Arctic Birding

Northern Fulmar in flightI often tell people that if they want to learn birds, start in the winter (at least on the East Coast). Learn the limited winter birds well and in May, the height of migration, you’ll notice a song or color different from what has become familiar. Another option is to start birding in the Arctic.

There are few species in the Arctic—and often lots of what is there. You can see hundreds of Little Auks, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns. There is time to memorize the shape of each of these birds at a distance, to love the orange-red feet of the Black Guillemots, to marvel at the grace of the Arctic Skua. If you memorize those birds that come to the Arctic in the thousands to breed, you will then pay attention when something new comes along, like a Long-tailed Skua.

Long-tailed SkuaThe other upside of of Arctic birding is that there are no songs to memorize—the only bird singing is the Snow Bunting. The Long-tailed Duck make their marvelous, yodeling call, and the Arctic Terns cackle as they fly overhead, but these calls of mating or alarm are easily added to a birder’s repertoire. Above all, you don’t have to pick the birds out of dense bushes or leafy tress: there they are, in all their glory, flying in a blue blue sky or perched on an ice berg.

Birding from the deck of the AntiguaIn two weeks of traveling by boat in the Arctic I saw but 30 species of birds. And that was hours every day on deck, on shore, scanning into the distance, past icebergs and around glaciers, into the gray or blue sky. The most constant companion on the boat became my favorite bird of the trip: the Fulmar.

At first, the Fulmar seems a dull bird: a gull sized sea bird, grayish in color. But they were such great acrobats it was hard not to admire and then love them. Often, a Fulmar soared a foot above the water, not a wing-beat keeping it aloft. It would bank toward the boat and then glide over the deck before plunging to water level once again. Several of the birds played with the ship like this for hours. I made it a sport to try and photograph the birds in flight, but they snuck up on the ship in such a way that they most often caught me off guard.

FulmarOne afternoon our boat floated near one of many green blue glaciers for a few hours. Kittiwakes mobbed the base of the glacier and from time to time a hunk of  ice calved off, putting all the birds into the air. Meanwhile, near the boat, Fulmars floated. They dunked their heads into the water and then, like trying to perform a butterfly stroke, they lifted their wings. But the wings barely made it out of the water, as if a wing were broken, the bird floundering. When I first saw a Fulmar bathing like this I thought it might be wounded, slowly drowning. But soon I realized there were many flopping about in the water near the glacier. Perhaps this water is fresher, washing off some of the salt from the long winter at sea.

The Fulmar belongs to that strange family of birds with tube noses, the Procellariiformes. Fulmars have a short, thick bill with a tube on top through which they secret excess salt water. This allows them to live in the ocean, coming on land only to breed (they are long-lived and late breeders, starting at 8-10 years old). I spied a few content on an ice flow, and when one rose to move about, it was clear those legs are not made for walking.  

pick out the special bird!The birds that Nansen sees in 1896 are those that I saw in 2014.  “We had not expected to meet with much bird life in these desolate regions. Our surprise, therefore, was not small when on Whitsunday a gull paid us a visit.” They regularly see birds including Kittiwakes, and the big and aggressive Glaucous gull, which he calls a blue gull, the Black Guillemot, Ivory Gull, and of course the Fulmar.  Nansen’s pleasure in the birds is lovely to read. The difference in his pleasure and mine, is that the birds are not just beautiful to see.  “Today my longing has at last been satisfied. I have shot Ross’s gull.”  Well, my longing was not satisfied: I never saw the rare Ross’s gull.






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