Launching the 2019 field season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Our most important field season to date

Evening light after a rainstorm north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Shiloh Schulte

Evening light after a rainstorm north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shiloh Schulte

Each spring since 2002 Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program has run research expeditions in the Arctic, but rarely have our plans been as ambitious as this year with 3 projects underway in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Our first project is to conduct a population survey of shorebirds in the entire 1002 Area by helicopter. This is the long-disputed area along the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge that was opened to oil and gas exploration and potential development this past year. Passage of the legislation that opened this area means that environmental reviews of potential impacts are beginning. When we started our work in the Arctic Refuge in 2002 we knew good data would be essential to an environmental review process that we thought would likely come some day. With that day now here, we’ll be working closely with our partners to gather important updated baseline data on shorebirds and be able to compare it with our earlier data to document trends and designate the most important sites for breeding shorebirds before any oil and gas exploration occurs.

We will be setting up a camp in a new location as the base for our operations for the PRISM surveys, at the Katakturik River.  Later in the season, Shiloh will rejoin the USFWS camp at the Canning River, where he has been collaborating on tracking studies for the past several years. The large river on the west is the Canning, which is the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge.  At the eastern side of the image, Demarcation Bay marks the other end of the Arctic Refuge, at the border with Canada.  Our PRISM study will cover the entire area north of the Brooks Range between these two borders of the Refuge.

We will be setting up a camp in a new location as the base for our operations for the PRISM surveys, at the Katakturik River. Later in the season, Shiloh will rejoin the USFWS camp at the Canning River, where he has been collaborating on tracking studies for the past several years.
The large river on the west is the Canning, which is the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge. At the eastern side of the image, Demarcation Bay marks the other end of the Arctic Refuge, at the border with Canada. Our PRISM study will cover the entire area north of the Brooks Range between these two borders of the Refuge.

Our surveys in the Arctic Refuge are part of a project we helped initiate in 2000 called PRISM (the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring). The goal of PRISM is to systematically survey shorebird habitats across the entire North American Arctic every 20 years to measure population status and trend.  Our upcoming expedition will measure shorebird population change, determine population trends, and enable us to better understand the current status of shorebirds in this important area. Shorebirds are the most populous and among the most threatened groups of birds in this part of Alaska. Data from high-quality habitat surveys prior to development will aid our efforts to ensure that any impacts from impending development include mitigation to replace lost habitat functions that may result from future industrial development.

This year we will be adding Red Phalaropes like this one, and American Golden Plovers, to the group of species we are tracking following the nesting season. Photo by Ian Davies.

This year we will be adding Red Phalaropes like this one, and American Golden Plovers, to the group of species we are tracking following the nesting season. Photo by Ian Davies.

Having even one project in the Arctic is a huge job, but given the urgency of impending oil and gas development, we added a new project this season as well, expanding our work to measure nest success across the entire 1002 Area, which has never been attempted on this scale before.  Past measurements of nest success have been done by finding nests within walking distance of a camp, and the results have been extrapolated over large areas because the logistics of gathering more data have been too expensive. However, faced with the need to document potential impacts of oil development, we have worked hard with our partners and supporters to raise the funds for additional helicopter time this year to gather more precise data for nesting success.

Our data on migrator paths for species like this American Golden-Plover will help so identify critical sites they use to prepare for southbound migration.  Photo by Ian Davies.

Our data on migratory paths for species like this American Golden-Plover will help to identify critical sites they use to prepare for southbound migration. Photo by Ian Davies.

We know that predator populations often increase with development because of human impacts like additional food sources and increased denning areas for foxes, and we know from our previous research that increased predator populations will reduce nesting success. We will be using cutting edge nest temperature trackers—tiny devices that measure the temperature in a nest and can tell if it is destroyed by a predator—along with cameras to identify predators, to monitor nests across a large section of the most important shorebird breeding habitat in the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge. Our work will establish baselines for nest success prior to any future industrial development, and document current natural conditions for nest success so that potential impacts can be mitigated.

Shorebirds have a very short window to raise their young during the brief arctic summer, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper keeping track of its chicks.  Photo by Ian Davies.

Shorebirds have a very short window to raise their young during the brief arctic summer, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper keeping track of its chicks. Photo by Ian Davies.

Arctic foxes are also raising their young during the shorebird nesting season, and foxes often prey on shorebird eggs and chicks.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Arctic foxes are also raising their young during the shorebird nesting season, and foxes often prey on shorebird eggs and chicks. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Our third project continues our work using cutting edge tracking technology to learn more about habitats that are critical for shorebirds after the nesting season, as they prepare for their long southbound migrations. In past years we have focused on deploying trackers on Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers; this year we will be adding American Golden-Plovers and Red Phalaropes.

We are very grateful to our partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and our supporters including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and individual donors to Manomet’s shorebird program, who make this work possible.

Stay tuned to http://shorebirdscience.org/, or subscribe here if you are not already to learn more and hear first-hand accounts of our work in the Arctic Refuge as our season progresses.

The Search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Kotzebue 2018

1 Baz_Scampion_UK SBSA 2A Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds in S. Chukotka in the Russian arctic. Photo credit: Baz Scampion.

This year we have two teams in the arctic, one returning to the Arctic Refuge led by Shiloh Schulte, and our team doing helicopter surveys in NW Alaska to search for the rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

With a population estimated at only 120-200 breeding pairs remaining in the Russian arctic, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one of the most highly endangered species on the planet. Habitat modeling and a few rare sightings from the 1980s suggest it could possibly breed in NW Alaska too, so we are working with an international team of colleagues from Birds Russia, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Park Service, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to begin the search in coastal areas north and south of Kotzebue, Alaska.

2 Kotz Map Survey AreaThis year we are based out of the native village of Kotzebue, Alaska in the NW Arctic Borough, with survey sites stretching several hundred miles north and south along the coast. Kotzebue is the blue dot in the center at the end of the long peninsula. Photo credit: Sara Saafield / ARC GIS image

Our project is a small part of a large international network of organizations working to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper that we will tell you about in our next post.

After meeting up in Kotzebue we finalized our survey plans and reviewed safety procedures with our helicopter pilot. Our 8-member crew did a trial run to collect data and test equipment by documenting avian species along the 9-mile road that circles Kotzebue. The photos below show some of the birds we’ve seen this first day, and we look forward to letting you know what we find as we begin the coastal surveys this week!

3 Pomarine JS

4 Pomarine black JSWe’ve seen many species of birds from the boardwalk and 9-mile ring road around Kotzebue. These photos show an adult Pomarine Jaeger and the unusual black morph Pomarine Jaeger circling near the boardwalk. Photos credit: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society.

5 RNPH Copu JSWe have seen hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes around Kotzebue, mostly in the water-treatment sewage ponds. Here a second female Red-necked Phalarope appears to react to this copulating pair. With phalaropes, the males incubate the eggs while the females sometimes lay a second clutch with a second mate. Photo credit: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society

6 Pacific BWThe breeding range of the Pacific Golden Plover (adult male shown in the cotton grass) overlaps with the American Golden Plover in this region. It has been an extremely early and unusually warm spring in Kotzebue this year. Photo credit: Brad Winn, Manomet

7 Semi JS

8 Semi BWWestern and Semi-palmated Sandpiper also overlap in NW Alaska, though around Kotzebue thus far we have only seen Semis. Top: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society. Bottom: Brad Winn, Manomet

 

9 AMTS BW

10 Yell Wagtail BWA number of passerines also come to the far north to breed. The American Tree Sparrow (top) and Yellow Wagtail sing to attract their mates and defend their territories. Photos credit: Brad Winn, Manomet