Yesterday's events meant that we really had to rethink our flying schedule. As I keep saying we know virtually nothing about the breeding biology of these birds, this is what we are up here to study and we now have the chance to collect data from a a good number of additional nests, our best estimate would be five or so nests up in Aurland Fjord in NW Axel (assuming we can find them all) with another five or six on the two islands in Flat sound. This number more than would triple our current sample size, I had said to Ian before the trip if that I would be very surprised if we found more than 20 nests, so 15 or so is not to be sneezed at. We spoke to Tim and Polar Shelf, got a price for the extra hours that a search visit and a logger retrieval visit would entail and worked out some time windows that would suit. Slots on the 27th or the 30th looked good and so it was now just a case of sitting and waiting.
Alistair Fotheringill (spelling?) of Trials of Life, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet etc fame is up here with the second camera crew that is filming for a new multi-episode wildlife series called "the hunt". They are using the Cineplex system (gyro stabilised ultra powerful camera thingy) mounted to a helicopter to try to film wolves hunting Musk Ox. This involves he and the cameraman Jaimie, waiting around until the field team (based at a den a few miles north of here) call to say the wolves have left for a hunt. So they are spending a lot of time in our tent (helicopter on standby), drinking tea and coffee and regaling us with some great tales of some of the most famous wildlife film moments (David Attenborough with the blue whales, hunting dogs, wolves killing bison etc).
To kill some time, we took the ATVs (not quads as I have been told by the Canadians) east to the head of Slidre fjord. We had to cross a couple of large braided rivers, which would have been impossible a week ago. Melt from much of the surrounding tundra is now waning and the snow is really only lying in deep valleys, and on the higher tops. We spotted several Brent goose parties, including some likely breeders, but no rings. We stopped at the third large river delta that enters at the top as it is fed from the Sawtooth mountains (see pic of Ian, Chantelle and Tom) as these have glaciers, which cause daily spates as the sun warms the snow. This means a river that can be easily crossed in the morning can become a raging torrent by mid afternoon. We had some lunch and spotted a nice group of king eiders (3 males and a female), before driving inland to the summit of a large gently sloping hill. The top and the west side was a massive sand dune and carved with deep meltwater channels and descending was not the easiest, but we eventually found a way down (after a few false starts). It was now mid afternoon and the rivers we had crossed earlier had started to rise with the heat of the sun. The water that was clear in the morning had turned a dark sludgy grey brown making judging the depth tricky, but we crossed fairly easily. All of the rivers and streams had turned a similar colour and we had some entertaining moments on the way back, including my ATV deciding to pack up right in the middle of a rushing stream.
An absolutely glorious morning here, light wind and not a cloud in the sky and an almost balmy 9 degrees C. Alistair from the film team came in first thing with the weather forecast looking set this way for the next four or five days. We were just thinking about what we might do when a call came through from Glenn at Polar Shelf asking if we could move our planned flight to search for nests forward a day. We quickly got our gear together and hooked up with Bill, the pilot of the second helicopter (there are two of these here at the moment because the hunt film team have block booked one of them). Bill is also from Newfoundland, and like John has been flying up here for many years. We took off in bright sunshine and had yet another spectacular flight across Eureka Sound and up over the Schei Peninsula and Axel Heiberg to Aurland Fjord in the north west, checking the fuel caches and looking for caribou on the way. Aurland Fjord was still very much fast in sea ice, with little signs of any break up, but several of the islands were pretty much bare, including the one we had seen nests on, named Axel F by Tom (he grew up in the 80s). Axel F turned out to be much much bigger than it looked, and in keeping with the previous extraterrestrial descriptions of the landscape up here, looked like some of the photos that the Mars rover has been providing (see pic of Ian, Tom, Chantelle and Bill to get an idea). The rock is very brittle and clinkered, and over much of the drier parts of the island these small shards are arranged in a remarkably uniform manner, almost like the paving on a steamrolled road before the tarmac is added. Of course it was wet...very wet and muddy, in the low lying areas between the dry high points. There were also some deep snow drifts, which supplied much entertainment for those not caught in them.
After about an hour and half we reached the far end of the island and despite a lot of searching and a couple obvious territorial males we could not find a nest. We returned up the other side of the island and soon found our first female. On the very top of one of the rubble pavements, just over 500 miles from the North Pole, completely open to the elements was a nest with five eggs in it! With a clutch weight of around 400g, this is about 18% of the departure mass of an average female in Iceland (and this is after a flight of well over 2500km that crosses the Greenland Icecap). How on earth do they manage to do this? This is one of the puzzles we are trying to solve. We soon found a second nest on the next hilltop (three eggs this time), but despite more searching and another male holding territory, we could not find any more, so we returned to the helicopter. This was a mixed outcome, we had hoped for five nests and found two, we flew low over a couple more likely looking islands in the fjord, but no luck...frustrating...and so we started to revise our numbers down, another five or six we hoped.
The day was still clear and after about 40 minutes of flying Bill set us down on another island to the south and left to refuel the helicopter at one of the caches we checked on the way north. The island looked promising from the air, but on the ground it was a different story, it was very very wet (and of course muddy), probably only clear of snow for a few days. The only signs of life on the island were a few moss and saxifrage plants, a musk ox skeleton, some old goose droppings and two Arctic terns feeding at a small crack in the ice. We decided it would be known as Amund Minor, because of its similarities to Ringnes, icy, muddy and no animals.
Bill returned after about 30mins and we headed down to the first Island in Flat sound (named True Brant Island by Ian, for reasons that will become apparent in the next few sentences). This was the island that had one certain nest on it with the possibility of one more based on our quick fly over a couple of days earlier. We landed at NW tip just at the edge of a glaucous gull colony, straight away we could see quite a few geese on the island and presumed there were a number of non-breeders. Within a few minutes we found our first nest, closely followed by second and third (this one the female had left covered with her down see pic).and a forth and so it went on... ten nests in all!!! Including a couple right in amongst the gulls. The birds may choose these apparently risky locations, to get extra help in defending against foxes, much the same as other geese do with snowy owls and peregrines. Three of the nests had marked birds on them, including: a female (JC Red Blue) that Alyn Walsh and I had ringed on the Schei Peninsula (only a few miles away) back in 2007 and is regularly seen in North Wales during winter; TB White Blue, which was also likely a female ringed in 2009 in Kerry as an adult and NX White White, which was ringed in Dundrum, Northern Ireland. We could not believe it, particularly after the disappointments of the previous two islands.
We then took a very short flight to Gerry Murphy Island a mile or so down the sound, where we were sure that there were at least four nests, possibly five. Gerry Murphy turned out to be an island of two halves, the first half, very much like Amund Minor, deep cloying mud and no signs of life, apart from a very old set of polar bear tracks (by god their paws are big). But soon we were upon the first nest, small red blue rings on the goose as she got off told us that this was a chick we had ringed on the Schei back in 2007. The north of the island was a series of gravel ridges separated by mud. We found another six nests after this first one, the last having another ringed bird, K6 Yellow Yellow, appropriately a Kerry bird seen regularly around the mud flats of Blennerville (nr Tralee), frequented by the island's namesake. K6YY was ringed as an adult in Kerry in 2006 making her at least 10 years old, and in that time she will have flown in excess of 100,000 miles!
17 nests from two islands and 19 in total for the day...a truly awesome (to use a word much over used by yours truly) result, bringing us to 23 study nests. Not a lot for some species, but this is close to doubling the total number of nests ever found for this population.
We checked Shamrock on the way over (but no obvious nests) and paid a quick visit to Brant Is to run a final check on our first four nests all was good and we came across a pair of red phalaropes spinning for invertebrates in one of the ponds. The day remained clear and we had a magnificent final flight (for me anyway) across Eureka Sound to the camp. A perfect end to yet another absolutely gobsmacking day.