Our plan for the day was to take a long exploratory flight in the helicopter to look for nesting geese, but as is the way up here, such things are prone to change at short notice. Sure enough a couple of additional flights were needed when we spoke to Polar Shelf (who co-ordinate all of the scientific activities in this part of the world). First a team of biologists were to be flown to Axel Heiberg for a two week trekking search for Peary Caribou (a much smaller relative of its southerly cousins which is of considerable conservation concern and is really only found in the Queen Elizabeth Islands). The next set of flights was to move a group of Cambridge University geologists, who had managed to get dropped off in Strand Fjord on Axel Heiberg, but needed to be moved north to Expedition Fjord to set up their camp. However, as our planned flight would take us out in that direction anyway, it gave us the chance to get out and explore a different area. We had another incredible (really running out of superlatives here) flight down the fjords and over the icecaps of Axel and landed in the balmy 11 degrees C of Strand Fjord (temperature at Eureka was nearer 3). We spent the next few hours looking for geese in the braided river flowing into the fjord (see pic).
Because of its proximity to the ice cap and glaciers the trapped bergs were considerably bigger than any we had seen so far. We found a small flock of non-breeding geese, one of which was ringed, but we could not get close enough to read it. We also found a ringed gander that likely had a female on a nest somewhere in the area, but given our previous experience with this kind of thing and the fact that the river delta was several times the size of the one we have been searching along the coast from Eureka, we did not entertain any ideas of finding her. As with the other birds, we could not get close enough to read his rings. It took John a couple of trips to move the geologists and all their kit and we spent the last hour or so just sitting and looking at the view, some of mountains starting to turn red in the late afternoon sun, cut by black and grey bands of different the rock types. It was just after 4pm when we started our flight. First we flew south west out over the Arctic Ocean to Amund Ringnes, this is an island that many of our satellite tagged birds have visited, so both Kendrew and I have long held out hope that it might be a breeding stronghold. The ice out on the ocean is quite different to that of the fjords, hard frozen, much thicker and snowbound with pressure ridges and very little sign at all that there is any water below. This ice will not melt during most summers. Amund was in low cloud so we descended to about 200 ft for the last part of the flight.
What ensued was probably the most disappointing part of the trip so far. Amund Ringnes is flat, so flat and snow covered that it was hard to pick out from the surrounding frozen sea. We flew down the east coast and it very quickly became apparent that this was not to be the goose oasis that we had hoped for. The little ground that was snow free was pretty much mud or gravel with hardly any vegetation (in fact Kendrew reminded me when I spoke to him on the phone that someone who had visited it in high summer and had described it as looking like the surface of the moon). We spent about 35 minutes or so flying over the most open areas, but all we managed to see was a snowy owl, four musk ox (so there must be some vegetation) and a long-tailed skua. We decided to cut our losses and fly back to finish our planned search on north west Axel Heiberg. Another 30 minutes and we landed at a fuel cache in South Fjord to gas up the helicopter for the last part of the trip (see pic). The temp here was also warm, but the snow was deep and so the drums were frozen to the ground. After a fair amount of chopping at the ice and levering of drums we got two of them free (although I managed to puncture the top of one of them with the axe and so it was leaking slightly). Helicopter filled we resumed our flight, searching low lying offshore islands and river deltas for geese.
In the initial stages, this proved just as fruitless as Amund Ringnes. The only highlight being a set of polar bear tracks that we ended up following up the coast for about 20 miles, but no sign of the animal that made them. Then we started to see some geese. A few small groups of non-breeders a first, but eventually we found our first likely breeders, three likely nests on the NE slopes of Bjarnason Island. Sea mist prevented us from following the next stretch of coast, but John has had 50 years of flying helicopters up here and he was not to be defeated, he took us up over the inversion (the temperature dropped from 11 to 0 degrees in about 10 seconds), above the mountains of the next peninsula, across and then back down through the cloud to Aurland Fjord and the last few islands that we had on our list for this stretch of coast. We were by now running low on fuel and so we could only have a couple of flypasts, but we hit the jackpot. We only managed to get a decent look at two of the half a dozen or so islets that are there, but we found a small breeding colony, at least 5 birds on one island, 2 on another and likely to be more. John said we had to leave and so we headed back through the mountain passes south east to Eureka. But our day was to get even better! I had asked if we could fly down the coast, John did his calculations and reckoned we had enough fuel to do this. So after another truly breathtaking flight through the mountains we returned the coast about 50 miles north west of our study islands on the Schei Peninsula. There were two final islands we wanted to check just a few miles from the main breeding areas on the peninsula. We asked John if this was going to be possible and he did what he does best, flew us in right over the top slow and low. There was at least one breeding pair on the first island, but on the second a larger round island (to be named Gerry Murphy after our shapely colleague who sadly had to pull out of this trip at the last minute because of a knee injury) we could at least four females sitting on nests; another new breeding colony! John landed us back in Eureka at 10pm with 83lbs fuel left (less than 15 minutes of flying time). The last hour or so was a truly spectacular end to a day that I think will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.