Thursday, 31 July 2014

Warning: Gosling pics!!

Alyn with a family in the pen
On the 29th we returned to the skies in order to catch more geese. This time our aim was to target families because we have already caught plenty of failed breeders and many of these birds are far enough through the moult that they can fly, but only just.

I am afraid I can give few details about the first catch as Chantelle and I were waiting back at camp. We tend to limit the catch team to 4 due to helicopter space. I can tell of the pacing tedium of those back at camp, but I can't make it interesting. Anyway, the main thing is that the catch was successful with a haul of 11 adults and 24 precious goslings. That means there's some nice photos of cute goslings now available. We had to process them in a bit of a quagmire but it went smoothly.

Afterwards we went straight back to the helicopter to catch more geese. This demonstrates our dedication; plus the helicopter is warm inside. This time I was on the helicopter so I can describe what happened. First, we pwent to check it a group of 18 or so non breeders we had seen previously. They were still there so we quickly set the net, but the geese simply flew away so we quickly put the net back on the helicopter. We were unsure of our next move but in the next bay we saw a small group of families that looked a good target. After another highly efficient net set John chased them in with relative ease and we had another 5 adults and 7 goslings. In total that's 47 geese for that day.
Tom with a 2-3 week old gosling

We have more helicopter time on the 2nd, but after that we are off to Resolute where there's soft beds, plentiful and varied food, warmth, laundry ,hot showers and pancakes for breakfast. For me in particular it will be a great day when I can escape porridge for breakfast.


PS the next catch is due on Saturday, I will rejoin the team in Resolute on Monday for the last couple of catch attempts for the summer. More excitement to follow I am sure


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!

Monday, 28 July 2014

The first big catch and more biscuits

Two very successful days for the arctic brent research team as we have caught on both days on land, water and air. The geese can run but they cannot hide, or fly away.

The first catch was done at a nearby Great South Lake and involved setting our net on land at the far shore and driving the geese by paddling two zodiacs towards them. There were only 3 geese on the lake, but it was a nice day for boating. Alan and Kerry set the net with two long wings and a central holding pen with a door. Tom and I were in one boat with Graham and Chantelle in the other. Chantelle is the best and most experienced at using these boats so she gave us some pithy advice on rowing before promptly falling in the water as the boats were launched. Graham and Chantelle rowed a wider arc down the lake than us were the water was still. In contrast, Tom and I tried to hug the ice upon the lake on our route and battled bravely against strong currents and icebergs. We successfully drove 2 birds into the net between the combined boat and land teams. The third goose flew away, which hardly seems fair. As we pulled the boats from the lake Chantelle fell in the muddy shore, but she is the most experienced boater amongst us so we were not worried. One bird was already ringed JLLY and presumably the other birds was its partner,. All that was left afterwards was a reasonable walk home.

Catching 2 birds is great but today we went 'nuclear' and brought the chopper in. Alan, Kerry, Tom and I got the helicopter in the morning and went  scouting for geese and catch sites. Chantelle and Graham were to be flown in after we had caught to help measuring the birds. Initially it looked bad as all the places we had seen geese were deserted. However, we eventually saw a large flock of adults that would be a good target. The net was set quickly and then we lay down 2 people at the end of either wing of the net. In the meantime our pilot John Innes drove the flock from further along the coast to our net. The geese approached quickly but were reluctant to enter the net to the point that some brave geese stopped and sat down just metres from the helicopter. The four of us sprang into action to encircle the geese while the rotor blades thundered overhead and grit from the  the downdraft lashed our handsome faces. I am sure to bystanders it looked really cool, or would have if there had been any. In total , we got 73 with 4 escapees. Credit to John who did most of the work. Catching was quick but processing the birds took longer, but John helped and seemed to enjoy his role of passing geese to folk. Some birds already had rings but most were birds we had already caught this trip, so the geese may be forming larger flocks . Some females may have been failed breeders as well judging by their plumage. So, a great day with some stupendously brave little geese.

Back at camp we opened some new Maxi Fruit biscuits. They are soft oatmeal with a jam filling and are bordering  on cake territory. They fall just short of the maple creams in our biscuit pantheon, but still a nice treat after our success. Of course, once we return to Resolute the biscuits will be off the chart.


IMAGE: Alyn Walsh

Friday, 25 July 2014

Long walks and goose families

Over the past few days we've initiated the new guys in camp with a series of brutal marches in order to find moulting flocks of geese and geese families. On the plus side we have seen  a lot of the major bird species and, judging by people's reactions, Sabine's gull and snowy owl were the highlights. On one walk we were also followed for several km by a musk ox who occasionally blocked our way, but who was sent running by loud noises.

Ultimately, we found several groups of moulting birds and  a few families. In particular, we discovered a group of 3 families with 5,4 and 4 goslings respectively. In one family the goslings were noticeably larger and therefore older than the others.

The next day Kerry and I (and note I say I rather than myself now - thanks to those who criticized and corrected me before) walked back to where the families were to attempt some behavioural observations. We had to watch from a km away as they were easily spooked. Also, the family sizes now were all 4 so one gosling is gone  already.. The group is pretty chaotic as the goslings charge around and often congregate in a large group leading to aggression between adult pairs. Watching the adults it appears the female spends more time feeding than the male. However, other variables may be important. For example, after being frightened by a snowy owl feeding rates dropped and birds were more watchful. Feeding rates were also observed to increase when birds fed in lush pond-side vegetation. Adults also spent some time preening. The goslings were either grazing or running around the whole time. All fairly anecdotal but lovely stuff.


We have the helicopter booked for most of the 26th July and the team are planning some big catches. Updates on that very soon. BTW I think it is Barb that has been giving Ian a hard time about his grammar...

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Back in Eureka (albeit very briefly)

We are currently back at the Eureka weather haven resting after our two weeks on the Schei. Funnily enough the haven now feels more luxurious than it did previously. I am particularly overjoyed to return to my greenhouse room, which is always warmer than everyone else's. The folks down at the weather station were kind enough to offer us a free shower and laundry, So we are clean and well-rested. There has also been a change over of field workers. Freydis and Sean have returned home after some great work, including two textbook goose catches and a mysterious event I am calling the 18 goose enigma. In their stead Alan, Graham and Kerry have arrived for the third section of the field season. Here is a photo of all of us together with one of our helicopter pilots Stig. The next phase of work will involve camping back out on the Schei, but will end with us staying in Resolute where you can get pancakes for breakfast - a thought we often find cheering.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Hatching, broken quads and mosquitoes

A fun-filled few days encompassing the full spectrum of human emotion. From the highs of catching geese throught the lows of broken quad bikes to warm still days and plagues of mosquitoes. A couple if days ago we had a break from routine in the Schei Camp as we had a helicopter flight to check the status of the nests we found and retrieve the temperature loggers we placed in each nest. On the flight to distant Axel F we also saw a wolf and an arctic fox. All in all most of our 24 nests appear to gave been successful with 4 falling victim to predation. Gulls may be the most likely cause as we found eggs with holes punched through them at the nest.
On True Brant island we saw nest where the female was still sitting but with one gosling scrabbling and squeaking in the nest trying to get under her wing. We also saw several families walking their goslings from the island out on the sea ice. While on Gerry Murphy Island the abominable yellow sludge has mellowed into spongy sand. Here too we saw a female on the nest with her chicks. So hatching success has been pretty high, although Tom noted on the flight up to the breeding islands that there were very few family groups (but lots of non-breeder moulting flocks).

Yesterday we attempted our second catch at the awkwardly named 13 goose pond complex. We were aiming for all 13 geese. Catching involved herding them from one small pond across a bit of land into a smaller pond and then into the net. It soon became obvious that we would have to get wet to get them off the first pond as they were happy to circle in in the middle of it. In the end, Sean (our hero) swam at the geese while everyone else waded in and we forced the birds into the smaller pond where it was simple to close the trap. On land the geese are quick despite their comical gait. We caught all 13 including yet another retrap!! FU White White (phnar phnar) was originally ringed at Strangford.

Alas, our beloved red quad broke down at the catch site and even duct tape could not revive it. Consequently, we had to lug everything back 10 km to camp. It was good exercise in a way and never far from being fun. Kerry, Alyn and Graham are all due to arrive in Ottawa late tomorrow and fly on to Resolute on Friday. The airstrip there has been fogbound for the last three days, so fingers crossed they get in.

Ian and Stu

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The first goslings and a Cadburys pair are retrapped!!

Sometimes when conducting fieldwork a lot can happen in a short space of time. Yesterday, myself, Chantelle and Freydis went in a trek across the peninsula to an inlet we thought looked interesting on the map. After a long walk on which we saw nothing of note except musk ox and grey plover we reached the inlet and we're ready to turn back disappointed. But then across the inlet we saw a pair with 3 goslings. Upon seeing us the adults began honking and led to the chicks into the water and then onto the sea ice. The goslings are small, grey and cute and we roughly estimate they are 3-5 days old.

Today , we attempt to capture 7 geese that we keep seeing on a small lake nearby. 5 of these birds we are sure are moulting and flightless, but the other 2 arrived later so possibly can fly. The lake is small and roughly circular with thin sea ice in the centre restricting the birds to a narrow channel between the shore and the ice. The plan is a pincer movement.with Chantelle driving the geese using a Zodiac boat from the top of the lake down towards our net in the bottom left on the shore. Myself and Tom were hiding on the shore but when the geese pass by we appear and help drive to the net on the corner. Freydis is in another boat acting as a backstop to prevent geese from swimming past the net.
Sean walks out to close the gap between himself and Freydis and we advance closing the trap and drive the geese onto to the shore into the net. At the last minute 2 geese remember they can fly and escape easily but the other 5 are caught. 2 birds caught have rings already (BTRR and ZPWB) and are a pair. They were previously caught at the Cadburys pitch and putt in North Dublin back in February. The whole process was very quick; credit to Sean for the master plan.

Afterwards we celebrate by opening our special maple biscuits. They are like custard creams but maple-shaped and filled with a maple-infused custard cream. They are by far our finest biscuit.


PS from Stu... the maple custard creams are not that great......

Schei Camp Established

Our new camp is now successfully up and running on the Schei peninsula (coordinates: N 80 07.699' W 88 10.914'). The camp comprises one mess tent and 5 personal tents. The personal tents are quite spacious and comfortable considering we are sleeping an inch from Arctic tundra on the fringes of civilization. Around the camp we have a tripwire bear fence that Tom has inadvertently tested on a quest for water. 

Near camp we found some small lakes where we saw goose droppings and footprints suggesting geese eat here. The lakes are fringed with a small green plant that looks similar to the salt marsh plants the geese eat in Ireland. There are also some areas of bog that really stand out as they are shockingly green. However, the essence of the Schei is the combination of musk ox skeletons and wolf prints that litter the ground.

Today we inflated one of our zodiac boats and myself and Tom tested it on a nearby lake. Unfortunately, one of the rollocks was broken making rowing difficult, which may have made us look less competent rowers than we truly are. In the end we adopted an Indian- canoe rowing style that kind of worked until the wind was against us. We rowed frantically against the wind but moved very little and eventually gave up in disgust and went back to shore. Nevertheless, a valuable lesson in the importance of well maintained. 


PS from Stu

I am pretty sure the green plant Ian mentions is the same as Alyn Walsh and I found in 2007 an it looks like some sort of Puccinellia species...

Also I have added some google earth maps to show where everything is:

Below is the main study area and the nesting islands around Axel Heiberg's Schei Peninsula.

This one is North Axel Heiberg with the northerly colony (Axel F)  and Eureka (on Ellesmere Island)

The las shows all of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and Resolute Base

Monday, 7 July 2014

New nest found!!!

Now that Stu has departed from Eureka it's time to give the blog some more variety with a series of special guest authors. Freydis and Sean have joined our happy team and have been busy getting familiar with the place and the local wildlife. The rest of  us have got a bit blasé about musk ox, how did it ever come it that?

Yesterday in a visit to the weather station we are astounded by news that someone (Nicholas Handspiker) has found a nest nearby. Nicholas even provided photographic evidence to satisfy the cynical. Although he's unsure of the exact location he points out the probable area. After 2 unsuccessful transects - on of which we force Nicholas to help with - we find the female on the nest. The female remains close as we measure the eggs (see pic) an even returns to sitting immediately as we return the last egg. Two of the eggs are cracked and flaking and you can hear the chicks pipping clearly. So, one extra nest and within 1.3 km of our weather haven (n=24). We celebrate by eating toast for lunch. Tomorrow our camp departs for the Schei peninsula.


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