Category Archives: Svalbard Trip

Random Arctic Tern

Another birder on facebook posted some great shots of antarctic terns, and it reminded me of my favourite arctic tern shot I took in svalbard.

(Thinking about this as I try to ponder where my next adventure might be).

3launching tern

Bears!

As I was writing my previous post, someone sent me a link about a polar bear attack on Spitsbergen this morning.  One person was killed, three injured.  Given the timing, it seems likely that they were sleeping when the bear attacked, and that in the melee, the bear was shot and people were injured trying to fend it off.

It’s a terrible thing that this bear was killed — it doesn’t happen very often — and a terrible thing that this group of kids had such a searing experience.  We saw that group before we left, marshaling on the pier, waiting for the pack ice to clear enough to set off on their trek.

One of the news stories talks about the kids’ buoyancy and excitement on seeing their first bear, which echoes ours.  We went from nervousness about having a rifle with us to a kind of jokiness, singing the toddler song about the stompy bear, or reciting the Bulgy/Algy bear rhyme.  But Christian’s rifle was always with us, and we never strayed far.

It’s the tension of the wilderness, this kind of exploration, where the very purpose of being there is to have some kind of encounter with polar bears, with the edge of comfort, to perch in the breeding colonies of arctic birds to get as close to what it possibly could feel like to their experience.  And it’s impossible to forget that we’re just additional creatures in a bear-eat-bear world.

One afternoon during our trip, the fog had settled in tight, and we watched a David Attenborough film about polar bears.  I was perched on the narrow stairs, a ridge digging into my back, feeling slightly seasick, but I was fascinated.  Baby polar bears are teeny tiny when they’re born — about half a kilogram — and they emerge from the mum when she’s hibernating and continue to grow for several months before the spring, squirming around on her breast and suckling.  (Finch’s perspective as a biologist on human birth as “having reached the evolutionary limit in terms of head/brain size” does take me aback a bit ;-)).

Cubs stay with their mums for a couple of years, first being fed, but learning how to hunt and fend for themselves.  (The Attenborough film has hilarious footage of a cub determined to stomp through the ice to get at a seal but his tiny little feet can’t quite manage it). One of the things the mums need to do is defend their cubs from other bears, who will eat them, given half a chance.

The first bear we encountered had a huge wound on her rump, which we could guess came from this kind of fight.

She was also ringed with some kind of radio collar, so was clearly a bear with a history with humans.  And here, had found the skeleton of a whale she could continue to pick at.

We saw a total of 14 bears on this trip, an affirmation of the strength of the polar bear population.  Each one had its own personality, and some of the time, we were close enough for long enough to have a snippet of a Story of Bear.

The second bear didn’t do a whole lot, but it did have the distinction of not being collared or otherwise drawn too close into human life.  (Finch didn’t like that first bear at all, the collar a huge reminder of too close intersection of humans into the wilderness — though one of the other women on the trip noted that her daughter sponsored polar bear research and that, in fact, this might be one of “her” bears).

Bear #2 was just… a bear.  He ambled out, came close, curious, wandered away.

The next memorable bear was my favourite, sauntering aggressively from one small island to another inside Liefdefjorden (“love fjord”), shaking himself off and rolling around, hunting for and catching a fish.

I crouched in the net rigging of the ship, intensely scrutinizing this bear for close to an hour, until we were called for dinner and I unwound my stiff self and hopped precariously down.  But not before I caught him shaking himself dry.

There were other bears, including one mama with two cubs.

This trio could have been the “special encounter,” in many ways.  We were close to the islands they were wandering, and we persuaded the captain to let us launch a zodiac to get even closer.  We drew lots for seats in the first trip, and tried to do the same for the second, but all of the bits of paper flew into the sea. We moved into more of a “whoever wants to go” mode, and I stepped back in favour of paying clients, eying the soaking wet group from the first trip with some trepidation.

For some reason, I couldn’t find the “spark” in photographing this group, becoming (unreasonably) a little frustrated that the trio wouldn’t arrange themselves neatly in one spot… so I put down the camera and just watched them for a while, cresting the hill, moving apart from each other, coming back together, cubs exploring on their own and always coming back to the unit.

After that trio, we had two more bear experiences.  My favourite was the one we called “the hunting bear.”  We saw him first on a beach, then followed him as he plunged into the water, swam forcefully and focused,

and lunged after a female common eider.

The bird flew around, squawking and flapping, and ultimately escaped.  We thought she was trying to divert attention from chicks, at first (why not just fly away?) but when we inspected the photos, we couldn’t detect any chicks.

It’s a strange thing, watching this kind of interaction — you don’t know who to root for.  You know the bear needs food, and you know that the duck serves the bill nicely.  But they’re both so real, so alive in this one critical moment.  I cheered that the duck managed to get away — and then I worried about the hungry bear.

In the Svalbard museum in Longyearbyen, this quote was posted on a wall:

“The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed by those who shall live in Svalbard.”

It was written about people, but it equally applies to the plants, the ice, the creatures of Svalbard.  Thwarted by the duck, our hunting bear plunged back into the water and promptly tangled himself up in eating kelp.

We couldn’t get very close during the kelp eating, but with our binoculars and telescopic lenses, we watched him roll around and chomp on kelp for about 20 minutes.  Resilient, adaptable, essential.

I would have been happy with Hunting/Kelp Bear as our final experience, but we had one more gift.  Another mama and cub, on a set of windy islands.  First the mama, her dirty head demonstrating that bears aren’t so concerned with grooming themselves, like cats…



Followed by the baby, poking his or her little head over the rock.

We loved this brave little cub, who was curious about us and who set off for a nearby island by himself.

And who then, just feet away from us, peered directly at us.


Fuzzy, incredible strength.  This bear will be a survivor.

And… this fuzzy strong little bear that will be a survivor isn’t a kelp-eating vegan. Kelp in a pinch, yes, but unfortunately, the campers that wandered into its hungry territory ran smack into the paradox of Svalbard, of any wilderness experience.  We’re in their land, and it’s a violent, predatory land. Hungry adult polar bears fight females to use their cubs for food.  The kittiwake corpses below a breeding colony were testament to the danger that bigger gulls pose.

Every species has its own adaptive resilience — thick walrus skins and tusks, ferocious arctic terns willing to attack predators many times their size, seal agility on land and water, the guillemots that herd their young into the sea as soon as possible — and death of the younger, smaller, weaker is just part of the tapestry.

I don’t know how to make meaning, really, of the death/injuries of the campers and the death of the bear. It’s a terrible thing to be violently mauled, and a terrible thing to have to shoot a bear — and, polar bears are the most predatory of creatures. As Finch put it, our choice, if we don’t to be eaten by them, is to flee like a seal or to shoot them. In the broader rhythms and notes and squawks of this kind of land, we are just creatures who are part of the terrible, predictable, discordant melody.

Nordaustlandet

Svalbard is an archipelago, and the island we were trying to sail around on our trip — Spitsbergen — is the largest island.  As I posted about before, we were stopped about halfway through the circumnavigation by the morphing, drifting pack ice.  The pack ice was a surreal, restless landscape, a reminder that at the extremes of the earth, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable.

This polar domain is so far out of most people’s experience that in my recounting now that I’m home, I’ve had people ask me questions like “if you were so close to the north pole, why didn’t you just go all the way?”  It’s true that looking at the map that neatly provides us with a view of landmasses and water, the reality of a world of ice is obliterated.  But poking a small boat through each tiny space between shifting floes is an intense, risky art, a deep relationship between a skilled captain, his boat and time.

We couldn’t go much further north even in our stout little boat, but we did land on Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in Svalbard, at around 80° N.  (For perspective, when I was watching a doc on the Greely expedition on the plane on the way home, I realized that they’d reached 83°N, which was then the furthest north any person had been known to be. (European, I must add — presumably Inuit people have been further north).

This landing was one of the most deeply moving experiences I’ve had.  The environment felt different, truly polar, compared to “northern.”  Nordaustlandet is deeply inhospitable to humans, with 80% of its area under an ice cap.  Like all of Svalbard, there are no indigenous people known to have ever been on Nordaustlandet (too far away from all other inhabited areas and never apparently discovered), and it was only first explored in 1873.

There have been a few expeditions on the island, and there was a German weather station during WWII, and a project conducted in the International Geophysical Year in 1957/58.   That’s really… it.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the number of human beings in the history of time who have walked on this land could be in the hundreds.  There has really been no reason to be here except adventure.  This is not a place that normal touring boats would go. And, we stepped out of the zodiac onto this land.

The bay (“bukta”) was the first place we really encountered pack ice, in perfect sunshine.  There were two walruses on one ice floe, a bearded seal on another, a curious, completely fearless black guillemot investigating our ship.

The land itself was polar desert, the edge of ragged hills that give way further back into hard cut glacier.  And as with all the tundra on Svalbard, dotted by miraculous, colourful flowers.

Purple saxifrage circled by reindeer antlers.

… and a reindeer vertebrae, silent reminder of the absoluteness of trying to survive in this environment.

On Nordaustlandet, like so many of our landings, our boat’s guide wanted to march briskly uphill, while most of us wanted to discover the tiny things on the ground, take photos of the arctic skuas we’d disturbed, worship the gems of the polar desert.  As we were led out of the bright, photo-friendly sunshine and into the dark shadow of the hill, we rebelled a bit and listed sideways closer to the shore….

… crunching over stones and feeling the tiny bits of moss with our fingers like toddlers just discovering texture, being awed by the discovery of a glacial spring erupting abruptly out of dry stone, and finally making our way back to our perfect little boat.

Pure, essential land and sea.

Things you don’t expect to see

When you’re cruising around the arctic on a small boat on a wildlife photography trip, there is a mental list of creatures that everyone on the deck is scanning for.  The Money Shot is polar bears, of course, especially a polar bear on ice.  But we’re also looking for whales, harp, hooded, bearded and other seals, arctic fox, and walruses.

I was really looking forward to the walruses, and realized that they fell into that category of Things I Know Exist but Have Never Seen with my Own Eyes.  Like a lot of things on this trip, including icebergs.  (And like a lot of things I haven’t seen, like a pyramid, a hangman’s noose, cocaine, Paris, and the inside of a helicopter).

When we woke up on our most northern day in Svalbard anchored just off Moffen, a little island beyond the top tip of Spitsbergen that serves as a wildlife sanctuary, I was quite excited, and got up at 6 to scan the shoreline of the tiny island.

You aren’t allowed to get closer than 300 m to Moffen, so this was a telescope and binoculars/telephoto lens enterprise.  The scattering of people on deck were huddled around Finch’s scope, looking at the much sought Sabine’s gull.  (Very pretty gull with tri-colored wing pattern).  I looked at the gull, and asked if there was anything else.  “About 50 walruses,” said G.

I looked at the island and couldn’t see the walruses.  From half a kilometre away, they looked like a line of rocks and kelp.

Pre-caffeination, I literally giggled at myself that I’d been able to see the small, delicate gull — but somehow missed the enormous pile of walrusses.  It underlined again how well the creatures and birds in the Arctic have adapted to blend into their environments.  Like the tern chicks that look exactly like their nesting soil, the eider duck chicks that disappear into the desert terrain, the kittiwake chicks that hide in plain sight on grey-hued cliffs — and like the arctic foxes that turn white in the winter and light brown in the summer — the walruses can be easily overlooked on land.

When the walruses realized we were there, they began to lurch into the water, and eventually, came out to investigate us.  Like the dolphins and grey whales on our Baja trip, they edged closer and closer to the boat, and started to directly look at us.  Clearly, genuinely curious.

One came close enough to share my (barely passable, but hot) coffee.


I was chuffed about the pre-breakfast walruses, and thrilled to see their whiskers and tusks.  After our experience of being able to pet the grey whales in Laguna San Ignacio in Baja, I was also half wishing I could stroke the walrus, feel the thick, mottled skin for myself.

When we sailed around the other edge of Moffen, we watched the walruses launch themselves off the beach and then haul back out, and I did have to admire the fact that they can move their enormous bulk on land at all.  A human equivalent in weight would have to be hoisted about with special ropes and gear.

There is a tension, though, about doing trips like this, where everything is a wonder, as you start to create hierarchies of wonder for yourself.  When we were trudging through the pack ice a few days later, someone rang the bell because a harp seal had been spotted on an ice floe.  I happened to be in the lounge at that moment, and started gathering up my binoculars, gloves, goretex shell, hat, switching lenses to my 100 – 400… and looked over and noticed that Ann, another passenger doing a crossword puzzle across from me, wasn’t moving.  “S will take a photo of it,” she said, “and I’ll see it when I get home.”

Clearly, for Ann, a seal wasn’t worth the palaver of bundling up to go outside, at that moment.

To my shame, I reached that point a little bit with the walruses the same day as the Moffen encounter.  We landed on a teeeny tiny island just north of 80°, called Ringestøya, just west of Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in Svalbard.  Ringetsøya is so tiny and remote it doesn’t exist on the internet — even the official tourism map of Svalbard ignores it.  It’s like a secret, mystery walrus colony.

When we were on deck waiting for the three zodiac shuttles to Ringetsøya, someone muttered that there was a dead polar bear on the beach.  Nervous on every landing about bears, our first assumption was that someone had had to shoot it.  Then we realized that there was a tripod standing about 2 metres away from the poor bear, and that there was a smallish sailboat on the other edge of the island.

This far north, anyone else was a surprise… and we couldn’t make any sense of the polar bear/tripod tableau.  As our first zodiac landed, another one whipped up from the other boat, and from our deck, we weren’t sure whether they were going to warn us away from the landing.  But our folks continued to scrabble onto the shore, and the other pair marched toward the dead bear, then retrieved their tripod.

We trooped ashore and investigated the poor thin bear, discerning that it had died of natural causes, likely, and that the people with the tripod had been doing some kind of time-tracked photography over the past day or so to record … something.

Being nosy lens-poky sorts, we all photographed the bear, except for one woman who felt it was exploitative, felt too sad for the bear.  Then we trooped around to find the much buzzed about walrus colony, delicately circumnavigating the pond to avoid further agitating the outraged arctic terns or stepping on their nests.

When we found the walruses, again… it was just a big pile of tangled walrus.

Utterly fascinating, in theory — and in reality…. sadly… a little… boring.

Sometimes they’d inch into the water a bit, then swim back onto shore.  And sometimes they’d raise their heads and show off their tusks.

Or even raise an arm (flipper?) or two.

But really?  <hushed whisper>  They didn’t do much.  They just kind of laid there like people bloated on junk food and bad television.

These are bachelor walruses — all male, they only hang out with the females in breeding time, during the winter.  Apparently a walrus has a special, baseball bat length penis bone, because otherwise they couldn’t keep their soft tissue firm enough in the frigid waters they mate in.

On a really foggy day, we watched a David Attenborough film about polar bears, and got to watch the reaction of a walrus colony as a polar bear preyed on them.  They moved pretty quickly then, lurching about and flinging their bodies around, and even the fierce predator couldn’t sink his teeth through the tough skin of the older pinnipeds.  They are survivors, these beasts, and seem, like many ocean creatures, to have existed far longer in history than any land creature I’ve encountered.

But really?  They were a little… dull… to watch.

Finch, being the buoyant, optimistic photographer he is, stayed fixated on the walrus wallow, even edging his way into the water and apparently not quite noticing.

The cluster of Stalwart Photographers all maintained a similar stance — but the rest of the group gradually flung themselves to the ground, lumped on the beach in the arctic sun, sprawled on our rucksacks and camera bags in four layers of winter gear, enjoying the 3°C warmth and sun on our faces.

I photographed the still anxious arctic terns that kept buzzing us, and teased Christian about flopping down beside me and letting the bear rifle slip into a position pointing right at me. “Oh no!  That’s on the first page of the book!”

Then we noticed just a bit of action.  One of the walruses was… moving.  Adolescent boy indeed, he appeared to be….

… wanking.

Abbey, one of the young women in the group, burst into a cascade of loud giggles and snorts.  Her friend laughed and chided her, and she said, “I can’t help it if that walrus thinks Cate is hot.”

Walruses.  Like taking photographs of teenage boys sleeping in a huge heap after a hockey tournament.

 

Terns (2) and a meditation on chicks

I posted a bit about the Arctic Terns before we left Longyearbyen, but along with the Northern Fulmars and our 14 polar bears, they ended up being one of the constants on our voyage. Almost every landing seemed to have nesting terns, or terns with chicks, prompting the outraged chitter chitter chitter squawk and dive-bombings at our heads to keep us away.

Terns are gracefully ferocious.  They nest on the ground, just plunked all over soft boggy territory near water, and they hang out in loose groups.  If you’re looking, you see the terns huddled over their eggs or chicks, but you can’t get within any orbit before they start warning you off.  First it’s swoops and chittering and calling, then hovering right over your head, then diving at your head or unleashing a wet mess of crap on you.  They call in backup troops immediately, so it’s never just one.

We danced with the terns at every landing, but the closest relationship was at Ny Alesund, the last settlement we encountered (really just a research station).  I learned there that if you’re willing to brave being hit on the head by a bird’s bill (which happened to me at least three times — they don’t like red, apparently), you might be able to see this.

Or even this — a tern hiding behind a rock, feeding her chick.  (You can see the second chick in the foreground).

A magnified detail of that shot shows you what she’s feeding the baby — a tiny crustacean. (Click on the image to make it bigger).

The trick is to be very very gentle, and if you’re going to move closer, do it very slowly.  Or they propel themselves at you with a blasting ferocity.  (Note the chick under her left wing).

One of the things I didn’t expect about birding is how much I’ve come to see species as having distinct personalities.  I try not to anthropomorphize it, but it’s impossible not to admire the tenacity of these birds, especially when we noticed how vulnerable chicks of all kinds are in the Arctic.

They’re exposed everywhere, but where food is so scarce, there’s a constant death grapple among the breeding parents and the short season that gets their offspring to self-sufficiency.  Chicks are prey for bigger birds like gulls, as well as Arctic foxes and Polar bears.  We saw a few Eider and King eider ducks with chicks, but a lot more females without any — something that worried Margaret in our group.

At one massive bird colony, we climbed a hill and perched ourselves on grassy tufts opposite the nesting Brünnich’s Guillemots and Black Legged Kittiwakes, parallel brooders.  We ate chocolate and communed in the sun.

But we didn’t manage to actually observe the Brünnich’s Guillemot chick Great Escape — where they suddenly tumble off the nesting cliffs and into the water, where they are much safer than on the ledges of the breeding colonies.  We saw a few chicks on the water, but none actually taking the plunge into the Sea.

As we semi-circumnavigated Spitsbergen, we watched a mythic, timeless pattern slowly play out.  On the warmer, more southerly edge of the barren island, chicks were hatched.  On the colder northeastern side, the terns were still nesting, tenacious and ferocious. Protective, graceful and lovely, it was impossible not to admire each squawk and swoop.

Ice

Ice is not silent.  It has its own vocabulary, its own grammar.  Plok as a piece lifts up out of the water.  Crrrkshhhhh as a sheet separates into two, one piece dropping slowly underwater.   Plok plok plok as water ripples beneath a pocked sheer. Thock when sheets meet.  Shudderthud when the boat meets a particularly unyielding object, like a mistake of depth perception that brings a car to a stop two inches beyond the garage wall.


When a double masted schooner is pecking its way through an ice field, what you hear from your bed is double layered.  The contrapuntal soft grind of the engine, like a too loud dishwasher, overlaid with a shrieking crunch beside your head.  Steel on crystal, paint scraped pink onto the ice.

An ice field is an organism, coalescing, re-forming, shifting, eroding.  Self-organizing.  The ice chart that hangs on our map, dated 13 July, shows red for tight ice pack all along the lower eastern edge of Spitsbergen, the HinloppenStretet along the upper east green and open. When we sailed round, a week later, we found a thick nested landscape of floes and forms jumbled in from the east, blocking the upper strait.  The report from the Russian boat was that the lower edge was now clear sailing.

We spent more than a day trying to edge our way through the fog and ice of Hinloppen, aiming for the Sundet (Sound) that might take us into the safety of the lower Storfjorden, now apparently cleared.  One iceberg, one floe, one growler at a time. Left south right right north left forward.  Slow, clumsy arabesques, the ship pointed forward, strained to the side, forward.  The captain determined, tense.  Fog settling over the surrealscape, the land of crevices, crevasses, forts.  More ice pointed below the surface than above.  Some clear, some snowy, some crystal, some sculpted transparent and scoured into artifacts of another dimension.  Crystalized coral.


We scour the landscape looking for a bear on an ice floe, find a few seals, a lazy pair of walruses.  One waves at us as we sail away.  The ice shifts in unnamable dimensions, underskirts magnified by water, edges and tops reflected in water, in their own shiny surfaces. Beneath the lattice, the floes, the sea is deep and mostly empty, plucked clean of bowhead whales by a mere century of pre-industrial whaling.  We see glimpses of around 20 minke whales over our two weeks, in a world where reports talk of whales so abundant they could be harvested from shore.

We strain forward, tense.  Grindingly, glacially, slowly.  Literally.  The glaciers here move 2 metres a day; we’ve watched them calve, listened to the thudding howls that echo through their caves.  I could run more quickly than we are moving.  Will we make it through the Sound and successfully circumnavigate Spitsbergen?  Or will we have to turn around, retrace?

In Hinloppenstretet, the fog lifts, briefly, and Christian climbs the mast to try to see what’s ahead.  The captain can see other ships on the radar, discern what’s there by their slow and swirling progress.  The ice is invisible to the GPS, the other sensors.  We only know what we can see.

By now, the movement has been so consistent we are convinced we will make it to the Sound, around the island.  The grind, the periodic thuds and collisions, continue. People wander the deck, tense, restless.  The lounge is full of people reading, a scattering of kindles among the books that have been passed around, people doing sudoko.  The dauntless photographers are still on deck.  The rumour waves through that we’re turning around, that the ice is, after all, impassable.  Another undercurrent rolls through that it is possible we will get stuck, seriously stuck.  Several times we grind to a halt, pushing one, two, three, four sheets together ahead of us, blocking our own way.

We grind on through the night, not anchoring for another 12 hours, until we are safely out of the pack ice.  We all wanted to go around and ache for the unseen; everyone stiff-upper-lips their regrets.  We make an unplanned landing on Wilhelmsoya, pure wilderness.  Christian, nervous at needing to keep the group tightly together because of the bear threat, is frustrated by the photographers who keep dropping to their knees to worship the plants.  Mercury dropped on the floor.  “There’s a poppy queue,” Jan calls brightly when he urges us upward.  The view from the top is spectacular, but everyone is as taken by the moss campion, the aven, the buttercups, tiny and unnecessary.  As we descend, Christian slides down the snow on his bottom, bear rifle held up above his head.

A week later, the ice has mutated again.  We begin to hear reports that the original eastern ice is now blocking the bottom western quadrant.  I read how the earlier explorers, right through part of the 19th century, believed that the ice pack was the outer ring of the North Pole, and that there was an inner, ice free zone that would be smooth sailing.  You want to believe it, almost, that this is an orbiting mass, a predictable circuit, that there will be knowable space.  But the icescape again surges up, and three days before the end of our journey, we have to turn around partway down our final channel, go around the western full sea edge.  A yacht ahead of us has brought the news that the mouth is blocked.

Finch and I rise at 11:45 that night, the midnight sun in full glory for one of the first times on our trip.  We mark the minute of his birthday, a new decade, with a blast of arctic sun.  We sip whiskey and the captain steps off the wheel for a minute to give us some privacy, the gps guiding.  It’s clear, bluer than ever, puffins on the water as one day kneads itself into the next one seamlessly.

In the night, we feel the crunch next to our heads again, and we wake to fog, the careful grind.  The captain is still at the wheel, a full 24 hours now.  As we reach the mouth of Ijsfjord, the final fjord into our landing, rumours of ice clogging the harbor bloom just as the sun flares up.  A stunning champagne flute of a day, we’re handed the promise of an icebow as we continue our agonizingly slow, uncertain, steady grind.

Started early, found the dogs

(So much for my homage to Emily Dickinson).

I managed to haul my carcass out of bed this morning at 6, and we went out to look for ptarmigan.  Finch has been very gentle about my sleep-wallowing ways so far on this trip — typically he’s gone out early and come back to meet me for breakfast.  Since the light hasn’t been fantastic anyway, I haven’t felt like I really missed much, though he did have a glorious encounter with about 15 reindeer a couple of days ago.

This is the most luxurious birding, really, where the town is easy to go back to and you can leave your insulated mug of tea in the car for when you climb down off the hill you’ve flogged up.  Lots of switching off of layers of clothing as the wind changes.

Today, we didn’t have to even go past the dog kennels, right on the edge of town, before we spotted a much-sought-after Ivory Gull.  They don’t much visit south, and we haven’t seen one yet on this trip.

This one — whom I called Charlie — had found something underneath this pallet.

Clearly, it was something worth risking such proximity to large bipeds.

It let us hang out far longer than we expected, though it flew off and circled back a couple of times when cars passed.

When it was on the pole, Finch did a naughty birder thing and pulled out what was under the pallet, to lure it back.  It was seal meat, clearly intended for the dogs, clearly placed under the pallet to keep the gulls away.

It was a smorgasbord for Charlie.  He’d eat, then fly off for a bit, then eat more. 

Once, he flew down the road to bathe in a small pool.  We stalked him, and he was very tolerant.

I retreated into the car for a bit, my fingers numb and frozen (that Raynaud’s thing is such a difficulty for photography), while Finch crowed with delight at finding Charlie.

From inside the car, I spotted a red phalarope across the road, and went in search of it. I was dive-bombed by arctic terns again, but it didn’t flee.

Finch joined me, after dragging the bag of seal back under the pallet, and the terns decided he needed to be shat upon.  Again.

When the phalarope disappeared with a couple of dunlins, we went further down the road.  The brooding red throated loon was still on her nest, where we’ve seen her every day, but her mate was there today.  I caught him as he launched.

No ptarmigans, but a perfect morning.  And now into the wilderness.