Tundra Tunes

When I was a youngster, my grandfather would periodically tell me that, “children are to be seen but not heard.” Unfortunately for my grandfather, the concept never took root, and being heard was practiced with gusto.  Similarly, shorebirds are all about being heard on the tundra, but only seen on their terms. Many species prefer a strategy of short-term exposure, just enough to make themselves known to competitors for territory, but not enough to draw the attention of would-be predators.  While we have been out on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, we have heard shorebirds singing from high and low while we survey for them in this vast land.

 

A male Rock Sandpiper in full ground display on lichen tundra. Yukon National Wildlife Refuge.

A male Rock Sandpiper in full ground display on lichen tundra. Yukon National Wildlife Refuge.

 

For most of the birds, there is a fine line between the need to advertise their locations to secure a territory and the potential for showing too much of themselves.  Shorebirds use a variety of tactics to advertise robustly, then quickly vanish into their surroundings.  They use superb colors and patterns of their plumage to meld with the tundra vegetation, but can also alter their calls and songs for the appropriate situations: subtle low calls for cautious moments or full-on raucous song when needed.  Rock Sandpipers are a good example of this “be heard, but only seen when needed” approach.  The species prefers to nest in lichen dominated tundra and their plumage has all of the colors and smudgy patterns of a mixed lichen landscape, allowing for intensely effective camouflage.  When the advertising is needed and the airways are clear of predators, the show is on for male Rock Sandpipers bent on maintaining territorial boundaries. The stocky little sandpipers stand high, sing from the gut, and really let the world know who is boss of lichen-land by raising a wing so the bright white feathers can be seen for…well, hundreds of yards anyway.  These impressive shows help ensure that the eggs being laid by a mate only have one father.

 

A male Rock Sandpiper singing from the air.  With no trees, tundra-nesting shorebirds need to use flight displays to advertise their presence.

A male Rock Sandpiper singing from the air. With no trees, tundra-nesting shorebirds need to use flight displays to advertise their presence.

Lichen tundra is the preferred nesting habitat for Rock Sandpipers. Other shorebirds do well here too, including Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden Plover.

Lichen tundra is the preferred nesting habitat for Rock Sandpipers. Other shorebirds do well here too, including Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden Plover.

 

For the wider audience, aerial displays are needed and Rock Sandpipers get airborne, patrolling the space above their nesting areas with short rapid wingbeats, rolling out their song, using the wind to help them stay aloft.  The display goes on for many minutes, and when done, the birds drop rapidly to the ground and nearly vanish back into the patterned tundra.

A Whimbrel on lichen tundra on the outskirts of Bethel, Alaska. These birds can emit low flute-like calls that float out on the tundra without giving the bird’s location away.  In essence, a pair can hide in plain sight while communicating with this shorebird form of ventriloquism.

A Whimbrel on lichen tundra on the outskirts of Bethel, Alaska. These birds can emit low flute-like calls that float out on the tundra without giving the bird’s location away. In essence, a pair can hide in plain sight while communicating with this shorebird form of ventriloquism.

 

As we have travelled across the Yukon Delta rapidly surveying plots of tundra, one side assignment has been to help define the distribution of Short-billed Dowitchers and to determine if any of the multitudes of Long-billed Dowitchers might be nesting on the refuge.  The Pacific subspecies of the Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus caurinus) looks very similar to its Long-billed cousin.  Without a very close encounter or good photographs to study, confusing the two is very easy to do.  Luckily for us, the calls and songs of the two species are distinct, and we have relied on voice to help understand their distribution across the refuge.  The Long-billed Dowitchers have been encountered along the coast, while the breeding Short-billed have been found at more inland areas of the refuge.

 

We found the Long-billed Dowitchers in good numbers along the coast, sometimes in flocks of more than one-hundred, most-likely migrating to points north like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We found the Long-billed Dowitchers in good numbers along the coast, sometimes in flocks of more than one hundred, most likely migrating to points north like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Subtle plumage differences between long and short-billed include the angle of the black line extending from the bill to the eye, the extent of white on the belly, the orange vs salmon hues of the breast, the shape of the pattern on wing coverts, and exceptional bill length for female Long-billed Dowitchers. These differences can all help lead to visual identification of the birds.

 

This Short-billed Dowitcher uses its superb camouflage to hide, but calls to alert all in hearing range that “this turf is taken.” We found the Short-billed variety mostly in pairs, exhibiting high flying flight displays on interior plots well away from the coast.

This Short-billed Dowitcher uses its superb camouflage to hide, but calls to alert all in hearing range that “this turf is taken.” We found the Short-billed variety mostly in pairs, exhibiting high flying flight displays on interior plots well away from the coast.

 

Another strategy we have seen practiced by shorebirds to protect nests and eggs from the eyes of predators, is to be outwardly visible and overtly aggressive to any would-be egg eaters. One species, the Black Turnstone, has impressed us at being bold and brash in defense of nest and territory.  Anything but subtle, the male’s deep black plumage can be seen from a long way off, belying the take-no-prisoners attitude of these tough little birds.

 

A male Black Turnstone near his nest on high alert for any gull or jaeger who might enter the no-fly zone wrapped like an invisible halo around its nest.

A male Black Turnstone near his nest on high alert for any gull or jaeger who might enter the no-fly zone wrapped like an invisible halo around its nest.

A Black Turnstone nest shaped from coastal grasses of the Yukon Delta.

A Black Turnstone nest shaped from coastal grasses of the Yukon Delta.

 

When a predatory bird crosses the line of tolerance established by a pair, the male Black Turnstone begins a staccato, rapid-fire call that sounds a bit like a miniature machinegun.  The small compact bird then launches into the air, continuing the call while zeroing in on the threat.  The uniquely wedge-shaped bill that has been flipping stones all winter is now a honed lance, perfect for jabbing into the soft parts of passing gulls.

 

A Glaucous Gull, one of the larger gulls in the world, is looking back in fear and taking evasive action as a turnstone rockets in to make a point.

A Glaucous Gull, one of the larger gulls in the world, is looking back in fear and taking evasive action as a Black Turnstone rockets in to make a point.

And ouch! The Turnstone makes contact.  His eggs will be safe from this gull.

And ouch! The Black Turnstone makes contact. His eggs will be safe from this gull.

 

So as we wrap up our brief but productive time here in southwestern Alaska, we are grateful to have experienced the wide variety of calls and magnificent displays of the shorebirds we have been studying.  Our three rapid assessment crews have surveyed more than three hundred locations in the last two weeks.  The data we have generated have, in part, been attributed to the songs and calls that the shorebirds have been making, allowing us to understand how many of each species are out there and what sorts of habitats they need for nesting.  This biologist will do all that he can to make sure that the amazing stories of these birds will be seen and also heard, so that more people can appreciate them and help protect and manage the habitats the birds depend upon throughout migration.

 

Middle and South Delta shorebird crews.

Middle and South Delta shorebird crews.

Chasing the Tides and Running from Storms: the Quest for Red Knots in Georgia

Red knots from the “northern” wintering population have spent the last eight months in the southeastern US and the Caribbean.  In early May, this overwintering group is joined by the long-distance migrants coming from southern South America, known as the Patagonian wintering group.  The coast of Georgia is host to both populations of this Atlantic Flyway subspecies, known as “rufa” knots.

 

Red knots and other shorebirds line up in the fading evening sun, waiting for the crabs to finish spawning as the tide drops, exposing the eggs that will feed and fatten the migrating birds.

Red knots and other shorebirds line up in the fading evening sun, waiting for the crabs to finish spawning as the tide drops, exposing the eggs that will feed and fatten the migrating birds.

 

How many knots, from which wintering population, depend on the Georgia barrier islands during northbound migration?  How long do they stay? And how do they use the southeastern resources to gain the weight they need to migrate to nesting areas in eastern Canada?  Nobody knows the answers to these questions yet, but a small group of dedicated biologists is trying to learn all they can from the knots by studying them on the remote barrier sands of the Georgia Coast.

Since early April, Fletcher Smith and Beth McDonald, from the Center for Conservation Biology, have been working with Manomet and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to document the timing of Red Knot migration at specific high-use sites along Georgia’s 100-mile coast.

 

Beth McDonald and Fletcher Smith, from the Center for Conservation Biology, are studying the northbound migration ecology of Red Knots on the Georgia Coast.

Beth McDonald and Fletcher Smith, from the Center for Conservation Biology, are studying the northbound migration ecology of Red Knots on the Georgia Coast.

 

The objective of this study is to estimate the numbers of knots coming through Georgia on their way to nesting grounds in eastern Arctic Canada. The field methods follow a research design developed by Manomet’s partner Jim Lyons, a quantitative biologist with the United States Geological Survey.  I had the opportunity join the effort last week, the first week that the long-distance migrant knots reached the Georgia coast.  The first knot seen this year, with an orange flag-band (below), was originally banded in Argentina in 2015.

 

A Red Knot finds a horseshoe crab egg mass and plunges in. Orange UH1 was banded in Samborombon National Park in Argentina (a WHSRN site) and was the first Patagonian bird we saw this year in Georgia.

A Red Knot finds a horseshoe crab egg mass and plunges in. Orange UH1 was banded  in Argentina and was the first Patagonian bird we saw this year in Georgia.

 

There is something very special about spring shorebird migration.  The birds are at the height of their annual colors and their stunning appearance is matched by the intensity of their behavior.   The dull gray and brown winter feathers have been replaced by highly patterned, buff, orange, red, black, white, and blue.  The colors of individual birds are reflected in the entire flock, especially when grouped tightly together feeding on an abundant food source, like the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs or dense patches of small clams.

A Ruddy Turnstone looking very gaudy as it reaches peak plumage.  The spade-like bill of these birds allows them to dig into crab nests, even when the sand is dry, giving them an advantage over the softer billed shorebirds they migrate with.  Ever wonder why this bird is so ornate?  See Shiloh Schulte’s photo below of a nesting turnstone on Coats Island in Canada.  It’s all about nesting.

A Ruddy Turnstone looking very gaudy as it reaches peak plumage. The spade-like bill of these birds allows them to dig into crab nests, even when the sand is dry, giving them an advantage over the softer billed shorebirds they migrate with. Ever wonder why this bird is so ornate? See Shiloh Schulte’s photo below of a nesting turnstone on Coats Island in Canada. It’s all about nesting.

Ruddy Turnstones  stand out on the beach, but blend in to their rocky tundra nesting habitat very nicely.  Try squinting when looking at this photo and bird almost disappears.  Photo from June 2014 in Coats Island by Shiloh Schulte.

Ruddy Turnstones stand out on the beach, but blend into their rocky tundra nesting habitat very nicely. Try squinting when looking at this photo and bird almost disappears. Photo from June 2014 on Coats Island by Shiloh Schulte.

 

This time of year, the calm, rather placid, winter attitudes of shorebirds dramatically transform to food-focused, fast paced, sometimes grumpy, and usually aggressive.  The birds are on a singular, energy demanding, mission to migrate north and reproduce.  The birds move locally,  sampling food at every opportunity, looking for abundance, which maximizes food intake and builds the energy reserves they will need in the weeks ahead.

 

The effort to find the knots becomes a dance with the tides, the weather, the boat, and the constantly moving birds themselves. The knots seek the best foods available, in the narrow window of opportunity during outgoing and incoming tides, when the birds can reach there hidden prey beneath the saturated sand.  The birds’ bills need the sand to be wet in order to probe in to find the buried food, like small clams or hidden crab eggs. This means time is of the utmost essence and birds are superb at knowing when they need to be and where.  Knots are totally dependent on the shallow pools and saturated sand of the pulsing tide.

 

redknot, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, dunlin

Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Dunlins, and Semipalmated Sandpipers wait for the tide to drop. Nearshore intertidal bars and shoals are critical for these birds and the marine animals that they feed upon. All of the prominent species in this photograph will migrate far, to remote treeless tundra landscapes on islands like Baffin, Southampton, Coats, and King William.

 

Shorebirds and their ability to migrate on the Atlantic Coast are totally dependent on the birds’ access to marine foods hidden in the sands, silts, and muds that are flooded by tides twice per day.   This highly dynamic, thin ribbon of habitat has largely been overlooked for decades by state and federal coastal management authorities.  As a result, we have lost the integrity of hundreds, if not thousands of miles of intertidal biological wealth.  As a stark example, virtually all of the inlets on the east coast of Florida have been hardened by rock structures to stabilize them, impoverishing the once rich shorebird habitat.  We want our coastal sands to stay still, so we create rock and cement armoring to attempt to control our beaches and inlets.  We also want wide beaches for recreation, so we pump the sand sediments from the intertidal shoals and bars to recreate eroded beaches.  The cumulative result of this activity over the last six decades has eliminated the habitat of for prey species of our migrant shorebirds.

 

An underwater feast: a Red Knot, a Short-billed Dowitcher, and a Dunlin go deep to find a cluster of horseshoe crab eggs underwater.

An underwater feast: a Red Knot, a Short-billed Dowitcher, and a Dunlin go deep to find a cluster of horseshoe crab eggs underwater.

 

As long as we start to understand and the public begins to appreciate how important the intertidal areas of our coast are to wildlife, we can  work together to ensure that there will be enough of this beleaguered habitat to support the foods that shorebirds need, so these incredible feathered migrants will continue to persist on our coasts.

Brasilia and Beyond to the Northeast Coast

Manomet’s Habitats for Shorebirds staff accompanied by the WHSRN Director, together with staff from our partner organization, SAVE Brasil, were invited to meet with representatives from the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment in the capital city, Brasilia.  During the meeting we highlighted Brazil’s key role for supporting shorebird populations of the Atlantic Flyway and discussed opportunities for collaboration between the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative and the Brazilian Migratory Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Members of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment meeting with us about the significance of Brazil for long-distance migratory shorebirds.

Members of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment meeting with us about the significance of Brazil for long-distance migratory shorebirds.

 

The Brazilian government officials reiterated Brazil’s commitment to the conservation of migratory species and their willingness to collaborate with flyway-scale approaches to conserving shared species.  We ended the meeting by giving the officials Manomet hats, which they wore with pride in the photo above.  We then left Brasilia and headed to our second workshop on the northeast coast in the state of Ceará.

 

Banco dos Cajuais workshop participants

Workshop participants gathered for this photo near the proposed Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site, Banco dos Cajuais.

 

 

Our second shorebird workshop is being held close to the town of Icapui, Brazil, about 300 miles south of the Equator.  We are conducting a workshop to bring professional managers and biologists together from Brazil, Suriname, and French Guiana, with the intent to build a collective understanding of regional shorebird conservation needs, and develop the strategies needed to alleviate threats to our Atlantic Flyway shorebird populations.

 

Workshop participants were very engaged with the workshop presentations, and we learned a great deal from each other about the challenges and strategies on managing for shorebirds in northern Brazil.

Workshop participants were very engaged with the workshop presentations, and we learned a great deal from each other about the challenges and strategies on managing for shorebirds in northern Brazil.

 

We had good informative views of 16 species of shorebirds in Banco dos Cajuais, including a flock of Red Knots with a few individuals banded in Canada, Brazil, and the United States.  Students and professionals joined in a friendly, competitive afternoon of species identification and counting, assisted by handy laminated ID cards designed by Manomet and printed by SAVE Brasil.

 

Red Knots and Short-Billed Dowitchers

Red Knots and Short-billed Dowitchers follow the quickly receding tide at Banco dos Cajuais, a proposed WHSRN site in Northeastern Brazil. Red Knots seek similar habitat all along the Atlantic, from Bahia Lomas in far southern Chile, to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, USA. Intertidal flats like this, covered by water for some part of each day, are critical for maintaining knot populations in this flyway.

 

Banco dos Cajuais is an extensive area of tidal mudflats, salt flats, mangroves and coastal scrub which holds important numbers of wintering and migrating Red Knot and Short-billed Dowitcher. Once designated, Banco dos Cajuais will be the third WHSRN site in Brazil, the others being Lagoa do Peixe (site of the first workshop) and Reentrâncias Maranhenses (the state-protected area manager from here is one of the participants in the current workshop). WHSRN designation will help support the creation of a marine protected area in eastern Ceará state, including the Banco dos Cajuais.

 

Cooperative human tripod: Students learning to identify shorebirds at our workshop at Icapui.  Who says learning can’t be fun.

Cooperative human tripod: Students learning to identify shorebirds at our workshop at Icapui. Who says learning can’t be fun.

 

Ruddy Turnstones, Short-billed Dowitcher (center right)  Black-bellied Plover

Framed by two Ruddy Turnstones, a Short-billed Dowitcher (center right) and a Black-bellied Plover cruise the shore, waiting for the tide to drop from the impressive sandbank flats at Banco dos Cajuais.