Rugged Weather

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

We always expect some wintry weather in early June in the Arctic. This year has been exceptional. After two glorious sunny days when we flew in and set up camp (though with temps in the 30s), we have had 12 days of mostly sub-freezing temperatures, howling winds gusting over 30 MPH at times, and many overcast days with bouts of freezing fog, pelting snow, and freezing rain. This is the longest consistent stretch of bad weather any of us can remember.

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean icepack during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean ice pack  during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

When the weather is this cold and windy shorebirds hunker down and often interrupt or wait to initiate laying their eggs. This makes it very difficult to find shorebird nests, or to do much banding. But in the rare patches of sunshine, the birds are in full glorious display.

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

As a result of the weather, we have only 3 newly banded Dunlin equipped with a GPS tracker to date, but our crews have found 35 shorebird nests including Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. We also have 71 waterfowl nests of which 50 are Cackling Goose, as well as Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Black Brant, King Eider, Canada Goose, and Long-tailed Duck. The remaining 28 nests include Lapland Longspur, Glaucous Gull, and Parasitic Jaeger.

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Weather forecasts predict less wind but temperatures remaining in the 30s, so it’s not clear when we will have weather good enough to deploy trackers on tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers. Our colleagues in Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) report a similarly late spring, and have not been able to deploy any GPS trackers yet.

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

We have had a few breaks in the clouds and a couple of mostly sunny days that reveal inspiring views of the Brooks Range that lift our spirits.

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

 Even with fierce weather we have had some spectacular bird sightings as you’ll see in the photos below.

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

One side benefit to the rugged weather has been some extra time in camp to get the banding and lab gear organized and work out routines for managing samples and data. The consistent cold has also provided great refrigeration, and we’ve had time to cook hearty meals including homemade stews, chilis, curries, and pizza using a backpacker’s oven on top of the camp stove.

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

So far we’ve seen very few mammals. There have been occasional Caribou and Red Fox, including this one diligently hunting for eggs and lemmings. Although we’ve seen only one lemming so far, we have observed fox pounce on them through the snow so we know they are still in their burrows due to the late spring. Fortunately we’ve seen no grizzly or polar bear yet, though there is clear evidence of grizzly digging ground squirrels out of the river bank next to our tents in the form of big holes and big scats!

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

In the next post, Shiloh will introduce you to the crew and give you an update on nest searching and deploying trackers.

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc. Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

2 thoughts on “Rugged Weather

  1. Biologists are amazingly sturdy and determined folk! I’ll bet the stories of their prior adventures, that they can entertain each other with, while waiting for good weather, would make a good book…or film!
    Great to hear the Bears have behaved well, and that there have been some bandings and a tracker despite conditions. Impressive!
    Great photos!! Hoping for less wind and fairer working conditions.

  2. Just to add that Metta’s sentence: “This is the longest consistent stretch of bad weather any of us can remember.” sounds like a good opening line for an epic novel.

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