Travel to the Arctic to See Arctic Birds

The bird fauna of the Arctic is surprisingly large, and consists of about 200 breeding species, as well as numerous nonbreeding visitors. Most of these species, however, are migratory and only spend the Summer months in the Arctic. Also, nonbreeding individuals of several species of sea birds which normally inhabit more southerly areas often can be found wandering Arctic waters in the Summer. Why do so many birds want to be in the Arctic, even if only for a few short months in the Summer? Perhaps if we asked this question the other way around the answer would be more obvious. That is, why do so many birds just spend a few Summer months in the Arctic and then migrate to other areas for the rest of the year? The advantages of breeding in high latitudes must be significant in order for these birds to expend so much energy and risk the many dangers and hardships during the long migrations. The powerful urges at work here have to do with two basic needs, i.e. food and light. There is an abundance of food available to birds in high latitudes during the short Summer, both in the sea and on land, which makes it possible for birds to feed themselves and their young with minimal effort. And, the extra long daylight allows extended activity resulting in an accelerated growth of the young (this is absolutely necessary for some of the larger species), and gives added protection from nightstalking predators. During the long frozen months of bitter Winter there is not sufficient food available to birds that sip nectar, eat seeds, catch insects, or browse on submerged fresh water plants. Birds dependent upon such things must therefore migrate elsewhere for survival. The advantages of breeding in high latitudes must be significant in order for these birds to risk so many dangers and hardships during the long migrations.

The common species include loons, grebes, albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, stormpetrels, cormorants, swans, geese, ducks, eagles, hawks, ospreys, falcons, ptarmigans, cranes, oystercatchers, plovers, sandpipers, skuas, gulls, terns, auks, owls, and a multitude of perching and song birds. The taxonomy of Arctic birds is very complicated, but it can be made much simpler, and more useful, to the amateur bird watcher by separating them into broad ecological groups, such as water birds, sea birds, waterfowl, raptors (birds of prey), game birds, wading birds, shore birds, and perching or song birds.

In Svalbard, however, most of the more familiar birds are sea birds, because the islands contain relatively few areas of open ground for land birds and few significant lakes for water birds to use as nesting sites. Therefore, most of the birds encountered here are sea birds and they tend to be large, noisy and boisterous, and nest in great colonies.  There is a great diversity of species in this grouping, as it includes species from eight families in three very different orders. Interestingly, one of those orders, Charadriiformes, includes both sea birds and shore birds, demonstrating that some of these groupings are somewhat subjective, and not purely taxonomic. All sea birds have one important characteristic in common... the ability to safely drink sea water. They utilize salt glands, which are located in skull depressions above the eye sockets, to extract the excess salts from their blood. These glands use an active transport system (reverse osmosis) to force dissolved salts from the blood to form a concentrated brine which is ejected from the nostrils or mouth.

Shearwaters and petrels, albatrosses, storm-petrels, and diving-petrels make up the Procellariiformes group. All of these sea birds have tubed nostrils and bills that are covered with horny plates, and they are often referred to as tube-nosed swimmers.   At sea, these birds are easily identified by their large size, long narrow wings, short tails, and distinctive flight patterns. They spend most of their lives in the air and have perfected a gliding flight which allows them to stay airborne with a minimum of effort. They actually seem to enjoy windy, stormy conditions. It is great fun to watch as they swoop downwards with the wind just over the waves, then turn into the wind to gain height, and then reverse themselves to pick up speed and glide with the wind again. They seem to go on for hours like this without ever having to flap their wings. We usually encounter albatrosses in the open sea, and they often follow our ship taking advantage of the currents of air produced as the vessel moves, hoping for something edible to be dumped overboard or stirred up to the surface by the propellers. They feed mostly on squids, small fishes, and krill, which they catch by alighting on the surface and dipping their heads underwater. These birds have short, strong legs and webbed feet, and will alight readily on the water to rest or swim around after food. They usually must run along the surface into the wind in order to become airborne again. Most albatrosses have developed complex nuptial dances, and they begin to breed in late Spring or early Summer. They nest on islands that provide good sites for taking off into the prevailing winds. Their nests often consist of mounds built out of mud, grasses, moss, etc. and excrement, and they usually lay just one egg and breed every year.

The shearwater petrels (includingthe fulmar) are mediumsized sea birds, which have long, pointed wings, and hooked beaks with both nostrils encased together in a single sheath. Many ornithologists believe the extended tube enables the birds to eject the concentrated brine (produced by the salt gland) away from the face, so it will not dry and crystallize on the facial feathers. Thick salt deposits on the face could be a serious problem to birds which inhabit such cold and windy environments, because they do not normally get many chances to clean and preen themselves. These birds spend their entire lives at sea, except during the breeding season, and have adapted themselves to the severest storms the Arctic Ocean can produce. They are often seen flying just over the water's surface using the wind and air pressure along wave fronts as they glide, bank, and shear the water with their wing tips. It is thought they can survive very long periods on the wing without true sleep. These "tubenosed swimmers" feed chiefly on plankton, crustaceans, squid, and small fish, which they pick up from the surface. Their feet are webbed and they float very high on the water as they paddle around looking for food. They can, if necessary, dive below the surface a short distance, but they are so buoyant it is a struggle to stay submerged for more than just a few seconds. They nest in holes and on rock ledges, lay a single egg, and both sexes share in the incubation and feeding of young (usually one mate is off feeding while the other one tends the egg or chick). 

Stormpetrels are the smallest of the oceanic sea birds. They are about the size of swallows, and in fact are often called sea swallows. Another common name given them by seafarers of old is "Mother Carey's chickens". Their flight is fluttering, and much more erratic and weaker than the true petrels. The one Arctic species, the forktailed stormpetrel, is mostly light gray and has a deeply forked tail. The name petrel comes from "St. Peter", and refers to the biblical story of Peter trying to walk on the water. The stormpetrels have a habit of facing into the wind with outstretched wings, and appearing to walk or dance on the water as they try to pick up tiny crustaceans and other planktonic animals between the waves. These birds are often encountered far out to sea in windy and stormy conditions. It is surprising to see these tiny birds far out to sea, perhaps hundreds of kilometers from the nearest land. The nostrils are encased together in a tube with a single opening, like the shearwater petrels. Their legs are long and spindly, and the feet are webbed. This helps them greatly when they flutter at the water's surface bouncing and skipping while trying to grab tiny food particles. 

Cormorants are medium to large birds with long necks, long, hooked beaks, long, rounded wings, and long, wedgeshaped tails. Unlike the birds you might see on the Galapagos Islands. They are strong flyers, but usually fly in straight level paths, and often in Vshaped groups. The larger species are often called shags, and most northern species are black. They are essentially coastal sea birds, although they can and often do make long trips over open water. Cormorants are expert divers. They float very low in the water, and when they go under to pursue their prey (usually fish) they dive with a characteristic forward leap, or jackknife maneuver. They propel themselves underwater with their large webbed feet, while they often open their wings partly to aid in steering and making sharp turns when chasing fish. Unlike most sea birds, cormorants have four fully webbed toes on each foot (not the usual three). They snatch fish with their strongly hooked beaks and then surface in order to position the fish in their mouth to swallow it head first. After long periods of fishing they often perch in an exposed place to stretch out their wings and dry their feathers.  Another important characteristic of cormorants is they have no external nostril openings, and they must breathe through their open mouths, often panting as they flutter their gular pouch while breathing. Cormorants usually breed in colonies, which may be located on the ledges of cliffs and along rocky shores. 

The skuas (by this term we include the jaegers) are superficially similar to gulls, and in fact probably evolved from them. They are much more pelagic than the gulls, however, and except for during the breeding season, they spend most of their time at sea. The skuas can all be differentiated from gulls because they have white wing patches at the base of the primary flight feathers, and they all have two elongated central tail feathers of varying lengths (which may or may not be easily seen). They have long broad wings and are strong flyers.   The smaller species are almost falconlike, since they have narrower more pointed wings and usually fly in a rapid direct flight. They are all very predatory, and have strong hooked beaks and relatively strong talons on their webbed feet to help them in their carnivorous life style.   Skuas are also very aggressive when it comes to protecting their eggs and offspring. If one approaches too close to a nest, the adults will dive against the intruder to drive him away. The skuas are potentially dangerous to almost all the other birds and small animals. They are inveterate egg stealers and chick killers, but also consume large numbers of voles and lemmings. Skuas are also pirates in that they will chase and harass birds which have food until they drop it out of desperation, and they will also scavenge when necessary. Skuas do not nest in colonies, but they are often social nesters meaning several pairs may nest within the same vicinity, but their nests are well spaced. 

Gulls are primarily coastal sea birds, and are seldom seen far out to sea. These are generalized birds...they have long broad wings and are good flyers, but cannot fly as well as the shearwater petrels. They have webbed feet and are good swimmers, but cannot swim as well as the ducks and puffins. They are predatory birds, but are not as hawklike, nor as fierce as the skuas. Gulls are survivors and will take advantage of any situation they can. They will scavenge when necessary and will eat an impressive variety of foods. They often follow ships in hopes of receiving edible refuse, and many species have actually increased their numbers and ranges as a result of living off mankind's ever growing refuse problem. Gulls get their food either from the ground, or from the surface of the water. They rarely dive beneath the surface they are very buoyant and float high in the water. The gulls are white, or white with varying amounts of gray or black markings on the head, dorsal surface of the wings, and back.   Some have colorful legs.   Most gulls nest in rocks, and on ledges, and often build nests out of organic debris. 

Terns are closely related to the gulls. In fact, some authorities consider the two groups as one family. The terns, however, are much more specialized when compared to the gulls. They all have graceful bodies, long pointed wings, pointed beaks, and many of them have long forked tails. Whereas gulls often soar in updrafts and wind currents, terns have a buoyant straight flight. Most terns are coastal birds, but the Arctic tern migrates vast distances each year. This tern is notable for having one of the longest yearly migratory routes of any animal on Earth, with some individuals flying 35,500 kilometers (22,000 miles) during a roundtrip flight from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back to the Arctic. Terns feed almost entirely on fish, which they catch by dropping on them from above the water. Terns can hover as they search for prey and can dive a short distance into the water if necessary. These terns nest in colonies, or at best in loosely organized and widely segregated breeding areas. Unlike most other sea birds, terns bring freshly caught fish for their nestlings to eat rather than regurgitate predigested food. 

The alcids, which include the razorbills, murres, dovekies, guillemots, and puffins, all inhabit cold water areas of the northern hemisphere. They are the ecological equivalents to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. On close inspection, the alcids are all rather similar in appearance...they have stout bodies, short tails, short, often brightly colored legs, vertical stances, and are basically black on the back and white on the belly (some have varying amounts of white on the wings),   They all have very rapid wing beats and are excellent swimmers, using both their wings and their webbed feet underwater to chase fish. Alcids spend most of their time at sea, coming ashore only to breed, and they are generally silent. They float high in the water and when disturbed they usually splash along the surface before diving or taking off with a distinctive "whirring" sound. There is, however, a great degree of variation in both overall size and bill shapes. The murres and guillemots are mediumsized birds with long, pointed bills; the razorbill is very similar to the murres, except it has a long, compressed bill; the puffins are mediumsized birds with high, compressed, and colorful beaks; the little auk or dovekie is tiny with a stubby beak; and the auklets and murrelets are small, with short, pointed bills.

Get our newsletter

Join us for updates, insider reports & special offers.

Privacy Policy