THE FJORDS: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW

© F.Aurat/Tara Expéditions

21 July 2015

On the way to the east coast of Greenland, Tara’s crew must exercise patience and prudence. Brigitte Sabard and Olivier Gilg, two Greenland specialists, are waiting to complete their observations on this little known coast of the great white continent.

Sea ice has significantly reduced access to the Scoresbysund fjord for more than fifteen days, thus delaying the Tara-Ecopolaris mission, conducted in collaboration with the Research Group in Arctic Ecology (GREA). Looking at a map of Greenland, ornithologist Oliver Gilg explains how he plans to conduct his research.

“Since Tara’s expedition eleven years ago, no one has gone back to this place, located far from civilization, to see how its overall situation has evolved. This is the purpose of our mission. We will try to reach the south coast and sail along it to Cape Brewster, located at the southern entrance of the fjord. In theory, there should be less ice there, since it is somewhat protected from the northeast winds and since sea ice tends to drift straight down.”

“This is where the largest colonies of common eider live with more than 500 nests on some islands. Originally, we had intended to capture birds to take blood samples. However, we’re still planning to recover bird down from their empty nests for the first scientific phase of the Tara-Ecopolaris program, where work will focus on pollutants, mercury in particular. We intend to collect bird down from a dozen nests per colony, in five or six different colonies. We had already done this in 2004, so the comparison will be interesting.

“There is a large colony on Cape Brewster which includes black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres. Scoresbysund fjord is usually free of ice early in the season and the counting of this colony has been performed for almost a century. This will allow us to monitor trends. Thick-billed murres are decreasing in number, both on the east and west coasts. This is most likely due to hunting as Inuits consider this bird to be a delicacy. Conversely, the number of black-legged kittiwakes has significantly increased in Greenland. The more the sea ice melts, the greater the population grows. We also observed in 2004 some Atlantic puffins, a very rare species in this region. We are not certain that they nest on the east coast of Greenland. It would be interesting to find some nests or burrows.”

“Then, we would like to sail up the Scoresbysund fjord, where we had identified the presence of great and lesser black-backed gulls, two species that eleven years ago had just arrived in Greenland. The goal is to be able to confirm that the population has indeed established itself, and know if it has increased. Everything will depend on weather conditions since it takes a full sailing day to reach the far end of the fjord” (Editor’s note: Scoresbysund is one of the longest fjords in the world, with a length of nearly 300 km).

“Finally, we hope to sail further north along the coast in order to count the two other colonies of black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres. In other fjords, there are a lot of different species. There are several hundred arctic tern nests on the small islets, as well as dozens of glaucous gulls, the two most common species in the fjords. As there are no disturbances, no hunting or fishing, these population trends will be interesting to study. They will be compared with GREA data collected for more than 30 years. However, many scientific question marks remain. Going on a mission with Tara allows us to closely approach the shore, make our way through the ice and get ashore aboard a dinghy. This would be impossible otherwise. It will all depend on the ice cover.”

Interview by Dino Di Meo aboard Tara

 

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