Someone missed a small piece of sky

Part 11.

The summer of abnormal distribution, fried radios, and a translucent moon progresses in the Arctic Ocean.

21 June

Yesterday was a long day, and I never got to write. We continued confirming pairs and figuring out who lives where. We set out noose mats (plywood squares with fishing line nooses that catch birds when they step into the noose and they pull the line tight. Commonly used for birds that walk on the ground, it’s a safe way to catch birds for banding) for 2 hours and caught one already-banded bird. Oh well. It was still relatively mild for a while but the forces of good and evil fought again, and evil won. George was planning to fly back to Barrow for a day in town, but the plane needs a part, so he won’t be leaving this week and possibly not until he is forced to go back to Seward – then only if he can get off the island. We are getting along well, I feel less defensive, and although we hassle each other, it is good-natured. George jokes about Dave’s and my conversations on the radio, but George and I laugh more with each other when Dave is mediating – though he’s not really. I guessed another product of the day, though it took me a while and George excused himself from the competition because he had seen the product when he was there last week. Dave gave him two points for his honesty and integrity. So, although on Products I am ahead 3 to 1, George’s honesty and integrity tie us at three each.

We caught and banded the puffin yesterday; it didn’t return today, which bums me out. I hope that he isn’t injured or that we didn’t unduly stress him. He was beautiful.

After we censused and wandered through the colony and the tundra this morning, we did radio call – which was moved to 1315. It was too cold to band birds, so we skipped that. It was also foggy and gray though the wind wasn’t strong. After radio and a wander and some food, I walked the tundra and took photos of Brant and Baird’s sandpipers and flowers and the snow bunting.

There were three Pacific loons on the moat today. They are beautiful, elegant, all black and white with a silver-gray head and lining on their throats and necks. There were also king eiders on the pond in the tundra. I got to see them a little bit but was trying to get a photo (of course) and scared them off the water. The Brant are on their eggs, as are the long-tailed ducks – aahaaliq – and Baird’s sandpipers. The red phalaropes spin in circles, and the Arctic terns glide through the sky screeching and scolding all the way. It is magnificent.

22 June

It’s late, and I need to sleep soon but wanted to write a few words about the moon. George and I set up the noose mats and were wandering about waiting for things to happen when I looked past George, across the water. It was gray, breezy, and cold. There was a cloud mass over us that stretched as far west and east and north as I could see, but to the south, to the south, the edge of the clouds stood over the Ketchikan Bluffs, and there were a few inches of clear, pale blue sky. I had my binocs on the edge of the world and there in that few inches of pale blue was an even paler and magnificently huge ¾ moon, as if someone missed a small piece of the sky when they were painting it that morning. It had that see-through quality; the darker white parts had the same color as the sky, and you could look right through the translucent wafer to the sky on the other side. It was fabulous. I look forward to seeing the moon again through the summer and maybe even in August when it gets dark.

The puffin was back today, checked things out, circled ‘round – but did not land.

24 June

Long day. I have been getting up at about 2100 and going to sleep b/t 1600 and 1700. I haven’t felt tired though; all the light has set me in motion. I sleep hard and soundly and wake and go back into motion.

Yesterday I hooked up the radio, heard a crack, and smelled smoke. I connected the positive and negative wires to the wrong poles on the battery. Oops. The fuse blew a day or so earlier, and with no fuse between the radio and the battery, I cooked the radio. We are, with the exception of the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), out of contact with the world.

We have no idea when or if someone will come pick up George. They can’t find out if we need anything before they come out. What a goof. George was good-natured about it and said, “well, it was just the day for the radio to go, no big deal.” He’s been teasing me about it but nothing serious.

George figured out the distribution of the days when the nests become clear and the cavities open. It’s not quite even or normal, and so it looks like I checked boxes every other day, rather than daily. Luckily I have most of that data in my book so that I could go back through, but it still doesn’t look right. George didn’t say that I had fucked up or wasn’t doing my job, but he seemed frustrated? Bugged? I don’t know, not angry necessarily but not happy. So I was feeling a bit defensive and sullen. I don’t think it’s huge, but it doesn’t make me look good.

When I got up last night, it was clear and blue and absolutely still. It was beautiful. I ate and walked around the colony for pairs and birds that were looking ready to lay earlier in the day – the first two eggs were in on the 23rd – and then walked down around the tundra with my camera. The light at midnight is wonderful, vibrant and honey colored. I took a roll of film and got back in time to find George rolling out. Off we went to band, noose, torture, and maim.

When I was out this morning, it was still. The water, all of it, the bay and the ponds and the moat, was absolutely still, a perfect mirror. Just glorious. I watched a long-tailed duck come across the bay and land in the water. As it drew closer to the water’s surface, it forced its tail feathers down to the surface and dragged them through the water, just breaking the surface, making a perfect, straight part before touching down. It was remarkable. I’ve seen it before, but it’s not as impressive when the water is choppy. A flock of murres went over first thing also. Common murres, footballs with wings. Pretty cool.

Must sleep.

26 June

George finally got off the island yesterday. He flew out about 1500 and will be back sometime tonight. Dave sent out my mail and a bunch of toys and a new radio. I connected the radio right away and called Dave to let him know it was working and that George was on his way. Dave sent a cribbage board, a scrabble board, a toy boat, a Frisbee, a ball maze (which I can never do), and my mail – including a box of books, letters, a box of candy, and scotch. Dave said something about things to keep me busy. I said I had a whole pile of books, a box of chocolate, and a bottle of scotch, what else did I need?

I had a splendid quiet afternoon with letters, toys, and scotch.

I’m sitting in the sand watching the birds at the Condos. I noosed one pretty quickly and quietly and without much commotion banded it and took all the info. I left the feather pulling until last (I collected a few small feathers for isotope analysis to help determine migration and wintering locations as the isotopes in the feather reflect the bird’s diet.); it seemed to traumatize the bird less. All of the non-invasive stuff was done and once the feathers were pulled it could go. I’ll suggest it to George. There is some low lying fog that is making the paper damp, but it is not raining the way it was when I first got up. And it seems that there is blue sky to be had to the south, if only it can clear the fog under it. More later.

Well, it never cleared out. The fog lifted eventually, but the sky never cleared. I did nest check for eggs, had something to eat and rechecked BON sites. Radioing George was an adventure. Of course, the airplane won’t be in Barrow for the summer. They said they could bring him back out to the island but that was it, the plane would be gone for the summer. So, he is off to Seward and Seattle and wherever else. He’ll be back when the ice is out, and he can boat in. Someday he and Dave will boat in, George and I will talk for a few hours, and then Dave and I will head back to Barrow so I can have a few days of R&R – more like S&L shower and laundry.

So, I am on my own for a couple more weeks. If a plane is headed this way they may try to drop stuff off, or if the helicopter has to go out they may land. Otherwise, I’m on my own until the boat is in the water.

I saw more loons today. There are three species around – Pacific, Red-throated, and Yellow-billed. All of them are beautiful, but I think I like the Pacific best. They are elegant and stunning in their simple pattern and their colors. The Red-throated by far has the coolest call, and the Yellow-billed is impressive for its size and sharp lines. Beautiful all.

Although it is good having George here, I am happy to have back the solitude and silence. I have lots to eat, lots to drink, lots to read, letters to write, photos to take, sketches to create. I am a content person.


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