Galbraith Lake Airstrip

Week 3: Brooks Range, Northern Alaska
24 June 2010

We are now in the first leg of our journey home, having flown back to a small cabin maintained by the Arctic Refuge at the Galbraith Lake Airstrip just north of Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Our work progressed well this week, and we ended up with 131 nests found and 125 birds banded as of yesterday. That includes 11 pairs of Dunlin, on which we placed geolocators that will help us learn their migration routes and wintering areas. We are also putting green flags with unique 3-letter codes on Semipalmated Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpipers so that we can track individual survival of these birds from our site and the eight other demographic network sites across the US and Canadian arctic in future years of our study.

A particular challenge in the field is managing all of the data we generate that will be combined with the information from the other sites. In addition to the banding and nest data, we’ve had to coordinate information from each person’s GPS so that we can relocate and check all of the nests. Because it can take several days to catch and band the birds on each nest, every day we’ve had to sort out which nests still have birds that need banding and must be visited every day, and which nests are complete and can be put on a five day revisit schedule to monitor nest survival. Metta worked hard to devise a system for organizing the work load each day, improvising with computer files and cardboard checklists of the outstanding nests needing banding attempts for each of the three teams that day. This was a huge help and we’re not sure how we would have managed without her!

Week three was again dominated by challenging weather. We awoke on the solstice to a hard frost and ice coating everything, including the electric fences. We heard that it was 95° in New England the same day! After 12 consecutive days, the sun finally came out the night before we left and we could see snow capped peaks 60 miles to the south. That would be like seeing Boston, Cambridge, and Lynn from Plymouth. Although the cold makes it hard to be nimble enough to band the birds, our biggest challenge is the wind. And in spite of there being water everywhere (it cannot sink into the ground due to the permafrost), it is actually a desert climate more arid than Tuscon by annual rainfall. That aridity causes many small vexations like chapped noses, peeling and splitting skin on the tops of our fingers, and cuts that won’t heal. It will be good to get home!

Last night we arrived at the Galbraith airstrip late, and we had gorgeous sunny weather and couldn’t resist a magical midnight sun hike with a colleague who generously spent all day driving a truck up the Haul Road to bring us and our gear back to Fairbanks. Starting out at 2 AM we hiked through willows, then along a river bed to a canyon filled with aufeis, the persistent ice which forms as the river freezes and overflows its banks in the winter that often lasts all summer, creating patches of clear aqua and turquoise ice in the under layers. We then climbed up a lush, spongy tundra ridge with glimpses of the higher peaks behind to a cliff in the canyon with a gyrfalcon nest where four large, fuzzy grey babies lounged between feedings from their parents. On the way back a very blond mother grizzly strolled with her cub on the opposite ridge, close enough to get a perfect view without being concerned about us due to the river and canyon between us. As we came out to the river bed again one of the adult gyrfalcons flew right over our heads and up an adjacent canyon hunting for the next meal for itself and its babies, leaving us in awe of its beauty and powerful, silent flight. Returning to the cabin just before 4 AM the long light of the arctic evening was beginning to brighten to full daylight once again, having circled across the northern expanse of the sky without ever dipping below the horizon.

We feel incredibly fortunate to experience the challenges and joys of life in the Arctic Refuge, to have our souls nourished through deep immersion in the wilderness and our love and respect for its diversity of life. We hope that these updates and photos bring some of that beauty, awe, and inspiration to each of you, without whom this work would not be possible. We thank each and every one of you. I will post some final thoughts and reflections on what we accomplished this season once we return home.