On Cooper Island

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 7, 2009 — I arrived at my field camp on June 15 having chartered a helicopter from Barrow, Alaska, 25 miles west of Cooper Island. The days just before the field season started were full of the typical mixture of excitement for the opportunity to return to this remote Arctic island coupled with the apprehension that comes from knowing that if some critical piece of equipment is left behind one would have to get by for weeks before resupply is possible. This year a critical piece of communications equipment needed to be repaired, which is the reason this is the first post from the island.

In late June and early July my daily field activities consist of taking a census of the colony to see if the birds that bred last year have survived the winter and retained the same nests and mates, and then conducting nest checks of the approximately 200 nests boxes on the island. This year egg-laying for black guillemots started on June 18 and is just coming to an end on July 2. The weather during the first week of egg-laying was unseasonably cold with temperatures below freezing on most nights and no higher than the mid-30s in the afternoon. Because guillemots lay a two-egg clutch and incubation does not start until the second egg is laid, typically three to four days after the first, early nest checks typically mean finding the first egg of a clutch sitting unattended on rocks or sand and exposed to subfreezing temperatures. Apparently all birds have the capacity to suspend early embryonic growth when eggs are chilled but most don’t regularly experience subfreezing temperatures, as do the black guillemots on Cooper Island. Now that egg-laying is complete, parent birds are constantly attending the eggs, which they will incubate for approximately 28 days before hatching.

The Arctic pack ice is still up against the north side of the island and breakup appears to be progressing more slowly than recent years, but I will know more about that by my next post.

Depending on Wind and Sun

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 25, 2009 — People frequently mention to me that summer in the Arctic must be really exhilarating because of the “24 hours of daylight”. While this is true, less well known is that the “24 hours of wind” can make living at this latitude somewhat of a chore, no matter how much daylight one experiences. On Alaska’s arctic coast a rather constant wind blows from the northeast during almost all months, maintained by a high pressure system sitting over the Beaufort Sea. This summer has seen winds of strength and duration that are surprising even to Barrow natives, who have had limited opportunities to boat but are finding it good for drying recently harvested caribou on their drying racks.

For me the wind is part of the reality on Cooper Island and one works with it and around it on a regular basis. Guillemot nest sites that need to be lifted are approached from the west side, so they do not catch the wind and flip over. I census from east to west, to avoid having the wind in my face during observations. During our tenting days, the orientation of the tents and windbreaks were dictated by the northeast wind. We placed plywood windbreaks on the northeast side of the tents and the wind would keep them upright for weeks before they fell during one of the rare periods of calm. For the past eight years, however, I have come to enjoy the regular wind, since it means we will have power, from the wind generator first installed in 2002.

Until rather recently, the only need for electrical power on the island was the operation of a small VHF radio. to communicate with friends and colleagues in Barrow.I brought out two or three charged 12V batteries at the beginning of the field season for that purpose, and communications were infrequent and short to save battery power. In the mid-1980s, we purchased some small solar panels, a major upgrade of the island’s infrastructure, but one that did not allow us to charge batteries in the cloudy and shorter days of August — a time when communication is critical because of storms and, recently, bears.

In 2002 we invested in a wind generator (a Southwest Power Air-X), which allowed us to meet the increasing energy demands of the computers, digital cameras, and (beginning in 2003) a satellite phone that have quickly become part of island life. Now, in combination with some recently acquired solar panels, we are able to generate power in almost all weather and light conditions. While for the first few years of this century I simply charged 12V batteries at the base of the wind generator and brought them back to the cabin, since 2005 we have had a battery bank and inverter. With the help of the “furthest north.” 100-yard extension cord, this allows us to have AC power and electric lights in the cabin. A great thing when you want light in late August, after the sun finally goes down, since the thing that just went bump in the night might be a polar bear.

Many field camps in the Arctic (even those of climate change scientists) still rely on drums of fuel to run gasoline generators for camp maintenance. Being able to meet all of our electricity needs through solar and wind power has been very satisfying. However, this summer there has been a minor glitch. Shortly after setting up the power system, I found the inverter had not survived the winter in the cabin. This necessitated a call to my Seattle neighbor and Friends of Cooper Island’s electrical guru, Jim Gamache, who dispatched a new inverter to Barrow. Now, ironically, the only thing stopping the inverter from getting the 25 miles to Cooper Island is the wind, which has been near or above 20 mph for most of the past two weeks. The sailing vessel Ocean Watch, which has been anchored off of Barrow the past week waiting for the opportunity to continue their Northwest Passage (you can monitor their progress at Around the Americas) hopes to drop it off as they pass east on their expedition. Until then I will be carrying 12V batteries to and from the cabin — a good way to be well aware of just how much energy I am using. People would be much more sensitive to their energy demands if every day they had to lug it from its source back to their house.

Married to the Arctic

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 12, 2009 — Many bird species are thought to be “Arctic birds” because they migrate to the Arctic every spring, utilize the region’s resources for breeding, and then depart for more southern wintering areas in late summer and early fall, spending the majority of the year well south of the Arctic Circle. These species have a “summer romance” with the Arctic, enjoying the benefits of constant daylight and the abundant food resources provided by the region’s insect and fish populations. A much smaller number of bird species are truly “married” to the Arctic, remaining after breeding is done to cope with months of darkness, cold and ubiquitous snow and ice, apparently aware that in any committed relationship all cannot be 24 hours of sunlight.

Cooper Island is home to two species that represent extremes of these relationships with the Arctic. The Arctic tern, which used to be the most abundant species on the island, spends the non-breeding season in the extreme Southern Hemisphere in waters adjacent to the Antarctic. Its annual migration to and from the Arctic takes them many thousands of miles from Cooper Island –— and the southern location of their wintering areas allows them to experience more daylight annually than any other species.

On the other hand, the black guillemot subspecies that breeds in the western Arctic, including Cooper Island, is one of the few truly Arctic seabirds, wintering in the Arctic Ocean and into the Bering Sea only as far south as the pack ice extends in mid winter. Some individuals breeding on Cooper Island may well winter as little as 25 miles from the island in the ice pack north and west of Point Barrow, where winds and currents keep some areas of water open throughout the winter and guillemots are regularly seen by hunters on the winter sea ice. While the migratory strategies of the two species could not be more different, for two to three months every summer they both breed on Cooper Island and are dependent on marine prey adjacent to the island during incubation and while feeding nestlings. That both Arctic terns and black guillemots have suffered major decreases in population size and breeding success in recent years is an indication of how prey availability and abundance are changing in the marine waters of arctic Alaska.

The Arctic tern population on Cooper Island used to be the largest on any of the barrier islands in northern Alaska, with 150 breeding birds in small sub-colonies spread over the two-mile long island. This year there are only 20 breeding birds, restricted to one small patch of driftwood. The black guillemot population numbered slightly over 400 breeding birds in the late 1980s, with an additional 200 non-breeders. This year there are only 270 breeding birds with less than 50 non-breeders.

Because all guillemot young and most guillemot adults are banded we know more about the causes of their decline. Immigration of birds that fledged from other colonies, probably primarily Russian islands, played a major role in maintaining the Cooper Island colony. In recent years there have been far fewer immigrants. This appears to indicate that those colonies are also experiencing low productivity. With no immigration at current levels of breeding success, neither the terns nor guillemots can persist on Cooper Island.

One species of seabird breeding on Cooper Island, the horned puffin, has experienced an increase in numbers with 6-8 breeding birds in recent years. This doesn’t seem like much until one considers that the species was rare in Arctic Alaska until the 1970s and first bred in the region in 1986 when a pair occupied a nest box on Cooper Island —kicking out the guillemots that previously owned it. That this sub-Arctic species, that has no dependence on sea ice, is now breeding this far north is another sign of how warming of both the ocean and atmosphere is affecting the Cooper Island avifauna.

All of these species are now incubating eggs and I am anticipating the start of hatching in about a week. It is then, when parent birds have to continuously find fish for chicks, that the guillemots and terns experience troubles if prey abundance is low.

Friends of Cooper Island