July 13, 2009

July 13, 2009

Good news; bad news. Bad news is that we still haven't put out the second GPS/ARGOS collar yet, although 4 days left to do so. Good news is that we received the first few locations from our first wolf wearing the collar, and they were most interesting. The main finding was that we think we know where the den is. But it is 27 km (about 17 miles) straight-line distance across the fjord from our observation point.

Thus to get there from where we collared the wolf, the pack must travel at least 37 km (about 23 miles) around the end of the fjord. We tracked the collared wolf from the ground today with the standard radio beacon, and it was still across the fjord where we could also see several herds of muskoxen.

Tonight as we watched from our observation point, we saw the 2 female wolves that were there yesterday, and they broke out into a howling session that lasted over an hour. We couldn't figure out why until Dean heard howling from across the fjord, some 4.1 miles away! Although it was hard to believe that he heard it that far, I was convinced when he pointed out a wolf across the way along the opposite shore through his 12X, stabilized binocs. Tomorrow we will take our 45X spotting scope along to look across the way. And, we will also keep keen eyes out for a suitable candidate for our second collar.

Dean & Dave

Editors' Note

Several people have asked how Dave and Dean find wolves in such a huge region. One Blogger asked if they had to travel around looking for signs of wolves, hoping to get lucky. All great questions!

Much of Ellesmere Island is too lacking in vegetation to support large herbivores like muskoxen on which the wolves depend for food. It is an arctic desert, and some regions of this huge landscape are locked in ice. There are formidable mountain ranges and bleak areas of rock. But here and there are "thermal oases," areas that receive enough annual moisture to nourish the shallow-rooted plants that feed muskoxen, the primary prey of the wolves. The wide expanses of landscape around the tiny weather station at Eureka on Ellesmere are home to wolves, muskoxen, arctic hares and other animals.

Sometimes wolves travel on a route near the weather station. They are not afraid of people because in this region, they have never been subjected to the persecution of their relatives to the south. They seem to be curious about humans, and some will approach and come close. Since 2006, the wolves in the area have not used the Rock Den (see the 2006 Blog). So finding them has, in fact, been a huge challenge in recent years. Read the 2008 Blog, and you will readily see what a task it was to locate them!

The GPS/ARGOS collars have a VHF transmitter in them (see below). Thus, Dave and Dean hope to be able to pick up a radio signal from any wolves they collar if they can get within range. With the location data sent from the ARGOS satellite by the collar, this may be possible. The beauty of the technology is the capability to receive locations through a computer. Thus, the great question asked at the end of the 1986 documentary White Wolf may finally be answered: What do the wolves do in winter? Where do they go? How far do they travel? It is important to collar a breeding pair. They are the core of the wolf family, and they and possibly some others will probably travel and hunt together even though they will not have pups to feed until late spring.

The standard VHF radio collar is extremely useful in many locations for tracking animals and birds. But a VHF collar alone wouldn't serve any purpose in a region as remote as Ellesmere and with weather so extreme and harsh most of the year. Additionally, the short summer is over by late August, and it is difficult or impossible to get around by foot or ATV until late June after the long, dark winter is over and the mud has dried up.

This VHF collar consists of a transmitter (just like a radio station that emits a signal that cannot be heard), a receiver (just like a radio) and a direction-finding antenna. With the antenna, the researchers can “find” the transmitter either by using direct line or triangulation. Some antennas are hand-held, and others can be mounted on the wings of aircraft.

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