Bird Watching in the Russian Arctic

January 18, 2016   4 Comments »

Meghan’s face comes alive as we approach the bird cliffs. She’s calling out bird species for the rest of the people in the zodiac and rattling off the extremely subtle differences between them. She finds different species in various little crevices with her binoculars as if it’s a Where’s Waldo book. I just listen and wonder – how can someone get that excited about birds and every little intricacy?

Each night after dinner expedition guide, Samuel, held a bird club – people would get all excited about this and ensure they were done with dinner so they could get up to the library/bar to discuss birds, leaving me dumbfounded.
What does it take to be a birder?

Whatever it is I don’t have it.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love birds, it just means I’m not a birder.

I have fond memories of putting up our birdhouse every autumn at my childhood home in Peoria Illinois. We placed the birdhouse about 15 feet from our dining room window – a very often-used part of the house. We had a bird book and binoculars next to the window and my dad would identify birds. Even then I remember thinking the birds were cute, but I was only really interested in the chickadee and the cardinal, all the others just blended together.

Bird Watching in the Russian Arctic

The Russian arctic is one of the richest bird watching regions in Europe. On the shores and islands of the Arctic Seas live a real kingdom birds; snow geese, snowy owls, puffins,guillemots, eagles, ducks, gulls, terns and many other sea birds. This magnificent site, in combination with harsh northern nature, will leave you in awe of nature regardless if you are a birder or not.

No more looking out the dining room window, instead I am cruising in a part of the world that is known for bird species:

• 169+ bird species on Wrangel Island, boasting the largest population of breeding Snow Geese (108,000 nests on Wrangel)
• One of the rare locations to see the Snowy Owl hunting on the Arctic tundra
• A haven for Puffins, and Guillemots, Auklets, Ducks, Eagles, and more…

Bird Cliffs in the Russian Arctic

The Russian Arctic was home to the most densely populated bird cliffs I’ve eve seen. Even non-birders like me were in awe of the sheer numbers. At times I felt like I had sailed into this vortex of another world where birds were in charge and humans were the low ones on the totem pole. It was a strange feeling being so remote and so outnumbered. The longer you look at the cliffs the more your eye hones in on the birds and the more you see – it’s like a optical illusion.

“How many birds are there?” I ask as if I’m at a candy store guessing how many jelly beans in the jar – it’s an impossible question. Alex thinks about it a bit and says 24,000. I guess 74,000, and Samuel (the birder) weighs in at over 100,000. Whatever the answer is – we’ll never know – but there were more birds than you can ever imagine on the various cliffs we visited throughout the trip. Flying overhead, nestled into nooks of the cliffs, on rocks, everywhere. And amazingly I only got shit on once.

To the non-birder like me, I referred to them by their looks; the black and white ones, the ones that looked like a mix between a toucan and a parrot, the white bellied ones always perched on top, the ones with the red feet, the ones that look like a football, and the ones with the long neck. But to the birder name are important; they saw the Common or Black Guillemot, Horned or Tufted Puffin, the Kitiwake, the Pelagic Cormorant, and the Shortwinged Sheerwater.

Preobrazheniya Bay Bird Cliffs

Our first stop at cliffs.  We battled some large swells but it was worth it to get a first glimpse of the Arctic birds.

Nuneangan Island Bird Cliffs

This was a rock in the middle of nowhere, but it was here was I was in awe of the noise that all of these birds make.  This was also a great spot for whale watching!

Kolyuchun Island Bird Cliffs

The Kolyuchun Island was special as we were able to view the birds from the top of the cliff as opposed to bobbing in the water from the bottom.  It provided a whole new perspective and a easier way to get better closeups of the birds.

Herald Island Bird Cliffs

This island is haunting with it’s jagged pinnacles, I felt as if I were on a movie set as I bobbed up and down and tried to stay warm in the zodiac!

Wrangel Island Bird Viewing

Wrangel Island was more about hiking to see birds rather than bird cliffs.  Here we saw snowy owls, snow geese, and plenty of other birds in flight!
Where is Wrangel Island?

Big Diomedes Bird Cliffs

This was by far my favorite bird cliffs, Big Diomedes Island sits in the middle of the Bering Strait and is a stunning landscape even without the birds.  I was mesmerized by the combination of the green cliffsides, the colorful birds, and the rock formations.  If I let my mind wander I would have thought I was in Thailand, not in Arctic Russia.  The birds swooped down around us to dive for fish, they floated in the water, and some even had territorial fights.  It was my best, and last, bird cliff!

What does it Take to be a Birder?

I suppose patience is involved and that’s the main reason I’ll never be a birder. Birders love details –they are left brainers. I’m not interested in details, I just want high level information and then let me go back to thinking about the colors of the landscape, the shape of the clouds, the light dancing off a mountain peak, and the moody fog hanging over the horizon; classic right brainer.

In fact, many days bobbing in the water staring up at the cliffs of birds my right brain imagination ran wild. I kept thinking about how the cliffs were like the neighborhoods in NYC; people living on top of each other vying for space. As we moved further on the cliff the birds thinned out and I thought maybe this was the suburbs. I entertained myself and stopped thinking about how cold I was by simply imagining a whole bird city with a financial district, midtown, Harlem, and Yonkers suburbs; wondering how the birds made the decisions of where to go ‘live’.

bird watching

Binoculars are a must!!

One piece of equipment a birder needs? Binoculars. And of course I didn’t have any, but I did have a Sigma 500mm lens! As the expedition cruise went on each day I got better at capturing the fast moving birds with my big lens. My best Artic Wildlife photography definitely occurred at the end of the trip.

Regardless – you don’t have to be a birder to be on this trip. After all, if we were all the same and loved the same things, the world would be pretty boring. I’m pretty sure that all of us have something we are fanatical about – it could be birds, or it could be writing, travel, photography, football, or fashion. And I enjoyed every night when the birders went to bird club and there were a number of us who sort of bonded together as ‘casual birders’. And the casual birders simply sat around and drank wine and conversed about the world and our cultures.

Just as every bird has little intricacies that make them different – so do humans and that’s what makes life (and travel) exciting.

Gear you need for bird watching in the Arctic:


The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North

iBird bird watching app

And of course you have to get there…which isn’t easy! The only company that will get you there and get you the needed permits is Heritage Expeditions.

Bird Watching Tours:
Russian Far East Voyages
Or go South to the Sub Antarctic Islands or Antarctica

Follow my Travels.


I was a guest of Heritage Expeditions on this expedition cruise to Wrangel Island, however all opinions are my own.

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