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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

September 2009

23 September - Tunu nunaanngilaq - nujuartuuvorli*

Above: This is the view when you step out of the airport terminal at Kulusuk

Without having visited the place I've had a bit of a thing for Greenland for many years The promise of spectacular scenery, the harsh environment and the totally different culture made Greenland seem an irresistible location, so much so that I wondered if I'd be disappointed when I actually went. I'd been putting it off for years (too expensive, I could see more new birds virtually anywhere else in the world etc.) but at the end of June JÓH and I took the plunge and booked a flight to Kulusuk on Greenland's east coast. The east coast of Greenland is far more sparely populated than the west coast, being home to only 3,500 people in two areas, the area round Ammassilik at 65°N and Ittoqqortoormiit at 70°N. Apart from these two areas and a couple of Danish scientific bases the east coast is wild uninhabited; and it's only just under two hours away by plane from Iceland, the shortest international flight. And what a flight it is! An hour or so into the journey, we began to see an oil-like slick on the water, the edge of the ice pack. The slick became thicker until we were flying over great icebergs, some so large that they contained their own lakes of brilliant blue meltwater. The approach to Kulusuk airport can only be made in good weather as the coastal mountains form a formidable barrier, and the view on stepping on to the tarmac at Kulusuk airport surely rivals that of any other airport in the world. My first impressions of East Greenland left me speechless: high, jagged mountains as far as the eye could see, separated by stretches of deep blue sea, choked with ice. We did the 45-minute walk to the village of Kulusuk in open-mouthed amazement at the surroundings, the only birds being Snow Bunting, Wheatear and, rather surprisingly, a Redwing. The village of just under 300 people was bustling with life, with kids kicking a football around, village elders on benches watching the world go by and people milling around and socialising in the pleasant sunny weather. We didn't stay long in Kulusuk, but got onto a speedboat for the 30-minute white-knuckle ride to Ammassalik island, weaving through labyrinthine channels in the sea ice, and still gasping in wonder at the serrated ramparts forming the coastal mountain range.
Above: View over Kulusuk

Tasiilaq, the only real town on the east coast, seemed vast after Kulusuk and has about 1,900 inhabitants. It's an immensely attractive place: a jumble of brightly coloured timber houses arranged on steep hillsides around the harbour, but although more orderly than Kulusuk, it retains a particular dishevelled charm about it. Needless to say it is surrounded by spectacular mountains, with the conical mass of Polhems Fjeld on the opposite side of the bay being particularly impressive. It is said that once you think you've seen the world, there's always Greenland, and Tasiilaq is a gateway to adventure, be it mountaineering, kayaking or expeditions on to the Inland Ice. JÓH and I weren't as adventurous as that and spent our time walking around the village (fascinating) and on a day hike behind the village over into the next valley.
The birdlife on Ammassalik island is not prolific, most species are found in Iceland and are more common there, with the exception of Snow Bunting, which is common in Iceland but absolutely abundant in Greenland and Lapland Longspur which is very scarce in Iceland but delightfully common in and around Tasiilaq. Wheatears were the second most common species, while it was good to get good views of the local race of Common Redpoll, confirming my suspicions that rostrata are common visitors to my garden feeders in mid-winter. Mammals were few and far between, and we were surprised not to see any Arctic Foxes (hunting pressure?). Just to be on the safe side I asked the locals three times whether there was any chance of encountering Polar Bears while wandering around the island and the answer was a categorical 'no chance in summer' although they are found in the area in winter and spring. Of course, we didn't encounter a Polar Bear but thinking back, perhaps we should have been a little more concerned. After all I've seen a Polar Bear in Iceland recently, yet if anyone had asked me beforehand about the chances of encountering one while hiking in Iceland, I'd have laughed – the chances of one in East Greenland in summer must be significantly higher. I won't deny that on several occasions while walking through the valleys and along the coast I had frequent thoughts of 'what if…', and repeatedly scanned the hillsides for the best possible escape routes if a hulking white beast were to lurk over the brow of the next hill.

Above: The 'old town' of Tasiilaq

No Polar Bears or Narwhals and a mere seventeen species of bird but these four days in East Greenland were simply superb. My fascination for Greenland proved to be well justified and I have no doubt whatsoever I'll be visiting Kalaallit Nunaat again soon. What a place.

*Please refer to your nearest Greenlandic dictionary

to be continued

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