Every year I stand for the same quest. The quest to find a Spitsbergen Ptarmigan. This chicken like bird (family of the famous grouse…) has a distinctive subspecies that is endemic to Spitsbergen and is always high on the wish list for birders visiting the area. In early season this is usually not really a problem. The males still have their white winter plumage which stands out nicely on the already green tundra. Besides, they are so pumped with hormones that they don’t really seem to notice anyhow and focus completely on females or other males.

Later, in the second half of August, the chicks are large enough to roam around freely and these families are usually also relatively easy to find (and extremely tame). The problem is the time in between…

male Spitsbergen Ptarmigan

Each year in the second half of July I guide a group of birders around the islands. They have many goals, one of them being the ptarmigan… Exactly in the most difficult time of year. I know the places where they are, but their camouflage works really well in this period and they rely heavily on it, only flying away when you are within five meters or so. The typical ‘hunt’ goes something like the one we had this year: In an area which is good for ptarmigan we go for a walk. Many binoculars scan the area around us, the tundra in front of us, the hillsides and even the bits further away. From experience I know the chance of finding one at a distance is close to zero. When we don’t find anything, we make an extra loop, maybe we find one in the next valley… In the end it’s about time to go back to the ship. We’ll try again at another place at another time.

But then, just before we get back to the landing site, some movement in between the rocks in front of me. A rock slide? I quickly stop and grab my binoculars, although I don’t really need them. I already know we succeeded again, a Spitsbergen Ptarmigan just a few meters away. A look with the binoculars also reveals the female a little hidden behind the male. Even though they don’t move, I loose them every time I take my eyes away from them. Their camouflage works perfect again. Camera’s are taken out of their bags and we move a little closer. The birds don’t mind, they think they are invisible. Which, honestly, they almost are…


  • Hej, hope to see it next year. Me and a lady from Australia I got to know this year onboard of the Noorderlicht booked the birdwatchers trip in 2018 🙂
    Still a long time to wait, but I’m really looking forward to it!


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