Shell game: Seabirds and scientists in Ny-Ålesund sent scrambling as polar bears increasingly raiding nests for eggs


Polar bears losing their traditional hunting areas on the sea ice due to climate change are increasingly seeking out seabird nests for their eggs, in turn disrupting the peak season for birds who are breeding and researchers who are studying the animals.

A nest raid by a female polar bear and her cub last Sunday near Ny-Ålesund forced researchers to temporarily abandon their annual population count of common eiders and barnacle geese in Kongsfjorden. This summer’s intrusion comes after the same bear raided 80 eider birds’ nests holding about 300 eggs in three to four days.


Barnacle geese are among the seabirds finding their nests increasingly under threat from polar bears in Ny-Ålesund. Photo by Geir Wing Gabrielsen / Norwegian Polar Institute.

“Many female eiders and geese have lost their nests after the polar bear robberies this year,” said Geir Wing Gabrielsen, a seabird researcher for the Norwegian Polar Institute, in a report at the institute’s website detailing the bears’ altered behavior.

The mother bear, believed to be 14 years old, is familiar to researchers in the area, and tends to wander from  Woodfjorden or Raudfjorden to Kongsfjorden and Krossfjorden every summer. She and her cub were observed in Woodfjorden in late April, when researchers removed a tracking collar she had been fitted with.

The presence of sea ice, which polar bears traditionally rely on to hunt seals, has diminished drastically since 2006, especially in west Spitsbergen where during the past few years large areas have been ice-free during the winter. Increasing tourist traffic in some areas where bears are able to hunt is also disrupting hunting activities, with The Governor of Svalbard closing several high-traffic areas this spring because of travelers disturbing bears and seals.