It was an early morning start, as usual. But this morning was particularly exciting: we had good weather to head to shore at Cape Graham Moore, Bylot Island. Our mission was to band twenty thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia). But before we could achieve the day’s goal, we first had to find a good landing spot for the inflatable Zodiac, get dropped off with a ton of gear and actually find a way to get to the birds that were nesting on narrow ledges of the tall cliffs.
The plan was to drop Kieran, Sam and myself (Pascale) off on the beach. But the plan soon changed after we rode a big wave ashore, landing on the beach with the boat half full of water and wet boots! The gear was quickly tossed to higher ground, then we each grabbed one side of the Zodiac to pull it up above the waves. As we bailed out the inflatable, a new plan evolved: Sam had to head back to Arctic Tern with Valentine, since two people were needed to get the Zodiac safely back in the water. We turned the inflatable around, pointing the bow to the ocean, waited for a calm spell then pushed as hard as we could, with Sam and Valentine paddling full speed to get out of the swell. Kieran and I were left on the beach, a bit damp but safely ashore and ready to start the work.
First things first, Kieran took his boots off and emptied them of water. I started sorting out my gear, checking that nothing was too wet. I hung a first set of clothes in the sun to dry. Kieran also checked his gear. Luckily his cameras were dry – a huge relief.
Now we had to think about what we were actually here for and find some birds. The cliffs that we initially thought would be easily accessible were out of reach, so we walked along the rocky beach and found a way up onto another cliff. The terrain was quite tricky to walk on, with large rocks slipping under our feet every few steps. We eventually reached the top and were happily surprised to find a nice patch of clean green grass (I mention “clean” since it can be hard to find a clean place to sit when in the middle of a bird colony!). We looked around and quickly spotted two ledges that had birds nesting on them. These were close enough for Kieran to go down with a safety line and get a hold of the murres, so we decided to set up there for the day.
We’d left all of our gear on the beach, so now we had to do a couple trips to get everything we needed (cameras, climbing gear, banding equipment, food, etc.). It was sunny and warm, and we were heavily overdressed for the conditions and the hike, so we took off more layers and hung our wet clothes on the rocks in the sun.
Once we got the gear on site, Kieran filmed for a couple hours. The light was stunning, the sun shinning on the cliffs. The water down below was turquoise, with a few icebergs in the distance. All around us, birds were coming and going from the cliff, sitting on their eggs or tending their tiny chicks. These birds were busy!
We started banding at about midday. Kieran would go down to the edge of the cliff, stretch out his pole and catch the birds with a noose. He would then hand the bird over to me (this usually meant I would get bitten) so we could start weighing and measuring it: body mass, length of the beak and legs. Two leg bands were then put on each murre. The first, metal, to identify the bird with a number. The second, plastic, with a geolocator device that will allow scientists to learn more about where these birds travel to in the winter… that is if they can catch the same birds again next season to retrieve the device and valuable data!
It took us nearly four hours to band 20 birds. At the end of the day, Kieran and I were completely exhausted. We had gotten wet, hiked up and down the cliff a number of times with heavy gear, and we hadn’t even had one bite to eat since 6 AM! It was now 4 PM and it was time to call Arctic Tern to get picked up.
We made a few trips down with the gear and headed back to the beach. The waves were still crashing onto the shore, just as hard as in the morning. After discussing with Grant on the radio, we decided to do two trips: one for the gear and a second for Kieran and I. Valentine and Sam timed their landing between the waves this time, landing on the beach without a drop aboard! We filled up the Zodiac with gear and quickly launched them back in the water. After returning to collect us, we were all back on board the yacht enjoying hot stew… albeit a bit wet, but very satisfied with the days work!