Field Season 2017: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Welcome to the 2017 field season!  This year our shorebird science crew will be working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to better understand what habitats are most important to shorebirds after they finish their breeding season.  In the first post from the field, Shiloh Schulte describes the project, and shares the first photos of birds arriving on the tundra.  Stay tuned for updates as the crew carries out their work over the next six weeks. – Stephen Brown

 

1DUNL SSA Dunlin arrives in late winter snow and ice on its breeding grounds near the Arctic Ocean coast. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte

Our research on the Canning River Delta in 2017 is focused on answering questions about the movement and habitat use of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin after the breeding season is complete. We know that both species use the Arctic Coast for pre-migration staging in the late summer and fall, but this period in the annual cycle of shorebirds is poorly understood.

 2SESA SSAlthough tiny, Semipalmated Sandpipers produce surprisingly loud vocalizations including this territorial display as we pass by. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte

Our work will answer questions about when these birds arrive at and leave the coast, how much they move around before migration, and the specific habitat types they are using. These data are essential to understanding how changes caused by climate change and coastal development are affecting shorebirds on the Arctic Coast.

We are returning to a site we have worked at in the past, where shorebirds breed along the Canning River at the northern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

3CanningCampAlaska

4CanningCampCoastalPlain

5CanningCampLakes

6CanningCampCloseupOur camp is located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the north slope of Alaska.  This series zooms in progressively closer, starting with the whole state of Alaska, then the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, then the lakes surrounding camp on the Canning River, and finally a close-up in which you can actually see the camp.  Photos from Google Earth.

We hope to learn more about post-breeding habitat use using a new technology developed by Lotek Inc. In the past, we have used light-level geolocators to track broad-scale movements during the annual cycle. Geolocators are an excellent tool for discovering continental-scale patterns of movement, but do not yield precise locations and do not work at all during the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic summer.

Recently, GPS pinpoint tags were developed that provide a new tool for understanding habitat use and movements of small birds. These tags, weighing as little as 1.0 g, collect GPS-quality locations (i.e., +/- a few meters) at pre-programmed intervals. Like geolocators, the smallest of these tags require birds to be recaptured to download information from the devices.

8Harness.jpgWeighing as little as 1 gm, these GPS pinpoint trackers will be attached with flexible harnesses that we will seek to recover from the birds next year. Photo credit: Metta McGarvey

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new GPS tag technology is the ability to identify specific habitats used by birds. Our previous ground and boat surveys have identified major sites and habitats where shorebirds congregate on the Arctic Coast, but have always been limited by physical access and by the difficulty of finding tiny sandpipers in some habitats. It is entirely possible that some hot spots used by these species have gone undetected.

9DUNLCoastJuvenileThis juvenile Dunlin is feeding on a coastal mudflat and was photographed on our coastal survey in 2008, but we may have missed many others.  This year we hope to learn much more detail from the GPS tags about what sites are used in the post-breeding period. 

The new tags should allow us to assess shorebird preference for different habitat types, as well as how shorebirds respond to fall storms and the accompanying storm surges. We will also be able to see if shorebirds use areas where oil from oil spills may concentrate (e.g., river mouths), areas proposed for oil and gas development, and areas currently being used by native communities and industry.

This project is part of a larger two-year initiative at multiple sites across the Alaskan Arctic. In addition to the Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpipers we will be tagging at the Canning River Delta camp, crews at other field sites at Utqiavik (formerly Barrow), Prudhoe Bay, and the Colville River will be tagging Bar-tailed Godwit, American Golden-plover, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.

 

11BBSASeveral of the other partners working collaboratively on this project at other sites will be including additional species, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper.  This bird was photographed during one of our previous expeditions to the Arctic Refuge in 2004.  Photo credit:  Brad Winn.

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.

 

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