Inside a Remote Research Camp in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Our small, silver wings brush over the tundra, cracked blue ice and honeycombed wetlands shining underneath as we head North across the Arctic coastal plain towards the edge of the sea. Dropping lower, the bush plane banks over a channel of the river, and a bright cluster of tents suddenly comes into view. The next instant, we are bumping along the packed earth and grasses on fat tires. The two women towing sleds who come to greet us are covered in layers of jackets, waders, hats, and face scarves, only their eyes showing. The wind finds its way through my three jackets in a hurry, blowing frigid off the nearby Beaufort Sea ice. Welcome to Bird Camp.
Flying over the wetlands and ice remnants on the Canning River
Each June, a crew of graduate students, interns, and wildlife biologists arrive via bush plane to a frozen landscape at the far northwest corner of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They create a temporary home of expedition tents, a tent laboratory, and a cook/communal tent, all enclosed in electric fencing. Their brief summer field season is packed. Searching for well-hidden nests, they study the health and movements of waterfowl and shorebirds that migrate each summer to breed and rear chicks. An avian research station since 1979, the Canning River Bird Camp is a remote and challenging environment— and a science hotspot for the extreme bird nerd.
What does it take to be a biologist in this unique time and place? A sense of adventure, resilience to harsh and unpredictable weather, creativity for remote living away from creature comforts, and of course… a love of birds.
Geared up for a day in the field
Survival depends on the proper preparation and gear. Several layers of clothing protect against the needles of wind and the deeply cold coastal fog. Waterproof waders allow for river crossings and wetland nest searches. Hat, gloves, and a face scarf insulate exposed skin against the elements during long hours of field research.
Hanging from packs, pockets, and belts, a variety of essential safety gear: a radio for communication, a GPS for data and navigation, binoculars for bird sightings (and bear sightings), bear spray and a shotgun for protection against grizzly and polar bears. Large packs carry everything they need to be self sufficient and collect data for the day, including nets to capture birds.
Three researchers in full Arctic-ninja gear against the elements.
Setting a bownet to capture a sandpiper
Lisa Kennedy weighs a semipalmated sandpiper (“lighter than a piece of Wonderbread”) before banding and releasing it back to the nest.
Holding a semipalmated sandpiper after taking a blood sample
Organizing blood samples in the lab tent
Pectoral sandpipers migrate to the Arctic coast from South America, passing through the Great Plains and both coasts of North America
Banded and tagged sandpiper
Setting up a wildlife camera to monitor a nest
Chris Latty and Elyssa Watford on a foggy search for geese
Elyssa Watford cradles a collared cackling goose
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In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nations last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.