14 September 2014

Birding Svalbard, Arctic Norway

Svalbard is one of the northernmost civilized places in the world. It is famous for Polar Bears and amazing arctic wildlife. I recently got back from a very brief visit to Svalbards main town Longyear. This autumn I have been invited to give talks at several conferences. In our work as birders and architects we have
developed a very specialized expertise in nature destination development. I was particularly happy to be invited to Svalbard, as this is a destination that have always been very high on my wish list of places to see. I only had time for a short visit, but I knew chances was good for some unique wildlife experiences, even if my stay was only based in and around Longyear town. Even the architecture in Longyear town is an attraction. Approx 2000 people live in Svalbard, and mining, science and tourism are key to the community.   

click any image for slide show view

Remains of the mining industry - below is Longyear town, in the background the Advent valley.

Mining architecture - this is hard core functionalism, made without architects. The result however looks cooler then many contemporary pieces of architecture.

Be cool - arctic survival strategy

A key feature of the arctic wildlife is the confiding nature of both animals and birds. My target bird for this short trip was the arctic subspecies of the Rock Ptarmigan, Lagopus muta hyperboreus. Autumn is slow season birdwise in the arctic. I knew chances was slim of seeing Svalbard specialities such as Ivory Gull and Sabine´s Gull. I hoped to see a Polar Bear, but those are best seen if you take a boat trip out of Longyear town, but they can be found anywhere, so beware the bear.

With a few meetings and talks I had to base my birding near town. In mainland Norway both Rock Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse (fjellrype & lirype) are very shy and extremely difficult to approach. The Svalbard Rock Ptarmigans however are very approachable. Getting within a couple of meters of these beauties was undoubtedly the highlight of this trip. 

Day two I spent walking the hillside outside Longyear town, along the ruins of the coal mining rails leading out of town towards the mines. I did not venture far from town, as you are advised not to do so, unless you carry a weapon. Polar Bears can show up anywhere, and people are on its menu. However I was really keen on finding a few Ptarmigans, and I figured the rail towers would provide a safe escape, just in case.. The wind was chilling and after a little walk I found a flock of Ptarmigans seeking shelter by one of the towers. 

Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan - feeding undisturbed, photograped from approx 4 meters distance. They are bigger then its mainland relatives, and much more confiding. This bird was one of 6 that I had the pleasure of studying for a a couple of hours, within meters. Amazing birds! All Ptarmigan photos shot with Nikon d810 + 300mm F2.8

I usually see Ptarmigans as they fly away in the distance. These birds just seemed to mind their own business. 

Ptarmigan hiding from a fly over Glaucous Gull. I followed this flock of 6 birds from some meters distance for approx two hours. They seemed very relaxed all the time, exept when a Glaucous Gull flew over us. Just seeing a Glaucous Gull affected the Ptarmigans instantly: they all hid next to the nearest rock and seemingly tried to look as small and rock like as they could. I was surprised to see this behavior. But then again I have seen many times how much panic a Glaucous Gull can create in a bird cliff. 

The fluffy legged Ptarmigan. ´Lagopus´ (latin) means the ´hares foot´. It is easy to see why. Its latin subspecies name ´hyperboreus´ essentially means ´from the extreme north´. 

A brief post this one, but I think this very cool birding experience was well worth sharing. Big thanks to Ronny Brunvoll (www.svalbard.net) and all the good people I met during this short stay. This was most certainly an inspiring visit, and the first of several. 

Biotope talks: We love to share ideas and knowledge about birding architecture and nature destination development. The next talk coming up is in Kirkenes at the NHO reiseliv conference (program), next week. 

If you need a birder architect to give a talk feel free to contact us on mail tormod@biotope.no or on phone +47 99 33 49 82. 

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Architecture is a tool to protect and promote birds, wildlife and nature!

Tormod A. / Biotope