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Thick-billed Murre

Thick-billed Murre

The largest remaining member of the auk family

What you need to know about the Thick-billed Murre

Our Expert Says… "A wonderful adaptation, the single egg of the thick-billed murre is slightly pyramidal in shape. This stops it from rolling off the very narrow ledges they use for nesting. Once the chicks can get to the water, the male then takes over looking after the swimming but not yet fledged chick while the exhausted females head out to sea to fatten up again."

The thick-billed murre (which is also known as Brunnich’s guillemot) is a seabird in the auk family. They are now the largest member of the auk family after the great auk became extinct in the mid-1800s. They grow up to 50cm (20”) long with an 81cm (32”) wingspan and weigh up to 1.5kg (52oz).

Mature adults have a black head, neck, wings, and back, with white underparts, with a small black tail. As the name suggests, they can be differentiated from the common murre by their thicker and shorter bill with a thin white stripe at the gape.

They can be found in many the polar and sub-polar regions of the north where they spend their entire time at sea apart from the breeding season. The thick-billed murre needs to keep its feather’s well-preened and a good layer of insulating fat as the waters in which it lives rarely get above 7C (45F)!

When it comes time to mate, the thick-billed murre forms huge colonies, sometimes over a million strong. They pack more densely than any other bird species, with each pair taking up less than 1 square foot of space. They don’t build nests but lay their single egg on the bare rock of narrow ledges or cliff faces.

Brunnich’s guillemot has one of the least efficient flight models of any bird thanks to its very short wingspan compared to body size. It takes them so much effort to take off that both adults must help to feed the chick because the birds can only bring back one food item at a time. It’s for this reason that each pair can only raise a single chick per season. Despite this restriction, they have become one of the most common species of seabird, with a world population estimated at up to 20 million individuals.

Thick-billed Murre: Pictures & Videos

Thick-billed Murre

Spots where the Thick-billed Murre can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Exploring the pack ice

The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.

It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.

Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge.   In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.

Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.

Our trips to spot the Thick-billed Murre

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