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Seabirds of the High Arctic

A few species gather in huge numbers at Arctic seabird colonies

One special feature of the High Arctic is the staggering number of seabirds that colonize coastal cliffs during the summer breeding season. Tens of millions of seabirds return to Greenland, Svalbard and Franz Josef Land every summer to take advantage of secure nesting locations near abundant food supplies in these wilderness areas. Some colonies contain over a million birds. Competition for nesting space, piracy of food, and predation of chicks are facts of life in these towering avian cities. An Arctic expedition cruise is the best way to experience seabird colonies and all their spectacular wildlife drama. Look out for these common seabird species on a cruise to Greenland, Svalbard or Franz Josef Land.

Brünnich’s Guillemot

This bird (Uria lomvia) is called a Brünnich’s guillemot in Europe but is known as a thick-billed murre in North America. Like many of their fellow auks, they are sturdily built with black upperparts and white underparts. The Brünnich’s guillemot is distinguished by a white stripe along its black beak. They are not graceful fliers but are exceptional swimmers and divers. Their colonies tend to be densely packed with breeding pairs often numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Brünnich’s guillemots do not build nests. Instead, they lay their eggs directly on narrow ledges of vertical cliffs near the sea. The eggs are pyriform (pear-shaped), an adaptation that allows them to roll in a tight circle rather than off the cliff. Amazingly, chicks leave the cliffs before they can fly. In late summer, they jump from the cliffs into the water below, where they swim to the safety of open sea with their fathers. Ideal breeding locations include Alkefjellet in Svalbard and Rubini Rock in Franz Josef Land, where there is water directly below the ledges. At other locations, chicks may land in tundra where they can become prey for an Arctic fox or glaucous gull. If you are lucky enough to witness the jumping of Brünnich’s guillemot chicks, you will have an experience you will never forget. Book the sea kayaking option on your Arctic cruise for a chance to paddle beneath the cliffs while chicks jump into the water all around you!

Little Auk

The little auk (Alle alle) is small, stocky seabird with short legs, short wings and a short bill. In summer, they are all black except for their white underbellies and a few white wing feathers. Little auks, also known as dovekies, do not make their nests on cliff ledges but rather in the scree slopes below cliffs and on mountainsides. They are very numerous (possibly the most numerous seabird in the world) and highly gregarious. When disturbed by a fox or marauding gull, enormous flocks of little auks erupt from the boulders and loudly careen across the sky in dizzying acrobatic displays. After a night of fishing, they can be seen returning to the nests with throat pouches full of food, like flying hamsters. Little auks are particularly abundant in Hornsund, a fjord in southern Spitsbergen (Svalbard), where up to a million individuals breed along the mountainous coastline.

Northern Fulmar

The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) superficially resembles a gull but is actually a member of the “tubenose” order of seabirds—the only member whose range extends into the Arctic. Northern fulmars occur in two color morphs, one light gray and the other dark gray (or blue). Unlike auks, fulmars effortlessly glide over the waves on straight, stiff wings with occasional bursts of flapping. Like albatrosses, fulmars are a joy to behold gliding in the slipstream of a cruise ship. All around the Arctic, northern fulmars lay their eggs on ledges on inaccessible cliffs, often in the same areas as Brünnich’s guillemots. The name “fulmar” comes from the Norse, meaning “foul gull,” referring to its habit of spewing noisome gastric oil at aggressors (often with surprising accuracy). Like other members of their order, northern fulmars are monogamous and long-lived, with a lifespan of 50 years or more.

Other seabirds forming sizable breeding colonies in SvalbardFranz Josef Land and Greenland, often alongside species mentioned above, include common guillemots (Uria aalge), black guillemots (Cepphus grylle), black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), and Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica).

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