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Introductory Chapter: Seabird Occurrence in the Open Arctic Sea during the Breeding Season

Written By

Heimo Mikkola

Submitted: April 19th, 2018 Published: September 5th, 2018

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.78533

From the Edited Volume


Edited by Heimo Mikkola

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1. Introduction

I undertook my first long sea voyage between June 21 and July 1, 1965 from Tromsø, Norway, to Spitzbergen-Svalbard (only Spitzbergen used from now onward), and back. Tromsø city is 350 km north of the Arctic Circle [1] and the southern tip of Spitzbergen is 660 km from the North Cape [2]. Bear Island is halfway between Spitzbergen and the N-Norway [3]. My destination for a 1 week stay was Kapp Linné at the entrance of Isforden, the second largest fjord in Spitzbergen. It lies on the west side of the archipelago, which is about midway between Norway and the North Pole. Kapp Linné’s coordinates are 78°03′44.7″ N and 13°37′04.0″ E and it is named after the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné [4]. This site used to be the location of Isfjord radio and weather station, which operated from 1933 until 1999 when it was automated and depopulated. During my visit, however, the station still had eight staff members who proved to be extremely helpful and knowledgeable concerning the birdlife and the polar bears. Nowadays, parts of Kapp Linné are a bird sanctuary, which may not be visited between May 15 and August 15.


2. Material and methods

During the slow steamboat trip, all seabirds that were sighted around the vessel were recorded during 15-minutes/each hours [5]. The bird count was mainly undertaken by myself but during my short breaks for rest and refreshments the observations were undertaken by four of my fellow birdwatchers: E. Kotanen, J. Salokoski, P. Susiluoto, and O. Toivonen. According to the captain, the average speed of the boat was 11 nautical miles/hour (NM = nautical mile = 1852 m), which was used to calculate the distances for the seabird observations (Table 1). To avoid any confusion, it is important to note that Table 1 lists only birds within the 15-minute observation periods/hour during the sea trip from Tromsø to Kapp Linné in Spitzbergen. Seabird species seen in Kapp Linné during the last week of June 1965 are listed in Table 2.

Species Coastal waters of Norway (only) Norway coast and largest distance Bear island waters and largest distance Spitzbergen coast and largest distance Total number recorded
Somateria mollissima Yes Yes Yes 61
Alca torda Yes 36 None None 69
Stercorarius parasiticus None 60 100 12
Larus argentatus 60 None None 151
Larus marinus 50 65 None 5
Larus hyperboreus None 22 35 11
Larus fuscus Yes None None None Several
Larus canus Yes None None None Several
Sterna paradisaea Yes None None Several
Uria aalge Yes Yes None 44
Uria lomvia None Yes Yes 122
Uria sp. None Yes None 380
Cepphus grylle Yes Yes More than before 50
Fratercula arctica 80 None A few only 465
Fulmarus glacialis 30 First seen Yes Yes 300
Rissa tridactyla Yes Yes Yes 312
Alle alle None 33 After first seen Yes 277

Table 1.

Occurrence of seabirds on steamship trip from Tromsø, Norway to Kapp Linné, Spitzbergen June 21–24, 1965.

Species Kapp Linné Bird mountain Bird island
Gavia stellata 2 pairs 2
Fulmarus glacialis Over 30 50
Clangula hyemalis 4–5 pairs 1 pair +1
Melanitta nigra 1 pair +1
Somateria mollissima 340 pairs 76 pairs
Somateria spectabilis 12 pairs 18 pairs
Anser brachyrhynchus 10
Branta bernicla 12
Arenaria interpres 2 pairs
Calidris maritima Over 100 5
Calidris alpina 10
Phalaropus fulicarius 10 6 5
Stercorarius parasiticus 1 pair 3 1 pair
Stercorarius pomarinus 1 pair +1
Larus hyperboreus 13 20 15
Rissa tridactyla Over 50 Ca. 1000
Sterna paradisaea 100
Alle alle Many
Uria lomvia Many
Cepphus grylle 1 2
Fratercula arctica 1 2

Table 2.

Seabird records from Kapp Linné and nearby bird mountain and bird island, Spitzbergen from June 24–28, 1965.


3. Results by species

Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) occurred only in the coastal waters, the last five were seen 2 hours after passing Fugleøya just at the beginning of the open sea. Only once was a single male seen in the open sea near the ridged ice edge between Spitzbergen and Bear Island. Although common eider was not sighted more frequently from the ship, it is a very common breeding bird in Bear Island and Spitzbergen. In Kapp Linné alone I counted 163 pairs in a lagoon area and 168 pairs close to the Isfjord radio station.

Razorbill (Alca torda) occurs mainly in the coastal waters and was not seen further north than 4 hours from Fugleøya, and 33 NM from the Norwegian mainland.

Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) is also called the Parasitic Jaeger. Like the previous species, it prefers coastal waters, but it was also sometimes spotted out on the open sea. Before arriving at Bear Island, single Arctic Skuas were spotted twice in the open sea some 60 NM from land, and individual birds were even noted some 100 NM from the land between Bear Island and Spitsbergen. Arctic Skuas occurred in all study sites in Spitzbergen (Table 2).

European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) was following the ship until 60 NM from the Norwegian mainland but did not occur within Bear Island or Spitzbergen waters.

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) was not seen in the waters between Bear Island and Spitzbergen but some birds were following the ship until some 50 NM from the Norwegian coast and a single gull appeared behind the ship some 65 NM from Bear Island.

Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) clearly replaced the great black-backed gull within Bear Island and Spitzbergen waters but it did not follow the ship as eagerly. The first Glaucous Gull was noted 22 NM from the Bear Island and 35 NM from the Spitzbergen coastline. These distances seem to indicate that the species is not too fond of the open sea.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) and Common Gull (Larus canus) were following the ship only in the fjord area after leaving and before arriving at Tromsø harbor.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) was only sighted once from the ship some 11 NM from Tromsø when still not in the open sea. It is a common breeding bird in Bear Island and Spitzbergen but obviously sticks mostly near the shoreline during the breeding season. They are obviously not attracted to passing ships in the same manner as the gulls.

Common Guillemot (Uria aalge) is also called the Common Murre. It occurred everywhere until Bear Island and was observed in each count period but was not sighted at all in Spitzbergen waters.

Brűnnich’s Guillemot (Uria lomvia) is also named the Thick-billed Murre. It lives mainly in Spitzbergen waters and was sighted in each observation period.

Common or Brűnnich’s Guillemot (Uria sp.) seemingly filled the waters near Bear Island. Within 30–60 NM out from the island small flocks appeared to be everywhere. Single unidentified guillemots were seen all around Bear Island during each observation period.

Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle) is also named Tystie. It was constantly sighted during the whole trip and often in pairs, even in the open sea but was clearly more common in Spitzbergen coastal waters than the open sea.

Common Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is also called the Atlantic Puffin. It was seen often beyond 80 NM from the Norwegian coast but was not recorded in the Bear Island waters and only rarely sighted on the Spitsbergen coast. However, the species breeds commonly both on Bear Island and Spitzbergen.

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) was the only bird recorded within every counting period after reaching the open sea from the Norwegian coast. The first fulmars were sighted some 30 NM from the coast and after that between 1 and 30 birds were seen in every 15-minute period until landing at Kapp Linné, Spitzbergen.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) like the previous species is one that was recorded in all except one hourly count during the trip. Copious numbers were recorded near Bear Island (up to 80 birds per count) and the influence of Bear Island already started to impact the numbers some 100 NM from the island. The largest number of kittiwakes, however, was recorded during the last hour count on the coast of Spitzbergen (100 birds).

Little Auk (Alle alle) is also called the Dovekie. It was observed only shortly after the leaving the Bear Island and Spitzbergen coastal waters where the species was clearly more numerous than before. Tens of the birds started to be seen 36 NM before the coast of Spitzbergen.

Table 2 shows 21 seabird species recorded in the Kapp Linné area. In Spitzbergen, there are no real birds of prey or owls as there are no small mammals for them to eat. It is obvious that Glaucous Gull and skuas replace predatory birds in Spitzbergen as they eat other seabird eggs and young.


4. Discussion

Arctic open waters, far away from any land area, is preferred by only a few seabird species, such as guillemots, kittiwakes, and fulmars, which were observed practically everywhere during the trip. It is interesting that the most common open water seabirds were guillemots, which have the highest flight cost, for their body size, of any animal [6]. Brűnnich’s Guillemot, Little Auk, and Glaucous Gull were only seen within Spitzbergen waters, while Common, Herring, great and lesser black-backed gulls and Razorbill occurred in the coastal waters of N-Norway.


  1. 1. Wikipedia. Tromsø. 2018a,ø. [Accessed May 10, 2018]
  2. 2. Wikipedia. Svalbard. 2018b, [Accessed May 10, 2018]
  3. 3. Wikipedia. Bear Island (Norway). 2018c, [Accessed May 10, 2018]
  4. 4. Stange, R. Kapp Linne. 2013, information/settlements- and stations/kapp-linne.html. [Accessed May 10, 2018]
  5. 5. Mikkola, H. Merilintujen esiintymisestä avomerellä pesimisaikaan. 1965, Molekyyli 22: 107-108
  6. 6. Elliott KH, Ricklefs RE, Gaston AJ, Hatch SA, Speakman JR, Davoren GK. High flight costs and low dive costs support the biomechanical hyphothesis for flightlessness in penguins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2013;110(23):9380-9384. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1304838110

Written By

Heimo Mikkola

Submitted: April 19th, 2018 Published: September 5th, 2018