The world's most northerly shorebird, with a distinctive sheen to its feathers
What you need to know about the Purple Sandpiper
Our Expert Says… "These lovely birds are easy to approach. In fact, quite often while waiting to board your Zodiac, you will see this bird happily come by feeding. It's the most northerly breeding shorebird in the world."
The purple sandpiper is known for being the most northerly shorebird, migrating to areas of arctic tundra to breed. Purple sandpipers can be seen on many of the Canadian arctic islands, the coasts of Greenland and Iceland, and arctic northern Europe.
Purple sandpipers have little fear of humans and therefore close encounters are common. Adults grow up to about 22cm (9”) in length with a wingspan of 43cm (17”). They have short yellow legs and a thin dark bill which is yellow at its base.
The bird gets its common name from the slight purple sheen it has to its mainly brown back feathers. The underparts are mainly white, with a grey breast.
You can often see purple sandpipers foraging for food on rocky beaches in small flocks, looking for insects, small mollusks, and other creatures that live between the waves and the high water debris line.
Studies in the early part of the 21st century showed that populations of purple sandpipers are in decline, but due to their range and current numbers they are classed for the moment as being of “least concern” in terms of endangered species.
Purple Sandpiper: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Purple Sandpiper can be observed
Ahlstrandodden and Bamsebu
These two sites are at the entrance to the southern arm of Bellsund - Van Keulenfjorden. Both sites, and the area between them, are scattered with remains from the Beluga, the white whale, that was hunted for the blubber and skin. There are piles of bleached bones and upturned wooden boats that were left when the area was abandoned in the 1930’s.
Beluga can be seen along the shore here. If you are lucky to encounter them it is poignant with their bleached bones on the shore.
It is popular site for a landing and to walk across the tundra between the two sites, looking for Arctic flowers, Reindeer, Arctic Foxes, and check out some hunter’s cabins and the remains of fox traps.
Also look out for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes feeding along the shoreline.
A long narrow island of hard bedrock at the entrance to Van Mijentfjorden, the northern fjord arm of Bellsund. It is popular for a Zodiac cruise around the island and through the narrow Mariasundet, with the strong currents that attract seabirds.
There is the chance of landing to explore the geology, but with lots of scouting first to make sure there is not a hidden bear. The surrounding mountains provide some spectacular scenery and some impressive geology. But few cruise ships go further into this deep fjord, preferring to do landings in Bellsund, and to ship cruise into Hornsund.
On the west coast of Edgeøya, Diskobukta is a narrow canyon, set in the steep hillside, with a large colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes, of over 100,000 birds.
It is quite a challenge to get ashore with the shallow seas just offshore, that makes it even more worthwhile to get here. With so many birds Arctic Foxes often patrol the base of the cliffs.
Festningen and Russekeila
There is some great tundra to explore along the flat coast on the SW side of Isfjorden, to the east of Kapp Linne.
Festningen, quite close to Barentsburg, is well known for the fossils, including the footprint of a dinosaur in sediments that have been forced by the Earth’s forces into a vertical position. Russekeila is a cultural site from the time the Russian Pomors carried out trapping in this area.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
Popular landing in Hornsund with spectacular scenery including towering bird cliffs with thousands of breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots and all the noise (gnål means “nagging” in Norwegian), that attracts Arctic Foxes at the base of the cliff. Geese and reindeer also occur and it is a good location for plants.
Trappers called it Fuglefjell, the location being very popular as a base for hunting bears coming into Hornsund from the key breeding grounds around Hopen in SE Svalbard. The hunter’s cabin at the base of the cliff is famous as the place where the first female trapper stayed, Wanny Wolstead. Even today, staff need to carefully check for bears before going ashore, and sometimes a landing cannot occur if there is a bear on shore.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
Ilulissat & Disko Bay
One of the key highlights in Greenland with the chance to witness Ilulissat Kangerlua, one of the most active glaciers in the World. Either overlooking the iceberg choked fjord from a viewpoint on a short walk from town, or Zodiac cruising the outer fjord past a ‘wall’ of huge icebergs jumbled together. The walks across the tundra to the viewpoint can be a chance to see various Arctic birds whilst there is the chance to experience of life in town and the busy fishing port. There is also the chance of whale watching in Disko Bay.
North of the Arctic Circle and deep in the long Kangerlussuaq fjord, it was the site of a WWII airport, then for refuelling for trans-continental flights.
The airport and the fjord are used as pick-up and drop off for cruise ships exploring the remoter parts of west Greenland. There are few roads in Greenland, but a 25 km dirt road connects the town with the mighty ice cap. Nowhere else is there easier access to the Greenland ice cap. Area also good for caribou, Musk Ox (actually introduced to this part of Greenland), and to look out for White-tailed Eagles.
Located on the NW corner of Edgeøya at the entrance to Freemansundet, Kapp Lee is the location of a Walrus haul out that is also a good location for Reindeer, the chance of Arctic Fox, and great tundra vegetation.
It is also a site of cultural significance with the foundations of a Pomor dwelling and several hunters cabin including a hexagonal shaped hut that is right next to the Walrus haul out. Just above the shoreline on nearby beach are the remains of a Bow Head Whale where the carcass must have drifted ashore long ago. Now, with isostatic rebound (the land slowly rising up after being pushed down under the weight when the whole of Svalbard was under an ice sheet) the bones are a short distance above the shoreline.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
This location is on the island of Blomstrandhalvøya that is in Kongsfjorden and just across the bay from Ny Ålesund. It is the site of an ill-fated attempt to extract the marble deposits by the Northern Exploration Company and the adventurer Ernest Mansfield.
A lot of money and effort was put into the project, but it turned out the marble would shatter as it warmed up! Today there are the remains of the marble quarry and debris from the mine, including wooden huts, and various bits of machinery, including a crane and a rusting steam engine. As well as the cultural remains it is a good place for wildlife, including the elegant Long-tailed Skuas that breed here that are very rare elsewhere in Svalbard, with the Arctic Skua being far more abundant.
Further around the Northwest coast of Spitsbergen, further to the east, this fjord is often blocked off by the pack ice in the early season before, but is the first area to become free as the pack ice retreats from the NW corner of Spitsbergen.
The mountains in this area are rugged and the coast here may have been the land that Barents saw when he came up with the name of Spitsbergen. The name, ‘red fjord’ comes from the red sandstone in the south and east areas of the fjord. There is a hunter’s wooden cabin at Bruceneset and a cairn for a pioneer that died of scurvy whilst overwintering in 1907/08. The name is for the explorer William S. Bruce, the area named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
Remains of a gypsum mine below spectacular and beautiful cliffs. In addition to the cultural remains, including parts of a railway and a barge, it has an interesting flora due to the ‘mild’ location, deep inside Isfjorden.
Nearby cliffs, which go right down to the sea, are eroded into impressive shapes, and can be a great place to explore offshore in a Zodiac, the chance to see various seabirds that breed on the cliffs, with kittiwakes and four auk species including Puffins. It is a popular site for a combined landing and Zodiac cruise, and a ‘sail’ past on boats out from Longyearbyen that are visiting Pyramiden.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
On the NW side of Bellsund, this is a huge Little Auk colony amongst the extensive scree on the side of the mountain ridges above the landing beach.
It can be a challenge to get to, and to scout, in case of bears, but it is a stunning wildlife spectacle with thousands of Little Auks wheeling around and calling (sounding like little trolls!). The activity also attracts Arctic Foxes and the tundra, with all the nutrients leaching down, is superb for plants, and to look out for geese and Reindeer.
Along the shore there is the chance of Beluga.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.