maandag 7 juli 2014

Barnacle geese, mercury and football

View to the east, Kronebreen Glacier
Nearly a week here in Ny-Ålesund (Spitsbergen), but it is so good it seems a lot longer. I am a guest of the Dutch Arctic station, lead by Maarten Loonen from the Arctic Centre for two weeks, to help with an experiment with goslings, as part of the TripleP@Sea program of Wageningen UR. At arrival, the work started directly because the gosling which will be used on the feeding trials, were just coming in from their colonies. The major objective of my trip to this beautiful place is to help with an experiment in which goslings of the Barnacle goose will be herded at a mine impacted and control site. From an earlier trip we analysed soil samples from the mining area for mercury, a known contaminant in mine impacted areas. Concentrations were 5 times higher than in control soil, so this year we will expose goslings to the mercury in the mining area, and see if we can detect any effects. Mercury is neurotoxic and it may affect the development of the goslings. This experiment is conducted in collaboration with University of Groningen (group of Jan Komdeur) and Arctic Centre, University of Groningen (Maarten Loonen). And luckily, I am not by myself in this, most work is done by Isabella Scheiber, Margje de Jong and Anna Braun. They do all the hard work, I have only a minor part in this, but am enjoying it enormously!

So, what has happened this week. At first the goslings have been habituated to people. This enables to herd them, without them to run off. It is very funny to see the small goslings walk along the tundra behind a person (see for a short clip). They really interact with us, and now we can take them out for a walk. However, in spring a lot of snow was dumped in the area, so we still have some problems finding the proper places to let them graze. Nevertheless, we took them out in the field yesterday and today, and they were really brave. Today Margje and me went to the mines, while Isabelle and Anna walked the birds to the control site. After a long walk of 1 km, they crawled in the warm brood patch within the jacket of Margje for a good sleep. In the field they turn out to be real eating machines, foraging full time. They also start to interact between each other, which is great to see. Today, the Arctic fox lurked around to see if he could snatch one, but he did not succeed. But, it is amazing how persevering they can be… Besides the foxes we also have to watch another inhabitant, the polar bear. For this, we need to carry a rifle when off station, and I had to take a shooting course. This was much fun, but for someone who has never used a gun before it was quite frightening to see the power and noise it produces. Scary, but I did actually hit the target. But I guess, this is not a guarantee when a 500 kilo polar bear is staring at you.

Gosling of the Barnacle Goose
Beside the work, there is a lot to see here. Arctic terns are breeding in town and are studied by Maarten and Malenthe. These amazing birds annually fly from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. During courtship they display an amazing flight, and the males feed the females. From my desk I have a nice view, and can follow this for a long time. Families of Barnacle geese are feeding in the village as well, and it is really great to see the goslings grow up. They are a busy bunch. Snow buntings are all around, and their presence has actually stimulated me in writing a proposal for future Arctic work here. On the tundra we have seen Ptarmigans today, Arctic skuas flew around and reindeer slowly moved on the tundra. A humpback whale visited the fjord today in the far distance. But most impressive is the overview over the fjord, with snowy mountains and glaciers showing off their beauty. Each morning when I get up it is the first thing I look at in awe.

But there is of course also normal life, the World Championship Football! There are many nationalities in Ny-Ålesund, ranging from South-Koreans and Chinese to Germans and of course Norwegians. And you can imagine that the championship is vibrant here. There are quite a number of Germans in Ny-Ålesund, they have a really nice research station. Earlier this week we watched the match between Germany and France with them. The match Netherlands vs. Cost Rica was a nerve wrecking one, but it would be great to have a final against Germany. I think that would spark quite some energy here. But first we need to beat the Argentineans… Will update you on that later.

All the best from the far North, Nico 

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