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Day 11 - August 2, 2009 - Storstappen, Hornvika, Skarsvag

By Chris Collins, Ornithologist

Co-ordinates at midday: 71 09 N, 25 20 E
Temperature at midday: 22C

After an overnight journey from Bear Island, the Prince Albert II arrived off Storstappen Island shortly after breakfast. There were thousands of birds flying around the island and as we set off in the Zodiacs to circumnavigate the island, it was clear that most of them were Atlantic puffins. Several hundred thousand breed on Storstappen Island and it was good to get some great looks at these birds after some rather brief views yesterday.

With clear blue skies and no wind (very different to 24 hours before), the conditions were perfect and other birds seen included several White-tailed Sea-eagles. Most of the birds were immatures with somewhat mottled plumage and brown tails (it can take 5 years for a sea-eagle to attain full adult plumage) but there were several adults with pale heads and pure white tails. This species is one of the largest birds of prey in Europe with a wingspan of up to 2.5m and there were at least ten individuals soaring around the island making a really impressive sight.

A little further along, we cruised passed a Gannet colony where several hundred birds were breeding. Looking carefully, we were able to pick out good numbers of youngsters who were panting as it was so warm – we had, yet again, been extremely lucky with the weather and were subsequently told that it has been the hottest day of the year!!

All too soon, it was time to return to the ship after a truly memorable Zodiac cruise. The ship then repositioned to the closest landing site for Nordkapp. Although this is only a couple of kilometres or so from the Cape itself, there is a c.300-metre-climb up a narrow windy trail to the top. However, well over half our guests joined the Expedition Team. It was a fairly tough walk for some, as the gradient was pretty much constantly upwards, however, as we climbed we enjoyed some spectacular views as well as sightings of several distant reindeer.

Reaching the plateau, there were some closer reindeer, as well as several birds we had not seen around Svalbard including Eurasian Golden Plover and Ruff (both waders that were almost certainly breeding in the area). Personally, however, the undoubted highlight was seeing a Ptarmigan with 6+ chicks. This member of the grouse family is surely one of the most camouflaged species on the planet and its plumage blended in superbly with the tundra we were walking across. The chicks were only a few days old (and only about 3 inches long) and the parent bird was keeping a close watch on them.

Arriving at the Nordkapp Centre, there was a glass of Champagne for each of us and there was time to explore the museum, gift shop and other attractions before boarding a bus for the short journey to Skarsvag.

There was a brief stop at a small exhibition and gift shop run by some indigenous Sami people (previously known as “Lapps”) where we were able to get close views of an adult male reindeer that had an amazing set of antlers.

All too soon, however, it was time to return to the ship and the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party. It was hard to believe the cruise was almost over, although we had had some amazing experiences including fantastic polar bear and beluga whale sightings, superb weather, an amazing 24 hours in the sea-ice and, of course, the circumnavigation of Svalbard.

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