The first light was tentatively breaking through the Edinburgh clouds as we braved the early morning and ran towards the train station. Four people, one mission – catch an early morning trend to St Andrews to attend the 2018 Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference! With unexpected delays and ticket machines not working, it was quite the achievement that we did actually make it in time. Team Shrub was at last year’s edition of the conference, which was great fun, so I was excited to take part again this year.
What made this conference extra special for me was that I got to share the experience with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of 4th year undergraduate students from the Ecology and Environmental Sciences programme here in Edinburgh. Struan, Jack and Fiona all took the Conservation Science course last semester and were very keen to learn more! It’s so exciting to share the research journey with students and then get to see them present the findings!
Struan presented his findings on how paths in Cairngorms National Park affect bird diversity – he did a great job at outlining the motivation behind the study, which was a great reminder for us to think about not only what we did, but also why we did it. Something to ponder at each stage of your analysis, from the very first formulation of research questions to writing up the results!
I really enjoyed the SEECC 2018 conference. It was the first science conference I had attended and I found listening to what other people have been researching a very interesting experience, particularly as there was some research which overlapped with my own. My favourite part of the conference was the presentation I did on my dissertation which really gave me a flavour of what presenting your own scientific work is like.
Struan Johnson, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student
It was also my first time sharing some of the preliminary findings of my PhD! Exciting times. A nice coincidence was that the IPBES meetings were happening at the same time, so my post-conference reward for myself was going through the regional summaries for biodiversity change and its drivers.
Gergana presenting some of the preliminary results of her work on forest cover change and biodiversity trends
The IPBES reports were released same time as the conference – an exciting coincidence!
All around the world, forests are lost, forests are gained – what does that mean for biodiversity?
Next up, Jack presented his dissertation project, which investigated the links between wellbeing and environmental threats in Tanzania’s Wildlife Management Areas. Jack was a great speaker on quite the difficult topic!
I thought the conference was very well run, full of interesting and insightful topics and the people presenting were very passionate. It was really nice being able to discuss a wide range of ecological issues with people with in depth knowledge and an encouraging platform for even an undergraduate student to present their work.
Jack Cunningham, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student
I found it a thought-provoking day, and was interesting to hear about the variety of academic research across Scotland. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, with everyone attending (speakers or not) very approachable and eager to talk about current research!
Fiona Stephen, 4th year Ecological and Environmental sciences student
For me, a trip to St Andrews is not complete without ice-cream or fudge donuts… or a combination of the two! We had a great time at the conference and had a very jolly and inspired day full of science!
Some of these situations are frustrating as they happen, but they can be funny afterwards. From forgetting and/or loosing things and various pieces of equipment not working to unpredictable weather getting in the way of drone flights, there is no shortage of opportunities for us to find ourselves in a real pickle. A strong smell of vinegar fills up our cabin right now, so it seems like an appropriate time to share stories about our fieldwork pickles so far, both real and metaphorical!
Last year the team put out sets of markers to identify our drone sites. Most of the markers made it through the winter just fine – they are still exactly where they were pinned down… but some now have around 10-15cm of water above them! One of the sites is flooded – we were wading through the water, aiming for the dry grassy areas beyond the wet patches, when we realised we are actually already in the site! After looking through the murky water we eventually managed to find a fair few of the markers. We’ll still need to wait for the site to dry off a bit before we can fly the drones above it, so hopefully all the wind and sunshine will help with that1
This field season we arrived on the island with a serious drone fleet – several multicopters and fixed wings, some of which we are using for the first time. Troubleshooting drone problems on a remote Arctic island has already given us the chance to ponder creative solutions, as we can’t look up things on the internet or send the drones back for repairs. Luckily, this season we have three drone pilots, so hopefully we are in for some smooth flying! Nevertheless, we did still accidentally cut a very important wire 2km away from camp making the drones inoperable – at least it was a beautiful day for a walk back to camp to get a new one!
And then, of course, there are the real fieldwork pickles! I used to do a lot of canning (and I still have jars of pickles left from when I pickled over 100 jars of gherkins – it was a great year for cucumbers!), so I thought I could whip up a batch of island pickles. After all, Qikiqtaruk is our home for almost two months, and what makes a place feel like home? A lovely community to welcome you… and a few jars of homemade pickles! So with veggies, jars and a recipe from back home in toll, I set out to make “Парена царска туршия”, which translates as “mixed pickled salad for kings”.
Making pickles turned into one pickle of a situation though, when I found brine shrimp swimming around my pickling jars, certainly not the brine I was going for! I have since found more jars and in two weeks’ time the pickles should be ready to eat!
So here’s to a field season where we seldom find ourselves in a pickle and instead, enjoy some nice pickled veggies!
It was little more than a flash in the willows, just for an instant and then vanishing, but one that stopped me in my tracks. Could that have been a hummingbird?
Qikiqtaruk is rapidly changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the vegetation that thinly covers the island. A warming climate has brought earlier green-up, shifts in plant composition, and the expansion of shrubs. Perhaps the question I’m asked most often is how are these changes affecting the bird populations? Many bird species thrive in shrubs, so could more willows be good news? Well, it’s not that simple. Other bird species, such as American Golden-Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, prefer sparse vegetation and bare ground – and these Arctic nesting shorebirds, which face stressors throughout their ranges, have declined sharply in recent decades. Still I’m intrigued by the influence that shrub expansion may be having on Herschel Island’s bird diversity. To explore this question, I now bird the willows along east Ice Creek as part of my regular morning surveys.
Ice Creek, on the northeast corner of Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park off the Yukon’s Arctic coast, flows with melting snow and ice from the surrounding rolling tundra through an alluvial fan at the base of Simpson Point, and into Pauline Cove on the Beaufort Sea. The east tributary of Ice Creek features some of the island’s biggest patches of willow (Salix richardsonii) – mostly below knee height and sparse enough that I can easily walk through the willows along the creek. Green-up in mid-June rapidly transforms this brown tundra valley into a beautiful green world of willows and wildflowers. And there are birds.
The White-crowned Sparrow, an uncommon breeder on the island, is the species expected to be most responsive to willow expansion. Their clear and distinctive song makes them easy to detect, and this past June I observed two pairs nesting along east Ice Creek, with another singing on west Ice Creek, and one more on the alluvial fan. However, it’s not clear if the population here has changed – it was known to be uncommon in the mid-1980s, though long-term breeding bird surveys conducted by Park Rangers on Simpson Point hint at an upward trend.
Common and Hoary redpolls are also common in the willows along east Ice Creek. Typical of finches, their numbers are highly variable from year to year. Here they’re not dependent on shrubs for breeding, and I’ve found a few nests in drift logs along the beach at Simpson Point. This past June, a pair of Hoary Redpolls greeted me on almost every hike up east Ice Creek. Their chittering songs and calls, and habit of collecting bits of fluff were signs of pair-bonding and nesting building.
My forays through the shrubs have yielded surprises. I’ve come across small numbers of Yellow Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers – common breeders on the North Slope mainland, but very rare on Qikiqtaruk. I’ve never heard one singing, and they seem fully occupied with feeding – wanderers to the island, but not breeders. In June I also spotted a female Varied Thrush, just the third island record, feeding along east Ice Creek; as well as an American Robin which is rare but regular on the island.
It was last year, on 19 June 2016, that I found the bird which would firmly enshrine east Ice Creek in my daily routine. Walking through willows along the creek, I flushed a warbler that flashed bright yellow undersides, an olive-green back, and dark grey hood. This was an Oporonis-type warbler, and the three possible species would all be an extreme rarity here; so when it landed I focused on its face to check for white eye crescents or lack thereof to confirm which species. It perched low in the willows for just a few seconds and I could see bright white crescents above and below the eye. The first MacGillivray’s Warbler for Herschel Island – 1000 km north of its breeding grounds.
Exactly a year later, on 19 June 2017, I was again walking through the willows along east Ice Creek. Watching, listening, and totally focused, when a tiny greenish flash caught my eye. It darted low to the ground along the edge of the willows. A hummingbird? Inconceivable! Over the next 15 minutes I saw the bird just three times and only for a few seconds, but it’s extremely small size (even for a hummer) and colouration (green back, pale buffy front) immediately brought to mind Calliope Hummingbird. It flew low to the ground, and was extremely hard to spot in the myriad willows. I decided to run back to camp and get my hummingbird feeder (yes, I brought a hummingbird feeder to the Arctic).
I was back and had the feeder set up in the willows within 35 minutes. I sat quietly and waited. Then by chance I looked over my shoulder and saw the hummer perched about 25 metres away. I got a great view and snapped my first photo. Then miraculously, the hummer did a fly by, circled around, and perched in the open on top of a nearby willow. I got great views in full sunlight, and much better photos. It vanished again into the willows. I carefully scanned the foliage, and there it was, just two metres away, but well hidden. I lined up a view through the branches and took a few more photos. Moments later, it flew again and appeared to be feeding on willow flowers. Then it disappeared. That was my last view of the hummer, and it never went to the feeder. My initial impression was confirmed – this was an adult female Calliope Hummingbird, the first for the Yukon and the Arctic. A staggering 1,800 km north of its breeding range.
It would be simplistic to dismiss such rarities as inconsequential, as their occurrences may well be early indicators of changing bird populations. Over time these well-documented records can reveal unexpected patterns. I’ll continue exploring Ice Creek, tallying the familiar birds, and carefully watching for the next surprise visitor to Herschel Island.
Cameron Eckert is an ecologist who has studied the birds, wildlife, and ecosystems of the Yukon’s North Slope and Herschel Island for the past 25 years. As Conservation Biologist with Yukon Parks, he works with Qikiqtaruk Park Rangers to coordinate the island’s ecological monitoring program.
Herschel Island bird observations can be viewed or downloaded at www.ebird.org.