Since I was selected to lead this project in December 2020, the aerial survey was probably the experience I have been anticipating the most, so it was a true test of character when there was a complete lack of weather cooperation for this important day.
As part of this project, the study area (otherwise known as the Goodenough survey block) is surveyed via helicopter to get a minimum count of the sheep each August. This survey has been conducted annually since 2019 and our goal is to compare our camera data to this minimum count data to help evaluate the effectiveness of the cameras in capturing important population demographics.
After diligent planning and preparation by Steve, Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board's wildlife biologist, and myself we waited around the office waiting for the pilot to give us news that the low ceiling hanging around the mountains was lifting. At 2:00pm we had the clear to give it a try, and took off from Inuvik toward where the Willow River flows from the Northern Richardson Mountains into the delta (NW of Aklavik). It became clear pretty quickly that the conditions were breaking down. In addition to 3-4 hours of flying time we planned to complete a pass of all the major ridges in the survey block, we also planned to service two of the cameras in the array that hadn't been functioning properly. Luckily, one of the cameras was really close to the beginning of the survey route, and we were able to at least land and do the servicing before taking off back to Inuvik. We did end up spotting one sheep and two moose which was still neat even though it can't count for our data.
We are hoping to find another date later in September for Steve to conduct the survey but between early snowfall and booked helicopter companies, we might not be able to get the minimum count for 2021. I'm not sure what exactly this will mean for our study, but it's pretty standard in grad school to have to constantly rework projects and data. Biology plays by no rules and each challenge to the wildlife ecologist in data or methods has to be worked out, and will only make you a better biologist. This is the whole purpose of grad school - building this skill set and becoming a master of your area of research. So ultimately, these challenges are quite literally exactly what I signed up for.