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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Birds of the North Slope

Air Date: Week of

Red-Throated Loon (Photo: Gerrit Vyn)

Gerrit Vyn, a biologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has just returned from Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska with hours of bird recordings. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about some of the birds he saw, and what stands to be lost if the area is open to oil drilling.



GELLERMAN: And this is what Teshekpuk lake sounds like during the frenetic mating season. These birds were recorded by Gerrit Vyn, a biologist who used to conduct bird population surveys for oil companies that hoped to drill in the area. Now, he’s in Ithaca, New York, with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

VYN: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology holds the Macaulay Library, which has a collection, which is the largest in the world of natural history recordings. Over the last few years we’ve been trying to find out just what parts of the collection need to be worked on. And the first thing that came to mind was Arctic Alaska mainly because of the impending threats of both global warming and oil development that are threatening that area.

GELLERMAN: So you wanted to get these recordings while the recording was good?

VYN: Absolutely. A lot of noise comes with oil development and trying to record audio anywhere in the United States is a difficult thing to do with anthropogenic noise, air traffic, car traffic, all that sort of thing. So getting into these areas before the oil companies did to record some of these special places for the future.

GELLERMAN: Well let’s listen to the red-throated loons.

VYN: All right.


Red-Throated Loon (Gerrit Vyn)

VYN: This is a pair of red-throated loons on an Arctic pond. What they’re doing here is often called the ‘plesiosaur display,’ which is a kind of territorial announcement and also helps to strengthen the pair bond between male and female red-throated loon. These two particular birds were reacting to an invading red-throated loon who had landed on their pond. And they swim together with their necks up, outstretched. They’re beautiful birds, gray slender water birds with a sort of necklace of darker markings and a big red throat patch. And they swim towards each other with necks extended, mouths wide open sort of rocking forwards and back issuing these raucous calls. And these calls can be heard for miles on the tundra. And usually when you hear one pair go off you’ll hear them going off from many directions as many pairs respond. So, this particular pair had taken off and was doing a courtship flight around their territory and we snuck in next to the pond, set out our microphones and laid under some camouflage cloth. And actually laid there in the wet, cold tundra for a few hours before the birds returned and then went off into this display. So, it was an exciting night.

GELLERMAN: Sounds absolutely miserable.

VYN: (laughs) Well, it’s a challenge, you know. You’re in an amazingly beautiful wilderness and you have a goal and you’re out there trying to get the best kind of audio that you can get. And so when it works out it’s all worth it.

GELLERMAN: How is the area, the North Slope, different from when you were there surveying for oil companies?

VYN: Well, the thing that’s the most shocking, the last time I was up on the Colville River Delta, which is a very important area for both wildlife and subsistence, we were surveying the delta for birds. I went back in 2006 and already the oil companies had put a huge airstrip across the middle of the delta; a big drilling pad. The amount of infrastructure up there to pump oil is mind-blowing. When you fly over it it’s just a massive industrial zone. And it occurs overnight. It really does. As soon as an oil company gets a green light it’s not like it takes them ten years to develop an area. It’s done within a year or two. And that area—as far as wilderness goes—is pretty much lost forever.

GELLERMAN: Well, I guess it was a good thing that these oil companies are trying to do surveys of these bird populations. You were involved in that.

VYN: Well, they are required by law to do these surveys. It’s good to have people up there surveying that care about what they are surveying, but really it’s just a formality that needs to take place before they can go in and develop an area.

GELLERMAN: Let’s listen to another recording we have that you made. It’s a semipalmated sandpiper. Did I get that right?

VYN: That’s right.


GELLERMAN: Oooh, that will go right through you.

The semi-palmated sandpiper (Photo: Gerrit Vyn)

VYN: This is a really fascinating bird. When you first arrive in the Arctic- or when they first arrive in the Arctic- the Arctic ground is still covered in snow. There may be bare patches of grass here and there and these males have flown all the way from northern coastal South America and they’re staking out their little claims on the Arctic tundra before it’s even thawed out. These birds are about the size of a sparrow, to give you some perspective on how far these birds travel relative to their size. It’s really an amazing thing. As soon as they arrive they begin these courtship flights where the males will get up and they’ll just hover up in the air above you giving this call incessantly for 10-15 minutes before they may drop back down to earth or scoot off to chase off another male that’s displaying near by.

GELLERMAN: It sounds like you like all the birds. Do you have a favorite?

VYN: Um, I really love the yellow-billed loon, as far as birds go up there. It’s an amazingly beautiful bird and one who could be threatened in the near future. Eighty percent of its population in the United States occurs in the National Petroleum Reserve.

GELLERMAN: Let’s give a listen.


GELLERMAN: So, what are we hearing there?

VYN: This is similar to the red-throated loon recording we heard earlier. This is a pair announcing its territory on a lake just south of Teshekpuk Lake in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Towards the end of the recording, there you hear the yodel which is the loudest of the yellow-billed loon’s calls. And this big robust loon, it’s a beautiful bird, black and white markings, black and white checkered back with an enormous yellow bill. It will lean its neck forward and just belt out this yodel call. And that call can be heard for miles on the tundra and like the red-throated loons, other yellow bills from neighboring lakes will respond with calls of their own.

GELLERMAN: Can you do bird calls?

VYN: Uh, not in public.


GELLERMAN: Ok, I won’t ask you then. Except, maybe just one?

VYN: Ah, what could I do? No, I can’t do any bird calls.

GELLERMAN: Well, if you go to our web page loe.org you won't hear bird calls from Gerrit Vyn of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but you’ll find a link where you can listen to recordings of the real thing from his most recent trip to Alaska.




To see Gerrit Vyn’s travellog website, click here

Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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