Setting up Cameras at Den Sites

2/28/2011 9:20:05 PM

Setting up Cameras at Den Sites

View from inside a den

The studies here in northern Alaska are well under way now. It's hard to believe I've been on the North Slope for a week and a day!

Over the past couple of days, Jay and I visited two polar bear dens, although with the naked eye one would never know they were there: The pristine snow drifts along the barrier islands had not been disturbed since the female polar bears had excavated their dens last Fall.

We were able to find the dens by using Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras, which can detect surface heat. By looking closely for relatively warm spots along these snow drifts, we can spot the location of denning female polar bears and their cubs. (I took the image above last year after the family had left their den.)

A hidden camera records activity when the family emerges

When we find den locations our team very quickly sets up an HD video camera hidden inside a heated enclosure 100 meters in front of the site. As soon as we set them up, we drive for home, leaving the camera to sit for one-week intervals—until we return to check the batteries and replace the hard drive. Soon the females will begin emerging from the snowy caverns that shelter them and their cubs. Our remote, hidden cameras will capture the first moments that the young cubs spend out of the den.

Mother with twin cubs

Year after year the weather always impresses me here in the North. Late last week and into the weekend our team was on lockdown inside the facility because of Phase Three weather conditions. The visibility at times was less than 25 feet, and the air was filled with blowing snow and fog. The temperatures were above zero—warm for this time of year—but the winds were a constant 50 miles per hour gusting to nearly 70.

During all this, as I sat near the window watching Mother Nature thrash at the landscape, I thought about the small amount of time that I would last in those conditions without shelter—all while polar bears and other arctic species were surviving the mid-winter blow.

Top two photos ©BJ Kirschhoffer. Bottom photo ©Mike Lockhart.

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