Summer of 2002, Trip I
Bill Burnham— 18 June 2002 — in Arctic Program - Greenland Share
The Peregrine Fund’s actions in the Arctic focus on Greenland. Broadly stated, our goal there is conservation and scientific understanding of Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcon populations and their environment. Greenland is a mostly pristine Arctic area and of high conservation value. We are the principal group studying falcons in Greenland and have a long history of work there through our relationship with William Mattox.
Authorization for work in Greenland is provided by The Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland, Greenland Home Rule Government, and by the United States Air Force. We cooperate with Thule Air Base, the U.S. Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management, Conservation Research Foundation, VECO, National Science Foundation, New York Air National Guard, 109th TAF, Boise State University, Bent Brodersen/Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS), and Danish scientists Knud Falk and Kaj Kampp, among others.
The project is managed by Kurt Burnham under the general direction of Bill Burnham with special assistance from Bill Mattox. Jack Stephens, who has lived in Thule for more than 30 years, is our Thule Coordinator.
Thirty years ago this month I began this same journey. My first trip to Greenland. The reasons for going were to determine if Peregrine Falcons still nested there, and if so, how many. The 1970s were a time when there was great concern for the Peregrine and many believed it would be completely lost from North America. The species was already gone from the eastern United States and populations had greatly declined in the West and the Arctic. A couple of band recoveries had shown Greenland Peregrines migrated through the United States, probably wintering in Central and South America. I knew not what to expect when I arrived in this Arctic world of ice and tundra on that June day in 1972. (For more information see A Fascination with Falcons: A Biologist’s Adventures from Greenland to the Tropics, available from our online store shop.peregrinefund.org').
Our team during the first part of the season, beyond Kurt and myself, are Pete and Jacques Jenny, Regan Haswell, and Calen Offield. For the latter four, it is their first time to Greenland and all are anxious to get there and to begin the work. There is much to do. Fortunately, its being light 24 hours a day increases our ability to get things done.
The flight takes about six hours and there is a two-hour time change from our point of departure. We arrive at Kangerlussuaq about 4:30 pm local time. Our friends are there to greet us—Bent Brodersen, the manager of the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) and Robin and Ed of VECO, the National Science Foundation’s logistics contractor. For Kurt and me it feels a little like arriving home. While in Kangerlussuaq we have sleeping rooms in the KISS building. They have cooking, labs, and other facilities that are also available to scientists.
10 June - While Kurt gets our old Volkswagen van insured and licensed and takes care of other matters, I take the group to check the closest Peregrine Falcon eyrie and for a "break-in" walk. Not too far, but far enough to test everyone’s boots and physical conditioning. Along with seeing our first pair of Peregrines, we also see many songbirds and pass several muskox during the outing. Seeing your first muskox is always a thrill as it means you are indisputably in the Arctic. The muskox were completely lost from the Kangerlussuaq area, then reintroduced (27 animals) in the 1960s. Today there are over 3,000 animals there and they harvest about 20% of the population each year. There are no "natural" predators for muskox and a large amount of suitable habitat, and the population is doing well.
11 June - We hoped to check Gyrfalcon sites by helicopter today but bad weather prevented it. We instead drive and walk to another Peregrine eyrie. This one is near the Greenland Icecap. The icecap occupies about 85% of Greenland’s landmass, rises to about 11,000 feet in elevation, and is over two miles thick. A few miles away, the falcon cliff overlooks a silt-contaminated river which flows from the icecap. The nesting cliff has also had a pair of Gyrfalcons there as recently as last season. Unfortunately, the Gyrfalcons failed to produce young last year, likely as a result of the Peregrines which shared the cliff. The female Gyrfalcon was found injured, probably a concussion, and disappeared a couple of days later. The young then died despite the male’s best efforts.
Arriving at the second site we see three adult Peregrines flying near the cliff. One of the two males is aggressively pursuing and driving the other one way, making repeated dives with what appears to be lethal intent. As we watch for an hour and walk to the cliff, it appears that although Peregrines are defending the site they do not have eggs. Either they did not lay or already have lost their eggs.
The first flight we check 13 former Gyrfalcon nesting sites and discover Gyrfalcons at six, but we only see the adult female Gyrfalcon at one and cannot discover any young or eggs. There are a number of cliffs and potential alternate nest sites in the area and it is possible we missed them. Weighing potential results against helicopter cost is always difficult. We take our best shot at locating the eyrie and move on.
To allow others to go and to keep the weight down in the helicopter, Calen and I did not go on the second flight. Instead, we hiked to check another "local" Peregrine eyrie for occupancy. We pass a dead muskox along the way. The Peregrine pair is present and the female appears to be incubating. As we near the cliff she leaves the eggs briefly to defend, but discovering we are not a threat, she quickly loses interest and returns to her eggs.
After the three flights we have eight active Gyrfalcon nests we will monitor and work with in the Kangerlussuaq area this season. We had hoped for more.
Kurt gathers the crew and we explain we are about a week to 10 days early to begin capture of adults for fitting with transmitters and even for banding the oldest Gyrfalcon young. Pete, Regan, Jacques, and Calen decide to take the old inflatable boat, that we brought from Thule a couple of years ago, down the fjord to look for White-tailed Eagle nests and possibly to do a little fishing. As they pack, Kurt and I get the boat, inflate the tubes, and otherwise ready it to go. After they buy fishing licenses we all go to the port and get the boat in the water with Bent Brodersen’s help. They are finally underway in the early evening after we have to remove and lubricate a corroded throttle cable. Since dark will not arrive for several months, time of day is unimportant.
15 June - We leave early to begin revisiting nearby Peregrine eyries with the hope of beginning the capture of three females on which we will place solar-powered satellite-monitored transmitters (PTTs). We miss capturing the female Peregrine at the first site but are luckier at the second. Kurt very carefully fits the transmitter on the falcon while I hold her. The hood covers her head and eyes, helping to keep her calm. After the procedure is complete and we release her, she flies effortlessly into the wind and back onto the cliff where she preens and adjusts her feathers, seeming not to even notice the transmitter. It is a good start.
18 June - Yesterday our team members returned from their trip. Although they did not find the sea eagle nest they saw an eagle, but only a sub-adult. They did manage to catch a few Arctic char on their way back so dinner last night was excellent!
The walk takes a couple of hours. There is a small herd of muskox and two lone bulls along the way. None are particularly wild. The dense hair from the muskox is considered by most people to be the very softest wool. Muskox lose it in bunches and sometimes sheets, and today it is scattered along the muskox and caribou trails. Clothing woven from the wool is very expensive. Pete is collecting but it is unlikely he will find enough for even an ear warmer, let along something larger.
Splitting up on the way back, Kurt and Jacques take the most direct route while the others of us go on to check several more cliffs more-or-less also on the way back. We discover no falcons but locate a raven nest with large young on one cliff. We arrive at our pre-arranged rendezvous only minutes before Kurt and Jacques. They bring cold sodas!
19 June - Piling in the boat, we motor out to one of the active Gyrfalcon sites near the fjord. It has the oldest young. Less boat motor problems, the trip should take about an hour, but dirt in a needle value floods the motor so it takes longer. The walk up to the eyrie from the fjord is about an hour. The eyrie has been used a very long time and the whitewash has built up very deep in the three locations on the cliff where the falcons nest. At least three young falcons were seen in the eyrie from the helicopter. Today we will probably not band the young and instead hope to capture an adult falcon to deploy a PTT.
The falcons are smarter than we and neither adult is captured. Discouraged after trying for several hours, we walk down to the boat and head back to the port on one motor. The only thing that succeeded well today was the mosquitos. I probably have several hundred of their proboscis broken off in me as I smashed them while they sucked my blood. Those that got away with their blood meal will now reproduce, ensuring future generations will exist to feed on other Arctic visitors, be they humans or birds.
20 June - Up at 0430 to ensure we are ready for our 0815 helicopter flight. The airport does not open until 0815 and closes at 1645. Even though the helicopter requires none of the airport services to fly, it must operate within those hours or pay a very high fee to keep the airport open. Should that happen the "it" will be us paying. So even though there is unlimited daylight and we have a ready and enthusiastic pilot, our work is dictated by the airport.
We go to the site where they saw the two eggs a few days ago. The eggs and Gyrfalcons are no longer there. Nothing can be accomplished. Bent flies us to "Laguna," the Gyrfalcon site we were at yesterday. If an adult Gyrfalcon is present when we arrive we will try to capture it, otherwise we will band the young. The latter is true. No luck on the adult. Bent lands the chopper on top of the hill/cliff.
First out of concern for the young Gyrfalcons below, then me and having a rock follow me down, possibly smacking me on the head or cutting the rope, I rappel so as to avoid any rockfall on the way to the eyrie or later. I am to the side of the overhang above the eyrie and a sideways swing is necessary to get a hand of rock to pull myself into the eyrie. This site is much smaller than the other, but I fit myself into the front of the eyrie without crowding the young and still having room to work. My backpack laid on the ledge blocks the young falcons' only access to the edge of the ledge although they are young enough their potential jumping is not a worry. They are more afraid of height than I am. A cam into a crack in the cliff helps hold me in place and satisfies the safety factor. These mechanical things are great!
21 June - Today is Greenland Day (and the solstice). Today is a national holiday beginning three days of celebration recognizing when Greenland received Homerule from Denmark. The sky is overcast, and there is light rain and wind. This is not a good day to disturb falcons with eggs or young or for the dance planned outside for humans later in the day. To begin the celebration there are speeches and a free breakfast. Bent Brodersen translates the speech which has been given in Greenlandic to Danish for those who cannot speak the former. No English is spoken here and I do not speak enough Greenlandic or Danish languages to matter so we pass. Other functions follow but I take our group to an area where fossilized fish are found which, upon arrival, we discover has been picked over by tourists. It is listed on the things to do in Kangerlussuaq for visitors. Later the dance is moved inside the old Air Force gymnasium onto the basketball court. The party begins late and we join the celebration after dinner. The Greenlandic band plays a variety of music from polkas to more current, and almost everyone dances. Our team joins in and age or speaking the same language matter not at all. The event is reminiscent of a high school dance. The 75 to 100 people in attendance have a thoroughly good time. Smiles everywhere. I duck out early and the party continues through the sunlit night into the morning.
22 June - The weather is improving but still bad. Not so bad, however, as to discourage the all day football (soccer) tournament. Each seven-member team must have a minimum of two women. The field is lined with vehicles with horns blaring and people cheering from makeshift bleachers. Some of us spend the day repairing the boat and catching up, while others recover from the party in preparation for the second evening when another band is scheduled to take its turn.
24 June - No helicopter is available so we spend the day checking known Peregrine eyries. There are several local sites still to be visited as part of our Peregrine monitoring effort.
It is a warm day and the female Peregrine is in no hurry to return to her eggs after the Gyrfalcon leaves. It does not take long to capture her and fit the PTT. She is in very good shape and has large brood patches on each side of her breast from incubating her eggs. The process goes quickly and she and we are on our way.
26 June - We have the helicopter today and tomorrow and must make the most of it. This time everyone, including the pilot, knows the schedule. We are again using two teams. Pete, Jacques, and I leave first. Our luck changes at the first Gyrfalcon site we visit. We catch the adult female within a half hour and fit her with a PTT while Bent takes his helicopter back to pick up and locate the second team.
The female we caught is more white than silver in plumage. She is in good condition other than being much thinner than we would like to find her. Food is obviously in short supply. The helicopter returns just as we finish with her. When released, she, like the Peregrines we caught and attached PTTs to, seems to pay little attention to the transmitter and flies back onto the cliff as if nothing much had happened.
In the late afternoon while we wait for an adult to return, the helicopter passes at a distance and Kurt radios they are returning to the airfield and Bent will come back for us. They had banded young Gyrfalcons and put a PTT on a Peregrine—good job!
Just after Bent returns for us, the adult female Gyrfalcon arrives at her eyrie. She has a large prey item she carries into the eyrie and proceeds to feed her young for the next half hour. She must finish before we will have a chance to catch her, then if we are lucky and succeed it will take most of an hour to fit the PTT. No problem other than we must be back at the airport before it closes. Finally, we can wait no longer and must return. Very frustrating. Most probably another half hour and we would have caught her.
27 June - Kurt’s team takes the helicopter to be let off first. We are the second load. There is wind and the forecast predicts it will increase considerably later in the day. Our first stop is at the second eyrie, which failed during incubation. Kurt reports there are two addled eggs in the site. Pete and Jacques will rappel in to collect the eggs for analysis. My turn to guide them from below the cliff.
The wind is stiffening as they finish the climb and head back up the hill. The forecast seems likely to be correct. Bent and his helicopter are parked in the valley below the eyrie. While we are loading the helicopter to go pick up Pete and Jacques the wind probably doubles in speed and atop the cliff it is blowing harder. As the helicopter lands, they jump in without Bent shutting down and he informs us we may need to call it a day as the winds are exceeding a safe operating range.
Arriving back at KISS, Robin tells us the flight on which we will all travel back to the States, except for Kurt and Regan, may leave a day early (tomorrow) so just in case it does, get ready and be around tomorrow morning when the decision will be made. So much for getting into the field tomorrow.
28 June - Our bags are mostly packed. I get up early to learn what will be decided about our departure. The word is we are back to the old schedule and will leave tomorrow. Our group divides and separates—half to play golf and the others to work on the boat and possibly check on the Peregrine carrying the PTT and nesting in Musk Ox Bay.
The golf course is 18 holes and all sand. The only grass is pieces of astroturf where you tee off for each hole. Beyond limitless sand there are many ponds to challenge the golfers. For a small fee (on the honor system), a bag, clubs, and balls are available at the "club house," two old trailers connected by a wooden porch. Calen is an accomplished golfer and odds-on favorite, although I am not sure anyone kept score. But they all did report they had a good time.
29 June - We are leaving Kurt and Regan with a lot of unfinished work. Far more than I had hoped. They will be busy! Hopefully the weather and other influencing factors will cooperate.
Our bags are loaded before 6:00 am and saying goodbye, we head for the airplane at 7:00. While waiting outside to board I hear Peregrines calling at the eyrie across the runway. A few mechanical problems are overcome and we are flying south by 10:15, arriving in the U.S. in mid-afternoon. Two more flights and I am home.
There is much to do in Boise, then back to Greenland for Trip 2 of this season. The next time it will be to Thule. The Gyrfalcon’s young should have hatched in North Greenland by then and the pack ice moved out of North Star Bay.
To be continued...
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