07.07.2017 - 15:15

Hornvik June 2017

Hornvik is beautiful at this time (Ingvi Stígsson)
Hornvik is beautiful at this time (Ingvi Stígsson)
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Aim: to estimate the arctic fox population status in Hornvik, den occupancy and fecundity. Monitoring at breeding dens to record tourist activity and fox response to disturbance.

Participants: Ingvi Stígsson (IS, chair), Chantal Rodrigue (CA), Emma Hodson (UK), Justin Roy (CA), Daniel Rodriguez (US), Jedd Pettit (CA) and Juliann Schamel (US).

The group took off with Borea Adventures from Isafjordur to Hornvik on June 20th. Land was taken at Horn where base camp was set up. With us were two filmers from UK who were going to film a part of a documentary on Icelandic nature and wildlife. This survey in Hornvik took one week.

All known den sites were visited in order to check if they were occupied and to estimate the number of cubs (fecundity). In total six breeding pairs were confirmed in the eastern part of Hornvik this year and the litters were large, up to nine cubs. In addition, quite a few non-breeding individuals seem to be in the area, either within territories (older offspring) or at territory borders and in the beach. The area is therefore full of life, which could also be seen by numerous eggshells from cliff bird nests, lying around at the cliff´s edge. This indicates good nesting success of the seabirds too.

A tiny little cub was brought to our team by travellers who found him and took him up in order to bring him “home”. Our team tried to keep him warm and feed him but sadly the poor little cub died in Chantal's arms after many hours of rescue effort. It should be mentioned to people that they should not try to infer and “help” is not always helpful though it is always well meant.

The weather was wet and foggy the former part of the week but in the later days, the sun came out and Hornvik was as beautiful as it can be, especially in the midnight sun.

Three territories were chosen for intensive study on tourist traffic and fox behaviour within occupied den areas. We studied each den for 12 hours a day for five consecutive days. At this time, cubs are young and still relying on their mother´s milk though they are beginning to eat solid food. Both parents have to spend considerable time foraging for the big and fast growing litter. It is assumed that in June, the animals are not yet adjusted to human traffic and as the females are bound to the dens during the lactating period, the breeding foxes are more vulnerable than the others. We also estimated home range and kept an eye on fox activity within and at territorial borders.

Brief results: most pairs had large litters of 7-9 cubs and one couple hid themselves and potential offspring so well that they were impossible to follow up. We then chose another den to monitor, with more activity and visibility. Majority of the animals were of the blue colour morph but one of the breeding female was white and had nine cubs, thereof one blue. No male came to feed the cubs as proper fathers tend to do but one blue male came and visited the den site few times. As this female had white mate last year and only white cubs, this made us think that perhaps this litter was fathered by two males, the blue and an unseen white one. The blue colour morph is dominating but blue individuals can carry genes for white colour. Therefore a white couple can only have white offspring but blue or mixed pair can have mixed litters of both colour morph. Females come in heat for only a few days in March but unfortunately we could not be there at that time to follow up the mating and territory establishment this year.

The mother of nine looked tired and not in a good shape. She had still some of the winter fur on, which indicates that she was not thriving so well. She also had a swollen milk gland that must have caused pain or at least irritation. And she probably was infected by an ear mite, making her scratch her ears a lot. The male absence at the den indicates disturbance effects and this we have seen during the past years as people are becoming more interested in observing and photographing the foxes and their cubs. He can stay away to avoid human disturbance but she is bond to the cubs as she is still lactating and they rely on her totally. Hopefully she will recover quickly and we will see her story in two documentary films that are being produced this summer.

Life is not always easy at this corner of the world and it is not likely that all the cubs will survive the summer. Usually around 4-5 cubs survive until autumn in any of these territories and this year does not look different from others. Life is a struggle in the arctic and northern hemisphere and only the strongest and most resourceful individuals survive – with a bit of luck. One can only admire the strength and diligence of these hardy animals that survive the hardest arctic winter conditions. Now it´s summer and food is in abundance for the fast growing playful juveniles who have no worries of the coming future.

We thank the volunteers for their contribution and for taking their time to take care of the fox monitoring this week in Hornvik. Without their help we couldn´t get as much data and detailed information in such a short time with so little budget.

We also thank the landowners at Horn for allowing us to use their land for base and research during the time of this study.