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Little auk (alle alle)

Litt­le auks, Fugle­son­gen

Little auks, Fuglesongen

Descrip­ti­on: Mea­su­ring 20 cm in length and weig­hing bet­ween 120 and 180 g, the Litt­le auk is the smal­lest of the alcids in the North Atlan­tic. It has a sto­cky appearan­ce with its lar­ge head, short beak and a strong neck. In flight, Litt­le auks can be dis­tin­guis­hed from Brünich’s guil­lemots by their smal­ler size and fas­ter wing­beats.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­ons: The Litt­le auk is the most nume­rous sea­b­ird of the high Arc­tic. Apparant­ly, it finds Ice­land too warm or, more pro­bab­ly, diet requi­re­ments for­ce the Litt­le auk to stay in are­as with col­der water mas­ses, which it finds in the high Arc­tic from Baf­fin Island in Cana­da to Sever­na­ya Zem­lya in the Rus­si­an Arc­tic. In Sval­bard, it nests almost ever­y­whe­re, but the lar­gest colo­nies are around the nor­thwes­tern cor­ner of Spits­ber­gen and in Bellsund and Horn­sund. Den­se colo­nies requi­re cer­tain geo­mor­pho­lo­gi­cal cha­rac­te­ris­tics such as steep scree slo­pes with boul­ders of a cer­tain size, as Litt­le auks breed under boul­ders. A mini­mum size of rocks is nee­ded to crea­te hol­lows of suf­fi­ci­ent size, but if they are too lar­ge, then Arc­tic foxes can plun­der the nest. The lar­gest colo­nies com­pri­se several tens of thousands of bree­ding pairs, but exact sur­veys have not yet been car­ri­ed out.

The Litt­le auk is amongst the first migra­to­ry birds to return to their bree­ding sites in the high Arc­tic, whe­re they arri­ve as ear­ly as April or ear­ly May. They lea­ve in mid August and spend the win­ter in open sea near sou­thwest Green­land and towards Labra­dor.

Bio­lo­gy: During the bree­ding sea­son, Litt­le auks live pri­ma­ri­ly on crustace­ans. They lay one sin­gle egg in the second half of June and incu­ba­te it for ano­t­her 29 days. The chick stays for four weeks in the nest, until it can fly.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous: Attempts to count Litt­le auk colo­nies in Spits­ber­gen have so far been more or less unsuc­cess­ful becau­se of gre­at prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, but the regio­nal popu­la­ti­on may exceed one mil­li­on bree­ding pairs. Becau­se of the lar­ge num­bers, Litt­le auks play a signi­fi­cant role for the ter­restri­al eco­lo­gy, as they trans­port ener­gy in the form of gua­no from the sea to the tun­dra. It is esti­ma­ted that each Litt­le auk car­ri­es about 250 g of natu­ral fer­ti­li­zer to the tun­dra during the bree­ding sea­son.

Bree­ding colo­nies are always on steep scree slo­pes and thus rather dif­fi­cult to access. It is almost impos­si­ble to see the nest as it is usual­ly under lar­ge rocks or in crevices. Nevertheless, you can obser­ve them at the colo­ny, as they like to spend some time sit­ting on boul­ders and are not very afraid of humans, pro­vi­ded you do not move. It is important to stay out­side the actu­al bree­ding area, as any intru­si­on would crea­te dis­tur­ban­ce. Pati­ence is nee­ded until, soo­ner or later, a Glau­cous gull patrols the area and the Litt­le auks take off. This is a good moment to move clo­ser until you have reached the outer edge of the colo­ny. After a while, the birds will come back, but remem­ber that you have to be very calm and moti­on­less. Some­ti­mes, the colo­nies are very acti­ve and visits are then an exci­ting expe­ri­ence, but at other times it is qui­te calm and then the­re is not a lot to see. This is also the case when a strong wind is blowing or at other, unpre­dic­ta­ble times when the birds may be out sear­ching for food or at home watching TV.

The­re are several smal­ler Litt­le auk colo­nies on steep scree slo­pes around Lon­gye­ar­by­en (the slo­pes of the Pla­tå­berg towards the sett­le­ment, near Gruve (mine) one, in the litt­le val­ley that leads down from the pla­teau to the morai­ne of Lon­gyear­breen, on the slo­pes abo­ve Nyby­en and, a bit fur­ther away, on the slo­pes east of the ent­ran­ce of Bjørn­da­len. With local know­ledge and a rif­le (for pro­tec­tion), you can see them by taking a short day trip from Lon­gye­ar­by­en, but some wal­king in steep, rocky ter­rain is necessa­ry.

See­ing a busy Litt­le auk colo­ny is an expe­ri­ence that you will not for­get. The small, nume­rous, lively, noi­sy birds are the epi­to­me of con­cen­tra­ted, inten­se life in the Arc­tic. An expe­ri­en­ced bird­wat­cher once cal­led them the “soul of the Arc­tic”.

Litt­le auks, Fugle­son­gen

Little auks, Fuglesongen

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last modification: 2019-02-19 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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