The birds of Spitsbergen

Seabirds are the most abundant species of birds in Spitsbergen. The brief answer to the question 'Why?' is a simple one: food. The seas around the islands are filled with rich sources of food for seabirds. The infertile inner parts of the islands can support few species - there are no lemmings, few mosquitoes, and no trees, so ground nesting birds face predation from Arctic foxes. The few species which do survive in this inhospitable environment, like purple sandpiper, snow bunting and ptarmigan are specialists in high Arctic adaptability.

In 1990, it was noted that 164 species of birds have been recorded in the Svalbard area. Only 30 of these breed regularly in the islands.

Kittiwake canyon at Diskobukta

One of the most exciting sights for visitors from more temperate climates is the size of some of the seabird colonies. Who will forget the ammonia smelling canyon at Diskobukta, where an estimated 35,000 pairs of kittiwakes breed? Or the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet, where Brünnich's guillemots on ledges barely wide enough for them to stand on, let alone breed, nervously watch solitary Glaucous Gulls eyeing up their chicks?

 

In Hornsund, the colony of Little Auks presents an incredible sight, as these thousands of friendly, attractive, starling sized birds take to the air, and scream around in clouds, while Arctic Foxes patrol among the rocks looking for sick or unwary birds.

 

Alkefjellet

There is much else to delight the bird-watcher. The first sighting of the beautiful Ivory Gull as it drifts elegantly over the pack ice, or the immaculate little Snow Bunting, 'Sparrow of the Arctic' looking for crumbs among the pavements of Longyearbyen will also provide enduring memories.

The breeding season is short, but during the summer period of midnight sun, birds and animals have the chance to find food 24 hours a day.

Breeding birds are as follows:

B - common breeder

R - rare or irregular breeder

English Nederlands Latin Breeding status
Red throated diver Roodkeel duiker Gavia stellata B
Fulmar Noordse stormvogel Fulmarus glacialis B
Pink-footed goose Kleine rietgans Anser brachyrhynchus B
Brent goose Rotgans Branta bernicla B
Barnacle goose Brandgans Branta leucopsis B
Teal Wintertaling Anas crecca R
Eider duck Eider eend Somateria mollissima B
King eider Konings eider Somateria spectabilis B
Long-tailed duck IIseend Clangula hyemalis B
Svalbard Ptarmigan Sneeuw hoen Lagopus mutus hyperboreus B
Ringed plover Bontbek plevier Charadrius hiaticula B
Dotterel Morinelplevier Charadrius morinellus R
Golden plover Goudplevier Pluvialis apricaria R
Turnstone Steenloper Arenaria interpres B
Dunlin Bonte strandloper Calidris alpina B
Sanderling Drieteen strandloper Calidris alba B
Purple sandpiper Paarse strandloper Calidris maritima B
Red-necked phalarope Grauwe franjepoot Phalaropus lobatus B
Grey phalarope Rosse franjepoot Phalaropus fulicarius B
Pomarine skua Middelste jager Stercorarius pomarinus R
Great skua Grote jager Stercorarius skua B
Arctic skua Kleine jager Stercorarius parasiticus B
Long-tailed skua Kleinste jager Stercorarius longicaudus R
Sabine's gull Vorkstaartmeeuw Larus sabini B
Herring gull Zilvermeeuw Larus argentatus B (Bjřrnoya)
Great black-backed gull Grote mantelmeeuw Larus marinus B
Glaucous gull Grote Burgemeester Larus hyperboreus B
Kittiwake Drietenmeeuw Rissa tridactyla B
Ross's gull Ross' meeuw Rhodostethia rosea R (?)
Ivory gull Ivoor meeuw Pagophila eburnea B
Arctic tern Noordse stern Sterna paradisaea B
Common guillemot Zeekoet Uria aalge B
Brünnich's guillemot Dikbekzeekoet Uria lomvia B
Razorbill Alk Alca torda B (Bjřrnoya)
Puffin Papegaai duiker Fratercula arctica B
Black guillemot Zwarte zeekoet Cepphus grylle B
Little auk Kleine alk Alle alle B
Wheatear Tapuit Oenanthe oenanthe R
Redwing Koperwiek Turdus iliacus R
Starling Spreeuw Sturnus vulgaris R
Snow bunting Sneeuwgors Plectrophenax nivalis B

Text and photos by Nick Goddard

References:

MEHLUM, Fridtjof  Birds and Mammals of Svalbard, 1990, Oslo, Norsk Polarinstitut  ISBN 82-90307-67-5

KEMPF, Christian  A Journey to Svalbard polar territory, 1999, France, Editions Messene ISBN 2-911043-87-1

CRAMP, Stanley (ed.) Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palaearctic vols. 1 - 9, 1977 - 1994, Oxford, Oxford University Press