Summer is short in the Arctic. And as it bursts into life it attracts visitors from many thousands of miles away. In spring as the warm salty current of the Gulf Stream stops the waters from freezing and nurtures a mass of plankton, the grey whale travels no less than five thousand miles to reach the rich feeding grounds of Svalbard, and cranes and snow geese travel even further, from Mexico and China. All are citizens of the world and a powerful example for seeing the planet beyond geographical boundaries.
Visiting birds to this Norwegian Arctic archipelago are a central part of the dramatic transformation from winter lockdown to frenzied spring. They define the place, with a wild aerial dance, raucous music and frenetic character as they feed, breed and raise their young. Of the three million birds that flock to Svalbard in springtime, the most remarkable journey is undertaken by the Arctic tern. With long tail streamers and slender white body, it’s known sometimes as the ‘sea swallow’. This tiny black-capped bird that only weighs around 100 grams spends its winters in the Antarctic and makes an incredible circumpolar flight of 22,000 miles twice each year. This is the longest journey of any migrating bird. And since the Arctic tern will often live for thirty years it can clock up an amazing 1.5 million air miles – that’s three times to the moon and back!
Despite the array of incredible terrain this little bird flies over, it finally nests on relatively open ground. It then defends its home fiercely against predators including Arctic foxes and even polar bears. A rain shower of relentless darting red beaks can be enough to chase away even a hungry bear. This aggressive behaviour explains why you’ll see Svalbard locals crossing open ground with a broomstick jutting upwards out of their backpacks. Arctic terns attack the highest part of the intruder – even if it’s a mop head.
There’s no need to travel to Svalbard to see this incredible little creature. Breeding terns can best be seen in Britain in such places as the Farne Islands in Northumberland or on the Northern Isles. They can also be seen on their spring passage at inland reservoirs and around the coast in autumn as they head south.
“This tiny black-capped bird that only weighs around 100 grams spends its winters in the Antarctic and makes an incredible circumpolar flight of 22,000 miles twice each year.”