12 June, 2002
As I've been trying to describe to you what it is like here at 70 degree latitude of the Arctic tundra, I've not discussed much science. Today I'd like to talk a little about the science we are doing, stressing some of the problems associated with field research.
Again, our main goal is to find and monitor King Eider nests and Tundra Swan nests. Tundra swans nest and lay eggs a little earlier in the year than do the Eider's, so at this time we‚ve been able to find about 12 swan nests with eggs. As for the Eider's, we've seen MANY of the birds paired up, but have found only one nest so far. Once a nest is found, we measure the size and mass of the eggs, number them, insert a hobo temp into some of the nests, make observations of nest material, and record the latitude and longitude of the nest's position.
Although this sounds fairly simple, it is somewhat challenging. First, we are looking in an area around camp of about 5 miles in any direction (those of you with geometry skills can let me know what the total area of that circle is, please). To look, means we walk around just to see what we can find. I spend about 1/3 of the time with binoculars up to my eyes for a closer look at birds in the distance. If we see either of the birds, we will usually try to walk closer in hopes of finding a nest. Unfortunately, both birds like to build their nests in wet areas, so walking closer usually means pulling the hipwaders up and sloshing through swamps and ponds.
King Eiders build their nests low - usually in the grasses or the lower lying area between hummocks - which means they are extremely difficult to find. The female eider is perfectly camouflaged, so when she is sitting on the nest, hovered down, you usually have to trip over the nest to make her flush, you scream, and then see the nest. The swan's nest is usually a little easier to see as they tend to build a much larger nest and set it on top of the hummocks for a better view of approaching trouble. In addition, the swans, with their white color and larger size, are much easier to see in the distance.
Again, I am a rookie at this, so am making my share of mistakes. Two days ago, I was so excited because I found a nest with two eggs in it and was pretty sure it was a Eider's nest (if this was the case, I'd be the first to find an Eider nest this season - and being just a little competitive, I interpret that as winning!) Anyway, I took a picture of it with the digital camera, so the others could determine if it was the "winner." I looked at the GPS and noted I was 3.1 km SE from camp and kind of looked around for identifying features of the area. When I returned to camp, based on the picture, they agreed it was an eider nest and wanted to go see it the next day. Well, 3.1 km from camp is a marsh - meaning that every swamp in that distance could be the site of the nest! And now all the swamps and ponds were looking the same. Of course, I hadn't thought of using my own advice to students (make DETAILED observations that will be helpful). I didn't draw a sketch of the area! , I didn't get a lat/long reading of the nest, and I basically didn't have a clue where it was. Three of us searched for about two hours with no luck. One went to another marsh to check for more birds and the other two of us stayed and searched for another hour. After that, I was sent on my way (quite embarrassed, frustrated and irritated with myself) and the third stayed to watch other birds. Anyway, he (Robert) did go back to the area one more time late that afternoon and found the nest - it is/was a King Eider nest, measurements were taken and the nest's longitude and latitude WERE recorded this time. Big lesson learned for me!
There have been a few other blunders, as well, so I am trying to learn from my mistakes. Overall all, my biggest weakness is not making enough or detailed enough observations, which could be useful to others. I know what my notes mean, but unless I interpret them they are of no use. I will continue working on this tomorrow as I walk out along the Kealok River, back to Niksik (Inupiak for hook) Lake (which I and Qaiann named yesterday) to get measurements on a swan nest I found, back track to get a lat/long on a gull nest I found, and search again for a swan nest of a pair of swan's I've seen twice on South Marsh.
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