North Northumberland Bird Club

ARCTIC ADVENTURE: At the recent meeting of the North Northumberland Bird Club, chairman Graham Bell did not need to introduce the speaker as he was so well known to us all. His reputation had filled the hall to capacity. We anticipated brilliant photography, amusing incidents, ornithological detail, poetry and music around the theme of the Arctic – and we got them all.

Graham has travelled to nearly all the countries north of the Arctic Circle though he admitted there was still one place unvisited – Graham Bell Island – in Frank Josef Land, once the site of a Russian cold war airbase, which I believe is no longer open to visitors, so he will need to pull some strings in order to visit it as well.

We were served a feast of natural history of the Arctic. A list of species that were illustrated is too long to record. It covered mammals, plants and even insects, as well as birds. Who will forget the photograph of the hesitant polar bear who took three goes to pluck up courage to leap across a lead in the ice and was then captured on camera in mid-air?

I have had the good fortune to see a Pomarine skua in Svalbard, but who besides Graham would have thought of tossing it a piece of toast? I guess it would have made an interesting change from a diet of lemmings, its normal food.

There was a picture of an Arctic poppy growing amongst some debris left by man. Would the delicate plant outlive the debris? Long term, we were told, the answer was yes.

There was much to learn from this talk as we were reminded of details such as that female long-tailed ducks have exceptionally short tails and that male phalaropes do all the hard work of incubation and looking after the young. We were surprised to learn that the black-headed gull which is so common in this country is a rarity in the Arctic and that kittiwakes in Spitzbergen have black legs while those in the Bering Straits have red legs.

The surprising quantity of bird life in the Arctic was made clear by a slide showing a large flock of little auks that was so dense that it affected Graham’s light meter reading. So whether it was pale-bellied Brent geese, which many members will have seen in large numbers on Holy Island before they return to Spitzbergen to breed, or the fabulous pure white ivory gulls, of which there are 44 colonies on Spitzbergen alone.

But we can all be grateful that the fragile arch of ice did not fall at the wrong moment and submerge our chairman in the icy depths and that the sleeping whale that he tickled did no more than grunt its disapproval.