Over winter Svalbard is pretty much a bird free zone. The only land bird you are likely to encounter is the Ptarmigan and the sea birds leave their nesting colonies and head out to sea. Come the spring the birds return, each to their preferred habitat.
The birds that dominate the inshore waters are the Auks.
The most numerous representative of the group is the Little Auk of which there are more than a million pairs.
These guys nest in scree on fairly step slopes not necessarily at the edge of the sea. The other common Auks are Brünnich’s Guillemot and the Black Guillemot. These both favour cliff ledges for their nesting sites.
Take a closer look …
Auks propel themselves under water with their wings. Water is 784 times more dense than air. To be efficient in water wings need to be stiffer and smaller. Auks do not fly well, Brünnich’s Guillemot has the highest wing loading and energy cost for flight of any bird. The ability to catch fish comes at a price. Nonetheless they make repeated flights to and from the sea to feed their young during the breeding season.For more detailed information see <HERE>.
This must be close to the limit of what is possible for a dual purpose wing. The now extinct Great Auk was flightless.
Sitting on an ice floe the Guillemots look remarkably like penguins. It is likely that the ancestor of penguins was rather like an auk. Once the species crossed the boundary and became flightless the body size could increase and the wing could become relatively smaller, stiffer and more flipper-like. Coexistence with a predator like the Arctic Fox presents a challenge that Penguins don’t need to face. Access to cliff faces is much easier if you can fly.
The next most common auk is the Black Guillemot distinguished by the white wing flash and bright red feet, very handsome …
Puffins are present in small numbers …
Common Guillemots are also said to occur but we did not encounter any.
The Northern Fulmar is a tubenose (Procellariiform) which glides almost effortlessly through the air and uses its momentum to plunge to shallow depths after its food. Almost the exact opposite strategy to the auks.
Gulls and Skuas are also far more accomplished in the air than auks. The Black-legged Kittiwake is the most numerous gull. Like the guillemots it nests on steep cliffs usually at the higher levels.
The commonest large gull is the Glaucous Gull. This one is getting stuck into a guillemot carcass.
They are common around nesting cliffs where they take eggs and young and there always seems to be one around a Polar Bear hoping to share in the spoils. They don’t get it all their own way though …
The Great Skua has a similar diet and is even bigger and nastier than the gulls. It is mostly found around the nesting cliffs.
It has a smaller and more aerobatic cousin, the Arctic Skua, that is a specialist kleptoparasite. It harasses other seabirds until they disgorge the food they are carrying back to their young. The skua then catches it in mid-air. You can experience what it’s like for their victims by venturing near their nest.