Cape Dorset, 2012, summer surveys

Eider ducks breed on small low lying islands along most of the expansive Arctic coastline. Females make a nest cup of their own breast feathers and lay 2 to 6 eggs that she then incubates  before the chicks hatch out about 28 days later. It is during this time when the females are sitting on nests that is ideal for counting and assessing the size of the population in a given area. And counting eiders to assess populations levels and what influences them is part of this summer’s work.

So how does one survey marine birds in the Arctic? Well, here is what we did this summer.

Step 1 – Find a boat and her captain. We work with the Hunter and Trappers Associations in the communities where we work  to find captains and boats that have the equipment and supplies required to do the multi-day trips that are needed to reach many of the outer islands where the eiders nest. In Cape Dorset the boats are pulled up on to land for the winter, and since the ice moved out of the bay only a few days before we arrived we were in town for the big boat migration back into the sea. This is done mostly by the heavy machinery operator.

Step 2 – Get food and gear. Buying food, fuel and supplies for 7 people, 2 boats to travel over 300 kms and survey over 40 islands is no small feat. We use coolers, dry bags and boxes to transport all the gear to the boats.

Step 3 – Pack gear in boats. With small boats this often means a few acrobatics are needed. We pack science gear, personal gear, camping gear, emergency gear, food, and fuel for the planned duration of the trip as well as a good buffer in case we get stuck some where for a few days due to bad weather. This includes a few barrels of fuel as you can see being loaded below.

Step 4 – Head out! This year we left town with calm flat waters and sunny skies.

But after several hours of open water cruising we started encountering more and more ice. Not a problem for our travels, but large sections of sea ice on fast moving currents did eventually stop us from reaching some of the furthest islands.

Step 5 – Find a good camp to base yourself in. Campsite function is of primary concern of course, but a good view never hurts.

Step 6 – Have a good breakfast to start your day out right. When you are working on your feet all day long in cold environments nothing beats an eggs and bacon breakfast.

Step 7 – Get the boats into the water. This actually sounds a lot easier then it is. Can you find the canoe in the picture below? I’ll give you a hint, it is no where near the water.

But sometimes by the time the tide comes up, a lot more ice has come in so that adds another challenge.When bays fill in with bergy bits like this it means that you have to maneuver your way around them to get out using poles, paddles, and sometimes just getting out of the boat and pushing them around the boat.

Step 8 – Survey islands. We do this by forming a line a sweeping the islands to make sure that we cover the entire area. In this way we can make sure that we find all eider nests, both old and new.

Eiders nest across the tundra in nest cups which they fill with down plucked from their own breasts. The females flush off their nests when they see us coming, which greatly helps in finding their nests, and then we can inspect the nest for the number of eggs, conditions of the down in the cup and for any signs of gull or bear predation on the nest.

Step 9 – Count eider nests. In most colonies the nests are quite spread out, but there are some areas where you almost have to be careful not to trip over them as you move through the area counting them. There are 9 nests in the picture below, can you spot them all?

Step 10 – Count anything else of note along the way. Besides eiders we find many other birds as we travel through the islands. This year our timing in the Dorset area was when the Canada goose chicks were just starting to run around.  Mosha one of the guides and helpers took this great photo of four Canada goose chicks not really even old enough to run away from us yet.

We also come across gull colonies on our travels. The white spots in the picture below are glaucous gulls. Beware of getting too close without a hood on, they tend to send poo dive bombs with surprising accuracy if you approach too near.

Step 11 – Travel to the next island. Here is a pic of the boat that I traveled in from Jon. For the most part we always travel in pairs for safety. Two boats are always better then one!

Step 12 – Survey some more. Sometimes this means working late into the night, but luckily in July in Dorset it never really gets dark. Jon took this picture at about 10pm one evening as we were on a real nest counting roll.

Step 13 – See local wildlife along the way. We didn’t see many bears this year, but we did run across this very young male bear swimming between ice packs as we were traveling one day. Jon got this great pic while everyone, including all the hunters and guides  we were with, pulled out their cameras to get a good shot.

Step 14 – Sit back and enjoy the sunset at the end of a long day! The days are long in the north, but so are the sunsets. Each day we covered 5 to 10 islands, depending on their size and how spread apart they were. Over an 8 day period we traveled more then 500kms, and counted over 10, 000 nests on 35 islands. This data will be compared with counts from the last 60 years to see how the populations of ducks in the area may have changed. This information helps in monitoring this important hunt species, informs wildlife decisions, and allows us to track potential influences to the population over time. Another year of surveying in Dorset done!

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