28 July 2012

Life and death at the bird cliff


Section of the steep Hornøya bird cliff (iphone photo). Vardø town in the background.

Hornøya bird cliff must be the densest inhabitet place in Eastern Finnmark. It is a truly magnificent place. Approx 100 000 seabirds come together - some for safety in numbers, others for the numbers of easily available prey. I visit Hornøya several times a month, from mid March to mid August and I have never returned dissapointed. Very often I guide a tour group, journalists, friends or I go for some other bird project reason. Getting the latest info from the summer resident scientists is allways great or like on my last visit: testing the new soon-to-hit-the-market Swarovski telecope. Still, finding time to simply sit down and marvel at the spectacle is important. This is understanding a place by experiencing it with all senses.


July is a month with less birders in Varanger, and less visitors on Hornøya. At the same time late July is the time for the seabird chicks to fledge their nests. A critical time in their life. I feel priviliged to experience this. Last sunday (22.07) I sat quietly by the shore on Hornøya, admiring the entire scene: Noisy, smelly and filled with bird life: young Guillemot chicks where falling-flying from the cliffs, calling at their parents that lay on the sea, with little else to do then see if their young can make it to the sea.  Now imagine life being all about one small spot on the edge of a cliff for a month as a young chick, then one jump later and the world becomes the grandest place full of new challenges - and dangers. 


Young Guillemot: the big jump. Talk about nerve! 


The sea getting closer and closer for every free fall and crash landing.


The Great Black-backed Gulls guard the last piece of sloping land between the cliff and the sea. Finding a clever path past them is a huge challenge. Some make it to the relative safety of their parents on the sea, others simply become food for hungry predators.


One more jump and the steepest part of the cliff is overcome. 


 A brief moment of hesitating - then its all in - again.


Finally - the safety of the high plants / scurvygrass (skjørbuksurt). Surely a new and strange environment for a cliff dweller. Allways on the alert.

The first adventure is not over - only meters left to the sea.

But the predator gulls on hornøya are experienced. One wrong move is all it takes..


Flight of the Brünnichs Guillemot






This sunday I had been fortunate enough to borrow Jörg Kretzchmars brand new Swarovski ATX/STX telescope. He had a pre-release telescope for testing and digiscoping. I was sitting by the sea enjoying some extraordinarily great views of Guillemots through this excellent birders tool. Luckily with my other birder essential next to me - my Nikon d300 with the 300mm lens. The next half second gave me a glimpse of what must be one of the biggest jumps performed by a Guillemot chick that day. The Brünnichs Guillemot breed on the steepest parts of the bird cliff, and it seems their approach, at least in this case, is one single semi-controlled jump from cliff to sea. The bird family seemed to fall as a single unit, hitting the sea surface almost simultaneously. The photos I got is of the very first resurfacing after a less then elegant landing. Yet impressive - something similar to a wingsuit base jump. Except without any training whatsoever. What a first flight performance!


Brünnichs Guillemot (polarlomvi / Uria Aalge) pair with chick, split second after first landing

Shaking of the water


I guess some comfort is welcomed after such an experience...


Lesson one: jump far! Lesson two: stay close!


More stories from Arctic Norway to come. For the keen reader of bird cliff stories: I experienced another drama earlier this spring with a Gyrfalcon and a Raven (see: http://www.biotope.no/2012/04/gyrfalcon-vs-raven-hornya-photo.html )


Thanks for tuning in to the Biotope website! To be continued...


Tormod A. / Biotope