A Summer in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Posted on: August 9, 2016
Author: Alan Kneidel
June 29th - 10:00 PM
For the past few days, a brown, whirring cloud of mosquitoes has filled our camp. Liberated by the calm weather and amped up by the heat, they have reached their hostile zenith. Their pervasiveness has driven camp life into a state of near delirium, with moments of peace lying few and far between. After running to my tent and diving headlong through the doorway, I have spent the evening deriving great satisfaction in killing the hundred mosquitoes that followed me in and chiseling out the desiccated carcasses that cake my walls and fill my tent pockets. Even as I do so, the mosquito drone is deafening in the vestibules of my tent, and the constant patter of them between the fly and the interior walls sounds just like light rainfall. Staunchly refusing to exit my tent, I have carried out all of my pre-sleep rituals from within the confines of my precious nylon bubble, the only barrier between me and thousands of acres of unforgiving wilderness.
June 30th – 8:00 AM – the following morning
Last night at 12:38 AM, I snapped awake to a shuddering roar ripping through the avenues of my tent. As I eagerly unzipped my door and peered out, a strong cold wind hit my face and sent instant chills across my suddenly underdressed body. I could literally feel the temperature dropping. The midnight sun still illuminated the gray, angular peaks of the Brooks Range to my south, but scanning to the north I spotted the first tendrils of low clouds starting to drift inland from a fog bank over the Beaufort Sea five kilometers away. I slinked back into my tent and started to round up my warmer clothing before grabbing my second sleeping bag and throwing it on top of me. Before long, instead of the tapping of mosquitos, periodic squalls of mixed precipitation started to batter the roof of my tent. Instead of attending to the heaps of mosquito carcasses, my eyes were now drawn to the piles of ice pellets that had begun piling up against the door of tent. Ahh! Peace at last.
Summer life at the joint Manomet and USFWS bird research camp on the Canning River Delta in the Arctic NWR is a fickle one. If there’s a deity to pay homage to out there, think Zeus, Thor and Jupiter. It’s all about the weather. If you’re hot, you’ll soon be cold. If you’re sunburned and sweaty, you’ll soon be dripping with fog. And as soon as you’re used to that, the emergence of mosquitoes flips the script entirely—a warm, calm day changes from being glorious to hellacious. A cold, wet, windstorm changes from being loathsome to a godsend. Scanning through my journal from this season, it’s clear the dictatorial role that weather took. Almost every entry involves it:
June 26th – “awesome NE tailwind”
July 11th – “fog has lifted, prospects of warm weather have me fearful”
July 15th – “big winds broke tent pole, 40-50° drop in tent”
But the gritty truth about being in the Arctic is that regardless of the weather, we have a job to do. This season, our team of four researchers (Scott Freeman, Emily Bush, and Dallas Jordan) set out to rekindle the Canning camp after a one-year hiatus. In addition to collecting data on breeding demographics of all nesting bird species at the site, this year we also deployed geolocators on Dunlin and banded and collected samples for avian influenza studies from Semipalmated Sandpiper and Red Phalarope.
The season started on June 5 under unusual circumstances. After being delayed a few days in Fairbanks and the Galbraith Lake due to weather, at last we were able to arrive at camp and begin setting up shop. Upon arrival, we immediately noticed signs of an abnormal warmth. Usually, arrival at camp involves landing by floatplane on the frozen Peace Lake to unload our gear—from there we would haul our supplies by sled (usually over snow) all the way to our camp site 0.75 kilometers away. This year, however, Peace Lake had already begun to thaw and we were unable to land on it. Luckily, the gravel shoreline of the river that we use as a landing strip had already become snow free and was dry enough for landing. In fact, the only snow left on our study site clung to the base of the bluff along the slough below camp. In addition to these bizarre circumstances, the soil in camp was alarmingly thawed. Typically, when setting up tents, the ground is frozen solid and you need a heavy hammer to drive in the nails. This year, we simply pushed in our tent stakes with our bare hands. Of course, despite these many signs of unusual warmth, our first few days were filled with frigid cold and horizontal bands of wet, driving snow.
After an arduous few days getting things in order, we were back in the groove of data collection. We spent our days covering up to 20 kilometers by foot, marking bird nests, estimating hatch dates, and formulating game plans for catching Dunlin.
Here are a series of photographs I took, that highlight the season as a whole:
In addition to personal sleeping tents, we use this large tent for cooking and work-related activities. All food items are stored in bear proof containers, and the camp is surrounded by an electric fence to ward off any curious bears. In early July, a spectacular array of wildflowers electrifies the landscape.
On clear days, the Brooks Range provides an epic backdrop to our daily routine. The slough in the foreground is a popular feeding area for many shorebirds and has breeding Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover.
In addition to dry tundra and alluvial habitats, there are several large wetland complexes within the Canning River Delta. These wetlands provide nesting habitat for Cackling Goose, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Glaucous Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Red-throated and Pacific Loon, and Red and Red-necked Phalarope. Here, a rare summer thunderstorm builds along the Brooks Range refuge biologist as Christopher Latty returns from banding a female King Eider.
The Beaufort Sea ice had already significantly thawed by the time of our arrival in early June. An early ice breakup often results in earlier sightings of Polar Bears on the mainland, and members of our crew saw fresh foot prints along the beach on our visit on the 4th of July.
One of the principal objectives of the 2016 season was to deploy 14 light level geolocators on breeding Dunlin. These loggers are attached to a plastic band that is attached to the upper leg of the bird. The device records light level over time and is used to calculate latitude and longitude readings. Part of a broad-scale project funded through the USFWS and other partners, the study hopes to document the general migratory strategy for all 10 subspecies of Dunlin found through the circumpolar Arctic. There are a total of 12 sites deploying geolocators, including our site at the Canning River Delta. The geolocator must be retrieved to obtain the recorded data; therefore one of the main goals of the 2017 season will be to identify the Dunlin returning with geolocators and capture those birds to retrieve the device. Once recovered, the geolocator data will help answer questions involving migratory routes, stopover locations, wintering locations, and migration speed. The tactical execution of finding Dunlin nests and deploying the geolocators was one of the most satisfying aspects of the season.
Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the more abundant breeding shorebirds on the tundra of the Canning River Delta. The number of breeding pairs within the study site can vary greatly from year to year (from less than 20 nests in 2012 to 200 in 2014, for example). On the breeding grounds male Pectoral Sandpipers (pictured) perform a spectacular flight display over their territory, emitting a far-carrying booming call from an inflated air sac in their breast. Significantly smaller than the males, female Pectoral Sandpipers perform all of the incubation and brooding duties, so any nest searching endeavor involving a Pectoral must first begin with determining the sex of the bird you are observing.
Red Phalaropes are a fairly common breeder at the Canning, though the number of pairs can vary greatly from year to year. Phalaropes have a polyandrous mating system, where females mate with multiple males while the males mate with only one female and perform all parenting duties. While searching for their nests, the dull-plumaged males (pictured) can be very sneaky. Occasionally they will conspicuously flush off the nest, but other times they will simply walk off the nest and begin scurrying mouse-like through the grass to the nearest body of water.
Stilt Sandpipers prefer to nest on dry patches of tundra in wet polygon centers and lake margins. They often sit extremely tight while incubating and will sometimes stay motionless until you are in danger of stepping on the nest. This parent in the photograph was tending to its foraging brood and kept in constant contact with them through a variety of distinctive vocalizations.
By the beginning of July, shorebird chicks begin to materialize on the tundra. The precocial chicks are capable of foraging on their own merely hours after hatching. This fledgling Semipalmated Sandpiper chick was one of four being supervised by their parents.
Refuge biologist Christopher Latty joined us in camp for a week, during which we captured and collected blood samples from ducks for an avian influenza study. As I approached this King Eider nest for the first time, she refused to flush off the nest even as I stood directly above her. The method for trapping an incubating female capitalizes on this tight-sitting behavior and simply involves gently lowering a net onto the bird and walking up and retrieving the bird.
Parasitic Jaegers are a conspicuous, omnipresent part of the tundra community. At any given moment, a 360° scan is sure to yield at least one marauding individual. A common nest depredator, I came across Parasitic Jaegers consuming eggs of Long-billed Dowitchers and King Eiders, and late in the season I frequently saw them chasing after recently fledged young of Lapland Longspurs. We had one successfully-nesting pair of jaegers on site that featured one dark-plumaged morph (pictured) and one intermediate morph adult.
Similar to the Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine’s Gulls spend most of the year out over the open ocean. During the breeding season, Sabine’s Gulls nest in large wetlands on tundra, where they aggressively defend their nests against all intruders. By mid-July, small flocks started to materialize in the wetland complexes of our study site. The photographed individual was a member of a group that was foraging actively in a shallow pool and seemed wholly unconcerned as I crept on my belly towards them.
The inconspicuous Rock Ptarmigan breeds in low density on upland tundra. I discovered this female after startling a pair feeding just a few meters in front of me. In summer, the female is spectacularly camouflaged, although she still retains white wings. Come winter, the birds will be completely white, adapted for the harsh Arctic winter. Note their feathered feet, which help act as snowshoes.
As the season progressed, large herds of Caribou became a regular sight. It is during this period that herds move towards the coast, where stronger winds and colder temperatures help combat the harassment of Oestrid flies and mosquitos. This photograph features part of a herd of roughly 500 individuals that crossed the river below our camp, featuring a mix of mothers and calves as well as a few bulls with large racks.
Before I knew it, I was sitting alone at midnight in front of our cook tent, watching as the river bluff faded into the drifting mist. The season was almost over—male Pectoral Sandpipers and female phalaropes had long disappeared, leaving behind their mates to finish the rearing. Migrating flocks of shorebirds were flying overhead all day long—American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Below me, the yellow poppies trembled on their leafless stalks and fresh caribou trails cut through bobs of cotton grass. There, in utter isolation, my co-workers long asleep, my thoughts traveled through the highlights of the season—the gray Gyrfalcon barreling low across the tundra, the curious Wolverine standing on its haunches to check me out, the thrill of discovering a Buff-breasted Sandpiper nest. I thought back to the pure exhilaration of submerging myself in frigid river water and to the satisfaction of a warm meal and hunk of chocolate at the end of the day.
I thought about how I had intimately watched and recorded the trials and tribulations of the breeding season. A season where the chances of a nest’s success constantly hang in the balance, always susceptible to a shift in the weather, the passing of a predator, or the death of a parent. Being able to observe in great detail all of these variables allowed me to feel a real sense of understanding of the system. It reminded me once again of what a great privilege it was to get to immerse myself in such a vibrant, vital place.