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SPITSBERGEN (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness

10–25 July 2017 1 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Blue Whale in Forlandsundet - the largest creature that ever lived on Earth! Cover photo: A Polar Bear in the Mükeøyane Islands of Woodfjorden (Mike Watson).

Guides: Arjen Drost and Mike Watson.

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In early July I got a message from our expedition leader, Arjen Drost, that our 15 days voyage in Svalbard aboard the wonderful SV Noorderlicht was going to be different this year. He was not wrong. Owing to an unusual (by recent standards) distribution of drift ice we were not able to circumnavigate the main island of Spitsbergen. However, it is an ill wind and this allowed us more time to explore the highly productive northwest of Spitsbergen, as well as to make a foray above 80 degrees and into the pack ice, which was a first for most on board. We also spent a couple of days further south in Bellsund before returning to Longyearbyen. This itinerary again delivered some impressive totals, including 12 Polar Bear sightings of 10 separate individuals, c.200 Walruses including some point blank encounters, 15 Arctic Foxes, 7 Ivory Gulls, 2-3 Sabine’s Gulls and 8 Long-tailed Jaegers (or Skuas) plus a Fin Whale, 1-2 Belugas and 11 Northern Minke Whales. The outstanding tour highlight for most was the pod of four magnificent Blue Whales feeding around SV Noorderlicht in Forlandsundet, an unforgettable experience! However, we were also mesmerised by the glaciated landscape and the exquisite High Arctic flora. Plants included restricted range

Arctic specialities such as Boreal Jacob’s Ladder, Nodding Lychnis (or Polar Campion), Whiplash or Polar Stoloniferous Saxifrage (or Spider Plant), Svalbard Poppy and Woolly Lousewort. Polar Bear numbers were more or less the same as on our 2016 cruise despite not getting out east to the best areas but still down 50% on my 2012 voyage. This was a massive relief after learning that another vessel just recorded a blank the week before despite having some of the best Polar Bear guides in the business on board.The message remains clear, if you want to see Polar Bears in Svalbard, do not delay. The future looks quite bleak for them. Ivory Gulls depend on Polar Bear kills and follow them around so when the sea ice is far to the north, so are some of the gulls. This was probably reflected in our low total of Ivory Gulls this time, although we did not have Negribreen to boost the overall number as usual. However, they are already showing signs of decline in the reduced numbers visiting formerly regular haunts like Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund as well as being more difficult to find even in the ice this summer. If Svalbard is on your bucket list then a visit sooner rather than later is a good idea. Walrus encounters were outstanding again, like this one at Smeerenburg (Mike Watson).

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Maybe the biggest tusker of them all at Fuglesongen (Mike Watson). 4 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


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1 - Longyearbyen 2 - Dvergsteinen (Polar Bear family) 3 - Daudmannsodden (Polar Bear) 4 - Forlandsundet (Blue Whales) 5 - Poolepynten (Walrus from ship) 6 - Sarstangen (Walrus landing) 7 - Smeerenburgfjord (ships cruise) 8 - Danskøya (whale carcass, Polar Bear family) 9 - Sallyhamna (Frozen glacier lake) 10 - Pack ice (Furthest north: 80º16’N) 11 - Moffen (Sabines Gull, Walrus, Polar Bear) 12 - Måkeøyane (Polar Bear) 13 - Stasjonsøyane (Red Phalaropes) 14 - Fuglesongen (Little Auks) 15 - Smeerenburg (Walrus) 16 - Danskøya (Whale carcass, male Polar Bear 17 - London, Blomstrandhalvøya (Long-tailed Skua) 18 - Ny Ålesund (Settlement) 19 - Cadiopynten (Bird cliff from ship) 20 - Fjortende Julibukta (evening walk, flowers) 21 - Ossian Sarsfjellet (Birdcliff, Ptarmigan) 22 - Asbestodden (evening walk on tundra) 23 - Recherchebreen (tundra and glacier lake) 24 - Axeløya (Red Phalaropes, Spider Plant) 25 - Alkhornet (Reindeer, lush tundra) 26 - Colesbukta (Fox den, flowers)

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Many of our folks these days spend extra time in Longyearbyen prior to our cruises, to allow some contingency against unexpected travel delay as well as to explore the town and its surroundings. There is much to see here both in terms of interesting museums, galleries, shops, bars and, of course, wildlife, which lives side by side with the local population of around only 2,100 people, less than some of the massive cruise ships that stop here. A little extra time also allows for a change in the weather and again the bright weather immediately prior to the cruise was some of the nicest of my stay in Svalbard. It is easy to lose track of time here in the midnight sun and it is difficult to know when to stop. I got even more carried away this time and despite a lift from the Swedish WP Big Year team, my smartphone’s health app recorded over 36,000 steps in my first 24 hours here! Familiar northern birds like Rock Ptarmigan, Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaeger), Purple Sandpiper, Common Ringed Plover, Red-necked and Red Phalaropes and Snow Bunting can all be found close to, and sometimes, even in the town.

A male Red Phalarope watches over its chick in Adventdalen prior to the cruise (Mike Watson).

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Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua) in Longyearbyen (Mike Watson).

10 July Longyearbyen to Ymerbukta. Eventually the time came to meet the last participants off the flight from Tromsø in northern Norway and once our baggage was packed off towards the Noorderlicht we headed into town. Longyearbyen is a very charismatic town and apart from coal mining artifacts, which are left standing in an arrested state of decay, its buildings are mostly neat and modern and are reminiscent of the houses and hotels of a monopoly board, and typically for the Arctic, painted in bright colours. Our first stop was an area of common ground in the town, where sadly the hoped for Boreal Jacob’s Ladder could not be found this year. However, it was still a great introduction to classic Arctic flora including: White Arctic Bell-heather and lots of Mountain Avens, this time in full flower. Most of us then walked east towards the dog kennels and the famous nearby Polar Bear warning sign on the edge of town. Unfortunately there was no sign of a Red Phalarope but we did manage a distant drake King Eider with 3 Long-tailed Ducks and a pair of Arctic Skuas opposite the snow-ski outlet. Also here were Dunlins, Purple Sandpipers and a Common Ringed Plover. Arctic Terns were breeding on the foreshore nearby and monitored our progress closely along the road and both

Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls were present. Common Eiders were still sitting on nests by the dog kennels and Barnacle Geese had already started to gather in moulting flocks, some with a few goslings in tow. Pretty Svalbard Poppies were growing along the otherwise barren roadside verges here. After posing for the obligatory photos by the ‘Gjelder hele Svalbard’ (‘all over Svalbard’) Polar Bear warning sign we all wandered back to the port, where our lovely vessel SV Noorderlicht was waiting for us. Once aboard, we settled into our cosy cabins and enjoyed the first of many fantastic meals, served up by our talented and resourceful Dutch chef Menthe Groefsema, a Noorderlicht veteran. We set sail in the evening sunshine, heading west down the huge Isfjorden (‘ice fjord’), with an escort of Northern Fulmars (as usual we saw a wide range of colour morphs throughout the tour) and past the first of very many squadrons of Little Auks and Brünnich’s Guillemots heading to and from their breeding cliffs. We passed the formerly very grim, Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg at the mouth of Isfjorden, which has started to clad its buildings with brighter coloured material! We had now entered the midnight sun wilderness of Svalbard (although, again, unfortunately the

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sun was hidden most of the time this year). We anchored for the night in Ymerbukta, intending to take our time exploring the southern entrance to the Forlandsundet, the large sound between the barrier island, Prins Karls Forland and Spitsbergen. Entering this sheltered bay we saw our first Bearded Seals as well as some King Eiders and enjoyed some nearby Thick-billed Murres and Black Guillemots around the boat before it was time to go to bed. Prins Karls Forland was named after King Charles I, a prince at the time! The sea ice had formed very late this winter, in March in fact during the coldest spring in the Arctic for 60 years! While this was good news for the Polar Bears and other wildlife that depends on it the extent of the ice remaining into summer meant that we would not be able to get through the Hinlopen Strait this time and circumnavigate Spitsbergen. The drift ice can also move vast distances quickly depending on the wind direction so we would need to be careful when entering the large fjords in the north so our exit would not be blocked if the wind turned to the north or east. Another major concern was that bears had been tricky to find so far this summer, even with the best guides. However, Arjen had some intel about recent bear sightings and we were keen to

get north as soon as possible to follow these leads up. We should not have worried! Ymerbukta (‘Ymer Bay’) is named after the Swedish periodical of the same name, published by the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography, Ymer being a giant in Norse mythology. Birds: Barnacle Goose, King Eider, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Common Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, Thick-billed Murre (or Brünnich’s Guillemot), Little Auk, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Bearded Seal and Reindeer. Flora: Polar Field Horsetail (Equesitum arvense borealis), Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Arctic White Campion (Silene involucrate furcata), Sulphur-coloured Buttercup (Ranunculus sulphureus), Svalbard Poppy (Papaver dahlianun polare), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus compacta), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), Arctic Cinquefoil (Potentilla pulchella), White Arctic Bell-heather (Cassiope tetragona), Hairy Lousewort (Pedicularis hirsuta), Whitlow-grass sp (Draba sp), Arctic Cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri arcticum) and Polar Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus).

Common Eider female on its nest (Mike Watson).

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Blue Whale, Forlandsundet (Mike Watson).

11 July Ymerbukta to Grimaldibukta We woke at anchor in pretty Ymerbukta and enjoyed the first of many excellent breakfasts of the tour. Soon we were underway, cruisings past the impressive bird cliff of Alkhornet (‘Horn of the Auks’) towards Forlandsundet. Our only Pomarine Jaeger (or Skua) of the tour, an adult with tail spoons, flew past the boat as we left Isfjord. ‘Look for a mayonnaise-coloured object that looks a little out of place in its surroundings’ and that’s just what Toni Hardman did. Boom! A collared mother Polar Bear and her two cubs were raiding Glaucous Gull nests on a large boulder at Dvergsteinen (‘Dwarf Stones’). What a fantastic start! They were a little out of DSLR range though, owing to shallow water between SV Noorderlicht and them. Flushed with this early success we had not gone too much further along the coast and Boom! again! This time Warren Hardman spotted a slumbering male Polar Bear amongst driftwood on the beach at Daudmannsodden (‘Deadman’s Point’). South Africa four, Rest of the World nil! The bear even got up and walked around a bit and made a hapless attempt to stalk a Harbour Seal, hiding behind some rocks and peeping over them every now and then. However, the seal spotted him and made a sharp

exit. Again the waters were a little shallow for us to approach too closely but we were rocking now! One of the beauties of SV Noorderlicht is that with its lovely flat keel it can cruise shallower waters than the bigger boats, therefore a little closer to the shore and at a slower speed, which allows bear spotting from the deck. A gathering of eight Great Black-backed Gulls on the rocks here was probably our record count in Svalbard. We left the male bear after lunch and continued north into the Forlandsundet. Again we had not gone too far before we spotted the distant vertical blow of a Blue Whale, clear against a dark sky. It was too far away to detour for and we hoped for more of them ahead. Indeed there were. Some more blows looked very promising for the ‘big one’ and as we got closer we could see their enormous tail flukes and ultra thick tails as they dived for food in the deep waters at the southern end of the sound. Utimately we enjoyed many views of at least four Blue Whales here, some quite close to the boat with repeated looks at their never-ending long, marbled, green-blue backs, tiny dorsal fins (in relation to their size that is) and then the whopping tail flukes with water cascading off them. Eventually they simply vanished and went on their way. Fantastic stuff!

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Blue Whales were very rare in Svalbard waters until around a decade ago, when they started to be seen more regularly, surely the same returning animals, which have also been seen in Köngsfjord this summer. The deep waters at the entrance to Isfjorden are particularly attractive to them and must be rich in the plankton they feed on. It is amazing to think we had been watching the largest creature that ever lived on the earth, including the dinosaurs, with a tongue that weighs as much as an African Elephant! Sadly it is still red-listed as ‘endangered’ by IUCN. We cruised further north passing the walrus haulout at Poolepynten, where over 40 of these amazing beasts were lying in a heap, before we reached our anchorage for the night on the shore of Prins Karls Forland, close by a couple of very nice glaciers, at Grimaldibukta. Poolepynten was named after the English whaler, Jonas Poole, who visited Svalbard repeatedly in the early 17th century. It is also the nearest walrus haulout to Longyearbyen. Consequently it receives a lot of attention from day-tripping boats and we thought the animals there might not respond as well to us as those who do not see folks quite so often? A European Herring Gull flew by for some and a pair of Great Skuas was harassing the Arctic Terns

at the calving face of the glacier as we ended a truly great day in the Arctic. Grimaldibukta was named by the Scottish polar explorer Dr. William S. Bruce who was a member of Prince Albert I of Monaco’s expedition to Spitsbergen in 1899. Birds: Pink-footed Goose, Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Blacklegged Kittiwake, Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, European Herring Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Polar Bear, Walrus, Harbour Seal, Blue Whale and Reindeer.

Blue Whale pectoral fin, Forlandsundet (Mike Watson).

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12 July Grimaldibukta to Bjornfjorden After breakfast we made the short crossing of Forlandsundet to the shingle spit of Sarstangen, another of Spitsbergen’s famous Walrus haulouts. Another day, another Polar Bear! Fortunately, this one was some way off along the shore, chose to walk in the opposite direction to us and therefore remained a ‘pixel bear’. Landings are aborted immediately if a bear shows up! There were around 50 Walruses on the beach and we were able to make a very easy landing and walk right up to them to the AECO (Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) guideline 30m distance. However, we know some tricks to attract passing animals in the water closer to us and we enjoyed a couple of close-ish encounters. The Walruses were using the southern side of the spit to come and go this time, where the water is much shallower and therefore did not swim too close to us on that side. However, one on the northern side obliged briefly. Certainly a wow(!) moment for those who have not seen one so close before! Also here were Sanderling (a lovely breeding plumaged bird on the lagoon at the start of the spit), a couple of Red Phalaropes flew over, nine Purple Sandpipers were feeding in the seaweed, another Great Black-backed Gull was also on the spit and a

pair of Great Skuas and three Parasitic Jaegers patrolled nearby. We also found a freshly dead Bearded Seal on the shore with a strange head injury. It’s skull appeared to have been crushed but it had not been eaten, maybe by a Walrus we wondered? Sarstangen is named after Michael Sars, 1805-69, Norwegian zoologist and Professor at the University of Oslo. We spent the rest of the day far offshore cruising north past Köngsfjord to our anchorage in Bjornfjorden (‘Bear Fjord’), passing our first Northern Minke Whales. There was a huge concentration of kittiwakes in the fjord here, feeding with fulmars and Arctic Terns. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Black-legged Kittiwake, Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin. Mammals: Polar Bear, Walrus, Harbour Seal, Bearded Seal (dead), Northern Minke Whale and Reindeer. Walruses, Sarstangen - it’s easier to roll sideways into the water! (Mike Watson).

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Above: Walruses (Robert Davidson) and below, Bearded Seal, Sarstangen (Steve Martin). Martin Loonen of the Dutch Polar Institute at Ny Ålesund commented ‘ I could be wrong but I can’t think of anything else that might have killed the bearded seal in this way and then not eaten it, other than a male walrus. The skull is simply destroyed.’ Page 15: Walrus extreme close up (Erin Grey). 16 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


13 July Bjornfjorden to Holmiabukta After breakfast on a rather bleak and overcast day with some light rain, we cruised Smeerenburgbreen, the large glacier at the head of Bjornfjorden. This was our first close up view of the calving face of a large glacier, ancient blue ice and all. A drake King Eider flew past but we did not spot anything else of special interest amongst the common birds. It was here that our intel came into play. Melting ice had revealed the long-dead carcass of a Sperm Whale, washed up along the shore and it was now attracting Polar Bears. As we neared the whale carcass on Danskøya we could see a mother bear and her young cub on the sandy beach of neighbouring Amsterdamøya by the famous Walrus haulout at Smeerenburgodden. They did not pay much attention to the Walruses lying there but eventually, after some encouragement by mum, swam across the narrow channel to Albertøya, an islet off the coast of Danskøya. Dive-bombing Great Skuas marked their progress across the small island and it was around this time that a Beluga was spotted swimming quite quickly along the shore. Typically it did not show much more than an ivory white back and occasionally its

domed head. The bears took another swim to the shore of Danskøya where mum led her cub to the dead whale and spent some time ripping off pieces of dried blubber, while junior looked on. With the bears around, our planned landing was cancelled and we continued on to Holmiabukta just around the NW tip of Spitsbergen, taking a detour inside Fugløya where we encountered our first proper drift ice. Large sheets had collected there and upon one of them lay a Bearded Seal. Also a Great Skua was devouring a dead bird nearby, probably a murre and as we neared our sheltered anchorage for the night a group of three Barnacle Geese stood on an ice floe. Birds: Barnacle Goose, King Eider, Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Polar Bear, Walrus, Bearded Seal, Sperm Whale (dead), Northern Minke Whale and Beluga. A mother Polar Bear feeding on a longdead Sperm Whale carcass on the shore of Danskøya, while her cub looks on. Next page: Barnacle Geese, Holmiabukta (Mike Watson).

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Snow falls on a whaler’s grave by Waldermar Kramer’s hut at Sallyhamna (Mike Watson).

14 July Holmiabukta to Hamiltonbukta We were expecting some horrible weather and our landing at Sallyhamna saw the worst conditions I have experienced in Svalbard so far. Horizontal sleet and very wet and tricky walking conditions over slippery rocks. I was glad when the last bumpy zodiac ride back was over and I could wring the water out of my gloves. All my clothes were wet and I was soaked to the bone. We did see some interesting historical artifacts though, like the whaler’s grave and ancient blubber ovens by the trapper’s hut as well as the Birgervatnet glacier lake below Birgerbreen. Flowers were not nearly as well advanced here as at Longyearbyen and we could only find a handful of Purple Saxifrage (the World’s most northerly flowering plant), Tufted Saxifrage and some stunted Mountain Sorrel. Birds included a male Snow Bunting foraging in rocks by the glacier lake and a Parasitic Jaeger sitting on the ice there. A colony of Glaucous Gulls was on the cliffs in Holmiabukta and a few Barnacle Geese were nesting here too. Sallyhamna is a small sheltered bay on the east side of Fair Haven and was used by whalers in the 1600s who left the remains of several graves

and blubber ovens. The hut was built in 1937 by Norwegian trapper Waldermar Kraemer who wintered here together with his wife Sally, after whom the harbour is named. The hut itself stands on an old blubber oven with a whaler’s grave inside! With force 7+ southwesterly winds forecast to pick up during the day and continue overnight we cruised east along the coast to Hamiltonbukta in Raudfjord in search of a sheltered anchorage. As it turned out even this east facing bay was not much shelter and SV Noorderlicht dragged her anchor all night, the crew doing a great job of staying on watch and repositioning when necessary. Captain Flores told me that he has an alarm next to his bed as well that alerts him to any unexpected movements. Swedish vessels Isbjorn and Stockholm were also seeking refuge here tonight. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Flora: Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa).

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Character-building weather at Sallyhamna (Margaret Hensel).

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Pack ice edge at 80.13 (Mike Watson).

15 July The Pack Ice The wind was still whipping over the immense Hamiltonbreen glacier and down into Hamiltonbukta when I checked at 4am but by breakfast it had almost completely died down. Phew! Our day in the pack ice was on! The ice charts had shown a wide arc of ice free water to the north of us and we expected the strong sou’wester to compress the drift ice into a compacted ice edge, along which we could cruise. Happily that is exactly what happened. As we headed north we could see a white line on the horizon, which was heavily buckled in places, a phenomenon caused when rays of light are bent as they pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion, where an atmospheric duct has formed. This is called a Fata Morgana. As we continued towards 80 degrees north we started to encounter small ice bergs, some of them blue so therefore glacial ice flushed out of the fjords. A Fin Whale was spotted and gave some nice views as it surfaced distantly, although never showing its tail flukes as is usual for this species.

A round of Jaegermeister from Captain Flores marked our crossing the 80 degrees line and everyone looked forward to what we might find in the ice. Ultimately it was a little too thin and broken to expect a bear but Arjen mentioned he had seen them like this before. Numerous kittiwakes, fulmars, Arctic Terns and auks were feeding along the ice edge and a couple of Great Skuas and Parasitic Jaegers were spotted, however, the star of the show was a shining white Ivory Gull, which flew towards us along the pack ice edge, paused to check something along the way and then continued into the white yonder at 80.13.32N, 13.21.47E. What a way to see your first one David! Warren also spotted a rather elusive Ringed Seal. Cruising the edge of the pack ice was a rare privilege for all aboard SV Noorderlicht as it is usually much too far to the north at this time of year. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Ivory Gull, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin.

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Moffen After spending some hours along the ice edge and reaching 80.16 degrees, we cruised south to Moffen Island, itself just above 80 and home to some very important birds. We quickly spotted the star attraction, Sabine’s Gull, feeding in the surf just off the southern shore of the island, as always! There were 2-3 birds here amongst the other gulls and terns. A couple of pairs of Pale-bellied Brent Geese were on the shingle ridges and two Ruddy Turnstones flew by, they are quire scarce in Svalbard. A pair of long-legged larger gulls on the shore was identified as Lesser Black-backed, probably of the Siberian-breeding subspecies heuglini. A few Walruses were also piled up on the beach here - the island had only become ice-free in the last week or so. This might be the reason we saw another Polar Bear here, sleeping on the frozen lagoon in the centre of the island, it appeared as another large incongruous mayonnaise-coloured object at first but just as we were leaving it raised its head to have a look around. Moffen is a derogatory slang word used by the Dutch when referring to Germans. We were not quite finished yet and this strecth

of coast always produces something interesting. As we neared the entrance to Woodfjorden, another Ivory Gull flew over the boat for some. Fog was rolling in from the west as we reached our anchorage for the night at Mushamna (‘Mouse Harbour’). Birds: Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Ruddy Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Blacklegged Kittiwake, Ivory Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Glaucous Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre and Black Guillemot. Mammals: Polar Bear, Walrus, Ringed Seal and Northern Minke Whale. Ivory Gull at the entrance to Woodfjorden and previous pages: Thick-billed Murre and Northern Fulmar (Mike Watson).

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Polar Bear in the Måkeøyane (Mike Watson). Next page, above (Mike Watson) and below (Jan-Åke Alvarsson).

16 July Måkeøyane, Woodfjorden We had originally intended to make a landing at Mushamna but this time we were thwarted by fog, which still veiled the entrance to Woodfjorden. However, we heard from another vessel that further into the fjord it was clear and even better, they had a bear. It had been sleeping for 24 hours apparently, so this was not such exciting news. We headed south towards the Måkeøyane (‘Gull Islands’) and... well it wasn’t sleeping now! The bear could be clearly seen walking across the main island. We lost sight of it and looked at some Reindeer instead but as we rounded the southern tip... ‘Holy crap!’ said someone, ‘there it is’, on a small rocky islet right next to us. It was very reluctant to allow an ultra close view and sneaked around the island before climbing up onto the top of it. The bear then proceeded to swim to another islet where it raided a Glaucous Gull nest and then back to the main island, where we watched it stomping around eating eider duck eggs, the distraught mother ducks in close attendance. This was easily the best sighting for our DSLR gang and afforded some different and very interesting backgrounds that told some of the story of the

bear’s activities. Arjen judged the bear to have a fat score of 2 on the 1-5 scale, it was quite skinny, which is hardly surprising if it was having to rely on birds’ eggs. Around 200 eggs have the same nutritional value as one seal! Also of note here were a pair of Red-throated Loons, a smart drake Long-tailed Duck and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones. Birds: Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, Thick-billed Murre (or Brünnich’s Guillemot), Little Auk, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Polar Bear and Reindeer.

25 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


26 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Stasjonsøyane, Woodforden Our afternoon landing on the lovely Stasjonsøyane (‘Station Islands’) was very productive in terms of getting close to Red Phalaropes at last. Although we could have hoped for better light, it was now raining, quite heavily at times. The phalaropes did not mind and allowed very close approach down to a few feet as they fed actively on the tiny tundra pools and along the seaweed-strewn rocky shore. We estimated at least 16 birds here, seven of them females, albeit a little past their best, including the well-marked bird pictured here, which had white braces instead of buff. The roles of male and female phalaropes are reversed and males are left to incubate and tend the young, while females disappear and go off somewhere else, maybe even to lay again? A flock of eight female King Eiders was a sad sight as they must have failed to breed now and there was also a large flock of moulting Pink-footed Geese nearby. They are incredibly wary when they are moulting and run/swim away from a vast distance. A couple of Great Skuas chased the Parasitic Jaegers off their island and we could at last look at some plants again, adding the under-whelming Pygmy Buttercup to our list. Arjen told his usual Svalbard forest jokes about hiding behind trees and climbing them in the event of a bear encounter etc. The Polar Willows are of course only a couple of centimetres tall. In the afternoon we cruised west to anchor again in the shelter of Holmiabukta. With another brief gap in the weather before the next depression was upon us we had a busy programme ahead. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Pink-footed Goose, King Eider, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope, Blacklegged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Thick-billed Murre (or Brünnich’s Guillemot), Little Auk, Black Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Pygmy Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) and Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), Red Phalarope, female in the Stasjonsøyane (Mike Watson).

27 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


King Eider, female in the Stasjonsøyane. A female King Eider away from her nest and without any ducklings at this time of year is always bad news (Mike Watson).

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29 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


17 July Fuglesongen A short hop across Fair Haven lies the little island of Fuglesongen, a huge lump of granite rising out of the sea and the last rock before the Arctic Ocean and ultimately the North Pole. Fuglesongen is often a tricky landing on a beach covered in large rounded and slippery rocks but on a lovely sunny and flat calm day it was a breeze this time. A short walk up the beach and around the southern tip of the island brought us to the Little Auk colonies. Once we were all in place amongst the rocky scree on the edge of the colony we waited for the auks to settle. This took a little longer than usual as Glaucous Gulls drifted past from time to time but eventually the birds accepted our presence and allowed a wonderful intimate close-up experience. Birds with full crops arrived fresh from the sea bringing mouthfuls of copopods to their partners and young deep in the gaps between the rocks. There were a couple of surprises at the end of our session, first of all two redpolls were seen, feeding on the flower heads at the base of the auk colony. They were juveniles with four rows of heavy streaks on their flanks and probably of the Greenland-breeding form rostrata. Next came a truly massive bull Walrus that hauled out on the rocks below us. Covered in green slime from the rocks of the beach it sported the big-

gest pair of tusks I have ever seen, so long they almost met at their tips. If they continue to grow, they will do soon! Clouds were gathering as we left and the sunny morning was becoming overcast to the south of us. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Glaucous Gull, Little Auk, Thickbilled Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Snow Bunting and Common Redpoll. Flora: Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum) and Polar Scurvygrass (Cochlearia groenlandica). Fuglesongen (‘Bird Song’). The Little Auk colonies can be seen as the paler grey areas of scree on the lower slopes of the island - they land on the rocks too often for the dark lichen to form! (Mike Watson). Previous page: Birdquest group fixed on something (Erin Grey) and below, Cruising west towards Holmiabukta aboard SV Noorderlicht. The paths leading up to lookout posts and crosses on the hillsides could be clearly seen - traces of the whaling industry, which was so active here from the early 17th century onwards (Mike Watson).

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31 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Smeerenburgfjorden Our next landing today was at Smeerenburgodden (‘Blubber Town Point’) on the island of Amsterdamøya. The mother and cub Polar Bears we saw three days earlier were still present on Danskøya but were quite far away. There were a few Walruses coming and going and we enjoyed some stunning close up views as they checked us out. The younger ones seemed particularly inquisitive. Also here were tiny cute fluffy Arctic Tern chicks in the colony amongst the driftwood, a couple of Red-throated Loons was on the lagoon behind the beach and a male Snow Bunting gathered insects. Smeerenburg was the site of a great Dutch whaling settlement in the early 17th century and was occupied in summer by upwards of 1000 people, mostly accommodated in tents. Walrus action at Smeerenburg! Page 32: Little Auks (Mike Watson).

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33 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


A little further south there was a new bear at the whale carcass just north of Krunglebukta, which had presumably displaced the mother and cub, who could now be seen nursing on a small hillock near Albertøya. The new bear was sleeping when we approached in SV Noorderlicht but after a while it woke up and wandered down to the whale carcass to eat some delicious matured dry blubber. Yeuch! Well there must be some nutritional value in it for the bears to continue to visit such a rank old pile of rotten meat. The bear did not stay too long and when it wandered back up the beach we continued on our way, to our anchorage for the night at Gravneset in Magdalenefjorden. Danskøya (‘The Dane’s Island’) was named after the whalers who started fishing in Kobbefjorden on its western coast in 1631. A stunning iceberg behind our boat caught the last rays of sunlight as well as the attention of our photographers. I watched it slip and eventually collapse, turning its blue base upside down. Magdalenefjorden was named after the biblical character Mary Magdalene.

Polar Bear at the dead Sperm Whale carcass on Danskøya Next page: crystal iceberg at Magdalenefjorden (Mike Watson).

Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Common Ringed Plover, Blacklegged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Black Guillemot and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Polar Bear, Walrus, Bearded Seal and Sperm Whale (dead). 34 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


35 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


36 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Long-tailed Jaeger at Blomstrandhalvøya. Next pages: Red-throated Loon and Barnacle Geese in Ny Ålesund (Mike Watson).

18 July Magdalenefjorden to Ny London The southwest swell of 15 July continued and ensured very bumpy progress south to Köngsfjorden where we made an afternoon landing at London in bright sunshine. A small flock of female Long-tailed Ducks was in Peirsonhamna was a bad sign of more failed breeders and both Ruddy Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers were on the beach here. A pair of Red-throated Loons was on a tundra pool above the bay but the highlight here was a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers that allowed stupidly close approach near their nest (which we only noticed when Holger looked down and saw a nearby fluffy chick!) – they are usually more vigorous in letting you know you are getting too close. We made a sharp exit once we realized what was going on. Blomstrandhalvøya means ‘Flower Beach Peninsula’ (literally ‘half island’) and we saw some nice plants here in the form of Drooping and Yellow Mountain Saxifrages on the limestone pavement. Ny London or ‘New London’ was an adopted name used as a joke by the Norwegians reffering to the failed marble mining attempt by Ernest Mansfield, quickly abandoned in 1920 - the marble here being of very poor quality. We also had a chance to investigate some of Mansfield’s mining artifacts, including some old boilers, the derrick crane and the ‘marble’ mine itself.

37 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


38 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


39 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Ny Ålesund Later we made the short journey across the fjord to Ny Ålesund, at 78.55 degrees north, the world’s northernmost community, where we moored on the jetty for the night. After evening meal we called in at the small settlement’s shop, where the fabulous white Polar Bear sweaters come from as well as visiting Amundsen’s airship pylon. This was used for both the 1926 and 1928 Norge and Italia expeditions, the latter of which ultimately resulted in the disappearance of Amundsen when his plane crashed somewhere near Bjornøya as he was trying to rescue his old rival and companion on the 1926 expedition Nobile. Formerly a rough mining settlement Ny Ålesund was named ‘New Ålesund’ after the mining company’s HQ in Ålesund, Norway but it is now a centre for polar research. A permanent population of 30-35 persons is increased in summer by researchers and technicians (from all over the world) to around 120. There was not much doing around the town birdwise apart from the usual delightful Barnacle Goose families and some nesting Common Ringed Plovers then as the fog rolled in from the sea we returned to the Noorderlicht where a flock of 23 King Eiders flew over and an Arctic Fox ran along the cliffs around the

harbor. No need to worry about Polar Bears in the town here, well not unless a 15 metres range encounter worries you, as the Harbour Master had experienced the previous day! The weather was due to deteriorate over the next 24 hours so we planned to linger in the relative shelter of Köngsfjorden. Birds: Barnacle Goose, King Eider, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Common Ringed Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox, Walrus and Harbour Seal. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix Polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Yellow Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides), Hairy Lousewort (Pedicularis hirsuita) and White Arctic Bell-heather (Cassiope tetragona). Amundsen’s airship pylon in Ny Ålesund and previous page: Amundsen himself (Mike Watson).

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19 July Köngsfjorden to Krossfjorden We had planned a landing at Ossian Sarsfjellet this morning but when we got there we were met by thick fog – we could barely see the top of the cliff. Clearly there was not enough visibility for a landing owing to the Polar Bear risk. We paused for a while, listened to the sound of the auks and kittiwakes and saw a couple of Arctic Foxes at the base of the bird cliff before we moved on. As we passed the Blomstrandbreen glacier face our third Ivory Gull flew past the Noorderlicht and away before everyone managed to get out of the saloon in time. They were proving difficult to connect with this year! A little further on a Bearded Seal was spotted in the glacier ice and happily it stayed put on its ice floe as we cruised right past it at close range. Excellent stuff! This was my best encounter so far with this large seal. As Arjen pointed out, it also had a characteristic reddish face, owing to activity in the iron-rich mud of Köngsfjorden. A pair of Long-tailed Jaegers was also here. After lunch we turned right into Krossfjorden and cruised as far as Cadiopynten, the spur at the junction of Lillihöökfjorden and Möllerfjorden. There is a bird cliff here, our first at eye level and a good substitute for Ossian. A little higher up into the mist there are cliff-nesting puffins! In the absence of sufficient turf to

Bearded Seal, Blomtsrandbreen (Mike Watson).

41 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Fjortende Julibukta (14th July Bay) (Erin Grey).

dig a burrow they nest on cliffs in Svalbard. It was still foggy but a little less so now as we cruised back south to the lovely Fjortende Julibukta (‘14th July Bay’, named after the French Bastille Day). We finally managed a landing here after our evening meal and enjoyed a nice walk along the beach past some Parasitic Jaegers to the famous ‘hanging gardens’. There was a lovely show of some very large plants here including Polar Dandelion and Drooping, Highland and Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrages. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Pink-footed Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Ivory Gull, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, Longtailed Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox, Bearded Seal and Northern Minke Whale. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix Polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga hieracifolia), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Highland Saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), Polar Dandelion (Taraxacum brachyceras) and Polar Scurvygrass (Cochlearis officinalis).

42 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


43 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


20 July Ossian Sarsfjellet After breakfast we set sail again for Ossian, the southeast wind had picked up overnight and swept away the fog revealing a lovely landscape of snowy peaks and glaciers stretching into the distance. Despite a lot of scanning we didn’t spot anything of great interest in Köngsfjorden but at least we could now land at Ossian. As well as an impressive bird cliff, it is a flower reserve and we added some new species to our trip list including Nodding Lychnis (or Polar Campion, with its nodding miniature Chinese lantern calyx), Dwarf Golden Saxifrage, the impressive Woolly Lousewort and the recently described ‘Arctic’ Buttercup Ranunculus arcticus - it doesn’t have an English name yet. We were also able to descend a little way down the cliffs to watch the kittiwakes and Thick-billed Murres nesting on the ledges there at close range. Our closest reindeer so far delighted and a Long-tailed Jaeger flew over – we have seen them here before and wonder if they might be breeding nearby? Just as we returned to the shore a pair of Rock Ptarmigans walked by and helpfully posed for

millions of photos, the Svalbard birds really are massive in comparison to their continental form. They even waited until the passengers from the Rembrandt Van Rijn arrived and took over from us. Finally an Arctic Fox was seen chewing someone’s life jacket on the beach before making off. This was another classic visit to Ossian. We anchored this evening at Blomstrandbreen, in the shadow of the glacier’s calving face and while drinking whisky on the (10,000 years old glacier ice) rocks, Warren picked out an Ivory Gull feeding there amongst the kittiwakes and terns. Then there were two…and later four! This was a welcome opportunity to spend a much longer period of time watching them and even though they remained out of range of the DSLRs it was a magical experience for some. Georg Ossian Sars (18371927!) was a Norwegian zoologist who made several expeditions to Svalbard in the late 19th century. Rock Ptarmigan, male at Ossian Sarsfjellet (Mike Watson) and previous page: Northern Fulmar and sailing aboard SV Noorderlicht (Erin Grey).

44 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


45 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


46 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Woolly Lousewort, Ossian Sarsfjellet - a range-restricted High Arctic speciality, which only grows elsewhere in Novaya Zemlya and the Jamal Peninsula of Siberia. Page 48: Polar Campion (above), Dwarf Golden Saxifrage, page 49: Thick-billed Murres (Mike Watson) and page 50: Long-tailed Skua and Northern Fulmar (Malcolm Parrack).

Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Rock Ptarmigan, Northern Fulmar, Purple Sandpiper, Black-legged Kittiwake, Ivory Gull, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox, Bearded Seal and Reindeer. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria dygna), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Fringed Sandwort (Arenaria pseudofrigida), ‘Arctic’ Buttercup (Ranunculus arcticus), Pygmy Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus), Arctic White Campion (Silene involucrate furcata), Polar Campion (Silene uralensis), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Polar Scurvygrass (Cochlearia groenlandica), Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis), Yellow Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Bluff Cinquefoil (Potentilla chamissonis), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), Arctic White Bell-heather (Cassiope tetragona), Woolly Lousewort (Pedicularis dasyantha), Polar Dandelion (Taraxacum brachyceras), Dwarf Golden-saxifrage (Chrysoplenium tetrandrum) and Whitlow-grass sp (Draba sp.).

47 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Mitra dominates the entrance to Krossfjorden/Kรถngsfjorden and is always a welcome sight to sailors (Mike Watson). Below: Calving event at Blomstrandbreen (Erin Grey). 48 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


49 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


21 July Blomstrandbreen to Recherchefjorden Guess what? There was yet another depression on the way and if we wanted to get to Bellsund on this trip we had to make a move quickly now. We set sail at midnight and were around the Kvadehuken (‘Bad Corner’) by 2am and well on our way. After another very bumpy 17 hours and 45 minutes our excellent crew had made it to Recherchebreen on the southern shore of Bellsund. We even had time for an evening landing on the shore south of Asbestodden, where Arjen quickly spotted some Net-leaved Willow just above the beach. Although widespread in the archipelago, this is not a species that we see very often in Svalbard. The tundra here was very flowery with almost 20 species of plants and we also saw some approachable Purple Sandpipers and Reindeer.

chlearia groenlandica), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga hieracifolia), Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifrage hirculus), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), Whitlow-grass sp (Draba sp.), Polar Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus) and Polar Cress (Cardamine pratensis augustifolia). A ‘forest’ of Net-leaved Willow trees, Recherchefjorden. Previous page: Stuphallet at the mouth of Köngsfjorden, a good example of green fertilized tundra below bird cliffs (Mike Watson).

Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Purple Sandpiper, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Reindeer. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Net-leaved Willow (Salix reticulata), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria dygna), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Fringed Sandwort (Arenaria pseudofrigida), Pygmy Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Polar Scurvygrass (Co50 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


22 July Rubypynten to Recherchebreen The weather today was forecast to be quite nice before turning windier overnight and so it proved to be the case. We made a morning landing near Rubypynten and hiked to the lake at the face of the enormous Recherchebreen glacier. Common Ringed Plovers and Purple Sandpipers both had chicks here, so far avoiding the attention of a nearby pair of Parasitic Jaegers. Snow Buntings were also busy feeding young along the shore and a shy Arctic Fox scuttled off and away from us. A couple of frisky Reindeers ran by, one of them leaping like a gazelle, I haven’t seen this behavior before. For no apparent reason? The only evidence of Polar Bears was some old footprints in the mud, now weeks old. The ice floes of the glacial lake itself had built up in a corner, where a Bearded Seal was hauled out and kittiwakes were bathing in a freshwater pool. This is always a lovely hike and it ended with a grand finale of a young Arctic Fox that trotted along the beach and right up to us. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Common Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Blacklegged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox, Bearded Seal and Reindeer.

Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria dygna), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Fringed Sandwort (Arenaria pseudofrigida), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga hieracifolia), Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifrage hirculus), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Yellow Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) and Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala).

Arctic Fox, Fagerbukta (Robert Davidson), next page: Recherchebreen glacier lake (Cliff Hensel).

51 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


52 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Akseløya The afternoon landing at Akseløya also went to plan. We landed on the eastern shore and walked up across the tundra, seeing numerous Purple Sandpipers along the way. However, it was the Red Phalaropes that stole the show here. We estimated around 30, including a male tending a small chick. Some were commuting between the tundra pools and the shore, where we had some great looks at them, feeding unconcerned, again only a few feet away. Then followed an extensive search for Whiplash or Polar Stoloniferous Saxifrage (or Spider Plant), the other star of Akseløya. After much stomping around in the vertical rock strata ‘pathways’ some Spider Plants were found by Anne and Amy. Both amazing efforts! It appeared they had not flowered yet, ah well! The walk to our pick up point was livened by a couple of pairs of Great Skuas, in addition to Parasitic Jaegers and when we reached the beach there were some more Red Phalaropes and a Ruddy Turnstone flew by. At the eastern end of the island is a group of huts occupied by the well-known local trapper Tommy Sandal, who keeps the traditional of over-wintering alive here. We anchored in the shelter of Akseløya this evening. The 8km

long by 1km-wide island was named after the schooner ‘Aksel Thordsen’ of Tromsø, which was chartered by A. E. Nordeskiöld’s 1864 expedition. On a rather sad note we found a dead Barnacle Goose (probably predated), which was wearing a darvic ring White NA. It had been ringed as an adult female at Marvagtjorna, a lake between Bellsund and Isfjorden, on 25 July 2015 and had been seen in Scotland on the Solway Firth on 2 February 2016. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Northern Fulmar, Ruddy Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Black Guillemot and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Harbour Seal. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria dygna), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifrage hirculus), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Yellow Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides). Whiplash Saxifrage (or Polar Stoloniferous Saxifrage or Spider Plant) (Saxifraga flagellaris) and Whitlow-grass sp. (Draba sp.). Red Phalarope (Mike Watson), next page, vertical rock strata on Akseløya (Cliff Hensel).

53 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


54 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


23 July Akseløya to Alkhornet Again the weather forecast was pretty accurate. We woke to white caps in the fjord and the beach of Ingeborfjellet, on which we had hoped to land was now too exposed to the sou’wester. Our plan B was to battle through it back to Isfjorden and I will be happy not to experience the waves breaking over the bow while going out of Bellsund again. As we cruised north the southwesterly swell was still hitting us on the port side but eventually the wind eased as so did the swell. We made an afternoon landing at Trygghamna from where we hiked to the tundra below the famous bird cliff at Alkhornet. The lush boggy tundra here has been fertilized for thousands of years by seabird guano. This was another 20+ plant species landing and notable flora included several Polar Campion and seven species of saxifrage. There were a few auk chicks jumping today but until their numbers grow, this forlorn hope is doomed to end up in the stomachs of the Glaucous Gulls waiting along the shore. Just a few metres away from the tiny stream where I rescued one last year there was another hapless Thick-billed Murre chick with not a parent in sight. It was fending off a pair of Glaucous Gulls and our folks wanted to give it a chance. However, with no adults to help it there was no

chance it would survive for long and soon after I released it the inevitable happened. Well at least it survived a little longer than last year’s and it got to experience swimming and diving for a few minutes after weeks on a smelly nesting ledge. It was still a sad end but as Arjen reminded us, the young Glaucous Gulls need to eat too. On a happier note the Reindeer at Alkhornet are crazy tame and allowed some very close approach. In the evening we cruised across Isfjorden to Colesbukta, our sheltered anchorage for the night. Birds: Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Skua, Little Auk, Thick-billed Murre, Atlantic Puffin and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox and Reindeer. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Fringed Sandwort (Arenaria pseudofrigida), Sulphur-coloured Buttercup (Ranunculus sulphureus), Pygmy Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Polar Campion (Silene uralensis), Polar Cress (Cardamine pratensis augustifolia), Polar Scurvygrass (Cochlearia groenlandica), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga hieracifolia), Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis), Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifrage hirculus compacta), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Highland Saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Polar Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus) and Whitlow-grass sp. (Draba sp.).

Polar Campion (Mike Watson).

55 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


24 July Colesbukta The Russian coal mine at Colesbukta was abandoned in 1967 and its surroundings have gone back to nature. We enjoyed a very productive zodiac landing here, our last of the tour. New plants included Arctic Chickweed, Snow and High Northern Buttercups on the boggy tundra inland of the beach and just above the tideline amongst the driftwood were several Oysterplants, one of vey few plants in the High Arctic with blue flowers. Another one, the beautiful Boreal Jacob’s Ladder was also here, found not far from the old mine buildings by Warren. This prompted a manic plant twitch for those who were about to get on the next zodiac back to the ship. An Arctic Fox den was still occupied and we saw a couple of delightful cubs sitting by it in the sun, a parent calling from the hillside nearby was presumably trying to encourage them to stay underground instead. Birds included a flock of 10 Long-tailed Ducks, a moulting flock of Barnacle Geese, four Dunlins, some of which were song flighting, Common Ringed Plover and a couple of Purple Sandpipers feeding by the shore. Birds: Barnacle Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Northern Fulmar, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot and Snow Bunting. Mammals: Arctic Fox and Reindeer. Flora: Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Fringed Sandwort (Arenaria pseudofrigida), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Arctic Chickweed (Stellaria humifusa), Boreal Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium boreale), Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima), Snow Buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis), High Northern Buttercup (Ranunculus hyperborea), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Polar Cress (Cardamine pratensis augustifolia), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga hieracifolia), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Highland Saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), Arctic Cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri arcticum), Polar Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus) and Whitlow-grass sp. (Draba sp.). Boreal Jacob’s Ladder (above) and Oysterplant at Colesbuktathere are very few plants in the Arctic with blue flowers! (Mike Watson).

56 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Soviet era post-industrial decay at Colesbukta (Mike Watson).

57 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Longyearbyen We moored at Longyearbyen harbor and while Menthe prepared his masterpiece, we went for a walk in the afternoon sun up Longyeardalen, past the church and towards Huset. Purple Sandpipers and Snow Buntings both had chicks here as did a lovely female Rock Ptarmigan, six in fact, right next to the road. We could also see the blue blooms of some Boreal Jacob’s Ladders still flowering high up on the cliffs. So ended our last wildlife excursion and we walked back via the shops of Longyearbyen (well I’ve seen Ivory Gull in the main street there before, although not since 2012). Birds: Barnacle Goose, Common Eider, Rock Ptarmigan, Common Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Tern and Snow Bunting. Flora: Polar Field Horsetail (Equesitum arvense borealis), Polar Willow (Salix polaris), Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara), Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arcticum), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Svalbard Poppy (Papaver dahlianun polare), Drooping Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala), White Arctic Bell-heather (Cassiope tetragona), Whitlow-grass sp (Draba sp), Arctic Cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri arcticum) and Polar Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus).

Finally thanks to everyone who made this tour such a success, despite having to overcome some significant bad weather, our excellent and very enthusiastic group as well as the magnificent crew of SV Noorderlicht, Captain Flores, First Mate Jeroen van Zal, Second Mate Flores (also Captain!), Ship’s Cook Menthe Groefsema and our expedition leader Arjen Drost, without whose knowledge and expertise in Svalbard we would certainly not have done as well as we did. We’ll be back again in 2018.

The real star of the show, SV Noorderlicht in Fagerbukta (Mike Watson).

58 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Purple Sandpiper, Longyearbyen (Mike Watson).

SYSTEMATIC LIST OF BIRD SPECIES RECORDED DURING THE TOUR The species names and taxonomy used in the report mostly follows Gill, F & D Donsker (Eds). IOC World Bird Names. This list is updated several times annually and is available at http://www.worldbirdnames.org. Species which were heard but not seen are indicated by the symbol (H). Species which were only recorded by the leader are indicated by the symbol (LO). Species which were not personally recorded by the leader are indicated by the symbol (NL). Species marked with the diamond symbol (◊) are either endemic to the country or local region or considered ‘special’ birds for some other reason (e.g. it is only seen on one or two Birdquest tours; it is difficult to see across all or most of its range; the local form is endemic or restricted-range and may in future be treated as a full species). Conservation threat categories and information are taken from Threatened Birds of the World, BirdLife International’s magnificent book on the sad status of the rarest 10% of the world’s avifauna, and updates on the BirdLife website: http://www.birdlife.org/ datazone/home E = Endangered, V = Vulnerable, NT = Near Threatened, DD = Data Deficient. Brant Goose ◊ Branta bernicla Two pairs Moffen Island. Ssp hrota (‘Pale-bellied Brent Goose’). Barnacle Goose ◊ Branta leucopsis Noted throughout, many with small goslings. Pink-footed Goose ◊ Anser brachyrhynchus First noted at Forlandsundet. Maximum c.300 Stasjonsøyane. King Eider ◊ Somateria spectabilis A total of 39 logged, the first at Longyearbyen. Common Eider Somateria mollissima Common throughout. NT Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis A toal of 30 logged, the first at Longyearbyen. VU Rock Ptarmigan ◊ Lagopus muta A pair at Ossian and a female with 6 chicks at Longyeardalen. Ssp hyperborea. Red-throated Loon (R-t Diver) Gavia stellata A scatter of sightings, the first at Longyearbyen. Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Abundant throught. Our constant companion at sea. Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Noted at five sites, the first at Longyearbyen. Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Eleven logged, the first at Moffen. A high total for this tour. 59 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Sanderling Calidris alba One in breeding plumage at Sarstangen. Purple Sandpiper ◊ Calidris maritima A common breeding bird throughout. Maximum c.30 Akseløya. Dunlin Calidris alpina Three at Longyearbyen and four Colesbukta. Red Phalarope ◊ Phalaropus fulicarius 49 logged was a high total for this tour. The first was at Sarstangen. Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla Abundant throughout. Ivory Gull ◊ Pagophila eburnea A total of 7 logged, the first in the pack ice was at 80.13.32N, 13.21.47E. NT Sabine’s Gull ◊ Xerna sabini 2-3 at Moffen. Great Black-backed Gull Larus maritima Eight Daudmannsodden and one at Sarstangen in Forlandsundet. Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus Common throughout. European Herring Gull ◊ Larus argentatus One for some at Poolepynten. (NL) Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus A pair at Moffen was probably of the Siberian-breeding ssp heuglini. Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Common throughout. Great Skua ◊ Stercorarius skua A total of 33 logged. Pomarine Jaeger (P Skua) Stercorarius pomarinus An adult flew past SV Noorderlicht near Alkhornet. Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) Stercorarius parasiticus A total of 73 logged. Long-tailed Jaeger (L-t Skua) Stercorarius longicaudus Eight in Köngsfjorden including one chick. Little Auk ◊ (Dovekie) Alle alle Abundant. We visited the colony at Fuglesongen. Thick-billed Murre ◊ Uria lomvia Abundant. Black Guillemot ◊ Cepphus grylle Common throughout. Ssp mandtii. Atlantic Puffin ◊ Fratercula arctica Common throughout, maximum daily estimate c.50 towards Fair Haven. VU Snow Bunting ◊ Plectrophenax nivalis Common throughout. Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea Two at Fuglesongen. A rarity in Svalbard. Probably ssp rostrata. Black Guillemot mandtii ssp. Next page: Pink-footed Geese and Red Phalarope (Jan-Åke Alvarsson).

60 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


61 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Mammmals Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus A total of 15 logged. Polar Bear Thalartos maritimus A total of 12 sightings, of 10 individuals. VU Walrus Odebenus rosmanus A total of c.200 estimated, seen on seven days. VU Harbour Seal (Common S) Phoca vitulina 13 logged was a higher total than usual. Ringed Seal Pusa hispida One for Warren in the Pack Ice and another towards Woodfjorden. Bearded Seal Erignathus barbatus A total of 10 logged, the best sighting was at Blomstrandbreen. Northern Minke Whale (Minke W) Balaenoptera acutorostrata A total of 11 logged. Blue Whale Baleonoptera musculus Four seen in Forlandsundet plus another distant blow off Isfjorden. EN Fin Whale Baleonoptera physalus One at almost 80 degrees SW of Moffen. EN Beluga (White Whale) Delphinapterus leucas One at Danskøya. NT Caribou (Reindeer) Rangifer tarandus A scatter of sightings throughout, maximum 20 at Alkhornet.

Reindeer, Ossian Sarsfjellet. Previous page: Snow Bunting, Longyearbyen and Common Redpoll, Fuglesongen (Mike Watson).

62 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


‘Arctic’ Buttercup (and Drooping Saxifrage), Ossian Sarsfjellet (Mike Watson). Vascular Plants Polar Field Horsetail Equisetum arvense borealis Noted at Longyearbyen. Polar Willow Salix polaris Common, the first at Longyearbyen. Net-leaved Willow Salix reticulata Noted only at Recherchefjorden. Alpine Bistort Bistorta vivipara Common in the ‘High Arctic Polar Willow Zone’. Mountain Sorrel Oxyria digyna Common in the ‘High Arctic Polar Willow Zone’. Fringed Sandwort Arenaria pseudofrigida Noted at five sites, the first at Ossian Sarsfjellet. Arctic Mouse-ear Chickweed Cerasticum arcticum Common on Spitsbergen but absent from Nordaustlandet. Arctic Chickweed Stellaria humifusa Noted only at Colesbukta. Arctic White Campion (Arctic Lychnis) Silene furcata Noted only at Longyearbyen. Moss Campion Silene acaulis Common in the ‘High Arctic Polar Willow Zone’ – the compass on the top of the world. Polar Campion (Nodding Lychnis) Silene uralensis Noted only at Ossian Sarsfjellet and Alkhornet. Pygmy Buttercup Ranunculus pygmaeus Noted on four landings. Snow Buttercup Ranunculus nivalis Noted only at Colesbukta. Sulphur-coloured Buttercup Ranunculs sulphurus Noted only at Alkhornet. ‘Arctic’ Buttercup Ranunculus arcticus Noted only at Ossian Sarsfjellet - a recently described species. Svalbard Poppy Papaver dahlianum polare Noted only in Isfjorden. Polar Cress (Cuckooflower) Cardamine pratensis augustifolia Noted at Recherchefjorden, Alkhornet and Colesbukta. Polar Scurvygrass Cochlearia groenlandica A scatter throughout, even on the most barren tundra. Whitlow-grass sp. Draba sp. A scatter of whitlow-grasses noted but none examined. Dwarf Golden-saxifrage Chrysosplenium tetrandum Noted only at Ossian Sarsfjellet. Hawkweed-leaved Saxifrage Micranthes hieracifolia Noted 14Julibukta, Recherchefjorden, Alkhornet and Colesbukta. Alpine Saxifrage Micranthes nivalis Noted at Ossian and Alkhornet. Highland Saxifrage (Brook S) Saxifraga rivularis Noted at 14 Julibukta, Ossian and Alkhornet. Purple Saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia Common throughout. Yellow Mountain Saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides Noted at Blömstrandhalvøya, Ossian and Recherchefjorden. Drooping Saxifrage Saxifraga cernua Common throughout, nice shows on Krossøya and at Ny London. Tufted Saxifrage Saxifraga cespitosa Common throughout,. Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Bog S) Saxifraga hirculus Nice shows at Longyearbyen, Recherchefjorden and Alkahornet. Whiplash Saxifrage (Polar Stoloniferous S, Spider Plant) Saxifraga platysepala Noted only on Akseløya. 63 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com


Bluff Cinquefoil Potentilla chamissonis Noted only at Ossian Sarsfjellet. Arctic Cinquefoil Potentilla hyparctica Noted at Longyearbyen. Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala Common in the west. White Arctic Bell-heather Cassiope tetragona Common. Oysterplant Mertensia maritima Noted only at Colesbukta. Boreal Jacob’s-ladder Polemonium boreale Noted at Colesbukta and Longyearbyen, in full flower this time! Woolly Lousewort Pedicularis dasyantha Noted only at Ossian Sarsfjellet, still in flower. Hairy Lousewort Pedicularis hirsuta First noted at Blomstrandhalvøya Polar Dandelion Taraxacum brachyceras Noted only at 14 Julibukta and Ossian Sarsfjellet. Arctic Cottongrass Eriophorum scheuchzeri Noted only at Longyearbyen and Colesbukta. Polar Foxtail Alopecurus borealis Noted at several rich tundra sites.

Alpine Saxifrage, Ossian (left) and Tufted Saxifrage, Ny Ålesund (Mike Watson)

64 BirdQuest/Wild Images Tour Report: Spitsbergen (Svalbard): A Polar Wilderness 2017 www.birdquest-tours.com

Spitsbergen 17 (Wild Images)  

A Wild Images wildlife tour report from Spitsbergen 2017.

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