Wrapping up on Coats Island

Another whirlwind Arctic field season on Coats Island is complete.  After two days of bad weather and high winds, the skies cleared and calmed on the day my flight was supposed to leave the island. I spent the morning doing a final check of the birds near camp, searching for new nests, and packing up. During my 23 days on the island, I estimate that I spent approximately 200 hours in the field, walked about 350 kilometers (about 217 miles), and checked at least 250 individual Semipalmated Sandpipers for leg bands and geolocators.

 

SESA Selfie

Shiloh Schulte holds the 10th tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper just before it is released.

 

The satellite phone does not work inside, so I set up this workstation to transmit the blogs and photos.

The satellite phone does not work inside, so I set up this workstation to transmit the blogs and photos.

 

The Trent University/Environment Canada crew was constantly looking as well, so we feel confident that we covered the study area very effectively. In the end, we confirmed sightings for ten Semipalmated Sandpipers tagged with geolocators and retrieved the tags from all ten birds. Both the return and retrieval rate for these birds is exceptionally high for the eastern Arctic, but on par with what we found in Alaska.

We do not know why the return rates are so variable in the East, but it could have to do with shifting food resources on the breeding grounds, or possibly greater risks on the migration routes or wintering areas. For example, if eastern birds are making long ocean crossings, they may be more susceptible to hurricanes or other major weather systems. Once the analysis of the recovered tags is complete later this summer, we will have a much better idea of the timing of migration, important stopover points, and the distribution of wintering sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers that nest on Coats Island.

SESA

A cooperative Semipalmated Sandpiper poses for a portrait shot. Many of the Arctic nesting shorebirds have little fear of humans, treating us no differently than Caribou.

 

Spotting the plane over the hills to the east, I had the same mixed reaction as I had the past couple of years. Very excited to be going home to see my family again, but reluctant to leave the Arctic and particularly such a diverse and compelling place as Coats Island. With no snow on the runway and light winds, the pilots had no trouble picking us up. I flew out with Dr. Erica Nol, a prominent shorebird biologist who has inspired years of Arctic shorebird work and conducted foundational research with American Oystercatchers, my primary study species. Dr. Nol is Scott Flemming’s academic advisor and spent a week with us in camp getting to know the study site and the crew.

 

 

Most of the Coats Island crew see the plane off as we leave the island. From left to right, Shawna-Lee Masson, Scott Flemming, and Lindy Spirak.

Most of the Coats Island crew see the plane off as we leave the island. From left to right, Shawna-Lee Masson, Scott Flemming, and Lindy Spirak.

 

Scott Flemming, Shawna-Lee Masson, Lindy Spirak, and Malkolm Boothroyd are still on Coats and will not fly out until the 25th of July. Though busy with their own research, they are all still looking for our tagged birds and it is possible they will find a late arrival or one that we overlooked somehow. We will certainly keep you posted if we hear of any additional recaptures and will update you later on when we know more about the results from the recovered geolocators.

 

Scott and Shawna compare notes at the end of a long field day.

Scott and Shawna compare notes at the end of a long field day.

 

None of this work would be possible without the close collaboration of Dr. Paul Smith of Environment and Climate Change Canada and the crew from Trent University. This entire project is a great example of the productivity and results that come from collaboration across agencies, country boundaries, and diverse backgrounds. I feel very lucky to be a part of this team and to have the opportunity to participate in this research and adventure.

 

longspur chicks

The Lapland Longspur chicks were just hatching when I left the Island.

King Eider male

Male King Eiders keep close watch on nesting females until all the eggs are laid. At that point they return to the sea and flock up for another year, leaving the females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

 

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC

Shorebird Summer on Coats Island

On Coats Island, a stretch of warm weather at the end of June means one thing: Mosquitoes! Sightings of the little bloodsuckers have increased sharply over the past few days and we anticipate the hatching explosion any day now. At their peak, the mosquitoes are so numerous that they can clog the intake on the generator and even jam up the spark plug on the ATV.

 

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

 

After the cold and windy start to the season, the weather improved dramatically and it is even warm enough to work in short sleeves during the middle of the day sometimes. Shorebird nesting has picked up rapidly in response to the better weather and we have now found over 100 nests and will probably match last year’s total by the end of the season. Semipalmated Sandpipers are by far the most abundant nesting shorebird, but we also have nests for Dunlin, Red Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semipalmated Plover. A few White-rumped Sandpipers are also around, but we haven’t seen any nests so far. While searching for shorebird nests, we also find nests for Pacific and Red-throated Loons, King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Northern Pintail, Parasitic Jaegers, and Arctic Terns.

 

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

 

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

 

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

 

I continue to search for and capture tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers. So far I have found 10 tagged birds and managed to recover the geolocators from all of them. This represents a substantial improvement over the 2014 season when only two of our tagged birds returned. We are not sure if 2014 was a particularly bad year, or if site fidelity (the tendency for a bird to return to the same place) was different between years. We are searching a large study area, but if the tagged birds returned to nest in a different part of the island, we would be unlikely to find them. In addition to intensively searching the study plots, I am also looking well outside of the usual study area, but so far have not seen any tagged birds away from their capture sites.

 

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests.

 

With the delayed start to nesting this year, I was only able to capture two birds on the nest (our usual trapping method). I used playback calls and bow nets, noose mats, and other techniques to capture the rest.  The migration tracks recovered from the geolocators should be invaluable in comparing Semipalmated Sandpiper migration, stopover, and wintering patterns from the Eastern Arctic to sandpipers migrating from Western Arctic nesting areas.

 

The crew in camp is taking full advantage of the good weather lately. Scott Flemming is leading his third field season of research for his Ph.D. on the effects of overabundant snow geese on tundra-nesting shorebirds. Scott is looking at differences in invertebrates (shorebird food) and vegetation between Coats Island and a companion study site on Southampton Island run by Lisa Kennedy, another Ph.D. student at Trent University. Scott and the crew are also setting out artificial nests to compare predation rates between the sites.

 

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

 

Dr. Erica Nol has joined us in camp for a week and is working with the crew to find nests and capture nesting shorebirds to outfit them with radio tags that can be picked up by a network of receiving towers along the Atlantic Coast. This will help us understand the timing of migration and habitat use for a broader set of shorebird species.

 

Working with Scott are Malkolm Boothroyd,  Shawna-lee Masson, and Lindy Spirak.  Malkolm and Shawna are now two-year veterans of Coats Island. Malkolm is working on an honors project looking at Arctic Fox foraging patterns and how nest placement relative to ponds and lakes affects the probability of survival to hatching. Malkolm is also our most prolific nest searcher and typically walks 20 to 30 kilometers per day mapping ponds and finding shorebird nests.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

 

Lindy Spirak is an undergraduate student at Trent University and is conducting her honors project on the behavioral response of nesting shorebirds to the presence of Snow Geese and Parasitic Jaegers. Shawna is about to head into a masters project working with boreal songbirds, but is currently collecting more data on fox foraging patterns to supplement another project she is currently working on.

 

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

 

The crew is putting in long hours, both in the field and managing the flood of data, but still finds the energy to have fun and cook up great meals each night. Our work space is limitless, but our cabin is tiny, so good communication and mutual tolerance and respect are the key attributes needed.

 

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

 

 

Expanding the search area for tagged sandpipers has given me the opportunity to see more of the island.  Along the coast, east of our study area, the ground rises quickly and becomes rocky with high headlands and cliffs jutting out into the sea. The ice along the coast is much thinner and has disappeared entirely in some areas. No more Polar Bears have come by our camp, but we see them on almost every visit to the coast.

 

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

 

 

On a recent trip, I watched a mother and two yearling cubs working along the edge of the remaining ice. I was also lucky enough to see a walrus and witness a large pod of Beluga feeding in close to shore. The baby whales are grayish and swim perfectly in tandem with their mothers. I only have a few more days on the island, but my time here has been incredible. I feel very lucky for the opportunity to work in this special place with an outstanding crew. I wish them all the best as they finish out the last few weeks of the short Arctic summer.

 

 A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

 

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC

 

Early Geolocator Success at Coats Island

With a few days of clear skies and warmer temperatures (up to 45 degrees F), the snow is in full retreat. Each day, new tundra hummocks and ponds appear from beneath the winter snow pack. The birds are taking full advantage of the emerging habitat, frantically feeding and displaying to make up for lost time. So far only the American Golden Plovers have started nesting.

Snow covered the landscape when we first arrived. Many low-lying nesting areas are still covered in deep snow on June 18.

Snow covered the landscape when we first arrived. Many low-lying nesting areas are still covered in deep snow on June 18.

 

Their habitat, gravel ridges, has been snow-free for several days longer than the lower sedge tundra. The Semipalmated Sandpipers are back in good numbers this year. In 2014, only two of our tagged birds returned to the study area. This year we have seen nine tagged Sandpipers and have already recaptured four of them! Normally we capture the birds on the nest using a soft bow net. With the delayed start to the season and the number of Jaegers and Peregrines around, I decided to try for some early recaptures.

 

The late snow and cold mornings create a difficult environment for early arriving shorebirds. This Semipalmated Sandpiper searches for food in the frozen landscape.

The late snow and cold mornings create a difficult environment for early arriving shorebirds. This Semipalmated Sandpiper searches for food in the frozen landscape.

 

Taking advantage of the aggressive territoriality of the male Semipalmated Sandpipers, I set up the bow net on a high mound inside a tagged bird’s territory and play a display call from a speaker under the net. This method does not work every time, but when it does work it usually happens quickly.

 

A Semipalmated Sandpiper with a geolocator tag displays over his territory.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper with a geolocator tag displays over his territory.

 

Once I have the bird in hand, I remove the geolocator flag and old color bands and replace them with the standard color band combination for Coats Island (white flag band over orange band).  Each bird gets a set of measurements to assess health and then is quickly released. Several tagged female sandpipers have returned as well, but I will likely have to wait to recapture them until they are on nests because they do not respond to the playback call.

 

Shiloh Schulte holds a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. We have already recaptured four tagged birds. The flight paths recovered from these tags should help fill in the picture of the migration routes, wintering areas, and stopover sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers nesting in Eastern Canada.

Shiloh Schulte holds a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. We have already recaptured four tagged birds. The flight paths recovered from these tags should help fill in the picture of the migration routes, wintering areas, and stopover sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers nesting in Eastern Canada.

 

Despite the extensive snow cover on the island, the ice pack in Hudson Bay is lower than ever this year. In fact, it is possible that the increased snow on the island is a result of the warmer weather and additional open water this past winter. Normally this area is frozen in and does not get very much snow or rain during the year. As a result of the reduced ice, we expected more Polar Bear encounters. Typically, the bears remain on the ice pack hunting seals as long as possible, usually until late July or August. When the ice breaks up they are forced to come on land in search of food.

 

A Polar Bear following the river across the island notices our camp.

A Polar Bear following the river across the island notices our camp.

 

We had our first bear encounter on June 14 this year. This bear was crossing the island from the South, heading toward the remaining ice on the North end of the island. Lindy Spirak, a new field tech working on the Environment Canada/Trent University project, spotted the Polar Bear when it was still well up the river. The bear worked its way down the river until it smelled our camp and decided to investigate. Curious but not aggressive, the bear turned and ran as soon as we fired a couple of warning cracker shells. We are keeping a sharp eye out, but have not spotted any more bears this week.

This Polar Bear was very interested in our camp. Seconds after this photo was taken we scared the bear off with a few cracker shells (loud firecrackers fired into the air from a shotgun). The bear continued on toward the remaining sea ice on the North end of the island.

This Polar Bear was very interested in our camp. Seconds after this photo was taken, we scared the bear off with a few cracker shells (loud firecrackers fired into the air from a shotgun). The bear continued on toward the remaining sea ice on the North end of the island.

Scott Flemming checking out the Polar Bear tracks after the bear continued on down the river.

Scott Flemming checking out the Polar Bear tracks after the bear continued on down the river.

 

Now that the ponds are opening up, the waterfowl have started moving in. A small flotilla of King Eider are back on the ponds near camp, along with Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks. Pairs of Cackling Geese dot the landscape, occasionally dwarfed by flocks of their larger cousins, Canada Geese. Flocks of Snow Geese pass overhead, though we do not have any nesting near our camp.

 

A male King Eider in full pursuit of a female. King Eider males stick close to their mates until egg laying is complete. At which point they return to the open ocean, leaving the camouflaged females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

A male King Eider in full pursuit of a female. King Eider males stick close to their mates until egg laying is complete. At that point they return to the open ocean, leaving the camouflaged females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

 

Lindy Spirak reads up on shorebird identification and ecology on a sunny evening in camp.

Lindy Spirak reads up on shorebird identification and ecology on a sunny evening in camp.

 

Willow Ptarmigan are abundant on the study plots this year, a difference from previous years. Our local bird (named Ptodd) thinks the cabin makes a great display platform and loves calling loudly from the roof as the sun rises around 2 am. Parasitic Jaegers are sweeping the tundra again, searching for waterfowl and shorebird nests. We have only had one Arctic Fox sighting so far, but it coincided with finding our first shorebird nest. We will likely see more foxes as nests start to dot the landscape.

 

Ptodd the Ptarmigan strutting on the cabin roof. Ptodd likes to call loudly from the rooftop at sunrise (2 am in the arctic).

Ptodd the Ptarmigan strutting on the cabin roof. Ptodd likes to call loudly from the rooftop at sunrise (2 am in the arctic).

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC