A Day in the Life of a Rapid Surveyor
Posted on: May 26, 2015
Author: Stephen Brown
It’s 11 p.m. and I’m sitting in my tent six miles northwest of the base of Kuzilvak Mountain, which rises up like a spire over the tundra.
Camp is all set up, and we are preparing for the second half of our surveys on the western coast of the Yukon Delta, north of Scammon Bay. We are deeply moved by the beauty of this site and the privilege of working in so many otherwise inaccessible areas of this vast wildlife refuge. Most of our plots are only accessible by helicopter, but the birds have no trouble crossing huge distances over rough ground. It hardly seems taxing for them after their arduous journeys from their southern wintering grounds, but it’s difficult for us and all the more glorious for that reason. The vast distances, stunning beauty, and the joy of seeing such an abundance of our favorite birds more than compensates for the physical exhaustion of our relentless work pace.
Each day starts around 6 a.m. Our morning routine includes provisioning ourselves with a normal lunch and a second lunch along with numerous snacks to fuel us through the long, cold, wet days in the field. We assemble all of the gear we need daily—if you forget something, there is no way to run back to the house to get it. We load into the helicopter, a space about the size of two kitchen chairs, squeezing two of us in front and two of us behind them, with barely enough room for our knees. We carry maps of the three survey plots in each of the day’s four clusters. Our design team spent months planning where to go and when and it sometimes seems surreal that it is finally happening. The plot maps are carefully sorted and prepared to match the flight plan so we can jump out of the helicopter, carrying all our gear and holding onto our hats, as Stan takes off again for the next location.
We spend an hour and a half surveying each 40 acre plot, with the goal of documenting all of the shorebirds that are using each plot. A few plots are on fairly level wet ground, but most are very tough to traverse in a devious variety of ways. Some plots are extremely wet, so you sink over your knees as you struggle to walk through the deeper spots. Some have very sticky sphagnum that tugs your boots part-way off, keeping your feet stuck in place when your torso tries to move forward. Some plots are entirely new to us because they are covered with tall shrubs, mostly alder and willow, in thickets so dense that you have to spread several shrubs apart to make a spot for each step. Other plots have very uneven surfaces, called tussocks, which are mounds the size of softballs, making it hard to step on them or between them without lurching in a drunken fashion.
The true delight, as well as the real challenge, is sorting out what the birds are doing, but that is also the sole purpose of our adventure. We have a short time to try to ascertain how many shorebirds are on each plot and whether they are nesting or only foraging or flying over. We call this design “rapid surveys” because we get a glimpse into what is happening at each plot in a very short time. We struggle to cover the rough terrain, knowing that time is short by design and that the helicopter will be back soon to take us to the next plot. Even with a lot of time, figuring out what the birds are doing can be difficult, so doing it so fast is quite challenging.
Some birds, like Western Sandpipers, display over their territories, making it a little easier to sort out which birds are nesting on the plot. Others, like Pectoral Sandpipers, have appeared to be mostly moving through on their way farther north, and birds that are doing this are noted as present, but not nesting. We do our best to document the behaviors displayed by each species, including distraction displays that indicate a nest is nearby, territorial displays or songs that indicate the bird is likely to nest in the area, and foraging or passing through which likely means the bird is nesting elsewhere. We record every bird we see, including species other than shorebirds, so that we have a record of all birds using each plot. We take notes on the habitat as well—water levels, types of vegetation, and other indicators relevant to the nesting and foraging value of each plot. All of this requires quick thinking and writing, while trying not to stumble too often!
After a long 12 hours, we return to camp and get ready to do it all again. We carefully review and file our plot maps and data sheets, reorganize our gear for the next day, handle camp chores, and attend to planning many logistical details for the next few days. This fills the evening on into the night, and we feel half comatose by the time we finally crawl into our sleeping bags. After what always feels like too few hours of exhausted sleep, we are up to do it all again. It’s called a rapid survey for a reason!
In our next post, we will fill you in on some of the delightful species we have seen around camp and the extraordinarily lush fauna of the Yukon Delta.