Dr. Maarten J.J.E. Loonen
Arctic Centre, University of Groningen
What questions related to the Arctic are you trying to answer?
- Is the Arctic an environment for a bird where there is less chance of becoming infected by a pathogen (something that causes a disease)? In the Arctic density of birds is low and the environment is very unfriendly even for pathogens.
- How do birds behave when they get sick? How long do these effects last?
How will answers to those questions help us understand more about our world? Diseases play an important role in our lives, even though we can take medicine. A bird has no medicine. What is the effect for them? Do they abort their breeding season? Do they stop feeding? Do they stop migration?
Bird migration links our world with the Arctic. In autumn, we see geese arriving in the Netherlands and we can judge their breeding success. In spring we have seen them preparing for migration to the north, becoming heavy.
How are you trying to find the answers to those questions? We are taking small blood samples of birds and analyzing them for pathogens, antibodies and the activity of the immune system. We compare similar birds at different locations. For example we compare the barnacle geese which is breeding on Spitsbergen with the barnacle goose breeding in the Netherlands.
Recount for us one of your field days in the Arctic. Here are some excerpts from by weblog on http://www.arcticstation.nl. I have almost daily pages with pictures while I am working in the field:
June 26, 2006
The [bird hatching] season is extremely early. Eiders are hatching two weeks earlier and barnacle geese five days earlier than normal. The birds are early, so we are late….[Two other scientists from the] Norwegian Polar Institute have been counting nests on most of the islands and I can give them a hand with the monitoring of the kittiwakes. Year after year the same spots in the cliff are used. Every year we determine the number of eggs in the nests which are within sight. It is a dangerous operation because the rocks break off easily, the ladder is completely [extended] and the ground surface [at the bottom of the cliff] is already quite [steep]. [It’s] too high for me, but [another scientist] Kjell Tore climbs to the top and uses a mirror on a stick to look into the nests.
June 27, 2006
While checking the barnacle goose nests on the islands, we are also checking [for] the presence of predators. [Another scientist] Cecilia Sandström is checking a nest of a glaucous gull, which is vigorously attacking her.
July 2, 2006
We go by boat to the breeding islands. Today, the sea is rough. The boat drops on the waves and salt water wets our faces. Near the island Storholmen, we can leave the boat in the shelter of the island.
July 8, 2006
Again, we are checking nests. There are only a few nests left. The last nests are hatching and the geese are not happy to see us. We mark the goslings of nests where the parents are unringed. Webtags are used. These are small metal plates which are pierced through the web of the foot. When we recatch this gosling later, we [will] know its nest and hatchdate. This goose has seen me before. She refuses to show her goslings to me.
July 13, 2006
The captain of the sailing boat Noorderlicht has invited me for a trip to the birdcliff Ossian Sarsfjellet. It is the largest birdcliff in the fjord and I have never been on land at this site. The day is a bit grey, but the experience is magnificent. On the way to the cliff, I give a lecture for the tourists about goose ecology. Than we land next to the cliff and climb up to a wonderful view. We returned to the boat, had a nice dinner and sailed to the glacier front. There we observed ice falling off the glacier causing a tsunami-like wave. We ended the trip viewing a bearded seal from close distance on an ice flow.
July 21, 2006
On a [bird nest] count west of the village, an arctic skua (bird) steals my hat from my head without warning. It lands with the hat 100 meters away and picks at it vigorously. I will not let [it steal my hat]. My first attempt [to get it back] fails and the skua takes the hat another twenty meters. But in my second attempt I succeed.
What do you find most rewarding about being a scientist? By answering questions about things you observe, you get a better understanding on what is happening. For you a flock of geese might just be a nice picture. For me I see male geese providing access to food for their female, mated for life. I see dominant geese obtaining better food than subordinate geese. I see dominant geese using subordinate geese to find the best food. I know why some geese are dominant. Their age, partner and the number of juveniles are important for that. I understand why the geese select some plants; how the vegetation changes while being grazed; how much energy geese need to breed successfully; what causes breeding failure; how old the geese get.
Knowing all this, looking at geese is like reading a favorite book. It enlightens me.
Project URL: www.birdhealth.nl