Rugged Weather

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

We always expect some wintry weather in early June in the Arctic. This year has been exceptional. After two glorious sunny days when we flew in and set up camp (though with temps in the 30s), we have had 12 days of mostly sub-freezing temperatures, howling winds gusting over 30 MPH at times, and many overcast days with bouts of freezing fog, pelting snow, and freezing rain. This is the longest consistent stretch of bad weather any of us can remember.

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean icepack during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean ice pack  during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

When the weather is this cold and windy shorebirds hunker down and often interrupt or wait to initiate laying their eggs. This makes it very difficult to find shorebird nests, or to do much banding. But in the rare patches of sunshine, the birds are in full glorious display.

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

As a result of the weather, we have only 3 newly banded Dunlin equipped with a GPS tracker to date, but our crews have found 35 shorebird nests including Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. We also have 71 waterfowl nests of which 50 are Cackling Goose, as well as Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Black Brant, King Eider, Canada Goose, and Long-tailed Duck. The remaining 28 nests include Lapland Longspur, Glaucous Gull, and Parasitic Jaeger.

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Weather forecasts predict less wind but temperatures remaining in the 30s, so it’s not clear when we will have weather good enough to deploy trackers on tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers. Our colleagues in Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) report a similarly late spring, and have not been able to deploy any GPS trackers yet.

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

We have had a few breaks in the clouds and a couple of mostly sunny days that reveal inspiring views of the Brooks Range that lift our spirits.

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

 Even with fierce weather we have had some spectacular bird sightings as you’ll see in the photos below.

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

One side benefit to the rugged weather has been some extra time in camp to get the banding and lab gear organized and work out routines for managing samples and data. The consistent cold has also provided great refrigeration, and we’ve had time to cook hearty meals including homemade stews, chilis, curries, and pizza using a backpacker’s oven on top of the camp stove.

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

So far we’ve seen very few mammals. There have been occasional Caribou and Red Fox, including this one diligently hunting for eggs and lemmings. Although we’ve seen only one lemming so far, we have observed fox pounce on them through the snow so we know they are still in their burrows due to the late spring. Fortunately we’ve seen no grizzly or polar bear yet, though there is clear evidence of grizzly digging ground squirrels out of the river bank next to our tents in the form of big holes and big scats!

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

In the next post, Shiloh will introduce you to the crew and give you an update on nest searching and deploying trackers.

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc. Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

Ready for Action!

1 Aerial of Camp MMAerial view of camp from the Cessna 185 as we prepare to land on a frozen lake. Photo credit: Metta McGarvey

Now that we are safely on the ground and have gotten camp set up, we can collect our photos and stories from the hectic adventure that is launching an arctic expedition. On May 31 we arrived in camp to two rare bright blue days, 38⁰ with a light south wind, and woke on 2 June to howling winds, fresh ice on the Staines Slough, a dusting of snow, and the camp water jugs frozen solid from temps in the low 20s. Welcome to winter, and Manomet’s 2017 arctic shorebird research field season!

2 Icy Tent SSFresh ice covers our sleeping tents in the morning. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte

There’s a lot that leads up to this moment! It always takes long months of preparation to launch a field camp in the arctic. It begins with grant writing up to 2 years prior and the generosity of Manomet’s donors who contribute annually to our arctic research.

In December Stephen meets in Alaska with our partners to begin planning the field season, continuing with conference calls through the winter to revise the protocol, plan the hiring, and manage budgets. By March our crew is hired, and we begin ordering supplies and gear necessary for operating a remote field camp that runs mostly off solar.

This year I (Metta) arrived 30 April and was joined in Fairbanks by Alex Lamoreaux, a superb birder from Hershey, PA known to many in the ebird community. Together we invested nearly 8 weeks of work in the Fish and Wildlife warehouse identifying and testing gear, and purchasing necessary replacements and supplies to outfit the camp. We spent many hours updating a spreadsheet with more than 450 items, not including the grocery/kitchen/health list of more than 300 items, along with preparation of all of the data forms, maps, and GPS points!

Shiloh Schulte and Alan Kneidel, both veterans of arctic field research, joined us in Anchorage on 24 May for 2 days of training with our colleague Rick Lanctot. First, we practiced making the tiny harnesses for attaching GPS trackers to Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin and attaching them to a toy stuffed eagle under the expert guidance of Lee Tibbitts.

3 Training MMRick Lanctot and Lee Tibbitts review the protocol for the GPS trackers with the shorebird crew. Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey

4 Eagle HarnessWe practiced making the tiny plastic loop harness that holds the tracker and attaching it to a toy stuffed eagle. Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey

As Shiloh mentioned in the previous post, these devices will help us answer questions about when shorebirds arrive at and leave the coast, how much they move around before migration, and the specific habitat types they are using. In turn, this will help us understand how changes caused by climate change and coastal development are affecting shorebirds on the Arctic Coast.

We completed bear safety training that afternoon, and firearms safety the next morning, and yes, there were tests afterwards and we all passed! Later at the shooting range we all qualified to carry shotguns in the field as protection if needed should we have a life-threatening bear encounter.

5 Firing RangeShiloh Schulte and Alex Lamoreaux qualifying on firearms under the supervision of Rick Lanctot. Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey

After two more hectic days of preparation and packing back in Fairbanks, the first 4 of our crew headed up to Galbraith Lake just north of the Brooks Range on 30 May in 2 huge pickup trucks with our gear, while 3 others stayed an extra night to be flown directly to camp from Fairbanks.

6 Bird Camp Crew AS2Ready to go! Bird Camp Crew 2017, Back L to R: Chris Latty, Will Wiese, Alex Lamoreaux, Alan Kneidel. Front: Jessica Herzog, Shiloh Schulte, Metta McGarvey, Elyssa Watford. Photo credit: Alfredo Soto

Those who drove in trucks had a lovely 10-hour drive up the Dalton Highway, including a stop crossing the Arctic Circle then on through the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountains in the world, and onto the tundra at last!

7 Arctic CircleL to R: Alfredo Soto (Wildlife Specialist for the Arctic Refuge) and his friend Joe came with us to drive the trucks back to Fairbanks; plus Jessica, Elyssa, Metta, and Shiloh at the Arctic Circle.

8 Atigun Pass SSShiloh captures a stunning panorama as we cross Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Photo Credit: Shiloh Schulte

After a night in a small Fish & Wildlife Service cabin on a gravel airstrip at Galbraith Lake about 10 miles north of the mountains, the pilots began ferrying passengers and gear to camp, a 75-minute flight over several other rivers and the vast expanse of the Arctic tundra.

9 Galbraith Planes MMThe Brooks Range to the south provides a stunning backdrop for the planes at Galbraith Lake. The small cabin is behind the plane on the right. Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey

10 Brooks Range River MMLooking south up one of many rivers that flow north from the Brooks Range into the Arctic Ocean. Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey

As we near our camp site about a mile from the ocean, the pilot’s GPS shows the expanse of the Canning River Delta on the Western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The two Cessna 185s used by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pilots to bring us to camp are equipped with tundra tires and skis that can be lowered by lever for landing on a frozen lake. It’s important to make the right choice!

11 GPS Bird Camp MMThe pilot’s GPS shows how large the Canning River Delta is, and the position of our camp on a slough on the Staines River within the Delta. Photo credit: Metta McGarvey

12 Skis or Wheels MMThe Cessna 185s are equipped with tundra tires and skis that can be lowered into position for landing on ice. Photo credit: Metta McGarvey

Finally we land! Now comes the hard part: all our gear has to be transported about ½ mile from the lake to camp using plastic sleds powered by… us! After many trips, much sweat, and some impressive bruises and sore muscles, we settle in for the long job of setting up camp.

In our next post we will introduce you to the crew, and give an overview of our first week in the field.

13 Ice Landing SSPassengers and gear deposited on the frozen lake are met by Alan Kneidel and Alex Lamoreaux after the plane lands with skis. Photo Credit: Shiloh Schulte

14 Jessica Sled SSThe hard part! Jessica Herzog pulls a sled load of gear across the tundra about ½ mile to camp from the lake where we land. Photo Credit: Shiloh Schulte

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc. Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

Wacky Weather

Welcome to Manomet’s 2016 Arctic Field Season from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska!

As we begin our 16th year of arctic field work, the months of discussion, planning and fundraising, followed by the month of long days working on logistics in the warehouse and then the intense pace of helicopters, field work, and remote camps feels familiar to us—and no doubt to readers of this blog.

What strikes us most right off this year is the weather—stunningly warm and sunny thus far.

Ice breakup on the Kuskokwim River in Bethel happened almost four weeks ago—a month earlier than usual. It was also greener in St. Mary’s when we arrived on May 13 this year than when we left on May 27 last year.

1.1 Yukon River 2016

(credit: S. Brown)

The Yukon River flows ice-free through a greening landscape 14 May this year, while the second photo shows the river ice when surveys started on 15 May last year.

The Yukon River flows ice-free through a greening landscape May 14 this year, while the second photo (credit: R. Gill) shows the river ice when surveys started on May 15 last year.

 

Weather in much of Alaska has been warmer than it has been in Boston so far! Normally in May, this part of the Yukon Delta is wet and raw with daily highs in the 40s and nights in the low 30s or upper 20s, so none of us were prepared for 68 degrees with full sun, nor drenching sweat under our flight suits and waders.

We’ve had glorious views, including the back side of Kuzilvak Mountain, 45 miles due west from St. Mary’s—obscured by rain and fog all but one day last year. Our camp has already been set up by Stephen and our two crew members, Lindall Kidd & Andy Bankert, who will conduct intensive surveys for nesting shorebirds around camp for the next month.

1.3 Kuzilvak Aerial View

(credit: S. Brown)

1.4 Bankert and Kidd

Kuzilvak Mountain (aerial view) provides a stunning backdrop to our camp where Andy Bankert and Lindall Kidd (suited up and excited for their helicopter ride to camp) will survey intensive plots from May 15 to June 15  (credit M. McGarvey).

 

Our camp is nestled between a lovely tundra pond and the shore of Boot Lake, 6 miles NW of Kuzilvak Mountain. (credit: S. Brown)

Our camp is nestled between a lovely tundra pond and the shore of Boot Lake, 6 miles NW of Kuzilvak Mountain (credit: S. Brown) .

 

Alder and willow are leafing out, cotton grass has begun blooming, and some spring flowers have already gone by.

 

1.6 Wolly Lousewort

Wooly Lousewort in full bloom several weeks early (credit: M. McGarvey).

 

With spring arriving three to four weeks early we have been wondering whether the birds will have initiated their nests early, too. Our surveys are timed to catch the period when the birds are mating—and therefore they are vigorously displaying and vocalizing to establish their territories—which enables us to see and count them more easily during the rapid surveys.

Fortunately, the birds are still displaying. On his first night walking around Bethel, Brad Winn took these beautiful photos of a Pacific Golden Plover, a Whimbrel, and an American Tree Sparrow.

 

1.7 PGPL

Pacific Golden Plover (credit: B. Winn)

1.8 WHIM Winn

Whimbrel (credit: B. Winn)

1.9 ATSP Winn

American Tree Sparrow (credit: B. Winn)

 

In a few days we’ll introduce you to our field crew this year—the largest to date with three helicopter crews and two intensive camps—altogether a total of 23 field crew working out of two villages and two remote camps, and more than a dozen others helping behind the scenes on the study design, protocol, and logistics. We’ll send regular updates on the wildlife and conditions in this vast wilderness, so stay tuned!