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Red-Throated Divers

August 3, 2018

At 78˚ north, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is a wild land of glaciers and frozen tundra. This makes it a very alluring but challenging place for a wildlife photographer. Most visitors go on wildlife cruises dedicated to seeking out Arctic treasures such as polar bears, blue whales and arctic foxes. These excursions often require a lot of time and money to join, but are essential if you want expert guides who can take you out to more remote parts of the archipelago. Last June however, I opted for the comparatively budget option of renting a timber lodge for 1 week with friends in the town of Longyearbyen and letting the animals come to us.

 

Having spent much of May researching locations for spotting wildlife near the town (see my blog about planning trips for more on this), one place stood out in particular: the Adventdalen Lagoons. These are a mosaic of small ponds scattered along a 30km stretch of tundra between Adventdalen, an old mining town, and Longyearbyen where the Adventdalselva river flows into the Arctic Ocean. There is one dirt-track road that conveniently runs straight through the glacial valley, making it easy to stop and scan each lagoon from the car (cars being essential here because of the serious polar bear risk). The larger lagoons support a mouthwatering variety of rare waders and ducks such as Red-Necked and Grey Phalaropes, Golden Plover and King Eider (photo below), and even a few mega rarities such as Steller's Eider and an American Snow Goose seen whilst we were there. 

But in spite of the overwhelming variety of rare birds, it was a commoner species that captured my attention and stirred my imagination: the Red-Throated Diver. A shy bird of refined beauty, and with a haunting wail that echoes in the dawn, this is a bird I've longed to photograph. I've often seen these birds often on winter lochs in Scotland, but each sighting has been almost invariably at distance. 

And it's only at close range and in great light that you can truly see just how stunning these birds are with their ruby throats and eyes, and their snake-like stripy throats. 

It was during one of our "midnight-sun drives" along the stretch of road to the Adventdalen mines, scanning every lagoon carefully for photo subjects, that we came upon a courting pair of divers by the roadside. Birds in this part of the world seem to be less fearful of people, so although they were a little wary, we were able to approach very close. They hadn't shown signs of breeding yet, but from their constant calling to each other and exchanging gifts of soft nesting material, it was clear the time was soon to come.

Sure enough, over the next few days we saw the female getting comfortable on her gradually growing platform of pondweed and feathers. Although they take turns to sit on the nest whilst the other goes looking for nesting material, the slightly smaller size of the nesting bird looks more like a female (the sexes looking otherwise identical). 

On our penultimate morning, we watched the female scramble up onto the bank. Divers aren't really made for walking on land, as their legs are so far back on their bodies, so it was amusing to see her waddle up to her nest. But what happened next truly surprised us - within a matter of seconds, she deposited a huge green egg into the velvety moss! 

She gently rearranged tufts of moss around the egg to better incubate it, whilst her partner drove off any unwanted attention from other divers and geese. 

It was surprising to see them act so aggressively towards any bird that came near and yet they couldn't have cared less about our presence a few metres away. So much so that, once the trouble had passed, both divers swam off together, leaving the nest unguarded. 

 

This gave Michel Giaccaglia, one member of our group, an exciting idea. Taking great care not to disturb, we crept in with his GoPro and fixed it among the tangles of weeds at the head of the nest. As the female made her way back, we slipped back and watched the action unfold before us.

Now it's easy to say in the heat of the moment that what followed was one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed in nature - but 2 months on from Svalbard, I still wear an immense grin from ear to ear as I write this. Suspecting nothing unusual, the diver clambered up onto the bank and settled on her egg, giving a loud hollow wail to the clouds and her partner as she did so. 

 

It was a privilege to witness their behaviour and affections so close, and to be accepted as a non-threatening presence during such an intimate time of their life. I am happy to share Michel's wonderful video below, a montage of footage from the GoPro and his DSLR camera. Play with sound to hear the diver's haunting wails! 

 

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