Monday, June 21, 2010

Father's Day in Barrow

At $18 a head we decided to skip the Father's Day breakfast at the cafe. Scott and I had almonds, dried fruit, and a granola bar. The boys ate canned fish out of styrofoam coffee cups. Good thing we weren't going after polar bears - their breath would have attracted them from a mile away!

Spent our last day in Barrow birding so the kids could see Spectacled Eiders. At the zoo this has always been one of their favorites - a goofy looking duck with a green hood over top of its head. Sadly they are threatened with extinction (in the wild) in the next 20 or so years. A combination of climate change and hunting of the ducks and their eggs. The boys did get to see them, plus the even odder looking King Eider.

Dave saw lemming tunnels and caught one by hand to the boys delight.

Jill helped us appreciate the arctic flowers that emerged and developed almost over night. The tundra where we found them had been covered in ice just a day or two before. I guess when you don't have much time you get right down to business!

Pintail Duck (my only really good bird picture)

Ran into Denver (the Snowy Owl expert) on the tundra. The thing about birding is that other birders will always stop to see who you are and what you've found. He had a caribou hide strapped to the back of his ATV. A young Inupiaq boy killed it and gave him the hide as a gift. We all tried it out - very warm!

There were sealed holes visible all over the inside of the skin. He told us that warble flies lay their eggs on the legs of caribou. The larva move through the body to the area of the spine and when they are ready to exit they cut holes in the caribou skin. I have a new respect and pity for caribou!

On our last drive back to NARL ( - believe it or not I miss riding in the back of that pickup in the arctic air! - ) we stopped to check out some whaling boats (one complete, one just the frame). The frame is hardwood (not sure where they got the wood traditionally since the tundra has no trees) and is covered by Bearded Seal skin from the spring hunt. Boy did that skin smell!

Dave found some baleen nearby. Bowheads are baleen whales. This means they don't have teeth. Instead they have baleen which runs between the upper and lower jaws filtering zooplankton out of the water. The baleen can be as tall as 13 feet!

It astounds me that an animal so large can feed on something so tiny. It made me think about the Gulf oil leak. So much attention goes to the victims that are easily visible and recognizable - the large mammals and birds. What mot people don't realize is the importance of the microscopic world at the base of the food web. I can't even imagine how the leak is affecting the base and what the long term consequences will be.

Picture of most of a whale skull -

Ate one last meal at Pepe's North of the Border. Never did get to do the polar bear plunge. The water along the shore was still frozen to a depth of at least 6 feet. The only water we could have plunged into was effluent from the sewage plant. No thanks! I was not disappointed, but the boys were.

Took an hour or so flight back to Fairbanks. Despite the casual appearance of the airport (park your truck right in front, anybody can walk right in) they took security seriously going through every inch of every bag taken on the plane. Maybe they are looking for illegally hunted or purchased animal products as well.

On the plane met Benjamin, a 7th grade Inupiaq boy from Barrow Middle School. He was headed to Boy Scout camp in Fairbanks. Sitting next to Scott he told him about going on a whale hunt (a successful one) this spring, and having successfully hunted polar bear and caribou. Elliot yelled across the aisle to ask if he was a football fan. He likes the Steelers. I have his science teacher's email and am hoping maybe we could do a joint project of some sort next year. Would be neat to "meet" Benjiman again in this way.

An uneventful arrival in Fairbanks, but interestingly we all immediately noticed the smell of trees when we passed through the airport doors. Hadn't noticed them before, but I guess being somewhere with no trees whatsoever makes you more sensitive to their scents.

I miss Barrow already. I hadn't expected it to take hold of me like it did. It's not beautiful to the eye in the way of Denali or Matanuska, but it has a peacefulness that is beautiful in its own right. Whether its the isolation or something else, it gets to your soul.

BASC, Birds, and Bears

Jill, Dave, Elliot, and I were the Science Saturday speakers this week at BASC. They didn't know what kind of turnout to expect because the weather was beautiful (blue sky, above freezing) and that would keep people away. Had about 15 people there but not the crowd we expected. We were told it would mostly be parents from town, but I suppose they were out enjoying the day with their kids. Instead our crowd was some scientists, the North Slope Borough school superintendent, Barrow's only judge, a teacher, and a handful of others. Really it was the people we wanted to be talking too - those who might want to collaborate with us on some science education projects. One of the scientists, Denver Holt, is the world's expert on Snowy Owls. I mentioned during the presentation that one of my classes studied the effect of the presence of a Great Horned Owl on the behavior of birds at our feeders. Denver was really interested in the fact that 6th graders were doing experiments like this. He's going to send me his paper on a similar experiment he did with the idea that maybe my students could model his work. A great contact to have!

In the evening (if there is such a thing here) we took a tour out to Point Barrow - the most northern point in North America. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas converge here. It is in this area where the Inupiaq from Barrow leave the whale carcasses so polar bears will come here and not into town. We went looking for polar bears but found only prints and fur. We did see spotted seals on the ice (and scientists on the ice studying ice melt).

Nathaniel, the van driver, is an Inupiaq who's family has a long history here. He is the co-captain of his whaling boat. They took a whale last year and are still eating from it. They eat it about 3x per week. It is frozen raw and eaten that way. They hunt Bowhead but sometimes mistakenly catch a Right Whale which look very similar. The difference is that crustaceans grow on the skin of Right Whales but not Bowheads - you don't want to eat skin with parasites. Nathaniel says a hunt lasts about 2 - 3 weeks. Hunters sleep in tents they pitch on the sea ice.

Whale Carcass

Scott, Dave, and Nathaniel

Dipping Fingers in (and standing on) the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow

Polar Bear Fur and Prints

Elliot's Seal Rib

Michael by the Beaufort Sea

Around midnight Dave, Jill, Scott, and I went out birding again on a tip from some Norwegian birders staying at NARL. The rare Ruff was spotted in the tundra - an important "life bird", along with Spectacled Eiders. Scott spotted the Ruff - a male putting on full display which is quite a show! We also saw Spectacled and King Eiders and another Snowy Owl. Back to NARL around 1 AM and it still looked like midday. A little boy - no more than 6 - was pushing his bike down the gravel road by the sea as we drove home.

Birding at Midnight