Birds, Bears and the BBC

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 8, 2010 — This post, like the start of summer on the North Slope is a bit tardy. Once Black Guillemot egg laying finally started in the last week of June, I was busy checking every one of the 200 nest sites on the island to determine date of egg laying. The snow drift in front of my cabin persisted until the Fourth of July due to both the large amount of winter snow accumulation and the cool temperatures in May and June. Snowmelt in front of the guillemot nest sites was also slow.

Adult Black Guillemot  in front of box

Black Guillemot enjoying its snow-free nest site.

Guillemot females begin to form their egg only after they gain access to their nesting cavity so the timing of egg laying is dictated by the time snow melts from the entrances to their ground-level nest sites. Over the 35 years of my study there has been a trend to earlier breeding, but this year’s breeding initiation was later than last year. The first egg appeared on June 23 compared to June 18 in 2009. The colony had one hundred nests with eggs on June 30, whereas last year that occurred on June 27.

The difference between the two years demonstrates the importance of looking at the response of birds to weather vs. climate. A two-year database (if one can even call something that short a database) cannot show how a population is responding to changes in climate. The response of Cooper Island Black Guillemots to climate change is demonstrated by the long-term trend over the past 35 years whereas comparing this year’s egg laying with those of last year demonstrates the effects of annual variation in weather.

As I waited for guillemots to start laying their eggs in response to this year’s weather, I was preparing for the consequences of the loss of arctic pack ice over the past decade. These changes have driven polar bears to shore and Cooper Island where they are now regular visitors in late summer. Over the years I have had to make a number of adjustments to address the issues involved when one has the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore as a late summer neighbor. In 2003 I brought out a cabin after seeing a bear rip through my tent in 2002. In 2009 I installed a noise-making trip wire as bears began to approach my cabin on a more regular basis. This year, because polar bear behavior may become less predictable as their habitat and prey availability changes, I purchased an electric bear fence.

tent with bear damage

Destruction of tent by a polar bear

The one I am using came from the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management and was used earlier this year on the ice off Barrow during the spring census of Bowhead Whales. Unlike last year’s noise-making trip wire, this fence, which is similar to those used on horse farms a little bit further south, should actively discourage polar bears from reaching the cabin.

polar-bear-contemplating-electric-fence copy

My camp with bear fence

I currently have two visitors from the BBC’s  Natural History Unit who are hoping to get footage for the “Frozen Planet” series that will be coming out sometime next year.  My next post will provide some details about what they are hoping to obtain during their ten-day visit to Cooper Island.

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A Slow Start

Cooper Island, Alaska, June. 21, 2010 — The last 20 miles of my 2000 mile trip from Seattle to Cooper Island is always the most exciting but also the most unpredictable. Alaska Airlines has two flights a day into Barrow so not only can one pick the day one wants to arrive but also choose a morning or evening arrival. One can arrange that leg of the journey months in advance and know that the timing will be very close to the original plans. However, when people ask how long I will be in Barrow before getting out to Cooper Island, I tell them that I hope to get out in the week following my arrival. This year even that target was almost a bit too optimistic. I was reminded again that Cooper Island is more inaccessible than remote and feel very lucky to be out here now given the chain of events that kept me in Barrow from the twelfth to the nineteenth of June.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from Seattle my main concern about the trip was the fires in the Alaska interior decreasing air quality in Fairbanks, keeping people indoors and temporarily closing the Alaska Highway. Having lived in Fairbanks for seven years, I have many friends there I see on my way north and was hoping that unhealthy air and a smoky overcast would not be part of my visit. Rain subdued the fires before I arrived so all went smoothly in Fairbanks, but upon arriving in Barrow I remembered that an appreciation (rather than a fear) of the unpredictable is an important part of enjoying one’s time in the Arctic.

I first had an indication that this year might be interesting when I saw Cooper Island on the approach from Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse and was surprised to see extensive areas of snow cover in the area of the colony. A record amount of snow in the last nine months and a cool May and early June meant that snowmelt was much delayed compared to recent years. Atypically high winds and regular patchy fog had both local Inupiat and visiting researchers talking about how unpleasant the early summer was. The weather (a combination of high winds and fog) was the first thing that prevented me from flying out to the island once I was ready to leave. But after the environment began to cooperate, it was technology that caused further delays. The only truck that can deliver unleaded aviation gas had equipment problems and could not fuel the helicopter. Parts were “coming up from Fairbanks”. I was not alone. A survey of Steller’s Eider and Spectacled Eider was grounded due to lack of fuel. In addition to not being able to get the fuel out of the fuel truck there were questions about the quality (apparently due to the fear water had gotten in a tank) so that even when fuel could be delivered we would have to wait for the results of tests. As last week began I was packed and ready to go and rather certain I could get out to the island before the first guillemot egg was laid. As the week wore on I started to wonder if I would be able to get out for the first hatch — and also what I would do in Barrow in the interim.

cabin and drift 22 june

My cabin on Cooper Island

Last Saturday, thanks to a weather window and the kindness of some very good friends in Barrow, I was able to get out to the island on an aircraft using fuel that was available. Guillemots lay their eggs about two weeks after gaining access to their nest cavities when snow melts, and as of today (June 21) no eggs have been laid. Compared to recent years this is a very late start to the breeding season, but is a predictable event given the record snow fall of last winter and the late snow melt. While monitoring guillemots nests for the first egg and censusing adults to see how survived the winter, I am unpacking gear from the cabin and setting up the Cooper Island “infrastructure” (connecting wind and solar generators to the battery bank, erecting an antenna for VHF communications, collecting snow for drinking water) . In recent years all field seasons have had an interesting ending with guillemot chicks starving due to lack of food or being killed by polar bears and puffins. I was not expecting an interesting beginning to this field season, but clearly this is a “different” year weatherwise and it will be interesting to see what that means to the guillemots, puffins, polar bears and other wildlife that live on and visit Cooper Island. I will be posting next when the first egg arrives and then at least once a week over the next few months until guillemot chicks leave the nest in late August.

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April in Barrow – making sure the cabin (and the Arctic) survived the winter

Seattle, Wash., May 4, 2010 — Over the last four decades there have been many technological advances that have helped make the fieldwork on Cooper Island more pleasant and efficient but none has had a bigger impact on day-to-day operations than the addition of the 8×12 ft. cabin that has served as a summer home since 2003. After the 2002 field season it was clear to me (and to my field companions who saw their tents shredded by a polar bear in August 2002) that there was a need for sturdier living quarters on Cooper Island. While protection from bears was the motivating factor for getting the cabin, its ability to provide a windless, dry and sometimes warm living space has changed the way life is lived on the island. Friends of Cooper Island purchased the cabin in Barrow and we hauled it over the lagoon ice in April 2003. It took me two years to realize I had to be very serious about how I boarded up the doors and windows when I closed down camp at the end of the field season.

My summer home is hauled over the ice in 2003.

My summer home is hauled over the ice in 2003.

After its first summer on the island, in the fall of 2003 I was informed by polar bear biologists, who had been doing an aerial survey of the mainland coast, that they had seen a bear on Cooper and that it ran to and into the cabin as they buzzed the island. The bear had earlier broken in the door and was using the cabin as a shelter while waiting for the late fall ice to form. My friend, Craig George, went out to survey the damage and board up the door for the winter. Other than some bent camp furniture and many teeth marks in my squeeze bottles containing everything from sun block to hot sauce, there was no major damage. The next winter I was informed in March that someone snowmobiling on the sea ice near Cooper had seen “debris” scattered by the cabin. I went out to the island in late March and found the cabin door open and a major snow drift inside. With help from my companions from the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium I shoveled out the cabin before boarding the door back up.

A polar bear made himself at home in my cabin in 2003.

A polar bear made himself at home in my cabin in 2003.

Luckily this string of winter break-ins stopped after 2004, but because the integrity of the cabin and condition of its contents are so important for summer research on Cooper Island, every season now starts with a trip to the island in March or April to assess the conditions of the island’s “infrastructure”. Last month I flew to Barrow with Jim Gamache, a friend and consultant on Cooper Island’s electrical issues — and also my next door neighbor. Since polar bears are now my “next door neighbors” for much of August, it is all the more pleasant to have Jim as a neighbor when I return to Seattle in September.

Our arrival in Barrow on the first of April was a lesson in how while the month is spring throughout the northern hemisphere, the season of spring can mean very different things at different latitudes. In Seattle we left temperatures of over 50 degrees and landed in Barrow to find it to be hovering just about 0 degrees F. But spring had already started in Barrow as was evident by the first and extremely early Bowhead whales passing by in the lead (open water adjacent to shore).

Barrow Alaska

Jim Gamache unloads supplies at the cabin.

I was also reminded yet again that if increasing heat is what characterizes spring in north temperate regions, in the Arctic spring is most noticeable by its rapidly increasing daylight. While the sun was down for about ten hours during our three day stay in Barrow, its daily period below the horizon was decreasing by about ten minutes per day. The “night time” sky was never really dark as the sun was not more than 12 degrees below the horizon — and on May 12 will come above the horizon and remain there until the first week of  August.

My many friends at the North Slope Borough provided gear and advice that allowed Jim and I to feel confident we could make the trip to Cooper on our own. Biologists Craig George, Robert Suydam and Dave Ramey were too busy preparing for a spring census of bowhead whales to accompany us. The trip from Barrow to Cooper by snow machine is an amazing experience through a surreal landscape as snow cover masks any visual transition from mainland to lagoon to islands. Navigating through this continuum of white requires use of a range of cues, such as the relative position of the sun, direction of the wind, orientation of snow drifts and as a reality check — a reading from a GPS.

Barrow Alaska

A surreal landscape as snow cover masks any visual transition from mainland to lagoon to islands.

On the way out we had some problems navigating as we tried to balance the desire to keep the GPS warm inside a coat with the need to make frequent checks on our direction and track. After two hours and about a mile from Cooper the cabin appeared as small gray dot that broke the horizon. Upon arrival we were glad to find  the cabin boarded up and secure as it was when I abandoned camp last August. Jim and I left a canister of propane at the cabin to be used this summer and returned to Barrow with the luxury of being able to use our outbound tracks, rather than a GPS, for navigation… We both noted that the temperature was warming as we returned and later found out the mid-afternoon temperature had risen to 10 degrees F. – one of the warmest days of the year.

Cooper Island Cabin

My cabin this “spring” complete with snowdrifts

I will return to Barrow in early June hoping to get out to Cooper by June 10 or 13, just after Black Guillemots arrive and when the island will already have experienced one month of constant (24-hours per day) daylight. I hope to post regularly from the island this summer and hope you visit this site to see what is occurring with the birds, bears and researchers on Cooper Island.

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