What do you do when you’re cruising through an iceberg-choked fjord in Greenland, wearing every piece of clothing you brought along, and you’re still freezing? If you know the answer, please tell me. We just finished searching more than 100 miles of high, rugged cliffs for nesting falcons and other birds, and I’m still shivering.
But it was great … the steep cliffs along both sides of the fjord rising up around us like an Ice-Age Grand Canyon … the massive icebergs, some the size of small islands, looming up through the mist. There’s nothing like it. If only I could keep my teeth from chattering.
I finally connected with the Peregrine Fund research team on Thursday morning—a team consisting of Cornell professor emeritus Tom Cade, who founded the “P-Fund”; the group’s president, Bill Burnham, and his son, Kurt; and Jack Stephens, a weather forecaster at Thule Air Base—not a bad person to have along on a trip like this. In many ways, exploring this area near Uummanaq is the most important part of this entire research expedition. We’re trying to retrace the steps of Dr. Bertelsen—a Danish government physician who treated Inuit patients who lived in villages near here early in the 20th century. He also studied birds avidly and mapped out more than 200 bird sites—ranging from falcon nests to giant seabird colonies. Our task—using his maps and data published in the 1920s—is to find every site and see how they have fared over the decades.
So far, it doesn’t look good. Earlier today, we took the boat to an enormous cliff face, which used to have a great seabird colony with half a million murres, razorbills, kittiwakes, and other birds. We couldn’t find any of those species there. We only saw orange lichens growing where the birds’ guano had stained the rocks. What happened to the bird colony? Could Inuit hunters from nearby villages have exterminated the entire colony? It seems mind-boggling. It’s hard to say exactly what happened to the birds at this point.
Some of the falcon nest sites also seemed to be vacant, though we did find some new nests. To find them, we typically drive the boat to the base of the cliff and fire a rifle. A falcon will usually flush from its nest as the gunshot echoes along the cliff face, have a look around, and then go right back to its nest. At one cliff today, a peregrine falcon flushed from the cliff when Kurt fired and was joined quickly by her mate who soared in high above us. But the best moment of the day came later when we spotted a pair of white gyrfalcons—the whitest I’ve ever seen—perched atop a lofty palisade.
We’ll spend a few more days checking the rest of Bertelsen’s sites and then embark on the great adventure, taking this boat all the way north to Thule. We’ll be cruising across Melville Bay—a place of terror for whalers for centuries because of its icebergs and unpredictable storms. I just heard that the weather is turning nasty up north and may hit us soon. And I made two big mistakes before I left home: I watched The Perfect Storm, which is enough to terrify anyone who’s considering a sea voyage; and I read Rockwell Kent’s book N by E, about a disastrous trip he and his friends took by sailboat to Greenland in 1929 (the boat ground against a cliff face in a storm and sank).
But, for now, we’re getting a couple of hours sleep, then starting a 16-hour day of bird-searching in a freezing rain in an open boat. Enjoy the weather, wherever you are.