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15 June, 2002

June 15, 2002

Another great day on the tundra (are you getting tired of me saying that, yet?) As the day passed, a couple thoughts went zipping through my head today that I'd like to share. One of how strangely I find this area similar to that of the Sandhills of Nebraska. The other how being a "Charlene" Darwin observer allows you freedom.

First, the Sandhills and the Tundra. Although obviously found at quite different latitudes, as a casual observer, it would not be that odd to think the two places are similar. As I was walking around today daydreaming (ummm, I mean looking for birds), there were times I forgot I was in the arctic and would think I'd see things only the Sandhills could provide. For example, the tussocks or hummocks look much like the soapweed mounds found in the prairie grasses. The hills here, mainly a brown color, roll gradually as do the Sandhills. In the distance, bluffs are visible which run along the course of a river or stream - again similar to the river valley associated with the North and South Platte Rivers. There were even times today that I thought I was seeing cows - probably a white Charlais - but realized those were caribou! Even worse, as I was following caribou trails (similar to cow trails), twice I hesitated to put my foot down as I thought I saw a snake only to end up being a caribou antler piece. Both areas receive very little precipitation, the vegetation has impressive modifications for survival, the openness goes on forever, and there are times you can actually imagine yourself as the only person around.

Now, for the freedom of "Charlene" Darwin (as named by TEA S. Harris). I still can't believe that my summer job is to explore - just walk around, look, veer off track, touch, smell, see and wonder! To this job, I am almost a natural (or is it a naturalist??). It is amazing the freedom that is felt when one finally relaxes enough to know that the amount of ground covered isn't the most important goal, nor the route one takes to be successful. Wandering and deviating from the original path is actually a success. It is when I get a little lost (yes, only a little) that I seem to find the neatest things. Today, only because I went further than I thought, I found another Swan's nest. I also found 4 skulls today - 2 of the arctic squirrel, one of a willow ptarmigan and one of a caribou. I also saw a black bellied plover feigning an injury to distract a pomerine jaegar away from its nest. I saw midge larvae squirming in the water, grayling swimming through a narrow stream, swans lowering themselves and stretching their necks to become less visible, oldsquaws fluffing their long tail feathers. I even saw some of our first mosquitoes! And so much more. Freedom to just go and wander and see and touch and look and hear - and not just for a day. Maybe that is why it feels more like freedom - at this point there seems to only be the time clock of the King Eider and Tundra Swans. When they are ready to leave in the fall, so will we - until then I have much more time to learn their ways.

A little of the science accomplished so far. To date, we have measured and recorded data from 10 tundra swan nests (one of which has now been depredated by a fox). We have also now found 4 King Eider nests with eggs, so things will really get going now. As they continue to nest, our searches will become more narrowed and focused so that we can find the well-camouflaged nests, count and measure eggs and insert hobo temps. An interesting thing I've learned is that birds do not immediately start incubating the nests after laying the eggs. In addition, they do not necessarily lay all the eggs at one time. Usually, the egg laying is spread out over a couple days, and then incubation will follow. Sometimes, it is as if the hen is caught unaware of the fact that she is ready to lay an egg and she does so without the nest being built. Then she and her mate will build the nest up around the egg(s) for better protection.

Still science, but not about birds .. Caribou. The number of caribou moving through our camp area has increased about 5 times since we arrived 9 days ago. This caribou herd (the Teshekpuk herd) winters just west and south of here. After calving, they begin to move north to the coastline. Why they migrate is not known for sure, but probably has a lot to do with relief from the bugs (bott and warble flies, and mosquitoes) and probably also for food sources. Unfortunately, the increasing in numbers now means that within a couple of weeks we will only have rare glimpses of the caribou for the remaining of the field season. I am forcing myself to pause and watch as they pass as I may never get to see such a natural phenomenon again.

OK, tomorrow, I promise, I will provide you with the information on the other 3 people I am working and spending the summer with. They are three interesting and diverse females, all of whom love what they are doing!

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