Wildlife on Coats Island

The short arctic summer feels even shorter this year, with temperatures close to freezing each morning and windy and foggy conditions most days. It is hard to believe it’s almost July. Yesterday was beautiful though, and we all took advantage of the good weather to spend a long day in the field. We caught and geo-tagged another nine Semipalmated Sandpipers, for a total of 24 so far this season. Next year we will recapture the returning birds and remove the tags to get the track of their entire annual migration.

Rianne Mariash and Scott Flemming returning to camp after a long day in the field.

Rianne Mariash and Scott Flemming returning to camp after a long day in the field.

 

While out in the field tagging Semipalmated Sandpipers (affectionately known as SESA or Semis), we also find nests of other arctic-breeding shorebirds, including Dunlin, American Golden Plovers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Red Phalaropes, Ruddy Turnstones, and Black-bellied Plovers. On a still morning (few and far between) you can hear the descending “jreeeeeeeeeeeeee” calls of displaying Dunlin, the “whirrrrrrr” of Semipalmated Sandpipers, and the plaintive “Tu-wheee” of the Golden Plovers.

 

A Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. This bird will travel to South America and back over the next 12 months. We hope to see him again next year to retrieve this tag and recover the data.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. This bird will travel to South America and back over the next 12 months. We hope to see him again next year to retrieve this tag and recover the data.

 

A few King Eider are still courting in the ponds, but most of the females are incubating, while the males return to the open ocean. A pair of Tundra Swans have been visiting the ponds near camp and the Pacific Loons are on eggs. Cackling Geese and Snow Geese are all over the study area and have increased substantially in recent years.  One of the goals of the Environment Canada/Trent University research team is to understand the effects of increasing goose populations on Arctic nesting shorebirds.

 

King Eider surfing downstream past camp

King Eider surfing downstream past camp

 

In addition to birdlife, we have a few mammal species on the island. Arctic Foxes are frequently seen cruising the study area looking for goose and shorebird nests. Our crew is good, but the foxes have keen noses and are likely beating us in the nest finding game.

 

Arctic Fox kits win the prize for cutest babies on the tundra.

Arctic Fox kits win the prize for cutest babies on the tundra.

 

Last night, I hiked out a few kilometers to visit a fox den on a nearby river. Scott had spotted baby kits near the den and I wanted a look. No adult foxes were around, but the babies were playing near the mouth of the den and were fascinated with me for a few minutes.  They all spooked at a passing Jaeger and disappeared into the den together. Arctic foxes are a major predator of shorebird nests, but it’s hard to beat the cuteness factor of a baby fox!

We have started seeing more caribou in the past few days as well. The Coats Island Caribou have very pale coats and the females are smaller and shaggier than the barren ground Caribou of Northern Alaska.

 

A pair of Tundra Swans resting at sunset

A pair of Tundra Swans resting at sunset

 

Finally, we have polar bears on the island. The bears generally stay on or near the sea ice until July and August when they come inland to look for goose and seabird nests and cross over the island. This year, we saw our first polar bears in mid-June, shortly after arriving. We watched a mother and her cub moving inland about a kilometer from camp. We had a good view through the scope but the bears were not nearly close enough to be a threat.

A male Polar Bear retreating from camp. This bear was in camp when we got up, but ran off quickly when we fired off a warning shot. The Polar Bears are moving inland early this year because of the lack of sea ice.

A male polar bear retreating from camp. This bear was in camp when we got up, but ran off quickly when we fired off a warning shot. The polar bears are moving inland early this year because of the lack of sea ice.

 

A few days ago we had a much closer encounter. We woke up to find a male Polar Bear in camp nosing around the cooking tent. He was persistent and did not want to leave even after we fired a few warning shots. The crew all reacted well and ultimately we were able to scare it off with cracker shells and shotgun blasts in the dirt nearby. It was good to see him take off across the tundra without any damage to the camp or the bear.

 

A bull caribou trying to catch our scent

A bull caribou trying to catch our scent

 

This morning we were visited by a larger male polar bear. This one turned and ran as soon as we fired a warning shot, which is what we like to see. He went out and spent some time foraging in the study plots about a mile from camp before moving away inland. This type of bear activity is quite unusual this early in the season and probably is a result of the sea ice disappearing faster than usual. This phenomenon is becoming more pronounced each year as our climate warms. Needless to say, we are staying vigilant and working in teams.

First Geolocators Are Out!

A good snowstorm can be a beautiful thing. Somewhat less so when it happens in mid-June and shuts down your field work.

A female Red Phalarope stoically waits out a late snowstorm.

A female Red Phalarope stoically waits out a late snowstorm.

 

Three days of snow and icy rain also delayed the nesting shorebirds, but over the past few days our total nest count jumped from 5 to 48—so the season is well underway. We have only seen eleven Semipalmated Sandpiper nests so far, but they seem to be a little behind the other species this year and we expect to find many more nests over the next few days.

Shiloh Schulte with a newly tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper

Shiloh Schulte with a newly tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper

 

Despite the slow start, our geolocator project is going well. We have deployed four tags already and will get the rest out on birds as quickly as possible. We are racing the Arctic Foxes who are also out there diligently searching for shorebird nests.

 

A male King Eider closely guarding his mate. The pair will stay together for only a few days. Once the female is on her nest, the male will return to the ocean and join large groups of other male eider ducks.

A male King Eider closely guarding his mate. The pair will stay together for only a few days. Once the female is on her nest, the male will return to the ocean and join large groups of other male eider ducks.

 

The Coats Island camp is one of several in the eastern Canadian Arctic managed by Dr. Paul Smith of Environment Canada. Paul has been working in the Arctic for many years and is a highly regarded shorebird biologist. Paul was supposed to be here for a few days to build the cabin addition and help get the project going, but he has been stuck here for an additional four days and counting thanks to bad weather at the alternate landing sites. In the meantime he has continued to improve the camp, cook breakfast almost every day, and find shorebird nests at a ridiculous rate. The 2015 Coats Island crew is hard working—keeping the drama low and the humor high. It’s hard to beat that combination, particularly when you are all living in a small cabin for the entire summer.

Semipalmated Sandpiper with a new geolocator tag

Semipalmated Sandpiper with a new geolocator tag

 

I am the sole American in camp and I am slowly learning to blend in with the Canadians. My inappropriate use of the metric system is apparently a dead giveaway. As far as I can tell, one measures distance in meters, height in feet/inches (except on official documents which use cm), snow height in cm (unless you are estimating, then use feet). Construction materials are measured in feet/inches. Longer distances are in kilometers. I’m taking notes.

 

 American : Canadian Dictionary

Outhouse : Biffy

Wheat bread : Brown bread

Fried Dough : Beavertails

Mac and Cheese : Kraft Dinner

The stark landscape of the tundra hides hundreds of shorebird nests. We typically walk 8-15 miles (13-25 kilometers) per day over wet uneven ground in search of nests.

The stark landscape of the tundra hides hundreds of shorebird nests. We typically walk 8-15 miles (13-25 kilometers) per day over wet uneven ground in search of nests.

 

Bios of the Coats Camp Crew:

 

Scott Flemming

Scott Flemming measures an American Golden Plover at Coats Island last year

Scott Flemming measures an American Golden Plover at Coats Island last year

As an undergraduate, Scott studied Animal Biology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta where he developed his already keen interest in ornithology. For his Master’s he studied in New Zealand looking at the diet of penguins. He is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Trent University where he is supervised by Dr. Erica Nol and Dr. Paul Smith.  His project is looking at the effects of overabundant goose populations on Arctic nesting shorebird species on Coats and Southampton Island.  This is Scott’s second year of fieldwork on Coats Island and he has hit his stride both as a crew leader and with his research goals.

 

Rianne Mariash

Rianne Mariash releases a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. Hopefully this bird will have a successful nesting season and return next year so we can retrieve the tag and learn more about their migration patterns.

Rianne Mariash releases a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator.
Hopefully this bird will have a successful nesting season and return next year so we can retrieve the tag and learn more about their migration patterns.

 

Rianne is from Revelstoke, BC. An accomplished back-country skier, Rianne is also an aspiring birder and is rapidly picking up the nuances of shorebird identification and behavior. After completing her undergraduate degree in environmental studies and geography at the University of Victoria, Rianne worked as a park ranger on Vancouver Island, a biodiversity monitor for the Alberta government, and a volunteer bird bander. In addition to daily nest searching, Rianne is helping capture and tag Semipalmated Sandpipers for the geolocator study. Rianne is not the only Mariash working on shorebirds in the Arctic this summer. Her sister Heather is a mere 120km north on Southampton Island working at the East Bay research camp.

 

Shawna-lee Mason

Shawna-lee wearing the latest in tundra fashion during firearms practice.

Shawna-lee wearing the latest in tundra fashion during firearms practice.

Shawna is going into her senior year at Trent University, majoring in Biology. In high school Shawna had the opportunity to tag and band ducks at a wildlife ecology center near her home in Cornwall Ontario. This fostered her interest in wildlife and conservation, a direction she has carried on at Trent University. Shawna enjoys birding and recently assisted on an Owl banding project. Shawna has just started her Honor’s project looking at the effects of environment on arctic fox predation. This is Shawna’s first time in the far North. She is taking the freezing wind and rain in stride and is really enjoying the experience of living in an Arctic field camp.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd

Malkolm Boothroyd prepared an epic cooked sushi feast during a stretch of bad weather. He brought in the key ingredients in his personal luggage to make it a surprise.

Malkolm Boothroyd prepared an epic cooked sushi feast during a stretch of bad weather. He brought in the key ingredients in his personal luggage to make it a surprise.

 

Malkolm is taking full advantage of the Arctic summer to capture very impressive images of the wildlife and landscape around us. At 23, Malcolm is already an accomplished wildlife photographer (malkolmboothroyd.com). The rest of the crew also appreciates Malkolm’s cooking skills. Not every field camp cook can manage a high-quality sushi dinner made from scratch! In high school Malkolm’s family went on an epic cross-continental bicycle/birding trip from their home in the Yukon to the Southeast United States. Malkolm took several years between high school and college, and is now a sophomore at the University of Victoria majoring in environmental studies and geography.

 

 

Wilderness Camp

It’s always a challenge to manage the hectic pace of field work while in a remote camp, but invariably, being in the wilderness brings deep joy as well.

The most obvious source of joy is the beauty of this camp–located six miles northwest of Kuzilvak Mountain, a massive volcanic uplift towering 2300 feet over the tundra and covering approximately 28 square miles. Most of the time, clouds rest on Kuzilvak’s shoulders, though periodically her head peaks out above a fog bank, and we admire her brilliant snowy slopes when the clouds lift higher and a gap permits the evening or morning sun to cast long light across her ridges.

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The ridge itself is a mile wide before it hits higher, shrub covered ground, and longer than we can estimate by eye, laced with exactly the right mix of habitats for shorebirds and waterfowl to nest (in high spots with grasses dry enough to keep eggs warm) and forage (in wet grasses, ponds, and bogs that support the staggering volume of insect life that makes it worthwhile for the birds to migrate vast distances to breed). Though most of my time is spent with camp chores, I usually have two or three hours free each day to explore the ridge. I’ve found many nests, mostly Western Sandpiper, but today a Northern Shoveler nest with only 1 egg thus far, and I flushed a female Lapland Longspur from a perfectly formed but still empty nest cup.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

The Western Sandpiper full clutch nests (4 eggs) indicate that they are newly laid. The larger shorebirds seem to still be laying. I’ve watched pairs of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel copulate and move widely around the ridge foraging—clearly not yet incubating, but hanging close enough to one area to have hope of finding their nests if we were staying longer.

 

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta.  They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta. They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

We know we are in the sub-arctic by the diversity of plants and cushiness of the mosses. The fragrance is glorious, making the occasional moments to sit and watch the clouds a sensual feast. Our boots sink into what feels like heavenly softness thanks to the sphagnum that is so common here. Water wets the rim of our soles in the drier mossy patches, and makes for an extremely comfortable bed so long as the ground tarps beneath our tents function properly. In wetter patches, when we pause to watch birds or do a chore, we sink imperceptibly into the sphagnum, which creates one of the more amusing aspects of camp life this year—the “tundra swim.” Not realizing that my feet have sunk while stationary, turning to go all of my body momentum swings—while the feet stay completely immobile. Down I go, sometimes breaking my fall with only a soaked glove and sleeve, other times grateful for the rain pants and parka that repel most of the moisture as I land flat on my butt. While on surveys in wetter plots, the guys have sometimes had water fill their waders to their knees or higher.

 

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The weather has been dishearteningly raw and rainy, with temperatures from freezing to upper 40s and what must be 100 variations on grey. We’ve had rain every day, sometimes a light mist with periods of broken clouds and sun, other times downpours coupled with winds blowing steady around 30 and gusting over 40, yet our spirits have paradoxically lifted since arriving in camp.

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

Why does time in the wilderness bring such a deep sense of renewal? We avoid being outdoors in the kind of cold, wet, raw weather that has dominated these surveys, yet once we are out, spirits lift. Why is that?

Each of us finds our own sources of deep communion outdoors, yet I suspect there are many common elements, and many of those take their meaning at least in part by juxtaposition. Being so remote that there literally are no other human sounds or activity causes something in me to release. We spend so much time in the world of human things and social striving that the simplicity of living close to the elements feels deeply nourishing. That for at least a few short weeks of the year my work is to be fully present and attend to the basics—food, water, shelter—and I get to let everything else go—feels renewing. This is possible in part, of course, because of all the comforts and conveniences we bring. I remain aware that if I actually had to survive (hunt food, build a cabin, clear 5 acres of forest, prepare for winter), it would be a far different experience.

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

We think we can’t live without hot showers, cars and toaster ovens, TV, internet, and phone. We can. I love my “chef’s kitchen” but there is a balance problem. To the extent that I show up with the vibrant foods and tools that life at home in Vermont makes available, cooking can be just as much of a renewal, a meditation, a communion with the simple elements of life that I experience here in the Alaskan wilderness. But these wonderful conveniences and gadgets tend to take up too much of our life, or we use them while our minds are on other things, and then we find ourselves feeling cranky, dissatisfied, not realizing that the problem is too much, not that our email is loading too slowly (mea culpa). We take in too much food, stimulation, and human interaction, making it hard to appreciate all manner of slow things. We control our indoor weather too tightly, making it difficult to enjoy real weather with its glorious balance and diversity. And we devote too little time to physical exertion, too little time just watching, listening, and sensing, too little time for just being in the world as it is, being with each other with full attention.

 

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

I find that when I show up fully it’s easier to see and admire the goodness in others, whatever our differences of lifestyle, upbringing, politics, and preferences. Being in camp supports the possibility of seeing each other more deeply, and relating more directly and simply as well, though this does not come automatically with being in the wilderness. Attitude is key, and a life or death factor in survival situations, as early polar expeditions have documented. When we are too competitive, or complaining, or controlling, we make life exponentially more miserable than wretched weather and winds, and this is true in the office and home. Having shown up mentally as well as physically, the challenges of the weather and work temper my spirit, deepen my capacity for renewal, appreciation of beauty, and joy, and help me remember to be more fully the kind of person I aspire to be.