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Spitzbergen, Greenland & Iceland Tour Report 22 July - 2 August 2010

Our tour to Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland, really was an expedition to one of the few untouched wilderness areas left in the world today. It was a journey to the true `High Arctic`, an extreme land gripped by ice for over eight months of the year and by darkness for over four. During the brief arctic summer these far away lands are transformed into areas of perpetual daylight, where the tundra responds with a rich array of wildflowers, Reindeers graze unconcerned and myriads of cliff-nesting seabirds race to raise their young, before the long Arctic winter sets in again. We cruised along the edge of the pack-ice, marveled at Greenland's metres thick ice cap, sailed past scores of icebergs and sparkling ice floes, as we experienced the long Arctic days of perpetual sunlight. The birding was of great interest and just some of the many highlights included Red-throated and Great Northern Loons, Manx Shearwater, Leach's Storm-petrel, Pink-footed, Greylag and Barnacle Geese, Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Purple Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Great, Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas, Ross', Sabine's, Iceland and Ivory Gulls, Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Black, Common and Brunnich's Guillemots and Snow Bunting. The mammals were just as interesting; and included Arctic Fox, Polar Bear, Walrus, Harp, Ringed, Bearded and Hooded Seals, White-beaked and Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, the critically endangered Bowhead Whale and the equally endangered Narwhal, plus Fin, Northern Minke and Humpback Whales, Musk Ox and Arctic Hare.

Longyearbyen is the main settlement on Spitsbergen and after a long series of flights from Australia, spread over two days, we were very pleased to arrive around midday, one day prior to the cruise. In the afternoon we took the opportunity to do some birding along the edge of the bay. One of the first birds we saw was the delightful Snow Bunting, we found both males and females and young birds, some of which, were still being fed by their parents. Along the melt water streams and tidal pools we found good numbers of Purple Sandpipers and Dunlins, plus one Ruddy Turnstone, in immaculate, full breeding plumage. In the harbour we found large flocks of Common Eider, good numbers of Glaucous Gulls and lots of nesting Arctic Terns, which were more than happy to dive-bomb us, if we got too close to their nests. We also found a few Arctic Skuas, several Black-legged Kittiwakes and a few Black Guillemots, in very trendy breeding plumage. On our way back to the hotel we came across a very tame Reindeer and while having dinner that night in the particularly fine restaurant of our hotel, we observed an Arctic Fox through the window of the dinning room.

After breakfast the following morning, we returned to the edge of the bay and proceeded to walk a little further than we had the previous day. In one of the tidal pools we found a female Long-tailed Duck, continuing our walk we came across several large flocks of Barnacle Geese, which we greatly admired. Suddenly, a pair of Goosanders flew directly over our heads, this is a very rare visitor to Spitzbergen, so we were very pleased to see them. We then found a solitary Common Ringed Plover, which was particularly tame, allowing us to have a good long look at it. As we were walking back towards our hotel, a couple of dark morph Northern Fulmars, this is the colour morph that occurs in the far north, flew right past us, along the edge of the bay. At the Husky breeding station we were delighted to enjoy very close looks at a pair of Ivory Gulls, which were scavenging in the area, we even saw them eating scraps from the dogs feeding bowls. The Ivory Gull was later voted `bird of the tour`, by tour participants. By mid afternoon, it was time to board the `Akademik Ioffe`, which would be home for the next 13 days. Later in the afternoon some group members saw a couple of pairs of Brunnich's Guillemots, sitting on the sea, right next to the boat.

We awoke the following morning to find small flocks of Little Auks flying over the sea and heading inland to their breeding colonies. Small numbers of Atlantic Puffins were also flying past the boat at regular intervals. As the boat neared Alkhornet, where we were to make a landing, a solitary Great Skua flew directly in front of the boat. Suddenly, a large species of seal rose to the surface of the ocean, slightly ahead of the boat. It was a Hooded Seal, which we were very pleased to find. This is not an inshore species; it prefers to stay far out at sea, so it is very rarely observed. We were able to see it very well, which was just as well, as it was our only sighting of the tour. We enjoyed walking on the tundra that morning, and in particular, we were enthralled by the antics of three Arctic Fox cubs, they enjoyed getting involved in play fights and chasing one another around, on the freshly fallen snow, and we in turn, enjoyed watching them. There were also good numbers of Reindeer here, they are a very docile animal and we were able to get very close to them. In the afternoon we made a landing at Poolepynton, on Prins Karls Forland, as this is a favourite place for the now very uncommon Walrus. We were not to be disappointed; four of these huge animals had hauled themselves out onto the beach and were lying all over one another. We were able to approach them to within 10 metres or so, and we were allowed to have a really good look at them. Just a few metres inland from the Walrus there was a small wetland and here we found a female Red Phalarope in immaculate, full breeding plumage. It was hard to decide which to look at first, the Walrus', who quite frankly were not doing much, or the beautiful Red Phalarope, which was swimming around in the shallow lake and her head was bobbing up and down in a sewing machine like action, constantly pecking at the surface of the water. This is typical phalarope feeding behaviour and is a joy to watch. The three members of the phalarope family all employ sexual role reversal; the females have the brighter coloured plumage, the males have a more somber plumage. Although the females lay the eggs, it is the male that incubates them and then takes care of the young afterwards.

The following morning we went for a cruise in the zodiacs, to a rocky headland known as Fuglesongen. The main reason for visiting Fuglesongen was to visit the breeding colony of literally thousands of Little Auks. Thousands of these tennis ball-sized auks were wheeling around the cliffs, like mosquitoes over a pond. Unlike their larger relatives, the guillemots; Little Auks do not nest on cliff ledges, they are actually cavity nesters, and nest in small crevices in between the rocks. It was tremendous, to be able to watch them sitting at the entrance to their nest holes, just 30 or 40 metres away from us. Later in the morning we made a landing at Tyre Norskoya, the highlight here was watching small flocks of Barnacle Geese, which had goslings with them, at various stages of maturity. In the afternoon we cruised around in zodiacs in a small bay called Holmiabukta, where there were lots of sparkling ice-floes and one or two small icebergs. A carcass of one of the larger species of whales had been washed up in the bay, 18 months previously. Recently, the carcass had sunk below the surface and was resting on the floor of the bay, just a few metres below the surface of the icy water. The seawater was acting as a deep freeze and preserving the whale, ensuring a fresh supply of life preserving whale meat, for the resident population of Polar Bears, which was to be our main quarry here. Fortunately, we were elated to find a total of six Polar Bears, in this area and we were able to watch them for a considerable length of time. There were two females each with a cub, as well as two adolescents, from the previous breeding season, probably about four years earlier. A female would walk along the edge of the bay, with a pup following behind. The mother would sniff the air occasionally in an attempt to locate the whale. On reaching the precise spot, she then dived into the water, swam around for a time, enjoyed a quick bath and then dived below the surface, reappearing at the surface with a large chunk of whale meat in her mouth. While enjoying our fill of Polar Bear sightings, we also saw a couple of Common Guillemots in the bay. We also saw both light and dark morph Northern Fulmars flying around the bay and a solitary dark morph Arctic Skua. Dark morphs account for less than 10% of all Arctic Skuas.

The following morning, after breakfast, we went zodiac cruising at a place called Hamiltonbukta. While seated in the zodiac, we watched a `blue morph` Arctic Fox walk along a glacier, the animal actually has brown fur in summer, but is known as a blue morph. The glaciers in the bay had produced many icebergs and we were able to sail around them and enjoy a really good look at them. There were lots of smaller ice-floes and on one of them, there was a Bearded Seal. It allowed us to get fairly close and through our binoculars we could clearly see the long whiskers on the upper lip of the animal. In the afternoon, we headed out into the open sea for a two day crossing of the Greenland Sea, sailing southwest; we headed towards the east coast of Greenland. Later in the afternoon, we saw a second Bearded Seal, swimming close to the boat.

The following morning we made a landing at Alesund, a small settlement which serves as a base station for international Arctic research, which has a population or approximately 80 scientists and support staff. They even had a shop, where some of us went shopping. We then traveled out to the Greenland Sea, which is a particularly good area to look for whales and dolphins. So we spent many hours on the bridge, looking for the telltale blows, of whales. This proved very rewarding, as we enjoyed great looks at a Northern Minke Whale, a rather small species of baleen whale. We also had a Fin Whale, the world's second largest species of whale, which surfaced right next to the boat, it was a very impressive sight and we could clearly see the uniform grey upperparts of the great beast. To our surprise, a solitary Bowhead Whale then surfaced fairly close to the boat; this is one of the world's most endangered large whales, having been hunted to the point of extinction in many parts of its range. It stayed on the surface for quite some time, and we could clearly see that it was all black and had no dorsal fin at all. Later in the afternoon, a small pod of dolphins joined the boat and we could clearly make out the white beak and the black upperparts and dorsal fin and the grey patch between the dorsal fin and the tail. We were watching a pod of White-beaked Dolphins, a species that is confined to the North Atlantic Ocean.

Another full day at sea, which meant more time on the bridge, scanning for wildlife ahead of the boat. The only new species for the day was an immature Ross' Gull, which came very close to the port side of the boat, and we were able to watch it for quite some time.

All of today was spent at sea, although we were close to the coast of Greenland, during the latter half of the afternoon. The sea was remarkably calm, in fact, it was glassy calm, and it was as though we were sailing through a sea of glass. Unfortunately, it was also very foggy; we sailed through huge banks of fog for most of the day, with visibility down to just a few metres, however, there was the odd break in the fog, but a little later, the fog would roll in again. Suddenly, a shape materialised out of the fog, it was an adult Sabine's Gull, in full breeding plumage, but in no time at all, it had disappeared into another fog bank. During one of the few prolonged breaks in the fog, a Humpback Whale put in a brief appearance. On another occasion a Harp Seal surfaced in front of the boat and we had a fairly good look at it, before it too disappeared, under the waves.

In the morning we sailed southwards along the Greenland coast, there was plenty of bird activity; but the only bird that was new for us, was a superb Long-tailed Skua, that flew right past us. In the afternoon we went ashore at Ittoqqortoomiit, the most northerly Inuit community on the east coast of Greenland. We enjoyed our walk around town, where we also added a few new birds, to our ever growing list. At the town rubbish dump there were plenty of Glaucous Gulls, and a quick look through them, produced an adult Black-headed Gull, in full breeding plumage. This was a surprise find, as this species only breeds in the far south of Greenland, and does not normally venture this far to the north. A few Common Ravens were found to be frequenting the rubbish dump, and this was also a new bird for the tour. Along the coast we found a female Northern Wheatear, which was one of the few species of passerines, which we saw on the tour. After dinner we made a landing at Hurry Inlet, where we found a solitary Sanderling, in full breeding plumage, and a walk on the tundra produced a fine flock of Pink-footed Geese.

Today we began our two day exploration of Scoresbysund, the largest fjord in the world. This remarkable place is the birthplace of many giant icebergs that calve from the massive glaciers that wind their way down to the fjord. In some areas the fjord was packed with icebergs, and we had to sail very slowly, in order to maneuver between them. We decided to go for a cruise in the zodiacs, so that we could get up close and personal to the many giant icebergs. This was very enjoyable and a great many photographs were taken. During the zodiac cruise an adult Red-throated Loon, in full breeding plumage, flew directly in front of our zodiac. Later in the day an adult Red-breasted Merganser flew right past our zodiac and out of sight. Following lunch, we spent much of our time on the bridge as we slowly steered our way through `iceberg alley`, the fjord was literally choked with icebergs! This is when we saw our first Great black-backed Gull of the cruise, and this was followed shortly afterwards by three Harlequin Ducks, a drake and two females. We were very pleased to see the Harlequin Ducks, but the best was still to come. A short time later, we saw a beautiful Ringed Seal, which had hauled itself out onto a small ice-floe. Very late in the afternoon, when only Eric and Michael were on the bridge, they enjoyed watching two female Narwhals, making their way through the ice-floes.

The following morning we continued our journey through Scoresbysund, passing many large icebergs as we did so. From the boat, we were able to scope a superb Musk Ox and one or two Arctic Hares. In Scoresbysund there is a large island made up of reddish soil, and is aptly named Rode Island. In the afternoon we made a landing there and went for a walk on the island. There was a magnificent pair of Peregrine Falcons nesting on the highest bluff on the island, and when we got too close to the bluff, the birds would take off and fly above us calling loudly, it was an exhilarating experience.

All of our time today was spent at sea, as we crossed the Denmark Strait heading towards the west coast of Iceland. Once again, we sailed through patches of sea fog, but during the afternoon there were some prolonged periods, which were free from fog. New birds today included large numbers of Northern Gannets, a superb adult Pomarine Skua and a select few were lucky enough to see a pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. In the afternoon we came across a good number of whales, which included another Fin Whale, and no less than six Humpback Whales. The Humpback Whales put on a tremendous display for us, some of them breaching right out of the water, it was a wonderful experience, and almost everyone on the boat was on the bridge, watching the whales. During the night the seas became rather rough, which continued the following day.

The rough seas today, were not to everyone liking and Eric went a little green, for a large portion of the day, while still others, stayed in their cabin all day! Just as the light was fading, we entered the main harbour of the Westerman Islands, were the cliffs surrounding the harbour were full of nesting Northern Gannets and Northern Fulmars. A couple of Razorbills, flew past our boat and in the harbour itself, there was a large raft of Manx Shearwaters.

Today we enjoyed a beautiful day in the Westerman Islands, off the southwest coast of Iceland. The sun was shining brightly and the birdlife was plentiful. We were taken by bus from the harbour, to a cliff top nesting site of the beautiful Atlantic Puffin, it was really terrific, and was much enjoyed by everyone on the boat. Some of us decided to walk the few kilometres back to the boat, so that we could do some birding on the way. New birds came thick and fast, and they included good numbers of Eurasian Oystercatchers, small flocks of European Golden-Plover, lots of displaying Common Redshanks, several Whimbrels and we very much enjoyed watching numerous Common Snipe performing their ariel display flights. We also found three new species of gulls here, Common, Herring and Lesser Black-backed. We also added Feral Pigeon, Meadow Pipit and White Wagtail. However, our best find was a Great Northern Loon, just offshore, in a small bay; unfortunately, it had already moulted into non-breeding plumage. Back at the harbour, we added a couple of pairs of Iceland Gulls and several Great Cormorants. In the late afternoon we set sail for Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. Shortly after leaving the Westerman Islands, we saw a solitary Leach's Storm-petrel, which was enjoying the rough seas, which continued during the night.

When we awoke, we had already berthed in the harbour at Reykjavik, and following an early breakfast, we boarded a bus and sped off for the airport. On the way we drove past an area of parkland, where we added Greylag Goose, Mallard, Tufted Duck and European Starling.

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