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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Summer of 2002, Trip III
Bill Burnham — in Arctic Program - Greenland    Share14 - 15 August 2002 - This time I fly to Thule Air Base, Greenland, thanks to the United States Air Force. Check-in time for the six hour flight to Greenland is midnight and I arrive at Baltimore International Airport a couple of hours before. Just after the restaurants close, so there is no chance for dinner. The good news is the flight is on time. The old DC 8 is operational (based on past experience this is not always the case). We are to clear security at 1:00 am, then are to depart about 2:00. However, they kindly wait for a delayed flight from Dallas-Fort Worth airport containing three passengers for Greenland. One of those is Christopher Cokinos who is coming up to visit the sites where Robert Peary removed the meteorites from Greenland. We will be surveying for falcons in the same area and he will ride along in our boat. We depart BWI about 2:30 am.

DC-8 at Thule.
DC-8 at Thule.
The DC 8 is configured to carry about 35 passengers with the remainder of space allocated for cargo pallets. We passengers sit in the tail area and are separated from the cargo by a wall complete with an attached plastic thermometer with bird decorations as typically used on a patio. Dead tired, most passengers are asleep even before take-off. Me included.

Thule time is an hour later than the U.S. East Coast but one hour earlier than the rest of Greenland for reasons I do not know. Touchdown comes about 10:00 am and Chris and I are greeted by the whole gang. They are in high spirits having spent the last consecutive 16 days traveling along the coast of Greenland in the boat surveying for and banding falcons. It seems all the bad weather and luck ended with my last departure from Thule. They have made up for lost time. Over lunch at the dining hall I get a quick rundown on some of their achievements. The discussion continues once we are back at the barracks. Much good news!

Peter Widener
Peter Widener
We have had a good team operating under Kurt’s leadership. This is Brian and Ruth Mutch’s third season working in North Greenland. Brian is a full-time Peregrine Fund biologist having participated first in the Peregrine restoration program, then helping with Harpy Eagle field work in the Neotropics, California Condor releases in Arizona, and now Aplomado Falcon restoration in Texas. Ruth also has considerable experience, including have trapped and banded migrant Peregrine Falcons for several years. Peter Widener, although just beginning college, has grown up around raptors, helping his father, Pete, raise and hack Peregrines among other raptor-related tasks. Peter, like his father and mother, is also a falconer. He has trapped, tamed, trained, and hunted with a Red-tailed Hawk.

After hearing more of the details and dumping my things in my room, it is back to dealing with some of The Peregrine Fund matters left unsolved on my departure. I end the workday in North Greenland on a conference call to the U.S. Not that many years ago it would have been unthought of, if not impossible, to schedule a conference call and deal with matters other than for which I came to Greenland. I am not sure this is better. Having written that, however, it would be very difficult for me to travel to Greenland three times in a summer if I could not deal with the organization’s business. (During the next two weeks I am gone I will end up having handled over 250 e-mail messages and two dozen phone calls unrelated to the work in Greenland.)

Brian and Ruth Mutch with a young <br />male Gyrfalcon.
Brian and Ruth Mutch with a young
male Gyrfalcon.
16 August - Four of our group return on the flight on which I arrived. Kurt and I take them to the airport and wait with them until they board. The remainder of the day we get the boat and equipment ready to continue our work. Two National Science Foundation-funded researchers show up in the afternoon. They are investigating anaerobic organisms in the tidal zone. They needed beds and lab space plus other logistical help that were not available through the Air Force. If we had not agreed to assist them they would not be allowed to visit Thule. Air Base visitor accommodations will soon be full when about 250 Canadian military personnel arrive. They will be re-supplying Alert, an outpost on northern Ellesmere Island. They do it over a two-week period with Hercules C-130 aircraft.

17 August - We get an early start as there is much to do and a long way to go. Changes since I last passed this way. The patches of green along the shore or on the hills are now red or brown. The limited vegetation is in its autumn colors. Traveling south we pass the first Dovekie colony–no birds! In my absence their young have fledged and adults and young have moved out to sea. Few Dovekies are present, even in the water. Without the advantage provided by remaining in flocks, the remaining Dovekies are obvious targets for their primary predator, the Glaucous Gull. Kurt sees a gull catch a Dovekie out of the air in its beak after a falcon-like stoop. Beyond the absence of Dovekies at their breeding sites and autumn colors, other signs also indicate the end of summer is approaching. Traveling, we cut through sheets of ice freezing where fresh water enters the sea. Also, where icebergs are dense and because of the fresh water melting from them, ice pans are forming and beginning to freeze together. Clear signs of what lays ahead in the days and weeks to come.

Soon after leaving Thule the seas begin turning against us. Waves increase in size and the wind picks up. Not bad enough to cause us to turn around, but certainly no fun. The boat is built to handle rough water, which is great, but I just wish we needed that capacity less often.

Having traveled about 50 miles, the boat’s steering is becoming increasingly stiff. We discover there is an oil leak on the steering cylinder on the motors. Considering the remoteness of the area for which we are heading it is unwise to continue without fixing the problem and we turn back for Thule to make repairs. The weather is deteriorating.

18 August - Up early to go but winds off Base are above 50 knots and 20 to 30 on Base. Nothing like the storm we experienced earlier in the season, but also not one to venture out into. Before bedtime the winds are backing and we are again set to depart tomorrow.

York Peninsula, Pituffik Glacier and <br />Chonical Rock (island) in the distance.
York Peninsula, Pituffik Glacier and
Chonical Rock (island) in the distance.
19 - 22 August - Under overcast skies we motor out of the small harbor. Although the wind has backed, the ocean seems to have forgotten and sizeable waves slow our progress south. We will be traveling about 130 miles southeast along the coast to the Savissivik area which sits at the northern end of Melville Bay. Savissivik is a village of about 75 people.

Suffering further challenges we travel along the York Peninsula, finally nearing its cape (Cape York) upon which sits the Peary monument. The monument, a tall monolith with a large "P" near its top, is high above the water on a 1,400 foot mountain. Famed North Pole explorer Robert Peary has left his mark and we have traveled through and camped in many of the same locations in North Greenland as he, just a century later.

DeDødes Fjord
DeDødes Fjord
Enduring a continual beating from rough seas past the monument we expect the worst when we pass the protection of the cape and motor into the De Dødes Fjord. At the end of the fjord and along much of its sides is the Greenland Icecap and any winds readily sweep off the ice and out the fjord. Passing the cape just the reverse is true as the wind and rough waves decrease. At first I think it is because the densely packed icebergs moving out of the fjord are blocking the wind and waves, but clearing those, the conditions improve even further.

The Savissivik area is spectacularly rugged. Miles and miles of glacier drop directly into the sea and most of the ice-free land which exists is bare rock or glacieral rubble. Crossing the fjord we begin again our search for falcons. From one of the first cliffs checked an adult male Gyrfalcon flies. He was probably using it for a hunting perch and does not stick around. A pair of Peregrines are in attendance at another cliff and do not leave. Continuing the investigation ashore, we see that the Peregrines do not seem to be breeding but we will return tomorrow to determine this for certain.

Kurt at former "Dog" and "Woman"<br />meteorite site.  Notice large pile of stones <br />used to chip off meteorite flakes to make tools.
Kurt at former "Dog" and "Woman"
meteorite site. Notice large pile of stones
used to chip off meteorite flakes to make tools.
Passing by Meteritø, the island on which Savissivik is located, we continue north to Saveruluk, the area where Peary recovered the "Dog" and "Woman" meteorites in 1895. Finding a good camp site, Chris and I are ferried near where the meteorites are reported to have been while Kurt and Regan return to establish the camp.

It does not take long to find the depressions which once held the meteorites. The meteorites were only a few feet apart and hundreds of hammer stones are piled there around the depressions. The stones (probably iron ore) were used by the Inuit to chip off small fragments of meteor to be used for knives and projectile points. We are careful not to disturb anything. Chris has copies of old photographs taken during the removal process which help visualize and bring the site to life. The Woman weighed 3 tons tons while the Dog was smaller, so neither was an easy task to move the hundreds of yards and get onto a ship. Both these meteorites plus the larger one, the "Tent" (30 tons), are in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Continuing the search for nesting falcons.
Continuing the search for nesting falcons.
This evening makes up for the rough seas and other problems endured to reach this area. The sky is clear and the evening’s golden sunlight floods the surrounding hills and the bay where we camp. A Greenlander from Savissivik stops by to say hello after just having killed a seal which is propped up in the bow of his boat so the blood from the head wound drips overboard into the water. His English is excellent and among other things we ask the hours for buying fuel in Savissivik. He heads for home and we return to setting up camp and Kurt cooks dinner–beans with sausage mixed in and cornbread biscuits on the side. An Arctic favorite (at least ours)!

In the morning we continue the survey for falcons and collect other information. It is obvious that if we had been here earlier in the summer we would be seeing millions of Dovekies. The now abandoned nest sites are numerous and large. The Dovekies nest in boulder fields and talus slopes which are in abundance.

Nesting site of huge Dovekie colony.
Nesting site of huge Dovekie colony.
We stop in Savissivik to re-fuel. Not receiving many visitors, the Greenlanders seem to enjoy seeing our boat and answering Kurt’s questions about where falcons are seen and nest. At least two speak excellent English and attended school in Denmark. With the help of illustrations in a bird book we are told that it is only within the last two or three years that they have begun to see Peregrine Falcons. Before then it was only the white ones-Gyrfalcons. This is consistent with what we have been told by people in Qaanaaq.

Savissivik is a picturesque village with a well-stocked new store complete with a small bakery for making bread. Fueling the boat is easier than we had anticipated. Although the harbor is shallow we can get our boat all the way to the small concrete pier and the fuel tanks are only a few hundred feet away. After emptying our onboard containers into the boat Kurt and Regan take the empties to be filled and carry them back. The locals give them a hand hauling the last ones. One of the best ideas Kurt ever had was buying an electric fuel pump for the boat. Rather than man handling and pouring the 17 gallon containers through a funnel in a bouncing boat we transfer the fuel efficiently by pump and hose. Works great!

Savissivik
Savissivik
Waving our goodbyes we motor out and around the island, continuing to check cliffs for nesting falcons and traveling toward the other meteorite site on the far side of the island. The icebergs become very dense and our rate of travel slows to only a couple of miles an hour as we weave in and around the ice, being careful not to get in a position where a berg could break or roll onto the boat and swamp or sink us. The ice is spectacular.

With Chris’ old photographs we are able to locate the former site of the "Tent." The small crater is only a couple of hundred feet from the water and you can see the drag marks where Peary brought the meteorite down the hill prior to pushing and pulling it across a sturdy platform they built onto his ship. Fortunately for him there was a small peninsula and cliff and deep enough water for him to pull his ship up to for loading. Still, the weight of the 4.5 billion-year-old meteor, which collided with Earth 10,000 years ago, had to be a major challenge. Peary loaded the meteorite onto his ship, "Hope," on 20 August 1897. Today is 21 August. We leave Chris to take notes about the site while we continue on searching for falcons.

Savissivik.
Savissivik.
After completing our survey for falcons we break camp and begin working our way back toward Cape York. There are several areas of cliff we still wish to check. The ocean surface is like glass and makes for a very pleasant time until we reach the cape. There the wind and waves are waiting for us. Moving along the peninsula the size of the waves increase, reaching their peak near Conical Rock. Our speed is considerably slowed and spray carries over the length of the boat making for a long, wet ride home. Kurt and I trade off driving the boat. Passing Pituffik Glacier we can see a fog bank ahead which appears to reach land near Cape Atholl. In this situation fog is a good sign as strong winds and fog should not exist together. The rough sea should be subsiding when we reach there.

Nearing Cape Atholl the sea has lost some of it furry but refuses to totally give in. The fog is not reaching the surface of the water and hangs like low clouds a few dozen feet above. An eerie yellow light seems to glow from the water’s surface. I cannot help but think of the old television show The Twilight Zone and expect to see some aberration emerge from the mist. The waves further diminish and Kurt increases speed. In another few miles we see strange light and the hanging fog disappears as we race along through the pea soup fog using our GPS to help find Thule, the boat harbor, and home. Before midnight we succeed.

Kurt navigates through the ice as <br />Chris looks for former meteor site.
Kurt navigates through the ice as
Chris looks for former meteor site.
23 - 29 August - While shaving I glance out the window to see four Arctic hares hopping along outside the barracks. Three are this year’s young and the other an adult. The young are almost now full grown and much more white than gray. Another sign autumn is here. We should begin seeing larger groups of hares any time.

Martin Gilbert arrived yesterday and will stay until mid-October. Martin is a Peregrine Fund biologist who has worked for the organization in Madagascar, New Guinea, Pakistan, Panama, and now Greenland. He has both degrees in biology and veterinarian medicine from Great Britain. Martin is a Scott. When he and Regan switch from American English to their heavily accented British and vocabulary it requires real concentration by me to follow the conversation. During his time in Greenland, although he will be working days on Gyrfalcons and Peregrines, Martin’s nights and other spare time will focus on the "vulture crisis". He is co-leading our work in Pakistan and Nepal with Munir Virani to try and identify the cause of the massive vulture die-offs on the Indian Subcontinent.

The location where Robert Peary sailed in <br />with his ship to retrieve the meteor.
The location where Robert Peary sailed in
with his ship to retrieve the meteor.
Chris departs today after his one-week stay in the High Arctic. He achieved all he came for. Unusual for most anyone trying to do that much within such a short period this close to the Pole. We look forward to his future book. It should make interesting reading.

With Chris off, so are we. This time we travel north to visit the Peregrine eyries. Their young should be nearing fledging age. We find the Peregrines where expected and it appears most have three or four young. With them at this age we are careful not to prematurely cause the young Peregrines to fly. Later Kurt will return to the eyries to collect prey remains.

One of the eyries is home for a female Peregrine who had carried a transmitter for a year. We attached it last season. We monitored her movements by satellite and discovered she spent her winter in Ecuador. The transmitter is not causing her any problems as is evidenced by three large young which are about ready to fly. It may be possible to also place a transmitter on one of her young after they are fully grown and before their long migration begins. We would like to know if the young travel with the adult and where they spend their winter.

Gyrfalcon
Gyrfalcon
The young Gyrfalcons are now flying well and probably beginning to chase potential prey. After their first clumsy attempts at flight they begin to chase each other and generally play havoc with everything which lives or passes by their eyrie, including the adults. Once the young can fly the adults spend less time in the immediate area as the young will pursue them begging for food. They can be quite aggressive and a large juvenile female could even injure the much smaller adult male.

Former nesting place of the "tent."
Former nesting place of the "tent."
We are also checking the Gyrfalcon eyries hoping to attach additional transmitters, to include on juvenile Gyrfalcons. A site between two Peregrine eyries produced a single young female and we stop to see if she is catchable. Arriving, we spot the adult male high on the cliff near and above the nesting site. The young is not in view. Soon, however, she appears from around the corner of the cliff flying straight to the male, causing him to flush from his roost where she lands. Enough of this, he simply flies straight away out of her and our sight. After a failed attempt by us at catching her, she flies away and along the cliff and we head back toward the boat.

No sooner do we have our equipment put away and are walking than she appears 100 ft overhead slowly flying by while looking us over. Having seen enough, she continues around the mountain and disappears. We are struck by her beauty. White underneath with dark edging to many of her white back feathers and those penetrating large black eyes. She is spectacular! Martin tells me he can now see why people become infatuated with the Gyrfalcon.

Arctic Hares
Arctic Hares
As we motor in and out of the bays and along the coast, change in the behavior and appearance of the birds is increasingly obvious. The Dovekie is the only species that seems to have left in total. First, flocks of a few dozen Glaucous Gulls (adults and immatures) and Oldsquaw Ducks are seen, then much larger groups. During my last visit to Drown Bay for the season there are 700 to 1,000 Glaucous Gulls and over 150 male Oldsquaw Ducks. Kittiwakes are changing to their non-breeding plumage but their young will not fledge until late this month. The young guillemots in their light gray plumage are mixed in with adults. Change in the adult plumage is not yet obvious. Soon the murre young should be "fledging"/falling from their cliff nest sites and move out to sea under the protective care of their parents. The songbirds have been flocking and migrating for some time. Snow buntings seem to be the only species still regularly seen. The falcon young better hurry and grow up as their potential prey is leaving. By the time the Peregrine young’s flight feathers are fully developed and they are flying strong it will be near mid-September. Dangerously close to being caught in the High Arctic with little food available and winter setting in.

Young Peregrines at site with female <br />having wintered in Ecuador.
Young Peregrines at site with female
having wintered in Ecuador.
30 August - The alarm jolts me awake at 5:00 am. My second act of the morning after turning off the alarm is always to raise the shade on the small window by the bed. I have a great view of the U.S., Danish, and Greenlandic flags over Base Headquarters and the sky so I know at once if the wind is blowing and what kind of day we have. Today I see white—snow! Not a lot, but enough to cover the ground and any other mostly horizontal surface. Last night there was dusk with a promise of the dark to come which will eventually last for many weeks before the sun once again appears above the horizon.

Like the birds which live here, it is time for me to go south. The young falcons better hurry and follow. Bags turned in at 6:00 am and the old DC 8 lifts off two and three-quarter hours later. The late departure is credited to the need for de-icing the airplane. Leaving is bitter sweet. It will be nice to go home but leaving Greenland is always a little sad and much work remains to be done. The last of our biologists will probably not leave Greenland until early November when the final falcons likely pass by the banding stations. The one at Thule will probably be closed in mid-October and the second, 600 miles south, a couple of weeks later. Our Arctic field season will have lasted almost six months.

Find more articles about Aplomado Falcon, California Condor, Gyrfalcon, Harpy Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Arctic

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