Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic – July 4, 2002

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If you go to the Arctic you can expect to enjoy an adventure from beginning to end. Nancy, Steve and I separated from the rest of the team and stayed the night in Coral Harbour. We expected a simple transition from field to town and looked forward to a shower and a night in bed. But our trip to Coral Harbour brought much more.

Our flight out of camp went without a hitch. Ed brought the Cessna Caravan airplane down at about the time we had broken camp. We left it with a mix of anticipation for the comforts of home and the joy of seeing loved ones, and with the sadness of leaving our wilderness home. The last few days were as close to perfect as one can find on the tundra, sunny and warm, with light winds and still no mosquitoes. All of the birds, the individuals we had come to know in our many walks and nest checks, were well into nesting, some not far from hatching. The land spoke with the voice of all their calls, from the frog-like call of the dunlin and laughter of the knot in its flutter flight, to the mechanical all-business call of the ptarmigan. The land assumed a peaceful state from which sprung a simple community that anyone could feel as home.

At Coral Harbour, the Inuit village on Southampton Island, we checked into our hotel for the night. Leonie’s Place is a hotel/bed and breakfast that seemed a perfect transition into our normal lives. Leonie and her husband, Ron, have made a place to stay that is a perfect mix of the privacy of a hotel with the hospitality of a bed and breakfast. Leonie has vast experience in the business and government in Nunavut. Both of her sisters hold prominent positions in the Nunavut provincial government. We listened with interest, as she spoke of the practical difficulties encountered by the newly formed Inuit government and of running a business.

We were treated to a tour of the land surrounding Coral Harbour. Norman and his wife, Louisa, along with Johnny and his wife, Elizabeth, took us to see Kirshoffer Falls and the new bridge that opened access into a large area of the coast and coastal tundra south of town. After spending weeks in the gentle, barren, ground tundra of the interior, we were struck by the awesome power of tons of water crashing into a river canyon filled with life. The road south of the falls brought us to lovely overlooks of the coast and low hills of the coastal tundra.

The next day brought airline scheduling and ATV payment problems that Nancy, with the help of Leonie, Cam at the Northern Store, and Mark Holm at Skyward Aviation helped to resolve. Before long, we rejoined our team and plunged back into our normal lives.

Our expedition ended with several important accomplishments that will set the foundation for the next five years of study. For three years we have been conducting fieldwork in an attempt to develop a method for assessing Arctic breeding success and relate it to our work on the Delaware Bay. Our first two years, we explored the tundra finding where the birds nested and sufficient nests to study. We were able to characterize the forces that effect nesting, create a study, etc. We found knots and sanderlings that had been banded on the Delaware Bay (including one knot found this year that was banded in NJ in 2001) proving the connection with the Delaware Bay. This year, for the first time, we found all the nests of all species within a defined study area using state of the art GIS equipment. We conducted several types of surveys that would best index our known population of nests in the same way that a pollster uses a sample of people to assess national opinion. With this format, we could survey the entire Arctic red knot breeding area. This was our original goal, which was to define the area where red knots breed then conduct yearly surveys to determine trends. This data, along with data from the South American surveys and weight and number surveys on the Delaware Bay, will paint a scientifically defensible portrait of the status of red knots. Subsequently, the data will illuminate any changes in the population of red knots as they slowly adapt to the declining numbers of horseshoe crabs.

Optimistically, it will also help us plot a course of recovery. As all the various agencies that influence these birds come to agree on the need for restoration, then our data from the Arctic and elsewhere will help plot the course of that recovery.

We have many people to thank. First, we wish to thank Director Bob McDowell and Assistant Director Marty McHugh for supporting a NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife research project that is about as far from NJ as one can get. We are very grateful to Bill Weber and Ingrid Li of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the group who raised most of the money for this and past trips to the Arctic. Without their continuing support, we would not have been able to collect the basic data on which to base a longer-term project. In addition, this project would not be possible without the stalwart support of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and its executive director, Linda Tesauro. We would also like to thank Cliff Day and Annette Sherer, of the NJ Field Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who also supplied critical funds for this and past Arctic projects and who share our concern for this species. Thanks to Howard Schlegel, US Fish and Wildlife Service Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, for his support and assistance with our work on Delaware Bay and the Arctic. Ed Swayda and all the people at Skyward Aviation have helped us in various ways, particularly getting us in an out of our study site despite very difficult conditions. We are all very grateful to Ron Porter who has once again created a device that proved to be a success — although we had no bears, our regular tripping of the bear fence alarm proved its functionality and worthiness. Many thanks to Scott Perelli of DEP’s Financial Operations for his assistance with the project, and Scott Health and Safety of Monroe, North Carolina, for the loan of a thermal imaging device used in a preliminary study to detect birds on nests.

Finally I wish to thank Nancy Donnelly for working on these field reports under very trying conditions and the entire team for their hard work and sense of humor. We were fortunate to have a group with diverse experience and expertise that blended with great success.