Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic – July 6, 2001

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As of yesterday evening we have sighted more polar bears than red knot nests: one red knot nest in 7 days of searching, three bears in 24 hours with no searching. The bears, the largest land predator in the world, tend to stand out wherever they go in this dun colored barren tundra. The first, sighted by Bruno, strolled lazily within a few km of our team while we searched for knot nests north of our base. The large male kept moving and eventually disappeared over a low ridge to the north. The second came more quickly crossing our esker within a km of the camp. Mark sighted it and sounded the alarm. The bear slowly marched unknowingly towards Bruno who busied himself filming a semi-palm nest, unaware of its approach. Johnny and I moved quickly to intersect the bear who, scared by the ATV, loped quickly off to the north. After running 2 km and keeping well ahead of the speeding ATV he turned west and leaped into a partially frozen lake. He lingered there for about 15 minutes. Eventually he climbed out and headed west again.

The third bear created a greater threat. Brad sighted it first, loafing on a small rise of sedge and willow little more than a km from camp. The bear slept for several hours, rising for short periods to scratch himself or sniff the air for potential danger or prey. Johnny, Bruno and I kept vigil on the bear while the crew went out to search for knots. Then the huge animal rose and began a slow walk towards us, setting off an alert that eventually brought the whole team back to camp. Though noticing our movements, the ivory colored bear with mud stained lower legs eventually turned parallel to our esker ultimately lumbering to the north and out of sight.

Three bears total exactly three more than last year. It could have been another impact of the storm of two weeks ago. The winds blew the ice offshore and a premature breakup occurred. Without ice the bears can no longer feed on seals thus beginning a premature inland walkabout.

Our red knot work has grown increasingly complicated. After extensive searches in the areas where we found nests last year and in new eskers where we have sighted birds, we have yet to find any new nests. We continue to find nest cups that appear to have been used this year. We see pairs of birds during our searches that appear to be either without nests or still preparing to nest. Our program must be expanded from finding nests to trying to understand why we can’t find nests.

To that end and after an arctic field meeting (we skipped the pre-meeting) and much discussion, we developed the following agenda:

Nesting density may be lower because:

Birds moved out to the edges of the eskers or in surrounding mud boil

1. Compare proportion cups in searched mud boils with ridges to determine if knots use habitat other than eskers or other sparsely vegetated barren areas.
2. Alter method of search to focus on sighted birds.

Increased predation pressure

1. Monitor all located nests, in particular, golden plovers, to determine rates of predation

Two-day storm occurring just prior to our arrival

1. Compare nest characteristics of other species    nesting this year and compare to knot nest data to assess micro habitat differences.

Delayed arrival

1. Observe found pairs for signs of nesting behavior

Insufficient search of the study area
1. Survey areas judged to be insufficiently surveyed.
2. Follow sighted knots to identify new search areas.

Decreased survival or decreased suitability due to last year’s study

1. Survey south esker where we surveyed last year, but conducted no other work (telemetry or behavior observation)
2. Survey similar suitable areas that were not surveyed last year.

We now have about 10 days to accomplish all of this work and we are trying to hold to a rigorous schedule. Bears and weather complicate our task. Two days ago innocent looking cumulus clouds turned into a sky of ominous dark-gray, turning a day that started balmy into one both cold and wet. We left unprepared, the warm, nearly cloudless morning fooling us into leaving our rain gear at camp. Johnny, Brad, and I were drenched while 15 km NW from camp, exploring an un-surveyed esker. The rest of the crew surveyed another unsearched esker 3 km south of base camp. Most of us were soaked and cold. We learned a valuable Arctic weather lesson. At this writing a cold wind may thwart our late afternoon/evening survey.

Mid way through our expedition Nancy’s role as chief cook increases in difficulty and power. All the rigors of our work, especially the long arduous walks in cold and wet, leave all of us hungry most of the time. Unfortunately, we can only bring so much food and we can’t run out to Wawa to get more. Making do, Nancy has to measure out her nutritious meals of limited proportions to people who could probably eat everything we have in a few days. Well, at least the sweet stuff.