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One Gyr Falcon, 38 dogs and 100,000 Little Auks – Birding East Greenland by dogsled

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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 16:48   #1
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One Gyr Falcon, 38 dogs and 100,000 Little Auks – Birding East Greenland by dogsled

This probably has the highest "words to birds ratio" of any trip report ever written but I thought I'd post it anyway as trip reports from Greenland are few and far between.

Introduction
In May I visited the isolated Greenlandic village of Ittoqqortoormiit and travelled along the outer coast of Liverpool Land by dogs led for six days. It’s an area of East Greenland which I’d been dreaming of visiting for many years. East Greenland is not a place visited by many birders; it's remote, expensive to get to and in terms of avian diversity, then it’s not exactly Ecuador. But one of the things I enjoy most about birding is seeing birds on their breeding grounds and in dramatic landscapes and East Greenland simply boasts some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. East Greenland just turns my crank and I find the allure of the Far North simply irresistible. This is quite an affliction for a birder; money and valuable holiday time go into visiting a place where your bird list might make it into double figures if you are lucky, and the chances of a new species are virtually zero. But reducing the sheer magnificence of the High Arctic landscapes and the overwhelming sense of wilderness to the statistics of a short bird list does the place a great injustice. This is the Arctic you, or at least some of us, dream about.

Greenland is easily the most sparsely populated country on Earth and around 95% of its population lives on the west coast. East Greenland is isolated physically from the west coast by the ice sheet and only 3,000 people live on a coastline stretching 2,800 km. Around 2,500 people live in seven settlements in the Ammassalik area at 65°N. The remaining 470 inhabit Greenland’s remotest village, Ittoqqortoormiit, situated at the mouth of the world’s largest fjord, Scoresby Sund, at approximately 70°N. And it is remote: the closest village in Greenland lies 800 km to the south, while to the north a number of Danish scientists and military personnel live in splendid isolation at four research stations. Not surprisingly the area sees rather few tourists, mainly mountaineers, cross-country skiers, kayakers and hikers, plus the odd cruise ship in August when ice conditions allow ships to enter the fjord. Tourists travelling independently have to be well prepared because outside the village there are no facilities whatsoever, just wilderness for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. The area has a large Polar Bear population so it’s pretty much essential to be armed outside the village and to know how to use a rifle if the worst comes to the worst.

Getting there and getting around
Air Iceland (Flugfélag Íslands) flies on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Reykjavík to Nerlerit Inaat (Danish: Constable Pynt, English: Constable Point) in Jameson Land, which is an airport in the middle of nowhere, i.e. there is no settlement there, uninhabited wilderness starts as soon as you leave the airport. From there it is a 15-minute helicopter flight with Air Greenland (important to book in advance) to Ittoqqortoormiit, known as Scoresbysund in Danish. It’s not a cheap flight but the alternative is to walk the 39 km across Hurry Inlet and the mountains of Liverpool Land, in which case don’t forget that gun. East Greenland is one place you don’t need to worry about which car hire company to choose. In spring you can get around by snowmobile, dog sled, skis or walk with snow-shoes. In the short summer you can travel by boat or on foot.

Travelling by dog sled
We wanted to travel the area by dog sled and we got in touch with the local tourist office Nanu Travel (www.nanutravel.dk) who offer six-day dogsledding trips around Liverpool Land with local hunters. This was an absolutely brilliant way to travel through the area, after all the Inuit have been using dog sleds for thousands of years and still do their hunting from dogsleds in this area. Travelling by dog sled is not luxurious, it's no good if you have a bad back, you often have to hold on tight over rough ice and on a couple of occasions we had to leap off the sled at the last minute as the dogs disappeared into two-metre troughs in the ice. Our three guides were all professional hunters and incredibly skilled handlers; their dog teams are their most valuable asset. The dogs are incredibly hardy but good natured to people, if not always to each other. But they are not pets and their handlers control them with rigid discipline. The accommodation on this trip was sleeping on the floor in hunting cabins and we had 2,200,000 km2 of outdoor toilet facilities to choose from.

When to go
Ittoqqortoormiit lies in the High Arctic and its climate is accordingly harsh, with long, cold and stormy winters and short, cool summers with summer temperatures averaging around 4°C in the warmest month. The sun is down from late November to mid-January and permanently above the horizon from mid-May until the end of July. The sea is frozen from November to July. The best months for dog sledding and cross-country skiing are March-May. We found May a perfect time to visit, with 24-hour daylight, manageable temperatures (0°C to -15°C) and migrating birds were returning. Temperatures in March to April can still be in the minus 20s. July and August are supposed to be the best months for hiking, with June apparently being less suitable owing to the masses of wet snow.

Birds and mammals
This wasn’t really a birding trip and visiting East Greenland is a busman’s holiday for the Icelandic birder; there was no prospect of any new birds for me. I only had three target birds for this trip: Little Auk, Gyr Falcon and Arctic Redpoll. The area is much better for mammals (in theory) and this area of Greenland supports large populations of Polar Bear and Musk Ox, as well as Arctic Foxes, Arctic Hares and very rarely, Arctic Wolves. Narwhal, Walrus and four species of seal are also found in and around the fjord but seeing them takes time, luck and patience. I missed out on the bears (just unlucky, they range widely and there was a lot of sea ice out there – an acquaintance of mine saw 7 bears here in March) and Musk Ox (they are common further in the fjord, away from the outer coast) but Arctic Hare proved common and I saw one Arctic Fox and heard plenty (a sound I’m very familiar with from Iceland). Seals were quite common along the ice edge, all Ringed Seal. Just north of this area is the world’s largest national park, the North-east Greenland National Park. This is undoubtedly one of the premier sites in the Arctic for wildlife but it is not geared for visitors at all. Unless you are part of an official scientific expedition the only realistic way of visiting the park is by cruise ship.

Pic 1: Ropey picture of Greenland map on kitchen wall. Area visited is the "bulge" halfway up east coast.
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 16:57   #2
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Saturday 12 May 2012: Reykjavík – Nerlerit Inaat – Ittoqqortoormiit
Flying to Greenland is generally a spectacular experience so we arrived at Reykjavík City Airport early to try and get window seats on the left-hand side of the plane. Our fellow passengers, with veritable mountains of luggage, were a group of British mountaineers bound for the highest mountain in the Arctic, Gunnbjørn Fjeld, and an intrepid group of French cross-country skiers in their sixties. I really hope I’m still game for that kind of adventure when I’m that age. While we got a window seat, the low clouds foiled all views of Iceland but after an hour or so the clouds thinned to reveal at first an ice-filled sea, then solid sea ice, the formidable ramparts of the Blosseville Coast of East Greenland and finally snow-covered tundra of Jameson Land. Upon landing at Nerlerit Inaat we had hardly stepped out into the chill spring air before we were whisked straight into a waiting Air Greenland helicopter for the 39 km flight across Hurry Inlet and southern Liverpool Land to Ittoqqortoormiit. The first impressions of Ittoqqortoormiit were rather pleasant. It enjoys a great location on a steep hillside, overlooking the biggest fjord in the world, and the red, yellow, green houses provide some contrast to dominant colours of blue (sky) and blinding white (earth and sea). As always when arriving in a new country I tried to guess the first species and as I’ve been to Greenland before, I knew that Snow Bunting would be a pretty safe bet. And I was right as there were Snow Buntings singing from every roof top and in song flight in every direction. The second ubiquitous bird was soon seen flying over the village, Raven, one of very few birds that overwinter in this area. Not surprisingly, it snows a lot in Ittoqqortoormiit and the village was simply buried under snow. Snowmobile is the preferred form of transport in the village at this time of year, some of the roads 2-3 metres higher than they would be in summer when the snow has finally melted. After a visit to the Nanu office to go over the trip details and to pick up our thermal suits and boots, we had the rest of the day to explore the steep streets of the world’s most easterly Inuit settlement, with its profusion of sled dogs, playing kids and whizzing snowmobiles.
Ittoqqortoormiit is a hunting community and many of the locals still hunt for a living. The area is allocated a quota of 35 Polar Bear and 150 Musk Ox a year and evidence of recent hunts was evident in the village, with several Polar Bear skins and Musk Ox hides hanging out to dry, seal skins poking through the snow and even a Walrus skull next to one house. The next bird on the list was another very familiar one, Glaucous Gull, whose dark-looking back threw me for a minute – it was just the contrast with the dazzling white sea ice that made it look uncharacteristically dusky. An iceberg about a kilometre off shore looked worth investigating and after stupidly wondering whether the sea ice was safe to walk on (the football pitch complete with goals marked out on the ice and numerous snowmobile and dogsled tracks were pretty obvious signs that the ice was completely safe), we went and took photos of a 10 metre high lump of ice, to the bemusement of the locals. The rest of the day was spent admiring the views across the fjord, taking photos of the kamikaze kids cycling down steep, snow covered roads with no brakes, packing and repacking our bags for the trip north tomorrow, and just enjoying being in completely different cultural surroundings. In the late evening we walked up the steep slope to the weather station to see the resident meteorologist release the 11 p.m. weather balloon. He told us it was -7°C but it felt colder as a bitter northerly wind had begun to blow and it had started to snow so we decided to retire for the night.

Photos
1. Ittoqqortoormiit from the helicopter, the only settlement for hundreds of miles!
2. Seaside view of the village
3. It snows a lot here and this car is not going anywhere
4. Local kids cycling down impossibly steep streets without brakes
5. First of many poor bird photos. Greenlandic Snow Buntings are much whiter than the birds I see in Iceland.
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 17:06   #3
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A dream location for me so looking forward for more - and there would definitely be lifers (2 in the title!) for me
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 08:03   #4
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Hmmm......very envious and look forward to hearing about the rest of the trip. I trust you got to sample some of the local delicacies......
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 14:42   #5
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A dream location for me so looking forward for more - and there would definitely be lifers (2 in the title!) for me
I've been to Singapore and it would be hard to imagine two countries which differ as much as Greenland and Singapore in just about every respect.

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Hmmm......very envious and look forward to hearing about the rest of the trip. I trust you got to sample some of the local delicacies......
Let's just say I was given things to eat every night that aren't available in a supermarket near you.
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 14:54   #6
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Sunday 13 May 2012: Ittoqqortoormiit – Kap Hope

An early morning walk to check out the weather (cold) revealed a lonely Meadow Pipit picking at a piece of bare ground between mountainous snow drifts, along with the ubiquitous Snow Buntings. We were picked up in the morning and taken in a wooden trailer towed by a snowmobile to meet our guide. If you’ve ever wondered what the most uncomfortable mode of transport known to man is, then it’s a wooden trailer being towed behind a snowmobile. Our party of five tourists was divided on to three sleds each driven by a local hunter and pulled by a total of 38 dogs. After watching our guide Johan expertly pack the sled and sort the ten dogs out, we were off at breakneck speed down a steep slope on to the frozen fjord, the dogs straining at the harnesses. And then we promptly stopped as both my brother and I fell off the sled after about five seconds. Johan acted as if he hadn’t noticed but it wasn’t an auspicious start to our career in dogsledding. But soon we were off again and we immediately fell under the spell of travelling by sled: the silence, except for the patter of 10 sets of paws on the ice and occasional directional command from Johan, the countryside passing by at a rate which allows you to take it in while still making reasonable progress.

Johan told us that it was forecast to be windy today and he wasn’t kidding. Sitting on the back of a dogsled is a good place to get cold if you are not dressed right and on this leg of the journey I was wearing: wool boxers, wool long johns, long-sleeved wool undershirt, three pairs of socks and thermal boots, soft-shell trousers, long-sleeved fleece, very thick Icelandic wool sweater, fleece hat, balaclava, ski goggles, gloves and then mittens over the top, and then a one-piece thermal body suit. We arrived at the now abandoned village of Kap Hope/Itterajivit on the shores of the fjord, which was to be our base for the night. A more desolate spot is hard to imagine; out of two dozen or so houses, only a couple are maintained by local hunters. The rest are in a state of decay, with any chink in the armour vigorously exploited by the harsh weather; a broken window soon means a house full of snow and some of the houses were packed from floor to ceiling with intruding snow.

After an evening meal of Musk Ox stew and rice, we walked into the hills behind Kap Hope, after our guides made sure we were armed; they had seen a Polar Bear here in April. Snow Buntings and Ravens were present around the huts, a flock of Glaucous Gulls sat on the ice, but a familiar noise from above announced the arrival of not one but two new species on the trip list and more importantly, two new Greenland ticks, Pink-footed Goose and Barnacle Goose! Six species in two days, perhaps the dream of double figures was no longer a dream! Walking in the hills was rather taxing, with the snow being hard underfoot one moment and then thigh deep the next, interspersed with wind-blasted bare patches. We climbed every rise of the hill carefully, just on the off chance that there was a bear on the other side (“you can come across them anywhere” Johan had said) but we didn’t take long to find another white mammal, and one distinctly less intimidating, Arctic Hare. There were two animals in the area and we spent a lot of time watching them feeding in the very sparse vegetation, noting their energetic pawing in the snow to reveal a few more plants below and the way they stood on their back legs to get a better view of us. At first they bounded away on their hind legs as we approached but eventually they allowed us to approach very closely. I took off both my mitts and gloves to try to get some photographs and was so entranced by them that I failed to notice how incredibly cold it was until I started to put the camera away with my now frozen claw-like hands, aaarrgggh the pain! We then found a spot out of the wind and spent an hour scanning the distant ice edge in vain for Polar Bears and enjoying the views over the world’s largest fjord, the imposing mountains of the Volquart Boon Coast, 40 km away forming the southern shore of the fjord, and an incredible series of towers, minarets and pinnacles disappearing into the distance along the inner fjord which stretches more than 300 km west to the Inland Ice.

Photos:
1) The Greenlandic dog sled, our mode of transport for the next week
2) The desolate and abandoned settlement of Kap Hope
3) Arctic Hares scratching in the snow for something to eat
4) Arctic Hares
5) Looking for bears out on the ice - only looking, the gun isn't loaded!
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 15:23   #7
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Great stuff, Edward! I'd been hoping that you would tell us about your latest Greenland adventure.
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 18:49   #8
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Great stuff, Edward! I'd been hoping that you would tell us about your latest Greenland adventure.
Yep, keep the words coming and don't worry too much about the birds!
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 10:17   #9
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great stuff!!
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 15:24   #10
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A fascinating and enticing glimpse of the Arctic, Edward. Looking forward to reading more!
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 15:28   #11
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Monday 14 May 2012: Kap Hope – Kalkdal

It was still windy when we woke up and the wind was skin-stripping. Today’s route took us round Kap Hope and then north into Hurry Inlet, a fjord which branches off Scoresby Sund. I kept an eye open for Musk Ox on the near shore as they sometimes occur in Liverpool Land but are much more common in Jameson Land to the west. At one point the dogs caught the scent of something (bear or musk ox said our guide) but nothing was seen. A few Pink-footed Geese flew north overhead and Ravens were seen intermittently, sometimes following the sleds, and no doubt occasionally dropping down to feed on the copious amounts of excrement deposited on the ice by the 38 dogs—sled dogs eat a lot and crap a hell of lot. After a quick break at the ramshackle hut of Dombrava, erected by an early 20th century Romanian explorer, we continued up the fjord to a much more luxurious cabin (relatively speaking) at the mouth of the imposing valley Kalkdal. By now the wind had dropped and the sun had come out and it was positively pleasant in the sun. After taking care of the dogs the guides began to scan the ice in the fjord and soon spotted a couple of Ringed Seals a couple of miles out. This proved irresistible and they got into their white seal-hunting overalls, tested their rifles and were off. But the seal won this round, plopping off into its breathing hole before the hunters got into range. In the evening we walked into the hills behind the hut, in much more pleasant weather than at Kap Hope the previous day, with bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures of around -5°C. Musk Ox occasionally occurs here and we soon found some tracks and dung, but they appeared to be old, only found on windblown bare patches, and not on the snow, indicating that these animals had been here last summer at the latest. A familiar called pierced the silence, two European Golden Plovers, one of the most common birds in Iceland but quite scarce here. They must have been incredibly hardy as there was still very little bare ground and a thaw still a few weeks off. A flock of 100 or so Snow Buntings migrated through and numerous Arctic Hares were seen but not the wanted Musk Ox. Today was the first day of the year that the sun wasn’t going to set (and it wouldn't do so again for another 78 days) and we sat on the hillside looking south to the vertiginous mountains forming the southern side of Scoresby Sund, now more than 70 km away, and to the north, with the great valley Klitdal opening up and the vast horizons of the unpopulated national park lying tantalizingly out of reach beyond the mountains.

Photos
1. Howling sled dog, the sound of the Arctic
2. Out on the ice
3. Looking for Musk Ox in Liverpool Land
4. Musk Ox dung. Can I tick it?
5. European Golden Plover habitat in Liverpool Land. looking over to Jameson Land.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 16:50   #12
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Tuesday 15 May 2012: Kalkdal – Kap Høegh

There was sea fog in the morning but it soon dispersed. The dogs howled in anticipation of a day on the ice (howling sled dogs is the sound of the Arctic for me) and we were off on to the sea ice again before swinging east through a narrow mountain pass, bisecting the peninsula of Liverpool Land and dropping down to the outer coast. For the first two days the scenery had been merely wild and expansive, but for the remainder of the journey it would be incredibly dramatic and spectacular, simply some of the most awe-inspiring scenery I’ve ever seen. We were soon back on land and heading up such a steep slope that we had to get off so the dogs could get up, and then it was full speed ahead through a narrow valley with steep rock walls on either side and an imposing vertical rock face several hundred metres high straight ahead and valley glacier to its left. Here we came across an isolated and uninhabited camp dug into the snow, undoubtedly belonging to the French skiers we had flown in with. The next part of the route took us down steep and exhilarating downhills, the three guides permanently standing at the back of the sleds applying the brakes, grinning broadly and evidently enjoying it just as much as we were.

Eventually we turned a corner and went into the fjord proper, the twisting Horsens Fjord. The mountains along the East Greenland coast are dramatic, very steep, with row upon row of jagged ridges and needle-like peaks and pinnacles. We wondered, for future reference, whether it would be possible to hike in Horsens Fjord in the summer but there appeared to be no shoreline to speak of, the hillsides just plummeted into the sea. After a while the fjord opened out and beyond we could see the frozen sea. After a birdless few hours in the valley the sound of birds could be heard. A tiny polynya under soaring granite cliffs held 20 or so Glaucous Gulls and a new bird for my Greenland list, Black Guillemot. A skein of Barnacle Geese headed for coastal breeding sites still gripped in ice. We were now travelling on the open sea, heading south with formidable coastal crags to the right and an expanse of endless white to the right, punctuated by the profiles of numerous large icebergs held firm by the sea ice. Our destination today was the headland Kap Høegh, home to a vast Little Auk colony. It was looking at Danish photographer Carsten Egevang’s magnificent photos of this colony on Netfugl that made me determined to come to this area in the first place, so I was pretty excited about what lay ahead. I was concerned that the birds may not be back at the colony in mid-May but our Greenlandic guide assured me that they were there. The hut at Kap Høegh was the most spacious and in the best condition of any we had stayed at so far. As soon as we had brought our stuff in, I was out again, climbing the steep scree towards the Little Auk colony. But all was quiet; apart from the ubiquitous Snow Buntings, a couple of Ravens and Glaucous Gulls and some obliging Arctic Hares, Little Auks were conspicuous by their absence. Don’t worry, said the Greenlanders when I returned later, they’ll be here. But the views from the lower slopes of the headland were worth every effort, sea ice stretching as far as the eye could see to the east, mountains beyond mountains to the north, west and south. After a spot of fruitless Polar Bear searching in pristine Polar Bear country (the guides recounted how a few years ago they had watched a mother and cub walk between the two huts) it was time to go in and eat.

Just before I went to bed I went outside to get some fresh air (it was -8°C outside and a stifling 27°C inside!), when I heard a curious twittering noise. I looked up but couldn't see anything on the mountain above but I had an idea what was making the noise and went inside to fetch the binoculars. Wheeling above the mountain were hundreds of Little Auks. All plans to read in bed were shelved and I was soon putting on my thermal suit and boots and heading out into the late evening sun. This time the two of us climbed the precipitous boulder-strewn slopes to the top of the cape and the next few hours were some of the best I’ve ever had birding anywhere in the world. Numbers of Little Auk continued to build up by the minute, flocks streaming in from the distant sea and soon there were tens of thousands of very noisy auks flying past us in great flocks, the noise of their wings causing us to duck unnecessarily several times. The auks occasionally landed on the snow, before erupting into flight for another circuit of the fjord. Sitting in the midnight sun, the wind not stirring in the slightest, 300 metres above the frozen ocean, the coast disappearing to the north in a relentless line of peaks and being surrounded by thousands of Little Auks was one those perfect moments in birding that will live with me forever. We watched the mountains turn orange and then purple as the sun reached its nadir above the sea at about 1:30 a.m. and then we gingerly made our way down the mountain and arrived back at the hut at around 3 a.m.

1. Crossing Liverpool Land
2. The Little Auk colony at Kap Høegh seen from the sea
3. Frozen ocean as far as the eye can see
4. Arctic Hare at Kap Høegh
5. Arctic Hare at Kap Høegh
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 17:01   #13
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Evening at Kap Høegh. I still haven't got to grips with moving bird photography.

1. Watching Little Auks at Kap Høegh
2. Fly-by Little Auks
3. Little Auks
4. Midnight sun (00:38 to be precise). Sun is above horizon from approx. 14 May to 29 July in this area
5. Summit ridge of Kap Høegh, steep drop on both sides
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 18:29   #14
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Fascinating report so far Edward.

Two questions immediately spring to mind..........

How come an area is called Liverpool land?

Do those huskey's crap on the move? (just wondered if it was possible whilst running, not that I have a desire to test that my self).
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 19:01   #15
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The Little Auk experience sounds absolutely magical, Edward. And from your photos, that looks to be quite some climb to your viewing point, especially in heavy arctic-weather gear - certainly an above-average evening stroll. The Musk Ox stew is clearly very effective!

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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 19:13   #16
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Top class, got to be one of the world's ultimate journeys. How far was the Little Auk colony from the nearest open water, seems ice everywhere?
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Old Thursday 16th August 2012, 20:05   #17
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 11:44   #18
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Fascinating report so far Edward.

Two questions immediately spring to mind..........

How come an area is called Liverpool land?

Do those huskey's crap on the move? (just wondered if it was possible whilst running, not that I have a desire to test that my self).
Thanks.
firstly, the area is called Liverpool Land as, if I remember rightly, it was named after the Earl of Liverpool by William Scoresby Jnr who explored this area in the early 19th century.

I too wondered whether the dogs do their business on the move and I didn't have to wait long for my answer - yes they do, the dog just slows down and moves to the back of the pack and crouches and hops along as it lightens its load. Sometimes the dogs are crafty and move to the side and let the rope get slack so they aren't actually doing any work but the driver only usually needs to reach for his whip before they get back into line. They also drink on the run, i.e. eat mouthfuls of snow. They are also not averse to eating each others' crap. If you are the type of person who doesn't mind being licked in the face by a dog, I wouldn't recommend it in Greenland

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The Little Auk experience sounds absolutely magical, Edward. And from your photos, that looks to be quite some climb to your viewing point, especially in heavy arctic-weather gear - certainly an above-average evening stroll. The Musk Ox stew is clearly very effective!
It was steep and an ice-axe would have been handy but it was always pretty firm under foot. I was more worried about bashing my bins and camera against the scree than my head. The Musk Ox stew was pretty good though.

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Top class, got to be one of the world's ultimate journeys. How far was the Little Auk colony from the nearest open water, seems ice everywhere?
Thanks, Jos. We couldn't see any open water from the top of the cape (c. 300m high) but there is a big polynya at the mouth of Scoresby Sund which is 30-40 km to the south. However, the auks flew due east during the day to feed but they must have had to fly quite a long way. There is open water by the colony in July but until then they have to commute.
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 12:24   #19
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liverpool land sounds like a slightly unappealing theme park



for any scousers (i actually like liverpool)
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 12:35   #20
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liverpool land sounds like a slightly unappealing theme park



for any scousers (i actually like liverpool)
There's a Disko Island on the west coast of Greenland which is probably not as much fun for 18-30 Club types as it sounds.
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 12:43   #21
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Wednesday 16 May 2012: Kap Høegh – Kap Høegh

Blinding sunlight again outside but what a sight awaited when the sunglasses went on; while there had been thousands of Little Auks last night at the colony, the numbers overnight had increased massively – there were Little Auks everywhere, huge clouds of them swirling overhead and settling in great numbers on the scree on the headland and on the snow-covered slopes of the mountain across the fjord. The day was spent doing a circuit on the sea ice. We tried to reach the ice edge but it was simply too far away and the further away from the coast, the more chaotic the jumble of ice became. Around midday I heard the unmistakable chatter of Little Auks in the air but looked in vain for a polynya which I assumed was the source of the noise. It took me a few moments to realise that I just needed to look up: high above there was a constant stream of tens of thousands of Little Auks flying from colonies at Kap Høegh and elsewhere in Liverpool Land to the open sea to feed for the day. By July the sea around Kap Høegh is open but in May and June they have a long commute to the feeding grounds. The rest of the afternoon was spent admiring towering icebergs, and holding tight as the sleds bumped over the rough sea ice and on two occasions having to leap off the sled at the last second as the dogs disappeared into a two-metre deep hollow in the ice. As we turned north up the coast, I asked Johan how far north he'd been and he told me he'd sledded up to the Danish base at Daneborg, 450 km away, three times, once on his own just to see what it was like to spend six weeks solo. They are tough people these East Greenlanders.

1. The hut at Kap Høegh
2. Walking on water on Kolding Fjord
3. Heading north up the coast
4. Typical view
5. Iceberg held tight by the sea ice
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 14:04   #22
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Thursday 17 May 2012: Kap Høegh – Kap Swainson

I was up with the lark as sleeping on the floor of a hunting cabin is not conducive to leisurely lie-ins. We clambered up the slopes of the cape and parked ourselves in the centre of the Little Auk colony and just waited for the birds to come to us. It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by chattering auks, some only an arm’s length away and it was a real privilege to watch their courtship rituals at such close quarters, the birds bowing their heads, walking in circles, high-stepping, with rivals frequently engaging in vicious tussles which saw them locked together cartwheel downhill and then continue the brawl in the air. The noise in the colony reached a peak when flocks of thousands took flight in unison, great showers of guano carpet-bombing anyone foolish enough to sit in the middle of the colony. Predators were also in evidence. I twice saw Glaucous Gulls catch Little Auks in flight and also saw Ravens force a bird to crash on the sea ice before finishing it off. Arctic Foxes barked close by in the colony while I saw two distant foxes out on the ice. It had been another magical morning with the auks but it was time to continue south. The trip from Kap Høegh down the outer coast took us past several more massive Little Auk colonies with attendant Glaucous Gulls and Ravens; there must be hundreds of thousands of breeding Little Auks along this coast. This section of the journey was the most difficult for dogs, driver and passengers alike, with the uneven ice presenting a labyrinth of dead ends, drops and deep cracks to negotiate. It was quite amazing to see the skill and dexterity of the drivers as they stood up on the bucking sleds to spot routes through the convoluted ice, while we passengers simply had to grip the Musk Ox rug for grim death simply not be thrown off. Approaching the mouth of the vast Scoresby Sund we scrambled an iceberg to get an idea of where the ice edge was. The huge polynya at the mouth of the fjord contains a great deal of wildlife but it was out of our reach. But smaller openings in the ice contained a few Black Guillemots and five attractive King Eider, as well as a few Ringed Seals. The hut at Kap Swainson commands a fabulous location at the northern mouth of the world’s largest fjord. The southern entrance, Kap Brewster, is over 38 km away and fjord mouth is full of beached icebergs, some of them absolutely vast. This should be a good area for Polar Bears as migrating bears following the coast often come close to land here. Indeed Johan told me he had seen one here in April and that once when he came to the hut there were Polar Bear tracks all around the hut. But again luck was not with us despite the hour or two I put into scanning the ice from the hill behind the hut. Scratching around in the bare patches behind the hut was a Snow Bunting and a female Lapland Longspur. Lapland Longspurs were common on my previous trip to East Greenland but this trip obviously coincided with the first arrivals. Behind the hut was another recent arrival, a male Northern Wheatear, a common Greenlandic bird in summer but the only one I saw on his trip.

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Little Auks at Kap Høegh
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 14:16   #23
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Kap Høegh continued

Photos 1-4:, even more Alle alle
5: Occasionally dogs work themselves loose or are cut free if they are being difficult and not pulling. This one had followed us at a distance for about 5 km but now it was time to put him back in front of the sled.
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 14:38   #24
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Just stunning Edward...very envious!
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Old Friday 17th August 2012, 14:42   #25
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I was up with the lark...
...but didn't even get a record shot?!
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