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Catching Kittiwakes and Downloading Data and a Few Other Surprises

This past week has been focused on catching passerines here on base and on catching Black-Legged Kittiwakes with geolocators on Saunder’s Island. It has been full of late nights, long hours on the boat, and getting pooped on. Our original plan on Sunday was to travel up North to catch Thick-Billed Murres and Dovekies and camp overnight, but the back-up spark plugs were nowhere to be found. Instead we headed out to Saunder’s Island to work on the geolocator project that was started last summer.  Saunder’s is only about 15 miles west of base, and you can easily see the island from base, so it wasn’t a risky trip by any means.

As we started nearing close to Saunder’s Island, I was instantly in awe.  It is a pretty big island and is a steep cliff face all the way around. The sheer height of island is daunting, especially because it comes straight out of the water. The exposed rock is composed of bands of orange and tan and looks more like it belongs in the desert than Greenland. After being initially stunned by the magnificence of the island, as we pulled closer to the southern end of the island, I became even more amazed. It was like nothing I have ever seen before. Saunder’s Island has probably one of the largest Thick-Billed Murre, and kittiwake colonies in

Swarm of Thick-Billed Murres

Northwest Greenland. The kittiwakes, who we are doing work on, are located on the very bottom, while the murres take up the majority of the cliff, and Northern Fulmars nest on top. As we approached the colony I was amazed by all of the murres flying like a swarm of mosquitoes about the cliff. As we got closer, our boat motor scared up large groups of murres causing them to all take flight at once.  Imagine a large flock of pigeons being scared up at once in park, now multiply the number of birds times at least a thousand, place them on a monstrous cliff face, and think of them as black with white bellies instead. My breath was instantly taken away as we boated through, underneath masses and masses of birds. Unfortunately, scaring up the birds like that can be harmful, becuase it is easy for the birds to knock an egg out of their nest if they get startled.  So activity that scares them up is not encouraged, and shooting a rifle near a bird colony in Greenland is illegal for that exact purpose. Nevertheless, I cannot deny it is a sight to see.

After taking it all in, we hopped off at the first of the three locations that they previously had banded birds with geolocators, the “beach”. We all put on bright orange hard hats to protect us from rocks that fall from the cliff. They were very fashionable. Then we began setting up while the others attempted to find kittiwakes with geolocators on them. The kittiwakes nest pretty low on the cliffs, so many nests were accessible from the ground with a dip net. So the year before, when they had banded the bird with geolocators, it was an easy task–catch any bird and put a geolocator on it.  This year, it was a bit more difficult, becuase not only did we have to catch birds, but we had to find them first. It was a slow start, but after 15 minutes Bridger and Calen had identified one and caught it.  I had the honor of holding the first one, and we began taking data from it.  The process of downloading the data is quite a challenge.  It takes about 15 minutes for the data to download onto the computer, and within that frame of time, the geolocator has to remain completely still, or else the download cables will fall off.  They were only being held on by two small little aligator clips clipped onto teeny tiny metal stubs.  The geolocator was attached to the right leg of the birds, and the were so small you could only hold onto them with two fingers, so if the bird wiggles and your fingers are not stronger than his legs, you lose.  The worst part is, if the wires fall off during the download, you have to restart, but before restarting, you have to wait 15 or so minutes for it to reset.

Processing a Black-legged Kittiwake on the Beach

The whole process required a bit of patience. Kurt and Jeff seemed to have mastered it, but I certainly do not have the finesse to keep a bird still for 15 minutes, so they ended up holding the birds for the majority of the downloads.  Along with downloading information we took measurements, and blood samples, and colored each bird with green permanent marker to mark them as already being caught ( a very high tech strategy indeed), so I took over the job of the recorder and organizer of those supplies. After processing one bird on the “beach” Bridger and Calen were unable to find another with a geolocator, so we hopped on the boat and headed to the next spot, “the ledge.” It was more like a small inlet in the cliff ledge.  Bridger hopped off and caught a good number of birds there.  Because there was nowhere to get off, we processed the birds on the boat. We were worried it might be too wavy for the downloading to work, but it actually served as a comfortable station where we could set everything up and not worry about moving around.  So for the rest of the kittiwake project, I never left the boat.  At the “ledge” location, we managed to catch all 5 of the 5 birds that were banded in that location. Success! We worked at another location as well, which we called “big rock” where a ton of large boulders had fallen from the cliff. We had a little less luck there, but after 4 days out we captured 16 total from the three spots, out of 35 that were banded last year.

Sampling a Northern Fulmar

On Sunday, the first day out, after catching all the kittiwakes we could find, we headed over to the Witch’s Tit to possibly sample puffins and some other auks. On our way over we managed to catch a Northern Fulmar.  I held the little bugger while we took samples and measurments, becuase I had all of my rain gear on and he was wet! He was also a big biter! I haven’t quite figured out the best technique for holding birds and avoiding being bit, if it is at all avoidable, I was bit multiple times earlier by the kittiwakes, but while they bite hard, it doesn’t pinch.  The fulmars, however, have a hooked beak, which are painful to pull  your finger out of because the skin gets caught as you try to pry it out. Their beak is super neat too, though. They have tubes on either side of the beak, which they use to excrete salt from their bloodstream because they spend their entire life (except for when they are breeding on cliffs like at Saunder’s) on the ocean, so they consume a lot of salt water. Because of the tubes, their beak is a very interesting shape, and also has black markings that almost exaggerate the shape.

Before getting off on the Witch’s Tit, we circled around.  When Kurt, Dr. Burnham, and Calen had visited before they had seen a Polar Bear and cub, so we wanted to make sure they weren’t still there before we got off. The Witch’s Tit is pretty small, and it looks like a big upside down cone, so it didn’t take to long to circle around. While circling the Witch’s Tit, I saw my first puffin! They are super neat because of their colorful beak. Then as we made it around to the other side, we saw a polar bear laying down up high on a ledge. At first, Kurt thought it was dead, and immediately my heart sank, but as soon as he spoke, we saw her lift her head. Immediately Calen and Jeff were getting there camera gear out, with the super zoom.  And soon we saw the cub playing and rolling around in the grass.  The first time that the group had seen the two bears, they were very wary of humans, and just boating up to the island easily stressed them, but this time, they seemed very accustomed to people, which allowed us to spend time watching them.  They were very docile.  They both watched us and the mother watched her cub as he meandered around the ledge, playing with grass and most likely eating eider duck eggs. I’d say I’m pretty lucky getting to see them.   Kurt has been coming to Thule, Greenland for 20 years and he hasn’t seen a polar bear until this year, while this is my first year, and I saw two polar bears!


Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday we went out after lunch and didn’t make it back until around 11.  So we ate dinner–Pop-Tarts, summer sausage, Triscuits, and chocolate–on the boat and a real meal once we got back and then went to bed after midnight, and woke up ready for breakfast by 7:30 the next day.  You could tell the team was pretty dead in the morning, but we were ready to work by the time we made it out on the boat each day. All in all it was a good week.  I’ve been learning that handling birds requires strength and persistence. The team even caught a Thick-Billed Murre just so I could practice holding a really STRONG bird. It was pretty amazing how easily it slipped its wings out of my grip even though I had a tight grip. Someday I will be a bird master like the rest of the crew, someday!


Hello Polar Bears!The little cub wanders around the cliff while mom keeps a close eye




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