COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While no year on Cooper Island is like any other, so far the 2012 field season has been more different than most. For that reason ( and also because Max Czapankskiy did such a good job with his blogposts in June) I am way behind in my postings. In late June I took a rare break from my fieldwork to attend the Aspen Environment Forum where I was interviewed on Talk of the Nation, and early July has kept me busy monitoring guillemot egg laying that was delayed and disrupted by falcons and fox. I will be describing those in detail later but wanted to first relate some experiences and thoughts about our first days on the island in early June.
This year I wanted to arrive on Cooper Island earlier than most years for a number of reasons. Transporting two people, their gear and food the 25 miles from Barrow to Cooper Island is not a minor undertaking and can take numerous charter helicopter or airplane flights. Travel to the island is less expensive using snowmachines and sleds over the nearshore ice, but the warmer springs in northern Alaska have made traveling over the ice after early June very wet and potentially dangerous.
Max and I were lucky that three Barrow residents, Billy Adams, Billy Adams, Bobby Sarren and Craig George had the time to provide their snowmachines and extensive skills in traveling on sea ice to deliver us to the sand and gravel bar that has been my summer home since the mid-1970s.
Our early June arrival allowed us to set up camp before the guillemots first return to the island so that we could start censusing them immediately after their first return to land in nine months. Since 1978 the majority (typically >90 percent) of the colony has been banded with metal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands as well as three plastic color bands that allow identification of individuals with binoculars. Typically, I will arrive on the island a week or so after the guillemots and by that time the birds have pretty much sorted themselves out showing the over 90 percent mate and nest site fidelity they have displayed over the past four decades.
As Max and I were censusing in the first days of the birds arrival I was glad to see that over-winter survival of last year’s breeders appeared to approximate the expected 85 percent, but was surprised to see that many birds were not at the sites they occupied last summer nor with their previous mates. I had forgotten that the period of arrival and initial visits to the nests is a time when one can see birds that do not even breed in the same subcolony courting like a well-established pair and birds will visit parts of the colony where I have never seen them before. So while our early arrival did allow us to determine what birds survived since last August, the information we obtained on very early season pairings and nest ownership was less valuable. Still for someone well acquainted with the 300 guillemots currently breeding on Cooper Island, it was interesting to see what they do and how they sort out before getting down to the serious business of the 80-day breeding period.
In the last two days the ice disappeared from the north side of the island with only a trace of white on the horizon indicating there is some pack ice about seven miles away. I have heard that arctic sea ice melt is approximating the record melt of 2007 and would not be surprised to see a polar bear arrive in the next week.