A little head bobbing

Part 9. 

The Black Guillemots are back, bobbing their heads, and claiming their nest boxes.

A cavity-nesting bird of Arctic waters, they traditionally did not nest so far north in Alaska. One reason was a lack of natural cavities more readily found in rocky cliffs farther south. A U.S. military site abandoned in the 1950s, Cooper Island, was left littered with debris – 55-gallon drums, plywood, and scrap metal. The Guillemots suddenly had nest cavities on an island nearer the pack ice where they feed. Cooper Island is about 9 feet high at its highest point, composed of sand and gravel; it disappears into the pack ice for the winter. As the island and its nest cavity debris emerge in the spring thaw, the birds return, find their mates and their previous nesting box, and start all over again.

George, the force behind this research – for more than 40 years – mapped the location of each cavity, banded the birds nesting at each site, and kept track of the schedule, arrival and departure dates, relationships, eggs, and chicks each summer. The massive data set that he is accumulating shows a shift in when birds arrive on the island, how early cavities become snow-free allowing birds to enter and begin their mating rituals, how many chicks fledge relative to the location of the pack ice. He has followed a world of questions and shifting answers about bird phenology, climate change, and the Arctic systems.

I stepped into this story only briefly, but 18 years later the impact has yet to wear off.

10 June

The birds were back yesterday. They seem to be roosting randomly but have begun to claim boxes and squabble. I try to ID them, and some of my attempts are right – meaning the pairs as I identify them align with the claimed nest boxes as George previously determined.

George usually fills garbage bags with snow as a water supply for later in the summer, I did a few but they tipped and leaked, and I’m not terribly excited about drinking water out of garbage bags. Instead, I built a box in the sand, dug out the center, lined it with the tarp and garbage bags and filled it with snow yesterday. I don’t know if the tarp will hold water but the snow will last longer and I can melt it as I need it. If it doesn’t work so, I spent a few hours of labor.

It is still gray and grim out there. Since the fog came in the other day, it hasn’t left again. I couldn’t see across the island yesterday, and most of the time when I was checking boxes I couldn’t see the tent – only 200 yards visibility. Today it seems cloudy, the ice and sky are one again, though a lot of the land is clear.

The Guillemots are still circling, I hear them go over the tent – they sound like hovercraft in SciFi movies. I’ve been dragging out of bed each morning. My alarm goes off at midnight, and I get up at 0100 or 0130 or 0200. The birds got me up this morning. I kept dropping back into sleep and dreams, but I heard the hovercraft noise and was awake. They haven’t settled yet for the morning, so I am having breakfast and tea.

I saw the first American golden plovers today. Two of them flew over Pasta Pond – so named because it is not as salty as the ocean but not fresh water, either – it is the perfect salinity for cooking pasta. Beautiful birds. The ice is thawing quickly, and there is a deep layer of water on the surface, did the ice sink? Or was the pond frozen all the way to the bottom and now the thawing surface is forming a puddle on top?

This morning I watched an Arctic tern for a while. What a magnificent bird. As wolves are described as loping through a meadow, the Arctic tern is the loper of the bird world. The wings are so long and narrow with that elegant upper edge of black to the primaries. They slide through the air, very nonchalant and casual. Nowhere to go, all day to get there. When they pause to hover they open their long forked tails and the delicate feathers in the middle seem translucent, and perfectly, evenly, rounded out to the long outer feathers that stream behind them. When the tail is closed they are a streamlined bomb with a tail shaft. Watching one dive the other day it would lope along, tuck and hover, look, tuck and hover. Pulling up each time it dropped to have a better look and then wandering along as whatever it targeted disappeared.

This afternoon there were five terns, screaming, raucous creatures. Wheeling, spinning, turning and chasing one another, constantly talking. The clouds were so low that they would chase around, chattering and plainly in view and then they would be enveloped by the gray, dense air, their cries muted. They would reappear a few minutes later, out of thin air, as it were. Just there, the black trailing edge sharp and crisp, the rest of the bird hiding among the clouds.

There are now Sabine’s gulls floating around as well. They, too, are beautiful, elegant birds. A full black head, gray secondaries, and black primaries, the underwing white. They fly somewhat like a tern and have a forked tail, though not nearly so forked as the terns’. Graceful flyers, not lopers or speeders or trick fliers, just pleasing to watch.

And the Pomarine Jaegers are fabulous. I keep coming back to them. They fly somewhat like a tern though are much larger and their wings much longer. They are always silent. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of 6 or 7, always silent. I see them winging toward me, they materialize and pass by, uninterested in the doings of mortal beings.

The owl came to see me again this morning. I was brushing my teeth, looked up and there was the owl coming straight at me. Again it came within 15’ or 20’, looked right at me, turned on its wing and glided another 50’ before landing. It preened some, watched me, and then took once again to the wing.

There were a few flocks of long-tailed ducks, Brant, snow geese, and eiders. There are tons of Northern Pintails, another beautiful, graceful bird.

11 June

It’s foggy and thick again this morning. Now and then the sun works hard at break through. Relatively no wind, which is fabulous. I suppose as it warms up though it will begin again in earnest.

I had another owl encounter today. I walked the length of the colony and was walking along North beach. The ice is retreating, and I am finding a lot of beach hidden beneath it. I was looking across the ice, I turned to look west, and the owl was coming toward me. Again it landed on a perch 100’ away. It sat and watched, preened, fluffed, watched. I watched it and the other birds moving behind it. After several minutes it dropped low off the perch and winged straight to me. This time at eye level, straight into my binoculars, I could see its amber eyes and the golden flecks of light they emitted. The feathers around the eyes, the disk, the edges of the wings. I dropped my binocs when he filled the frame. It went right over my head no more than 10’ above me. I turned, watched him pulled up short, hover ½ a second and then glide away through the waves of moisture rising off the ice pack and sand. Am I such an oddity to them?

In the belief of many native peoples, the owl is a sign of death and deception. Are they warning me of something? Or just carrying a message of someone else’s demise? Perhaps they are trying to make me see that I am only deceiving myself with this path and life I have chosen. I have so many questions and doubts about myself that it is impossible sometimes for me to know what I am doing. Sometimes I think I have an idea, but I still wonder how I do the things I do.

13 June

I was watching the guillemots yesterday, a pair, they were head bobbing and touching bills and then would sit close to each other. The female would sometimes flatten herself to the ground, lower her neck and head and then raise her bill and cry – Here I am, let’s have at it. It made me think about how simple life would be if humans could do a little head bobbing, some bill touching, and then fornicate. Afterward, they could go back to their respective nest boxes with no one paying any attention to who had been where or what they had been doing. I think I can manage that whole head-bobbing thing.

Now, I think I must turn in for the afternoon; it is 3:00 after all. It has been warmer when I first get up, but that 0400 to 0700 shift is brutal. It is cold. If there is no sun or if there is any wind it sucks every ounce of heat out of you. Brrrrrrrrrr.

14 June

Well, my plan yesterday failed. The idea was to go to bed earlier, so I would get up closer to midnight when I’m supposed to start the morning bird rounds. So, I went to bed at about 3:15-ish. I slept through my alarm at 11:00, woke with a start from a dream at 11:43. Instantly fell back to sleep. Woke again at 12:30 and then again at 1:44 and finally got up at about 2:00. Good plan, huh? 11 hours of sleep. Guess I was tired.

Had a good morning, there was, mercifully, no wind. I did the requisite rounds, figured out the pairs and boxes. Radioed in and found out George wasn’t coming in (not surprised) and decided to give the birds the rest of the morning off. I had already been hassling them for 4 hours; they needed quality time with their mates.

I went for a walk.

All the way to the barge at the far east end. I don’t know how far it is, a few miles maybe, all sand and gravel. For a long way, the island is only a few hundred feet wide at most. The tundra is beautiful. The willows are blooming. There are a lot of meltwater ponds and birds of all forms. I collected three dead ones – two king eiders, one common eider. They are so beautiful, and their feathers are intensely dense and soft. I tried to sketch the common eider – eek. The head was the only part I liked. After a night of thick fog, it was beautiful, clear, and sunny for my walk. When I reached the farthest point, at the barge, the fog rolled in again.

I headed back, nowhere to go, all day to get there. I found two intervertebral discs from whales and, of course, lots of good stones – of which I collected many.

I walked along the south shore of the tundra. The brant have begun to lay eggs and were chasing each other and squawking as I approached. I found four red phalaropes feeding in a pond. Most of the birds pay no attention to me when I have only my binocs or as long as I don’t see them right off. I about stepped on a semi-palmated sandpiper, and it didn’t even hardly move. If I have the camera in hand, the birds are gone 100 yds in advance of me.

I walked away from the phalaropes stepping across a narrow channel that connected two large ponds. As I put my foot down at the edge of the channel this thought went through my head, “Is that a bear track?” Sure enough. I stepped back and looked around for more tracks. The track I stepped in – the largest bear track I’ve ever seen – was the cub. Mama’s print was as wide as my foot is long and about the overall size of a dinner plate. Big Bear. That changed my perspective on the possibility of seeing one. Of course, I would still love to see one, but maybe with some space between us. The tracks weren’t fresh, but I find it hard to believe prints, two sets no less, could have survived the winter, so, perhaps a few weeks? How much was open when I got here? Was that channel thawed already? There was a huge chunk of ice still in the channel – substantial enough for me to walk across… did the tracks survive the winter or did I have visitors recently? It has been so foggy, they could have walked past my doorstep, and I wouldn’t have known. Like the tundra swans on the pond yesterday. They appeared in the fog and just as mysteriously disappeared in the fog. I spent a lot more time looking around after that. Not surprisingly. Don’t want to startle a bear the size of a VW bug, especially if it’s with a youngster. No, that’s not a good idea.

George did not return today. The plan is that he will be in Barrow tomorrow and will find some way to get here on Friday. I’ll believe it when I see it. I suspected from the start that his idea of dates was a fuzzy one.

Dave didn’t have any products for me to guess today. I got him instead to teach me some Inupiaq words. I like them a lot. They sound real – not arbitrary sounds that form words but more like sounds that are things. And I like the way words are combined to create place names like Anaqtutuvuq – the pass where caribou leave their waste – more or less. An’noogaluk

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