“Nearest my god to thee” – Waiting for the arctic fox

As mentioned before in a previous post, when den monitoring or den searching, there is a lot of waiting involved. In a round Icelandic valley, the hanging stillness is tempered only by the sound of water running from the many waterfalls and the chirping of the songbirds. What do you learn while waiting for the arctic fox? Well, patience of course. You learn that it is okay not to rush, that it is actually when you stand still that things will happen. You have time, why not take it?

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First, you look a bit around, follow the clear-cut edges of the cliff in the evening light, the majestic flight of the fulmars, observe the fog rolling slowly over into your valley, the rocks covered in moss and lichen or the summer flowers gently rocking in the wind… When waiting gets a bit long and you’re pretty much done contemplating the beauty of nature, then you get a little bit deeper into your heart. You think about all the crossroads of life that made that today you are sitting here waiting for a fox, you think about what your next step might be, you think about that other time and that other place when you felt at home leaning against the heart of someone you love…

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And then suddenly, from the mid of the fog or the brilliant blue of the sky pierces the most beautiful sound in the world: the arctic fox’s territorial call. The bark, clear and high-pitched, usually comes as a series. “Akakakakakak… (pause) Akakakakak… (pause)” The sound helps you locate the fox with your binoculars. There it is! You learn to hone your observation skills to tell each individual apart, which I’ve never really done before since I am so used to relying on coloured ear tags.
Is it a blue morph or a white one? A male, a female? Have I seen it before or is it a new one? You have to pay attention to the patches of winter fur, the shape of the face, the color of the eyes, the gait… Unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Icelandic arctic fox is a tricky one, it keeps you guessing, it’s like you never really know what it is up to. Maybe I need a little bit more time to get to know it better. But time is also a tricky thing, you have time but you also don’t. Tomorrow, I am leaving the Westfjords. Will I ever come back to this place? You never know… I think it is the moment for me to apply what I learned in the field: shut up and be patient.

Many of the past arctic fox volunteers say that coming to Hornstrandir was a life-changing experience. It is not my first time ‘fieldworking’ in the tundra, but to me, the Icelandic experience had that raw feeling of a gem in hiding, so authentic and so unique.

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No near-death stories this year, as all the volunteers of the June fox pack were experienced and the weather was kind to us. But be prepared and keep your eyes opened, because anything can happen: a ghost sending Skyr into the sea, meadow pipits growing bigger in the fog (“they were like THIS BIG”), scent-marking behind two guys from the BBC Natural World…

Come and join us ! You’ll see for yourself 🙂

Sandra Lai

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Den monitoring in Hlöðuvík

Still full of the time spent in Hornvik, Camille and I reach the beach filled with white drift wood of Hlöðuvík and wave goodbye to the fox pack. They are going back to Súðavík and Ísafjörður after the end of the June monitoring and we will be staying in Hlöðuvík with Ester and Jónas to check on the dens in that area. As we set up the camp, a fox comes to us with eyes full of expectation. He’s a blue morph with patches of tawny winter fur still hanging on his back and tail. He looks like a badly shaved poodle. ‘New people? What are they doing? Will they leave some food for me?’ We silently cry out a little bit since both of our cameras are out of batteries, but the sight of him wandering around us is so exciting that we soon just rejoice of his visit.

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In Hlöðuvík, we are camping right next to the beach, it is the sound of waves that takes me to sleep at night. To me, it is the familiar sound of home, since I grew up in a house by the sea.

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The next day, we explore the valley behind the camp site and meet its foxes. But no luck with finding the natal den. On the second day, we hike up a ‘troll bum-seat’ (a small round valley that looks like it was made when a troll sat on a mountain) and cross over to the next valley. It is an amazing sunny day, with just a little bit of wind coming from the sea. The first den is a rocky den with no sign of activity. The second den is a real flower palace, hidden in a small green hill covered with a field of yellow and purple flowers. It has cubs, but they would not come out. We sit among the flowers and wait for the adults to come. Den monitoring is really some kind of waiting game. You just sit and wait in silence for something to happen, and it can last for HOURS. It is a very hot day, foxes are less active in that kind of weather… Camille stays on watch for that den and the rest of us move on.

The waiting game
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The third den is on a cliff’s edge. One cub jumps out of a hole. Startled not to find his mom, he quickly jumps back into the den. And it’s the waiting game again. My bottom cradled in the dry tundra, with the sun still out and warm, the view of the whole fjord, the cries of the seabirds and the glistening sea, it is quite the place to be. It’s a family of four, but the adults would not show up. We have to continue. We climb up the sharp cliff’s edge and while we move away, we see a blue male slowly making its way back to its den along the ridge. Of course, he was checking on us and waited until we left to go back home. His black silhouette against the pale blue afternoon sky is just like the fox shape on the Arctic Fox Center’s road sign. “I always see them like that in my mind”, says Ester. Beautiful… He barks as he reaches the top of the crest over his den before making its way down.

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The last den is high up and close to a steep bird cliff. It is also occupied. As we play the waiting game at the very edge, we hear the heavy flight of the guillemots passing behind us like missiles. When we finally see the cubs, they are five and super tiny. I see a little head popping out of the lush vegetation, with blue eyes blinking as if not yet used to the sunlight. The female of this den is also a blue one.

Mission accomplished! We hike back to Camille, who managed to see the whole family of the Flower Palace. As we head back to camp, the golden light of the midnight sun is reflecting in the vast ocean. Another stunning sight… We left the camp at 10:00 am and we are back at 11:30 pm. We have dinner while looking at the sun slowly tracing its way low on the horizon. What a day… ‘Takk fyrir dag !’ It means “Thank you for the day” in Icelandic.

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We spend the last two days den searching and trying to figure out the fox territories in the other half of the fjord. Finding a den can be a tedious task, sometimes we systematically searched whole sides of valleys. We will not be able to find all litters, but at least we located the active areas. Ester will return later in the season to check again. For us, it is already time to leave. The evening before we leave Hlöðuvík, we play again another round of “What was the best, what was the worst and what did you learn here”. I’ll keep our answers a secret as not to spoil the experience, but it is a good game. The bonus question, “What makes you happy in life”, is still resounding softly in my heart. The past few days have truly been a gift. We feel blessed to have been able to see a glimpse of the Icelandic wilderness, a heartfelt memory that we will surely never forget. ‘Takk fyrir dag !’

Sandra Lai

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June Fox Monitoring in Hornstrandir

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I felt a warm glow in my stomach as the boat rounded a finger of land and I had my first view of the cliffs of Hornvik, the fox monitoring peninsula in Hornstrandir Nature Preserve.  I had been here last year in July to monitor with Ester and her team, and spent the last year waiting for summer to come again, and with it, a chance to return to Hornvik.

Hornvik is stunning in scenery, with a subtle beauty found up close among the tiny petals of tundra flowers, and a raucous beauty from afar, in the vast expanse of green valleys and plunging cliffs.  Last summer, I had monitored a den without much activity, and this year I was looking forward to the possibility of meeting a whole fox family.

The Westfjords of Iceland are a difficult place to pack for.  The feeling you get of being at the top of the world and the end of the earth makes you want to return again and again, but the unpredictable weather and remoteness mean you have to take care in mindful preparation before you arrive.  I realized this my first year, when I packed for a typical field season in summer in Alaska (where I grew up), and found myself terribly underprepared.  Hornstrandir is colder, wetter, and more wildly unpredictable than any other arctic site I have experienced.  This summer, I had stuffed my backpack with the essentials: a large and high quality thermos for hot water during the 6 hour shifts of sitting still on the tundra, two pairs of warm wool socks for every day I would be in the preserve (yes… 14 pairs!), rubber boots for walking in the wet tundra, and high quality water proof rain gear.  If there is one piece of advice I can give to future monitoring volunteers, it is this: expect to be wet and cold, and pack to keep yourself as dry and warm as possible!  There is a reason Icelanders wear so much wool… it keeps you warm even if it is wet (like a sheep!).  If you are prepared, you will have an incredible and unforgettable experience.  If you are not, you may be miserable.

If anyone has any questions at all about monitoring, or how to prepare and what to pack, feel free to contact me at juicejuicejuice(at)gmail.com

This summer, my den partner, Chloe, and I were tasked with finding the exact location of our den, from among a choice of several rock piles along a tundra bench,  Detective work!  Chloe had figured it out by the time I arrived to my first shift in the afternoon.  She had also named both parents.  The father was called Marshmallow because he had patches of bleached winter fur clinging to both sides of his belly, and the mother was called Miss Perfect because she had a sleek groomed summer coat.  I renamed her Lilypad, and if you watch How I Met Your Mother, you will know why. : ) Both of them were blue fox.

Over the next few days, sitting on my rock perch just below the pass that leads over the mountain to the lighthouse, I watched the fox family in their daily life.  I watched as Marshmallow and Lilypad disappeared over the cliff edge into the seabird colony and returned with seabirds in their mouth.  The birds were always headless and half the size of the fox.  I am constantly struck by the elegance and strength of the fox, and it was such an honor to watch them living their lives.  The parents brought fresh caught Catch of the Day to the den, where the kits were too young to know what to do with it yet and were more interested in playing and chasing their mother.  Lilypad spent leisurely hours nursing her eight kits, grooming herself, and stealing away to nap on top of the den out of reach of her rambunctious children.  Marshmallow made rounds of his territory, marking rocks and facebooks (tufts of grass), and barking.  Marshmallow and Lilypad owned a patch of land from the top of the mountain to the bird cliff, down the center of the valley to the beach on the fjord, and they spent a good deal of time making sure everyone knew it was theirs.  Although Hornstrandir looks like a wilderness to human visitors, it is somewhat of a fox metropolis.

For anyone who has ever read Never Cry Wolf, I felt a bit like Farley Mowat, at his post in the Canadian arctic, watching and doing as his wolfpack did (although I peed in the tundra many times, I never ripped the head off of a seabird).  There is nothing I would rather be doing than sitting outside with a grand vista, getting a rare peek into the lives of another creature.

There was a moment at 21:30, when the midnight sun was behind clouds and the light was a bit glum, when Lilypad left the den and came up the mountainside slowly, walking in a careful, dainty, catlike manner.  Sniffing here, marking there, she passed within 15 feet of me but did not pay me any mind; the greatest gesture one can receive from a wild animal.  She continued up to the top of the mountain, where she became a sillhouette in the evening glow.  She sat, curling her tail around herself, and looked out over the valley.  Her domain.  Everything was still and quiet.  She barked once.  From down in the valley below, a reply, and I watched as a tiny dark speck, with two bleached spots on either side, bounded down the valley towards the beach.

Juliann Schamel

2 weeks at the center

Hi,
I’m Aurélie, I’m from France and I have been volunteering at the Arctic Fox Center for 2 weeks. Today is my last day at the center and I wanted to share my experience here.

Apart from everything I’ve learned about arctic foxes and all the nice people I’ve met, what I liked the most is that I was immediately welcomed as a member of the Arctic Fox Center Team but also of the small community of Sudavik. I had an overview of the Icelandic way of life. I ate a lot of delicious cakes but I also learned how to cook them. I learned how to guide people in an exhibition and I found out I was comfortable with it and enjoying it. This is so enjoyable when you see that people are interested and concerned by what you say.

As I wasn’t going to Hornstrandir for the monitoring mission I thought I would never have the chance to see an arctic fox staying here at Sudavik. Well I was wrong ! In one week, I went hiking 2 times in the evening just behind the center in the mountains and I saw a wild fox each time. And one of them was really close 🙂 That was awesome !

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And then few days ago, this little orphan cub arrived at the center. Kathrin and I are in charge of him. Every four hours we go feed him and change is water. He is very young and so small but he’s tough, very active and curious. He’s not afraid and he loves to be visited. He wants company, he comes to us and tries to climb on us. We try as much as possible to keep our distances so he doesn’t get use to humans but this is very hard.

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So I thank all the Arctic Fox Center team for this wonderful 2 weeks I’ve spent here !
I hope I’ll come back next year!

Welcome to the Arctic Fox Centre, let me guide you through the exhibition

As we wake up this morning at the camping site, the sun is up in a perfectly bright blue sky. We are now 5 volunteers at the Arctic Fox Centre and it’s looking very much like the United Nations: Aurélie is from France, Chloé from Switzerland, Eric from Belgium, Camille from Quebec and myself from French Polynesia.

It’s a 10-min walk from the camping site to the little house that is our UN Headquarters, where we have breakfast before coming to the Centre. It is also where we usually cook, shower and can hang around when not working at the Centre.

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Part of our job as volunteers is to give the visitors a tour of the museum. Today is not so busy but sometimes, it can get really crowded. Today, Ester came back to Sudavik, along with a new member of the UN fox pack, Kathrin coming from Germany. We also received later in the evening an orphaned cub.

Excitation is growing as we also have been preparing for the fox monitoring in Hornstrandir, which will start on Saturday. Crazzzyyyyy !!!

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