I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska on Friday, May 11th just in time to see the sun setting around 11pm local time. My flight had left Seattle about three and a half hours prior, at which point I had also been watching the sun setting! Ah the great northern summer! I have come north to volunteer for a project focusing on Ptarmigan and Willow interactions along the North Slope of Alaska. Here, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) PhD candidate Katie Christie has been studying how Ptarmigan and Willows compete with each other. Ptarmigan are grouse-like, arctic ground dwelling birds that feed almost exclusively on willow buds in the late winter and early spring. Over the next 2+ weeks, I will be assisting Katie on her project conducting aerial surveys for Ptarmigan and ground surveys for Willows.
We will be leaving tomorrow to drive to Coldfoot (see map for details on survey area), north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway. The Dalton Highway was constructed to provide access from Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, and to allow maintenance workers access to the Trans Alaskan Pipeline. Incidentally, it also allows biologists great access to study sites far north. At Coldfoot, we will be staying with a pilot who will take us on daily flights far north over the Brooks Mountain Range to survey for Ptarmigan. These aerial surveys, over the course of two days on the North Slope, will involve flying established routes about 100 meters above the ground to look for both Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. Flocks of birds should be pretty easy to spot this time of year against the snow, as most are starting to transition into their summer plumage, which includes more brown than white feathers.
Once these harrowing flights have concluded, we will continue north along the Dalton Highway to the Toolik Field Station. Here, arctic researchers congregate to study various facets of the arctic ecosystem. Katie and I will be focusing our attention on how willow shrubs are being ‘grazed’ by Ptarmigan from Toolik Lake north along the Sagavanirktok River. Our northern most shrub sites will take us close to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields! One of Katie’s main research interests is looking at how possible shrub expansion due to climate change may impact Ptarmigan/Willow interactions.
Throughout all of this, I will be documenting our experiences for a future Webisode series on Katie’s research. I will also try to keep everyone informed on our progress up north in the coming weeks as Internet access allows. Until then, here are a few bird pictures from the past week spent exploring the greater-Fairbanks area!