The counting of Svalbard ptarmigan in Nordenskiöldland was first implemented in 2000 and has been done using about 130 different monitoring posts. In a bad year, researchers typically register one adult male per square kilometer. In a good year, up to three.
"I was surprised at how high the density was, we never registered such high numbers before," said Eva Fuglei, a Norwegian Polar Institute researcher responsible for grouse counts. "But when we counted in April, we saw very many grouse."
No good explanation
The registrations done in April and May of this year showed a density of 4.7 adult males for each square kilometer. This is the highest density recorded during the 15 years the census has been conducted and nearly twice as many as last year.
The winter of 2014 was a period of mild weather and rain was followed by cold. Rain on snow leads to ice-lock and bad times for both grouse and reindeer because they cannot get to the food, but the past winter turns out to have been good.
"If you look at the reindeer throughout the winter, you saw them in a very good range. They easily came down to the pastures. It also means that food has been readily available for grouse," said Fuglei in an op-ed with researcher and colleague Åshild Ønvik Pedersen in Svalbardposten that states there are a record number of ptarmigan in Svalbard.
The results are also in line with feedback from hikers. Researchers still cannot immediately provide a good explanation for the sharp increase of grouse. Surveys last fall showed there was a particularly high production of grouse chicks in the summer of 2013. Besides the high survival rate among adults and juveniles, there may also have been migration from other areas. They may have also flown far.
"We know that grouse can fly far. We know of marked birds that have been observed elsewhere. Svalbard ptarmigan exist, among other locations, in Franz Josef Land. Greenland may also be a possibility, but we know very little about that," said Fuglei, while encouraging people to pay a little extra attention during the summer and fall, and counting litter sizes.
Every adult male normally has between one and two hens, but weather conditions in summer (temperatures, rainfall, sleet, etc.) have much to say about whether the grouse chicks will grow up. Litter sizes therefore tell a lot about survival.
The annual grouse counts were initiated to monitor the population of Svalbard ptarmigan and to safeguard the quotas of the grouse, which is also the only wintering bird in Svalbard. Up to 300 people hunt Svalbard ptarmigan each year and quotas have varied. At the most, about 2,100 birds have been hunted in one season (see graph).
Another reason for monitoring is the impact that climate change may have on the population.
"If we get a good summer, there can be a formidable hunting," said Pedersen, who helped start the grouse counts. "It depends on the weather conditions, but the chances now for a good grouse season are great."
She is currently occupied with reindeer counts, and here she is also expecting to encounter a population that is plentiful and in good condition.
"Now we are at a great round," she said. "Currently we have not found many carcasses and with the winter that we had we have good odds."
During a Svalbard Seminar in January, the two colleagues at the Norwegian Polar Institute discussed the interaction of wildlife in Svalbard. "The Reindeer's Death - Foxes' Bread" was the common thread. When Fuglei sets out now to monitor fox dens, she therefore expects there will not be many of them in use due to less hunting by foxes. The reason is that reindeer carcasses are an important part of the diet.