Birds | Polar Unbound

Birds

Many of the land birds who visit the Arctic are migratory, coming north from wintering grounds as far south as Brazil, Central America, or even the subantarctic region. The migratory birds visiting the Arctic get to enjoy the region’s intense summer growing season and the longer, warmer summer days. Common freshwater and land birds found in the Arctic include loons, ducks, geese, rock ptarmigans, sandpipers, redpolls, snowbirds, wheatear, pipit, Lapland longspurs, and some some plovers. 

Many seabirds seasonally migrate to the Arctic to soak up the sun in the summer months, but there are some common family groups you can identify such as the auk family (which includes auklets, little auk, guillemots, and murres), gulls and terns (in particular the glaucous-winged and glaucous gulls, Sabine’s gull, herring gull, and the arctic and common terns), the waders (such as the sandpiper), the jaegers, and the petrel group (represented by the fulmar, who breeds on some Arctic cliffs). 

Arctic Tern

ARCTIC TERN

The arctic tern is a long-distance record holder: some migrate from the High Arctic to the Antarctic, going farther than any other bird. The small, white bird breeds in the Arctic or as far south as New England and Washington State then winters in the northern regions of the Antarctic, a yearly migration covering perhaps 25,000 miles. During its travels, the arctic tern passes over every ocean and passes near every continent.

The small birds tend to be gray or white during the breeding season, while their legs and beak are red. A black patch coats their head, though this patch shrinks during the winter season. 

Atlantic Puffin

ATLANTIC PUFFIN

Atlantic puffins may look a bit like little penguins, but their vibrant beak has them sometimes going as the “sea parrot.” Much like many other Arctic birds, these sea parrots experience seasonal physiological changes, as their beak turns into a muted grey in winter before being painted with color once again in the spring. 

Puffins largely live at sea, swimming underwater as if they were flying or sometimes resting upon the waves. When swimming, puffins can dive up to 200 feet and use their wide webbed feet as a rudder to steer. When they do take off in flight, they have to take a running start.

Puffins can be found throughout the Arctic’s seacoasts and islands when they form breeding colonies every spring—they only time they come to land. Iceland in particular hosts about 60% of the Atlantic puffin population. Look out for steep seaside cliffs where puffins like to build their nests. 

FUN FACT: Puffins frequently meet back up with their mate at their same burrow year after year, though no one’s quite sure how they find their way back. 

Gyrfalcon

GYRFALCON

The largest falcon in the world, the gyrfalcon can be found across the High Arctic soaring after ptarmigans or streaking down from the sky in search of prey. These birds of prey have bodies perfectly engineered for haunting the Arctic Circle’s skies; a wingspan stretching up to 4ft and a body weighing up to 5lbs generates the power and the speed needed for quick take-offs. While the gyrfalcon’s speed remain estimated, the conservative estimate is 90 mph in level flight and 150 mph in stoop.

FUN FACT: In Medieval times gyrfalcon’s were a highly sought after prize, often owned by kings signaling their power. 

Ptarmigan

PTARMIGAN

Ptarmigans, part of the grouse family, are among the best for adapting to the Arctic’s frosty winter temperatures and elevations. Like some of the Arctic’s other well-adapted creatures, such as the arctic fox and hare, the ptarmigan experiences physiological changes to better survive. In the summer, the ptarmigan’s gray-brown plumage transforms into a crisp, snowy white every year when winter starts coming. 

But these birds have more than changing feathers to their name. They also sport seasonal footwear, as every fall they switch out scales for small spiky protrusions called pectinations that almost double the surface area of the ptarmigan’s foot. The ptarmigan’s footwear even goes a step further, as they have wide foot-feathers that resemble insulated snowshoes, providing both warmth and a greater surface area.

Snowy Owl

SNOWY OWL

The snowy owl fits right into its Arctic environment with its white plumage. While males get whiter as they get older, females are spotted with dusky plumage and never become completely white like some elderly males. 

Like many owls, the snowy owl is a patient hunter who singles out its quarry before pursuing it with sharp talons. In the Arctic, their diet largely consists of lemmings. While they supplement their diet with birds, rabbits, rodents and fish, they can eat up to 3-5 lemmings a day—totaling 1,600 lemmings a year. 

FUN FACT: Snowy owl parents are incredibly territorial and will defend their nests against any animals passing by — even wolves.