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A totally unknown bird: the little auk

Greenland 2023: a summer with auks [episode 2/10]

"Little auk". The name probably means nothing to you, it is not very flattering either. In France, only ornithologists know this bird, and even then, mainly by name, since only a few specimens of the beast are seen each winter on the coasts of Nord Pas de Calais, on occasion of Atlantic storms. And the little auk does not take center stage in the many documentaries on the Arctic either!

Yet…! In northern Europe, the Norwegians call it “the king of alcids” (Alkekonge) and the Danes simply “the king of the seas” (Søkonge). Which is entirely legitimate, given the exceptional capabilities of this bird for life at sea (we'll come back to this in episode 3) and the fact that it's simply, with a population of 40 to 80 million individuals, one of the most abundant seabirds in the world (about 10% of all seabirds).

Well, let's come back to the famous "Alcidae".

There, sure you know some!

Yes, the one nicknamed the "sea parrot" for example, on the left below:

puffin, common guillemot and razorbill

Be careful not to confuse this family of birds with that of its cousins from the far south, the Spheniscidae, in other words... the penguins. Which, themselves, also dive excellently but… do not fly. They are still birds, yes, laying eggs and carrying a multitude of small tight feathers!

Now let’s take a look at a family portrait of North Atlantic alcids (© Andrew POWER):

On the far right is the great penguin, 80 cm high and 5 kg on the scale. The species did not fly and was widely hunted for its meat, eggs, feathers, until it completely disappeared in the 19th century (in 1840 in Great Britain, and definitively in 1844 in Iceland).

And the smallest of the band, on the far left, is the little auk! 20 centimeters for only 150 grams! A small white spot above the eye and a few fine white feathers on the wing in terms of coquetry.

Like all seabirds, little auks spend most of their lives at sea and only return to land for the breeding season in spring. They nest in the Arctic (Greenland, Svalbard, Russia) in large rocky scree slopes, including those around "our" little red hut. From here, we can only see flights at the ridges and hear a few muffled sounds. We therefore have to climb a steep little climb to see them up close.

And there... the spectacle is striking...

August 4, 2 a.m. (in real life, it's less dark!)

The first impressions are first of all those of multitude (it's true that there are several hundred thousand around here!!), and also of movement, permanent activity, with these great circular flights. And then there is the noise, omnipresent, whether it is cries in flight or neighborhood discussions on land. Also the good smell (this is entirely subjective, of course) typical of seabird colonies.

To finish this portrait, let's point out that the little auks are not shy. We can, by going slowly, approach them very closely!

[next episode] Science first!

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