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A visit to Cooper Island

Post and photos by guest blogger, Greg O’Corry-Crowe

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — Mid July and I finally get the opportunity to visit Cooper Island and its birds and to work with George Divoky. Over the years George and I had discussed ways to collaborate. If we could only put his unique four-decade long study of black guillemots and their environment together with investigations of their DNA, we could fill in some key gaps in this unique study of a seabird against a backdrop of dramatic environmental change. These discussions ramped up into real plans last fall and now I was speeding across Elson lagoon towards Cooper in a skiff on a clear sunny morning.

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Sabine’s gull on Cooper Island

Wildlife Biologist Jason Herreman and his seal tagging crew from the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management had generously offered to ferry me out to the island on one of their day trips from Barrow. As if by way of introduction of things to come we found ourselves increasingly in the company of seabirds. Loons effortlessly kept pace with our boat, eiders wheeled across our path, terns hovered overhead … and now and then the distinctive small black alcid, with the white wing patches, angled past at speed. Eventually, a small cabin was sighted on the horizon, the only relief other than pack ice on an otherwise flat land and seascape. As we closed in, a lone figure approached. Bobby Sarren steered us through the shallows to the beach where I met George and we helped Jason and assistant Ross unload my gear, a care package for George, and stakes and wire to erect a “bear hair sampling” fence as part of a genetic investigation. The only instructions: “Erect a fence around locations bears were likely to take an active interest in … such as your cabin!”

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Black guillemots displaying their distinctive white patches and red feet.

Instantly doubling the human population of Cooper Island, I worked with George to cart the gear across the flat, sandy island back to base. With the recent addition of an 8′ x 12′ cabin ringed now by two electrified bear fences, the once tented camp was in danger of becoming a comfortable compound! I was instantly struck by how accessible the birds were, especially the guillemots. Their behavior and ecology was fascinating, and their striking plumage and coloring added to their charm. I was also struck by how tangible the bigger ecosystem-level questions were … that is once you got past the logistical hurdles!

The possibilities began to accumulate quickly in my mind. Over the next four days I worked with George, checking his new “nest boxes”, catching and banding birds, collecting data, monitoring egg production and hatching rates … and beginning a comprehensive genetic sampling regime. More importantly, perhaps, we spent much of our time in conversation — something one tends to do a lot in George’s presence — exploring ways to develop new avenues of research, working out the logistics behind these ideas, brainstorming about funding opportunities, etc.

It was clear by the end of this exploratory trip that this long-term study was both unique and important for several reasons. Apart from the obvious value that a study of this magnitude has in terms of resolving fundamental questions about bird ecology, behavior and adaptation and about ecosystem structure, and as well as the rarity of such studies in an extreme environment like the Arctic, the location, time-fame and subject of this study propel it to another level entirely. Through the continued study of this bird population and its environment we have a unique opportunity to understand how changes in the physical environment and human activities impact entire ecosystems. Ironically, perhaps, this opportunity may be one of the best ways to understand something even more fundamental — how ecosystems actually work.

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George bands a black guillemot for identification and then let’s it fly free.

Another major reason is of course the scientist who was conducting the study. George’s breathe of interest and understanding for both the details and the big picture comes from years of observation and thought — something a self-imposed seasonal exile on an Arctic island encourages. However, it’s also his energy and enthusiasm for his work. And this comes simply from George, himself, and it is my belief that these kinds of investigations are only possible when a certain type of individual, a George if your will, dreams them up and takes them on.

Quyanukpuk to George and all those who assisted in making this trip possible, including the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Robert Suydam, Pam Houghten and Florida Atlantic University.

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