Visiting the arctic was always one of my childhood dreams.
This summer, I had the great opportunity to join scientists who visit Greenland every year as part of a long term project. We worked on a long term study on lemming cycles in North-East Greenland. With three other people, from France, Germany and Switzerland, we spent 2 weeks in the biggest national park of the world. The project is carried out in the Karupelv Valley (72.30 N; 24 W). With 3542 km2 the island of Traill is bigger than the surface area of Luxembourg (2586 km2).
The main work to carry out was to observe Sanderlings nests (Calidris alba) of which we find the first pairs in the area. We had to visit the nests every second day, mark the colour code of the adults, check if they got predated or not, ring the chicks when they start to run around in the tundra and to collect the tiny tags from under the sanderlings' nests after they finished breeding.
We had to also check the population of predators in the research area. Therefore we visited the old burrows of Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) and counted the number of Long-tailed Skuas (Stercorarius longicaudus), Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus), Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) and Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Futhermore we searched chicks of Long-tailed Skuas to get some feather samples for an isotope research.
In two weeks we hiked about 200 km and checked all the important points in the research area. We slept in tents and spend our time eating and chatting in an old trapper hut from the thirties. Our shower was the whole Kong Oscar Fjord with Icebergs and as toilet we had to ditch a hole near a streamlet. We used flowing water from glacier and snow water to drink or cook and eat trekking food from cans (some from 2005 !!!). During the time in Greenland we had 24h light and between 0-15°C. The number of midgets was incredible and torturing! not even comparable with the deep jungles.
I was very happy of the different bird species that I have seen up here, the beautiful flora and all the big mammals like Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus), Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus), Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) and seals.
The main work of this long term study is about lemmings. Since 1988, Benoît Sittler started to study the lemmings in an area of 1500ha in Traill / Greenland. The approaches adopted here include the assessment of lemming population dynamics as well as those of its predators. Winter nests are easy to detect and count during and after the snowmelt. The study of uncovered lemmings nests in the Arctic summer also allows to track back predation by stoats in winter since nests eliminated by stoats are characterized by the remainders of a typical, ‘sleeping bag like’ fur lining.
Apart from stoats, other predators such as snowy owls, long tailed skuas and arctic foxes are monitored and recorded. Especially avian predators and foxes are easy to monitor by annual assessments of their breeding success or occupation of dens respectively. In addition, the sampling of pellets and scats provides detailed information on the predators’ diets.
The first team already searched for nests of sanderlings (Calidris alba) in the research area and marked all the GPS coordinates. They already captured some adults on the nest and marked them with coloured rings. They also collected the old geolocators on the birds from the years before. When they found a nest, the birdringers ring and process the adult bird while the rest of the team bury a tiny tag under the nest. This tiny tag measures the temperature and calculates the time that the sanderlings spend sitting on the nest.
The task of the second team (us) was to observe the chicks of sanderlings. Every day or every second day we check if the nest was predated or not. If we check a nest, we had to take note of the colour ring code of the bird on the nest with binoculars or photo. We had a list with all the expecting hatching dates of the tagged Sanderlings and then we had to try and find the bird with the chicks around the nest. If we found the chicks in the tundra we had to catch them and ring them (if possible).
If we found a new nest we had to mark the GPS coordinates and to catch the adult bird on the nest to ring them. To catch the bird we used a claptrap over the nest. First we collected all the eggs, measured them to find out their hatching date. After we caught the adult bird we ring it with a Danish metal ring, one color flag, three color rings and take measurements of the wing length, bill, tarsus and weight. Before we let the bird free and bring back the eggs to the nest we had to put a tiny emitter in the nest.
The predation of Snowy Owl, Stoat and Arctic Fox are the main reason for the fluctuation of the lemming population in Traill. Therefore it’s important to monitor the population of these predators. Because of the previous bad lemming years, no snowy owls were breeding or observed in the area. Arctic foxes are using every year the same or old known burrows in the tundra. By the burrow area it’s easier to find the whole family of foxes together. With a ‘bubububu’ sound we tried to decoy the foxes out of the burrow and counted them.
Musk ox carcass:
Hard winters and less vegetation are hard conditions for musk ox during more or less 9 months of the long wintertime. Many musk oxes die in the tundra. While trekking in the tundra we found many carcasses and skeletons of these animals – old and recent. The new carcasses were marked with the coordinates on the GPS to find them in later years. The carcasses decompose very slow in the harsh tundra conditions. Very old and partially decomposed carcasses are very interesting to study different mosses that grow on these carcasses. Therefore we checked some old carcasses to collect different species of moss.
Every hour, after leaving our camp we had to check the area for predators in a radius of 200m. The monitoring of predators is important in the lemmings and sanderlings research area.
Furthermore we searched chicks of long-tailed sukas for nest control and isotope samples.
We had some metal rings from the Danish government to ring chicks and adult birds in the tundra. We used special colour rings and codes for sanderlings and dunlins so that we had the possibility to mark breeding pairs of these species.
After these two weeks I am really happy that Benoît Sittler gave me this opportunity to join them. I enjoyed this experience in Greenland a lot; all the animals and plants were so fascinating,
the landscape is incredable and we were a great team! I learned a lot more about the arctic and I am glad that finally one of my childhood dream came true. I will miss Greenland and hope I can
join them again sometime.
The professor Dr. Benoît Sittler from the Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg im Breisgau held a lecture about Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus), Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) and
Arctic Lemmings (Dicrostonyx torquatus) in our subsidiary subject – nature protection and endangered species – during the winter semester 2014/15. He gave us a lot of information on
these endangered species and talked about his long term study of the lemming cycles in North-East Greenland. It’s a very interesting project which also includes the field work with emitters on
birds in the arctic. The whole project made me curious and I tried to have a meeting with the professor.
It worked and some weeks later I met him to talk about his long term study. I had many questions about the researches in the arctic and asked him if there is the possibility to join the researchers one day. He told me that the chances to join them on these expedition are good since I am familiar with ornithology, doing fieldwork and that I can speak four languages.
I wasn't expecting an answer so fast. As we started our birding trip in Turkey in May , Benoît wrote me an email. He asked me if I want to join them this summer for 2-3 weeks going to the high arctic for researches and fieldwork on lemmings and Sanderlings (Calidris alba). I was really happy they chose me to join them.
In the upcoming weeks I had some meetings with Benoît to discuss and learn more about their project and the arctic. I prepared two 20-25kg food boxes with him for the groups later in Greenland and signed the polar philately (= the project has no big sponsor who’s paying for the excursion. The majority of the money for the project is coming from the polar philately à by supporting the Karupelv Valley Project, collectors of philatelic items can add an exquisite and unique flair to their stamp collection. Subscribers will also receive a brief outline on the expedition. More information: http://www.karupelv-valley-project.de/english/polar-philately/).
Two weeks before we started our expedition all the people of the second group (4) met with each other. We exchanged experiences and discussed what we would need in Greenland. We would be the second Team in Greenland. Team: Benoît S. (France), Philipp W. (Germany), Mike S. (Switzerland), Charel K. (Luxembourg).
We had a long trip to arrive in Greenland. Benoît already went with the first team to Traill to look for the winter nest of the lemmings in the research area, the rest of the second team met at the airport in Frankfurt. We traveled from Frankfurt to Reykjavík and spent one night in a hostel at Akureyri where we had to get the plane the next day. The next day we took an aeroplane (Twin otter) to Greenland. It was a long and beautiful flight with lots of breathtaking scenery. As we saw the first snow on the ocean we all got very excited. We flew not very high and had a beautiful view over the snow surface and Greenland. We stopped in Constable Point and Mestersvig to fuel and load material for the field work.
The landing runway Traill was and old sandbank with stones on the ground. First thing we did in Trail was unloading the air plane, greeting the first team and built our tents. Afterwards we started with the whole team to explore the whole research area, learn what we have to do for the next 2 weeks, learn how to cope in the arctic environment and other important things. In the evening we had dinner together and talked more about plans for the upcoming 2 weeks.
The first team had to leave the next morning. We helped them to remove their tents and to load their equipment on the aeroplane. As we said farewell to the first team and the aeroplanes engines started we all realised that for the next two weeks we will be alone on an island bigger than Luxembourg with cold weather, mosquitoes and polar bears!!