Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic – July 3, 2001

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It’s hard to describe the isolation of our study site except by the extraordinary silence that has an almost tangible quality. It was during just one of those periods that we heard a plane although the idea was ludicrous. We hear or see planes rarely and only then at 20,000 ft. heading for Europe. But emerging from the overcast sky came the Skyward Cessna Caravan rounding the esker and flying low over the camp. We stared dumbstruck, was there a problem, did some tragedy befall someone’s family? Fortunately the plane had a mission. On arrival at our study site we discovered we did forget oil, a serious problem if we were to depend on the ATV and the generator. We called Kathy Clark hoping she could convince Skyward to drop off some oil while passing on their way to Coral Harbor or back to Rankin Inlet. Unknown to us, she did, and Pelagie Sharp of Skyward offered to work it in somehow. We watched her handiwork as the plane, piloted by Shaun Harman bombed the camp site with an orange package the size of small cooler. What a relief, we had planned to baby our engines but always ready to stop using them if damage was possible. With the oil we could go ahead according to plan. We were very grateful to the pilot Shawn and to Pelagie for working it out for us.

At almost the same time, Nancy found a polar bear track that Johnny suspected at about two weeks old. The hind track stretched at least 18 inches across and the front pad measured almost 10 inches across. It appeared to be a female accompanied by a cub with much smaller tracks. The bears passed within a few kilometers of our camp. We have also found a large number of fall bear dens.

Our search for red knot nests continues to frustrate. As of this date we have combed most of the area searched last year, with little success. We broadened our search to include nearby habitats, mostly slightly vegetated mud boils, to test the possibility that birds have moved off the eskers in response to decreased mid-June snow cover. We recorded all vacate nest cups and located very few in anything but eskers or similar high and sparsely vegetated areas. We also found several cups with fresh nest material that suggests nest failure. The wind storm in June described by Johnny remains a strong theory although we have found several other nests on the eskers including a purple sandpiper and a king eider.

Increase predation pressure may also be responsible. This year Bruno observed an Arctic Fox, and since then we have heard it regularly. There were none in the area last year. Also we have found twice as many long-tail and parasitic jaegers as well as long-tailed nests this year. We reasoned the high lemming population last year improved their productivity, and the lower lemming population this year may force the Jaegers to concentrate on avian prey particularly red knot nests.

Brad and Mark discovered a new possibility. At the old Nest 3, close to the nest with one egg found by Steve, we observed a pair of red knots several times, obviously not nesting. We found other pairs at Nests 9 and 5. Although unfamiliar to us, the birds appeared to display courting behavior suggesting either re-nesting or late nesting. The possibility of re-nesting has not been observed in red knots, if unsuccessful they leave the area. Late nesting may be a consequence of delayed migration observed on the Delaware Bay this year. Kathy Clark in her June 5 survey of birds on the bay found nearly 8,000 red knots still on the bay, the latest we have ever observed such a large group.

Our next step will be to start surveying new areas to help discount or lend support to the hypothesis that we caused the failures with last years work. The ATV will be a critical asset to help ferry us to more distant habitats. Once again, we salute Skyward for lending a hand.