26 June, 2002
Run for your life, find cover, don't stop moving, flail around, don't breathe through your mouth . . . yep, you guessed it! The mosquitoes are here for real! Now, I understand 2 things: 1) why the caribou have been in such a hurry to get out of here; 2) why so little research has been accomplished in the arctic (it's not the weather, it is the mosquitoes!).
OK, so it wasn't quite that bad (yet), but there were a couple moments today - absolutely no wind, 90% humidity, warm - in which I could at least get a feel for how bad it could get! I learned a couple of quick lessons on avoiding mosquitoes, though. First, bug spray will not last an entire day - Bring EXTRA! Second, these mosquitoes have proboscii (the part that bites you) long enough to penetrate 2 layers of shirts! Third, when you have to stop moving, always face in the direction the breeze is coming from - they may gather on your back, but at least they are not in your face! Fourth, flailing around at the buzzing hoards is absolutely useless. Finally, sixth, when trying to eat a lunch out on the tundra, first put a bug net around your face and lift it only when you are ready to take a bite. That's a lot of learning in one day, huh!
While trying to contend with my first real mosquito swarm, I had difficulty looking for birds. I did manage to find one more King Eider nest (hooray - #20 for me, and better, 33 for the group!!) and I returned to a Tundra Swan nest to retrieve a hobo temp. Although both birds were nearby, there was a parasitic jaegar in the nest eating one of the eggs. When I got to the nest, the second egg was still untouched (the hobo temp was thrown out of the nest), but the jaegar was staying close by in hopes of finishing the meal. I was curious why the swans sat out in the water and didn't attempt to return and protect their eggs?? This got me thinking about all of the different tactics I've observed birds use in trying to protect the nests from depredation.
For example, the King Eider female stays on the nest until the last second - obviously, hoping to go unnoticed and thus protect the eggs. If she does flush, she usually only goes a little ways away and then flops around in the water (probably feigning an injury) to possibly attract the would-be predator away from the eggs.
The goldern plover, when a predator nears the nest, begins to walk around, dragging a wing, flapping uselessly, stumbling a little - in other words, also trying to get the suspect to chase it instead of search for the eggs. The willow and rock ptarmigan (which are related to the pheasant) use a male/female plot to attract attention away from the nest. It seems that the female must leave the nest when she first sees a potential threat, but when she leaves, she stays low to the ground and runs, unnoticed, away from the nest. Shortly thereafter, the male that must be watching from a short distance away, makes its alarm call and loudly flies away. So, as a predator, you are first drawn to the male, and by the time you've figured out what is going on, the female has run some distance from the hidden nest. White-fronted geese are obnoxious when protecting the nest from depredation. The male is usually close by the nesting female, and both seem to flush at about the same time. While they do so, they are making a variety of calls - honks, cries, and their famous nigilik song.
Now, the fun nests to find are those of gulls. If you are near a gull nest (and this has happened with both glaucus gulls and sabien's gulls), these birds aggressively try to get you to leave. As you stand by their nest, they come swooping back at you, barely missing your head. All you know is that you feel this brush of air and hear this whooshing sound zip past you - you then look up and see that the gull is circling to return with another "fly-by!" And they do get close . . . The sabien's gull will even knock your hat off if you stand still and keep your hands down!
As for the tundra swan, I haven't quite figured out a tactic. Although a large bird, and fully capable of fending off jaegars and foxes, they seem to be less likely to act excited when a predator is nearby or even in their nest. The most reaction I've seen so far is the "hooting" sound they make as they swim around in the water and watch. Maybe it is the "big bully‚ phenomenon." Although big, when really put to the test, they will back down. Actually, my observations differ from those recorded by other scientists. According to past research, tundra swans tend to stay at their nest and if approached, will actually charge the intruder - this could be quite a scare when you see a wingspan of over 5 feet flapping and the bird honking, crying and running straight for you!
Anyway, I guess one point I'd like to make is that when in the field, one gets the opportunity to see and observe many things. Although the primary objective of the study is to observe the breeding biology (egg #/nest, size, and hatching success), there is much more learned at the same time. As we get closer to hatching time, I am becoming anxious to see how the birds behavior may change!
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