Friday, 4 July 2014

Last few days in Eureka

June 27th
Now we wait. There is no safe way of getting to any of the nesting islands other than by helicopter and so the next 10 to 12 days will involve a lot of hanging around as the first nests will not likely be hatching until the middle of the second week of July. The day began  eventfully with Ian and I spotting a wolf trying to get into the shed where we have our toilet set up. I went down, bear scarers in hand, and it had made some fun clearing that up and no descriptions necessary. However, it has turned going to the toilet into something slightly more interesting and hearing a wolf howling outside while you are in compromising position does hasten the visit. The three wolves hung around most of the morning, howling  to one another before moving off up the fjord. The weather remains sunny and clear, but a stiff NW wind means it is still very cold out.

June 28th
The three wolves were back again this morning, although the toilet is now a secure building so no repeat of yesterday. The arctic redpoll that has been hanging around had fledged a couple of chicks which can still barely fly, and require frequent feeding. Still very sunny and actually quite warm out of the wind. Ian and Chantelle walked down to the weather station to get some home comforts...they allow us to visit their canteen and drink their coffee. Ian also likes to visit on the off chance that a World Cup game  will be on. 
The tundra is dried out in most places now (gone from knee deep mud to dust in ten days) and this allowed Tom and I to get the ATVs up into the hills above the braided river where we were sure there was a nesting pair of Brent geese. The gander appears to have gone and so the nest may well be too, but it was pretty disconcerting once we got up there. Mile after mile of gravel banks (just like the places they nest on the islands), cut by fast flowing melt water gullies allowing them to get to the main river (see pic) if the birds are using this kind of area, then it would explain why the nests are so hard to find. The sheer scale of searching, even the fairly restricted area here, makes it pretty much impossible, even with all the dead time we have on our hands and as we fly around Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere (which in case you did not remember is an island bigger than Great Britain) there are an awful lot of places that look just like this. On the way back down I slowed too much on one of the river crossings and got the ATV stuck up to its back axel in mud (see pic). It took Tom and I quite a bit off effort to get it out (bringing back memories of me and Kendrew in a similar predicament in Kerry when we were carrying out an eel grass survey a few years back).

June 29th
After a pretty quiet morning, I decided to walk north from the airstrip up to one of the plateaus with the hope of running into some lemmings as the film teams have been seeing wolves eating lots of them along with young hares. Summer really has its grip on the tundra now. Lots of flowers in bloom, turnstones breeding everywhere, looking much much smarter than when they visit us in winter (see pic) and red knots still doing a lot of displaying and singing. I also found some caterpillars and a cocoon of the Arctic wooly bear moth. This is the species where the caterpillars can live for seven years before they pupate, because the growing/feeding season is so short. On my return I cut through a long-tailed skua breeding territory. Adult skuas (of all species) are very vigorous defenders of their nests and one of this pair actually landed on my head as I admired the two eggs they were incubating.

The caribou/wolf biologists arrived back from their 65km hike on Axel Heiberg... not a single caribou was seen in an area where there had been many in 2007 when the last survey was carried out! But they did find a new wolf den and are considering heading back there to try to attach some satellite collars. 

June 30th
I was woken at 2am with the sound of wolves howling right outside our tent. Very hard to capture what this is like, there is a real sense wildness in the sound, and with the wind having dropped it made for a fantastically eerie experience. A distant wolf was answering them, going on for about an hour or so as they slowly moved east down the fjord and I went back to sleep. Morgan (the wolf biologist), went out to try and dart one of them, but she could not get close enough.
We took the ATVs west to Eureka sound and walked along the beach, another beautiful day (see pic). In the late afternoon I went with Morgan and her student to the base dump to try and dart a wolf. There were three of them there, just lazing around. A different group from the three we have been seeing regularly and much less approachable. The alpha got up and the other two followed and we watched them for about 10 minutes, as they moved off across the tundra, being bombed by every skua they encountered until the disappeared over the hill. 
Big highlight, the army are leaving tomorrow (there about 20 of them manning a small base next to the airstrip). They invited Tom to take any of the food they were about to ged rid of...frozen bread, grapes and they even gave us dinner, potatoes, pork and fried chicken... nice change from the rice and pasta dominated diet we have been on.

July 1st
Happy Canada day!! The army closed down the base today, which will make the area around our camp much more quiet (no more Hueys starting up, twin otters revving or JCBs reversing). The C130 arrived about 10am and they were gone by early afternoon. Morgan had asked if we would like to fly with them on a search for caribou and so we spent most of the afternoon over on the SE of Axel Heiberg. Again some absolutely magnificent scenery, including some dry canyons (see pic). After about an hour or so we spotted three animals on a slope at the side of Wolf Fjord, we landed to try and collect some fresh droppings as the team are trying to work out how the different Peary Caribou populations are structured. Caribou DNA in the droppings allows them to estimate which populations are most related and how they are linked to one another.
We spotted a mum and a year old calf as well but no more, before heading back across east to Stor Island to refuel. The first poppies are now blooming and a few of these were dotted round the fuel cache (see pic). We returned via a couple of wolf dens, the second of which was on top of a small cliff. We spotted the three wolves above us at first, one was sat in classic pose howling at the sky and as we flew over the top of it the they were all clearly bark-howling at us.

The weather station people have been building a bonfire for the last few days for their Canada celebrations, the high point of which is the 10pm polar bear swim. I have to admit that I bailed on this, but Tom, Chantelle and Morgan did it...(see pics) (essentially a run into the open lead on the shore near the base and then getting out as quickly as possible)... Ian claimed he wanted to do it, but went to put his contact lenses in and missed the entire event...

July 2nd
My last day. I took the ATV for a last look at the Creek and the fjord to the east and try to see the wolves for the last time. The first twin otter of the day appeared as I was out there, so I headed back, without running into any wolves , and the second plane containing Sean Boyd and Freydis Vigfusdottir arrived soon after. The plane taking me back was heading up to North Ellesmere to pick up some people, so we had a few hours to sit down, catch up and discuss plans for the next stage of the season. Tom, Ian, Chantelle, Sean and Freydis, will spend some time camping out on the Schei peninsula, making some behavioural observations in part to try and work out what these geese are actually eating. There is nothing for them on any of the breeding islands so they will have to come to shore to feed once the chicks hatch. They will also revisit the breeding islands in a couple of weeks to collect the loggers.
It was with a real tinge of sadness that I said goodbye, I am desperate to get home to see Katie and the boys, but I would have loved to have been able to be there for the next stage of the season as the first goslings appear. I boarded the twin otter with a group of dignitaries that had been up opening a historical site in the national park (some huts left by Peary in his great exploration of this part of the world that have been pretty much untouched since he was there).
As we turn at the end of the runway, I look out the window to see two white wolves from the plane, an alpha male standing tall and aloof, with a subordinate running haunches down, tail between its legs to greet him in an avalanche of nuzzles, licks and nibbles.

goodbye Eureka...for the time being at least....

How many of our nests will be successful? Will the chicks make it past the glaucous gulls and get to the mainland grazing sites? Will we find the moulting flocks to catch and mark? Tom, Ian, Sean, Freydis and Chantelle will be continuing to follow the geese, providing further updates until early August so keep watching this space

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