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Solitary scientist at the top of the world

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — The subtitle of Darcy Frey’s 2002 NY Times Magazine article on the early impacts of climate change seen on Cooper Island, referred to me as a “lonely scientist at the end of the earth”.  This wording was likely the work of an editor, who wanted to portray the “forlorn” qualities inherent in the word “lonely” and the phrase “end of the earth”.  A more accurate (but less romantic) wording would be a “solitary scientist at the top of the world”.  While it is true that I have spent weeks and months alone on the island without company, it is important to note that the Cooper Island research has benefitted greatly from a number of collaborators and coworkers who have played a major role in maintaining the fieldwork since 1975.

Penelope Chilton (read Penelope’s post: The adventure begins.), who left the island in Gary Quarles’ helicopter in late June, is the last in a line of over two dozen people who have helped check nests, band adults, and weigh chicks while both enjoying and enduring the realities of the Arctic supported by an “infrastructure” that, until recently, consisted of a small tent, a Coleman stove and lantern. Penelope’s three week stay on the island (in the relative luxury of a shared 8×12 foot cabin) demonstrated again how my experience on the island is enhanced by the camaraderie of an enthusiastic colleague. After forty years in the Arctic I still am awed by much of what I see and experience on the island, but my enjoyment of fieldwork is certainly enhanced by working with someone who is discovering their first black guillemot egg or close encounter with a Sabine’s gull defending its nest.


Penelope in front of the 8×12 foot cabin.

With few exceptions the people who have worked with me have been infatuated with birds and realized how unique it is to arrive on an island surrounded by pack ice where one could study in detail the life history of individual seabirds that spend the majority of their lifetime north of the Arctic Circle. Their appreciation of both the birds and the setting is important when dealing with the physical and emotional challenges of working at an isolated camp. While the 24 hours of sunlight serve to increase serotonin levels, facilitating harmonious social interactions, the nearly constant wind, freezing temperatures and minimal creature comforts can certainly increase stress hormones. These counteracting forces can result in an emotional rollercoaster ride. Maintaining perspective requires an emotional maturity that, with few exceptions, my coworkers have had.


George on Cooper Island. The island’s nearly constant wind, freezing temperatures and minimal creature comforts can certainly increase stress hormones.

During the course of my daily fieldwork there are constant reminders of the individuals who have contributed to the study. The nest sites that Maggie Ford and Tom Scharffenberger built in 1978 were only decommissioned last month when they gave way to the new polar bear proof nest cases. The large nest site that Buzz Haddow almost dropped on my head while I was weighing a chick in the 1990s was also recently retired. Bob Boekelheide’s efforts to protect  nest sites from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “clean up crew” in 1976 are still evident from the markers he attached to the sites. Every day I walk past the location where Evan deBourguignon and I realized that, unlike the preceding five bears we had seen that day, we were not going to back down a curious young polar bear and would have to abandon our camp (in darkness at 3 a.m.).


A black guillemot in front of one of the decommissioned nests.

Many of the Cooper Island field assistants have gone on to have careers in biological research, resource management and conservation while some have pursued other areas of interest and/or employment. A few have expressed an interest in coming back to visit Cooper Island and anyone who was out here before the turn of the century would be astonished at the changes. The beach has eroded a quarter mile at the site of our original campsite in the 1970s and 1980s. Dedicated monitors of Arctic tern chicks (including Karen Oakley, Katie Hirsch and Teya McElroy), when 75 pairs bred on the island all endured regular strikes in the head from parents defending their young, but now would likely be saddened to see the tern colony reduced to just a few pairs.  And everyone would be shocked to find that the vegetated “tundra patch”, that used to be home to a small number of breeding shorebirds and a diverse plant community, now supports 200 breeding black brant and their abundant young, who have covered the area with their droppings.

Brant eggs

A black brant nest with eggs.

Luckily for me, one of the field assistants who has expressed an interest in returning to the island is Penelope. In the next two months she will be working on data entry while in Seattle before heading to the Antarctic for her second season of research on penguins and skuas.

It would be excessive to name all of the people who have spent time with me on the island and it is probably simplest to say that they know who they are and I thank them for their help. If any of them are reading this and we have not communicated recently, I would love to hear from you and know that you are welcome to stop by the island any time.

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Holiday greetings

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — Celebrating a solitary Independence Day on Cooper Island with a few hundred black guillemots. While many guillemots are still laying eggs, yesterday I saw the first successful fledge of the year — a barely flying snow bunting that was still being fed by a parent. Snow bunting nests can produce up to seven chicks and feeding and tracking that many flying (or at least fluttering) young is a major job for the parents.


Snow bunting nest

The big news from this past weekend was the movement of the shorefast ice (ice that is frozen to the beach and nearshore shallows during the winter) as high winds pulled it offshore. There were mile-wide expanses of open water between the beach and the horizon, modifying the unbroken expanse of white ice that has surrounded the island since I arrived. The big question now (for the guillemots, the polar bears and the scientists who make a living predicting and monitoring pack ice retreat) is how far over the horizon the ice will go. If it retreats as far north as 70 miles from Cooper Island and goes north of the continental shelf, as it has in recent years, polar bears should arrive on the island in late July or early August.

Early season fieldwork has been more intense this year with the need to monitor nest adoptions while documenting egg laying and site ownership. Will be writing posts about both in the near future.

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George and the guillemots get used to their new homes

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While the start of every field season is always an exciting (and frequently stressful) time, this year the start of the Cooper Island field season had more excitement than most.  Preparations began earlier than normal as March and April involved acquiring,  modifying and transporting 150 Nanuk plastic cases to replace the wooden nest boxes that allowed guillemots to breed successfully for almost four decades, but which in recent years have been destroyed by polar bears as they prey on guillemot nestlings.

george divoky cabin

The cabin acts as a windbreak so snow in this area melts slower than on other parts of the island.

While last year I arrived on the island in mid-June, this year a helicopter brought me out on June 5th. The early arrival was necessitated by the need to have the Nanuk cases in place before the guillemots are ready to lay their eggs in mid to late June. Setting up camp is always a busy time as one has to remove the items stored in the cabin over the winter and then set up the infrastructure that allows for a safe and moderately comfortable existence on the island. The order in which systems are assembled reflects their relative importance — testing satellite phone and antenna, connecting propane stove, charging batteries with solar charger, gathering snow to melt for drinking water, preparing cots for sleeping, etc. Establishing the camp is much more enjoyable than the rapid dismantling of camp at the end of the season and this year much more so because I was assisted by Penelope Chilton, who will remain out here with me until the last part of June.

baleen whale teeth palm trees

Penelope poses beside a “palm tree” made of baleen whale teeth in Barrow before leaving for the island.

Penelope has worked on the Cooper Island project since 2007, entering the data obtained on guillemot adults, eggs and chicks in past years. This past winter she spent five months on an Antarctic island studying breeding penguins, skuas and petrels and before that worked on a Seattle-based beached bird study that quantified the species and number of seabirds washing up on beaches from northern California to Alaska.

Penelope’s presence has made a major difference this year since the normal early season activities of determining annual adult survival and mate and site fidelity has to be done with the additional work of deploying and modifying the Nanuk cases. The deployment has had its ups and downs. Older guillemots — some that have bred in the same wooden box for over two decades — are returning to find a small black plastic “suitcase” where their nest site used to be. Last year’s testing of the nest sites indicate that pairs will readily take to them once they realize what a secure, dark nest cavity the cases provide, but clearly some pairs are wondering what happened to their traditional site.


Black guillemots at the nest sites originally built by George out of World War II Navy debris.

Deploying the nest cases has let me understand that I have a “nest-site fidelity” that rivals that of the guillemots. In the past few days I have had to flip over or move nest boxes and structures I first saw in 1972 and have seen every year since. The 150 active nest sites that are being dismantled are ones that I have lifted innumerable times during my checks of eggs and chicks each summer. I know well all the ones I could hold up with one hand while grabbing an egg or chick, those that needed to be propped up due to their weight, the best place to lift each site, etc. Especially with those boxes that held the first ten nests I found here in 1972, it has been hard to move them to the edge of the colony and suddenly have them now be viewed as beach debris when for decades they were a vital part of the colony and I saw them provide shelter to over 70 nestlings over the years. In addition to the emotional impacts of removing the old nest sites the loss of 150 landmarks has truly been disorienting. A flat sand and gravel bar provides few visual cues as to one’s position and the boxes left out here by the Navy in the 1950s, that became guillemot nest sites over the years, were what I have used to know just where I was in the colony. Now with those landmarks gone, in recent days I have a number of confusing moments as I walked through what had been familiar territory. As a result I am going through the same sort of orientation period that the guillemots are experiencing.

Billy and Quuniq loading sleds

In April, George traveled to Cooper Island to bring out the Nanuk cases, the new homes for the black guillemots. George gets some help from Billy and Quuniq.

While placing the plastic nest cases has been both emotional and disorienting, there is a good amount of satisfaction in knowing that this August the sites will provide protection to guillemot nestlings when polar bears are on the island. The Cooper Island colony used to produce over 150 guillemot fledglings annually, but due to polar bear predation productivity has drastically decreased. In 2009 only one chick fledged and in 2010 there were less than ten — all but one was raised in the plastic cases being tested last summer. The Cooper Island black guillemot colony is the only seabird colony for over 600 miles of arctic coastline that in the coming decades will see increasing impacts as climate change, oil and gas development, commercial fishing and increased ship traffic impact the region. Maintaining the colony so that guillemots can continue to be monitors of environmental change in the region will be possible if parent birds have the secure nest cavities that the new Nanuk plastic cases will provide.

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