Coming Home

We boarded up the cabin on our last morning to get it ready for the long winter ahead. Notice the boards with nails sticking out. Those are meant to deter polar bears from curiously pawing apart the cabin while nobody is home.

We boarded up the cabin on our last morning to get it ready for the long winter ahead. Notice the boards with nails sticking out. Those are meant to deter polar bears from curiously pawing apart the cabin while nobody is home.

 

During our last week on Coats Island, we were graced with a second stretch of good weather, which enabled us to finish deploying our geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers!  We placed 35 units in all on birds from Coats Island. As we wrapped up our scientific work, we also began preparing for next year, when we will be faced with the difficult task of finding and recapturing the birds to remove the geolocators so that we can download the data.  We continued to find new nests every day, and as it became clear that our mission would be accomplished, we enjoyed the abundance of birds and vast depth of this special wilderness even more.

 

After breaking camp, we moved all our gear to a nearby gravel bar that the pilots liked better because it was oriented more directly into the wind. It was a  long process to move everything, but you always want your pilots to be happy about landing!

After breaking camp, we moved all our gear to a nearby gravel bar that the pilots liked better because it was oriented more directly into the wind. It was a long process to move everything, but you always want your pilots to be happy about landing!

 

One task in our final few days was setting up cameras on 5 shorebird nests to test their ability to document nest predation next year. Another was gathering data for Environment Canada on the Canada Geese on Coats.  Brad and I spent a day going all the way to the coast to find Canada Goose nests. While we were there, we had the special treat of seeing the ice at the coast up close for the first time.

 

Because the weather is very unpredictable in the Arctic, and bad weather can cancel flight plans for many days in a row, it’s always a special delight to see your plane land on time. Here the Twin Otter comes in for a graceful landing on the gravel ridge that passes for a tundra airstrip.

Because the weather is very unpredictable in the Arctic, and bad weather can cancel flight plans for many days in a row, it’s always a special delight to see your plane land on time. Here the Twin Otter comes in for a graceful landing on the gravel ridge that passes for a tundra airstrip.

 

The second to last day, we were back to classic Arctic weather again – cold, periods of hard rain and strong winds. We took advantage of the bad weather to work on many other tasks such as beginning data entry. Our last full day dawned fairly clear though still very windy, so we took down the cook tent before another storm could blow in. While packing up, the Arctic Fox we had seen nearby came very close to camp and, coming across a King Eider nest, stole and cached the eggs while we watched. That evening the ocean ice pack 10 km to the north was finally breaking up, with a patch of open blue water visible in the distance.

 

Here is the crew all packed into the Twin Otter flying away from Coats Island. We were happy to be on our way home but already missing the wilderness.

Here is the crew all packed into the Twin Otter flying away from Coats Island. We were happy to be on our way home but already missing the wilderness.

 

Breaking camp is always a lot of work, since everything has to be packed up for the long trip home. We made the arrangements for the plane to return and started to look forward to seeing the pilots who had dropped us off just a few short weeks before.  Brad had arranged to take a special trip by plane to the southwestern part of the island, where some satellite tagged Whimbrels spent time last year getting ready for their southbound migration. He will post the story of that trip soon. The plane came on time, which was a minor miracle.  We flew both in and out on the day that was scheduled, which has never happened to me once in 12 years of Arctic research!
On the way back to Iqaluit, we stopped to refuel at the airport in Coral Bay on Southampton Island, where our colleague Larry Niles would be arriving shortly to start his work on Red Knots.

 

We made a quick stop at the small airport in Coral Harbor on Southampton Island just to the north of Coats to refuel for the long flight back to Iqaluit.

We made a quick stop at the small airport in Coral Harbor on Southampton Island just to the north of Coats to refuel for the long flight back to Iqaluit.

 

Flying back over Hudson Strait and Baffin Island, we were amazed at how snowy and icy it still was. The spring takes a very long time to come to the Arctic, and at the end of June it still looked like winter.

 

As we watched the long miles of icy water and rocky islands slip slowly by below, the vastness of the Canadian Arctic was stunning.

As we watched the long miles of icy water and rocky islands slip slowly by below, the vastness of the Canadian Arctic was stunning.

 

As we arrived back to Iqaluit, we had this amazing view of Frobisher Bay, still ice locked on the first of July.

As we arrived back to Iqaluit, we had this amazing view of Frobisher Bay, still ice locked on the first of July.

 

We had a quick turnaround in Iqaluit, just long enough to finish the official paperwork required for our project, put away all the gear, and repack for the long flights home.  After a nice farewell dinner, we headed to Ottawa, where we reconnected with Paul Smith to deliver data sets and share stories of both of our field seasons. We flew home knowing our work had gone extremely well and that we had been privileged once again to spend time in such a remarkable wilderness. We will post more soon on the Whimbrel exploration trip, and then later some final thoughts on the field season.

 

Back in “civilization”, we unloaded the ATV and got ready to sort and pack all of our gear for the trip home.  Here, Metta and Brad head out to drive in style on the city streets of Iqaluit to the warehouse where all the gear gets stored.

Back in “civilization”, we unloaded the ATV and got ready to sort and pack all of our gear for the trip home. Here, Metta and Brad head out to drive in style on the city streets of Iqaluit to the warehouse where all the gear gets stored.

Camp Life

Each night we call the Canadian agency responsible for tracking field crews in the arctic, to let them know we are safe and well.

Each night we call the Canadian agency responsible for tracking field crews in the arctic to let them know we are safe and well.

 

When we give talks about our work we are always asked what it is like to live in tents in tough arctic conditions where it can snow any day of the year and we must constantly be vigilant for grizzly bears, and polar bears. The conditions are often hard, but being in such vast wilderness, living in the most pristine land-based ecosystems on earth, fills us with an awe that more than compensates for the difficulties.

 

On cold and windy evenings with storms approaching, we especially appreciate having shelter.

On cold and windy evenings with storms approaching, we especially appreciate having shelter.

 

At Coats Island we are sleeping in a small unheated cabin for the first time in more than a decade of arctic field camps. The Canadian Wildlife Service built cabins for researchers because of the many polar bears that spend their summers on these islands in Northern Hudson Bay after the ice melts. Having a foam mattress on a plywood bunk is a great luxury! Our kitchen, chairs, and work table, at which we write these posts on a laptop run by a generator, are in a canvas wall tent. In the Arctic Refuge we work and sleep in tents because it is a federal wilderness area and we are required to pack in and pack out everything we need, and to leave no trace when done.

 

The cabin needs to be secured with to survive the harsh winter winds, and the ropes needed many repairs while we were there, to see the camp safely through another year.

The cabin needs to be secured with to survive the harsh winter winds, and the ropes needed many repairs while we were there, to see the camp safely through another year.

 

The hardest thing about the arctic for most of us is not the cold but the wind. It blows 20-30 mph most days, more during storms, and is often gusty above those baselines. The constant howl, flapping of tent walls, high pitched whine of guy lines, and struggle to walk in strong winds are incredibly fatiguing. When the temperature is below freezing and it is foggy, which is often the case on the Arctic Ocean coast, the wind turns fog into little crystal pellets that relentlessly sting your face. It is also quite challenging to focus on tiny birds when both our binoculars and their flight are buffeted by strong winds.

 

Every night we go through all of our banding supplies to make sure we have everything we need in the field for the next day.  Metta gets the kits ready with special attention to detail.

Every night we go through all of our banding supplies to make sure we have everything we need in the field for the next day. Metta gets the kits ready with special attention to detail.

 

We cook on a two burner camp stove run either with propane or white gas. Dinners are generally simple, one-pot affairs when possible. Our staple breakfast menu revolves around hot water: coffee, tea, and oatmeal with a variety of toppings. Lunches are sandwiches, pilot bread and canned fish, and plenty of snacks to get through long days in the field. Some days we use a stove-top camp oven, tricky aluminum boxes that are hard to heat evenly, but once mastered enable much appreciated treats when we have the time and energy: cookies, coffee cakes, biscuits, brownies, and even pizzas! Everything tastes better up here. At most camps setting up, cleaning, and replenishing water filters from a river or pond to slowly drip throughout the day while we work is a major camp chore. At Coats Island the river water is so pure that it doesn’t need filtration, a marvel in the 21st century.

 

Cleaning guns is a regular chore in camp, so they will be ready in a pinch.

Cleaning guns is a regular chore in camp, so they will be ready in a pinch.

 

Nearly everyone is curious how we handle our bathroom in the wilderness, though most are too shy to ask. In the tundra where there are no trees for cover, and our crews are equipped with the world’s best binoculars, politely turning one’s back when a teammate drops behind or moves off is an unspoken norm. In wilderness camps where we pack everything out we use “wag bags,” large sealing bags with enzyme powder inside that we set up in a portable loo and replace the bag as needed; paper is burned in a tin can.

 

An especially lovely sunset around camp, and a moment to pause and reflect on our surroundings.

An especially lovely sunset around camp, and a moment to pause and reflect on our surroundings.

 

Most camps construct some kind of shield around their loo, or “biffy” as it is called here in Canada. At the Canning River it is made of half sheets of plywood and has a lovely river view. Here at Coats we have a 3-sided tripod structure with blue plastic tarp wrapped around it, and a 2×4 frame for a brand new comfortable seat. Another luxury. Our biffy overlooks a deep bend in the river where it would be easy to be surprised by a bear; for that reason we designate one of our four shotguns as the “loo gun” while in camp and always take it with us. Probably not too many people carry a 12 gauge with 2 ¾” rifled slugs when they visit the loo!

 

In past years the CWS crews have been here later in the season when the mud dries out. Although the walking is difficult, we all appreciate slowing down to the natural pace of the world around us. Having this short reprieve from the relentless multi-tasking of “normal” life makes “normal” look quite different. It seems to take at least a week to get into the rhythm of life here, and although we work long days and it sometimes feels hectic, watching the life around us for hours every day is a powerful antidote to the pace of life back home.

 

We rarely see the moonrise in the arctic, because the sun is usually up, but this lovely moonrise was a rare treat.

We rarely see the moonrise in the arctic, because the sun is usually up, but this lovely moonrise was a rare treat.

 

Perhaps the most magical aspect of working in the arctic in the summer is the midnight sun. In the Arctic Refuge the sun never sets while we are there, it circles the sky creating beautiful rosy and golden light for many hours every night. The birds are active then, and listening to Pacific and Red-throated Loons in the long light of an arctic summer night is an indescribable thrill. We find it difficult to go to bed on nights when the clouds and fog lift, suffusing the tundra with a soft magic that nourishes something deep within us. The sun dips below the horizon for a few hours at Coats, giving us our first arctic full moon rise over the river a few nights ago. We fall silent at such moments, each of us filling a place inside that renews us in the moment, from which the memory can sustain us in the months ahead.

 

At the end of a long day, having a cabin to sleep in is a real luxury compared to our many years sleeping on the arctic ground in tents.

At the end of a long day, having a cabin to sleep in is a real luxury compared to our many years sleeping on the arctic ground in tents.

Arctic Wings and Wind

A young Glaucus Gull scans for dead things to scavenge on the tundra

A young Glaucus Gull scans for dead things to scavenge on the tundra.

 

Winds ripping out of the northwest are cutting across the tundra now, bringing air from the icy blanket of high Arctic Canada. They sweep over the Boothia Peninsula, Ungava Bay, mainland Nunavut, and just to our north, kicking up sands from the crushed rock eskers of Southampton Island. Before finally blasting our tents and rolling our loose gear through camp here on Coats Island, the wind had a moment to chill again as it crossed the Bay of God’s Mercy where coastal ice still clings to the land of Belle Peninsula.

An Arctic Tern hunts for tiny shrimp-like isopods along the edge of the Hudson Bay ice.

An Arctic Tern hunts for tiny shrimp-like isopods along the edge of the Hudson Bay ice.

 

A Parasitic Jaeger seems to thrive in this gale. It lifts and sails and lifts again just to the north of us, using the wind to glide over the wetlands and dry tundra landscape, hunting for unguarded loon eggs or a stray shorebird blown from the safety of the wet hummock rims below. A slight shift of its ruddering tail swings the bird into a successful tail-chase, killing a small sandpiper with a bill designed for aerial snagging. Jaegers cruise the high seas most of the year, using this exact undulating flight pattern to drop into troughs and rise over waves for hours with scarcely a wing beat. This very bird could have spent the last nine months off of Massachusetts on the waters of Nantucket Sound.

Stephen keeps an eye out for bears while I sample invertebrates, looking for potential Whimbrel prey.

Stephen keeps an eye out for bears while I sample invertebrates, looking for potential Whimbrel prey.

 

Like most birds here, and for us too, Jaegers are mere visitors to these open lands, drawn to the arctic to nest and reproduce. The shorebirds that we are studying are here for the same reason, a very brief but intense number of weeks to make more of their kind. The insect-rich environment of the arctic, combined with twenty-four hours of light for constant feeding, creates an environment that produces robust chicks, ready to fly by the middle of August. Shorebird eggs, sitting low in small cup nests dug into the tundra sod, are sheltered from the wind by the adult bird incubating them. After hatching, the chicks too stay low, using the subtle contours of their land to stay sheltered while feeding on insects and their larvae.

A Dunlin on her nest. Hidden from all.

A Dunlin on her nest. Hidden from all.

 

A Black-bellied Plover winging an aerial display in the wind over its mate may have spent the winter on the beaches of Maryland or Georgia. It feeds now on hardy black wolf spiders that prowl the tundra, waiting for the insect blooms to emerge in the coming days. A Dunlin, hidden so well on its nest that all an observer sees is the sparkle of light from its pearly black eye, may have spent most of the year on a strip of sand called Lenark Reef on the Florida Panhandle.

A male Black-bellied Plover keeps watch over its river bank territory for competitors and danger to its nest.

A male Black-bellied Plover keeps watch over its river bank territory for competitors and danger to its nest.

 

Then there are the extreme flyers, the birds that absolutely amaze us with their abilities to cover the Hemisphere in migration flight. A White-rumped Sandpiper on a nest less than a mile from camp is here from its winter home at the edge of a sheep farm in southern Patagonia. With the White-rumps from the far south have come Red Knots, now incubating eggs on dinner plate sized patches of lichen and moss scattered along the higher interior gravel ridges of this island. The Red Knots have come from the beaches and tidal flats of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. They have flown in a series of long hops to get here, stopping at critical feeding areas along the way to replenish lost muscle and spent fat reserves. Their chicks will hatch in the first week of July and their down will be so close in gray color and stippled pattern that they meld into their surroundings with the cryptic finesse of a chameleon.

Herring gull by the river near camp.

Herring gull by the river near camp.

 

The offspring of all of these birds will leave here by the end of August, perhaps using the Arctic winds to carry them south over Hudson Bay, James Bay and to the coasts of the Atlantic. They will leave weeks after the parent birds have headed south. We will have a chance to see them as they make their way on new wings to the beaches of New England to feed and rest before the pushing south again over the Atlantic to Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil.

12. Tundra Swans in Flight

Tundra swans fly over the coast.