There are six breeding species of waterfowl in Svalbard. This includes the three ducks: the long-tailed duck, the common eider and the king eider. The common eider is most easily seen, since it is the most abundant and often nests in easily observed colonies. Eiders may also nest close to houses, like tame birds. The most spectacular of all birds on Svalbard is probably the king eider. The male has a colorful head and bill that lights up the harsh, arctic landscape.
The barnacle goose and the pink-footed goose are doing quite well on Svalbard, with about 90,000 breeding pairs. The pink-footed goose is the largest and can defend its young against arctic foxes and egg thieves better than other birds. In the beginning of the 1900s, the brant goose was a common bird on the west side of Spitsbergen, but reduced food availability in the wintering areas has greatly reduced their numbers.King and common eiders flying above the fjord on Spitsbergen, with our expedition ship in the background. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) and king eider (Somateria spectabilis) both regularly breed in Svalbard. A third eider species, the steller’s eider (Polysticta stellerii) is a rare visitor that sometimes can also breed there. However the common eider is by far the most common species.
Eider down is considered one of the most insulating materials in the world, and in historical times was an important resource. Along the mainland coast on Norway there were many islands that people adapted in an attempt to encourage eiders to breed there. Such colonies could be of significant size. In 1914, 2451 kg of eider down was imported from Svalbard to Norway. This is equivalent of 82 000 nests’ worth of down. Today there are only small scale down collection in Svalbard and costs around 80 Euros per kilogram.
Eiders are often so eager to lay their eggs, that they can lay in other eiders’ and sometimes even other species’ nests. In Svalbard this usually means eider laying their eggs in barnacle goose nests. As a result it is not uncommon to see eider ducklings in goose families grazing on the tundra! If the eider ‘duckling’ is not adopted by an eider family it tends to die as it has very different food requirements to goslings.
Eiders tend to breed very close to human settlements, for example in Longyearbyen. This serves to protect them from arctic foxes and other land predators that are more afraid of people.
Common eider males leave as soon as the egg laying period has finished. The females on the other hand, congregate in flocks and help each other in chick-rearing. These creches can comprise more than a hundred ducklings. The care-givers are both their biological parents and immature females, as well as failed breeders.
Common eiders loose around 40% of their body weight during egg incubation. They primarily use their fat storages which also means the release of fat-based pollutants in to their body.
Common eider females can swim more than 20 km from the nesting site to the chick rearing site.
A pair of king eider flying low over the water in a fjord on Spitsbergen. The drake is one of the most colorful birds in Svalbard. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
The long-tailed duck often benefits from breeding near other aggressive species, like the arctic tern. Long-tailed ducks in Svalbard are therefore often found near arctic tern colonies because they chase predators away.
Long-tailed duck are amongst deepest duck divers in the world, reaching depths of 60 metres.
Relative to other ducks the long-tailed duck spends the most time under water.
Most ducks have two moulting seasons per year however the long-tailed duck has three, explaining why its plumage is so variable.
While not studied specifically in long tailed ducks, studies of other species have shown that large ornaments such as extra long tail feathers found in other long-tailed birds, are an important indicator of male strength. The longer the tail, the higher status allowing him to mate with more females. In the South African seed eater, the long-tailed widow bird, the tail can grow so long that when wet, the male can lose his ability to fly.
A male long-tailed duck is taking off from the water on the east coast of Spitsbergen. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
In Svalbard there are three regular breeding goose species. The Barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) the Brent goose (Branta bernicla hrota) and the Pink-footed goose (Anser platyrhynchos). Together with the Svalbard reindeer they are all grazers and an important part of the ecosystem of Svalbard.
Related barnacle geese tend to cluster their nest together within colonies.
Bigger families are more dominant on grazing areas meaning a big barnacle goose family have better access to the prime grazing patches. Egg production is very energy demanding for the goose and geese have been observed to steal eggs from neighbouring nests to increase their clutch size.
Geese, like only a few other species, remain as a family for a whole year until the next breeding season starts. This allows the young geese to learn valuable survival skills.
In 1948 the Svalbard barnacle goose population was estimate to be 300 birds and close to extinction. South west Scotland is the traditional wintering site and after the government protected both the birds and this site the population increased. In 2014, the Svalbard population was estimated to about 38 000 birds.
During migration the barnacle goose can lose 10g/100km of flying. Most of the young geese that die during the first year after fledging do so during migration.
The brent goose has several subspecies. B.b.hrota which breed in Svalbard and Greenland is the rarest migrating goose population in the world (about 6800 birds in 2013) and is the only one to breed in Svalbard.
During the migration of the pink-footed geese from the wintering areas in Denmark to the breeding grounds in Svalbard the whole population stops at two or three staging areas in Norway. At these stop sites the whole population of around 81 500 birds (spring 2014) are concentrated in a very small area.
After breeding, the geese congregate to change their feathers. During this intensive moulting they lose their ability to fly for a few weeks.
Barnacle goose flying against a mountain backdrop in Isfjorden, Spitsbergen. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
Pink-footed goose calling out to his flock while flying in Adventdalen, Spitsbergen. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
The red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) and the grey phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) are the breeding phalaropes in Svalbard. The latter being by far the most common between the two.
During migration, and in wintertime, phalaropes are unique among the waders that they often swim in open water far out at sea to find food – often in large flocks.
While the red-necked phalaropes breeding in Scandinavia is thought to winter in the Arabian sea, a recent study on Scottish birds that was fitted with geolocation loggers proved they crossed the Atlantic to winter along the west coast of South America close to the Galapagos Islands!
The phalaropes have reversed sex roles. Contrary to most other bird species, the female has the most colorful plumage. The male is more camouflaged and has the whole responsibility for incubation of the eggs and chick rearing.
The females choose the males, and one female might pair with several males and lay several clutches with different males within the same breeding season. The female leaves the male as soon as the eggs are layed.
The phalaropes have evolved a special hunting technique, where they swim fast in small circles so that small benthic zooplankton and other food items get swirled or sucked up from the bottom to the lake’s surface where they can easily be reached by the birds.
A dull colored male grey phalarope lifts from the water after being chased by several colorful female in a courtship display. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes