Welcome to Birdquest

SPITSBERGEN

Sunday 15th July - Monday 30th July 2018

MIKE WATSON

Sabine's Gulls at Noorderlichthamna in northeast Spitsbergen (Mike Watson).

Sabine's Gulls at Noorderlichthamna in northeast Spitsbergen (Mike Watson).

After last year’s unusually icy voyage, this year’s 15 days cruise in Svalbard aboard the wonderful SV Noorderlicht was back to the recent trend of no sea ice around Spitsbergen and we were able to get all the way around the main island unhindered again. However, our progress was not without challenges from time to time in the form of stormy weather. Happily we were able to dodge the worst of it and make many of our favourite landings this year including the stunning Ingeborgfjellet Little Auk colony, which we missed last time owing to a heavy swell on the landing beach. The main attraction, Polar Bear again produced a good number of sightings, slightly above par for us recently at 14, with most of them out east, partly owing to the weather allowing us to spend more time searching for them out there this year. We tallied c.250 Walruses, again including some point blank encounters, six Arctic Foxes, 15 Ivory Gulls, nine Long-tailed Jaegers (or Skuas) plus seven Belugas and nine Northern Minke Whales. Unfortunately great whales were absent this year, a feature commented on by other vessels, maybe they were further north than usual towards the edge of the pack ice? Or perhaps the rough seas when we passed through our former hotspots meant we simply could not spot them? I’ve been on this cruise four times now and there is usually an unexpected highlight. This year’s was undoubtedly the encounter with a flock of 14 Sabine’s Gulls in the far northeast, at our all time favourite overnight anchorage, indulging in courtship behavior! Wow, that was something!

As usual we were also mesmerised by the glaciated landscape and the exquisite High Arctic flora. Plants included restricted range Arctic specialities such as Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Nodding Lychnis (or Polar Campion with its nodding miniature Chinese lantern calyx), Whiplash or Polar Stoloniferous Saxifrage (or Spider Plant and flowering this time!), Svalbard Poppy and Woolly Lousewort. We also added another new species to the Birdquest Svalbard list in the form of Dane’s Dwarf (or Slender) Gentian.

Although Polar Bear numbers were up a little this year they were still 8 short of my 2012 voyage. The message remains clear, if you want to see Polar Bears in Svalbard, do not delay. The future remains quite bleak for them. Although we did not see any painfully skinny bears, we did not see any 5/5 fat score individuals either and again we witnessed their dependence on birds’ eggs and chicks at this time of year. It is unlikely that the bird populations will be able to continue to sustain such losses (4000 eggs were reported taken in the study areas in Kongsfjorden alone this summer for instance). Ivory Gulls depend on Polar Bear kills and follow them around so when the sea ice is far to the north, so are some of the gulls. Our total was up on last year at 15, boosted by our ability to reach Negribreen this time but again Ivory Gull was absent from both Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund, where we used to enjoy regular sightings. If Svalbard is on your bucket list then a visit sooner rather than later is a good idea.

Polar Bear (Mike Watson).

Polar Bear (Mike Watson).