7/31/2012 8:49:53 PM

A Celebration of Birds

I slowly walked through vibrant tundra moss on our last stop at Skansen. Pausing, I began to bounce, and proceeded to slowly step across what felt like the moon. The moss is captivating, vivid, green, tender, and soft; it seems too delicate and full of life to thrive in such a harsh environment.

Arctic mosses and wildflowers

I stopped to take some macro photos and as I looked closer noticed a rainbow of tiny bubbles patiently waiting to rise from the bottom of the marshland.

Marsh bubbles, Svalbard

At first glance, the arctic landscape seems barren, but upon closer examination small flowers and colorful lichen appear scattered among the scree-slopes and tundra grass.

The birds produce a similar effect. Sometimes their small size, in comparison to the walrus and whales, allows their magnificence to be overlooked. Their abundance in the Arctic was a surprise to me. At any given moment at least two or three different species of arctic fowl are present. In the open water fulmars are constantly dancing in the draft of the boat while guillemots scurry away from the ship and the occasional puffin appears for a moment before vanishing into the distance. 

Brunnich's guillemots

We visited a number of rookeries, the most impressive of which was the Brunnich's guillemot bird cliffs at Alkefjellet. This rookery is located in north central Hinlopenstretet, a large passage route between the two largest islands of Svalbard, Spitsbergen and Nordauslandet.

Alkefjellet, which means Auk Mountain, is home to over 60,000 pairs of breeding Bunnich's guillemot, one third of the entire 180,000-pair population inhabiting Spitsbergen. These birds winter in Baffin Bay and migrate each summer to the cliffs of Svalbard to breed. They do not build nests, but simply perch on precarious cliff ledges, taking turns sitting on and protecting their single egg. The egg's unique pear shape keeps it from rolling away without the protection of a nest. Each guillemot pair takes special care to never leave an egg unattended, as the glaucus gulls, skuas, foxes, and polar bears keep a close watch.  

Brunnich's guillemots on narrow ledge

Scientists fear for the future of the Brunnich's guillemot as each pair produces only one egg per year. A large population in Greenland is under great stress due to local hunting and oil extraction. The oil extraction in the bays destroys breeding habitat, and because each pair only produces one egg each year it is very difficult for the population to rejuvenate after a major depletion.

Closely related to penguins, this guillemot is a diver. Its black coat provides camouflage from above while its white belly provides camouflage from predators below. Although they do fly long distances, they are made for water. Upon take off and landing they present a comical flying-squirrel-like body position that never ceases to amuse.

Flying guillemot

After slowly navigating the Alkefjellet cliff edge with our zodiacs, our guide, Elka, shut off the motor. We sat in silence listening to the bustling commotion: a city of birds; a foreign language; squabbles echoing amongst the rippling sea.

We were also lucky enough to see chicks of many species throughout the voyage. In the town of NY Alesund, home to the northern-most post office in the world, arctic terns were feeding their chicks meters off the dirt roads. At a smaller bird cliff we also had the pleasure of witnessing a great skua beak break its way through an eggshell.

Arctic tern with chick

The Arctic is so much more than ice, polar bears, and walrus. It is a complex network of species woven into an abundant and delicate ecosystem that is undergoing immense change.

Svalbard's dramatic beauty

I now sit in the New York City airport awaiting my return to Montana. I want to stop and shake people and say "Wake up! Connect! There is so much out there that you are missing!" as they sit sipping bottled water, staring at smart phones, watching advertisements on flat screens every 100 feet. Imagine the amount of landfill waste we could eliminate if everyone carried their own re-usable coffee cup and water bottle! How did we get to the point were we thought it was OK to have another option? And more important, how do we initiate a return to common sense? What are the baby steps and how do we positively encourage and promote these notions in an effective way? I do not have the answers, but I certainly hope that through my small circle of influence I can lead by example and inspire others to follow suit.

Snow bunting, Svalbard

I want to say a special thank you to Polar Kreuzfahrten and Frank Fietz for making this experience possible. Photos copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.

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