Volunteering:
Fieldwork with Swedish Arctic Fox Project

July 2018 – I was going to participate in the Swedish Arctic Fox Project as a volunteer. This fieldwork was advertised with the potential to be involved in several activities such as den checking, mammal transects, small mammal trapping, trapping arctic foxes, … I got paired with another volunteer and before I knew it, I was on the train to the north of Sweden.
Background: Arctic foxes are not doing great. Climate change had a great effect on them, as red foxes are able to settle more north as before. Red foxes are the larger cousin of the arctic fox and are outcompeting them.

Northern Sweden & training

Our part of the study area was in the north of Sweden and our route will finish in Abisko after about 3 weeks. That sounded like an adventure. We first got some training on how to do the fieldwork: learn how to find an arctic fox den, the protocol for small mammal trapping and performing transects. In the end, we only did a couple of transects and basically, we only did den checks and a lot of hiking. Sadly no trapping involved in my area.

After our training, we got designated a couple (a lot) of dens to check in the next couple of weeks. I can’t go much in detail on locations and stuff, as the arctic fox is vulnerable to disturbance. Anyway, we planned our trip, packed up all our belongings and took off to our first dens.

First days: arctic fox den

The tundra terrain was hard to walk in when there are no trails available. But we managed to kind of keep up with our plans in the first days. We got lucky, at one of our first dens we spotted an arctic fox on arrival. I great sighting and we felt rewarded after all the hard work. We were supposed to observe through the night to check for potential puppies and numbers of individuals. We managed to observe for a couple of hours, but we had still a long way to go, so we decided to call it a day and take some well-earned sleep.

Competition with red fox

The rest of our trip consisted of doing the same, but not that much luck with Arctic foxes anymore. We spotted a couple of potential occupied dens, but after some investigation, we concluded the signs where red fox. We did some great wildlife sightings though. Although red foxes are outcompeting the arctic foxes, it’s better to not have them in the study area. Anyway, I was lucky to observe a red fox den with for cubs playing in broad daylight.

Reindeer in the tundra

The tundra was also full of reindeer. These are not wild animals and domesticated by the Sami people (local people). Nevertheless, they are magnificent and mostly scared of people. We’ve seen lots of them. In summer, they tend to prefer higher elevations or taking a rest on the snow. We also came across a lot of reindeer antlers. Obviously, we had the interest to collect some. One day we found a couple of large ones. They were very heavy. We carried them with us for about a day or 2 and decided to leave them, as otherwise we were already running out of energy without an additional antler on our backpack. So sadly we left those behind…

Other wildlife

Bird-wise we had some nice observations as well, including tons of skuas, both ptarmigan species (rock ptarmigan and willow ptarmigan), rough-legged buzzard, white-tailed eagle, ravens and short-eared owl.

Magnificent wolverine

From mammal point of view, we did an incredible sighting. Again, after a long day of hiking (and almost giving up), I saw something running not too far off (about 300m). It had this weird way of running, so I started to put my hopes up. I was right, in my binoculars’ view, I spotted a wolverine. It was trotting towards a river. My heart was beating from tiredness and excitement. I sat down to have a less shaky look. There was a little hill in the landscape and obviously, the wolverine disappeared behind it. I stood up and ran to a spot I was hoping to see the Wolverine again. I was lucky, I spotted to wolverine swimming across this fast-flowing river. Taken by the current, it took the wolverine a while to cross. When it finally reached to the other side, it got out of the water and did a little shake to get the water off. It continued its walk and soon it disappeared after some boulders to be never seen again. A great feeling to see this magnificent creature in such a way!

Pushing too hard – finally reaching Kungsleden

The following days, we got rained on several times and we felt miserable. Soon we reached the famous Kungsleden. This trail was the one we had to follow almost all the way to Abisko. The progress of our trip went much faster on a trail, which also reflected on some more positivism. Finally, we also start to meet other people on the trail, which is quite nice after a week only by yourself.

Den with pups

Finally, another occupied den. This time we were lucky to find an occupied arctic fox den with cubs. It took us a while to count them all. We observed them playing around. It was a great observation. Just enjoy a bit of video footage:

Moose Sighting

On our last day, close to Abisko, I spotted a moose. A great sign it was time to head home.

The way home

I had no clue the most adventurous part still had to come. Our train stopped in a village more or less in the middle of nowhere. Without a lot of information, the train stood still from roughly 2 AM until 10 AM. Basically, the train never left again. Apparently, the train couldn’t continue because of some forest fires. We were fast to take action and in short: I got in a rental car with 4 Swedish people I only met on the train. I reached Stockholm from Abisko after a journey of over 35hrs. I met up with a friend and the next day I flew home.

Conclusion

Although the fieldwork wasn’t what I initially expected, I had a great time in the tundra of northern Sweden and enjoyed some great animal sightings.


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