The world’s last sighting?

Hornøya used to be home to the Great Auk, related to the Razorbill but nearly one metre tall and completely flightless, somewhat like the northern equivalent of a penguin. Great Auks were totally adapted to a life hunting fish underwater. Sadly, these adaptations also meant they had little in the way of defence from humans. As boats explored the northern seas, the undisturbed islands where these birds bred were discovered. Hungry sailors, tired of the seaman’s diet, killed and ate many Great Auks and their eggs. Stowaway rats on the sailors’ ships colonised the auk islands and also ate huge numbers of Great Auk eggs.

By the mid 1700s, there was a sudden demand for Great Auk feathers to stuff pillows and huge numbers were harvested. By the 19th century, western scientists realised that the Great Auk was heading towards extinction. Ironically, museums then became desperate to display specimens of this rare bird, so hunters were commissioned to shoot and bring back their skins to the museum. By 1844, the last breeding Great Auks were killed in Iceland. Not long after, the species was declared extinct.

Hornøya holds a place in the Great Auk’s history thanks to Lorenz Brodtkorb, a Vardø resident during the 19th century.

In April 1848 Brodtkorb and some companions were rowing from Vardø to Reinøya, the island neighbouring Hornøya. In the straight between the two islands, four swimming birds caught their attention. Despite being capable hunters and familiar with Varanger’s birdlife, they had never seen anything like them before. One of Brodtkorb’s friends asked him to shoot the birds so they could examine them closely. Brodtkorb fired and killed one of the birds. He described it as “the size of a Brent Goose” but “was in shape like an auk”. He also noted a white spot beside the bird’s eye, though unfortunately his bullet had shattered the beak and torn away much of the other side of the head. He also noted that “the wings were so small” assuming this was the reason the birds did not fly off when his boat drew near them. Bringing the corpse back to land “soaked through with water and blood”, Brodtkorb dumped it on the shore. He intended to come later to retrieve it but when he returned, the sea had washed the bird away. He set out in his boat to try to find the three surviving birds without success.

A few months later Brodtkorb took his story to his scientist friend Nordvi, who lived down the Varangerfjord in Mortenses. Nordvi listened to Brodtkorb’s description of his bird. After establishing that it was not a species of diver (Brodtkorb insisted he had shot many of them!) and hearing about the bird’s tiny wings, Nordvi opened one of his books to a picture of a Great Auk. “There it is” Brodtkorb said. 

It took until 1855 before the news of this late Great Auk sighting made it to the wider scientific community. John Wolley, an English naturalist, was exploring Scandinavia during the 1850s, financing his trip by collecting and selling the eggs of Scandinavian birds including Hawk Owls, Gyrfalcons and Common Cranes. In 1855 Wolley was in Vardø, alongside his friend and fellow ornithologist Alfred Newton, when they heard about Brodtkorb’s Great Auk encounter. With an intense interest in birds, particularly extinct species, Wolley was very excited to explore the theory that the Great Auk may still exist, despite 7 years having passed since Brodtkorb’s sighting. Their search was in vain but from that moment, Wolley and Newton became obsessed with rediscovering the Great Auk, visiting Iceland 3 years later, where the last Great Auks were recorded breeding in 1844.

Brodtkorb’s encounter sounds convincing enough, but without a specimen to unequivocally prove it, the Vardø Great Auks of 1848 will go down as another unproven (but highly likely) sighting of the world’s last Great Auks.