Expedition to the Arctic – June 27, 2001
Under a clear sky, and slapped by a brisk Arctic wind, our team walked from the First Air 737 into the Rankin Inlet Airport. After one night in Rankin our team will split. Nancy Donnelly (United Friends School) and Brad Winn (Wildlife Resources Unit of Georgia Division of Natural Resources) will go on to Coral Harbor, meet Johnny Alouit, our Inuit team member, and pick up our rental ATV. Mark Peck (Royal Ontario Museum), Barry Truitt ( Virginia Coast Reserve, The Nature Conservancy) and his English Setter, Hoochie, Bruno Kern (videographer), Mandy and myself (Endangered and Nongame Species Program of the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife) will catch our charter flight to the do the aerial search for Knots outfitted with transmitters and make the first landing at the field site. Our crew suffered some attrition, now down to nine including one new addition Steve Gates, a trained biologists and a dedicated volunteer with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program. Ed Swayda, our pilot from the 2000 expedition, co-piloted our Cessna Caravan piloted by Shawn Harman, also from Skyward Aviation. Many thanks to Pelagie Sharp of Skyward for arranging the flight.
Our search for instrumented Red Knots centered on Southampton Island this year. Last year we covered Southampton and much of the central Arctic and found a good concentration of Red Knots on King William Island. This year, Garry Donaldson of the Canadian Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct an aerial search for transmittered knots from the Polar Shelf Camp in Resolute. Using a Twin Otter they will fly south covering the coast of Prince of Wales Island and a portion of Boothia Peninsula before covering King William Island. Both aerial survey teams will be searching for two different groups of Red Knots, 30 birds outfitted with transmitters in South Carolina by Brian Harrington (Manomet Bird Observatory) and Brad Winn (Georgia DNR), and 90 bird outfitted in New Jersey by the Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
We covered Southampton Island but concentrated on the three regions where we had found birds in the last two years. Our results were mixed. After crossing the still frozen Roes Welcome Sound, we flew north then south covering a vast barren area along the shore and just in sight of the coastal ridge on the northeast edge of the island. We quickly found three birds. We assumed that birds would pop up all over the island. But only after flying another 2 hours did we found the fourth and final bird, this one located on the peninsula along Bay of God’s Mercy. We found all birds in habitat typical of the knots we found nesting last year.
At the completion of our survey, we re-located our camp from last year, and reconnoitered for a new landing site further south. Our 2000 camp was located on an esker, (eskers are linear mounds of gravel deposited by glaciers) . Near the southern end of the esker, we found our 2001 campsite. Although we could see last year’s ATV tracks winding down the esker ridgetop, a new landing is always the most dangerous part of the trip. After three passes Shawn, with some guidance from Ed, brought the plane in low, almost flaring the plane like a bird about to land, and thumped down on the soft but bumpy esker. The plane thrashed around splashing rocks with the propeller, hopped once then settled, hopped again but then hugged the rolling esker top eventually coming to a stop. After a round of applause, Ed opened the cargo door and we once again stared upon the peaceful home of the Delaware Bay red knots.
Within a few hours, Shawn and Ed had made the 70-mile run back to Coral Harbor and returned with the rest of our crew, Brad, Nancy, Johnny, and the ATV. Until 1:00 a.m., we worked to setup the camp under a cold midnight sun struggling to stay above the horizon. We already knew the drill. First, find a soft flat area for our sleeping tents within a reasonable distance from water. Then set the cook tent far enough from our tents to lure away the always-possible polar bear. Finally, we erected an electric fence around the sleeping area. Bears present the most serious threat to our team. Southampton Island, and more importantly our study sites, lie squarely within a major concentration area for polar bears. The evidence is everywhere — bears have excavated den sites all along the esker where we are working, although they come here mostly in the fall just after snowfall and before the Hudson Bay completely freezes. Last year Barry found fresh tracks but nobody saw a bear. Nonetheless, we never went into the field without guns and bear spray. Tomorrow we will begin our ground search.