Sunday, 31 August 2008

Prince Leopold Island Summer 2008

The ice is disappearing. Down at Coates Island, northern Hudson's bay, sea extent is down, and the reproduction of the colony of Thick-Billed Murres is plumeting. The Murre, a relatively large, penguin-like auk, dives deep in the arctic seas for fish, sometimes 150 m deep. Arctic ice serves to "seed" the oceans with algae and promote bloom conditions that nourishes the ecosystems, supporting large aggregations of seabirds and cetaceans.

At a more northern and larger colony on Prince Leopold island, Dr. Tony Gaston hasn't noticed a difference in ice. "We're seeing more large icebergs, collapsing from Glaciers, but the amount of ice is the same." This is good new for the birds here. The island hosts 100,000 plus murres, nesting in dense aggregations on the precipitous shale cliffs which drop 280m to the sea. They are doing alright. So are the colonies of Black-legged Kittiwakes, which seem to be on the rise. The alien looking northern Fulmars are having birth defects and reduced productivity, but that's more likely from the global-atmospheric dump of mercury and persistent organic populants than the retreat of sea ice.

I just returned to "civilization" after 5 weeks on the island. Working with the environment canada researcher Tony Gaston, and a few others, we monitored birds' breeding success, abundances, and mounted various instruments on them. There is nothing like living on a seabird colony! The smell and sounds and eye-candle of so many birds packed in so tightly on the cliffs. Where possible, one can get pretty close to the birds too: living so remote, both in terms of latitude and dangerousness of their nesting ledges, the birds haven't evolved much fear of nosy primates. This is to researchers advantage. One can closely observe all their facinating behaviours from close, without disturbing them. The stars of the shows are of course the chicks. And what a drama! Facing horrible 70 km/hr winds, gusts, snow squalls, and little comfort on a narrow ledge 280m above certain death, the heart really goes out to these chicks, each day, watching in their meteroic growth.

If the chicks are the stars, the non-breeding adults are the sideshows. Hormones are high at the colony, and birds are showing off. Loud arial displays, build faux-nests, chasing each other around. Are they trying to attract new better mates, or intimidate rivals from potential breeding sites next year? My favourite sight was the "choking" display of partners: loudly rubbing nape over throat of each other, while fiercely making a vomit/cough head-thrust. This is how Kittiwake partners say "I love you, we're together, right?", as uncomfortable it may seem. And thats whats cool about birds, beginning to understand the emotions and gestures of pair-bonding and parenting, which have evoled in many different alien ways, opposed to the more intuitive gestures of higher-mammals, whom we sympathize with and anthropomorphize so easily.

Their lack of fear nor evolved susticiousness to humans allows us to catch them easily too, sliding nooses around their necks and snagging them with nets (relatively harmless). By catching them, we were able to put geolocating devices on them, dive-depth measurements, and identify bands. Devices like these allow us to see where and how far they go to get food in between incubation turns, and identify individuals over the years. We caught one Murre who had a metal band ID placed on him from the late 70's, making him at least thirty years old (older than me!)

The island always offered a dream of marine mammals: the occasional Walrus, harp seals, bowheads, and when there was ice, belugas. And of course, Polar bears. "I have nighmares of Polar bears," says Dr. Gaston. He's had his fair share of dangerous encounters with them. We walked around with slug-loaded shot-guns, just in case.  

I made a snazzy video on youtube:

Now, I'm back in the "real world" of civilization, back in Lund, Sweden, to continue with Marine Biology.

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