Ten Days on the Tundra (6)

Mushrooms grow among mosses and Ledum plants as part of the tundra.

The word tundra refers to treeless ecosystems where winters are long and cold, and summers are short and cool.  It comes from the Finnish word tunturi which means treeless plain.  Where trees stop growing at the northern latitude of about 65 degrees North, the biodiversity of plants and animals decreases.  From here north to about 72 degrees latitude live low shrubs, lichens, mosses, sedges, and grasses.  Our location at Toolik Lake is roughly 68 degrees North latitude and in the Arctic Foothills ecoregion.

Wildlife sightings are not so common as species like caribou, wolves, musk ox, dall sheep, lemmings, and voles are spread out over the vast expanses of land here.  We were fortunate to see many bird species and a herd of caribou but most often we saw evidence such as scat, antlers, or burrows that told us these animals were here.

Caribou wandering the tundra in a small herd.

On a day trip south over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range we were fortunate to spot dall sheep on a distant cliffy mountain.  Short-eared owls seemed to be in abundance in the lower lands, hunting voles and lemmings from a few feet above the vegetation.  A herd of roughly 200 caribou passed by the northeast edge of the field station one morning, giving us all a great look at the different ages and sexes of these animals.  On a bike ride north of the lake I was fortunate to see a bull moose hi-tailing it across the tundra.

In Toolik Lake live the Arctic Grayling, a cold-water fish species closely related to salmon and trout.  On one of the work days, one of our teachers was able to go out with the fish sampling crew to help with fish capture.  That same day I was fortunate to be out with the aquatic invertebrate crew to sample insects [hatching and living] above the river that are thought to be what the fish are feeding on in late summer.

Ecoregions of Alaska

As one moves north and into the Arctic Coastal plain, the plant and animal diversity changes.  Read more about that in my next post.

Ten Days on the Tundra (4)

I am the luckiest girl in the world, of this I am certain.  On days like these I cannot imagine my life any different, nor would I ever want it to be…

Rescuing a Short-Eared owl chick from the roadside.

At 8:30am I hopped into a truck and headed north on the Dalton with 2 other workers to join them for the day.  We spent the day hiking across the tundra and working alongside the Kuparuk  River.  This is one of the many rivers that begins in the Brooks Mountain Range and empties into the Arctic Ocean.  Our task was to remove sticky traps used to capture insects that live above and alongside the river and replace them with fresh new traps.  Lacey is the graduate student who is studying the aquatic invertebrates that live along the river and she is hoping to correlate these to the birds that live along the river, or use the river as a food source in the fall (which is now, the end of July).  We spent much of our day changing out traps with the beautiful backdrop of the mountains behind us.

Hiking out to the sample site.

After this work was done, we traveled further north up to Oksrukuyik  Creek where we wandered across tundra to the riparian area.  Here we attempted to do a bird census (count) but didn’t hear or see a single bird in the tall willows.  After giving up on that, we walked up the creek turning over rocks looking for mayfly larvae.  We were unsuccessful at that as well but were not concerned as we had seen several mayflies on the sticky traps earlier in the day.  Lacey was very interested in this because the mayflies apparently should not be hatching this early and they most definitely are.


Traveling between sites, we happened upon a number of wildlife sightings.  There are no herds of caribou here yet but we did encounter caribou hunters who have come to set up camp and scout the area since the season starts soon.  I keep forgetting that it is early fall here, as it is confusing when I see Golden Plover chicks in downy plumage and unable to fly.  One only has to look around at the vegetation to tell that it is changing color right now.  The blueberries and salmon berries are ripe for picking, their leaves already turning shades of yellow and red.  The summer flowers have all gone to seed but the fireweed persists, adding brilliant pink to the still green landscape.

Fireweed grows on disturbed areas near the Alaskan pipeline providing a burst of color.
Working diligently to replace sticky traps.