One of the most incredible parts about spending an entire field season in Greenland has been getting to see how dynamic this landscape can be. We’ve watched icy lakes melt, flowering plants bloom, wither, and bear fruit, rivers rise and fall, mosquitoes swarm and dissipate, and nights darken. One of my favorite changes of all to watch was the progression of the breeding season of the Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus).
Since the start of the season, these migratory songbirds have always been somewhere nearby in the tundra. When we arrived in early June, the male longspurs could dependably be found singing from their perches on willow branches. As Ruth and I were hiking in to one of her sites one day in early June, we flushed a female out of the shrubs a couple feet ahead of us. After our hearts settled a bit from the initial surprise, we took a closer look at the spot she had flown from and found a grass-lined nest hollowed out at the base of the shrubs. In it were 5 sort of olive-tan eggs dabbled with brown spots!
Over the following weeks, we all kept our eyes peeled for startled females and informally tracked the progress of the nests we found. By June 15, two of the eggs in that first nest Ruth and I found had hatched (though they weren’t yet particularly recognizable as birds).
By June 29, a group of five nestlings in a different nest were starting to really stretch their necks and beg, eyes still closed.
On July 6, Christine and I found a couple of oversized longspur nestlings staring back at us for the last time.
We liked to imagine that each bumbling fledgling we saw testing its wings was one of the ones we had seen in its earlier stages.
When it comes to birds, Greenland is primarily a place of part-timers. Of its 240 or so known species, only 60 of those are considered permanent residents; most fly south for the winter. The northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) — a bird that seems enchanted with our red truck, whether they’re hopping upon the mirrors to get a peek inside when it’s parked or springing up from the roadside bushes to perform acrobatics in front of it while we’re driving — has a particularly impressive migration among the passerines. Wheatears have a huge breeding range that spans parts of Eurasia, Greenland, Canada, and Alaska but overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, where they bulk up on insects to do it all again come spring. That means the Alaskan birds travel almost 9,000 miles twice a year! – not to mention connecting two extremely different ecosystems.
As the summer draws to a close, in some ways I’ve been feeling a bit of kinship with the little guys. My journey should be a bit easier than theirs, though, even with customs.
To learn more about wheatears and how scientists are able to track their migrations: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/17027565