Cooper Island has provided me with a place to conduct a
long-term study of an Arctic seabird and also a place where I have been
fortunate to establish some long-term friendships. In June 2001, photographer Joe McNally
visited the island to obtain images to accompany the New York Times story Darcy
Frey was writing about the Cooper Island research. Joe’s week on the island in
2001 started with him being sick in his tent for the first two days but, after
he and I had spent a week walking through the guillemot colony and chatting
back at camp, ended with a friendship that has lasted 18 years.
While Darcy’s story and Joe’s photos were scheduled to
appear in the autumn of 2001, events in mid-September altered that scheduling,
as the Times and the rest of the media focused on stories about 9/11 for the remainder
of the year. To have 2002 begin with a break from events of the fall of 2001, the
New York Times Magazine ran the Cooper
Island story the first Sunday of the new year with Joe’s picture of me standing
on sea ice as the cover photo.
Over the past 18 years, whenever Joe and I have been able to
meet, I told him I hoped he could return to Cooper Island someday to document how
continuing warming has changed the Arctic since 2001. That all seemed like a
pipe dream until recently when Joe arrived by boat from Utqiaġvik to spend a
few days on the island to revisit the Black Guillemot colony and discuss my
observations and thoughts about my 45 years of study.
Joe’s career in photography has taken him to many amazing places and his choosing to return to Cooper Island meant a great deal to me. This year’s visit came after almost four weeks alone on the island and the camaraderie of Joe and crew was an excellent way to end my solitude. Observing and documenting a melting Arctic can be disheartening but Joe’s desire to help me tell the Black Guillemot’s story – and the chance to renew our long-term friendship – raised my spirits as I approach the midpoint of this field season.
Polar bears caused me to get a cabin on Cooper Island in 2003. After a rapid retreat of sea ice in August 2002, bears trashed our tents, which required making a hasty departure from the island with the help of a North Slope Borough Search and Rescue helicopter. The first week of the 2019 field season found me again living in a tent as I cleaned up after a polar bear was able to remove the board covering the cabin door and rearrange much of the gear and supplies I store on the island overwinter. Damage was not major but making my 8- by 12-foot summer home habitable took time.
Luckily the first week’s tedium of camp housekeeping was balanced with daily indications that the Black Guillemot’s 2019 breeding season would not be a repeat of last year, when colony size and productivity had major decreases related to the poor survival and breeding condition of adults. Of the 75 nest sites occupied last year, only 25 had pairs that incubated eggs. This year a similar number of nests are occupied but all of those have birds diligently attending eggs.
The reasons for the difference in the two years is not yet clear. Both breeding seasons were preceded by a previously unprecedented lack of sea ice in the Bering Sea wintering area. Geolocation data loggers I am retrieving from some of the birds will allow comparison of the overwinter movements and distribution for the two years and may provide an answer.
Another indication of the health of the colony in 2019 is the number of first-time breeders. Long-term annual mortality of established breeders is approximately ten percent, and a stable population requires enough new recruits each year to occupy the vacancies. Unlike many recent years, this year saw a substantial number of previously nonbreeding local birds (individuals fledged from Cooper Island) and immigrants occupying those vacancies and even pairing up with each other to breed in sites not occupied last summer – something that has been rare in the period of colony decline in recent decades.
Another major highlight of the first week of censusing was the sighting of a bird fledged in 2017, a year when the colony experienced large-scale nestling mortality. The season was documented by Hannah Waters in Audubon magazine. The two-year old bird sighted this year was raised in the nest featured in the Audubon cover image by Peter Mather; it shows a female parent about to enter a nest with a sculpin. The story emphasized how the colony’s survival in a melting Arctic would require a few individuals to be able to provision young from ice-free waters and for those young to return to breed. While the 2017 offspring sighted this year is not breeding, few birds breed earlier than three years of age, its return to Cooper combined with the other positive signs of colony health in 2019, provide reasons for some early season optimism.
Even after 44 years, preparing for the field season to study Black Guillemots on Cooper Island is a time of excitement and anticipation as I gather the gear and supplies needed to survive and conduct research for three months on a remote Arctic island. This year the excitement was tempered with a high level of anxiety given last summer’s disastrous breeding season. While the size of the colony has been decreasing since the 1990s, as the guillemots’ sea ice habitat has steadily dwindled, the 2018 breeding season was unique in that 1) the overwinter mortality of breeding birds was three times the long-term average, 2) one third of the returning pairs failed to lay eggs and 3) half of the pairs that did lay eggs abandoned them soon after laying. The result was a colony that in August had only 25 functioning breeding pairs – something hard to observe and process when one has a vivid memory of a 200+ pair colony in the late 1980s.
Back in Seattle I was still processing the data and the implications of the 2018 field season when the U.N. issued a report about the pace of global climate change with a separate report on the Arctic saying a 2-5oC temperature increase was locked in for the region even with major reductions in fossil fuel emissions. While the reports had the positive effect of finally having the media and public focus on the trends in and causes of climate change, along with my findings in 2018 they affected the way I viewed my long-term study. Documenting the pace and magnitude of biological changes in the Arctic seemed all the more important.
I headed north to Utqiagvik (Barrow) in early June knowing that the guillemots had experienced another year with little sea ice in the traditional wintering area in the Bering Sea and that the Arctic Ocean off northern Alaska adjacent to their breeding colony had unprecedently low sea ice extent for early summer. Conditions like those are bound to pose major difficulties for the Cooper Island Black Guillemots. While I start the season with concern for the long-term trajectory of the colony, I see the 2019 field season as a unique opportunity to document the resilience and adaptability of one of the Arctic’s sea-ice obligate seabirds. I look forward to providing you updates as the breeding season progresses on this website, Proteus, our Twitter feed, and the Friends of Cooper Island Facebook page.