two individuals on the rocks and flying about at New London at our first landing. The first one was harassing a flying Parasitic Jaeger. This is a quite uncommon breeding bird on Svalbard.

DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)

This species appears to be quite local around the archipelago. We only saw them along the shoreline ponds at Longyearbyen. We saw a pair on our first visit then about 6-8 individuals on our return visit at the end of the trip.

PURPLE SANDPIPER (Calidris maritima)

These were seen in ones and twos at several of our landings, with a few seen in display flights. This is the most commonly seen shorebird around Spitsbergen.

RED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus fulicarius)

We enjoyed nice views of a colorful female at the small pond at Ny Ålesund, and we spotted another across the inlet at the walrus haulout site at Dolerittneset. This is one of the few birds occurring in Svalbard that is somewhat colorful.

Stercorariidae (Skuas and Jaegers)

GREAT SKUA (Stercorarius skua)

We only saw a couple, with one flying right over the ship as we were at the pier at Ny Ålesund, then another that paralleled the ship for a spell near the Bråsvellbreen Ice Cap.

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We were never really out of sight of a Northern Fulmar while cruising on the ship. A few seemed to use the ship for side drafts, and were regularly coming quite close as shown with this photo by Amy Sheldon of one coming into your living room.

POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus)

This is the least commonly seen of the jaegers (=skuas) in Svalbard. Our only sighting was one that circled the ship while we were cruising in the pack ice.

PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)

We saw these "Arctic Skuas" at several of our landings after close views of our first in Longyearbyen. We viewed a few at nests on the tundra. It seemed odd to see one of these perched on a power pole in Longyearbyen.

LONG-TAILED JAEGER (Stercorarius longicaudus)

A quite local nester; we saw a pair of adults with long-tails at New London that almost certainly had a nest nearby. We enjoyed scope views of this very handsome species.

Alcidae (Auks, Murres, and Puffins)

DOVEKIE (Alle alle)

One of the smallest of the seabirds. We saw these "Little Auks" daily from the ship as they flew by in small groups, with some flocks up to 80 individuals. For those that spent time near the bow, a good number were seen swimming before diving under as the ship approached. Unfortunately, rough seas at our landing site prevented us from getting to a nesting colony.


There were big numbers of these encountered every day as they passed the ship, anywhere from pairs to a hundred individuals. One of the trip highlights was a zodiac cruise along the breeding cliffs at Alkefjellet where tens of thousands were setting up their nesting for the summer. At the peak of nesting there are approximately 65,000 pairs at Alkefjellet. This species was known as Brünnich's Guillemots by the Europeans aboard the ship.

BLACK GUILLEMOT (MANDTII) (Cepphus grylle mandtii)

Most of our sightings of this distinctive black and white bird were from the ship as small numbers were swimming when we sailed by or groups flying past. We did get our best views during zodiac cruises where a handful were close to us. There were also a few pairs getting ready to set up nesting on the Alkefjellet bird cliffs.

ATLANTIC PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica)

A quite familiar bird to most; we had good views of individuals from the ship and during zodiac cruises.

Field Guides Birding Tours
Hundreds of Thick-billed Murres were around us on the zodiac cruise along the base of the Alkefjellet bird colony. Photo by participant Amy Sheldon.
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)


This species was second to Thick-billed Murre in terms of total number encountered. There were always many in sight from the ship, perched either on ice floes, flying about, or grabbing small fish out of the cracks in the ice next to the ship. We saw some that may have started nesting high on the cliffs at Alkefjellet but this was another species that seemed to be running late in nesting this year.

IVORY GULL (Pagophila eburnea)

One of the great birds of the world. We had marvelous views of a handful of individuals at least three days of the trip. Our first was at Ny Ålesund, where one flew off near the pier then came back and circled the ship. But, the ultimate ivory Gull experience was seeing those individuals on the ice near the three Polar Bears and the seal carcass. We had another few birds with the bear near the Bråsvellbreen ice cap at midnight. Those sightings were about as Arctic as you could get.

BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

An adult was seen in one of the tidal ponds in Longyearbyen. This widespread European species is quite uncommon this far north in Svalbard.

GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus)

These were in good numbers daily, whether we were at sea, on land, or in the pack ice. We saw a couple of nests with fuzzy gray young at Alkefjellet. On our first morning in Longyearbyen we watched an encounter between a female Common Eider and her chicks that were tightly packed under her wings and a Glaucous Gull that was waiting for one of the young to make a dash for it. Fortunately, for the eiders, the Glaucous Gull gave up and flew off.

ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)

This is another well known arctic breeder and another bird we saw each day of the trip. At some of our landings we saw birds at nests and in Ny Ålesund we got dived on as we walked the roads of the village. I believe at least a couple of us got our wool caps pecked.

Gaviidae (Loons)

RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)

Our first were seen in the morning at New London and then again in the afternoon at Ny Ålesund where we also saw nests on rocks in freshwater ponds. Later in the trip we saw a pair and a nest at Russebukta.

Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)

NORTHERN FULMAR (ATLANTIC) (Fulmarus glacialis glacialis)

A very common species, and we were rarely out of sight of these seabirds while on the ship. Though we didn't get to any large colonies, fulmars are supposed to be one of the most numerous nesting birds on Svalbard with most on the east side of the archipelago where estimates are of over a million pairs.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We had incredible experiences with Polar Bears on a few occasions, including three together on the pack ice. One of them was a bit curious and came toward the ship for a closer view. Photo by participant Amy Sheldon.
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

The only regularly occurring passerine on Svalbard. We saw many, but found them to be most numerous right in Longyearbyen where they sing from the tops of houses.


BELUGA (Delphinapterus leucas)

A great one to see; we saw about six individuals swimming along the shoreline near the walrus haulout after we had re-boarded the ship.

COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

A few of these smallish baleen whales were encountered during our voyage.

FIN WHALE (Balaenoptera physalus)

As we were trying to catch up to the Blue Whale on our first evening aboard the ship, a Fin Whale was spotted on the port side but we kept after the initial prize. This is the second largest of the whales.

BLUE WHALE (Balaenoptera musculus)

We had a great encounter with a Blue Whale soon after we sailed out of Isfjorden on our first evening on the ship. We had several nice views of this huge creature as it rolled its back above the surface. Two days later we had an even closer experience with one that showed its fluke as we cruised past the northeast corner of Spitsbergen. This is the largest animal to ever live on earth.

HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Another large whale species that we encountered relatively close to the ship on our first evening. We watched this Humpback at the same time as the Blue Whale. The Humpback drew oohs and aahs as it rolled and showed its huge tail fluke several times as it dived.

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There were several Common Eider nests near the sled dog pens on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. This chick looks cozy in the pile of down. Photo by participant Amy Sheldon.

ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)

We saw a few during the latter part of our voyage. We watched the one at the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet carrying a murre carcass up the slope to its den. We also saw at least two on our final landing at Alkhornet. It is surprising how small and fragile looking they are for the rigors of surviving in the Arctic year-round.

POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)

We had absolutely mind-boggling encounters with this great Arctic species. Our first, spotted on the ice as we cruised the edge of the pack ice, was showing well when two more bears appeared. They were all hanging around a carcass of a large pinniped that was on the ice. The three bears seemed to get along pretty well together after a few growls, as up to six Ivory Gulls were also there trying to duck in for scraps of food. One of the more curious bears eventually approached the stern of the Plancius before heading off. Two days later, our landing at Vibebukta on the southwest part of Nordaustland was aborted as two bears were spotted on shore. We moved back and forth in the zodiacs as we tried to get better views over the ridge of gravel on the beach. A few hours later we got a call in our cabins just before midnight of another Polar Bear amidst the small ice bergs of the Bråsvellbreen ice cap. Most of us quickly dressed and made it on deck to watch another male bear with a seal on the ice as three more Ivory Gulls were were nearby. Overall this was such a great experience with one of the world's great mammals.

WALRUS (Odobenus rosmarus)

What a great mammal, big tusks and all! We had a few nice shows from Walrus, including at the haulout site at Dolerittneset where there was a large group sunning with a handful swimming just offshore. It was difficult to count them since they were closely piled together, but there were at least 80. We also had a couple more sightings of those swimming off shore from our landing at Palandebukta.

HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)

We saw about 14 individuals on the beach of the bay at Ny Ålesund.

RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)

A few were seen amongst the ice floes as we cruised the edge of the pack ice, but I believe the only one we saw atop a floe was nearer the Bråsvellbreen ice cap.

HARP SEAL (Phoca groenlandica)

This species showed a few times around the pack ice. They have a habit of popping their heads higher out of the water than other seals when they first surface.

BEARDED SEAL (Erignathus barbatus)

The largest of the real "seals" we saw, this species with the long bristle-like whiskers showed pretty well through the scope amongst the ice floes near the Bråsvellbreen ice cap.

CARIBOU ("REINDEER") (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus)

This "Svalbard Reindeer' is endemic to the islands. This race is smaller with shorter legs than caribou seen in the rest of the world. We saw them many times and had close encounters at Alkhornet at the end of the trip where we saw a few quite small calves.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We also did very well with Walrus sightings, with many piled on a beach at a haulout site, but participant Amy Sheldon captured this guy showing some personality.


Birds seen on our July 5th walk near the hotel.

Common Wood-Pigeon

Common Swift


Lesser Black-backed Gull

Eurasian Magpie

Eurasian Jackdaw

Hooded Crow

Eurasian Blue Tit

Great Tit

Eurasian Skylark

Willow Warbler

Garden Warbler

Eurasian Nuthatch

European Starling


House Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

White Wagtail

European Goldfinch

Eurasian Siskin

European Rabbit

Birds scene on our walk in the afternoon on 16 July along the ravine trail near the Oslo airport/hotel.

Common Swift

Eurasian Jackdaw

Eurasian Blue Tit

Great Tit

Willow Warbler

Common Chiffchaff

Lesser Whitethroat

Eurasian Nuthatch

Eurasian Blackbird

European Robin

Gray Wagtail

White Wagtail

Common Chaffinch

Eurasian Siskin

Roe Deer

Totals for the tour: 28 bird taxa and 13 mammal taxa