Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The (unanticipated) End (6/11/11 - 6/16/11)

Apparently, around mid to late June each year, Allen Creek and the surrounding area is consistently hit with a few weeks of heavy precipitation -- heavy relative to the ubiquitous fleeting afternoon showers that emerge and disappear faster than the flyby Eastern Yellow Wagtails headed for the coast (a calamity of paramount frustration).  Though we weren't receiving quite as much rainfall as is typical for this brief wet period, we began receiving it a bit earlier than anticipated.  In addition to rendering invertebrate collections a freaking nightmare and producing an abundance of spectacular rainbows, these showers also stimulated the early emergence of my biggest fear from the Alaskan tundra -- not a hungry Grizzly Bear poking through my tent late at night or the prospect of pissing off a defensive cow Moose as I bushwacked through willow stands -- mosquitoes.

Yay for refraction!

Kristine and I first noticed the little buggers late one Saturday evening when, in light of crappy daytime weather, we planned to get some behavioral observations after dinner of the incubating male curlew near camp.  With no seven a.m. wake-up call the next day, and the prospect of watching curlews with my beloved evening coffee, I was truly looking forward to a pleasant night.  Within the first five minutes of setting up the scope and pulling out my notebook, however, I had easily squashed over 30 mammoth mosquitoes. While we were all bracing ourselves mentally for the onslaught of these blood-thirsty thieves, we weren't expecting to see significant numbers for at least another week.  If the first five weeks of lugging through waist-deep snow during 13-mile point counts were hell, humankind has yet to conjure up an imaginary scare-tactic miserable enough to parallel what these last five were shaping out to be.

Unpleasant as the arrival of the new denizens of our toilet tent was, the rains also brought with them a tremendous array of life to the tundra.  Napaea Fritillary, Arctic White, and Old World Swallowtails appeared just in time to soothe the woes of dull bird activity, complemented by springing blankets of Shooting Star, Nguyen Berry, Labrador Tea, and Cloud Berry.

Old World Swallowtail

Labrador Tea

And did I mention the Harlequin Ducks?

I'd be jealous, too

It's just come to my attention that I've managed to completely fail to mention these stately sea ducks which, by the way, we saw just about every single day from the comfort of our tents.  Actually, the above picture was taken literally moments after waking up to Jake and Kevork pounding on my tent as they raced to the creek to photograph these birds in the morning light.  Half-blind and half-naked in my outdated glasses and boxer briefs (in 30 degree weather, I might add), shaking from inner excitement and extrinsic temperatures, I somehow managed to make these my best shots of these very skittish birds.

Harlequin Corner

This photo was taken on a different day during one of my favorite Sunday evening activities -- fishing for Grayling.  This particular spot happened to be named Harlequin Corner after Jake discovered three individuals here last year.  The name certainly seemed justified, as virtually every catch of monster Grayling was supplemented with a wary male peeking his head around a corner in the creek, usually with a female close behind.

With curlew behavorial work now reduced to the rare event of happening upon a daytime foraging flock of several parents taking a break from their 12-hour incubating shifts, and three carefully-monitored nests located, the final stage of our work had begun -- capture.  In order to identify birds as individuals (a must for accurate population study and detailed behavioral study), banding as many birds as possible was a top priority for this field season.

Banding curlews is unlike banding any other species that I'm aware of.  It goes without saying that simply setting up a mist net and hoping for the best is an unreasonable strategy.  A strategy I've seen employed for other large shorebird species involves sneaking up on an incubating individual and laying a mist net over the bird (we actually were able to use this method for the few nests we found during incubation).  This is largely doomed for failure if applied to curlews, as finding a single nest is next to impossible given the adults' cryptic plumage and behavior.  Indeed, finding a curlew nest usually entails several hours of observing a suspected breeding pair on their territory from a far yet clear vantage point, as the birds will refuse to associate near a nest in the presence of humans and other potential predators.  The only way to band substantial numbers of curlews relies on finding a pair of adults that are foraging with their recently hatched young and attempting to locate the "brood center" from which one broadcasts a recording of curlew chicks in distress.  As the call is being broadcast, two people stand on either side of the call, mist net in hand, waiting for an adult curlew to fly in towards the recording when they will swing the net up towards the bird and catch it in mid-air.

Not 'capture' per se

However, the only method of "capture" that I was present for involved the much gentler approach of an incubating bird (pictured above).  After banding the female from the first nest we discovered, we headed towards camp to band the incubating female on 'my' nest.

A truly remarkable specimen

This would seem to be an opportune time to give a bit of background on the female of this nest -- the "blue-banded female" as she is known amongst our crew.  We first spotted her mingling around the established territory of a single male curlew some 6 miles from camp very early in the season.  Great looks revealed that she already had been banded on her right femur, just above the tibiotarsus.  We became reasonably confident that she must have been a bird banded during McCaffery's last field work at Allen Creek, given the color of the band and the later discovery of a silver band on her left tibiotarsus.  At this point, the prospect of having found a bird potentially older than myself was mystifying at some level, especially given the rigorous nature of curlew life compared to my own.  A couple of weeks later, we found her again, only this time acting as an apparent "back door woman" at a territory closer to camp that already had an established pair.  While her presence here continued to provoke endless speculation and curiosity amongst our crew, the resident female seemed much less enthused.  Finally, roughly a week later, she seemed to have settled in with the fellow whose nest I discovered, mere yards away from her last known fling.  Whether her bohemian ways represented an aging, unattractive gal unable to secure a mate or a spunky, promiscuous veteran of baby-making will forever remain a mystery -- what I would give to have been able to genotype her eggs against the DNA of her three potential mates.

As Kevork and Jake approached her with the net, Kristine close behind to retrieve her from the net, I stayed far to the side, camera in hand, ready to assist Kristine with the banding and measurements of the bird.  After laying the net down on top of her, the bird only began to flush as we approached her within a foot or so, illuminating just how reliant these birds are on their plumage to avoid predatory encounters.  Having completed standard measurements of her culmen, wing chord, weight, etc. Kristine requested that I hold the bird while she prepared the band!  Slightly nervous about the prospect of losing or injuring the bird due to my clumsy dexterity, I proceeded to grasp the bird closely for several minutes, consistently attempting to calm her with gentle strokes and soft whispers.  How marvelous that bird felt in hand!  Inexplicably light for its size, yet with a keel that upon touch alone, proved this bird's competence in achieving transoceanic flights, rivaled only by the Bar-tailed Godwits of this region.  In all of my countless tachycardic events, not once had I maintained a heart rate even close to this bird's pulse, which easily exceeded 200 beats per minute, further supporting this species' legacy as a long-distance champion of flight.

Later on this same evening, I went out after dinner for what would be my last trek in the Nulato Hills.  Everything about the evening was spectacular, especially given the time of season.  A large flock of calling Glaucous Gulls kettled above camp, a pair of Red Foxes provoked attacks from Long-tailed Jaegars, Whimbrels, Pacific Golden Plovers, and Bristle-thighed Curlews, and passerines were exceptionally vocal in the soft evening light.

Pacific Golden Plover

Cavities being scarce, this Tree Swallow eagerly established residency in our weatherport nest box

My last great experience in the Nulato Hills is attributed to this extremely cooperative White-crowned Sparrow, who spent something on the order of ten straight minutes singing his head off, allowing for great photos and recordings!

What a beaut!

After a terrific evening of natural history, I layed down to the diminishing twilight sounds of Wilson's Snipe and Gray-cheeked Thrush for what was to be the last time.  In short, a night resembling the horror of my earlier jaunt in St. Mary's repeated itself, forcing me to evacuate the Allen Creek field site early.  Feeling very weak, ill, fatigued, and depressed by my early departure, I snapped this last photo of camp as the helicopter departed.

Life in a chosen country, indeed

In the midst of the sometimes grueling nature of field work, we all expressed our fantasies about our return to civilization, centered on how much we missed the conveniences of our homes -- I was often at the forefront of these conversations.  However, there is no describing the impenetrable sadness that overcame me as soon as I heard the distant blades of the refuge helicopter roaring towards me.  I had just spent the last 6 weeks in an area that exceedingly few people will ever even glance at from an airplane in their lifetime, intimately living with and delving into careful study and observation of all of this unique ecosystem's inhabitants.  It is very likely that I will never see the Nulato Hills, maybe even a Bristle-thighed Curlew, ever again.  These are all inescapable facts that I had anticipated at some level, but I suppose I'm most disappointed in my not taking time to sincerely consider these ideas each and every day that I spent in one of the last great wildernesses on this planet.

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