Walking along the hard packed arctic grassland of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, I noticed a small green island in the middle of a grey pond. I squinted with intense concentration, scanning the island for movement. Just above the foot tall grasses on the far end I spotted a mound that appeared to be stirring. I raised my binoculars for a better view. The object was dark brown in color and had thin white horizontal lines accenting its shape. The dead grass of last year’s fall sprawled limply over and around this shifting mound. Then, without notice, the dead grass began to rustle in a disorderly fashion. I laid my binoculars back on my chest, and with great care I approached the shoreline. With no more than four steps completed the mound collapsed, slid into the water, and was gone. It vanished, but not without a trace. During its quick escape I managed to catch a glimpse of important field marks: a dark silvery-brown back, an even darker head almost charcoal in color, a white crest atop its pink bill. There could be no mistake. I had played this hide and seek game dozens of times over the last week. It was a Greater White-fronted Goose, Anser albifrons, informally known to many a hunter as a “speckled belly” due to the erratic splotches of black on its pale underside.
I have been working for over a week with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, identifying and recording data on nesting Spectacled Eiders in the vast tundra grasslands of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Alaska. Since 1982, researchers, volunteers and government officials have sallied out all over this land, walking every inch of over seventy study plots, each of which spans a quarter by half a mile. The original goal of the project was to monitor the population size of the then threatened Spectacled Eider. As the eiders rebounded, research expanded to include other waterfowl such as Emperor Geese, Brandts, Common Eiders, and Pintailed Ducks. Today we record every nest within our plot, whether it belong to a petite Red-necked Phalarope, who’s entire clutch fits neatly in my hand, or a thirteen-pound Tundra Swan.
Both of which I recorded on my plot shortly before I flushed the White-fronted Goose off its grassy island.
Identifying a bird and its nest is just the first step of my data collecting tasks. Additionally, I enter a GPS waypoint at the exact location of the nest, count the number of eggs, float the eggs in the water to determine their age, describe the nest composition, and scribe shorthand notes about signs of disturbance. These signs include fur from foxes and pieces of eggshells left over from from aerial predators sacking the clutch. If a bird is flushed from a nest it is imperative to collect the necessary data and cover the eggs as quickly as possible, lest a hungry Jaeger or Mew Gull find an easy snack.
Back at my study plot, once the White-fronted Goose abandoned its island home, I knew I had to act fast. The only impediment to completing my data collection was twenty feet of mucky pond water that stretched between me and the nest. I cinched the toggle on my chest waders, placed gloves in my pockets and carefully made the journey to the grass island. I moved quickly so I would not sink into in the cold muddy substrate. As I approached my destination I heard a repeated tiny, wispy call. Unable to stop, I kept moving towards the grass. And upon reaching the island, I flung my body out of the water and up onto the shore, like a seal hauling out onto an ice shelf.
Winded and disoriented, I crawled deeper into the grasses only to be halted moments later by broken eggshells. Confused, I searched around for a nest, for more goose eggs. This was no longer a routine waypoint and data card entry. I waited silently, with suspended breath. Moments later the call sounded again as adjacent grasses seemed to shuffle about. I sat up and moved towards the sound. Just beyond me a tiny yellow puff ball materialized from the grass, looked me straight in the eye, and screeched. Next to this gosling was a newly hatched chick, its rump and legs still folded into a crescent shaped shell, its body still wet, its tender red flesh exposed between its yet to be fluffed feathers. It tried and failed to pick up its head. Exhausted, the chick collapsed into itself and in doing so revealed from behind it one final egg. I wiggled around the nest to examine this egg. It was large and white with a brown bump protruding from its top. I leaned in towards it and listened. The wind circled around my head, whooshing and swishing through the land. Slowly I began to hear faint peeps deep inside the recesses of the egg. After a minute or two, the egg fell silent. I stood motionless. Next the bump moved back and forth and the egg slowly began to bifurcate. A tiny gosling mouth soon emerged from the shell. I was witnessing a birthday here on the chilly tundra.
I soon realized that I needed to be done with my island tour and head back. These young chicks were unprotected and vulnerable. I took my GPS point, a few quick pictures, and made my way to the mainland as quickly as possible. The shivering gosling needed the warm speckled belly of its mother to keep it alive through today’s wind, tomorrow’s snow and the next week of freezing rain. In all, the chicks hatched almost two weeks earlier than yearly averages.
I remained on the fertile tundra for a few more weeks – discovering nests, collecting data and observing the highest density of breeding water birds in the world. I traveled by foot through shallow ponds and over arctic palsas. Forays in our government issued motor boat were dictated by the rising and falling tides. Red-throated and Pacific Loons flew over overhead as we zoomed from plot to plot through the immense refuge. I bore witness to the importance of this place as a junction for almost every major avian flyway on the planet. Birds were funneling into the refuge from all corners of the globe: Northern Wheatears from Africa, Bar-tailed Godwits from New Zealand, and Arctic Terns from Antarctica. During the course of my research more breeding shore birds could be found in our coastal plots than anywhere else in the world. It is estimated by avian biologists that each spring the delta sees more than a million geese, one to two million ducks, hundreds of Spectacled Eiders, as well as countless Sandhill Cranes, Black Turnstones, Common Eiders and more.
Despite my experience with the newly hatched goslings, I did not see any more chicks for the next two weeks. On my final day in the field, I was greeted with dozens of families of eiders and geese, a half dozen Mew Gulls viciously protecting a few of their youngest, large loon eggs broken and abandoned, Black Turnstone chicks peeping from their eggs, forty Tundra Swans dancing together on the shoreline. The grasses were tall and green. The new life all around was telling us to leave this place. We were now more than just a nuisance, but a real danger to the life the refuge was trying to protect. By the end of our project, my research partner and I had recorded over four hundred nests. Including the seven other teams looking for nests, we collectively discovered thousands. This data would not be analyzed until the dark, cold winter, but from our observation the numbers were impressive. I left the delta feeling like the story of rebounding Spectacled Eiders would continue, and the fortunes of so many other water birds seemed bright.