I have just returned to Fairbanks after spending two weeks in the field surveying Ptarmigan as part of Katie Christie’s PhD research at the University of Alaska. What an amazing experience! The sheer number and diversity of wildlife on Alaska’s North Slope is astounding, and I recommend a visit to this area in May and/or June when birds are beginning to breed. Any lack of geographical features (except of course for the Brooks Mountain Range), is far and away made up for in sheer wildlife diversity.
The weather conditions we experienced during our two weeks in the arctic spanned the extremes you can expect in late spring. Our first week of field work was about a good as it gets in the high arctic: abundant sunshine almost 24 hours a day, temperatures in the 50s and 60s, low winds, and no bugs! Then things took a turn for the next week as we experienced just about the dreariest weather the arctic can offer this time of year: clouds, ice fog, snow, rain, wind, you name it (but still no bugs!). Our last day was capped off with brilliant sunshine and a return to clear weather. The Ptarmigan and other birds seemed to endure this extreme weather without the slightest thought. And why not? Ptarmigan regularly endure -40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in the winter: so what is a little ice fog and sideways snow at a balmy 30 degrees to them? It must feel like a heat wave!
After conducting earlier Ptarmigan surveys, we spent the majority of our two weeks performing shrub surveys. Ptarmigan are a shrub specialist, with a majority of their diet consisting of various willow species. Willows are a common shrub in the arctic, and are often the only vegetation sticking out above the snow during the long winter months. Ptarmigan form flocks in the winter and spring (sometimes of more than 200 individuals) to move across the landscape and find these shrub patches sticking out from under the snow. Our mission was to document how they have been ‘browsing’ these willows since last year. I must say, these birds can sure wreak havoc on a stand of willows! They consume mostly the buds on the new willow shoots from the past years growth, as this provides them with the most nutritional value. You realize the extent to which Ptarmigan browse these shrubs when it is hard to find a single plant that hasn’t had buds removed from Ptarmigan beaks. Katie’s work at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is documenting this browsing of shrubs by Ptarmigan, trying to understand how these birds affect willow growth and development, and what this could mean for the arctic shrub expansion expected (and already seen) due to Climate Change.
I spent much of my free time in the field taking photos and video of Ptarmigan for a future Webisode(s) on Katie’s research, which we hope to produce in the near future to share with everyone! Needless to say I took an astounding number of photographs and video of other birds and wildlife as well, getting a feel for the new camera I purchased before this trip. The coolest songbird I documented, however, was undoubtably the Bluethroat.
Bluethroat’s are a relatively common thrush in Europe and Asia, but regularly breed throughout a small range in northern Alaska. Very little is known about the biology and range of this songbird outside of Europe and Alaska, a prime candidate for future research! Needless to say we heard this bird before we even saw it as its long songs, often given in flight, mimic many sounds from other birds. What an incredible looking bird once we finally did spot it! Relatively few temperate songbirds incorporate blue into their plumages, and it is always striking to see this portrayed so prominently. The bluethroat of the Bluethroat (!) really comes alive against the otherwise drab, brown plumage of the bird. Normally very difficult to see, we had no trouble as several males displayed for us prominently via complex and elaborate flight displays. I was only able to get a few snap-shots of the bird in flight, as it’s small size and erratic flight path made it difficult to focus on.
Upon my return to the Lower 48 later this week, I will continue to sort through all of the footage and photographs I have obtained while in Alaska. These will be used for future blog posts (although I will already warn birders that I did not see any Arctic Warblers this early in the season!) and Webisodes, so say tuned!