ARCTIC WINGS is a series of bird photos from Greenland by Carsten Egevang.
Birds are ubiquitous in Greenland, where they appear as microscopic elements in the amazing landscapes. The birds help define the changing of the seasons, with a brief and frantic breeding season in summer months, followed by a long period spent outside Greenland’s borders. The birds herald the spring while the land is still covered in snow and summer seems far off; they create the soundtrack to mountain treks and boat trips on the water.
Since my early childhood I have been fascinated by birds, and from my teenage years especially by Arctic birds. As a young biology student, I first came to Greenland almost three decades ago to participate in field work on peregrine falcons. Later, my master's degree was on the little auk in the Thule District, and my PhD thesis was on the incredible migration of the Arctic tern from Greenland to Antarctica - the longest annual migration in the world.
My fascination is primarily based on seeing first-hand how birds of Greenland cope in a harsh and seemingly inhospitable environment. But for those species that know how to adapt, the Arctic environment is a abundance of feeding opportunities - at least for a limited period of the year. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Timing in the Arctic is everything.
A world of seabirds
In Greenland, the land and the sea are covered in snow and ice for long periods. Few other places in the world have such enormous differences from season to season. During winter, nature goes into hibernation, but during the short hectic summer season everything explodes with life. Birds in Greenland have had to adapt to a seasonal pattern with abundant food in summer, and severe scarcity in the colder months. The window of opportunity for mating, laying and incubating eggs, and nurturing their chicks, is extremely limited, and only highly adapted species can thrive here. This means that Greenland bird populations are almost exclusively made up of migratory birds, who stay in the country briefly during summer and spend the winter in warmer latitudes. Only a few hardy species, such as Ptarmigan, Raven, and Cormorant, choose to spend their winters in Greenland.
In the Arctic, it is not land, but marine environments that represent the majority of the biological productivity. Nature’s resources are primarily found in the sea, and this is exploited by a range of seabird species. In the spring, a veritable explosion of unicellular diatom algae occurs in the sea, quickly followed by high numbers of copepods. This provides the foundation of the entire food chain, and constitutes the basis for vast quantities of fish, birds, and marine mammals. Greenland is home to a significant portion of the North Atlantic’s seabird populations, both in terms of numbers and diversity. This is especially the case for the Little Auk and the Brünnich's Guillemot, and even more for the Iceland Gull, where 98 percent of the global population are found within Greenland’s borders. Greenland’s waters are also important to seabirds from elsewhere, who spend the winters here. The open waters off south-western Greenland are particularly important for auks and eiders from the breeding populations in Canada and Svalbard.
Little auks (Alle alle), Ittoqqortoormiit, July 2003.