Thursday, 15 September 2011

Birds, Birds, Everywhere...

Black Guillemots on Ice

One thing that is immediately evident when I look through my Arctic photo's is that birds played a large role in filling up my hard drive space- I have more bird images than i have ever before taken in a trip, or in all my trips combined. There is of course a logical explanation for this coming from me- a non birder - the bird life there is incredible!! Sure, it may not have a long species list, or even a short one- but what the Arctic waters lack in variety, they certainly make up for in sheer volume.

The Akademik Ioffe

Glacier and sea

Each year millions ( and yes I do mean actual millions, not the colloquial term used to describe 'alot') of birds gather in the Arctic Waters to breed, and to feed their chicks on the rich abundance of food that brings the cold ocean to life. The birds gather in huge colonies on cliffs, sometimes covering every inch of available 'shelf space' as it were. The higher the cliff, the safer the chicks will be from the Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears which patrol the shores. There are hardly any words to describe the sound one hears when nearing a breeding colony. The calls echo off the cliffs, and multiply as each bird adds its voice to the chorus. The sky sometimes appears hazy, as the birds in their thousands take off, flying out to sea and their hunting grounds, before returning, crop full, to feed the youngsters. Sometimes on their return there is no space on their ledge to land, and this leads to an outbreak of calls as they either shove their way into a gap, or have to stop their approach.

Little Auk at Colony

Brunnichs Guillemots lining the cliffs

Brunnichs Guillemots at Alkefjellet

Atlantic Puffin near Smeerenburg

From the first evening when I stepped aboard the Akademik Ioffe, I was confronted with birders. There were two groups on board the ship, and as I ran up and down the stairs, exploring every nook and cranny, I met them. They are easy to spot- they're the ones with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars around their necks, and a spotting scope and tripod permanently hanging over their shoulder. When out on deck, they are always there- gazing off into the distance, calling out names as they spot. One of the leaders of the Rockjumper Birding group, Mark, found out quite quickly that I was super keen to see a puffin. The next two days, every time I stood on deck, the air was punctuated with 'puffin'... 'Laura.... PUFFIN'. Sometimes I was a bit slow to react, but I certainly saw my puffin- thanks Mark!

I was part of a group of photographers on the ship, run by Oryx Photography. Our guide was a talented photographer by the name of Elliott Neep- he was excellent to have around! We had worked out very soon that when in a place where the sun never sets, it is best not to sleep, or at the least, sleep when there's definitely nothing better to do. Having done the trip before, Elliott told us that the best light is around 2am. Sometimes at 2am we were sailing through open ocean, but the fourth night, we were moving slowly through a fjord, and everything just fell into place.

Skimming on Glass

Duck on a pond or Northern Fulmar?

Skimming Fulmar

Slip- Streaming the ship in the fjords

Touching the water

The ship provides coffee on tap- and chocolates and an open bar which uses an honestly policy. We had sat in the bar chatting until around 11pm, when we decided to go and have another look on deck. It was magic- the air was crisp, the water was like glass, and the mountains on all sides were ice capped, the odd piece of ice floating past, and birds all around us. One of the larger birds is called a Northern Fulmar, and is part of the tube nose family, similar in a way to an Albatross. These birds were slip- streaming the ship, sometimes flying so close to us that we could have touched them. Quite often one would turn and get a huge fright as a bird materialised, larger than your field of view, a metre or so from your face! The four of us stood on deck until 4am that morning, photographing as the birds flew all around the boat, the odd whale surfaced in the distance, and school of seals swam at the bow. We only went to bed when all the memory cards we had brought were full, and our arms were dead from hand holding long lenses for hours!

Arctic Tern and Iceberg

Kittiwakes on Ice

The last day provided yet another fantastic birding opportunity when we got stuck by drift ice. We searched for a way around it, but finding none had to make our way through it instead. The 10 miles of ice took us 7 hours to break through! It was very exciting, pushing our way through the ice, and was exciting for the birds too... When the ship pushes through ice, it uses a water system to generate thrust and push the ice away as much as possible. This means that the water in churned up on all sides, and small fish are pushed toward the surface. It was a feast for the birds, and they spend the whole day flying around us, fighting over scraps and fishing over the ice.

The bow surrounded by ice!

We saw virtually all the bird species we could on that trip- my highlight naturally being the Atlantic Puffin and the Little Auks, as well as the Snow Bunting- the only singing bird in Svalbard. What a trip!

Common Eider Drake take-off attempt

Arctic Tern fishing

Gulls and Iceberg  in Mist

Black Legged Kittiwake in environment

Northern Fulmar and Ice

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