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A decreased breeding effort, but the colony persists.

This improbable 2020 field season is finishing its second week. As I anticipated, being back in Utqiagvik and heading out to Cooper Island helped make this bizarre year feel a little more normal.  But once on the island, my initial census of the colony quickly reminded me that, while the entire world is focused on the disruptions and dangers of the pandemic, the repercussions of a melting Arctic continue – as they have for the majority of the 47-year Cooper Island study.

In the late 1980s the Mandt’s Black Guillemot colony on Cooper Island had over 200 breeding pairs, thanks to nest sites we provided in the 1970s and 1980s.  The number of breeding pairs began to decline  in the 1990s with gradual decreases in the sea ice on which the species depends. In this century, major declines in sea ice – and in the availability of the guillemots’ ice-associated prey – further reduced numbers and has continued to decrease the colony’s breeding success.   

We did not see large scale nonbreeding and egg neglect at the colony until 2018 when, after record low sea ice in the winter of 2017-18, two-thirds of the 75 pairs in the colony did not lay or did not incubate eggs – essentially reducing the colony to 25 breeding pairs.  This colony-wide lack of breeding effort for seabirds is rare, symptomatic of a major reduction in an ecosystem’s ability to sustain a previously supported population, such as occurs at colonies periodically affected by El Nino.

In 2020 the Cooper Island colony has again experienced widespread nonbreeding and egg neglect and a reduction in number of pairs.  The 65 pairs present in the colony this year is the lowest number since the early 1980s.  Of those pairs, only 33 laid eggs, with only 18 pairs incubating.   This essentially reduces the colony to less than 20 functional breeding pairs – similar to the size of the colony when I began the study in 1975.

While this year’s findings are depressing, they are not unexpected. Mandt’s Black Guillemot is one of the few Arctic seabirds dependent on sea ice throughout the year and the reduction of Arctic sea ice has been pronounced and one of the most obvious indicators of global warming.  Arctic sea ice is currently at a record low for this time of year and the increasing atmospheric CO2 levels causing the earth’s warming are higher than they have been in 3 to 5 million years.

The signs that the Arctic is in trouble have been evident for at least three decades. The annual monitoring of the Cooper Island colony has gone from being something enjoyable, as when the colony grew and prospered early on, to now being something that is necessary, to document the continuing decline of a seabird and the marine ecosystem on which that seabird depends.

Given the state of the colony – and the state of the world right now – the discovery of the first guillemot nestlings last week buoyed my spirits more than usual.  Luckily for the current 20+ nestlings, sea ice has remained relatively close to the island this summer, even through a major Arctic cyclone earlier this week, and parent birds are able to find the ice-associated Arctic Cod that is their preferred prey.   The weight gains of the chicks over the past week provide hope that the 2020 season could end with high breeding success for the few pairs that were able to breed this year.  Focusing on the success of individual nestlings helps to maintain one’s spirits during a period when the state of the colony can be disheartening.

Sea ice close to Cooper on July 15. Photo: NASA World View

Against all odds: a 2020 field season

In early spring, when the first evidence of the scale of the pandemic was becoming clear, many field biologists realized that restrictions or concerns about travel would prevent them from having a field season. The impact was especially bad for graduate students and early career researchers who had worked hard to obtain funding and prepare for the 2020 field season. It also was a major blow to those of us who have conducted continuous long-term studies requiring annual field work.

Friends of Cooper Island was impacted by the earliest stages of the pandemic when we had to cancel our annual Seattle event scheduled for March 17. We had planned to have Joe McNally, the photographer who was on the island in 2001, discuss his 2019 visit and the video he produced about the major changes that have occurred since his first visit. The video is available at this link.

In late March and early April, like almost all of those doing research in the Arctic, I was prepared to write off the 2020 field season. Given the concerns of traveling through towns or villages with vulnerable populations, I assumed I would not be flying north to Utqiagvik in 2020, as I have done for almost half a century. I was also aware that the loss of my field season was a small and minor consequence of the pandemic and during weeks of “lockdown” tried to concentrate on scientific papers being written with several collaborators using our long-term data sets from Cooper Island.

It thus came as a major surprise when a colleague at the North Slope Borough’s Dept. of Wildlife Management contacted me in April asking what my plans were for coming up this summer. Thanks to the efforts of both the Dept. of Wildlife Mgmt. and the borough’s Dept. of Search and Rescue, I am now in Utqiagvik, having had negative covid test results both in Seattle and here, and heading for my 47th summer on Cooper Island. While the assistance of friends and colleagues in Utqiagvik has always played a major role in maintaining the Cooper Island research, this year that support, and just as importantly encouragement, has made all the difference.

I want to thank the many supporters and followers of the Cooper Island research who have shown their appreciation for my efforts over the years, and the donors who were able and willing to financially support a field season before we knew it would be possible.

While the issue of climate change is currently receiving less attention due to more immediate social and economic disruptions, global temperatures continue to increase with major effects on Arctic sea ice now at a record low (image below). It is now all the more important to maintain one of the few data sets that has demonstrated the biological impact of decreased sea ice.

I hope you have a safe summer and I look forward to providing updates over the next two months from Iglurak (the Inupiat name for Cooper Island).

A Visit From a French Demographer

Thanks to our participation in the international Sentinels of Sea Ice (SENSEI) project, this summer the Cooper Island field camp was visited by Pierre-Loup Jan, the post-doc analyzing the Cooper Island demographic data set. After 44 years of sharing the island with a seabird with a French name (“guillemot” is the diminutive of Guillaume – the French version of “William) it was fitting to have a French researcher on the island with me.

We are very fortunate to have Pierre-Loup and his colleagues in France collaborating with us. He was a welcome addition to the 2019 field camp as he provided assistance, insights and humor during a summer when all were needed. His musings about his time on the island are below.

My impressions and observations of Cooper Island

I remember that the first day I met George, I was immediately impressed by his massive, long-term data. It was in the French countryside, in a wildlife biology lab in the center of France with so few towns around that you could consider it as remote as Cooper Island, only with a bathroom. This place was about to become my home but I was still exploring it at that time, freshly hired as a modeler to investigate the population dynamic of black guillemots. To be fair, the data by itself was not as impressive as the story behind it, and I was really excited to meet someone like George, who spent three months a year, for the past 45 years, in an island of the Arctic Ocean. I was even more excited when the same man invited me to come with him the next field season, which is the kind of opportunity you don’t have every day when you are a modeler (which means I spend most of my time processing tables of data to obtain neat plots and curves on a computer).

Pierre-Loup Jan on Cooper Island

Long story short, 9 months, two trains, three planes, and one boat later, I set my foot on Cooper Island, ecstatic to see with my own eyes the colony but also anxious about its health: sea ice retreat had reached a level never seen before two years, and I wasn’t sure how the birds would handle this summer.
Saying that the Cooper Island colony is one of the most beautiful guillemot colonies would be an obvious lie: it’s totally flat, for some reason some guy left black and grey suitcases everywhere, and it seems that previous buildings were just blown up by the navy before they left. However, Cooper Island is undoubtedly one of the best colonies to observe and understand the lifestyle of marine birds. I had read about the birds and, of course, discussed a lot about them with George before coming to the island. But nothing can beat the fact of seeing them and, instead of being lost in a complex and messy aggregate of rocks and cavities, even someone as unfamiliar to fieldwork as me could easily distinguish each nest, which were like many little houses with parents coming back after fishing. And with that, everything I was told about their behavior and all of the data I had been seeing on my computer screen made much more sense to me. I could directly observe with my own eyes the nest fidelity of the couple, the queuing birds waiting for an opportunity, the feeding of chicks and the way their weights change while growing.

Two of the three thousand birds in the data set that Pierre-Loup is analyzing

I hope that, at this point of the story, you don’t perceive me to be a geeky scientist spending his days looking at bird data on a computer. Nothing could be more wrong, because I also look at climate data. Particularly sea ice cover, giving the utmost importance of this area for the feeding of black guillemot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t observe it with my own eyes: the ocean around the island was completely ice free. Liquid water all around the island, as far as the eye can see, very different to some of the early pictures George took from the island. But data doesn’t lie, and the current sea ice cover dynamic made me expect this, the same way I expected what would happen during the period of chick feeding: breeders were not able to feed their chicks appropriately, and 75% of them died of starvation while I was monitoring them with George. It was truly heartbreaking to open a nest box just to find the bodies of chicks that could not be fed in time. Living this experience definitely strengthened my resolve to show how climate change affects wildlife. The long-term existence of this colony seems more and more uncertain every year, but at least studying them gives us the best opportunity to understand, warn, educate, and hopefully prevent what is planned to be the most massive lost in biodiversity since humans first wandered the earth.

Coming to Cooper Island was not just beneficial for my work: it was also an astounding experience. The island was way bigger than what I thought: I guess it is always complicated to appreciate distance and area when looking at maps and pictures. I kind of expected it to be limited to the guillemot colony, but this gravel bar in the middle of the arctic ocean has so much more to give! I was amazed by the diversity of birds I was able to see there, and took as many pictures as I could to be sure to make my ornithologist colleagues jealous (before asking them the names of the bird species). Of course, birds are not my #1 bragging material: I was welcomed by the sight of polar bears on the first morning, and had the pleasure to see three more of these animals during my stay. The size of those majestic beasts was breathtaking and, unlike my companions on the island, I couldn’t wait to see the next one. One could say that looking at them walking along the beach at a safe distance behind an electrical fence is not really bragging material, but It all depends on how you tell the story.

A polar bear resting near two nest cases protecting Black Guillemot nestlings.

The island being bigger also means that It was not all sands and rock, and I was surprised to find a wide area of tundra on it. I really enjoyed walking in this peaceful green place which made me think how the very first terrestrial landscape probably looked. I spent several hours on the tundra patch, looking at mosses and grasses that grew under the arctic climatic condition, surviving on the few nutrients they could get on this isolated island. As the famous Dr. Ian Malcolm would say: “Life finds a way”.

Aerial view of Cooper Island. Photo by Gary Braasch

Living on the island comes with its challenges of course, and the wind and rain doesn’t make it any easier. Fortunately, George’s hospitality and companionship make up for it, and the hot drinks and warm meals that waited for us in the cabin made the fieldwork bearable under any weather. Meals and cocoa breaks (I don’t drink coffee) were also great opportunities to share stories with people on the island, and gave me the chance to spend time with truly inspiring people, not only George but also Catherine Smith and Katie Morrison, who are doing an amazing work with the Friends of Cooper Island nonprofit, and Maria Coryell-Martin, an expeditionary artist that produced exceptional drawings of the island wildlife and landscape. The downside of those times were the occasional harassment by George, who liked particularly to make jokes about me being a youngster and a Frenchman. Of course, I had the courtesy to let it slide without responding: He is cranky, like most old people, and at times can lack tact, as many Americans do. Joking aside, interacting with these people added a human dimension to my travel experience, and I headed back to France with great memories in my head and new contacts on my phone. I will now do my best to make the most of it for what comes next. As they say in France :

“George ne parle pas le français et va certainement croire que je dis du mal de lui vu que son nom est au début de la phrase. C’était vraiment une superbe expérience.”

Pierre-Loup JAN