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N of 66o 33'N,(),

Ocean/pack ice, barren ground, permafrost, tundra, lakes and many rivers, 11,000,000 square miles (inc. land)


Birding Site Guide

The Arctic realm, it is scientifically defined as starting at latitude 66o 33'N, just N of Iceland, as the area where the mid-winter sun does not appear above the horizon. For bio-geographies as with the Antarctic opinions differ. Russia has the most land in this area, followed by Greenland and Canada. The N most tip of Greenland, Kaffeklubben Ø (Coffee Klatsch Island) is the most N land in the world. Most northern in Eurasia is Franz Josef Land and on the mainland North Cape, Norway, in N America mainland Barrow, Alaska and in Russia the islands of Severnaya Zemlya. The land is covered with snow and ice for 9 months of the year at least, the growing season for vegetation even with long summer days is short, between 3 weeks and 3 months, and this causes stunted vegetation. There are in any case only 350 species of plant within this area. The only ‘trees’ growing are dwarf shrubs such as Artic Willows birches, Alders and some conifers no more than a metre or two tall in sheltered areas with lots of sun and where the soil is good. Larch trees on the S end of the Russian Taymyr Peninsula are the most N trees in the world. Trees at this extreme limit may only reach 1 m or so but can easily be over 300 years old. In Canada, the main conifers are Spruces. Several lichens grow, the most important being Caribou Moss/Reindeer Lichen Cladonia rangiferina which is the main diet of this animal. This grows large and abundantly, but snow often has to be pushed aside with antlers to get at it. The coldest areas are far inland and can be as low as -32oC, as the sea is a better insulator and therefore it is often milder near the coast, particularly on the N Russia coast where the gulf stream terminates. These coastal areas are however often barren due to salt spray, winds and poor soils.

Greenland is the largest island in the world, Other major islands are Svalbard 23,958 square miles.

Many Polar species (plant, animals and fungi) are circumpolar in their range, meaning they occur throughout the area not just in one landmass or quadrant. This is largely due to the last ice-age 10 to 12,000 years ago which made land and ice bridges between the landmasses, from which land based animals and plants could spread. Over the intervening millennia the separated populations have diverged in many species and are now mainly treated as separate species, such as Elk, Moose, Caribou/Reindeer. With global warming these populations will remain isolated and probably could not easily interbreed now anyway.

There are a great many problems facing the wildlife of the Arctic, not least of which is global warming, which threatens such charismatic creatures as Polar Bears as well as tundra breeding birds. Another great threat, partly driven by this warming and the loss of sea ice is the race for oil exploitation, with many countries now scrambling to secure ‘their rights’ to various portions of the Arctic. The first drilling in the Arctic has already taken place this year (2012, by BP, Arctic Alaskan waters) and the Russians already have a mobile platform heading there. Another major threat in some areas at least is dumping of nuclear and toxic waste. It has recently come to light and been admitted by the Russian parliament that all Russia’s spent nuclear waste (several hundred thousand tonnes) was dumped in the Kara Sea, effectively wiping out all higher life forms there and ruining the fishing industry. Even a stricken nuclear submarine ended its life there with its two reactors still in danger of going critical. Russia has at least acknowledged this latter in the hope that some foreign power may be able to help remove and decommission it safely. Aside from these pressures, the population of the far north has grown immensely now that the native peoples no longer have to rely on hunter gather lifestyle without motorised transport. Now they have villages and towns with supermarkets and fossil fuel heated homes. Their snow mobiles mean they can travel much faster and their new guns mean they can shoot far more prey at much longer range. Since many native people still really heavily on the fur trade to provide an income all these factors are having a drastic effect on wildlife, which is still in many ways trying to recover from the whaling decimation and unregulated exploitation of other species from the Victorian era, when several species went extinct and many came close to the brink of no return.


Birds: both Nearctic and Palearctic

So far 50? bird species have been recorded, with only 12 species remaining in the winter. Some are breeding endemics/near endemics: Of the recently extinct species of birds there was the flightless Northern Penguin, or Great Auk Pinguinus impennis (1844), whose family name was then subsequently transferred to the southern flightless family we know as Penguins today. Other recently extinct species are Spectacled Cormorant Phalacrocorax perspicillatus (1820) and Labrador Duck Camptorhynchus labradorius (1875). Many more are sure to follow now human induced global warming has passed the tipping point. Today Least Auklet number over 100 million is the most abundant followed by Little Auk with about 80 million. Great Northern Diver, Red-throated Diver, several species of Eider and Skuas, many wading birds, Raven, Ptarmigan, Willow Ptarmigan, several owls species including Snowy Owl, Sandhill Crane number around 20,000, Snow Geese number around 250,000, Gyr Falcon, Peregrine?, Fulmar the commonest gull in the world. Very few passerines Lapland Bunting, Snow Bunting, are all to be found. For a full species list of birds see Avibase.


Both Nearctic and Palearctic

Mammals Extinct: species from as recent as 12,000 years ago include the Woolly Rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis, Mastodon Mammut americanum, Megatherium Megatherium americanuma ground sloth as big as a house and Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius,. Over a hundred thousand of the latter have been dug up today in Russia and are the main source of legal ivory in the world. Preying on these would have been huge predators such as Dire Wolves Canis Dirus, (twice as large as today’s), Saber-toothed Cats Smilodon gracilis, and Cave Lions Panthera Leo Spelaea, far larger than any cat today and huge Cave Bears Ursus splelaeus, with legs much longer than any today. And of course Neanderthal man, who though not too bright would have easily been a match for any member of the Tea Party in the USA today. Most recently, Stellar’s Sea Cow Hydrodamalis gigas, was finished off in 1768 by man for food. Today we still have some (smaller) but still spectacular animals left. The following list is fairly comprehensive for N America less so for the Russian Arctic. Some aquatic mammals not included here may marginally range into to the Arctic, but source maps vary. Introduced species have been ignored.

Surviving mammals for both region: Masked Shrew Sorex cinereus, Timber/Grey Wolf Canis lupus, Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus, the second largest bear in the world; Polar Bear Thalarctos maritinus, Short-tailed Weasel Mustela erminea, Wolverine Gulo luscus, Walrus Odobenus rosmarus, Harp Seal Pagophilus groenlandicus, Ringed Seal Pusa hispida, Common/Harbor Seal Phoca vitulina, Bearded Seal Erignathus barbatus, Hooded Seal Cystophora cristata, Bowhead Whale Balaena mysticetus, Northern Right Whale Eubalaena glacialis, Grey Whale Eschrichtius robustus, Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus, Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus, Beluga Delphinapterus leucas, Narwhal Monodon monoceros, Northern Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon ampullatus, Orca Orcinus orca, Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena, Greenland Caribou/Reindeer Rangifer tarandus, Musk Ox Ovibos moschatus (tens of thousands), Tundra Red-backed/Ruddy Vole Clethrionomys rutilus, Tundra/Root Vole Microtus oeconomus, Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus, House Mouse Mus Musculus, Mountain Hare Lepus timidus.


Only Palearctic

Least Shrew Sorex minutissimus, Common Shrew Sorex araneus, Pygmy Shrew Sorex minutus, Water Shrew Neomys fodiens, Northern Bat Eptesicus nilssoni, European Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, Raccoon Dog Nyctereutes procyonoides, Brown Bear Ursus arctos, Weasel Mustela nivalis, European Mink Mustela lutreola, Pine Marten Martes martes, Sable Martes zibelina, Otter Lutra lutra, Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus, Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae only into Arctic in this region, Sperm Whale Physeter macrocephalus again only ranges into Arctic here, Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus again only ranges into Arctic here, White-beaked Dolphin Lagenorhynchus albirostris again only ranges into Arctic here, European Elk Cervus alces, Red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris, Siberian Chipmunk Tamias sibiricus, European Beaver Castor fiber, Norway Lemming Lemmus lemmus, Grey-sided Vole Clethrionomys rufocanus, Northern Water Vole Arvicola terrestris, Field Vole Microtus agrestis.


Only Nearctic

Note: American Elk Cervus canadensis does not range into Arctic as European Elk does. Arctic Shrew Sorex arcticus, Montane/Dusky Shrew Sorex monticolus, Grizzly Bear Ursus horribilis, Black Bear Ursus americanus, (the largest bear Alaskan Brown Bear Ursus middendorffi does not reach Arctic Alaska). Least Weasel Mustela rixoso, American Mink Mustela vison, River Otter Lutra canadensis, Coyote Canis latrans, American Red Fox Vulpes fulva, American Lynx Lynx canadensis, Ribbon Seal Histriophoca fasciata, Hoary Marmot Marmota caligata, Arctic Ground Squirrel Citellus parryi, Beaver Castor canadensis, Muskrat Ondatra zibethica, Greenland Collared Lemming Dicrostonyx groenlandicus, Brown Lemming Lemmus trimucronatus, Meadow Vole Microtus pennsylvanicus, Yellow-cheeked Vole Microtus xanthognathus, Alaskan Vole Microtus miurus, Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus, House Mouse Mus Musculus, Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum, Arctic Hare Lepus arcticus, Tundra Hare Lepus othus, Snowshoe Hare Lepus americanus (flocks of a thousand are sometimes seen), Moose Alces alces, Woodland Caribou Rangifer caribou, Barren Ground Caribou Rangifer arcticus (2 to 3 million), Musk Ox Ovibos moschatus  (tens of thousands), White Sheep Ovis dalli.

There are also several species which range a little into the region or come very close such as American Marten Martes americana.

Fish: Many species/races of Salmonidea: Arctic Char Salvelinus alpinus, Char Salvelinus alpinus, Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush

Plants: Small flowering plants (including grasses) flourish in open barren areas where trees do not grow due to high winds or sea spray. They like fairly dry, quite rich soils: Arctic DandelionTeraxacum sp., Hairy Lupine Lupinus sericeus, Orange Groundsel Senecio fuscatus, Lousewort Pedicularis capitata, Arctic Poppy Papaver radicatum, Mountain Avens Dryas integrifolia, Purple Saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia, Spider Saxifrage Saxifraga flagellaris, Wedge-leaved Primrose Primula cuneifolia, Cloudberry Rubus chamaemorus, Crowberry Empetrum nigrum, Cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Cranberry Vaccinium macrocarpon, Bear Berry Arctostraphylas uva-ursi, Glacier Buttercup Ranunculus glacialis, Trailing Azalea Kalmia procumbens, Forget-me-Not Eritrichium spp. and Mountain Sorrel Oxyria digya. In wetter parts there are several species of Cottongrass Eriophorum, Rush and Sedge such as Hepburn’s Sedge Carex nardina hepburnii. Tree families were given above some specific species include: Ruby-tipped Arctic Marsh Willow Salix arctophila, Arctic Willow Salix arctica, Black Spruce Picea mariana and others.

Author: BSG