I spent the last week, the last week of April, working on the frozen Chukchi Sea, helping train a group of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society who are studying eider ducks.
Their goal is to count the hundreds of thousands of King and Common Eiders that migrate past Barrow each spring to update the population estimate for both species. Current estimates are at about 300,000 Common Eider and 500,000 King Eider in the Western Arctic.
In order to get a reliable estimate we needed to find a suitable vantage point at the water’s edge to watch and tally as the birds wing east towards their breeding grounds. In most places, water’s edge means the beach, but on the Arctic Ocean, visible water begins not at the end of the land but at the end of the ice. Northeast of Barrow where we were working the ice edge is around 4 miles off-shore. So we drove our snowmachines out on the ocean toward the ice edge. Helping the crew scout locations and advising on sea-ice safety, I eventually helped them find a tall pressure ridge near the edge of the shorefast ice and in a location where we were confident that the ice was stable and not likely to either drift to sea, nor crumble should heavy pack-ice collide pushed by wind and tide.
The shorefast ice is heavy and rough this spring so we spent several days chopping a trail through the ice blocks. Once we had a good trail we leveled the top of a pressure ridge and erected a wind break. With the “perch” ready, we waited for the ducks to start flying. The big flocks (as many as 40,000 birds in 4 hours) migrate in mid-May (this was late April) but we did see several nice flocks of eiders and the research crew got some practice estimating flock size.
We were also treated to some mild spring weather and in the calm seas we saw bowhead whales migrating amongst the ice floes. There are few sights more beautiful than watching the black backs of bowheads break the mirror of the Arctic Ocean.
Thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Society for hiring me and to our friends in Barrow for the fine hospitality.