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20 July, 2002

July 20, 2002

Greetings from the tundra of Camp Olak - Day 2, Week 7. No sign of a chopper, so I am blessed with another night in my tent beside Xema lake. Although confined to the tent area waiting for a possible pick up flight, I was able to enjoy the sun, wind and leisurely time. I'd like to first begin writing where I left off yesterday - a little more science, then end with a few 'other' lessons learned during these summer days in the arctic.

As mentioned, besides finding the king eider nests and measuring egg sizes, we also attempted to collect other data such as incubation temperatures, estimated hatching dates and habitat selections for nest sites. To measure incubation temperatures, in some of the nests checked, we placed a small, computerized instrument called a HOBO temp. This piece of equipment measured nest temperatures every 20 minutes for 12 consecutive days. When the HOBO temp was collected, the data was then downloaded onto a computer and a graph of temperature fluctuations during those 12 days. With that data, we can get an idea of nest attendance (time hen spent on the nest) and temperatures the hen was able to maintain. With this information, some questions could be answered. For example, we can determine how often a female leaves a nest once incubation has begun, and how long she stays away from the nest. We could also determine if time on/off the nest changes throughout the incubation period (does she stay on longer towards the end of incubation or at the beginning??). This information could also be used as a comparison between regions, to determine if birds behave differently in other places. It could also be used to help determine causes of success or lack of success between nests.

As we returned to nests to insert HOBO's or to check on status, we also candled the eggs. As described before, this is a process of looking through the egg to estimate the date of hatching. The main reason we wanted to know the approximate hatching date was to allow us to trap the hen just prior to hatching, attach a radio transmitter, then return on the hatching date to track the hen and ducklings as they moved away from their nests. Although we were able to get pretty good estimates on hatching dates, we seemed to always be just a day late. Because of this, our tracking possibilities ended without any success this year (but the experience should allow for better results next summer!)

Now that all nests have hatched (or been depredated) and the birds have left, we are going back to the nests to do a final habitat evaluation of the nest site. As we do the habitat evaluation, there is much information we record. We measure the size of the nest, describe the plants within a 1m area from the nest, describe area within 5m and 50 meters of the nest, and measure the distance to the nearest permanent body of water. We also measure distances to the nearest nests found in that area, and there are a few other details we record, as well. With this information, it may be possible to determine if king eiders or tundra swans choose one type of habitat area over another - this would be referred to as a habitat association. With this information, scientists could possibly predict which areas would be suitable for King Eider nesting, which areas need the most protection to allow for future nesting, and how large of an undisturbed habitat area is necessary for successful population growth or maintenance. It could also, possibly, be useful in predicting how human disruption of a habitat could influence breeding success and population sizes.

By looking at distances from other nests, nesting associations may also be found. Past research has shown that King Eiders are more successful if they build nests approximately 150 m from a glaucus gull nest, but if they nest within 50 m of that same bird, they are less successful. Although I don't know what our data shows, the thinking behind this nesting association is that glaucus gulls will depredate the King Eider nests. So, if built too close, they become lunch for the gull. On the other hand, if they are built in the vicinity of the gull, the gull's aggressive behavior actually protects it from other potential predators.

There is a lot of potential learning and discovering that could be done with the data we've been able to collect this summer. Although more supportive data would be necessary, at least more direct questions could be posed. Speaking of questions - here is one I've been asking - How do mosquitoes know where to find blood??? To back up, I have been saying that the tundra has provided me with much learning. Although that is an understatement, much of my learning has come from the help of Rebecca and Yumiko, as well. As much of our conversation these days revolves around mosquitoes, I asked them if they knew how mosquitoes knew to attack me? Of course, they had read and heard a couple of possibilities. Recent research has actually shown that mosquitoes can sense changes in carbon dioxide. As all animals release carbon dioxide as a waste gas (you breathe it out), mosquitoes find you! It is also believed they can sense heat. So a combination of air with higher levels of carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures attracts the mosquito bzzzzzzzzzzz! Their ability to find me has made a task I bragged about earlier, squatting to relieve bladder pressure without using hands for balance, a bit more difficult. When standing still, and low to the ground where there is less wind, the mosquitoes have quite an opportunity to feast. Unfortunately, they don't just look for 'any area' but seem to be vicious enough to search out the bare areas you would least like bitten! The resulting itchy feeling is not very comfortable, nor easily relieved!

To end tonight, I thought I'd leave you with a few things I haven't experience this summer in the tundra. Things that I, and probably you, have always taken for granted. I haven't seen any ROCKS ( a few pieces of gravel at the bottom of the creek would be the only exceptions). I have not seen a tree, or a cow. I have not seen the sun rise, the sun set or the darkness of night. I have not had the pleasure of watching a thunderhead build up and then enjoy the lightning and thunder as it passes by. I haven't heard a car/train/truck engine. I haven't heard a dog bark. I haven't heard the phone ring. And strangest of all, I haven't heard or seen ESPN's Sportscenter! So, although I've observed much these past two months, there are a few things I haven't!

This picture was taken today. It looks just a little warmer and friendlier now than a month ago, huh?

This was a picture of the main tent and Xema in the background, taken about a month ago. Compare it with the next picture taken today!

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