Life Thriving at Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

A recent field trip to the Hornstrandir Nature Preserve to assess the status of the Arctic foxes living there brings with it a bit of positive news–not only is wildlife thriving in the reserve, there’s also every reason to expect that there will be a fair number of mated Arctic fox pairs and, therefore, fox cubs, this spring. The happy tidings come via a post on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s (IINH) Facebook page.

Scientists visited the reserve from March 15 – 25. Their recap paints a picture of a mercifully human-free and wild environment on the cusp of spring. “It was the picture of winter and stormy in Hornvík for the first two days,” reads the post, “and the surf was high. In the following days, the beach filled with newly dead wolf fish, both big and small. This was the favourite catch of foxes that walked the shores, collecting fresh fish, which they carried up to the shore ridge and buried here and there in the snow. One vixen drug a 40cm [16 in] wolf fish up a cliff; she could be seen all the way at the top…sleeping atop her catch. After a good nap, she woke, shook off the snow, and took a nice bite of the fish before she continued upwards, close to the cliff’s edge.”

Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands

“It snowed most days, deep enough to submerge the short-legged creatures as they waded through the powder,” the post continues. “Foxes are hardy animals, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly for most of them. Several of them were courting and if all goes well, we can expect that there will be a number of pairs with litters this spring, unlike what happened last summer when there were only cubs in 25% of the [foxes’] territory in Hornbjarg.”

Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands

Other than fulmar, birds have not started nesting en mass on the Hornbjarg cliffs, reported scientists, although a group of kittiwakes were briefly observed, as were guillemots, though not nearly in the numbers that are typically found at Hælavíkurbjarg: “…there are often hundreds, even a thousand birds by this time.” Ravens were spotted, busy “at the same occupation as the foxes, that is, collecting fresh fish that had washed ashore. A few purple sandpipers were also on the beach and didn’t let the waves bother them. Almost a hundred eider ducks were seen here and there on the ocean, three king eider among them, dozens of long-tailed ducks, a few black guillemots, and red-breasted mergansers. A few glaucous gulls pecked at starfish that washed ashore in the surf and a few great black-backed gulls were also seen. Almost 20 snow buntings took up residence near the house at Horn, and on falcon was seen on the wing.” Gray and speckled seals also made their appearances on the vibrant shoreline.

Náttúrufræðistofnun Íslands

“You could say that it’s business as usual in terms of the flora and fauna of the area,” concluded the post, “despite the global pandemic and gathering bans nearly everywhere.”

Arctic Fox Gets Starring Role in BBC Documentary

Arctic fox cubs in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords have a starring role in the new BBC nature series Animal Babies: First Year on Earth, RÚV reports. The series, which began airing earlier this week, follows “six iconic baby animals as they face the challenges of surviving their first year on Earth” and also features the Savannah elephant, mountain gorilla, spotted hyena, Southern sea otter, and toque macaque.

Mammalian biologist Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir has studied the Arctic fox for two decades and assisted the BBC with the making of the documentary. She noted that Fela, the fox cub that the series follows, was specifically selected because he has white fur, and therefore easy to differentiate from his siblings, all of whom have black fur. Choosing to follow such an easy-to-spot cub did, however, carry certain risks for the documentarians, Ester said, as many Arctic fox cubs do not live very long.

“It’s not guaranteed that all cubs will survive the whole summer, so to choose a cub that looks different than the others and to always try to find him again was a bit difficult, and people were really stressed about it.”

The name Fela was originally chosen because the documentarians wanted to follow a female cub, but nature did not oblige them in this wish, as Fela is a male cub. “I sat with them for many evenings looking at video where I could see that this wasn’t a female cub. The filmmakers were pretty sad about that, but they made their peace with it,” explained Ester.

Although the documentarians were permitted to film the foxes in Hornstrandir, they were still subject to restrictions that were put in place to protect the animals. One of Ester’s primary roles, she explained, was to ensure that filming proceeded according to the rules that had been set. This is especially important because Arctic foxes that feel that they are being encroached upon will often not take care of their young as well as they would otherwise.

“We set the condition that the foxes are left alone in the evenings and all the way to the morning so that they have the night to rest and hunt,” Ester says.

The filmmakers had also intended to shoot ‘behind the scenes’ footage as extra content and so briefly sent a second team to film the primary team of filmmakers. The foxes, however, were not fond of having so many people in their habitat and so the second team was sent away and the ‘making of’ featurette scrapped.

Fewer Mated Arctic Fox Pairs in Hornstrandir Than Last Year

Arctic Fox Iceland

Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in the Westfjords has half the number of arctic fox pairs with young than it usually does at this time of year, RÚV reports. The drop in the number of mated pairs comes even as the animals’ territory has doubled in size. Human foot traffic through the area is thought to disturb the foxes a great deal, particularly mothers who are still nursing their young and have to stay in their dens.

These findings were among those made by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) and their collaborators at the Arctic Fox Centre after their yearly site visit to Hornstrandir from June 17 – 30. During this time, researchers made stops at every known burrow in the reserve and made note of whether these were inhabited, as well as tracking foxes’ movements in and out of them. Three burrows were monitored for twelve hours, specifically to monitor how long adult foxes spent in them, and what food they brought back to them, if any. A log was kept of any food scraps that had been left in or around the burrows and stool samples were collected for future study.

Researchers also monitored and made observations about the number of visitors moving through fox-inhabited areas, as well as their behaviour around burrows. As IINH reported on its Facebook page, visitor traffic was minimal at the start of the expedition, but it increased during the almost two weeks that researchers were present in the reserve.

Even though the number of mated arctic fox pairs with young is significantly less than usual, the research teams affirm that the overall status of the population is good. Even so, researchers plan to monitor human traffic through Hornstrandir and another expedition to the reserve is already planned for later this summer to check in on the status of the arctic fox population at that time. Researchers hope that any travellers to Hornstrandir will follow the directions of the park rangers, stay on marked paths, and not disturb any wildlife they may encounter while visiting.