The most northerly songbird, an Arctic delight
Information about Snow Bunting
Our Expert Says… "The males are stunning-looking birds. Unlike many migrants, they molt while still at their breeding grounds and not when further south. This is probably because there are still plenty of insects so they can fatten up here a little longer than other species with a different food source."
The snow bunting is an Arctic specialist songbird, with the most northerly distribution of all of the songbirds (or passerines).
Large for a bunting, the snow bunting grows to around 15cm (6”) long and has a wingspan of about 38cm (15”). It’s a ground dweller and tends to be seen walking or running through its habitat. It feeds on seeds, foliage, and small insects and invertebrates.
Snow bunting males have a breeding plumage that is mainly white, with black wingtips and black back. Winter plumage is similar for males and females, being reddish-brown on the back. Interestingly, unlike other songbirds, they don’t molt. In order to withstand the cold temperatures of the arctic, snow buntings change plumage as their old feathers abrade and wear down and are replaced with feathers of the appropriate color rather than a wholesale molt.
Because the temperature in high latitudes can be highly variable, even in summer, the female snow bunting does not leave the nest once she has laid her 3 or 4 eggs. This allows her to maintain a regulated incubation temperature. During this time, the male snow bunting will hunt for both of them, bringing food for the female back to the nest.
The snow bunting is found in high arctic latitudes during the summer (usually arriving in April and leaving September), and it then migrates south to more temperate zones for winter, including Southern Canada, northern United States, northern Europe, and central Asia.
Pictures of Snow Bunting
Highlights where the Snow Bunting can be seen
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.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
The transport hub for Svalbard with the airport. Once just a mining town, it is now involved with tourism and scientific research and has various services, accommodation, shops and cafés, and some interesting museums.
There is also the chance to check out wildlife within town, including Snow Buntings and even reindeer, and to walk along the road through the mudflats to the dog kennels, dodging the Arctic Terns on route. There is an Eider colony next to the kennels and Barnacle Geese and other birds on the mudflats. If you are very lucky, you might see an Ivory Gull near the kennels.
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port.
An active Russian mining town on the hillside of Grønfjorden, that has fallen on hard times, and it can look bleak and stark. But it is a great place to walk around with the architecture and there is a hotel, a souvenir shop, a museum, and recently, with more investment, a brewery. Most of the cruises do not visit, but it is easy to see on a clear day sailing in or out of Isfjorden. Is a popular day trip from Longyearbyen, and you could even stay overnight.
Across the bay from Pyramiden, surrounded by some impressive mountains and geology, with a small group of houses and remains of a railway. These were constructed in 1919 by William Spiers Bruce, the Scottish oceanographer and polar scientist, with the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate Ltd. It is a great example of attempts to mine at the start of the 20 th century.
Disembark in Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter.
Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port. One of the most prominent buildings in town is the UNIS center, where several Norwegian universities have joined forces to operate and offer the northernmost higher education to both Norwegian and international students. Adjacent to UNIS, and well worth a visit, is the Svalbard Museum, covering the natural history and exploitation of Svalbard. Remnants of the former mining activity can be seen all around Longyearbyen and even in town.
A range of wildlife can be seen around the town and the mudflats on the road to the dog kennels. There is an Eider colony here and Ivory Gulls can sometimes be seen. If you can dodge the diving Arctic terns, the mudflats attract birds like Barnacle Geese, and a range of waterbirds and shorebirds that are scarce in other parts of Svalbard.
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.
Historical site on SW side of Hornsund with the remains from the days of whaling and overwintering Russian and Norwegian trappers. Gåshamna was also the site of the Swedish/Russian Arc of Meridian Expedition from 1898 to 1902, one of the first international research expeditions in the Arctic. In addition to the cultural remains, there is beautiful tundra with the Arctic flora.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The World’s northernmost year-round community and a site of cultural importance with layers of history. Originally it was a remote coal mining town, known as Kings Bay, until a serious accident in 1962.
The location meant King’s Bay was the starting point of various historical attempts to reach the North Pole, and the mast for Nobile’s airships can still be seen. Today it is a centre for international Arctic research, with traditional houses of when it was King’s Bay alongside modern bases for various countries. It is great to walk around the town and tourism also plays a role and ships can come alongside at the dock (one of the few docks apart from Longyearbyen and Barentsburg in Svalbard). There are shops, a museum, and the most northerly post office in the World. It is also great for birds, including Barnacle Geese (perhaps the most well studied wild geese in the World), Red-throated Loons on the lake, and the chance of an Ivory Gull by the dog kennels.
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.
This location is outside Isfjorden on the long island of Prins Karls Foreland, but is within the reach of day trips from Longyearbyen, on a long boat ride. It is known for the Walrus haul out, one of the few relatively close to Longyearbyen, and is popular as a landing for cruise ships. It is a great location to experience a haul out, and they are so used to people, individuals swimming along the shore sometimes come for a closer look! The beaches are covered in logs that have drifted all the way across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia, just watch out for Arctic Terns. The lagoon to the rear can be great for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes.
This Russian mining town that used to be the largest settlement in Svalbard. Abandoned in 1998, it must have been impressive in the 1970s and 1980s, with wide avenues and lawns, Soviet architecture, and lots of families. Today it is a very eerie and atmospheric, with the mining facilities falling apart over quite a large area, on the flats and the hills above the town. There are the various Soviet era structures and artwork, including the school playground, the cultural center, the food hall, and the most northerly swimming pool in the World (dry now) and bust of Lenin. There is a hotel, still open, with a bar that you can visit. But you need to go with someone with a rifle, since bears do roam through town! It is also a good place to see Arctic Fox, and one of the most reliable places to see the Ptarmigan, the ‘Arctic’ grouse. The name comes from the shape of the mountain behind the town, which adds to the character of the place.
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.
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.
Our trips to spot the Snow Bunting