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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It Takes a Colony to Raise one Young

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 27, 2009 — What seems like a long,long time ago,black guillemots on Cooper Island had the best of all possible worlds. The summer snow-free period was increasing annually, providing breeding birds with more time to raise their young, and the Arctic pack ice was close enough offshore that there was a readily accessible supply of Arctic cod to feed the nestlings. The only real dark cloud on the horizon was the realization, slow in coming over the past three decades, that the warming planet that had given the guillemots their “salad days” in the 1970s and 1980s could cause increasing melt of the pack ice, making Arctic cod less accessible and causing problems for parent guillemots provisioning their young in August and early September.

Even as the ice kept retreating during the 1990s there were reasons to think the guillemots could cope with the change in prey type and availability since even though this subspecies has specialized on prey associated with Arctic pack ice, the genus to which it belongs, Cepphus, is highly adaptable and lives on a wide variety of near shore prey in temperate and subarctic waters. It appeared that documenting how the Cooper Island guillemot population, with its many color-banded individuals, responded to an ice-free nestling period was going to be a rare chance to watch adaptation and selection in a wild population.

But this past summer suggests that the geographic shift in the guillemots’ prey may not be the deciding factor in the future of the colony, but the shift in two species that were uncommon in the area when the study began: the horned puffin and polar bear. The preliminary results from this summer show that hatching success (the number of eggs that hatched) was reasonably high at about 70 percent — but could have been over 80 percent had eggs not been displaced and broken by horned puffins pushing the eggs out of nest depressions and polar bears breaking the eggs by moving nest sites. Still, with over 180 guillemot chicks in nests in late July and early August, there was a good chance the colony could produce a sizable number of fledglings this year.

However,as August progressed the activities of puffins changed and visits by bears increased so that the number of guillemot chicks rapidly decreased to 100, and then to four chicks on August 16. While a few chicks died from lack of food or natural causes, the vast majority were the victims of puffins prospecting nest cavities and polar bears looking for food, with puffins killing (but not eating) about 80 chicks and polar bears killing (and sometimes eating) about 90. It is telling that the polar bear, an Arctic species forced south because of melting ice, and the horned puffin, a subarctic species moving north because of melting ice, could together cause the major breeding failure guillemots experienced this summer. While either species could have, by itself, greatly deceased breeding success, the combination proved devastating to the Cooper Island colony in 2009. A number of guillemot nests with two nestlings had young lost to both bears and puffins.

When I left the island late on August 17, one young guillemot had just fledged and there were three young still in nest sites, each with about two weeks to go before nest departure. It is likely that polar bear visits increased in frequency and duration after my departure, greatly decreasing the chances the three remaining chicks would successfully fledge.

Based on the frequency and activities of polar bears on Cooper Island in the last three years it appears likely that bears stranded on the beach looking for food will continue to cause major decreases in breeding success in the future. Surprisingly, it appears that non-breeding horned puffins, looking for nesting cavities and competing with guillemots for those cavities, could have an almost comparable impact on breeding success. Since the presence of both bears and puffins is related to the decrease in the ice extent and since there is no indication that the decrease in summer ice extent will reverse itself in the near future, both bear and puffin numbers on Cooper Island will likely increase in future breeding seasons.

Although the marine waters adjacent to Cooper are becoming more amenable to puffins, the establishment of a puffin colony on Cooper in the long-term will be prevented by the presence of polar bears that in recent years have preyed on puffin nestlings.

In the past week colleagues in Barrow and friends in Seattle have asked what the future of the guillemot colony is given this year’s observations. The short-term outlook is that breeding adults, with their high fidelity to nest sites, will continue to return to the colony even though breeding is likely to fail in most years because of bears and puffins. This lack of productivity will mean that, without immigration from other colonies, there will be no birds reaching breeding age and recruiting into the population. With overwinter mortality of breeding birds at approximately 15 percent and if no recruitment occurs, the colony will decrease in size by approximately 15 percent every year. This would mean that in 2025 the colony would be back down to ten pairs of guillemots, the same size it was in 1972 when I found it -– allowing me to exit saying “this is where I came in”.

Of course this assumes that the nest sites the bears destroy every year will be reconstructed to provide a nesting cavity and that some other factor doesn’t come into play. For instance, increasing erosion coupled with increasing storms and wave height may result in nest sites being washed away by late summer and fall storms.

While this assessment sounds gloomy it is also realistic, since the annual trend in summer ice extent leaves little doubt that there will be an ice-free Arctic sometime in this century. The number of polar bears forced to use the edge of the Arctic Basin as summering habitat will increase, and Cooper Island is one of the more logical places for them to aggregate on the Alaskan coast. And horned puffins will likely continue to visit Cooper Island in small numbers, drawn by the increases in subarctic fish in the region and a lack of suitable nesting cavities in the region.

The only way to know what will happen, of course, is to visit Cooper Island. And given this scenario, it is important to recognize the one certain fledge from the colony this year, since it may well be one of the last guillemots to fledge from the island. It survived a puffin visit that resulted in the death of its sibling and two bear visits that repositioned and almost destroyed the nest site where it was raised to fledging by its parents. If it can survive the next three years, it will likely return to Cooper Island for the 2012 breeding season. Even though the outlook for the colony is grim, seeing if that chick – the “Class of 2009” — does return will be enough to make me excited at the start of the field season three years from now.

I’ll have more thoughts on the field season, and the ongoing prospects for the colony, in the weeks to come. It looks to be a busy fall, with presentations as part of International Polar-Palooza, as well as places closer to home, and more analysis of the summer’s data and how it fits into the bigger picture on Cooper Island. Thanks to you who have followed the Cooper Island field season this summer. And special thanks to those who provided donations of moral,logistical and financial support allowing me to work on Cooper Island during this past field season. I plan to continue these posts here and on my website (cooperisland.org) in the off season and hope you visit during the coming months.

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Friends of Cooper Island