New adventures in birding: Part 1 – Why shrubs are better than birds.

This year we have been conducting bird surveys on the Kluane Plateau, the flat patch of tundra jutting above our field base on Kluane Lake. It’s the first time I have been involved in bird-based fieldwork. Trudging up the mountain earlier even than the sun does, I’ve had time to realise why I joined Team Shrub, and not Team Sparrow.

  1. Shrubs are stationary

Shrubs are always there. They’re reliable little fellows, sitting quite peacefully on their little patch of soil. You can go up to a shrub, pat it on the head, give it a little hug… whatever floats your boat. Shrubs don’t care. You can come back the next day, the next day, the day after that, hey we come back year on year! Our favourite shrubs are still sticking around, stoically soaking up the sun and the storms and the deep snows of winter. Choose a shrub – they’re always there for you.

Birds are flighty little things. You never know where you are with birds: swooping up the mountainside without a care in the world, no regard at all for scientific process. One day you’ll be beset by bird calls – your recorder runs out of memory and your camera runs out of batteries. The next day you just sit in silence for half an hour. Unreliable, inconsistent, fickle: the life of a birder.

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Up the mountain bright and early to chase the birds

  1. Shrubs are obvious

Shrubs stand out. They hold up their branches to the skies as if to hail their own existence. They rambunctiously rustle their leaves and provocatively shimmy in the breeze. They’re grandiose, with the gravitas of a tree but with grace of a gazelle, pointedly yet politely waiting for your arrival on the tundra with all the proper respect that a plant, and only a plant can show.

Birds are downright antisocial. They’re the conversation that stops when you walk into a room. They’re the cool kids that drift off when you join the party. Birds wait to catch you unawares before bursting forth in a cacophony of absurd twittering, knowingly timing their chorus for the moment your recorder times out. Giggling childishly, they watch on as your sleepy fingers fumble with record button and camera lens. As soon as you’re ready, planned and instantaneous, the din shall stop and off the birds shall fly in gleeful silence, disappearing to their hiding places under the obvious shrubs.

  1. Shrubs are straightforward

Shrubs are the solid, down-to-earth types you want fixing your car. Shrubs call a spade a spade, even if they’re not always the spade’s biggest fan. You don’t even have to ask a shrub its name – they stand around wearing nametags, offering up their identity as a simple introduction. Although there are some characters out there who like a little mystery, some pretence (and even some cross-dressing), they are more than happy for you to take their business card away with you, with a few extra leaves thrown in, just to check up on them in the morning. Pleasant and simple, shrubs do what they say on the tin.

Birds are dirty tricksters. They dress up in different colours, and put on different clothes. The teenagers, as teenagers do, wear strange and often drab outfits, and the children sometimes don’t go out at all. Half the time half the birds seem too busy trying to impress the other half, and the other half the time they’re still not interested in your science experiment. As for singing, birds would do well to learn their tunes and stick to them. I simply can’t stand improvisation. It seems that birds just cannot appreciate that the more they fool around the longer we will be pouring over identification books and churning through endless lists of their pointless calls. Birds should pull themselves together.

 

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Entering bird survey data

  1. Shrubs are restful

Shrubs know the meaning of a full night’s sleep. They’ve read the health books. They’ve ditched the coffee. They know the agony of the new parent, the red-eyed commuter, the burnt-out scientist after a long day of fieldwork. Shrubs need no watches, and have no alarm clock. Shrubs work on your schedule, meet your deadlines, put up with your missed appointments. Shrubs wait for you.

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Shrubs will watch over your sleep and wait for you to gently wake up. Birds? Not so much.

They say the early bird catches the worm. Well, birds must bloody love worms. Up, often before the sun, and letting the world know about it. If you’re not up for their 6am meeting, sweaty and blurred, dusty and aching, bruised and bleeding, then too bad for you. Birds are ravers, Glastonbury stop-outs worshipping the dawn before crashing into a stubborn stupor for the rest of the day. Birds are the boss from hell and the teenage dirtbag, all rolled into one.

  1. Shrubs are beautiful.

I need no explanation here. Just look at this beautiful willow in the sun. Birds got nothing on that.

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Strong, steady, and really quite lovely: so many reasons we love shrubs!

And you know what they say. You can’t polish a Turdus.

 

 

Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe

The first time I came to Qikiqtaruk I was 17 or 18. I was travelling and hunting. Back then, there was no park established yet (1978) – there was a lot a char and herring, and people came here for sealing as well. The Mackenzie family were living on Qikiqtaruk. Their children were born and raised here. Most often I came here alone, but I wasn’t scared. You really have to watch it when travelling alone, but when I was younger, I made sure to be there to learn from my dad and uncles, to always follow them and help. I got the basics from them, and then I took it another step further and tried to improve.

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Schooners from Banks Island and MacKenzie Delta at Pauline Cove, 1930 (Finnie Coll. YA)

There is no sense of time when you are travelling around here – you need a lot of patience. You need to know where and when to stop, when it’s safe to move on. Now everybody is always in a hurry, people travel to places quickly, but don’t get to fully experience them. There are journeys that used to take us days when I was little, and today we can travel to those places in hours. But you still have to remember to really experience the place, to stop and take it all in. My family and I, we just love travelling. It’s hard to say what we love about it – everything. The openness. We have all been travelling since we were very little. I was always with my grandmother and her dog team, helping her, hauling ice for fresh water and hunting.

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Hunter and dog team going over ice to ships (The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia)

It’s important to have a connection between the generations. To show children the land, teach them how to travel, how to deal with the weather, teach them the language. My grandparents originally came from Alaska. I used to speak Uummarmiut with my grandmother, but we are losing our language and I kick myself for forgetting words. Now teachers are supporting children going out to the land, there are language classes and drum dance groups. My grandchildren are probably better than me in my language. Culture, dances and stories are coming back to schools, to people’s lives as well.

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Inuvaluit drum dance at Fort McPherson, 1892 (NAC, E. Taylor C-7519)

When we’re not travelling, a lot of times we’ll get together, have supper and just tell stories. Everybody would chip in and we’ll all share stories – that’s how we learned about our culture and land. We try to make everything from the land. We share stories about where you see certain animals, how to survive here and be safe. Some people like to keep information to themselves, but I like to share. I know how to travel in the delta and mountains in all seasons, and when I am available, people call me when they need help to find lost people. Everybody knows each other in our community, and we always try to help one another.

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Crossing the tundra on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island

I’ve always chosen jobs that are out on the land – animal surveys for beluga whales and grizzly bears, wildlife and environment monitoring, being a guide. I’ve also travelled to teach – I loved travelling to different communities, learning about their livelihoods, and teaching them the basics for how to work with tourists – we were learning off each other and sharing. When I first heard about the park ranger job, I knew I wanted it. I started working as a ranger in 1999, and I really enjoy working out here on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island Territorial Park. All my previous skills – how to read weather, travel safely, monitor animals, interact with tourists – are useful for the job. I just love being here, and meeting different people – tourists and researchers, that’s my favourite part. Learning different things and increasing my knowledge, too. It’s so peaceful here, but it can also be hard – leaving your family for two weeks or more at a time.

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“It’s so peaceful here”

I enjoy meeting people, talking to people. The people that come here are most interested in our lives, what we do, where we are from, the animals they can see here and our stories. We tell them about our work here – for example, the Qikiqtaruk Ecological Monitoring Programme. We do bird surveys, we monitor permafrost depth and changes in plant phenology – the timing of when plants leaf out, flower and disperse their seeds. The raptor survey takes us on a good long trip around the island – all the parts of the island are different in their own, especially the exposed north-west side, which takes a beating from the weather. From the surveys we’ve learned that the raptors are building their nests along the coast, but the nests are collapsing into the ocean. It must affect their populations down the road, and it also throws away the balance between species. There are cycles in the populations of voles and lemmings, some years we see more, others less. We haven’t seen a snowy owl on the island yet this year.

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Monitoring birds of prey

People are concerned that Qikiqtaruk is changing. It’s very different to what I saw when I first came here when I was 18. When we go home, we tell people about the changes we’ve seen on Qikiqtaruk over the years, about climate change. There is pollution from rubbish washing on the shore. There are different animals and wildlife coming – things we never saw before, like the hummingbird Cameron saw. There are different seabirds, eagles. I’ve seen otter tracks around the island, a moose and a beaver – those were never here before. Everything is changing – more extreme weather, higher waters, bigger winds. Some years, people at Shingle Point can’t hunt and support their livelihoods because it’s too windy. The changes are impacting people’s lives. Our collaboration with researchers helps us learn more about those changes – people in our communities appreciate seeing the products of the research, the reports, but also getting the chance to meet the researchers in person and ask questions. We learn from one another, and sharing our knowledge is important. But how to fix climate change is another thing, it takes the whole world to fix those problems, not just the researchers and communities of the Yukon North Slope.

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Rangers Ed McLeod (second left) and Ricky Joe (right) with Team Shrub, Canada Day 2017

By Ricky Joe, Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island Territorial Park Ranger

The Power of Stories

“I feel like we could be sharing stories for hours” said Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island Park ranger Ricky to me one evening after we had chatted about our homes and cultures out on the rangers’ porch. I walked back to Signal’s House with a smile on my face, hoping that we would continue the conversation. Time has passed since that evening, we have shared more stories, and on a rainy day like today, it feels like just the time to tell you one more – a story about stories.

I grew up in a place where every patch of land, every object and every dent in the house walls has a story behind it. Some of them I was fortunate to hear from my grandparents, others I could only imagine. Back home, everybody talks about villages like mine, Tyurkmen, in past tense – stories full of nostalgia about everything villages used to be and everything they are not anymore. Such stories could easily wrap you up in the past, cast a shadow over your attitude towards the present – many villages are now abandoned, traditions are lost, stories are forgotten. Some say villages will never again be the rich cultural centre they once were.  Even if we hear about old traditions, we don’t always engage with them.

There are still, however, days when people take out their old traditional clothes, full of colours and intricate embroidery, and gather to dance together to the rhythms of bagpipes, accordions, drums and flutes. My favourite part comes later in the celebrations when we share stories late into the night – some we hear every time, others are new. I love them all. Listening to them, sharing them, writing them down. I think that the best kind of stories need little embellishment from the truth, for there are so many incredible places, people and events all of them worthy of being remembered. Of course, I love to read great works of fiction, but for me those cannot quite compare to the power and privilege of hearing a story first hand from people who hold those stories dear to their heart.

Here on Qikiqtaruk, stories are a constant part of our daily routine: stories of past adventures of the field team: “Did I ever tell you about the time that the bowhead whale came into Pauline Cove… or when the radio got lost out on the tundra and we tried to use the drone to find it…”. Stories about the past and present life on the island from the rangers. Stories about the findings of our research. Fieldwork and stories tend to go hand in hand – funny stories liven up those moments when no field plan seems to work, and evenings after a day’s work can quickly go from quiet to lively chatter. Stories are how we communicate both our daily lives and our science.

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Sharing stories and a meal on Qikiqtaruk

From one end of the world to the other, stories about how the world around us is changing and about the connection between people and land make me feel at home. Some of those stories have been scientific stories: a clear structure, many numbers and frequent reminders of why those numbers are important. Scientific stories take many shapes – journal articles, reports, presentations, computer code, blog posts and more. Just like a good story, a good scientific paper takes you on a journey through what we know, what we don’t know, and what it all might mean. Sure, there might be more graphs and less pictures than your usual story, but as a whole, scientists are professional tellers of very precise and accurate stories about how the world around us is changing and what that might mean for people and places.

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Villages like mine, Tyurkmen, are changing, and so are communities all around the world. Ecosystems are changing, too. A story that is happening right now out from the Arctic tundra of Canada to the abandoned agricultural lands of Eastern Europe. Perhaps it is in sharing our stories of the past and present, be it through numbers, pictures or words, that we can better understand processes of change around the world and what they will mean for all of us now and in the future. As the day is coming to a close here on Qikiqtaruk, I feel happy and privileged to hear stories about the island’s heritage and to be able to collect information on how Qikiqtaruk’s environment is changing – a new story in the making.

By Gergana Daskalova

Droning on about Arctic change

“Droning on about Arctic change” was a joke title that collaborator Jeff Kerby and myself came up with for a presentation recently, but it does actually accurately describe some of the research that we are doing here on Team Shrub. Nearly three years ago our research project – the ShrubTundra project, was funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council and that has given us the opportunity to get into the drone ecology business and travel for the past three summers up to the Canadian Arctic to bridge the gap between satellite and on the ground observations of vegetation. In this long-awaited blog post, I will tell you all about the drone research we have been conducting on the island, the new collaborations that we are building with drone ecologists around the Arctic and the preliminary results of our work thus far. Is the Arctic greening that satellites are sensing the same vegetation change that we observe on the ground?  Here I go… droning on about Arctic change.

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Drones offer a very different perspective of the tundra. How small we are here!

Much of drone technology has been out there for decades, including remotely controlled planes and military unmanned aerial vehicles, but with the commercialization of high powered batteries and the development of automated flight technologies, drones have literally taken off! In the past half-decade or so, the promise of drone technology for scientific research has begun to be realized and we hope that the ShrubTundra project is leading the way for drone ecology in tundra ecosystems. Drones are allowing ecologists to observe ecological processes at the landscape scale such as phenological changes, plant growth and community composition change. We have learned a lot over the past three years in our drone research and made some important discoveries so far, but there is much work to do.  As we continue to collect terabytes of data out here in the Canadian Arctic, we can look forward to the data presents that will be revealed over the coming year.

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It takes a whole team to fly a drone… Although we sometimes have time for a tundra nap while the pilots set things up.

The drone team up on the island is led by postdoc Andrew Cunliffe or as it says on his drinking glass – “Y Up”, and visiting researcher Jeff Kerby, “J-man the K-dog”.  We are joined this year by drone pilot Will Palmer aka “Tool Bag”, our first commercial drone pilot on the team.  Providing assistance to the team here on the island is soon-to-be PhD student “33 Thimbles” Gergana Daskalova, and me “Magnum PI” or “Captain Shrub” Isla Myers-Smith.  And back in Edinburgh is our support team including PhD student Jakob Assmann, NERC Airborne GeoSciences manager Tom Wade, the NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility, NERC Geophysical Equipment Facility and the rest of Team Shrub. I will also give a shout out to a new Team Shrub member Karol Stanski who is an informatics master’s student co-supervised by Chris Lucas working on automated processing of some of our drone data – counting flowers from above.  Drone research definitely takes a whole team and as always we are indebted to you guys on the outside for helping us keep the drones in the air and the sensors working to keep the data flowing in.

In the ShrubTundra Project, we are using the drones to understand the following four scientific questions:

  1. How does landscape-level phenology (the timing of green up, flowering and browning and browning of tundra plants each year) relate to on-the-ground and satellite observations?
  2. What environmental factors (such as soil moisture) explain where the greenest parts of the landscape are found and where vegetation change is occurring most rapidly?  And are there particular spatial scales of investigation where these relationships are strongest?
  3. How can we scale vegetation change observations from the individual plant, plant community, landscape to biome?  And are the relationships between on-the-ground, drone and satellite data found at our focal research site on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island consistent with data from other sites around the Arctic?
  4. What are the rates and volumes of permafrost and coastal erosion disturbances across the landscape and are these rates accelerating?
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Why are some parts of the landscape greener than others, and how quickly sediments are being carried from the thaw slumps to the ocean, are some of the questions we are addressing with our drones.

In our final year of the project, funded by the UK Arctic Bursary programme, we are teaming up with Trevor Lantz from the University of Victoria and Robert Fraser from Natural Resources Canada working at other sites in the Western Canadian Arctic, and other researchers working at sites around the Arctic through the High-latitude Drone Ecology Network to try to test these questions in a coordinated way across the tundra biome.

Collecting data using drones is a bit different from other ecological work. You are much more dependent on the weather. Too much wind, any rain, any fog, even just clouds can all get in the way of drone flights. There is nothing so frustrating as carrying all of our equipment out to the most remote of our sites only to find that the weather has changed and we can no longer fly. This summer we have been chased out of the field by thunderstorms, sudden wind gusts and downpours of rain. But recently the weather has been pretty good for drone flying and we have had some really big data collection days – with over 26,000 images and 70 GBs of data collected in six hours of airtime around solar noon, using quadcopters and fixed wings. When you collect that much data in one day there is a lot of post data collection work to do that we have been calling “metadata”, but that really only describes part of the work from charging drone batteries to collating images, reviewing their quality and writing up all of the flight information.

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A sudden turn in the weather, like fog rolling in, means we are grounded until it improves again. Time to be revert to being a plant ecologist who looks down instead of up, and carry out our other protocols!

The thing with working with drones is sometimes you run across “drone troubles”.  Whether it is too few satellites, compass calibration issues, funky cable connections to the camera sensors, there are always different types of challenges to the work. One thing we have learned from doing drone work in the Arctic is to bring spares and to plan for every contingency. This summer we have expanded our drone fleet: at one point, we figured there were around 15 drones or potential drones on the island, including spare parts. We have brought with us two hexacopters (Tarot 680s), five fixed-wing drones with most of the spare parts for around three more (Zeta FX-61s), three DJI Phantoms (two DJI P4 Pros and one P4 Advanced), two 3DR Iris+ and, for the first bit of the season we also had a Parrot Disco Ag and a DJI Mavic. All of these different drone platforms provide us with many options for data collection, from fine-scale data collection flown at 20 m height for structure-from-motion work to make 3D models of shrub canopies to ‘high altitude’ 120 m flights for large extent models of tundra greenness across the landscape.

So, what have we found so far with our drone work? Most of the data processing is still ahead of us, but there have been some data presents so far this season. We have observed over 10 m of coastal erosion in a two-week period at the edge of the floodplain near our camp – that is very fast even for this rapidly eroding island. We have also observed rapid rates of thaw in the permafrost disturbances known as retrogressive thaw slumps, with large sections of the ground being lost to the mud cesspool below over the past year. Our on-the-ground phenology data indicates that this is an early year, and we are hoping that the drone data also shows that pattern in the time series of multispectral imagery.

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We’re so excited about the amount of data we can collect with drones. Now let’s get this thing up in the air!

For future updates on all things drone, stay tuned to the blog over the field season and through the fall.  And if you are keen on high latitude drone ecology yourself, then sign up for the HiLDEN network!

 

By Isla

Arctic Smellscapes

Over the last two months we have often asked you to imagine what it would be like to be here with us in the Arctic. Through words, photos and videos, we have tried to bring the Arctic closer to you. So close that if you just imagine, you may well see it. You could even hear it. If you ponder the many changes occurring on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island, from changes in vegetation structure and community composition to changes in what our life is like here, and listen again, you could hear a change. The Arctic – you can see it, you can hear it, and now, for a fuller experience, we present the Arctic smellscape of Qikiqtaruk, so you can smell it, too. It may have started as a joke, and there may or may not be talk of an Arctic taste- and touchscape, but for now, we do think that the Arctic smellscape represents a unique blend of aromas – smell alone could often reveal what is going on around us and how the landscape, and our day to day camp life, is changing.

As we step through the tundra, we often think of Team Shrub members that are not out in the field with us this year – though of course we do that regardless of what the air around us smells like, there are particular aromas we associate with people. A whiff of Ledum reminds us of Haydn who dedicated a song to this fragrant flowering plant: “Ledum, I want to get some… Ledum, you rhododendron”. It has been quite hot here, and patches of Ledum bring a bit of freshness like a fine perfume into the stale mosquito-ridden air!

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We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea

Of course, it is almost always followed by a much more prominent smell that follows us almost everywhere we go – mosquito repellent! Layers and layers of mosquito repellent quickly disguise any smell of cleanliness one might have acquired from the sauna the night before. But the chemical smell brings with it reprieve from the persistent insect attacks, and thus the smell is now associated for us with a major sense of relief.

We managed to catch a whiff of forest fires far away – perhaps in Alaska or down by Old Crow the other day? Tundra fires are becoming more frequent across the biome, and though we haven’t seen any here on Qikiqtaruk, we think we’ve smelled fires further away either in the tundra out west or boreal forst down south – making us realise how the impacts of disturbances often extend beyond the places where they directly occur.

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Boreal forests in Canada burn frequently.

On a jollier smell note, the smell of burned wood, in particular when around camp, could also mean grilled char cooking on the fire! We have been treated to delicious char caught by the rangers, and it has been the perfect addition to our meals – from smoked char, grilled char, char soup and char fishcakes, we have enjoyed bountiful char that the ocean and rangers have to offer, both its taste and smell!  A whiff of smoke while returning to camp could also mean that the sauna is on and a chance to get clean and relax after a hard day’s work.  We miss Santeri’s sauna songs and Finnish sauna expertise, the sauna experience isn’t quite the same without him: “Herre Letonen, herre Letonen…”.

The last two weeks have been marked by the strong and very distinct smell of slump – we have been to slumps ABC and D, where complex biochemical reactions fill up the air with a smell no less complex – it is not a bad smell as one might imagine initially, just very specific to the slumps and coastal erosion. It smells like freshly turned earth, like rotting compost, but stronger, and different in a way that is hard to pin down.  What are those complex molecules filling the air associated with anaerobic decomposition?

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The slumps are letting off a rather peculiar perfume

Slump D is one of the largest retrogressive thaw slumps in the Northern Hemisphere. It would certainly be hard to mistake it for something else, but if ever in doubt, its smellscape certainly confirms that we are near a massive retrogressive thaw slump! Recently we have been picking up that smell near camp as well, where big chunks of ground have been disappearing into the water – on some days as much as 3m of land has been succumbing under the waves, This rapid coastal erosion has already reshaped the Qikiqtaruk coastline near Pauline Cove. We have been working to monitor this erosion in collaboration with the Alfred Wegener Institute using drones and time lapse cameras – documenting the rapid retreat of the coastline and blocks of tundra disappearing into the waves.

In our soundscape, silence was particularly special – peace and quiet to ponder life, reflect on our time here, or just be. Here, in our Qikiqtaruk smellscape, we have to say that lack of smell can be pretty special, too. It has been a while since our clothes have been through a proper washing machine, and though we try our best, it is pretty difficult to get our clothes properly clean using limited washing water in a bucket. Thanks to the sauna and a few brave jumps in the ocean, though, we are happy to report that occasionally, we take a deep breath, and smell pretty much nothing except for the fresh Arctic air.

By Gergana

Arctic Soundscapes: Revisited

Imagine you are here with us during our field season on Qikiqtaruk – tundra stretching far into the distance, cottongrass seeds blowing in the wind and shiny green leaves of Arctic willows all around you.

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Cottongrass seeds blowing in the wind

Close your eyes and listen – we have already shared our impressions of the Qikiqtaruk soundscape – the bird songs, the gentle breeze and ferocious winds, the hum of the bumblebees and the calming quiet. But time has passed, and we are now approaching the height of the summer season. The landscape has changed, and so has the soundscape. There are still the ubiquitous calls of waders and the occasional moments of silence, but today things are a bit noisier – so let’s revisit the soundscapes of Qikiqtaruk.

·       Radio chatter. The Qikiqtaruk radio channel, channel 69 – the pleasure craft channel – is the main way of communication between the rangers, researchers and visitors here on the island and beyond. We can even communicate with folks at Shingle Point over 50 km away and any passing boat traffic. It can sometimes get a bit lonely while you’re out in the tundra, so it’s nice to overhear talk on the radio, be it conversations about the weather (“Do you see whitecaps at Qikiqtaruk?”, “Yes.”, “Are there whitecaps at Shingle?”, “Yep, there are whitecaps here too”), the stats relayed usually refer to how many char have been caught that day, and daily check-ins to make sure all is well. A new radio channel has been added to our usual playlist, number 72, leading us to the next unexpected element of today’s soundscape.

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Radio chatter

·       Construction noises! An old caisson – a large concrete submerged artificial island –  near the shore is getting removed nearly 40 years after it was last used during the oil extraction period in the 1970s and after almost a decade of planning. The other day the peace and quiet of our Arctic summer home was overcome by the sounds of an industrial site setting up next door. The usually unoccupied waters around Qikiqtaruk are now home to four big ships, two barges and several smaller vessels that seem to be working away both day and night. It’s a peculiar mix to have first the bird cranes singing, then the construction cranes adding in less poetic notes to our Arctic soundscape!

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An industrial site setting up next door

·       Speaking of noises from industry, we have our own man-made noises to contribute! Every evening into the small hours of the morning and every morning until we are ready to head to the field we now add the purr of our little Honda generator into the soundscape mix.  We have moved house from Signals House to the Trappers cabin that doesn’t have solar panels so we are now more reliant on a more ancient sunshine to charge drone batteries, computers and equipment. There is nothing like the peaceful sound of a generator to lull you to sleep in the evening when you are out in a remote Arctic field site.

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The peaceful sound of a generator in the evening

·       For several weeks now the sound that accompanies you on less-than-super-windy day – particularly on the hottest day of the year – is the whine of mosquitos.  Now that we are approaching peak biomass and summer is in full swing it can actually be pretty hot out, and the tundra can feel more like the tropics.  And with the warmth come hundreds of mosquitos that have no respect for your personal space. Is it the incessant whine of the cloud of mosquitos in your ears, the fear of hives developing after countless mosquito bites or the thought of perhaps loosing your mind all together out on the tundra that makes this particular sound so hard to handle?  There is a reason we wrote a death metal song with the chorus “Mosquitos die, die, die” last year.

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The incessant whine of the cloud of mosquitos in your ears

·       “Telemetry lost, telemetry recovered”, “Bad HRS”, “Compass error”, “Bad EKF” – have you ever listened to a radio show for so long that you feel like you know the hosts? Well, we have similar feelings towards the person providing the voice over for the software we are using to plan our drone flights – Mission Planner. Though the software sometimes delivers bad news, it is nice to have that sense of familiarity with the beeps and constant (but not always helpful) updates. There is a lot of uncertainty in Arctic fieldwork and there is little we can predict in advance, but it’s good to know that whatever happens, the Mission Planner lady will be there to tell you about the state of the telemetry. But if only she could tell you not only what is “bad”, but how to fix it.

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Whatever happens, the Mission Planner lady will be there

We are well over halfway through the field season, and the Arctic soundscapes of Qikiqtaruk continues to surprise us.  All senses are engaged when you are out here on the island – what will tomorrow look like, sound like, even smell like?  We have been here for over a month now without a real shower, perhaps we can write a post about the smellscapes of Qikiqtaruk next!

By Gergana & Isla

The hottest day of the year (and the epic storm that followed)

Imagine yourself alone in the tundra.

But imagine it isn’t quite as cold as you might think.

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Baking in the tundra sun

The sweat is dripping down your back, the whine of mosquitos is incessant in your ears.  As you gasp for air while climbing the hill with your heavy backpack on, you just suck in the mosquito netting wrapped around your head.  DEET coats your skin with a shiny plastic-dissolving sheen as polymer bonds around you are destabilized and carcinogens seep into you through your skin.  This is the hottest day of the year on Qikiqtaruk.

Tough decisions have to be made on days like this – none more so that the perfect balance between having enough layers to avoid mosquito bites, but not so many as to boil in the humid Arctic heat. There came a point when the heat brought us to a naïve sense of bravery – the layers of clothing were coming off! Out of the frying pan, so to speak, and into the fire of mosquito bites and the eternal itching.

Flying drones in such hot weather brings its own challenges, too – we have to protect our reflectance panels from mosquitos (squished or alive), and avoid exposing too much skin when piloting during take-off, landing and general drone prep. If even the tip of your nose is exposed it will get bitten, and that can break your much need concentration.

 

To help us through the heat, we turned to a spin-off version of a popular Arctic fieldwork game. Usually one would play “warm thoughts”, where we all take turns trying to imagine the warmest of scenarios to help us battle the cold.  On the hottest day of the year warm thoughts were in no shortage, so “cold thoughts” it was! From turquoise mountain creeks in New Zealand, sea breezes back at Pauline Cove and several flavours of ice cream, our imagination took us on a refreshingly cold journey and soon enough we were back to camp where we could cool down for real thanks to a quick dip in the Arctic Ocean.

 

On the following day, we were well prepared, for the instead of losing layers we had to start putting on more and more clothing: the skies were darkening, the wind was picking up, and a menacing sheet of dense fog was moving towards us. A storm was on the way!

After getting all set up and ready to fly, the weather grounded our drone flights – no data drone collection, sigh! So, we turned to collecting the precise locations of our ground control markers and deploying our new large and multispectral-approved markers we had made in Inuvik earlier on. As the dark clouds approached, we put on full waterproof clothing in anticipation of the rain, and went on what felt like a pretty epic journey from marker to marker. We could hear thunder in the distance and soon enough heavy raindrops were splashing off the screen of the GNSS equipment. What were once little creeks of sediment water making their way from the slump to the ocean now looked like quick streams gaining more and more power as the storm intensified.

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The oncoming storm

It was a pretty “majestical” scene (as they say in the New Zealand movie “The Wilderpeople” – guess what we watched later that night…) to be GNSSing during an oncoming storm, made all the more atmospheric by our songs about rain and thunder. Soon enough though the storm was becoming too strong, so we headed back to shore by doing what felt more like mud skiing than walking in the quickly liquefying slump floor. Thanks to the research crew from the Alfred Wegener Institute, we got a ride back to camp in their trusty Zodiac boat Christine past the new barges and boats camped next to Pauline Cove.

Once at camp, we got out of our muddy boots, dried our wet clothes, warmed ourselves up with tea and a fire in the wood stove and enjoyed a movie night. Outside, the rain continues to pour and the wind continues to howl – hard to imagine that less than a day earlier we were totally overwhelmed by the Arctic heat!

By Gergana and Isla

Things don’t always go to plan

Today’s post is supposed to be about using drones to detect changes in phenology. However, when you’re trying to communicate with remote Arctic islands, things don’t always go to plan.

For those excited about drones, don’t worry. That post will be here soon.

For everyone else, we’re keeping up the phenology theme with TWO fantastic new videos that made it off on the latest plane flight!

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We have been using phenocams (time-lapse cameras) to track the changing of the seasons at both our sites. Yesterday Izzy wrote about setting up the cameras at our southern site, but today we are focusing on the North, hopping up the length of the UK to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

Nestled amongst the shrubs, we have phenocams tracking when the willows come to life, capturing the burst of tundra green spectacularly.

Out on the hilltops the snow melts away and the flowers fight for the midnight sun. And, true to form, things don’t go fully to plan as a musk-ox tries to muscle in on the action.

By Haydn

Shrub surveillance

One of my first tasks as the Kluane Research Assistant was to set up phenocams in the common garden experiment. Phenocams, or more generally time lapse cameras, take pictures every hour to create a video of what has happened over time. Differences in the timing of life events (phenology) – things like when leaves appear or die – are probably one of the biggest drivers of the difference in growth we are seeing between willow populations. With phenocams we can now track this throughout the whole year!

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Posts awaiting phenocams

My first step was to unbox them, which, I have to say was the most time consuming! I was to put up 12 cameras around the garden to monitor certain plots, with another one going to be put in a tree to get an aerial view.

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After all was unboxed, it was time for the set-up. The instructions were very clear and allowed for the cameras to be customized to our liking. I inputted the time and date and chose the name for each camera. This information will be displayed at the bottom of each picture when the whole video comes together. Being able to name each camera makes it very easy to differentiate between each camera, especially when we have so many! 

Once the set-ups for all cameras was complete, I headed over to the common garden to put them up. Team Drone, who stopped in Kluane earlier this summer, thankfully put up the posts where I was to attach the cameras. At first I wasn’t too sure how I’d be able to set them up but thankfully each camera came with a connecting band and clasp that I found was long and strong enough to attach each camera securely. The outcome looks pretty good and hopefully the final resulting images will too!

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Shrubs under 24 hour surveillance

By Izzy

Our phenocams were purchased thanks to a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

 

Phenology Today

Phenology Today
A semi-weekly periodical about the reproductive lives and growth of tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

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A lone white petal on a Dryas (mountain avens) flower resists today’s wind, keeping its status as the last remaining open flower in our phenology plots. An increasing trend of flower seed heads, made up of intricately twisting filaments, can be observed across all sites. Arctic willows continue to grow, but no seed catkins have open yet to reveal their fluffy seed.

The breeze stirs up the gossip among the grasses: who is reproducing, when and where? What will today bring for phenology on Qikiqtaruk? Providing you with all the latest updates on flower blooming, plant growth, seed dispersal and all things phenology, this is Phenology Today!

On the 5th July 70 Dryas flowers fill a single 1x1m plot. Eleven days later, only 4 remain. Summer comes and goes quickly in the Arctic. By the time this news reaches you, there might not be any white Dryas blossoms left – all replaced by twisting seed heads. No seed heads have unfurled so far, and we have yet to record Dryas seed dispersal. But certainly, with the inevitable passing of time, dispersal will happen.  After all, winter is coming…

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Isla’s arrival marks the resolution of a month-long quest to quantify the level of fluffiness of Eriophorum (cottongrass) flowers. Precisely when does fluffiness start to decrease? It will signify the end, the end of the flowering period and beginning of seed dispersal. Gergana and Isla have visited all phenology plots, and in a shocking twist of events, we now report that some flowers are fluffier than initially perceived by Gergana. More seed dispersal is bound to happen soon. Until then, we shall be standing by continuing to measure leaf length, waiting for the incessant winds to start carrying off Eriophorum seeds.

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How high will the grass species, Arctagrostis latifolia, grow? We visit twice a week, reveal ing a whooping maximum height of 43.1cm so far this year! That’s tall!  There is pollen visible on some flowers, but for now grass seed dispersal seems to be a distant future that we can only but imagine.

Around this time last year Team Shrub was wishing upon willow flowers to bring good weather to both blow away the mosquitos and hasten the arrival of the second half of our crew. Today, very few willow catkins have released their fluffy seeds into the wind in the phenology plots, hindering wish making. The willows are still steadily growing though, surprising us with larger and larger lengths of new stem growth.  How much will they grow this year? Only time can tell.

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Thanks to a team effort in eating small pots of yoghurts, we have successfully manufactured new radiation shields for the iButtons on the phenology plots. What can temperature sensors, ground observations and drones tell us about phenological changes? Check out the ShrubTundra project to find out more.

This is Team Drone reporting for Phenology Today from Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. And remember, you heard it here first.

By Gergana and Isla