The velvet void

Part 8. The Guillemots make their entrance.

6 June

A sad day. It seems my little sparrow friend is gone. I don’t know if he went off in search of a mate, tired of singing into the void, or if he was eaten by the owl. Either way, it’s been awfully quiet in camp. He was singing from the top of the antenna when I got up and while I was drinking tea and eating but when I came back at 8-ish to make radio call he was nowhere to be seen and I haven’t seen or heard him since. The snow buntings are still coming to eat rice and to chase each other but it’s very quiet and lonely without the little sparrow. I even said good morning to him today. Sad.

I went and sat on the table, the highest point on the island, early this morning (0300-ish) to write a letter and to watch the world in the beautiful gold and pink light of the midnight sun. There was a new moon crescent on the horizon following the sun, though it must have set around 0330 or 0400 since I couldn’t find it again after that.

All sorts of birds were around, a few of each in groups or alone, sneaking up on me and disappearing again quickly. The owl, of course, a turnstone, some black-bellied plovers. And then, a whole bunch of black and white birds with bright red feet. Oooo boy. Big day, the crew’s back. They flew around in a circle, looked everything over and then disappeared again the way they had come. They were around all morning after that in ones and twos and threes. One pair landed on a nest box for ½ a second. It was pretty exciting.

The sun has been out almost all day, too, so it’s mild (in relative terms) and I am sitting outside now without gloves (though in my wool pants and parka). The wind is pretty strong and I’m trying to hide from it.

7 June

Just a few words. I’m tired and wind-burned and ready to sleep. There were a bunch of guillemots today. Circling and squeaking and roosting. The scope is difficult for me to use. It’s mounted on a shotgun stock but that means you have to hold it all the time and it gets wiggly with the wind and the cold and the length of time it takes to ID a bird (by the combination of color leg bands on each bird). I had better luck walking up as close as I could and using my binocs. They fly sometimes but it was still better and they flew sometimes anyway with the scope.

There were two good sized flocks of king eiders today. They were beautiful. The red phalaropes seem to be here with some strength too. And the Pomarine Jaegers. Cool birds. They slide in and are suddenly upon you with their long gliding wings and elegant trailing tail feathers. Too bad they are parasites…

Funny. I don’t much miss humans. I talk with Dave for 10 minutes a morning. Even with the radio lag it’s fun, and I laugh a lot. I’ve guessed 3 of the 4 products he’s given me. I should quit now.

I was busy today. Watching birds, still trying to find some of the nests and checking them all for snow clearance. In between, I go back and forth to the tent for food and lots of liquids. If I could work without food and drink to keep me going in the cold and wind I would probably be done in a few hours. Instead, it seems to take the whole day.

I was sitting down past the tanks listening to the silence when this whirring, rushing noise came up behind me. It was a flock of king eiders. The sound is indescribable. I feel like someone should yell, “Incoming!”

I made a most excellent lentil soup for dinner and threw a handful of those sesame stick crunch snack things on top of my bowl. It was yummy. Sleep.

8 June

Another clear, beautiful day. The moon is up to ½ full. It was in the southern sky when I got up at 1230. It set sometime around 0300. I missed where it went.

I found and IDed a pectoral sandpiper today and saw 3 long-billed dowitchers go whizzing by and was able to ID them, too. I wandered down the beach this morning and came upon the Arctic tern and a Dunlin. Fabulous birds early in the morning.

The guillemots of course returned. I’m still checking and finding nest boxes. Still trying to sort them all out and now there are birds floating in and out. I will probably have better luck IDing the boxes by watching which birds land on them. Some of them are real buggers.

The birds are beautiful, intensely velvety black. The Velvet Void of birds. They were squawking and make cool noises in the air and on the ground. You hear their wings very clearly in the air and they mew on the ground.

I suspected for several days that there were at least two short-eared owls and first thing this morning, sitting on the table, drinking tea, I see two raptors gliding in. They both landed about 50’ from me. Turning, checking, watching, nervous that I was there. Then, one at a time, they took to the air, straight toward me, checked me out and wheeled away to land 100’ farther down the island. They sat and watched me again for a while before they made their way east along the N shore. It is so wonderful to see them up close. They know I’m not right. I don’t fit in the world as they remember it and try to figure me out. They don’t appear afraid, just cautious. I wonder if they are nesting on the island. I don’t hear their mating cries and they seem to go across the ice regularly – I often see them going or coming that way – I would love to be able to get close enough for some photos. I suppose I will have to lay in wait, sneak up on, and generally be PATIENT. Egad, surely not that!

Past noon as I was finishing up the nest checks I happened to look up and noticed the fog moving in. It was gray and dark in the west and the pack ice was obscured to the north but the bluffs were visible to the south and there was blue sky on the eastern horizon. As I assessed this, I stood and watched everything shut right down. In a matter of about 5 minutes, the bluffs were gone, the blue in the east was gone, the farther boxes were obscured and the tents were fogged in. Amazing. It’s been pretty well closed-in since. Though it does seem to be trying to clear. I’m ready for sleep.


Join me this fall on The Road not Taken Enough when I go to Svalbard on an Arctic Circle residency Artistry in the Arctic.