Phenology Today A semi-weekly periodical about the reproductive lives and growth of tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.
A lone white petal on a Dryas (mountain avens) flower resists today’s wind, keeping its status as the last remaining open flower in our phenology plots. An increasing trend of flower seed heads, made up of intricately twisting filaments, can be observed across all sites. Arctic willows continue to grow, but no seed catkins have open yet to reveal their fluffy seed.
The breeze stirs up the gossip among the grasses: who is reproducing, when and where? What will today bring for phenology on Qikiqtaruk? Providing you with all the latest updates on flower blooming, plant growth, seed dispersal and all things phenology, this is Phenology Today!
On the 5th July 70 Dryas flowers fill a single 1x1m plot. Eleven days later, only 4 remain. Summer comes and goes quickly in the Arctic. By the time this news reaches you, there might not be any white Dryas blossoms left – all replaced by twisting seed heads. No seed heads have unfurled so far, and we have yet to record Dryas seed dispersal. But certainly, with the inevitable passing of time, dispersal will happen. After all, winter is coming…
Isla’s arrival marks the resolution of a month-long quest to quantify the level of fluffiness of Eriophorum (cottongrass) flowers. Precisely when does fluffiness start to decrease? It will signify the end, the end of the flowering period and beginning of seed dispersal. Gergana and Isla have visited all phenology plots, and in a shocking twist of events, we now report that some flowers are fluffier than initially perceived by Gergana. More seed dispersal is bound to happen soon. Until then, we shall be standing by continuing to measure leaf length, waiting for the incessant winds to start carrying off Eriophorum seeds.
How high will the grass species, Arctagrostis latifolia, grow? We visit twice a week, reveal ing a whooping maximum height of 43.1cm so far this year! That’s tall! There is pollen visible on some flowers, but for now grass seed dispersal seems to be a distant future that we can only but imagine.
Around this time last year Team Shrub was wishing upon willow flowers to bring good weather to both blow away the mosquitos and hasten the arrival of the second half of our crew. Today, very few willow catkins have released their fluffy seeds into the wind in the phenology plots, hindering wish making. The willows are still steadily growing though, surprising us with larger and larger lengths of new stem growth. How much will they grow this year? Only time can tell.
Thanks to a team effort in eating small pots of yoghurts, we have successfully manufactured new radiation shields for the iButtons on the phenology plots. What can temperature sensors, ground observations and drones tell us about phenological changes? Check out the ShrubTundra project to find out more.
This is Team Drone reporting for Phenology Today from Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. And remember, you heard it here first.
Qikiqtaruk is a beautiful and inspirational place – science chats are particularly special when you can see, feel, hear and even smell your study system change as the growing season progresses. Out during phenology data collection yesterday, we saw that the spring flowers are fading and seed dispersal is beginning… summer is well under way. And this year, in addition spotting awesome wildlife, admiring magnificent sunsets and informally chatting about science in our remote Arctic field site, we have also started a book club!
Over the past year, Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities” prompted the start of several book clubs around the world. Mark is a collaborator of ours and Isla’s former postdoc advisor, so we have been eagerly awaiting our chance to read and discuss his book. We didn’t initially join the book club, but we did manage to stay away from major spoilers and now that we are on Qikiqtaruk and away from the distractions of the world beyond the island (and as close to the plant communities we study as could be) this seems like just the right time to start our very own book club!
We read the first two chapters of Mark’s book after a day of putting hundreds of tea bags in the ground for a decomposition experiment out across the landscape in the different ecological communities here on the island from flood plain willows to dry grass and tussock sedge, and here are our thoughts!
The first question that Mark asks in his book is:
“What is community ecology and how does one define an ecological community?”
Gergana has also been concurrently reading Anne Magurran’s “Measuring Biological Diversity”, which also discusses the definition of an ecological community or species assemblage, so taking what we learned from the two books, there are many ways to define a community, and it’s rarely clear where are community ends and another begins…
Unless you are on a remote Arctic island! Here on Qikiqtaruk, there are several very distinct ecological communities – in particular the so-called Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types. They are very easy to spot when you are out walking around across the landscape or from a drones-eye view from 50 – 100 metres in the air. The ecological communities are so distinct up here that it is the only place that Isla has been to where she truly believes vegetation classification is possible.
The Herschel communities are older landforms (we think) and dominated by tussocks of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum, whereas the Komakuk communities likely have undergone disturbances such as active layer detachments, more active cryoturbation and erosion and are dominated by forb species, grasses and the dwarf willow Salix arctica. There are very few species shared between them, and it’s virtually impossible to confuse the two. But why are there such distinct ecological communities in the same extreme Arctic environment occupying the same upland soils with the same overall species pool that are undergoing the same types of selection pressures? This remains a mystery to us.
Sedge and willow dominated Herschel
Grass and dryas dominated Komakuk
Point framing in the Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types. The two locations are about 200m apart
How did these two communities come to be? We think that perhaps it was the different disturbance facilitated the establishment of the younger Komakuk community. But what is keeping the communities separate today? As demonstrated by the abundance of bare ground patches in Komakuk, some level of disturbance continues, but there are a few, not many, but still some areas of Komakuk where Eriophorum tussocks are making a comeback – we probably won’t live to see it in these long-lived and slow growing plant communities, but maybe at some point, the Herschel community will again dominate over Komakuk in less disturbed parts of the landscape. But on the other hand, with longer growing seasons and warming autumn and winter temperatures perhaps different disturbances are on the increase in this part of the climate-limited tundra biome.
Mark Vellend would have us believe that four factors alone shape the ecological communities that we see on the landscape including: 1) selection, 2) drift, 3) speciation and 4) dispersal. And that within these four factors are many other forces at play such as biological interactions such as competition, mutualisms, herbivory, disease, etc.
On Qikiqtaruk we have found evidence of biotic interactions such as plant-plant competition and allelopathy potentially influencing the growth and germination of seeds and see signs of herbivory from the muskox and caribou, lemmings and voles down to insects, but it must be more than just biotic interactions creating these super distinct ecological communities up here in the Canadian Arctic. Can the following chapters of the book “Theory of Ecological Communities” shed light on the ecological mystery that is the plant communities of Qikiqtaruk? We shall see, so stay tuned.
We are looking forward to our next book club meeting. Until then, we will be collecting data and thinking about how the four high-level processes central to the Theory of Ecological Communities (selection, drift, speciation and dispersal) are influencing the patterns we see in the Herschel and Komakuk communities at our remote Arctic field site.
By Gergana and Isla
p.s. Gergana also found the acknowledgements section very inspirational – it’s always great to read about a community (of people) that supports one another and collectively works to advance science! The University of Queensland, in the sub tropics of the city of Brisbane Australia where the majority of the book was written, was also where Gergana spent a year of her undergrad – such a great place to think and write about ecology! And such a different place ecologically from Qikiqtaruk in the Canadian Arctic.
This blog post was written on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Western Canadian Arctic as part of Team Shrub’s island book club, aiming to read and discuss Mark Vellend’s 2016 book “The Theory of Ecological Communities” while we are out in the field, right next to the communities we study. Team Shrub are a group of plant ecologists who often work in high-latitude tundra ecosystems on topics in community ecology.
The team’s book club discussions are summarised in four blog posts:
The icy waters that welcomed us to Qikiqtaruk are long gone – past are the beautiful sunsets with light reflecting off big chunks of ice, and instead we now see dark blue or grey waters and occasionally even beluga whales swimming by. It’s a great time of the summer, with some flowers still in bloom, while others are setting seeds. The sandpiper and plover chicks are growing up, and we have been spending lots of time out in the field – through sunshine, wind and fog, the data are rolling in!
Now that we have already celebrated our two week and three weekiversaries on the island and are approaching a month on the island, we thought we’d reflect on our fieldwork milestones so far!
We celebrated solstice by arriving on the island, checking out the vast expanse of sea ice in the water and exploring our home for the summer and all the breeding bird species with Park Biologist Cameron Eckert.
1st July (Happy Canada Day!)
Canada Day dinner with the rangers – for some of us it was our first Canada Day ever and it was the big 150 this year, and we all had a great time sharing stories and enjoying a tasty feast on a day celebrating the confederation of peoples including all the original people of this vast country.
Wildlife sightings – some of our favourites include a herd of 25 caribou with calves, the four majestic muskoxen, a short-eared owl flying over camp, black guillemots riding the waves, waders dashing around on the spit, and belugas and bowheads off the cliffs from Collinson Head (14th July).
4th July (Happy Independence Day!)
Six new phenocams are all set up and hopefully well enough to resist any muskox encounters (none so far)! It will be great to see all the photos stitched together at the end of the season from May to August, thanks to the rangers setting things up for us before we arrived. The ongoing on-the-ground phenology observations have also been no less exciting, though they are a bit more of a pain to collect when the mosquitos are at their most ferocious like yesterday!
The first twisting of the filaments of the Dryas (mountain avens) in our phenology monitoring! We’ve also been counting how many flowers there are in each of the phenology plots and we are now past peak flower time – now there will be fewer and fewer pretty coloured flowers, but watching the Dryas seed heads develop and twist round and round and the fluffy flowers of the Eriophorum take flight is beautiful too!
A Team Shrub record for largest area surveyed with drones in one day – 3,000,000 meters squared. We now have 193,735 images (as of 15th July) and counting for this field season so far. As soon as the winds die down the drones are out – with three pilots in the field, there has been lots of drone action – different drones, different scales of investigation, different spectral bands, which together will hopefully give us a comprehensive view of vegetation change across the tundra.
Our first group photo (minus Isla who hasn’t arrived yet)! Team Drone surrounded by tundra flowers and arctic willows.
A milestone in the making – surveying all of our sites with GNSS (a type of GPS system) – a super precise way to know exactly where all of our markers and plots are. Around a week ago, we met with representatives of Canada Parks and it was very cool to learn that they also use GNSS technology when mapping historical sites – always interesting to see how people use the same technology in different ways.
Perhaps the most exciting milestone of all (at least for Isla): Isla has arrived!!! I have finally made it to the island after five days of trying. Finally, on Tuesday the 11th of July my float plane successfully touched down in Pauline Cove as a seal curiously watched on. Most amazing of all was that the “freshies” the fresh fruit and vegetables that had been sitting in a hot plane for more than two days were actually for the most part fine and still as fresh and delicious as vegetables tend to be in the North.
14th July (Happy Bastille Day!)
Another Team Shrub record of 50 drone flights in one day! And, the excitement of finding a two-way radio in the tundra, several days after it was last seen.
Active layer depth has reached its highest value yet at 68cm this week! Strong winds delayed some of our initial drone flying, but there have been lots of ground observations made. The metal probe we’re using for the active layer depth measurements is also a pretty good walking pole! And when dragged along the ground sounds a bit like that noise from that horror movie “The Shining’.
Awe-inspiring sunsets – Qikiqtaruk is beautiful at all times of the day, but the evening light makes it all extra special! There are also many ittle moments of beauty in the field – be it a particularly fluffy patch of cottongrass, backlight lupines, a family of ptarmigans walking by, or just the sheer grandeur of the landscape, it’s been great to stop during data collection for a second to take it all in.
So at nearly one month in there are many milestones to go. What will we see or experience next? Only time will tell…
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.