Monday, July 9, 2007

Canada - Victoria Island, Nunavut, Wednesday, July 4, 2007

We spent the last day in the field re-surveying Mt. Pelly for red knots. With the coordinates of the three nests found in 1999-2003, we used GPS to cover much of the area we had surveyed at the start of the trip but without success. We went back to Mt. Pelly that evening to listen for knots, but still no luck. We stayed to watch the sun, still far from the horizon even though it was nearly 11:00 pm, but eventually a strong cold wind drove us back to camp.

Gwen pointing out a red knot nest cup on Mt. Pelly occupied by a breeding pair in 2001, (see silver coin in the bottom of the nest cup)

After a day breaking down camp and packing, we moved back to Cambridge Bay in preparation for our long flight home. Breaking camp after eight days is a bit like moving house, but using ATVs instead of a van. It took two trips with four ATV’s to move everything back to town.

Our trips to the Augustus Hills, Lady Pelly and Little Pelly had taken us through Cambridge Bay three times. This allowed us to have much more interaction with the towns folk than on our previous expeditions to Southampton Island and King William Island. There, we were in complete isolation the whole time. This time we were fortunate to experience life in a predominately Inuit town and get to know some of the people. Peter Laube, his wife Helen Koaha and their lovely children, six in all, rented us the ATV's and graciously provided logistical support. It was unexpected and greatly appreciated. Peter and Helen typify the independent and entrepreneurial spirit of the people in this remote arctic settlement, running both a rental business and a construction company.

Helen, Peter and their children.

Cassidy, Georgia, Kalene, Brandy, Jonhenry, Dyson, Madelaine

Cambridge Bay (population around 2,000) is growing slowly, both from the natural increase in the resident population and also from increased mining activity in the surrounding area. Most of the town’s income appears to come from natural resources (guides and logistics for hunting, fishing, birding, etc), from mineral resources (diamonds, gold and other precious minerals), and from commerce -- supplying the needs of the people and the government (community, Provincial and National Governments). The extraordinary isolation (it is a three-hour flight to Yellowknife, NWT, the nearest large town), the extreme climate (-30 to -50°C in winter is not uncommon) and the otherworldly effect of daylight all through the night in summer makes Cambridge Bay a truly unique place and afforded a wonderful experience that touched us all. The people of Cambridge Bay deserve to feel proud of what they still call their “hamlet”.

As mentioned earlier we also had the good fortune to meet Rob Harmer, one the Nunavut Conservation Officers for the region. Although the entire team felt gratitude to Rob for his assistance and direction on all matters regulatory, Mandy and I felt a special connection with a fellow provincial (= state) conservation professional. Rob’s job is not unlike that of our own Conservation Officers in NJ and works for an organization similar to NJ Fish and Wildlife. But, of course, Rob deals with polar and grizzly bears, -50°C temperatures, as well as the best (and worst) hunters, birders, photographers and researchers from the rest of the world. He displayed a keen knowledge and understanding of the wildlife, the land and its people. He represented his agency well and with professionalism.

Much of our time in the field was spent in places of spiritual significance to the Inuit, and this helped us to gain some access to their culture. They say that the three hills, Mt. Pelly, Lady Pelly and Baby Pelly, arose from the dying bodies of three gods that could go no farther in harsh conditions. Although our team covers the gamut of religious background and commitment, we all felt an organic connection to the land and honored the sanctity of the areas we searched. There is no need to attend church when on Mt Pelly, Lady Pelly or Baby Pelly, you are in church. It made the loss of red knots all the more poignant.

Our entire team is grateful for the hard work of Dr. Humphrey Sitters, who edited this blog and Phillipa Sitters for putting it up on the internet while we were gone. The same goes for Steve Gates, who help us get ready for the trip and with Satellite phone communications. They are long-term members of the team who for personal reasons could not make the trip. They were missed.

As said above, we are also thankful to Peter Laube and Helen Koaha and their family who own and run Kalvik Enterprises, Inc., in Cambridge Bay. If anyone is interested in equipment & ATV rentals, contact Kalvik Enterprises (867) 963-2922. Also thanks again to Rob Harmer and Shawn Sather, both conservation officers that can be contacted through Nunavut Department of the Environment in Cambridge Bay.

Funding for this trip came from New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust in the Office of Natural Lands Management, both in the Department of Environmental Protection. Funds also came from The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ which also provide logistical support for the trip. The Delaware Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resource and Environment Control provided funding. We are especially thankful to people of these groups Dave Chanda, Dave Jenkins, Bob Cartica, Michael Catania, Margaret O’Gorman, Karen Bennett.

The 2007 Victoria Island Crew (L to R, top to bottom): Bruce Luebke, Michael Male, Gerry Binsfeld, Mark Peck, Georgia Peck, Larry Niles, Mandy Dey, Gwen Binsfeld.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Canada - Victoria Island, Nunavut, Monday, July 2, 2007

A cold wet fog ended the long run of unseasonably warm weather we’ve had since our arrival on Victoria Island. Normal for this time of year is a high of about 46 degrees but over the last five days we have basked in temperatures as high as 75 degrees. Although most of the town of Cambridge Bay enjoyed the short reprieve from winter, it felt ominous. Was this global warming in action? Or was it just an odd spell of warmth punctuating the usual cool summer weather? Climate change or not, it was glorious. Warm gentle breezes, coupled with a sun that circled the horizon, lent a joyous atmosphere to this otherwise serious, bleak landscape.

But then the wind shifted, coming right off frozen Lake Ferguson, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. Towards evening, the fog enshrouded the peak of Lady Pelly; and very quickly it swept down the hill into our camp site with a damp that chilled to the bone. It was a tough end to a tough day. The day before, Saturday, we left our main camp on Mt Pelly without the cook tent to lighten our load for the 70 km cross-tundra ATV trip to Lady Pelly. On Sunday, we spent all day searching for knots on Lady Pelly, and the surrounding hills and lakeshores. We were tired. We only had a small Coleman stove, and were anxiously waiting for hot soup when the fog slowly engulfed us. Although the temperature was only in the forties, the wind left us all, Mark, Georgia, Bruce, Michael, Mandy and I, feeling bitterly cold as we clustered around the stove for the smallest bit of warmth. The only good thing was that the cold would forestall the mosquitoes for a few more days.

Cooking at the Lady Pelly campsite with fog approaching

What made the day even more gloomy for us was the absence of any sign of red knots. Over the last three days we had searched Baby Pelly Mountain, the Augustus Coastal Hills and Lady Pelly. Gerry and Gwen, who stayed behind when we left Mt Pelly, searched the small hills north and east of Cambridge Bay. All of these places ranked high as suitable habitat for knots according to our habitat model. In the field, they looked just like the places where we have found knots on both King William and Southampton Islands. We found no nests, heard no song, and saw no birds. We looked at both the high barren plateaus characteristic of nesting habitat, and at all the wet areas characteristic of foraging habitat. We spent the evenings, especially those that were windless, listening for their territorial calls, but we heard nothing. I am convinced there are no red knots in the areas we searched and possibly none in the entire area.

It has made us rethink our assumptions. Why are there no knots here? Could we be outside their range? This is not likely; knots have been seen here in the past even though, until now, no one has done a systematic search. Knots and their nests were recorded here fairly regularly until four years ago. In 1999, we found knots on Jenny Lind Island, just 50 km east; and in 2001 and 2003 we found knots on King William Island, 250 km east. We must be within their range.

So, are we looking in the right habitat? I can say “yes” to this without question. The habitat we have been searching not only fits with what was predicted by remote sensing but also with my experience of knot habitat elsewhere. We are also being very thorough. We are searching all potential habitat; not just the areas that seem to us to be the best, in case we have missed some subtle aspect that is important to knots. We have searched areas that cover a whole range of distances from the sea, different elevations and widely separated areas.

One potentially important factor might be the weather. This year, winter was late and colder than normal. We have seen Canada geese and white-fronted geese flying around in pairs but obviously not nesting. It’s late for them to start, so probably they will not nest this year. But if this is the case with knots, we should still be able to find the adults as we have in similar circumstances elsewhere.

I’m sure there are other possible reasons why the knots are missing around Cambridge Bay, but one can’t help suspect that the main one is that the total population has undergone a drastic decline. Knots always nest at low densities, usually less than one pair per square kilometer. But what happens on the breeding grounds when numbers fall by 90%, as shown by counts in Delaware Bay? Do they gradually dwindle to nothing, one pair lost at a time until perhaps, like a needle in a haystack, only the last pair remains in an area the size of New Jersey; and then it too disappears? Or do they decline until a certain low level is reached, a level too low to allow a population to persist, and then the last remaining birds relocate in an effort to find a mate? Or do they follow other birds to areas with greater densities? I don’t think anyone really knows what happens on Arctic breeding grounds when a shorebird population collapses to the degree we have seen in the American red knot.

Certainly this is outside the experience of our team, which includes people like Clive Minton and Humphrey Sitters who have studied shorebird populations all over the world for more than 40 years. My own experience is more recent, but I have to say that over the last ten years I have grown used to hearing knots in the Arctic. Their plaintive song carries far across the landscape and, perhaps prophetically, they always end with “poor me, poor me, poor me”. All of our team has heard this song many times as we have lain in our tents in the middle of midsummer nights. It will be a great loss to this otherwise bleak and austere land if we can hear it no more.

Rock Ptarmigan near Lady Pelly
Willow Ptarmigan on Lady Pelly

Sabine's Gull near Lady Pelly

Mark, Georgia, Bruce, Michael and Mandy in convoy across the tundra

The Lady Pelly campsite with Mt Pelly in the background

Georgia searching for knots on Lady Pelly

An Arctic Hare in front of the latrine

A Baird's Sandpiper on Lady Pelly

Michael straining coffee with a new sock after we forgot the coffee pot!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Canada - Victoria Island, Nunavut, Saturday, June 30, 2007

Our camp lies at the base of Mt. Pelly, about 12 miles north of Cambridge Bay. More a big hill than a mountain, Mt. Pelly nevertheless imposes a mighty presence in this large flat landscape. Imagine a steep mound rising ominously out of the tundra like a giant being with it own wildlife community clinging to its sides: peregrine falcons, ravens, rough-legged hawks, American pipits, horned larks and rock ptarmigans have been seen on Mt Pelly for as long as people have been recording wildlife. No doubt they were here long before people first came to this land. Standing on the mountain’s slopes, one cannot fail to be awed by the endless pattern of tundra and water stretching unbroken in all directions. Mt Pelly looms large in the mythology of the Inuit of this region, but any person of faith can feel the presence of the divine.

Our camp on the slopes of Mt Pelly

Musk Ox family

Arctic hare

Red knots are another of the creatures that are known to live on the slopes of Mt Pelly. The mountain top is just high enough for the winds to preclude all but the hardiest of vegetation. There, mainly Arctic Avens and scattered grasses cover 1-20% of the ground. It is exactly the same habitat as that in which we found knots on Southampton and King William Islands, just like the places where we’ve relocated most of our knots with radio transmitters. It is also the place where nests have been found by other people as recently as 2003. Although the mountain-top seems the most likely place to find knots, we will also search the surrounding land. Some areas look promising while others do not seem to be, however we need to be aware that the habitat that knots use may vary from place to place.

But we had no luck. Our team, Jerry and Gwen, Mark and Georgia, Bruce, Mandy and I, systematically combed the pate of the mountain to no avail. Then we moved further down to areas that seemed to offer habitat that was less than prime, but still there were no knots. We had always regarded those areas as a long shot, so our failure to find knots there was not surprising. Jerry and Gwen had searched part of the mountain the day before the rest of us arrived and found no evidence that knots were present. They are expert birders and wouldn’t have missed them if they had been there. We have therefore come to the firm conclusion that no knots are nesting on Mt Pelly this year.

Does this mean that the knot population of the Cambridge Bay area has fallen? By itself: not necessarily, but it does highlight the difficulties of our venture. When we first started coming to the Arctic in 1998, the peak counts of knots in Delaware Bay was over 50,000; this year it was only 12,500. At our last study area on Southampton Island the number of pairs fell from eleven in 2000 to two in 2004. Since then the Delaware Bay peak count has dropped further, so now we would be lucky to find any knots breeding there.

Keep in mind that red knots occur at low densities in the Arctic, even when population levels are high. They are found in bleak arctic deserts; stony areas with sparse vegetation. Sometimes, when snowmelt is late, they are confined to snow-free ridges like the eskers on Southampton Island, but even then there may be only one nest per kilometer of esker. In our old study area, the highest density we recorded was 1.2 nests per square kilometer, but it dropped six-fold to 0.2 nests per sq kilometer. Here on Mt Pelly only one nest was found in 2003, but the area of habitat is quite small so the density would have been relatively high; but at that time the total knot population was double what it is now.

Over the next few days we will range out over the area around Cambridge Bay; but it looks as if it is going to be a tough job finding knots.

Inukshuk near Cambridge Bay