Exit, pursued by a bear

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — For the last decade the end of my field seasons on Cooper Island could be summarized by what is considered Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”. It all started in 2002, when the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue helicopter had to pluck us off the island early one morning after we spent a long night taking a short-course in polar bear deterrence.  More recent retreats from the island have been less dramatic but no less emotional.  In 2008-2010 we maintained our daily measuring of guillemot nestlings while polar bears reduced their numbers nightly, breaking camp shortly after the last of the chicks was consumed. The 2011 season did not lack for bears and I am a long way from becoming blasé about their presence (or the reasons for it)  but unlike past years the recently completed field season ended on a positive note due to our deployment of bear-proof nest cases.

bear-at-nest-site

A polar bear investigates this season’s new bear-proof nest boxes.

My cabin has been protecting me since 2002 with the camp “compound” now all the more secure with the recent addition of electric fences.  This was the first year that the guillemot nestlings were similarly “bear-proofed,” as the new nest cases allowed them to survive until fledging and gave me the opportunity to monitor chick growth and prey items through early September.  The cases had the additional and unexpected benefit of preventing puffins from entering guillemot nest cavities and displacing eggs and killing chicks.  In recent years disturbance by bears and puffins resulted in the death of the majority of nestlings.

The 2011 field season also was unique due to its findings and new research initiatives.  These included:

  • An early August switch from Arctic cod to sculpin by parents provisioning their young so that some nestlings were raised almost completely on sculpin
  • The ability of the majority of parents to provide enough sculpin of suitable size that many guillemot nestlings enjoyed high growth rates and fledging weights despite the absence of Arctic cod
  • A successful trial deployment of temperature and depth loggers, attached to the bands on guillemot legs, which allow monitoring of feeding activities
  • A trial deployment of geolocators that record time of sunrise and sunset should allow us to track the post-breeding and early spring movements of black guillemots when we remove the data loggers from birds next summer.

There is much to share about each of these and I will be writing blogposts on them in the coming weeks.

While the field season and its findings were exciting and rewarding, listening to both local and national news on the radio in my cabin (and catching up on news after I returned from the field), made me aware that northern Alaska will very soon be seeing large scale oil and gas development, increasing vessel traffic and, eventually, development of a commercial fishery – in addition to the ongoing changes caused by reductions in sea ice.

The new nest cases that allow guillemot parents to raise their young to fledging and the potential for monitoring guillemot activity and movement with data loggers means that future research on Cooper Island can focus on guillemots as indicators of ecosystem health and change at a critical time for the region. Maintaining the Cooper Island study is now all the more important as the guillemots monitor a period of rapid change in the marine waters of arctic Alaska.

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