If you’re interested in visiting the Antarctic, the Arctic, or any of the other places where I’ve done fieldwork, send me an email,
Eight feet tall…
At the edge of the Polar Ice seals and polar bears find their intersection. The seals are there to bear young. The bears are there to feed. I came to watch the show, above Svalbard, 571 miles from the North Pole .
I spotted Standing Bear lying down, flat out on her belly, as much of her body in contact with the ice as she could manage. Bears do that when overheated, or after over-eating. In this case both. One of those seal/bear convergences had recently taken place.
Resulting in one very well-fed, somewhat overheated sleepy polar bear. And in that the key to my encounter. For a hungry bear everything is business (and there were plenty of all-business bears that day). But Standing Bear had the luxury of all her basic needs well and fully met and as with people, it gave her license for higher order pursuits. Namely, curiosity.
There was still a trace of red on her chin and above her nose. She yawned and showed her teeth and her purple tongue. We were still a kilometer away and she looked briefly, then dozed off again. Clearly, the ship did not interest her. Something she had seen before.
When we were within three hundred meters she rolled over on her side and took notice. She had seen the movement on the decks. As she approached, and by degrees, her eyes grew wide. I am all but certain she had never seen a human being.
Why did she cross the rolling sea ice to meet my eyes and hold them the way she did? To study all of us the way she did? Except for the greater similarity within the difference between us. PolarBearMorphism?
Polar bears are chess players. They can plan their activities (notably hunting) in multiple steps which means they can visual outcomes, a skill we assume animals do not have. But they do. I know this for a fact, and it is what makes polar bears in particular, dangerous. One of their hunting techniques is indifference, not even looking at their intended prey, and when they do, feigning greater interest in something else. Sometimes, they will hunt you, too. But not always. Because with intelligence also comes personality, and variations in attitude. I would go so far as to say that I “trusted” Standing Bear. Not enough to try to touch her, but enough to assume her primary interest in me (as is sometimes the case) was recognition. I have had the great privilege to spend time with almost a hundred polar bears. Standing Bear was and will likely remain my favorite of all time.
The fieldwork for this story took place in Svalbard, with One Ocean Expeditions.
My prose essay, Standing Bear Comes in Peace, can be heard (or read) on PRI’s Living on Earth.
Just off the Antarctic Peninsula at 63°0’58” S 57°40’52” W, I encountered a tabular iceberg [an iceberg that looks like a huge tabletop]. By the position, I believe it to have been a fragment of the Larsen B Ice Shelf that broke up in 2002. But “fragment” doesn’t do justice to what I saw. Picture New York’s Central Park, made of ice, and 120 feet high.
To give you an idea of the scale, the Antarctic Petrels soaring in front of the leading edge of the berg have a wingspan of one meter! In order to take a photo of an entire side, I had to wait until our ship had steamed some miles past. The tabular iceberg that just separated from Larsen C is many orders of magnitude larger than the giant pictured here.
My 20 days of fieldwork in the Antarctic was hosted by One Ocean Expeditions.
30,000 years before Athena acquired her owl, birds of prey had already captured the human imagination. The single owl among the cave paintings of Chauvet is solid proof. Falconry was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, the Japan of the Kamakura Shogunate, Genghis Kahn’s Mongolia and in Medieval Europe. Birds of prey are mentioned in Dante and in Shakespeare.
Seagulls? Not so much (Chekhov notwithstanding).
We have all heard the epithets: Garbage Gulls, Rats with Feathers. Even the ornithologists, quick to point out there is no such species as a “seagull” call them kleptoparasites (meaning parasitic thieves). In lay terms: Stupid Seagull. Nuisance. Pest. The most annoying of birds…
That’s what we call them.
This is a failure not of imagination, but of observation. Gulls in general, and Herring Gulls in particular are the brightest bulbs on the shore. Gulls are great hunters. There is no seaborne food source they cannot advantage. Every kind of crab, shellfish, bate fish, scraps of bunker left by ravenous schools of striped bass and blues, the shiners when the pool in close to shore, even insects (including the near-invisible things they catch in late summer, on the wing), all this is on the plate.
Then, there is the tendency to assume seagulls and certainly those within the same species, are all alike. Also not true. Herring gulls have distinct physiognomies, different personalities and individual voices all of which any human who pays attention can learn to distinguish. Gulls recognize each other, individually, and extend that same recognition to us, as individual human beings. Feed a seagull, be remembered. Harm one? They will remember that, too.
My favorite time and place for watching gulls is any sand spar at low tide. Black-backed gulls as the name implies have wings and bodies that are black on top. They are our largest gulls. Herring gulls are blue-gray on top and have a pronounced red spot on their bills. Among herring gulls the males are larger, the females have longer necks. Ring-bills are also blue-gray on top, smaller than a herring gull, and have a distinctive black ring on the end of their bills.
Pick a gull, any gull, watch what he or she is doing. Be surprised.
Where is this?
The gulls shown here (adult and juvenile Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls) were photographed on the Connecticut Shore. They live and hunt in and around The Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge, which is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is one of our great coastal treasures, a major nesting area for many species of birds, and also a breeding ground for horseshoe crabs, spider and blue crabs and sea turtles. Like almost all of USFWS, the Refuge is acutely underfunded. A new group of volunteers is coalescing to support the Refuge and the rangers who work there. If you’re interested in participating, let me know. MSL (at) MarkSethLender (dot) com.
To hear or read my prose poem, “Gulls Hunting for Spider Crabs on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth, click here: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=17-P13-00024&segmentID=6