"What is that?!"
On 28 May 2020 I was on my way back to the meteorological station at Bear Island, located in the Barents Sea at 74°30'N 19°06'E, when I saw a bird that looked totally different from the other alcids flying around over the area. Seen from quite some distance and flying straight towards me, I got the impression of a heavily built, dark-bodied bird with a white face, unlike anything I've ever seen.
Venke noticed a heavily built, dark-bodied alcid heading straight towards her, and knew instantly it was something she'd never seen before (Venke Ivarrud).
I enjoy watching birds, but I am definitely not among those who could identify any species from a few notes of a song, nor from a glimpse of "something" flying by. My solution is photography. Even a lousy image is often good enough to identify what you have seen in retrospect. Therefore my Nikon D500 always comes along when I am out in the field. Normally it is also easily accessible and ready to 'shoot'. Luckily I had brought my camera along on this day in May, and I succeeded capturing a few images of the – for me – weird bird as it flew the first time. However, still I had no clue about what I was trying photograph. My focus was on keeping the bird in the frame and pressing the shutter button.
After circling around out on the sea, the bird returned to shore where it flew into a ledge in the mountainside. Luckily it was visible from my position, even if the distance was great. After studying the bird in my binoculars, and also having zoomed in on a couple of the images on my camera, I began to suspect that this could be a really rare bird for this latitude – a Tufted Puffin.
When the bird eventually flew out from the ledge in the mountain, flying towards me once again, I was sure. This time the bird flew by, pretty close to where I was standing, and I was really excited when I realized that I actually was capturing photos of a Tufted Puffin at Bear Island. Unbelievable! Sometimes one is simply lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
A two-man field party from the Norwegian Polar Institute saw a Tufted Puffin at Bear Island last year, in July 2019. It seems most likely that this year’s bird is same as that one, returning for another summer. Although definitely the first sighting of this species at Bear Island, whether it was also a first for Norway, is uncertain. In a scientific cruise report from the research vessel RV Polarstern, a Tufted Puffin was seen on the western side of Spitsbergen, on 7 August 1997. Dr Hinrich Bäsemann and a group scientists gathered on deck observed the bird as it flew past the vessel. Bäsemann never doubted that it was a Tufted Puffin but, unfortunately, no camera was accessible, and the recording was not being documented by any photo.
Stats & facts
The first accepted Western Palearctic record of Tufted Puffin concerned an adult seen at in the bay at Laholmsbukten, Sweden, on 1 and 8 June 1994. Then, on 16 September 2009, an adult caused bedlam when it was found in The Swale off Oare Marshes, Kent – although it hung around for no more than a matter of minutes (read more). The Bear Island bird was the third for the region, followed by a fourth in winter 2019-20, when an immature was shot at sea in the Faroe Islands (read more). Additionally, one was photographed from the Scillonian III off Land’s End, Cornwall, on 20 May 2016 – although this bird was never submitted to the BBRC and thus not formally accepted. More on that final bird can be read here.