Camp Life

It will be sad to wake up in the morning and not crawl out of my tent to this view every day.

I will miss waking up in the morning and crawling out  of my tent to this view.

 

As our final week in Alaska draws to a close, I want to talk about our living conditions and daily life on the job. Living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is remote and in some ways primitive, but I personally find the living conditions here quite comfortable, especially when compared with those of your standard camping excursion. We live in a camp consisting of two compounds, each surrounded by electrified bear fencing that keeps us and our food secure.  The only other structure out here is our bathroom, a small three-sided plywood structure with a field toilet. We got extravagant this year and added a plywood floor – major innovation on the Canning.

 

Our bathroom setup is complete with fantastic scenery, as well as a flag to put up when occupied to avoid traffic jams.

Our bathroom setup is complete with fantastic scenery, as well as a flag to put up when occupied to avoid traffic jams.

 

Our personal tents are nice and spacious, and they each fit two people. They are equipped with more than enough places to hang your wet socks every day, and they offer great protection from the strong wind and sideways rain that occurs so often here. One interesting twist about camping here, especially in the bright yellow tents that we use, is the 24-hour daylight. When in your tent, days and nights seem to blur together. I have woken up at 3AM here thinking  it was time to start the day, only to check my watch halfway through. Luckily, the only consequence to being wrong on that front is more sleep!

 

Sometimes in the late  evening, there will be color in the sky around here, but this 10pm scene is no closer to sunset than any night during the season here.

The late evening sky here will often have beautiful colors. This photo was taken at 10PM.

 

The second area has two tents, the large cooking tent that comfortably holds six people and is tall enough to stand in, and the data/office tent, where we keep our various pieces of equipment and enter data. The cooking tent has a large vestibule where we do dishes. Some of our food is stored there in our two coolers, and the remaining food is stored in bear-proof containers inside the main tent. Most of the containers are large metal drums segregated by food type, such as breakfast items, pasta/baking supplies, trail mix materials, and last but not least, chocolate. We normally have some sort of granola or oatmeal breakfast, a sandwich-type lunch in the field, and then a hot dinner once everyone has finished their daily work and returned to camp. Cooking is done on a little two-burner camp stove, and common dinners here are stir-fry, burritos, pesto, curry or occasionally pizza cooked in a little stove-top oven. We have no worry of going hungry here.  When people arrive to or leave from camp, we get a resupply from civilization. This gives us a chance to eat much-coveted fresh fruits and vegetables for a short while. On most mornings and evenings, we hang around in the cook tent, since it has the nicest chairs, lots of room and food within arm’s reach.

 

Brendan enjoys some hot chocolate after dinner in the cook tent. Food is kept in the barrel in the corner,  while pots and pans are kept below the table and in the box next to it.

Brendan enjoys some hot chocolate after dinner in the cook tent. Food is kept in the barrel in the corner, while pots and pans are kept below the table and in the box next to it.

 

The office tent is not as large as the cook tent, and we are usually only in there when preparing to head out in the morning and when entering data. The walls are lined with tote bags filled with equipment for the bird banding we do, various forms and sampling gear for marking nests, and assorted electronic equipment. This tent is very good at keeping its heat, making it a  nice place to hole up on a cold day or do some data entry after dinner. This is where we record information about the nests that were found that day, sort out the nests to be visited tomorrow and complete many other essential tasks.

 

Roy bands a bird in the office tent while Scott records the information. This was a rare occurrence when we had a nest so close to camp that we could actually catch the bird and bring it into the tent to band. Normally we have to collect all of the data out in the field, sitting on the tundra.

Roy bands a bird in the office tent while Scott records the information. This was a rare occurrence when we had a nest so close to camp that we could actually catch the bird and bring it into the tent to band. Normally we have to collect all of the data out in the field, sitting on the tundra.

 

The whole camp is situated on top of a small bluff rising about 25 feet above much of the surrounding tundra, an area where puddles rarely form under the tents. This spot also  provides us with an expansive view and lots of  opportunities  to see wildlife. This year we ended up seeing close to 40,000 caribou pass by and through the study area on their annual migration, almost entirely in a single  one-week period. One herd of about 2,000 passed right through camp, parting around the tents and continuing without a care. We also see quite a few Arctic Fox, and of course many birds.

 

A few people in various stages of getting ready for the day. Cook tent on the left, office tent on the right, and bathroom in the back in the distance.

A few researchers prepare for the day.  The cook tent is on the left, the office tent is on the right and the bathroom is behind them in the distance.

 

Our camp is located along the western edge of the study area. It is neither too far nor too close to any one place that we visit daily. It is two miles from the southern end of the study area and a little over one mile from the northern and eastern boundaries. During our 8-10 hours in the field each day, we have been averaging 7-9 miles of walking. Much of this time is spent trudging through marshes in our hip waders. It feels great at the end of the day to change back into comfortable shoes.

 

Even though it seems like we walk quite a lot here, the trails that the caribou have worn from passing through in the thousands put to shame any impact that we have on the land.

Even though it seems like we walk quite a lot here, the trails that the caribou have worn from passing through in the thousands put to shame any impact that we have on the land.

 

Camp life is wonderfully simple in many ways. It lacks the complications and chaos that we are so used to back home. You get up, collect data, come back and enter it,  rinse and repeat. We are lucky to be a part of this pairing of science and the natural world.

 

Seeing this view on your commute is something that makes each day special. The Brooks Range can be seen lurking under the clouds in the distance. This is the view from our tent area.

Seeing this view on your commute is something that makes each day special. The Brooks Range can be seen lurking under the clouds in the distance. This is the view from our tent area.

Lottery Odds

This Semipalmated Sandpiper chick is from a different nest, but serves as a reminder of how fragile these birds are at the beginning. Only a couple months after looking like this, AHU's chicks will embark on a journey of their own, potentially even exceeding the 25,000km round-trip annual migration of their mother.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper chick is from a different nest, but serves as a reminder of how fragile these birds are at the beginning. Only a couple months after looking like this, AHU’s chicks will embark on a journey of their own, potentially even exceeding the 25,000 km round-trip annual migration of their mother.

 

Every now and then, something happens that is so unlikely that you are left wondering at how small our big world is. Last year, this happened up here while we were out doing routine nest checks and came across a Semipalmated Sandpiper sporting a blue flag as opposed to the normal green. It was a Brazilian banded bird with the code KKL that was one of 1,250 banded that year by New Jersey Audubon in Brazil. With a worldwide population estimate of 2.25 million, that makes the chances of seeing one of those around 1 in 1,800. Up here we only see 100-200 Semipalmated Sandpipers a year. The odds are definitely stacked against us, but apparently not too severely to stop us from seeing one.

KKL, our first Brazilian bird (photographed 2012) on his territory. He never appeared to find a mate, and did not return in 2013 that we could determine. Hopefully wherever he is he is having better breeding success.

KKL, our first Brazilian bird (photographed 2012) on his territory. He never appeared to find a mate, and did not return in 2013 that we could determine. Hopefully wherever he is he is having better breeding success.

 

Sadly, this year our blue-flagged friend did not come back, despite intensive searching of the territory from last year and every researcher checking each bird we came across just in case. It turns out that we didn’t need KKL this year, however, because we had an even more amazing stroke of luck. After checking on nests and searching for new ones on July 4th, I got back to our data tent and found that Scott was already back after doing his work. I asked how his day was, and it seemed pretty standard until he casually dropped the bomb, “Oh, and I discovered a Brazilian banded bird on a nest we had already found… and it’s not KKL.” My mind totally blown, I immediately raced out and got some photos of the bird, confirming the letters on the flag as the same ones that Scott had earlier read: AHU – our exceedingly unlikely new guest.

Our celebrity in all her glory, defying the odds! Very satisfying to have a Brazilian bird with a nest this year after the sad fate of KKL's breeding attempt in 2012.

Our celebrity in all her glory, defying the odds! Very satisfying to have a Brazilian bird with a nest this year after the sad fate of KKL’s breeding attempt in 2012.

 

Assuming that this bird was banded by the same person who captured KKL, a shorebird researcher by the name of David Mizrahi, I sent an email off to him with a photo of the bird and received a prompt response including all that we know about AHU. She was initially banded on Jan 22, 2012, as a bird that hatched in 2011 or earlier, making her at least three years old this year. Based on the length of AHU’s bill (19.2mm) and the fact that she is part of the breeding population here at the Canning River, we can definitively tell that she is a female since her bill is longer than 17.5mm. Both KKL and AHU travel about 12,500km one way each spring and fall from Maranhão state, Brazil (1°26’50.44″S, 45° 9’17.40″W) to the Arctic and back.

 

AHU’s nest currently has three eggs in it, two of which are showing signs of hatching – small cracks spiderwebbing out from a central location as the chick inside begins to chip its way out of the eggshell. In less than a day, the chicks should break through and carefully remove the tops of the eggs, crawling out into the nest cup. Within several hours, they will be able to walk and will likely be out and about with AHU and her mate in short order.

AHU's nest only contains three eggs, an unusual occurrence as compared to the standard four. Two of them are primed to hatch, and will likely do so in the next 24 hours.

AHU’s nest only contains three eggs, an unusual occurrence as compared to the standard four. Two of them are primed to hatch, and will likely do so in the next 24 hours.

 

So what are the chances of having two of the 1,250 banded birds from January 2012 occur at the same exact study area in northern Alaska? Apparently pretty good. It raises a lot of questions though, some of which we could have answers to in a little over a year. Having only one banded bird here was just an amazing fluke, but having two suggests that many of our Semipalmated Sandpipers here at the Canning, or at least some, go to northeastern Brazil for the winter. According to David Mizrahi, close to 100 of his banded birds have been resighted, some on migration in the central Unites States, and some on the breeding grounds like the two here. Interestingly enough, the 300-400 Semipalmated Sandpipers that we have banded here over the past four years have never been seen elsewhere by anyone.

 

This season we are putting out technology that should hopefully give us more than just two data points to piece together this puzzle. This year, we placed 29 geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers. The geolocators are small leg-mounted dataloggers that have an accurate clock in them and record light levels. When you know what time it is when the sun rises and sets and the length of the days and nights, you can determine a rough latitude and longitude. Unfortunately, you have to recapture the bird and remove the geolocator to get the data that it has collected. So we put these instruments on, wait for the following breeding season and hopefully find the nests of the same birds here next year! Many other breeding season research camps like this one are putting geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers this season as well. With all of the data combined, hopefully next year we should be able to learn more about where different parts of the overall Semipalmated Sandpiper population go at different parts of the year.

This is one of the geolocators, shown here next to the tip of a mechanical pencil for size. These sit on the upper leg of the bird, in the same location as the flags above on KKL and AHU. The side shown here is the light sensor, and faces outwards to collect data for a year after deployment.

This is one of the geolocators, shown here next to the tip of a mechanical pencil for size. These sit on the upper leg of the bird, in the same location as the flags above on KKL and AHU. The side shown here is the light sensor, and faces outwards to collect data for a year after deployment.

Late June = Late Season

These Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, from our second hatched nest of the year, were still in the nest cup when visited. Four little guys fit into the nest cup, with the female bird still keeping them warm for the moment. Their beautiful silver and red-brown fluff might be my favorite of any of the chicks we have here.

These Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, from our second hatched nest of the year, were still in the nest cup when visited. Four little guys fit into the nest cup, with the female bird still keeping them warm for the moment. Their beautiful silver and red-brown fluff might be my favorite of any of the chicks we have here.

 

Really, late season already? Even though it seems like we just got here a few weeks ago (because we did), the shorebird breeding season in the Arctic is already on the wane. It is really astounding how narrow the window of opportunity is for these birds – they arrived and started nesting about three weeks ago, and in only three more weeks many of them will be on their way southbound, starting the cycle of migration once more. The stage of the summer that late June brings has its certain ups and downs, but is really a special time to be out here.

The display of the male Pectoral Sandpiper starts on the ground, where he gulps air in order to prepare for his flight display, where he greatly inflates his throat and flies over a female, making a deep booming noise, as is somewhat shown here.

The display of the male Pectoral Sandpiper starts on the ground, where he gulps air in order to prepare for his flight display, where he greatly inflates his throat and flies over a female, making a deep booming noise, as is somewhat shown here.

 

By now, pretty much all of the birds that will nest around here have at least begun the process of breeding if they’re going to do so, which is a stark contrast from only a week ago. Our tundra is mostly quiet now, with the occasional loon echoing out from a lake or pond, but near silence from the shorebird front. The booming of Pectoral Sandpiper displays is a rare event now, and the familiar idling motor sound of our staple Semipalmated Sandpipers is all-too-infrequent. Every bird that is going to find a mate and breed has done so and is either on a nest or feeding, so there isn’t nearly as much of a need to display since the two primary reasons for that behavior are to establish territory boundaries and attract mates.

More than slightly conspicuous, Pacific Loons nest on little islands and peninsulas throughout the study area. These rank among the easiest nests to find, since you can often see them from hundreds of meters away. Despite this, few of them have been depredated by foxes yet this year!

More than slightly conspicuous, Pacific Loons nest on little islands and peninsulas throughout the study area. These rank among the easiest nests to find, since you can often see them from hundreds of meters away. Despite this, few of them have been depredated by foxes yet this year!

 

Although still pretty visible at close range, at longer distances the incredible cryptic patterning on a female King Eider makes her look like a clump of dirt or a small mound near the edge of a lake. These guys have unfortunately been hit pretty hard by the foxes, since they are literally sitting ducks.

Although still pretty visible at close range, at longer distances the incredible cryptic patterning on a female King Eider makes her look like a clump of dirt or a small mound near the edge of a lake. These guys have unfortunately been hit pretty hard by the foxes, since they are literally sitting ducks.

 

The fact that birds are on nests is great for us, since that is what we live for up here! This year has been exceptional for nest finding, and we have surpassed the previous three years of the study in numbers of nests, currently just 2-3 nests shy of 300 total. Even as of today we are still finding new nests of Pectoral Sandpiper and both flavors of phalarope, so we hope to find many more! Sadly the flip side of these nests is that, like last year, many of our nests are being depredated – eaten by seemingly ubiquitous Arctic Foxes, taking a large toll on the unfortunate shorebirds. At the start of the season, we were cautiously optimistic about there being few foxes because we were only seeing 0-1 a day as compared to 3-5/day last summer. As our stay has progressed, the numbers have grown somewhat, and 2-3 a day has been the norm for the past week or so. This doesn’t seem like a large change, but the presence of just one of these egg-eating machines is enough to put a large dent in the success of breeding birds, and a couple more makes for some serious effects. This might seem regrettable but it is part of the natural order here; there are surely areas where the same species have very high breeding success this year to make up for the Canning area.

One of the culprits of many of our failed nests, these cute and (sort of) cuddly foxes spend all of their time hunting for lemmings, shorebird nests, and whatever else they can get their paws on. This individual still has some of the fluffy white winter coat showing on the flanks and neck, but has mostly switched to the darker, shorter summer coat.

One of the culprits of many of our failed nests, these cute and (sort of) cuddly foxes spend all of their time hunting for lemmings, shorebird nests, and whatever else they can get their paws on. This individual still has some of the fluffy white winter coat showing on the flanks and neck, but has mostly switched to the darker, shorter summer coat.

 

But not all is bad! The birds are fighters, and our first chicks have been hatching. It is easier to forget about the foxes when you are gazing at some adorable fuzzy chicks from a nest that we’ve been keeping tabs on for 20 days. As of June 30 there have been two broods of Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, and one brood each of Semipalmated Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. Over the next few days we have most of our nests slated to hatch, so if we are lucky we should soon be ankle-deep in fluffy adorableness. Once the chicks have hatched and left the nest, they will hang around with the adults for several days to learn the ways of the shorebird. After, the parents will leave their chicks and head out to fatten up for their flights south. The young shorebirds will often find each other at this point, forming small groups and feeding together, still unable to fly for a few more days. About two or three weeks after the parents leave, the juvenile shorebirds will follow in their footsteps, migrating south for their first journey. If all goes well, they’ll be back to breed in one or two years, and we might even see some of them here!

Our first hatched bird of the year was this Ruddy Turnstone, shown here at roughly one day old a few meters from the nest. From any sort of distance, the mottling on the feathers of this bird blend flawlessly into the ground.

Our first hatched bird of the year was this Ruddy Turnstone, shown here at roughly one day old a few meters from the nest. From any sort of distance, the mottling on the feathers of this bird blend flawlessly into the ground.

 

The other big news at this time of year is the arrival of the caribou. We are treated to not only an impressive bird scene here, but also a large mammal spectacle that we call the American Serengeti. As of the past few days, we have woken up to a horizon littered with caribou, ranging from small groups of 20 or 30 upwards to herds of thousands, with an estimated 6,400 visible at one time in the evening two days ago. Some of these larger herds have come through the study area, even coming through camp one day. On a calm day, you can hear the big herds coming from miles away – snorting noises and the low drumming of hooves that feels like an earthquake. It is a pretty awesome experience to get in the path of an oncoming herd and lay down – they completely ignore you and come within mere dozens of feet, passing by like water around a rock in a river. Some animals will stop and stare for a minute or two, coming close and sniffing, but they all eventually continue on. It takes a herd of 1,000 animals or so a mere 10-15 minutes to pass by, feeding calmly but continually moving to avoid the bugs.

This photo was taken around midnight, when I spent some time laying down near a herd of a couple thousand caribou that were scattered across the tundra. Many of the animals were bedding down for the night, which made for a wonderful scene with the Brooks Range looming in the background.

This photo was taken around midnight, when I spent some time laying down near a herd of a couple thousand caribou that were scattered across the tundra. Many of the animals were bedding down for the night, which made for a wonderful scene with the Brooks Range looming in the background.

 

Over the remaining couple weeks the caribou should continue to pass through by the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands. Nests will continue to hatch, even in the fact of hungry foxes, and the bugs will continue to get worse. I didn’t even touch on the bugs here; I could write a whole post about the fun they bring. Before we know it, the brief Arctic summer will be over and making way for another long, dark winter in the far north. Our crew will be down to four members as of July 1, and one other person and I will be out of here on July 15.

Many of the caribou are in cow/calf pairs, with newborn young that are only several weeks old toddling along behind their mothers. The young caribou, or "baby 'bou" as we like to call them, are very inquisitive and will come right up to you sometimes.

Many of the caribou are in cow/calf pairs, with newborn young that are only several weeks old toddling along behind their mothers. The young caribou, or “baby ‘bou” as we like to call them, are very inquisitive and will come right up to you sometimes.