Arctic odyssey: seabirds of the north

By Chrissie Goldrick 7 November 2013
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AG picture editor Chrissie Goldrick shares her experiences on the seabirds of the Arctic.

AG picture editor Chrissie Goldrick shares her experiences on the the AG Society expedition to the Arctic. Read the whole story in the latest issue of AG, out now! Find more blogs in this series here

ON DAY FIVE OF our circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, choppy waters signal a change of plan. The morning’s visit to the seabird cliffs of Alkefjellet are postponed to the afternoon in favour of a steep and strenuous climb at Faksevagen to view a spectacular glacier that appears to be coated in a heavy dusting of ash, possibly from the recent activity of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

The afternoon’s zodiac-based excursion is a relief to those of us carting weighty camera gear around.

Towering dolerite and limestone cliffs with the occasional rocky spire are home to hundreds of thousands of Brunnich’s guillemots (Uria lomvia) nesting on the narrow ledges of the steeply-sided cliffs under which we manoeuvre our zodiacs in the heavy swell. The guano-coated rock is pink as a result of the tiny crustaceans and fish that comprise the birds’ diet and the cliffs are thronged with the little black and white birds.

Brunnich’s guillemots rest on the narrow ledges while their partners hunt for food

The air above is thick with birds taking off and landing and the noise is deafening. Brunnich’s guillemots don’t build nests but lay eggs directly onto the bare rock ledges. Each parent takes it in turn to incubate the egg between the feet while the other parent hunts for food in the water below. They are excellent divers and swimmers and while they look a little clumsy on land, they are fast and effective underwater.

While we all know there are no polar bears in the Antarctic and conversely no penguins in the Arctic, the latter wasn’t always the case. Until 1844, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), a close relative of Brunnich’s guillemot, was the original penguin. A large, striking black and white flightless bird, it once nested in the hundreds of thousands all over the north Atlantic, somewhat resembling the masses of guillemots seen today at Alkefjellet, and similarly laying pear-shaped eggs onto bare rock ledges.

This powerful and majestic bird with its fascinating beak was hunted for its oil and fatty flesh. Its numbers dwindled, until in 1844, the last surviving population of few birds was all that remained on the volcanic rock stack of Geirfulasker off the coast of Iceland. The stack erupted and the birds sought refuge on the nearby islet of Eldey, where on the 3 June, a collecting party arrived to find just one breeding pair with an egg. The adults were clubbed to death and the egg crushed underfoot so despatching the penguin of the north to history. 

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