A population of black seabirds, later called “guillemots,” survived the last Ice Age near the North Pole by fishing the cracks that opened and closed in the ice. Throughout the year, these birds dove for arctic cod beneath the ice. Today, black guillemots are challenged by shrinking pack ice reduced due to global warming. With retreating ice, birds must fly further for arctic cod to carry back to feed burgeoning chicks and fledglings on land. Parental birds must spend more time away searching for a forage fish that is also the primary food source for narwhal, belugas, ringed seals, arctic char, Greenland halibut, and Atlantic salmon. Russian fishing boats taking Arctic cod as by-catch in the capelin fishery have made the search more difficult.
A wisp of a barrier beach island, Cooper Island, lies in the Beaufort Sea twenty five miles east of America’s northern most point of land, Plover Point, above Barrow Alaska. The island is so exposed that the tallest land plants are wildflowers that shelter amidst the pebbles. Spartina salt marsh grass grows taller in patches on the island’s backside away from the crash of Arctic Ocean. Yellow-billed loons ride easy on gray water downwind of the island’s salt marsh. The loons look supersized as if wearing survival suits because they are larger than the common loon. The yellowish or ivory-white upturned bill, body length of 35 inches and wingspread of 55 inches makes this high Arctic loon unmistakable for anyone who has seen common loons.
Crossing ice-strewn seas beneath a leaden sky to a pea-stone gravel Cooper Island beach, I met George Divoky late one unremittingly bright mid-summer night. We walked up the beach to the top of the island, about 50 feet above sea level. George’s solo shelter consisted of a small wooden structure which would have looked more in place over an ice fishing hole. Beyond was the Arctic Ocean stretching east and west. The sea lapped over marble-sized stones that shifted, crunched and tumbled with the role of each wave. The shore was littered with gray wooden munitions box tops. Nails sticking straight out told of how the boxes had been blown apart by the government when they closed the military station, once on alert for Russian missiles.
Black guillemots are known to breed on rocky islands or the talus slopes of headlands. In 1970 George Divoky found the same bird species nesting on gravel shores beneath weathered grey wood on Cooper Island. Guillemots are duck like in size, complete with bright red webbed feet. However, standing sentry around large bits of grey wood, the black birds with white wing patches are more upright then any duck and sport black pointed bills. Guillemots are closely related to puffins. Like puffins, they swim underwater easily propelled by partially opened wings. Unlike puffins, guillemots are strong swift flyers and depend on the fish the live beneath the ice.
Supported by the Friends of Coopers Island, George Divoky has returned to the birds of Cooper Island every year since 1974 to measure, observe and record life in 200 wooden nest boxes. Each bird has distinguishing leg bands. Some of the older birds have returned to Cooper every year for thirty years. The Cooper Island bird colony has provided dramatic evidence of the deleterious effects of rapid decreases in snow and ice cover. The retreat of ice and the turning of snow to rain is the result of global warming caused by increasing amounts of carbon molecules in the atmosphere and corresponding increases in atmospheric temperatures. George lifted the corner of one box to reveal a new phenomenon, a horned puffin sitting a on a shallow nest. Puffins, open water feeders from the Berring Sea, have begun to replace the ice birds in their nesting boxes.
A greater disruption for the nesting birds has been the arrival of wayward polar bears. Polar bears, forced to swim to land after major reductions of Arctic sea ice cover, came ashore to devastate the guillemot colony. Bears destroyed guillemot nest boxes, ate eggs and nestlings. The result was reduced breeding success on Cooper Island to near zero by 2009. Meals that were more fluff than substance, allayed hunger for a very short time.
After that plundered year, George came up with a solution to protect breeding birds and their chicks. By modifying hard plastic cases, George created “bear-proof” nest sites. Nanuk Protective Cases, a company appropriately named after the mythological Inuit master of polar bears, provided some cases. Guillemots have moved into their new homes with great success. However, more “bear-proof” Nanuk case nest sites are needed to restore the ice bird population to its pre-polar bear level. Meanwhile, some guillemots are changing their food from ice-bound fish to more readily available open water marine life.
We invite you to join with Friends of Cooper Island in sponsoring ice bird nesting boxes and assisting George Divoky with his continuing research of the black guillemot colony. By acting together we can make a village for nesting ice birds. We can make a difference to preserve wildlife during a period of unprecedented environmental change and development in the Arctic.
Sponsorship of a Nanuk case nesting box provides you with a real connection to the Arctic and an epic study monitoring the consequences of too much carbon in the atmosphere. You will receive benefits that include periodic emails informing you of the background of the banded pair of birds breeding in your specific nest sites. Follow status reports of guillemot eggs and nestlings. View images of your nest sites, parents and nestlings.
Adopting an ice bird nest box is an excellent educational aid for a school class or individual child. We may assist in the survival of Arctic wildlife. With your sponsorships comes the positive feeling from knowing you are helping breeding birds and fledglings to live in a landscape suffering from carbon-loading of the atmosphere.
The 2012 ice bird breeding season is beginning. Please sponsor a nest box today. An annual sponsorship for a minimum $100 tax-deductible donation, the cost of one box, can be made through Friends of Cooper Island’s website (www.cooperisland.org). George would also welcome any question or comments.