Brian and Eileen Keelan


31 Benedict Drive                                                 E-mail (until 31 Jan 01):

Rochester NY 14624                                          E-mail (after 31 Jan 01):

Phone: 716-426-0684                                               URL:


14 December 2000




We've had a good year in 2000, and hope that you have also. Eileen has continued her one day per week volunteering at The Nature Conservancy, which she enjoys greatly. I have continued work on my book on image quality research, the first draft of which is now about 80% complete. I have secured a good publisher and the manuscript is due to them during the summer of 2001, with publication expected early in 2002. It will be quite a relief to finish the writing! The research project I have headed up for seven years now is finally winding up; I will not mind a break from the responsibilities for a while.


Last winter was devoted again to keying out plant specimens and planning travel for the year. We had substantial snow during January and February, so we did quite a bit of snowshoeing for exercise, which was a nice break from the stationary bicycle. We have both been reading a number of exploration and travel books, of which particular favorites were "The Last Place on Earth" by Roland Huntford and "The Worst Journey in the World" by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, both of which describe aspects of the race to reach the South Pole. I gave an invited paper at a conference in Portland, Ore. in March and got in one day of beautiful snowshoeing on Mt. Hood, seeing among other species a few noble firs, a conifer that we have found only rarely.


We started the camping season in April with an Easter trip to the Blue Ridge Mts. of Virginia and North Carolina, by way of Charlottesville to see my family. Our primary target on this trip was Carolina hemlock, the only conifer of eastern North America that we had not seen. This species has a very restricted distribution, centered in the Linville Gorge area of North Carolina. We located the species at its northernmost occurrence near the James River, in Virginia, and farther south along the Blue Ridge Parkway at a second location before reaching Linville Gorge. We did not know what this area might be like, because we had never heard it mentioned except in connection with the hemlock. We were duly impressed when we arrived. The gorge is very beautiful, complete with a plunge basin and a nice trail system. I don't know why this location is not considerably better known; it was a delight to explore. At the first hiking overlook we came to, I looked around and realized that half the nearby trees were Carolina hemlocks, arranged like so many bonsai sculptures among the cliffs of the gorge! We saw many interesting southern montane plant species, including Fraser fir on top of Mt. Mitchell at ca. 6700 feet elevation.


In May we spent a week birding near Pt. Pelee in Ontario, a trip organized to take advantage of the International Science and Engineering Fair, held in Detroit this year. We had a number of nice birds, including orange-crowned warbler and sandhill crane, species more frequently found farther west. But mammals were the high point of the trip. One morning when we arrived at the tip of Pt. Pelee at first light, we watched a large hoary bat flying in circles and then alighting on a tree trunk, where we and eventually hundreds of other birders saw it well. It was extremely well camouflaged against the cedar bark and it is possible that it would never have been noticed if we had not seen it land. The hoary bat is one of the largest North American bats and is highly migratory and difficult to see. I had seen one previously in a desert oasis in southern California. Our second notable mammal was a meadow vole seen repeatedly over the course of over an hour as it foraged in a wet, grassy area. Voles are like lemmings and look a bit like guinea pigs in shape and size. The vole would leave one of its holes, cut off a tall plant at the base, and scurry back to its hole and pull the plant inside, where it could eat it in safety. Voles can be very common in some areas, especially in the far north, but they are often very difficult to identify, and this was the first time we positively recorded this species.


In late May and June we spent our first two weekends in the Moose River Plains, which were horrid for biting insects this year. In addition to wearing head-nets and tucking our pants into our socks, we had to seal the cuffs of our long sleeved shirts to our wrists with tape to prevent insects from infiltrating our defenses. We also had to set up a tent for eating. There was such a high density of insects that once when I was in the tent I mistook the sound of them striking the tent fabric for rain. At the end of the second weekend we realized that because this was the last year of our study, we would not have to visit the Adirondacks early in the season again and put up with this sort of abuse, a liberating thought!


In June we took our major trip of the year, to Baffin Island, as described in Eileen's account at the end of this note. After returning from this trip, I discovered that my binoculars had developed a fungal growth on the inside optics (this takes a while and so started well before the trip). The best feature of the new pair I bought (Bausch and Lomb Elite 8x40s) is that they will focus as close as 5 feet, which is great for butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, amphibians, etc., not to mention plants. Looking through the binoculars at a plant on the ground at my feet is like seeing the plant from only seven inches away, closer than I could focus with my naked eye. The focus adjustment is also very rapid, which is helpful on flying birds.


During July our nephew Corey visited again as he did last year, with a special request to see moose. We therefore headed to Algonquin Provincial Park, where we rented a kayak, each of us taking turns between this and our canoe. Lots of hiking and paddling indeed yielded moose, as well as river otter, red fox, merlin (a small falcon), spruce grouse, boreal chickadee, and black-backed woodpecker, the latter three species characteristic birds of the boreal forest, but often difficult to observe at the southern edge of their range. Two nice orchid finds were green adder's mouth and checkered rattlesnake plantain, both in flower. The former species has a lovely dense cluster of tiny flowers, and the latter species is notable for having initially arisen through hybridization of two other species in their area of overlap in the Great Lakes region. We also had marvelous views of Saturn, the rings of which are turned at a very good angle for viewing this year. We were joined one night and day by a Canadian naturalist we had met earlier in the year on our Pt. Pelee trip, who had just moved from Saskatchewan to do field work in Ontario.


We did some good field work in the Moose River Plains in July, August, and September, finishing the field season there with 21 days of field work to our credit, collecting about 90 specimens, and finding about 15 new species. This was our sixth and final season of our study, which has involved a total of just under 150 days in the field, during which we collected just under one thousand specimens and found about 520 species. We hope to be able to publish this work in a peer-reviewed journal, but with the current emphasis on molecular research, it may be difficult. At a minimum we will put the information out on the internet (we have just started a home page at that you can check out if you are interested). Some of the most exciting finds for the year were showy lady's slipper, a truly spectacular crimson and white pouched orchid; leathery grape fern, which we had seen previously only in the Sierra Nevada; and Goldie's fern, which is very scarce and localized in the largely acidic Adirondacks. It was a good year for the nomadic white-winged crossbill, a species that is present only every few years, but when present, can fill the coniferous woodlands with their canary-like song, often given while in flight. We did a lot of long hikes into remote areas, and I got pretty good at clearing trails with a Swedish brush axe as we hiked. One forgotten trail we hiked was described by one of our friends, a forest ranger, as being "so not there".


Eileen bought me a nice book describing good flatwater canoeing sites in New York State, so during the summer we took a number of evening canoe trips to local areas described in the book. This was a great deal of fun, and we learned a number of new aquatic plants. My dad visited in September for a few days and I went canoeing with him one day also. Between the North Carolina and Pt. Pelee trips and our local canoeing, we managed to photograph about 30 new wildflowers this year, bringing our list of photographed native flowers in the northeast to over 600 species.


A year ago we reserved a former ranger cabin in the interior of Algonquin Provincial Park for a week of remote canoe camping. The trip was marvelous! Each day we did long day trips in our canoe (usually 12-14 miles of paddling), but at night we had the warmth and convenience of a log cabin with a wood-burning stove. Each day we filtered water for drinking, and on two days chopped firewood for the stove. The views from the cabin, which was right on the water, were excellent, especially because the fall color peaked right in the middle of our stay. We had most of the mammals and birds listed from our trip earlier in the year, plus a magnificent black bear swimming across a river right in front of us! Notable plants included stout goldenrod and military rush, the latter a tall aquatic plant that grows in colonies rooted in shallow water. This plant has bright red stem bases, which gives stands a beautiful and distinctive red and green banded appearance at a distance. The weather started out quite warm and sunny but became colder, with some snow, later in the week. One rather exciting moment came when we reached some rapids with a carry around them. We are not whitewater canoeists at all, but the water levels were very high and the rapids looked pretty tame. What we did not realize was that we were seeing just the first mild stretch, and that the rapids made a sharp bend and became a frenzied mass of frothing water just out of our view. By the time we realized our mistake, there was nothing to do but plow ahead. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying; somehow we made it through without capsizing, but it took a long time before our pulse rates returned to normal!


Our last weekend of camping, timed to coincide with the changing of the tamaracks (mid-October), was lovely. We did several nice hikes and canoe trips. Besides the orange-yellow of the tamaracks, there were yellow aspens and birches, orange cherries, and red chokeberries still with leaves, so actually there was quite a bit of color, even though most trees had lost their leaves by then.


Over Thanksgiving we spent 12 days in southern Florida with Eileen's parents, mostly birding. We found two bird species new to me, American flamingo (rare in U.S.) and short-tailed hawk (both dark and light color morphs), bringing my North American life list to 690 species, excluding introduced species. Eileen had a third life bird, Sandwich tern. We saw crocodile well, a life species that is scarce and local in salt and brackish water in extreme southern Florida. We also had our best looks ever at manatee, marsh rabbit, and snail kite, among other species.


Christmas will be in Virginia as usual. We don't have any firm plans for 2002 due to the book deadline, but undoubtedly we will find something to do, perhaps in the fall after the manuscript is turned in.



Baffin Island Trip


Eileen L. Keelan


We had so much fun on our Arctic trip last year that we decided we'd like to go back and look for a few of the things that we did not get to see. So, Brian spent the early part of the winter exploring the internet for places to go and ways to get there that would fill in some of those gaps. After a great deal of searching, he finally located a place, Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, and an agency, that looked hopeful.


Excerpt from the first letter we sent to Marian at Tununiq Travel & Adventures: "[We] are interested in visiting Pond Inlet this summer to see marine mammals, nesting birds and arctic plants...Ideally, we would like to have a floe edge trip of four or five nights plus three days or so to explore around Pond Inlet...Of the less common species, we would especially like to see bowhead whale, walrus, and polar bear."


From her response: "Travel on a long sled (qamutik) pulled by a snowmobile, operated by an experienced Inuit guide. At the floe edge, the landfast ice meets the open waters of Baffin Bay. There, you may see the narwhal or unicorn of the sea, polar bears from a safe distance, seabirds, seals and perhaps the rare bowhead, the largest whale to occur in Arctic waters."


A great many e-mail messages were sent back and forth over the next few months. Our friends, Jim and Ellen, from California were going to join us for the trip and we worked hard to accomodate everyone's schedules: theirs, ours, the animals', and that of the landfast ice. We finally settled on a ten-day trip, meeting in Ottawa on 15 June, and traveling to Baffin Island together.


Until recently, Baffin Island was part of the Northwest Territories. In April 1999, the NWT split, with most of the offshore islands forming the new territory of Nunavut, 85% of whose inhabitants are Inuit.


We flew out of Ottawa on Friday morning, 16 June, landing a few hours later in Iqaluit, the new capitol of the new territory. We had enough time between flights to take a tour of the city via taxi, seeing the new government buildings and searching for caribou on the tundra. Then it was back to the airport for the flight to Pond Inlet.


Marian met us at the airport and we made arrangements for the evening. Of the twelve rooms at the motel, only one was available, due to two conventions in town and a problem with the plumbing. So, after eating dinner together in the motel dining room, Jim and Ellen went to their room and Brian and I went off with Marian to her house where we displaced one of her sons from his bedroom for the night.


The following day we spent hoping to depart for the floe edge. Unfortunately, the winds were too high and we spent the day in town instead. After eating breakfast, we hiked to the dump and the sewage ponds, two not-so-scenic wonders (which no birder would think of missing) in search of interesting gulls, shorebirds, and waterfowl. After lunch, the afternoon was spent walking most of the way out to the drinking water pond. Marian served dinner at her house and then we moved to the motel.


Conditions were still not good enough to depart for the floe edge the next morning, so, after breakfast, we hiked all the way to the water pond, where we had a few nice birds, such as Baird's sandpiper and red-throated loon. This excursion took the entire morning so we really had to rush to get back to the motel in time for lunch. The meals were served cafeteria style and, because there were so few people to accommodate, the serving window was only open for about fifteen minutes (truly a narrow serving window of opportunity!). We made it back in time for a lunch of omelet sandwiches, mashed potatoes, and oatmeal cookies.


Marian came into the dining room as we were finishing and said that conditions were still uncertain, so we decided to hike to Salmon Creek; we'd be back in time to leave in the evening, if it were possible. We had just set out when Mike, Marian's husband, caught up with us and said we had the go-ahead to at least travel to Bylot Island, directly across Eclipse Sound from Pond Inlet.


We got our stuff together and down to the ice where it was loaded on the sledge. We sat inside, leaning against the gear and covered with blankets. Our Inuit guides, Mathias and his assistant/cook Julia, rode the snowmobile that pulled the sledge.


A couple of hours of travel on the ice brought us to Bylot Island. Brian went to let Julia know that we were going to go exploring while she and Mathias set up camp. She replied, "Don't hurry back", which we hoped meant "take your time". We saw a few flowers in bloom and heard a snow bunting singing from the top of an eroded cliff, its song filling the steeply sided valley.


Dinner was ready when we returned, a delicious meal of caribou stew; Brian, the vegetarian, had a sandwich of Arctic char. The six of us crowded into the mess tent which was kept comfortably warm by the Coleman stove. There were three camp stools and a variety of wooden food boxes and coolers to sit on. After eating, we had hot chocolate, then went to our tents and to bed.


Brian was awake long before -- well, long before what would have been dawn, had there been a dawn, which there wasn't exactly since we were enjoying twenty-four hours of daylight. Still, there he was, wide awake at only three a.m., so he decided to go exploring. He hiked to the top of the plateau where he had a magnificent view of a braided river valley bordered on one side by hoodoos, spectacular eroded columns of soft rock. On one sat a magnificent white phase gyrfalcon; none of the four of us had ever seen this color phase before, so it was one of the primary targets of the trip.


He returned shortly before seven. We had hot chocolate and breakfast, then Mathias and Julia led us on what, for most of us, was the first hike of the day. We climbed a steep hill, where we saw a caribou track, the only evidence we had of caribou besides the one at Iqaluit. Then, up another steep slope from which we looked down and saw the white phase gyrfalcon that Brian had seen during his morning constitutional. We set up the telescope and took turns gazing down at the bird where it sat on top of a hoodoo.


Then, we clambered down yet another slope to a river bed. We set up the scope again and saw the gyrfalcon from below. It is always nice to be able to circumnavigate your life birds (or color phases). A pair of hikers came by and pointed out the gyrfalcon's nest and we saw fluffy babies in it.


Mathias and Julia showed us the hoodoos up close, the other reason for visiting the riverbed, then returned to camp and left us to explore them on our own. Julia gave us bag lunches of sandwich, cookies, and a juice box before they left. Returning to camp along the riverbed, the route advised by Mathias, was quite eventful. There were exciting river crossings, an impromptu swim, and ice-berg hopping that included a near-baptism in Eclipse Sound. We eventually arrived back at camp in various states of wetness ranging from fairly drenched to completely-soaked-from-head-to-toe, as well as being sunburned. We changed into dry clothes and hung wet things from tent poles and inside the cook tent to dry. Some equipment never recovered from the trauma. Our own recovery was considerably advanced by the arrival of Julia at the tent door with bowls of hot fish stew.


The next morning, we were up around seven a.m. and left camp shortly after ten a.m. on an all-day sledge (qamutik) trip to the floe edge. We stopped to see black guillemots nesting on a ledge; Mathias climbed up to check for eggs but found none. Glaucous gull nested here too. Lunch was at a pre-planned stop at a gyrfalcon nest in a crevice in the sea cliffs, but we did not see the birds. We reached the floe edge at dinner time. There was one other group there, somewhat disgruntled because they only had one day in their schedule at the floe edge and their best find was bearded seal, with no birds more unusual than king eider.


The sledge ride had been long, windy, very cold, and bumpy -- but fun! Still, after reaching camp it was good to go for a walk and stretch out a bit. We saw a number of new species: thick-billed murre, northern fulmar, common and king eiders, and ringed seal, the latter a new mammal for us.


Now that we were at the floe edge, we had a possibility of seeing polar bear. To make sure that we saw him before he saw us, Mathias and Julia took turns standing guard with a rifle during the night.


After breakfast in the morning, we piled into the sledge to run along the floe edge and look for birds and mammals. The ice got too thin as we went north so we returned to camp and continued for about a half hour to the south. We finally stopped at some open water, near a hunting camp, and had nice looks at some of the same birds, but saw nothing new. The wind that had kept us land-bound had also piled huge ice chunks up against the floe edge, making it difficult to find the open stretches of water that were necessary to locate birds and narwhals.


Back at camp, we had caribou spaghetti for lunch then spent the afternoon in the sledge, driving around the ice flow to look for polar bears. Mathias took a wide loop out over the floe beyond the hunters' camp, and finally saw a polar bear! It was one of the most exciting moments of the trip. We all had good looks at the bear through binoculars and scope. We watched him shift position from all fours to up on his hind legs to look around. Eventually we saw him run off, his hind legs swinging out widely, as if on snowshoes. He was a beautiful creamy color. Ellen asked Mathias how old the bear was and Julia translated, "He's a boy and he's old." Then she laughed and said, "I guess I should say he's an old man." We moved up for a slightly closer second look than headed back to camp. This was Brian's 150th species of mammal that he has seen in North America, an impressive total.


On the way back, we passed some hunters leaving with their kills. Julia said one of them was her brother and that every year he goes shrimp fishing in "What's that place? Newfoundland! He brings home good shrimps." She also explained that the hunters' drag the seal skin behind the sledge in order to clean it as they go.


In the morning, we returned to the small section of floe edge that was accessible. The sea fog was pretty bad but there was a youngish polar bear feeding on remains by the hunters' camp, to which we walked to view the bear. It was only 100 yards (Jim & Brian), 200 yards (hunters), 400 yards (estimate based on image size in telephoto lens), or six feet (Eileen) away! Eventually it swam by, regained the ice, swam again, and foraged quite close to the qamutik. After about three hours, the fog lifted for less than an hour, but that was long enough to see that there were many hundreds, perhaps close to a thousand, thick-billed murres in the water and on ice, like penguins, and that small numbers of dovekies were present as well! Jim and Ellen had seen only one dovekie before, in Holland. Brian and I had seen some on St. Lawrence Island but I didn't see the birds well enough to count them.


We also added arctic tern to the list and saw a jaeger, probably pomarine. We left the floe edge about one p.m. and returned to camp for a quick lunch before packing up. We started the long trip home, going by the shore of Bylot Island again. We stopped at an archaeological site with the remains of partially sunken sod houses and a burial mound of rocks that Mathias called a "cache for humans". That evening, we camped at the gyrfalcon eyrie. Snow buntings were singing and a gyr wingtip was visible on the nest (it was a white phase).


Brian had another one of his early mornings so he walked to the gyrfalcon eyrie, adding hoary redpoll to the list. The redpolls were calling as they flew along the tops of the cliffs. He did not get back to sleep but later heard and saw the brown phase gyrfalcon replace its white mate on the nest.


The sledge ride back was slow and very rough. We stopped for lunch only about seven miles from Pond Inlet at an especially beautiful spot where the surrounding mountains were reflected in the meltwater on the surface of the ice. When we were at Bylot Island, we collected the meltwater for drinking and cooking water. Out at the floe edge however, we melted snow instead of using meltwater because of its salt content.


Back at the motel, about three p.m., we took showers, stopped at the visitors center, and had dinner. Then we took a six-hour hike to the Salmon River which was 8 km round trip. We returned via the high tundra ridge, hoping for arctic hare, but without luck. The walk was delightful though, our warmest, calmest weather of the whole trip. We had excellent luck with shorebirds, finding two pairs of common ringed plover, a lifer for Brian and me, and seeing white-rumped and Baird's sandpiper displays (the former aerial plus one wing raised, the latter with two wings raised) at incredibly close range. The Salmon River was very scenic, especially from the high tundra ridge, and we photographed the midnight sun almost on the summer solstice.


The next day we flew to Ottawa and then drove back to Rochester. We were a little disappointed to have missed seeing narwhals and perhaps a few more species of arctic birds, due to the unfortunate timing of the wind blowing four miles worth of icebergs up against the floe edge. However, we did get to see shorebirds on the breeding grounds, white phase gyrfalcon, ringed seals, and experience the excitement of travel by qamutik; and last, but never least, polar bears!