Friday, September 21, 2012

June 13 - calm, eider

View over the data tent of the Brooks Range to the south

When I awoke this morning something was different. It took only the briefest of moments to realize: there was no wind. For the first time in 10 days, the relentless wind had completely dropped. On a featureless plain such as the tundra, sound carried quite a ways when liberated from the tampering of constant gusts. I could hear birds that were close to a kilometer away, and the people taking in the cook tent were clearly audible from at least 50 meters away. It was still foggy, but that could not mar the wonder of calm.
We set out after breakfast with it still calm and foggy, and throughout the 10km that we walked we were able to witness the complete transformation of weather. By our return around 6pm it had become a simple gorgeous sunny day with low winds merely whispering in the background as we went about our business.

King Eider pair

The warm brown tundra around us is broken up by the ponds and channels glinting different shades of blue against the picture perfect sky. Distant few remnant drifts of snow glow brilliant white; shining beacons from miles away. Birds fly every which way: small sparrow-sized shorebirds flit from hummock to hummock; a skein of ivory Snow Geese flies over, complementing the newly liberated blue sky like little living clouds. A Caribou and her calf pick their way across a gravel floodplain, idly feeding on grasses. Later, back at camp, a female Caribou walks right by camp and spends the evening grazing a couple hundred meters from us.
As always, this natural extravaganza is framed to the north by icebergs on the horizon, a line of snow-capped peaks of the Brooks Range to the south, and to the east and west; seemingly endless tundra. Tonight the winds are still low, sky still clear, and scenery still unrealistically mesmerizing.

Female Red-necked Phalarope - a rare instance of where the females are brighter than the males in a bird species!

In addition to the waking dream of a day that was today, there were also great new birds, most notable the rare and enigmatic Spectacled Eider! This striking seaduck only breeds from eastern Siberia as far east as we were, and until the 1990’s nobody knew where it spent winters! The secret was finally discovered by a couple biologists flying in a plane over the Arctic Ocean searching for birds tagged with radio transponders. They came upon huge groups of Spectacled Eider packed wing-to-wing in small natural holes in the pack ice, holes called polynyas that form due to underwater upwellings or wind patterns. The entire world population of this species spends the whole winter in the Arctic Ocean, with 24 hour darkness, surrounded by nothing but ice for hundreds of miles, and they make it work! Amazing creatures.
Two pairs of Spectacled Eider!

Something flushed the eider, and one of the males flew right past me!

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