Wednesday, 30 July 2014

First families captured, goslings 10-20 days old. Biscuit-fest

I have lifted this title from Stuart's facebook posting as clearly he's been on the satellite phone and is more in the know than the rest of us..until we get our next update. I'm just doing a wee gap filler as I'm conscious that not everyone reading this knows the "ins and outs" of what the team are up to.

Our limited previous information indicated that peak egg-laying of this Brent population is around mid-June, with peak hatching (the average, obviously it varies nest to nest) around July 12th. The contents of the hatched eggs then move from egg, guarded with parents to join other broods as larger units (safety in numbers) to where they can all eat. The adults will have been having a pretty lean time (obviously birds have been devoting a lot of time to incubation) and the chicks - well the fresh shoots of arctic sedges and grasses are a whole new experience to them! As these family units have to leave the arctic next month the 24 hour daylight affords the opportunity to feed virtually round the clock so they can grow and be able to undertake the flight to Ireland via Greenland and Iceland. A route their parents will know but will be entirely new for the young of course.

The eggs are ca. 100g in weight in early July, and these become ca. 1kg chicks a month later. That's quite something!

Part of the work the team are engaged in involves putting some facts around the type of things I've written - because there is really precious little known about the breeding biology of these birds. So - forget the "fancy" stuff - even the basic information as to which bird incubates, when, for how long, where they are feeding and on what etc is all totally new information.

The 24 hour daylight subtly shifts in mid-August and that (I guess) is one of the cues the birds use to know it is time to be thinking about heading the several thousand miles south-east. Meanwhile, the failed breeders (attempted and failed) and those who, for one reason or another, didn't attempt at all (e.g. too young) will have been loitering focused on surviving and preparing for the journey themselves. Both these non-breeding adults and the adults with young undertake a moult of their flight feathers (like a snake sheds its skin if you like) in late July and early August which is why these birds are flightless and catchable. Hence the round-ups from boats and ability to corral them into nets using people on foot and a capable helicopter pilot. Try such a technique in Iceland or Ireland at any other time of the year guessed it... the birds will simply fly off.

In the final phase of the expedition the team will change their operational base to the Polar Continental Shelf facility at Resolute on Cornwallis Island. This area was established as a sovereign northern outpost by the Canadian and US military some decades ago and, if you have seen any television documentaries about North Pole expeditions the base at Resolute is invariably the penultimate staging post for such expeditions. From here the PCSP staff manage all the scientific teams, their logistical requirements and co-ordinate all flights in and out. This is just north of Lancaster Sound (part of the North West Passage) and just west of Beechy Head where some of Franklin's team are buried. Remember it's not that very long ago (just over a century) that wooden ships and teams of entrepid explorers under largely British, US/Canadian or Danish were seeking trade routes etc.

The Brent team will be in relative luxury (abundant hot water, laboratories, flushing toilets, telephones, pool tables, biscuits and refreshments on tap and will be running catching sorties to adjacent sites where we know or think are likely to hold birds - Bathurst Island and Devon Island. 

That's enough spoofing from me. Look forward to live updates from the field. Meanwhile I will return to the chocolate Hob-Nobs and fresh coffee!


  1. Thanks Kendrew- that was really insightful and much appreciated. ~ Suzy

  2. Am following this blog which makes for fascinating and really interesting reading. Thank you.
    B. McPolin. ( friend of Suzy)