Back to Civilization

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 22, 2009 — Last Monday evening near the end of a rainy stormy day, I called Lewis Brower, who would be my transportation to Barrow, to let him know that I hoped to see him on Wednesday when winds were predicted to be close to 10 mph. All day Monday wind speeds had been in the high teens and low 20s and from a direction that meant waves were breaking on both sides of the island. To my surprise Lewis told me he was getting his boat ready and would be on his way from Barrow in about half an hour. The sky, which had been dark gray most of the day, was starting to brighten to the west with blue patches contrasting sharply with the dark clouds. While winds were starting to slightly decrease there were still occasional 25 mph gusts and the weather service did not predict any change to occur until Wednesday.


I did not want to get my hopes up. After five weeks with only a single one-hour of direct contact with humans (when Ocean Watch stopped by for an hour to drop off the inverter), I was anxious to see and talk to most anyone. I was operating under the assumption that Lewis would likely not make it all the way to the island, but knowing that if he did I would have to be ready to leave. I started to dismantle and pack everything that had kept me alive and relatively happy for the previous two months. This meant taking down the wind generator, battery bank, propane stove, VHF radio and tower, computer connection to the satellite phone and antenna and storing and packing food and camping gear. I set to the side those things I would need to get me through the night if Lewis had to turn back. The latter consisting of a sleeping bag, shotgun with shells, a satellite phone, a small primus stove and a small amount of food. If I did not leave I would have to sleep in a corner of the cabin that had gone from my living quarters to a storage shed in less than two hours.

Against all odds at about 9 p.m., I saw Lewis’s boat coming through the waves and with his help the boat was loaded up and cabin boarded up within three hours. We left Cooper just as the sun was setting at 1130 p.m. and arrived in Barrow about two hours later. After almost five weeks alone it was good to see and talk with anyone, but especially good to see Lewis, who combines the skills and knowledge of someone who has lived his entire life in the Arctic with a positive attitude and sense of humor that is maintained in, apparently, most situations.

The following morning I awoke in Barrow to see that it was lucky we used the weather window we did since winds were again high. Just a few yards from my room the Chukchi Sea beach at Barrow was experiencing high surf. A storm a few weeks earlier had covered part of the beach road and this storm had waves crashing over the sand bags and piles of gravel that were reinforcing the beach.

After spending Tuesday morning dealing with the transition from the cold and solitary life I had on Cooper Island, I had lunch at Brower’s Café. The café dates from the late 19th century and is in the oldest framed building in the Arctic. It originally housed the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Company. It now has an arch made of two bowhead whale jawbones and two frames of umiaqs, the skin boats still used for spring whaling. While there are now a surprising number of restaurants in Barrow, only Brower’s Café with its history and view of the beach and ocean, provides its patrons with a sense of history and with a view that lets you know you are in the Arctic.

I am now back in Seattle and dealing with end of season logistics, but hope to have a post tomorrow about what happened with the guillemots, puffins and polar bears during my last days on the island. I have heard from a number of people who have asked how the guillemots did and want to pass on the good news that the first of the guillemots fledged on August 16, the offspring of Yellow-Black-Red and White-Gray-Brown. It left wearing the brown color band that will identify it as a member of the Class of 2009.

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Is It a Bird or a Bear?

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 14, 2009 — This summer I find myself looking at images obtained over the past month on Cooper Island and thinking “what is wrong with these pictures?” But I know that the images of polar bears walking around the colony, sleeping on the beach and approaching the campsite, things I could never have imagined before 2002, are the product of habitat degradation rather than any image manipulation.

Because of the frequency and type of bear encounters in August 2008, I was looking for some way to have an alarm that would let me know a bear was approaching the cabin. This spring, when Marc Cornelissen, an Arctic researcher who has worked on Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island, offered to loan me some tripwire alarms I could use around the cabin, I eagerly accepted.

I had met Marc in April 2008 when he was mentoring a select group of European students who had been chosen to be “ambassadors” for the Ben and Jerry’s Climate Change College. Marc was touring Alaska with the students to allow them to see where climate change was most rapidly occurring. (Ben and Jerry’s funded the college in part with proceeds from the sale of a “Baked Alaska” ice cream that had the tagline “If it’s melted it’s ruined”. Unfortunately, this flavor is only available in the U.K. and Europe.) I spent a day with Marc and the students in Barrow, making a presentation to them about my findings on Cooper Island and listening to their questions and concerns about climate change in the Arctic.

Marc’s bear alarms arrived in a surprisingly small shipping container from Holland just as the field season began. The four alarms each consisted of a small plastic box, about the size of a cigarette pack, with carabiner (a clip with a spring) on two sides. One carabiner was attached to a pin inserted in the box, which triggered the alarm when pulled. When deployed, a taut string runs from the alarm’s pin to a post or other vertical structure. Increasing tension on the string pulls the pin and triggers the alarm in the box. The high pitched warbling alarm is surprisingly loud.

I set up the alarms this summer on the door and window sides of the cabin. Having tested each alarm by doing my imitation of how a bear might approach the camp, I did feel more confident when sitting in the cabin, and especially when falling asleep. Unfortunately, the tripwire lines attached to the alarms proved very attractive to the snow bunting adults and young that feed near the cabin. One of the shortcomings for birds on the island is a paucity of places to perch and it turns out that if more than two buntings sit on the string at the same time, they can pull the pin and set off the alarm. The first two times the alarms were triggered were during the day, and I emerged from the cabin with my shotgun at the ready (and adrenalin extremely high) to see a small flock of buntings flying away from the cabin — and from the high pitched alarm. It was good to know that my granola and oatmeal were safe from any seed-eating birds that might be considering a raid on the cabin. While it is true that the number of people killed by Snow Buntings in Alaska is just one less than the number killed by polar bears, to avoid such false alarms I started to deploy the alarms only as I was going to sleep.

Having the alarms was especially comforting last Friday night, since a bear had arrived on the island during a strong north wind that day. After nosing around a bit the bear had quickly gone to sleep behind a large box about quarter-mile from my cabin, so I turned in as well. At 4 a.m. Saturday morning, however, one of the alarms went off. I looked outside expecting to see the bear running from the cabin, but instead found it sniffing and licking the alarm. The bear only ran away when I shouted and made it aware that a human was in the cabin.

Later examination of nest sites and the bear’s tracks showed that it had walked through the colony turning over nests and eating guillemot chicks before approaching the cabin. The only reason I can think for the bear considering the alarm as food is that guillemot chicks do make noises when their nest sites are lifted, and the bear might have thought that the alarm was the world’s most high pitched and loudest guillemot chick.

Two nights later I had quite a different experience, which I was able to capture on the motion sensitive cameras I use for monitoring feeding activity and other nest activity. A bear that was not on the island when I went to sleep approached the cabin at 3:30 a.m. Upon triggering the alarm it turned and ran from the cabin. Here’s some primitive stills from the video — shot in infrared — of the bear-alarm encounter (the edge of my cabin can be seen along the left side).

So both times bears triggered the alarm, the alarms performed their function – which was to alert me to the fact that a bear was within 2 meters of the cabin. And now I know that when I hear an alarm I might look out to see a bear running away from the alarm – or I might see a bear trying to eat the alarm. And I suppose if I hear a high-pitched, warbling bear I will have the relationship to it that Captain Hook had to a crocodile that swallowed the clock.

The alarms were the only really positive part of the two visits by bears this past weekend. While the bears in mid July had little interest in just-hatched guillemots, chicks now apparently have enough fat and mass to be of nutritional interest to the bears. The strength of the bears, and their desire to get to the chicks,is obvious from the damage they did to nests.

Both bears had to swim through rather rough waters to reach the island, and sleep, rather than food, appeared to be their primary interest. One bear spent all day Saturday curled up in the driftwood, during a substantial rain storm. The other made a small depression behind a large box and spent all day Sunday sleeping out of the wind.

So thanks to Marc Cornelissen for allowing me to sleep a bit more soundly in the Cooper Island “Bird House” — and also thanks for his arranging to have the Ben and Jerry’s Climate Change College donate funds to partially fund this summer’s field camp. My next post will be the official “State of the Colony” address, as the first guillemot chicks are reaching the age to leave the nest.


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Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They’re Fledged

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 12, 2009 — Of all the questions people ask me about guillemots, one of the least common is “What the heck does ‘guillemot’ mean?”. This surprises me, since I would think that would be one of the first things people would wonder about the bird. It turns out that “guillemot” is the diminutive of Guillaume – the French version of “William”. But it also turns out that no one seems to know why the genus Cepphus — or in England the closely related members of the genus Uria — are called guillemots. When talking to school groups I sometimes mention that the name means “tiny bill” in French, and when compared to puffins and other alcids, guillemots do have a tiny bill. But that is certainly not how they got their name.

Diminutive guillemots have occupied my time over the past three weeks as I monitor the daily growth of the chicks. Guillemots emerge from their egg at about 35 grams and are continuously brooded by the parents for about six days. While in the nests the chicks provide a unique opportunity for study. One of the problems in studying seabirds is that they, by definition, spend much of their time at sea. Terrestrial researchers, like humans, can watch seabirds from shore or from a boat, but it is at seabird colonies, where there are lots of land-bound nestlings being fed by sea-going parents, that much seabird research is done. Studying the growth and survival of chicks can reflect local variation in the abundance and type of prey available to parent seabirds raising young. In recent decades, as short and long-term changes in marine ecosystems have become issues of concern, there has been an increasing awareness that seabirds, as “apex predators”, can be used to monitor seasonal and annual changes in marine ecosystems. This is especially true in the Arctic, where a lack of commercial fisheries and limited sampling, due to both logistical and funding issues, means that major changes can occur but go unnoticed by scientists and resource managers.

Black Guillemot parents and their nestlings have some characteristics that make them excellent monitors of prey (fish) availability. Reasons for this include:

• The limited foraging range of the species of about 25 km means there is a rather clearly delineated area being sampled. Compare this to albatross chicks being fed in Hawaii, whose parents may fly thousands of miles north to the Aleutian Islands for food.

• Parent guillemots return to the nest holding a single prey item sideways in their bill, so the type of prey being returned can be monitored by photographs or observations. Many seabirds return to the nest and regurgitate to feed their chicks, so that the prey being provided cannot be easily ascertained.

All of these characteristics have assisted in monitoring changes in prey availability in the waters off Cooper Island in recent years. Arctic cod, a high fat fish associated with cold waters, were the primary prey fed to chicks for first 25 years. There was some minor annual variation in cod availability with slower chick growth in some years but with large adult cod remaining the primary prey returned to nestlings. It was not until this century that we began to frequently see sculpin, a near shore bottom fish, being brought back to chicks in numbers later in the nestling period.

Sculpin are abundant in the near shore throughout the summer and guillemots apparently turn to them when Arctic Cod are no longer available. Sculpin are less fatty than cod and have a bony and horny head that can lodge in a chick’s throat. Some chicks appear to have a natural aversion to sculpin, letting them pile up in the nest site while waiting for an alternate prey.

Up until the last week, Arctic cod were readily available off Cooper, as evidenced both by growth rates and observations of fish, but as the last of the ice melted from just north of the island changes began to occur that I will discuss in a future post. The other factor that has become an issue this year in monitoring chick growth is the number of nests lost to polar bears and chicks killed by the horned puffins. This has reduced the sample size of chicks that can be weighed daily and parents that can be observed carrying fish.. With the late summer retreat of the pack ice, mid to late August has been the time when seasonal changes in prey have been most pronounced and this year there are fewer than normal chicks to monitor the changes in prey that will be taking place.

The reasons for the small number of active nests at this point in the breeding season are something I will discuss later this week. Suffice it to say the past ten days have demonstrated one of the shortcomings of using seabird nestlings as monitors of prey availability, in that a range of factors not directly related to guillemot prey can reduce nestling survival. Which is to say one shouldn’t buy guillemot futures in a bear market — a variation on don’t count your chickens before they’re fledged.

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