Gulls of the Svalbard Archipelago

We saw 4 species of gulls on our trip to Svalbard, though there was a very big variation. We saw gulls anywhere from perched 2 feet away from a Polar Bear halfway up a cliff, to sitting on the middle of an iceberg in a glaciated bay! Here they are, the most frequently seen first:

Black-Legged Kittiwake

A commoner relative of the Red-Legged Kittiwake of the northern Pacific, these gulls nested at every bird cliff we visited, including the one where Super Bear performed its stunt! The Kittiwakes nested at the top of the cliff, whereas the Brunnich’s and Black Guillemots nested at the bottom half, which mean that the Polar Bear was aiming for Brunnich’s Guillemot eggs and chicks (with the odd Glaucous Gull!). Adult Black-Legged Kittiwakes are relatively easy to identify, with a pure black eye; clean yellow bill; black wing tips; light grey wings; White underside and, obviously, black legs. Juveniles have a dark smudge behind the eye; a black collar; black bill; grey legs and a W on their wings, visible in flight. When visiting the glaciated bays, we often observed hundreds of Black-Legged Kittiwakes and Fulmars (not a gull, a tubenose sp.) flocking around the entrance of an ice cave: they were doing this to get at the nutrient-rich water flowing from underneath the glacier.

Adult

Adult

Juvenile

An older juvenile – lacking the W on the wings

Flocking around an ice cave

Flocking around an ice cave

Glaucous Gull

These are very large gulls that were seen practically everywhere and they are very brave too! Going back to the Super Bear story it was the Glaucous Gulls who were mobbing the Polar Bear, though the Bear did get a tad angry (which cost a poor Glaucous Gull its life). Going back down the food chain, we once observed a Glaucous Gull swallow a Kittiwake/Guillemot chick whole! Glaucous Gulls like to nest on large boulders near a bird cliff as Glaucous Gulls specialise in swooping up to a ledge-nester’s nest and stealing their chick or egg! Glaucous Gulls are very similar to Common Gulls, Herring Gulls etc., but the key identification features are: considerably larger than Herring Gulls etc.; Pink feet; pinky-orange legs; white head, neck and underside; grey wings and a yellow iris with a black pupil.

Glaucous Gull with chick

Glaucous Gull with chick

Ivory Gull

I believe that an Ivory Gull is high on a birder’s wish list, a fact that I only found out when I got home from a trip where I saw four! The ornithologist on board the ship said that he wouldn’t guarantee one on a cruise, though we saw our first two at the same place on day 1! They were fleeting glimpses of flyovers but it is hard to mistake these beautiful birds with anything else on the island, the adults have pure white bodies; ink black eyes; a grey bill tipped with yellow and orange and black feet. The juveniles are similar, just with black dashes or arrowheads on the wings. The third Ivory Gull was seen on a zodiac cruise of another glaciated bay, it literally sat on an iceberg right next to the zodiac as if it was sitting on eggs. That was my favourite Ivory Gull sighting because it was the only time I saw one not in the air and I got a photo! As the first Ivory Gull was seen on day 1, our last Ivory Gull circled the ship as we pulled in into Longyearbyen on our final morning!

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull

Sabine’s Gull

These are very small gulls and we only saw 2 of them, at the same place. The place we saw them was an island called Moffen Island, where there were many Walrus hauled out on the beach. Tony, the ornithologist, said he only sees them 1/3 of the times he comes here and he doesn’t even come here all the time! Fortunately I was the first person to spot one, it landed in front of the main group of Walrus then flew off behind them. There are only 1 or 2 pairs on the island, so luckily we saw one pair a little later. They look rather like Black-Headed Gulls, though with a much greyer head and a yellow tip to the bill. They also have a large black patch on the wing which is visible in flight, ranging from the ‘elbow’ to the wing tips. Moffen island is a reserve and walrus sanctuary, which meant that we were not allowed to come more than 300 metres from the island, so we had to observe them from the ship.

Northumberland: 24th – 30th May 2014

This week we decided to stay in a self-catering cottage near Bamburgh, Northumberland, so that we could enjoy the surrounding scenery and the nearby Farne Islands to see Puffins and the other auks and seabirds.

24th May

We arrived at our self-catering cottage at around 4:00 PM as it was a seven hour drive from our home in West Sussex. We found that the cottage is about 1/2 a mile from the sea and a lovely sandy beach. There were a few colourful meadows in the way though, so we went on a quick walk down to the coast to familiarise ourselves with the area. There were Rooks and one Raven on the fence posts; and as I was focusing on a Rook with my binoculars I heard a beautiful song arise from behind me. I turned around and searched for the bird that was creating the sweet melody on the fence posts and on the gorse bushes, and when I eventually found it, it was high up in the sky still singing wonderfully. It was obvious what it was, the size, the song and the habitat all led to one bird: a Skylark. We discovered that there were lots of Skylarks in the area, and I was able to get close to some of them:

DSCN6774

Skylark

 

Skylark

Skylark

When we did get to the beach, the first thing I noticed was a pair of Eiders swimming in the sea. Just behind the Eiders were seven Little Gulls fishing in the shallow low-tide water. Today was a great first day but I’m sure the rest of the week will bring more surprises!

25th May

Today was an action packed day, beginning with an early morning walk in the meadow in front of our cottage. I saw the usual Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Rooks; and a Shelduck flew low over the moor. Later on we went down to the beach again and on the way we saw Linnets and Goldfinches, while the high-pitched song of a Grasshopper Warbler haunted us. Eventually we saw it, a streaky Warbler creeping through the undergrowth on the sand dunes. The song of a Grasshopper Warbler is so high-pitched that it isn’t audible to elderly people! There was also a Reed Warbler in the Red Campions and some Swallows collecting mud for their nest in a ruin of a building. We went to a seaside town called  Seahouses next. Next to the road on the way there, there was a bird-filled lake. There were Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Common Terns, Little Grebes, Black-Headed Gulls, Moorhens and Coots. We had a surprise in Seahouses though, because there was a flock of Eiders that came really close to you in the harbour. They breed in the Farne Islands and then come down to the harbour when the chicks have hatched. Some people fed them bread and it was amazing to see the detail of the male’s plumage on its head so up-close!

Eider

Eider

 

After lunch we set out on a long walk to Bamburgh, our nearest village. On nearly every gorse bush there was a bird: Blue Tits, Whitethroats, Linnets, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Whinchats and even an unseasonal Stonechat! When we got to Bamburgh golf course we were surprised to see Fulmars nesting on a cliff overlooking the golf course – inland! Then my dad spotted some more unseasonal birds, ten turnstones in a rockpool! While we were watching the Turnstones fifteen Ringed Plovers flew in! Further on down the path we saw several Sandwich Terns fishing like Kingfishers in the sea, and a Rock Pipit perching on some cow parsley. Another great day!

26th May

Today was our day out to the Farne Islands. Our boat – Glad Tidings IV – left at 10:00 AM from the harbour in Seahouses. Once we got going the first sea bird we saw was a Fulmar gliding effortlessly over the ocean. Then we started seeing rafts of auks: Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins. At the first island we went past we saw 15+ Atlantic, or Grey, Seals on the rocks. When they saw us they slid off the rocks and into the water around us and looked at us for a few minutes. When we got to Staple Island, which was the first island that we were going to land on, we found that we couldn’t land because the swell was a tiny bit too big. I was quite upset because that meant we missed seeing the biggest colony of Guillemots and Puffins. We were able to land on Inner Farne though; the island with the bird sanctuary. These are the photos I took:

Razorbill

Razorbill

Puffins

Puffins

Shag

Shag

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

There were loads of breeding birds on the island: Puffins, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Black-Headed Gulls, Eiders, Ringed Plovers, Red-Breasted Merganser (supposedly), Rock Pipits, Razorbills, Guillemots, Shags, Cormorants, Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns and Sandwich Terns. When I sat down on a bench to have my snack under a building Puffin poo nearly landed on my head!

27th May

Today was the day we planned to go to Holy Island. To get there you have to drive over the causeway which is only accessible at low tide. The village was a nice place where we saw Goldfinches and Collared Doves. We then went up a tower where you could see the whole of Holy Island, including the mainland and the Farne Islands. From the tower we saw Rock Pipits, Lesser Whitethroats, literally a thousand Grey Seals and Canada Geese. As we walked along the path around the island I spotted Shelducks, Mallards, Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. We soon came to  a small hide overlooking a lake where we saw washing Fulmars, Mute Swans, Coots, Moorhens, Reed Warblers and Tufted Ducks. Before I knew it I had reached the sand dunes. This was the start of the last leg of the walk. I heard a beautiful song that sounded like it was coming from beneath my feet, but in fact it was a handsome male Reed Bunting singing its heart out a whole 15 metres away! Then I spotted a silhouette of a raptor flying over our heads. It was too small for a Peregrine and there are no Hobbies or Kestrels on the island, it had to be a Merlin! It hovered for a short while before speeding off over the sand dunes and towards the sea.

Later in the day we spotted a Ringed Plover on the beach near our cottage. On closer inspection we found that it had a mate and, best of all, two chicks! The chicks were like mini ostriches, running around clumsily, trying to follow their mum. We watched as the father feigned a broken wing while the mother herded the chicks away from the danger: us!

29th May

Today we headed to the Northumberland National Park, more precisely the River Alwin, to look for Dippers. The whole family really wanted to see Dippers, for it was a bird not on my or my dad’s life list! There was quite a long walk to the river though, up hills and through the moors. There were many Skylarks and Meadow Pipits singing along the walk, and some Tormentils lined the edge of the track. I saw a Kestrel zooming through the valley. Immediately all the Meadow Pipits and Skylarks fell silent. As soon as it left they resumed their song. When we did eventually reach the river the first thing we noticed was the number of House Martins and Sand Martins slicing through the air. Next we saw three creepy sheep bones: a pelvis and two femurs. We also saw a family of Wheatears lined up along the fence on the side of the road, though sadly we passed the main part of the river without seeing any Dippers. Thankfully my mum asked a local farmer whether he had seen any dippers along the river and to our surprise he said there was a nest under a bridge about 1/2 mile back! Though as the farmer was still talking I saw a Dipper whizzing along the river on whirring wings, I couldn’t believe I had spotted it! A glimpse like that though wasn’t enough for me so I set out towards the bridge we had already crossed. When I got there I crept down to the bank just past the bridge and I saw the nest: a ball of grass placed inside a small wooden cradle. About two minutes later I finally noticed a dipper perched on a rock jutting out of the river bed . The Dipper had been there the whole time! As soon as I tried to get closer it flew off. It did return though, and this time I got a few photographs:

Dipper at Last!

Dipper at Last!

After a while of just bobbing up and down it finally went into the nest and it never came out…

30th May

Today is sadly our last full day in Northumberland, though we saw lots of nice wildlife! As it was our last day we decided to go on a long walk to the beach, further than we’d ever been before. We saw the two adult Ringed Plovers but not the chicks. We hoped that they were just too well camouflaged…

Past the Ringed Plovers we spotted two Tree Sparrows, a new bird for my Northumberland list. We found two Shelducks mingling with a large flock of Mallards and sprinkled around were around eight Teal, another new species. Further on down the coast we saw two Mute Swans on a stream and we started to hear the calls of curlews. We had a short walk through a field where we saw Green-Veined White and Orange Tip Butterflies and a Garden Carpet moth, but soon it was time to head back. After lunch we went to Annstead Dunes, a small nature reserve between the towns of the Seahouses and Beadnell. We saw quite a few birds on the Dunes: Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches and a male Linnet my dad described as ‘the nicest Linnet he’s ever seen’! On the walk back to the car along the beach we saw 20+ Turnstones (one of which I got within twenty metres of), 15+ Ringed Plovers, and a flock of mystery waders, which we later identified as a flock of Dunlins.

Turnstone

Turnstone

We saw lots of really nice wildlife and plants on this trip, and we built up a number of 75 bird species! The only discouraging thing was that we didn’t see a single Robin!