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Arctic Birds

Arctic Birds

Because the Arctic Winters are so cold, very few birds overwinter at high latitudes, The few that do are the Raven, Rock and Willow Ptarmigan, Ross’s and Ivory Gull, Redpoll, Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl and the Brunnich’s Guillemot, Little Auk and Black Guillemot, but in years where food is scarce these will sometimes move a good way south. In recent years there have been Snow Buntings overwintering in Qaanaaq North Greenland but they shelter in the utilidors. Ptarmigan and Redpolls dive into snow banks and sit out the coldest weather using the snow as insulation. Snowy owls and ptarmigan grow feathers on their legs and feet to keep them warm in winter.

Arctic Terns
When the summer arrives that all changes, and the migrants arrive, these are the birds that cannot find food during the Arctic winter but travel north to exploit the summer food resources of insects, fresh underwater greens, insect larvae. Because the birds need to be in the Arctic and with their eggs ready to hatch when the food bonanza starts, they lay on reserves of fat to see them through the lean times when snow is still on the ground but they are nesting. There are around 100 migrant species that breed in the Arctic and some make long journeys to be there, the longest journey being made by the Arctic Tern which breeds in the Arctic and overwinters in Antarctica. A large proportion of the migrants are wetland birds, swans, ducks and geese, waders and shorebirds. The southern arctic has more marshes than the high arctic and so fewer species are found in the very far north.


Snowy Owl on Nest
The Swans and the snowy owl are big white birds and are conspicuous on their nests but by choosing to nest in the open they also have a good view of approaching predators. With the exception of the cliff nesting seabirds and main predators birds, most birds nest on the ground, where both the birds or their eggs are often well camouflaged. It can be easy to nearly step on a nesting eider or some of the small waders. A brightly coloured parent, like a male eider duck will not play much part in the incubating. The female phalarope is the one with the bright colours and she leaves the incubating to her inconspicuous mate. I was very surprised to see a feeding female phalarope a considerable distance from the coast feeding in an open pool in the pack ice off Spitsbergen. The phalarope is a very incongruous little bird, a swimming wader who leaves her mate to incubate and raise the chicks.

The Bird Stars of the Arctic

The call of the long tailed duck (oldsquaw) is the sound of the arctic in summer as the flocks call to each other. The gentle cooing of the eiders is also a characteristic sound when you are near the coast. Mostly these are common or King Eider, but in the Russian Far East and the far west of Alaska the Spectacled Eider, although a very rare bird can be locally abundant.

The Jaegers are a striking group of seabirds found nesting in the North, strong fliers and spectacular as they resort to piracy on incoming seabirds, forcing them to regurgitate the food destined for chicks on the bird cliffs. They also catch lemmings and steal eggs from nests.

The Gyrfalcon feeds mostly on ptarmigans, flying low and fast across the tundra to surprise its prey before it can take cover. They nest early in the season so have to feed their chicks on adult ptarmigan but this means that their chicks can feed on the easier to catch ptarmigan chicks and fledglings.

Tufted Puffin Underwater
The Alcids, Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick billed murres), Little Auks (Dovekies) and the Black Guillemots feed at sea, diving for their food and flying underwater to catch their prey. The Brunnich’s Guillemots nest on sea cliffs in large numbers, the Little Auks also nest in large colonies in the crannies under boulder scree slopes, the Black Guillemot is a bird of the sea ice and they overwinter in polynyas in the far north. They nest in smaller groups in the far north but are locally fairly plentiful where conditions suit them. Puffins also nest in some areas of the Arctic

The small and delicate Sabine's Gull is a popular bird with birdwatchers but it is elusive and rare, best seen when coming to shallow water to wash

Text © B & C Alexander

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