Monday
Jul212014

Little Auk

PuffinI left the narrow, gravel beach and walked across the layer of snow, uphill, toward the side of the half green mountain towering above us. From time to time the grainy snow collapsed under my weight and I punched through to thigh level. At one point, my foot came up without the Muck boot; I dug down to liberate my boot.

At the top of the short hill stood Sara Blue with her husky dog Nemo. I wondered if, standing there scanning into the distance for bears, she was bored or content. Did she want conversation or to be left with the silence of the Arctic landscape?

That silence was punctuated by the calls of the Little Auks (known in the States as Dovekies) on the mountainside above us. I could see the flurry of activity of the auks, skimming left and right in small flocks. Their busyness was dizzying, dots disappearing against a craggy mountainside, or landing on a flank of the mountain, like pepper sprinkled to season to the snow. They seemed to know what they wanted, where they were going.  Self preservation and propagation—that is the whole story.

Black Guillemot“What does that sound make you think of?” I asked Sara Blue.

She hesitated a moment and leaned back on her hips, her legs spread wide. She was wearing a thick wool sweater and blue pants. Her gun rested easy on her shoulder.

“It’s not a sound that belongs here,” she said.

I smiled. She was right, the cheerfulness of the birds seemed out of place in this vast, austere landscape tinted with grays and whites. Below me the ship sat quiet at anchor in a green-gray sea.

The calls made me think of a warmer climate, of a bazaar in North Africa. I thought of the chase scene in Casablanca, the chaos of cars and voices calling out with things for sale. These little black and white birds did not have narrow streets to negotiate but the entire side of a mountain on which to sell their wares. They were dots of vibrant life coming together in a “loomery” (a group of Auks can also be called a colony or a raft—but loomery, can’t beat that).

Little Auks in flightThe Little Auk is a surely tenacious bird. It’s the smallest of the Alcids, that family of birds that includes the Black Guillemot (which kept our ship company throughout the trip), and Puffins (Atlantic Puffins floated near the ship as well). They are shaped like a nerf football, and when they fly it’s as if they have been launched, fast and precise, by the finest quarterback. They are black on top and white below, with a stubby bill. Against a blue sky, they look like sparkling snowflakes.

When I travelled to Alaska, seeing a Dovekie wasn’t a given. On the island of Gambell, we scanned a high cliff laced with Least and Crested Auklets to find one lone Dovekie. And then a few months later, one showed up at home, in New York.  The call went out to all of the local birders, the little bird a sensation. Perhaps it had been blown off course from Greenland, home to the largest breeding ground of Dovekie’s (about 30 million). Where Dovekies spend the winter is out in the open ocean, at the edge of the ice. They come to land only to create life.

Little Auks dotting the snow sideWhen Nansen and Johansen head south from their winter alone on the ice where they sleep as much as 20 hours a day, the first birds they see are Little Auks. It is February 25th and lovely weather, even spring-like. A flock of six Little Auks fly by, then a flock of four. “Once more we heard their cheerful twittering, and it roused a responsive echo in the soul. …It was the first greeting from life. Blessed birds, how welcome you are!” 119 years later, standing below that busy mountain of Little Auks, I too felt that blessed echo in my soul.

 

 

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