Koala aloha

The local male koala has been creating quite a din over the last few nights, and we finally got a shot of him at twilight, high up a gum tree.

You can hear a recording of the call here. It’s quite disturbing if you don’t know what it is. He’s calling for a female and to tell other males this is his territory. I’ve heard reply calls in the distance.

He looks cute and cuddly until you notice the claws. They need to be sharp for shimmying up trees. Friends who are koala rescuers have particular techniques for picking a koala up and avoiding the claws and teeth – from behind in such a way that the claws and teeth can’t reach you.

Neighbours have been hearing other males about the place, and it’s good to know there’s a healthy population at least where we live. Other places are not so lucky.

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More Arctic avians

I met fellow-Aussies Bruce and Linda on the Arctic trip, and Bruce has kindly allowed me to post some of his great shots. He has a camera with a big lens (allowing for nice close-ups) and the knowledge to use it, unlike me and my little point-and-shoot (yes, I know, RTFM). (All photos copyright by Bruce Moore – thanks, Bruce!)

Atlantic puffins

Puffins resting on steep rock ledges

One of three puffin species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has been estimated to have 10,000 breeding pairs in the islands of Svalbard. I first saw this bird on the way to the Orkneys, north of Scotland. They nest sociably in crevices or in the spaces under convenient boulders in the Arctic where there is little soil depth (otherwise they would burrow into the ground). The chicks stay hidden and are fed fish, crustaceans and worms accumulated by the diving adults.

Glaucus gulls

Glaucus gull and chicks

Glaucus gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are omnivorous, eating molluscs, the eggs and chicks of other seabirds. They are the second-largest gulls in the world.

Black-legged kittiwakes

Kittiwakes like to hang out on icebergs

Rissa tridactyla is a colonial nester, even on glacier edges or snowbanks if there are no ice-free ledges. They build nests on very steep slopes as protection from Arctic foxes, which steal their eggs and chicks. They generally forage far out to sea, following trawlers, collecting shrimps, marine snails and terrestrial invertebrates and plants, seeds and grasses.

 

Common eiders

Male eider flying over a glaucus gull

Common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are divers – the males black-and white and the females brown. They nest on ice-free islands, pulling down from their own breasts to line the nest. They eat crustaceans and molluscs.

 

Brünnich’s guillemots

Brunnich’s guillemots crowd together on rocky cliffs

There are a few large breeding colonies of Uria lomvia on exposed cliffs, each containing perhaps over a million birds. These are the birds you might have seen on a David Attenborough program – the chicks launch themselves (with their father) from the high cliffs even though they are unable to fly. If the chick hits the ground, it struggles through the scree towards the sea, but may be taken by Arctic foxes or great skuas. If it hits or makes it to the water, it and its father will swim south to warmer climes. The father is also flightless at this time as he is moulting.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle goose

Branta leucopsis breeds exclusively in the Arctic on low-lying islands and sea-cliff edges. They graze on vegetation. This is the bird that was thought, in medieval times, to come from a barnacle. It was thus classified as a sea animal, so that it could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays (when meat was not allowed).

Northern fulmars

Northern fulmar

Svalbard has the ‘blue’ form of Fulmarus glacialis – the other form has more white. They happily follow ships in case any offerings get thrown over the side. They are not great on land but are strong fliers –  wingspan is over a metre – and they have been known to live around 30 years.

 

Arctic terns

Arctic tern

Sterna paradisaea migrates between the north and south pole areas, spending the summer months at each pole in turn. They travel 90,000 km every year for about 30 years – the biggest bird migration known. They vigorously defend their nests so expect to be dive-bombed if you go near one – but you wouldn’t, would you?

 

Great skuas

Great skua

Great skuas (Stercorarius skua) aggressively attack other birds on the wing, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which the skuas snatch for themselves. Like terns, they will aggressively defend their nest from intruders, whether human or fox or polar bear.

Little auks

Little auk

These little cuties (Alle alle) are estimated to have over 10 million breeding pairs in Svalbard. The noise and great swirling flight they create in their massive breeding colonies when an Arctic fox is about has to be seen to be believed. They are thought to be the world’s most numerous seabird. The breeding season coincides with the seasonal peak of plankton and small fish, taken at night, mostly fairly close to the colony.

 

 

Purple sandpipers

Pruple sandpipers gleaning for food

I’m not sure why Calidris maritima are ‘purple’, but they acted as any wader does, rummaging for invertebrates, insects, buds and seeds along the shoreline.

Black guillemots

Black guillemot, with the distinctive red legs

Cepphus grylle is a diver, going down about nine metres to get fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The breeding colonies are minute compared to some other birds – a few birds, or a few dozen, in scree or on flat ground.

 

 

Snow buntings

The charming snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis is the only breeding songbird in Svalbard. It’s about the size of a sparrow and hunts for seeds and insects. 

 

 

 

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Arctic sea angels

One thing I didn’t expect to see in the Arctic was marine invertebrates, but of course in the Arctic summer there is a huge upwelling of plankton via the deep ocean currents, providing literally tonnes of food for fish and baleen whales. The graphic below gives you an idea of who eats who, except it has left out Arctic foxes, which prey on birds and their eggs and scavenge what’s left of seal carcasses taken by polar bears.

Arctic food web, by Cmglee, Wikimedia Commons

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on a zodiac with the ship’s doctor, Nanamma, who turned out to be as keen on jellyfish and similar critters as I was. She spent some time dipping ziplock plastic bags over the side and showing us what came up. I was thrilled to see organisms I had only read about – pteropods (sea angels and sea butterflies) – and comb jellies.

Comb jelly (red, left) and sea butterfly (brown, right)

Below is a better shot of a sea butterfly, taken by NOAA.

Sea butterfly; NOAA Photo Library

Sea angels are particularly beautiful. They were bigger than I expected – about the length of my thumb.

Two sea angels (right) and a sea butterfly (bottom left)

Below is a clearer shot by NOAA.

Clione limacina; photo by NOAA

Once I got my eye in, I could easily see them in the water – all over the place! Just another fabulous day in the Arctic.

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Arctic avians

I used to be more of an avian adventurer, but I don’t generally do the birding thing much anymore. Despite this, the Arctic trip added a dozen or so birds to my life list (if I were to have such a thing – but of course I do!).

The final bird list on the trip was as follows (the column headings, which can’t be seen, are dates). I didn’t see all of them,  but I’m posting pictures of those I did (all photos are my own unless mentioned in the captions). I’m not concentrating on the birds as such – after all, you can easily find much better shots than mine on the interwebs – but rather on the combination of the birds and the environment they scratch a living out of.

End-of-trip bird list

 

Birds can’t survive the Arctic winter, so migrate back and forth. The Arctic summer brings massive amounts of plankton and other underwater animals and plants, due to upwelling from ocean currents. The whole biological system relies on the summer largesse of the bottom rung of the food web.

The poster on the ship’s wall helped with ID, as did the excellent library.

Svalbard birds poster

  • The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), possibly the world’s greatest migrator, flying every year between the Arctic and Antarctica over a lifetime of 15-30 years

Arctic tern; not my photo, not sure who photographed it

  • Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Pair of pink-footed geese in Longyearbyen

 

  • Common eider (Somateria mollissima; in the second photo, male on the far right) – yes, the ones whose bum feathers make those cosy ‘eiderdowns’ for your bed.

Eider female sitting on eggs in Longyearbyen

Flock of common eiders on a shingle beach in Svalbard; male far right

Steep slopes give eiders a certain amount of protection from predators – at least they can see a long way

  • Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) – note the surroundings in which they are feeding. This is typical of Longyearbyen and most of the Svalbard peninsula, except that Longyearbyen has lots of mine tailings and industrial structures from the old mining days. The permafrost is just below the surface and the ground unfreezes in summer to only a metre or so, supplying just enough meltwater for tiny plants to unfreeze and commence their summer lives. These are the geese that medieval folks thought came from barnacles.

Barnacle geese in Longyearbyen

  • Glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus), a large gull that scavenges pretty much anything

    Glaucus gull

Glaucus gulls resting on floating ice

  • Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), breeds in colonies on cliff ledges; 130,000 breeding pairs have been estimated

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown but is one of our party

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown

 

  • Brünnich’s guillemot – these birds nest in their hundreds of thousand on sheer cliffs to avoid predation by Arctic foxes and polar bears, which will eat the birds’ eggs and young if they can get at them.

    Brunnich’s guillemot on cliff ledge

  • Long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) – these birds attack other birds that have caught their own meals, causing them to drop the food so that the skuas can make off with it.

    Long-tailed skua

 

 

 

 

Northern fulmar; photographer was one of our party

Purple sandpiper

  • Little auk (Alle alle), another bird that nests in thousands on cliffs

    Little auks; photo by Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Back on the Norwegian mainland, I saw:

  • Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) at Balestrand, the same species we get in Australia
  • Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – an urban dweller, this one in Tromso

    Hooded crow

    All in all, a satisfying set of additions to the personal bird list.

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Walruses, seals and a polar bear, oh my!

Walruses rule!

At lunchtime in the Arctic one day (oh, how I like that phrase!), I decided the trip couldn’t get any better – I’d just seen a colony of walruses and was musing on their amazingness. Little did I know what awaited in the afternoon …

Did you know that walrus colonies steam? I didn’t. From afar, as we silently approached in the zodiacs at very low speed so as not to alarm them, we could see clouds rising from the shore above the animals. It was hard to tell how many were in the herd as we could only see them on the near edge, but it might have been hundreds – and they are huge, up to 3.2 metres and 1200-1500 kg! They are thigmotactic, meaning they like to huddle together and touch each other. These were certainly very, err, thiggy – and very curious about us.

Several walruses came up very close to us. One even poked a zodiac with its tusks.

Several slid into the water, coming to investigate each boat. We stopped at the prescribed distance, but the walruses hadn’t read the guidebook so just kept coming. The big males here are red on the neck – the blood capillaries are close to the skin’s surface to lose heat. It was about 2 degrees C (in the air, and the same in the water), but they have so much blubber (as insulation from the cold) that when they haul out on land to warm up, they sometimes need to lose built-up heat. The warty lumps on the male necks are called ‘bosses’ or ‘tubercles’, and are thought to be a sign of maleness or old scars from fighting.

You can see the steam coming off their bodies

Calves are born without tusks, which become visible around the age of two. Some of these had very long tusks, which males use for fighting each other, or fighting off polar bears and orcas (whose menu they are on). They can live up to 40 years.

Walruses dive to the sea floor, using the sensitive whiskers (technically called ‘vibrissae’) to detect mussels. They jet water from their mouths and wave their flippers to uncover the bivalves on the seafloor. The special shape of the mouth allows them to create enough pressure to literally suck the molluscs out of their shells, and if you’ve ever tried to open a live bivalve you’ll know how hard that is.

Arctic terns hovered, possibly looking for fish disturbed by swimming walruses.

There’s a bear out there!

While we were having lunch, the ship continued to follow the pack ice to see what we could see. A naturalist was stationed on the bridge at all hours in case of anything interesting popping up. Sure enough, when he called over the intercom, ‘Polar bear to port!’ we all raced up to the top deck.

It was hard at first to get my eye in – a bit like trying to see a bird in a canopy through binoculars. The sheer whiteness and brightness were almost overwhelming, but I finally saw her. I’d been looking for something white, but she was cream. The hairs are actually transparent but the light reflects to get the cream or white effect. The skin is black to help absorb warmth from light.

Can you see the bear in this shot? Then imagine it about twice as far away, because I zoomed in a bit.

She was meandering in a casual fashion, as isbjörnarna (plural of isbjörn, Norwegian for ‘ice bear’) are wont to do, looking totally at home and relaxed. Someone noticed a bearded seal to the right – and it was obvious the bear did, too. We watched in fascination as over the next 15 minutes or so she snuck up on the seal – lunged at the last minute – and missed! Aaargh! At this point my camera decided to malfunction, so I have to rely on my roommate’s photos. (It recovered by the next day.)

After the seal dived into the water, the bear rolled around a bit on the ice to squeeze the water out of her fur. The naturalists estimated she was healthy and 3 or 4 years old, since cubs stay with their mother for 2 years, then go out on their own, and females are thought to start breeding at about 5. They are smart and have flexible behaviour, learning all the while. The most dangerous time for them is when they leave their mother, as they have to learn ‘on the job’, so to speak.

Rolling to get rid of cold water in the fur; photo by Janet Spillman

She then noticed us and started over. She stayed for quite a while looking up at us (wistfully? hungrily?), then dived back into the water and swam off. A couple of the naturalists said they hadn’t seen that sort of behaviour before – and she would probably have walked happily up the gangplank if it’d been lowered!

Hmm, there’s a big white ship smelling of humans over there; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m just like those cute fluffy toys – won’t you come play with me?; photo by Janet Spillman

I’m mostly harmless, really I am; photo by Janet Spillman

Ah, what the heck – I give up!; photo by Janet Spillman

 

Bears chase down and feed on seals on the ice and, tragically, with the ice diminishing year by year (Svalbard is the fastest warming place on the planet), they are finding it harder and harder to find enough food. Scientists estimate that the Svalbard population will be gone in a couple of decades. It’s sad to think of the possible fate of this lovely isbjörn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longyearbyen graffiti – the most northerly graffiti in the world?

One of the Canadian naturalist crew had a stunning necklace carved from polar bear claw and walrus bone, by Inuit craftsman Greg Morgan. Even if you can afford his carvings, you wouldn’t be allowed to import them into Australia, or even out of Canada.

Bearded seals

Another day we saw several of the polar bears’ favourite food – bearded seals. They seemed cool (literally) about us creeping past quietly while they half-dozed in the sun.

Penguins

Just kidding – we saw only one. They are Antarctic birds.

Next post will be on Arctic birds.

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In the Arctic circle

After a couple of days in Oslo, we flew to Longyearbyen in Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen, the island of pointy mountains, halfway between the north of Norway and Greenland) via Tromso, but I will leave talk of Longyearbyen, Tromso, Bergen and Balestrand – the last three being towns on the Norway mainland we made a flying visit to – for another post. The plane provided tantalising glimpses of snow-covered mountains and glaciers. I’ve seen glaciers and fjords in New Zealand, but these were something else.

From Longyearbyen, we set out on the good ship Akademic Sergey Vavilov, a Russian scientific research vessel hired each year by Canadian company One Ocean Expeditions for occasional wildlife cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Canadian/US/British etc. staff were all experienced naturalists/photographers/explorers and the whole operation was very organised, smooth and flexible. For instance, they were happy to incorporate plants in the landings once they found out 14 of the group were interested in them. (Russian sailors manned the functions of getting the ship around. Unfortunately I didn’t speak Russian and they didn’t speak English, and they kept to themselves pretty much anyway.)

I shared a comfortable 3rd-deck room with historian Janet – thanks for the bottom bunk, Janet! The shared bathrooms were just across the hallway, so convenient for visits at any hour of the day or day (no night at this latitude and time of year) as jetlag decreed.

The weather was perfect almost every day – bright sunshine with clear, dry air and calm seas. Hooray – I didn’t need my seasickness tablets after all. Only on a couple of days was it overcast with slight showers.

The daily routine was as follows. The proposed schedule was pinned on various walls pre-breakfast. What actually happened depended on events during the day. For instance, the day we saw the polar bear, who hung around the ship for a couple of hours watching us watching her, the afternoon schedule went out the window.

Example of daily schedule

 

The ship’s position was displayed daily

 

 

Various posters of information on the animals, plants and ice had been stuck on the walls. The bar on the top deck had a folder of scientific articles on the effects of climate change and the natural history of animals and birds in the Arctic. There was also a Canadian Geographic issue on the finding of Franklin’s sunken ship, Erebus, in 2014,  in which the Vavilov had played a part. The other end of deck 5 had a substantial library of books on both the Arctic and Antarctic, and was the site for kayaker briefings.

Whale ID poster

 

 

Boris (the events coordinator, a Canadian despite the name) would announced events over the PA system: when the dining room was open for meals (all delicious), when we needed to gear up in the Mud Room for the zodiac cruises and landings, or if something special was seen outside (naturalist Dick and others kept an eye out from the bridge) so that we could sprint up to top (6th – oh those steep stairs!) deck with our binoculars and cameras. The trip was a ‘photography symposium’, so there were many entertaining talks  on how to get the best out of cameras, how to compose shots, etc. Watercolour artist David McEown gave workshops on sketching and painting, and there were other videos (like polar photographer Daisy Gilardini on skiing to the North Pole and Jaime Sharp on kayaking around Svalbard; check out Daisy’s website for her exceptional photographs, David’s for his watercolours, and Jaime’s for his upcoming documentary, Paddling the Cold Edge).

David capturing the sea ice on deck

Gearing up in the Mud Room; photo by Anne MacKenzie

 

Survival gear was mandatory on the zodiacs; photo by Janet Spillman

 

I’m smiling under all that; photo by Anne MacKenzie

 

 

 

Morning zodiac cruises involved getting into survival gear – our own thermals and top layers, followed by the loaned bib-and-braces, heavy-duty outer jacket and wellies. The air temperature was commonly 2-4C and water temperature 3C, but you wouldn’t want to fall in. The kayakers had special gear for their paddling.

Zodiacs were lowered and raised by crane

 

Loading people onto a zodiac using the sailor’s grip

 

Kayaks were also lowered to the sea by crane and the kayakers entered their kayak from the zodiac

 

 

 

We were ably assisted to and from – with max. OH&S – the ship into the zodiacs and taken to a spot of interest – glacier, bird colony, walrus colony or whatever was around.

Afternoons were devoted to landings. Staffers were sent out prior to ‘clear’ the landings. If they were unsuitable – e.g. there was a polar bear or the shore landing was too rough – the landing would be cancelled and a ship-board activity substituted. If the landing was approved, it was on again with the gear.

On shore landings, the 87 ‘guests’ divided themselves into teams, each of which had a wildlife expert and a wildlife expert-with-rifle. The rifle is the last option for use against polar bears. I was told that the sequence of events if a polar bear spots you and comes close is as follows: (1) talking quietly but audibly to the bear; (2) yelling at the bear; (3) firing off a flare gun; (4) shooting the rifle in the air; (5) lethally shooting the polar bear. The bear will usually take off at (2) and no one likes option (5) – it is tantamount to killing a human being and also involves a lot of paperwork and legal investigation.

Our teams were the ‘chargers’ (those who wanted to walk fast); the photographers; the birders; and the plant group (this was my chosen group as I didn’t want to go as fast as the other groups, plus I was interested in the plants). Jerry compiled a list each time, and we eventually saw nearly 20% of the known Arctic flora. This was pretty good for nine afternoons’ work.

Jerry botanising; Mark in the blue shirt has the flare gun and rifle

 

Jerry’s final cumulative plant species list; ‘new finds’ means not seen before on any of our other field trips

Jerry had several plant ID books as well as this poster to refer to

 

 

After dinner, there were ‘fireside talks’ on various aspects of where we were: its history and wildlife. It was a full schedule and I at least collapsed tired and satisfied at the end of each day.

Next time I’ll talk about the animals we saw.

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Arctic plants, puffins and polar bears

I follow Jerry Coleby-Williams on Facebook, mainly because he lives in the same climate as me and gives out useful food-growing tips. (He is probably best known as a presenter on ABC TV’s ‘Gardening Australia’.) Jerry takes people on overseas trips to see plants and gardens (e.g. so far to New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.) Last year he advertised a trip to the Arctic. I hadn’t ever considered going there, but the itinerary ticked a lot of boxes for me: a 10-day wildlife cruise around Svalbard (aka Spitzbergen) and visits to other cities in Norway – Oslo, Tromso, Bergen and Balestrand, from which we’d do a tour of the World Heritage areas of the fjords and glaciers, and finally get the famous Flam railway (said to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world) back to Oslo.

I’d also get a chance to catch up with Andrew’s Aunty Rosemary, whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years, and who has lived in Oslo for 30 years with her Norwegian partner.

At Oslo airport I hooked up with most of the 14 members of the tour – this was the start of fun and games as two tour companies had been involved in bookings, and itineraries and instructions varied slightly between members. But we had all been independent travellers and were able to work out the kinks as a team.

The gardening group; photo by guide

We were bussed to our hotel to recover from our various journeys (mine a 14 hour flight to Dubai, 3 hours in Dubai airport, then 7 hours to Oslo). My roommate, Janet, arrived later from London.

Next morning, the hotel breakfast room had an interesting sign, so I felt OK about scavenging a picnic lunch from there. (By the way, Europeans use a comma where we would use a decimal point.) (I took many more photos than the ones below, but if you google-image the names of places you are interested in, you’ll see more.)

 

I decided to skip the Oslo city guided tour the first morning in favour of seeing Aunty Ro. Two of her friends, Vidar and Ketil, drove us to the famous (and scarily long/high) Holmenkollbakken ski jump. The weather had been unusually sunny and warm for the locals (up to about 30C but about 18C today) for the past few weeks so the views of the city and fjord were fabulous. A pleasant lunch was had at a restaurant overlooking Oslo from the other side of the fjord.

At the end of the visit with Ro, I asked to be dropped off at the Natural History Museum, Norway’s oldest and largest – I am a museum and aquarium junkie and like to see these wherever I go. Walking through the Botanic Gardens, in which the museum stands, I was amused to see a small robot cutting the grass. I knew such things existed but had never seen one. Wonder if they make them for paddocks? The museum shop had some unusual souvenirs, but I passed on the moose poo earrings (yes, really!). It would have been fun showing them to Australian Customs on the way home, though.

The next day started with a visit to the excellent Viking Ship Museum, where there are three reconstructed Viking ships and many other archaeological finds, including carvings and skeletons. I’d seen these on documentaries, but being in the same room was something else – they are shallow, wide and long, absolutely massive things.

Photo by Mark Clements or Anne Mackenzie

Photo by Mark Clements or Anne Mackenzie

Unfortunately, not long after we arrived, a horde of other tourists arrived from one of the big cruise liners (these carry about 4,000 people each), so the place became very crowded and less easy to take photos in. We had our own local guide who explained a few things to us. The whole place was riveting despite the crowd.

The next stop was the Vigeland installation in Frogner Park. It contains 200 large, impressive sculptures by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland.

Walking in Frogner Park (Anne-Marie the guide in the front, middle); photo by Jerry Coleby-Williams

That was the end of exploring Oslo, although there would have been much more to see. The next day involved a flight to Longyearbyen in the Arctic circle and the start of the 10-day wildlife cruise in the Arctic (see the next post).

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