If you ask foreigners, such as myself, about the first thing that pops into their heads when thinking of the wildlife in the High North, many will invariably say whales or polar bears, which is all nice and well, but leaves out one of the most diverse and fascinating classes of animals which inhabit the region: our feathery friends, the birds.
Text: George Stoica
Granted, the most common sight in Tromsø may be the average seagull or magpie, but all you need to do is to take a quick swim (it’s better by boat or plane though) towards higher latitudes to discover that there is a whole world of avian beauty waiting for you, on and around the islands making up the Svalbard archipelago. Over 200 species call this area home for at least part of the year. Their life and ecology provides not only a valuable insight into the environment around them, but also a good lesson regarding the adaptability of life.
The birdlife of this area is highly dependent on the year cycle, with frantic warm seasons filled with feeding and breeding, while the wintertime is almost completely devoid of birds. Some rely on the melting of the ice in order to return to their nests, and do so with surprising accuracy, like guillemots who return to the rock where they were born, year after year. Adaptations such as the shape of the egg and its surface texture which repels water serve as proof of the high specialization which occurs with species living in extreme conditions. Other species rely on the ice sheet itself, such as the beautiful ivory gull which, as a scavenger, must follow larger hunting mammals in order to feed on the remains of their pray. Hint: the sight of an ivory gull hovering around means there is a good chance that a polar bear might be lurking nearby, so keep on your toes!
These are only a few of the many things which Hallvard Strøm detailed during his presentation about the birdlife of the arctic. A long-time bird enthusiast and current brave scientist working for the Norwegian Polar Institute, Hallvard studies population segments on the islands both to understand their ecology and to help establishing preventative methods against the destruction of the environment. Research such as the one he and his team is conducting often forms the basis for regulations aimed at commercial fishing and other industrial activities. Birds are natural environmental indicators which can serve as a yardstick for many biological factors. The food chain which they are a part of can be traced down all the way to water temperature and currents, so learning about their life also means learning about the changes which affect them. The presentation brought out many interesting details about the annual life cycle on the islands, the hardships that wildlife must endure there, and the adventure that is research. From makeshift proximity alarms to warning against approaching polar bears, to drones used to gain insight into the less accessible nesting grounds, it takes a lot more than brains to do research in the High North!
Especially helpful was the Q&A session after the presentation, which showed that locals are interested and knowledgeable about the birdlife surrounding them, but also concerned about the threat of extinction facing the beautiful birds. It comes as no surprise, for such a unique and fragile conglomeration of animals deserves to be protected, and if climate change should get any worse, it is these species which will sense the consequences first.