Our field camp this year is nestled in a small valley in the foothills of the Brooks Range alongside the Katakturuk River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Katakturuk is a small river running about 30 miles from its headwaters in the Brooks to the Arctic Ocean. This area is much drier than the coastal wetlands where I normally work, with hills on both sides of the river and dry upland lichen tundra all around. This field site is a strong contender for the most beautiful site I have ever worked in. Herds of caribou wander through the valley every day against the backdrop of stunning mountains. The valley floor is carpeted with Dryas, Arctic Poppies, Cottongrass, Wooly Lousewort, and many other small flowers. Along the river, the dwarf willows are finally leafing out.
The bird life here is remarkable. Peregrine Falcons nest on the bluff upriver, and Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls hunt for lemmings and shorebirds along the valley floor. I spotted a Gyrfalcon overhead one day, but have not seen it again. The willows are full of Eastern Yellow Wagtails flitting constantly among the shrubs along with Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Tree Sparrows, Lapland Longspurs and a few White-crowned Sparrows. About a mile upriver Smith’s Longspurs are nesting, which are at the northern limit of their range. Metta found a Smith’s Longspur nest, which I had never seen before. Two members of the crew saw a single Bluethroat, a bird high on the list of birds I want to see, but so far just the one sighting. I still have another week in this camp before moving to the Canning River, so I have not given up hope!
The dry upland along the river is perfect nesting habitat for American Golden-Plovers, one of my favorite Arctic shorebirds. We will be tagging six of these birds with satellite transmitters over the next week in order to understand more about their movements within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as their migration pathways and timing. Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers are nesting along the river and I found my first Baird’s Sandpiper nest only about 250 yards from camp.
Just to the North of camp, there is a long swath of wetter tundra, which is good for Pectoral Sandpipers, another species we are studying. In an exciting find, we also have nesting Whimbrel in the valley. We heard the Whimbrel on our first night in camp, but when I went to look for their nest a couple of days later I discovered not only their nest but three others within two miles of camp. In total, I think there are between 8 and 12 nesting pair in the area. This is significant because Whimbrel are another species of concern due to population declines and this site may end up being useful for studying nesting and migration.
We are hopeful that the birds nesting here will do well this year. It was a very early spring on the North Slope and some of the shorebird nests are almost ready to hatch. We have only seen one red fox in the valley, so the main predators they have to worry about are the Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers. We have been lucky with the weather for the most part, but naturally, we are grounded by fog this morning as we are trying to fly people in and out for a crew change. Weather changes fast though, so you never know.