Birds of Svalbard – A Full and Comprehensive Expert’s Guide
Svalbard is a nature and wildlife lover’s dream – home to some of the most rare animal and bird life on earth. It’s unique Arctic environment attracts hundreds of thousands of birds each summer – with lots of regular breeding colonies on cliffs, including Alkefjellet.
Gulls, geese, ducks and wading birds travel great distances across the globe to reach Svalbard during breeding season (summer months), before heading back down south to mainland Europe and the southern hemisphere to escape the harsh winter.
Here are some of the birds you may see during a visit to Svalbard…
One of the most tenacious birds in Svalbard, Arctic Terns are very territorial and will attack anything or anyone that gets too close. Known as the ‘sea swallow’, they’re easily identified by their black cap on their otherwise white bodies. They travel hundreds of thousands of miles each year – over-wintering in the UK – and have even been spotted in the Antarctic.
Along with the Arctic tern, the Arctic Skua are aggressive birds which will not hesitate to attack anything they feel threatened by – including humans. They’re excellent fliers, swooping low and fast in pursuit of other birds to steal food from and, of course, hunting for fish themselves. They will also eat eggs and other young birds as well as feed off dead mammals. They can be seen in Svalbard in the summer months, and head south to Scotland for the winter.
One of a number of large seabirds seen in Svalbard, the pomarine skua is similar in size to a herring gull. With a plumpish looking body and long wings which point downwards in flight, it cuts a unique shape in the sky. Mostly brown with small flashes of white, some have a yellowish colouring around their neck area. They feed on lemmings, fish and other birds and only successfully reproduce every few years. A group is known as a ‘shishkab’.
Svalbard is the northernmost home of the Atlantic Puffin. Also known as ‘sea parrots’, puffins are small black and white sea birds with very colourful beaks of bright orange (to match its legs) and grey. It’s deemed a vulnerable species and it is hard to know how many currently live in Svalbard, but estimates put it at 10,000 pairs over 15 colonies. Each pair will produce a single egg. They spend most of their lives at sea, hunting fish alone, and only head for dry land to breed and raise their young. The female birds will usually return to the colony where they hatched to do this.
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The smallest of the European auks (hence the name!), the little auk or ‘sea dove’ is a similar size to a starling and spends summer in Svalbard before overwintering in the North Atlantic. They travel in huge groups and their swarming chorus is quite a sight and sound. There are an estimated 1 million little auks in Svalbard in the summer, with over 200 colonies identified across the north west and south west parts of Spitsbergen.
Svalbard is home to two types of guillemot – common and brunnich. Both have dark upper parts and white underparts, but the common guillemot’s bill is longer and thinner. They nest on or near sheer cliff faces but spend the rest of their life at sea. They’re much more agile underwater than they are in the air. There are a couple of key breeding areas for common guillemots, including Alkefjellet – ‘mountain of the guillemots’.
The tiny snow bunting is the only songbird in Svalbard and can be seen (and heard) from April through to September, when it heads south to Russia and a few other locations in Europe for winter. It is the most northerly perching bird in the world. Their plumage changes from black and white contrast in the summer to a more sandy tint over winter. The males will start singing as soon as they approach the breeding grounds and will only stop once they have secured a mate. They combine this with a ceremonial flight.
Breeding in Svalbard before heading south the the UK and Western Europe, the bean goose is split into two types – taiga and tundra (the latter is smaller than the former). It looks similar to the greylag goose in colouring (light brown and grey) but tends to be a darker colour and has bright orange legs.
One of the largest geese in Europe, the greylag is a common site in Europe – UK and mainland Europe in winter and Svalbard in summer – mixing with other types of geese, such as Canada geese. Living off grass, roots and leaves they can be quite tame when living near populations of people and will lap up spilt grains and cereals too. Greylag geese can be over 90cms tall and weigh around 3kgs.
Over 30,000 barnacle geese arrive in Svalbard in May from mainland Norway, leaving in August or September to head south to warmer climes. They have a black head and neck, with a white face and fly in groups (packs) and can be quite noisy. Barnacle geese build their nests high on cliff faces, away from natural predators but the chicks are taken down to the shore to feed – meaning around half will die from falls and in the clutches of Arctic foxes and polar bears. 100 years ago there were just 300 barnacle geese in Svalbard so it’s one of the real success stories of wildlife conservation from the archipelago.
The brant goose is also known as the brent goose and is a small goose with a short bill and shorter neck than most geese. It is about the same size as a mallard duck. Historically, it was considered the same species as a barnacle goose but that is no longer the case. They spend most of the year in tight-formation flocks foraging for food – spending winters on coastal areas in mainland Europe and summers breeding in Svalbard.
Also known as St Cuthbert’s or Cuddy’s Duck, the common eider is a large sea duck that builds its nests from eiderdown plucked from the female duck’s breast – the same stuff used for bedding by humans. They’re fast fliers and are confident in the water, diving into the sea to feed off crustaceans and molluscs and are themselves prey for Arctic foxes and polar bears. Svalbard is home to tens of thousands of common eiders in the summer months with dense colonies visible on the west coast, in the north and on Tusenøyane. They over-winter in places such as the UK.
A smallish sea duck with a round head and high forehead and, as the name suggests, long tail feathers. The long-tailed duck is commonly known as an oldsquaw in the USA. The male ducks tend to return to the same breeding spot in Svalbard in the summer. Some choose not to head too far for summer and will overwinter near the sea ice or in northern Norway. Skilled fliers, they can pick up speeds of over 60mph. You can often spot them on water in Ny Alesund.
A unique looking orange-coloured waterfowl is a member of the duck, goose and swan family. It has an impressive wingspan of up to 135cms and stands tall at up to 70cms. While it can be seen in Svalbard in winter, it makes it as far south as India in the winter months, where it is also known as the Brahminy duck. It has a loud honking call.
A common small wader with a down-turned bill, dunlins can be seen in relatively large numbers across the world. There are a small number of breeding pairs on the western parts of Svalbard. They eat insects and invertebrates, are monogamous and can live up to 25 years. The name comes from the old English words ‘dun’ and ‘ling’ meaning ‘dull brown thing’.
Larger than a dunlin, but not dissimilar in colouring, the purple sandpiper has long slightly downturned beak. They wade in shallow waters looking for insects, winkles, spiders and plants. A fairly common sight in Svalbard in the summer, the purple sandpiper spends winter in Scandinavia. Interestingly, the purple sandpiper can often be seen stretching one wing up into the air – to ward off predators or as it begins its flight.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘white-winged gull, along with the Glaucous gull, the Iceland gull is medium-size – smaller than a herring gull. It has a small head and beak and doesn’t look dissimilar to a dove, facially. Iceland gulls like their own company and are usually seen individually rather than in flocks. Despite its name, it doesn’t reside in Iceland but breeds in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland and on Svalbard before flying south to the UK and USA for winter.
One of the smallest gulls breeding in the high Arctic, it’s around 40cms long and is white and dove-like with a thick blue-tinged beak. It’s warbling ‘fox-call’ helps warn others of nearby predators and a longer call us employed by male birds when trying to impress a female bird – which it combines with head-tossing.
The second largest gull in the world, behind the Great Black-Backed gull, the glaucous gull has light colourings with pale white wing tips. Like most birds on Svalbard, it is migratory – spending summer in the Arctic and heading south to mainland Europe for winter. A few birds sometimes reach the southern USA and northern Mexico.
Large and loud, herring gulls breed in locations across Northern Europe, including Svalbard, but spend much of their time in coastal resorts across Europe. They are what most people would know as a ‘sea gull’ – light grey backs, white underbellies and black tipped wings with pink legs and slightly hooked bills with a red spot on. Despite being a common sight in coastal towns across Europe, there is some concern around population decline, however, and herring gulls are now on a red alert endangered bird list.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
This smaller gull – slightly smaller than a herring gull – has distinctive dark grey or black markings on its wings, with a bright yellow bill and legs making it easy to spot. It spends summers in Svalbard, before heading south for winter – with 40 per cent making for just 10 sites in the UK, giving it its place on the amber list of endangered birds.
One of the smaller gulls, the Sabine’s gull has a black head making it easy to identify as there aren’t many others in Svalbard with those colourings. An elegant bird with pointy wings, it’s flight style isn’t dissimilar to that of a swallow’s. There are a few breeding pairs in Svalbard but it is quite a rare sight on the archipelago – one of the rarest birds in fact. In winter, it treks all the way down to the southern hemisphere and has been seen in South America and South West Africa.
Great Black-Backed Gull
A very aggressive gull, this is the largest gull in the world with a big powerful beak which helps it fend off other birds and snatch their food. They eat shellfish and other birds as well as scavenging on the floor for scraps of bigger meals. As the name suggests, they are white with dark grey or black colouring on their backs and can look hunched over when perched. They have pink legs, a good way to tell them apart from the yellow-legged lesser black-backed gull.
Smaller than a mallard, the tufted duck has dark colourings on top with a comical tuft of hair at the back of the head and a white underbelly. It has small yellow eyes and a grey bill. The tufted duck is a diving duck which eats molluscs and insects. After spending summer in the Arctic, it heads south to the UK for winter. Its population tops one million across Europe.
A common site in lakes, ponds and sheltered coastal areas, the red-throated diver has a long neck – particularly visible in flight – with a red colour visible in summer. They jump up to dive underwater, where they can stay for up to a minute and a half at a time. Red-throated divers are migratory birds that make Svalbard their home in summer – from May to October – heading south for winter. You may hear its call before you see it, it sounds a little like a cat’s miaow – which they use frequently in flight.
The rock ptarmigan is the largest and only land bird that stays in Svalbard all year round and it can be seen across the archipelago. They are very territorial, with the male cock establishing nesting space in the Spring, protecting it with diversions and burping sounds. Not long after, female hens lay eggs in the area usually resulting in around 10 chicks 21 days later. The chicks learn to fly after just 10-12 days but stick with their mother for a further 10-12 weeks. They are hunted for food by humans too, but there’s a strict cap on numbers and the harvest is limited to three months each year.
This short rotund wading bird is light brown with black and white markings on its head and an orange beak. Living off flies, spiders and molluscs, they breed in the Arctic before heading south to the UK and mainland Europe for winter. They have an interesting way of foraging for their food, standing in the water, running forwards, pecking then standing again – it seems to work for them though!
One of the most common birds on Svalbard, with a population of over half a million spread across more than 200 colonies in the archipelago. The black-legged kittiwake gets its name for the colour of its legs (obviously!) and its distinct call which sounds a bit like ‘kitte-waaik’. They tend to stay near the sea and cliffs and are very graceful in flight despite – or maybe because of – only having three toes.
A black and white seabird with a thick blunt beak, Razorbills can be seen on the west coast of Svalbard – but there aren’t too many. Unlike some Arctic auks, they don’t tend to travel too far for winter, making it to southern parts of Norway and northern parts of Scotland. It’s the closest living relative of the great auk, which is now extinct and itself is threatened by overfishing and pollution.
A very colourful bird, the green-winged teal a reddish-brown and green head and a brown speckled belly. It travels a long way from Svalbard, flying as part of a speedy spectacle with its flock. The male of the species have a loud whistle while the female has a standard quack. They’re often among the first wildfowl to set off on their migratory travels.
The red knot (Calidris canutus) (just knot in English-speaking Europe) is a medium-sized shorebird which breeds in tundra and the Arctic Cordillera in the far north of Canada, Europe, and Russia. It is a large member of the Calidris sandpipers, second only to the great knot. Six subspecies are recognised.
The redshank – commonly-used shortened version of its name – is a type of sandpiper wading bird with bright orange/red legs. Their long legs and long beak are perfect for foraging for insects, worms, molluscs and crustaceans. Like many Arctic migratory birds, they spend summers in Svalbard and Iceland and head south to the UK and Europe for winter – living around four years on average.
Slightly larger than a dunlin, though similar in colour and with a long thin beak, this wader searches the shoreline for small invertebrates. They create nests below ground level with thick linings, big enough for four eggs and warmer than were the nest above ground. They’re proficient fliers covering great distances during the year from the Arctic in the north to South America and Hawaii.
The largest falcon, this bird of prey is also known simply as a Gyr. It’s large and stocky with a long tail and hunts other birds – and is often seen perching on the ground. Breeding in Svalbard in the summer, it then heads to Europe and North America for the winter. Their plumage varies in colour – from white through to black with all shades in between.
The largest gannet, the Northern Gannet is a speedy sea bird which dives fast into the sea to catch its food from heights of up to 30 metres at speeds of up to 60 mph. A white bird with a yellow head and black tips on its wings, this type of gannet can be seen on the West coast of Svalbard. It breeds on the cliffs in very noisy and smelly colonies before heading south for the winter.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
The bigger brother or sister of the smaller Lesser White-Fronted Goose, this bird is also known as the ‘greater whitefront’ – less of a mouthful. Around 70cms long on average, they can have a wingspan of up to 165cms. Unlike most geese whose young flee the nest sooner, some young Greater White-Fronted Geese will remain with their parents until the next breeding season.
A common sight in the northern oceans, the Northern Fulmar is sometimes known as the Arctic Fulmar. A distant relative of the albatross, the gull-like seabird flies close to the water to catch fish, crustaceans and eels. It is an elegant gliding bird, which shoots up the cliff edge with ease. It has an odourous defense mechanism where it spots out a disgusting smelling oil.
For more information on birdlife in Svalbard, including latest sighting information, see the brilliant Birding Svalbard website.