Sleep is optional in the land of the Midnight Sun

All photos by Shiloh Schulte unless otherwise noted.

Late night fog and sun at camp.

Late-night fog and sun at camp.

I am writing this post on the flight home. It’s been a crazy day so far. After staying in camp a couple of days longer than planned because of weather challenges, Nick was able to come in from Kavik this morning with the R44 helicopter and bring me to the Prudhoe Bay Airport. From there, I was able to get on a flight to Anchorage via Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Fairbanks. From Anchorage, I am heading to Seattle and then Boston and then home! Should be about 24 hours from my tent to my front door if all goes well.

The view from my front door in the Katakturuk camp.

The view from my front door in the Katakturuk camp.

Lindall Kidd and Jordan Muir ready to take on the day.

Lindall Kidd and Jordan Muir ready to take on the day.

The last two weeks have been intense. After concluding the PRISM shorebird surveys, we switched immediately to working on a study of shorebird nest survival in the Western coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We are trying to map variation in nest survival from the foothills to the coast and identify highly productive areas. To do this we first had to find the nests which, as Stephen described in an earlier post, are incredibly well camouflaged in this environment. Each morning, teams of two head out via helicopter to pre-selected random points on the coastal plain and spend up to four hours searching that area for nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. We then move to another point and do it again, trying to find as many nests as possible each day. With three teams in the field, the logistics get challenging, even with a helicopter and a great pilot. Fog can roll in off the ocean at any time and foil our plans in a hurry.

A male Red Phalarope broods his chicks. Male phalaropes are responsible for incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. Female Red Phalaropes sometimes lay multiple clutches with different males and do not raise the young.

A male Red Phalarope broods his chicks. Male phalaropes are responsible for incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. Female Red Phalaropes sometimes lay multiple clutches with different males and do not raise the young.

A baby Red Phalarope hiding in the sedge.

A baby Red Phalarope hiding in the sedge.

We lucked out on the weather for the most part during this project, but as a result, we ran into some other difficulties. The exceptionally warm weather and early spring in the Alaskan Arctic meant the birds all started nesting early. By the time we started searching some nests were already hatching when normally they would just be starting incubation. As soon as we began it was a race against time to find as many nests as possible before they hatched. Shorebird nest searching requires a combination of endurance and patience. Sometimes the best strategy is just to hike systematically for hours and eventually you will flush a bird off a nest. At other times you need to carefully read a bird’s behavior to determine if it has a nest and then where to wait to observe the bird so you can find the nest. Too close and the bird will become agitated and refuse to go back to the nest. Too far away and you will lose sight of it in the grass and sedge. If you are wrong about the behavior you can spend a long time watching a bird that does not have a nest, which wastes valuable time. Each species has a different strategy for hiding their nest and foiling nest predators. When we find a nest we record the species and the age of the nest, then add a tiny sensor that will record the temperature of the nest every few minutes. After the nesting season is over we can go back and collect all these sensors and use the temperature data to identify whether each nest hatched or failed. At some nests, we are also placing game cameras to identify nest predators.

Shiloh Schulte deploys a nest camera. Photo by Jordan Muir.

Shiloh Schulte deploys a nest camera. Photo by Jordan Muir.

In addition to the nest survival study, we are deploying GPS tags on several shorebird species to continue a project tracking post-breeding movement, habitat use, and migration patterns. To catch a shorebird we first need to find the nest and then set up a net trap. All of the nesting birds in the tagging study have to be separate from the nest survival study, so this means another round of nest searching and then banding in the evening after 8-10 hours in the field earlier in the day. With 24 hour daylight, we can keep working as long as we need to, so this makes for some long but deeply rewarding days.

With a bird in the hand, we first attach a leg band, then take a series of standard measurements to assess health, age, and sex of the bird. Finally, we slip on a harness with a GPS tag attached. The total weight of the tag and bands has to be less than 3% of the bird’s body weight to avoid impacting the flight ability or behavior of the bird. The tags are programmed to start recording in late June, and we should start getting weekly updates on their locations in July. At the Katakturuk camp, we tagged six Pectoral Sandpipers, five American Golden-Plovers, and one Whimbrel.

Lindall Kidd and Rick Lanctot finish banding and tagging an American Golden-Plover.

Lindall Kidd and Rick Lanctot finish banding and tagging an American Golden-Plover.

Shiloh Schulte releases a tagged American Golden-Plover. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

Shiloh Schulte releases a tagged American Golden-Plover. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

A GPS-tagged Red Phalarope coming in for landing. These birds spend the winter on the open Pacific Ocean, but their migration routes and exact wintering areas remain a mystery. Hopefully this study will help resolve that.

A GPS-tagged Red Phalarope coming in for landing. These birds spend the winter on the open Pacific Ocean, but their migration routes and exact wintering areas remain a mystery. Hopefully this study will help resolve that.

All too soon, the work at the Katakturuk Camp was over and the rest of the crew dispersed back to their lives outside of the Arctic. I moved over to the Canning River camp where I worked last year and spent the next week helping the Fish and Wildlife Service crew with their work and deploying GPS tags on Red Phalaropes. Red Phalaropes nest in large wetlands and are not found in the uplands near the Katakturuk camp. At the Canning, I also had the opportunity to help a little on a study of Arctic Foxes. On my last night in camp, I hiked down to a fox den a few miles away to swap out camera cards on the game cameras at the den. It was a perfect Arctic night with stunning golden light and still air so I could see and hear for miles. I only saw the kits from a distance but both parents were there and watched me closely when I was near the den but settled down quickly as soon as I moved off.

Arctic Fox lounging near his den.

Arctic Fox lounging near his den.

I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with a top-notch team in one of the last wild places in the country. The Arctic Refuge is stunning and intimidating and absolutely essential to a whole range of species from lichen and flowers to migratory shorebirds to seals and whales and bears. I am very excited to be almost home to see my family, but already looking forward to my next trip North.

Golden light of midnight over the Canning River.

Golden light of midnight over the Canning River.

 

 

 

The Camp at the Katakturuk River

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 Manomet/USFWS field camp on the Katakturuk River in the foothills of the Brooks Range

The Manomet/USFWS field camp on the Katakturuk River in the foothills of the Brooks Range

Dryas and Oxytropis in bloom along the Katakturuk River flats

Dryas and Oxytropis in bloom along the Katakturuk River flats

Caribou use the lingering snow and ice fields to escape the hordes of mosquitos.

Caribou use the lingering snow and ice fields to escape the hordes of mosquitos.

Caribou moving through the valley on their way to the coast.

Caribou moving through the valley on their way to the coast.

 

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!

 

A Peregrine Falcon uses speed and stealth to hunt shorebirds and waterfowl over open tundra.

A Peregrine Falcon uses speed and stealth to hunt shorebirds and waterfowl over open tundra.

Yellow Wagtails were abundant in the willow thickets along the rivers, but always in motion and difficult to photograph!

Yellow Wagtails were abundant in the willow thickets along the rivers, but always in motion and difficult to photograph!

A male Lapland Longspur with a load of food for hungry babies

A male Lapland Longspur with a load of food for hungry babies

A male Smith’s Longspur balances on a willow shrub on a windy day

A male Smith’s Longspur balances on a willow shrub on a windy day

 

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.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nest on the gravel flats in braided river channels. Golden-plovers do not care for the competition and will chase the smaller plovers if they venture into their feeding and nesting territories

Semipalmated Sandpipers nest on the gravel flats in braided river channels. Golden-plovers do not care for the competition and will chase the smaller plovers if they venture into their feeding and nesting territories

Baird’s Sandpipers nest in short vegetation and rely on cryptic coloration and the ability to remain perfectly motionless while on the nest.

Baird’s Sandpipers nest in short vegetation and rely on cryptic coloration and the ability to remain perfectly motionless while on the nest.

American Golden-Plovers always seem to choose scenic nesting locations. This pair nested in a field of Arctic Lupine.

American Golden-Plovers always seem to choose scenic nesting locations. This pair nested in a field of Arctic Lupine.

 

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.

Female Pectoral Sandpipers are responsible for all of the incubation and chick-rearing duties and are quite protective of their offspring.

Female Pectoral Sandpipers are responsible for all of the incubation and chick-rearing duties and are quite protective of their offspring.

Both male and female Whimbrel share nesting and chick rearing responsibilities. Neighboring Whimbrel will team up to chase off predators like jaegers and falcons.

Both male and female Whimbrel share nesting and chick rearing responsibilities. Neighboring Whimbrel will team up to chase off predators like jaegers and falcons.

Though this Whimbrel pair lost two eggs to jaegers, the remaining eggs hatched and hopefully the chicks will survive to migrate to South America this fall.

Though this Whimbrel pair lost two eggs to jaegers, the remaining eggs hatched and hopefully, the chicks will survive to migrate to South America this fall.

 

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.

Sub-optimal survey conditions are common on the North Slope. We lucked out with the weather for the most part though and Nick Myers was a great pilot and member of the crew. Photo by Lindall Kidd.

Sub-optimal survey conditions are common on the North Slope. We lucked out with the weather for the most part though and Nick Myers was a great pilot and member of the crew. Photo by Lindall Kidd.

Long-tailed Jaegers were very common in the uplands this year. The smallest of the three Jaeger species nesting in Alaska, they eat everything from insects to lemmings to shorebird eggs.

Long-tailed Jaegers were very common in the uplands this year. The smallest of the three Jaeger species nesting in Alaska, they eat everything from insects to lemmings to shorebird eggs.

All-star shorebird survey crew. From left: Metta McGarvey, Stephen Brown, Nick Myers (pilot), Lindall Kidd, Rick Lanctot, Shiloh Schulte, R44 helicopter.

All-star shorebird survey crew. From left: Metta McGarvey, Stephen Brown, Nick Myers (pilot), Lindall Kidd, Rick Lanctot, Shiloh Schulte, R44 helicopter.

 

 

 

To Find a Shorebird Nest

Note: There has been a considerable gap of time since our last post from the Arctic. This year we are working with our research partners to review blogs, press releases and other documents for accuracy and completeness and this process can take time. The events of this post and the next one take place in late June and early July 2018. We will have the next post up shortly. Thank you for your patience.

July 1, 2018

Nesting shorebirds act suspicious. Sometimes this is obvious with alarm calls or distraction displays designed to grab a predator’s attention and lead it away from the nest. Often it is much more subtle, especially early in the incubation cycle. A Semipalmated Sandpiper or Dunlin with a new nest might sneak off through the sedge as you approach, only to pop up on a nearby mound and preen or start to forage for food. They look like any other sandpiper on the landscape except that they are watching you. You can see it in the tilt of their head or the way they run away only to pop up and stare at you again. A bird without a nest will usually either ignore you entirely or just fly off.

SESA1This banded Semipalmated Sandpiper watches us intently as we search for her nest.

DUNLDunlin are experts at nest concealment and deception. This one is not pleased that we finally found his nest.

Of course, suspecting that a bird has a nest is only the first step. Then you either have a painstaking search for perfectly camouflaged eggs in a dense cover of sedge and grass or more often, a retreat to a good vantage point to hold still and wait for the bird to make his or her way carefully back to the nest cup.

Good nest-finding skills are essential for our work up here on the Canning River. We are trying to retrieve satellite transmitter put out in previous years and deploy new tags on several shorebird species. In both cases, we need to catch the bird, and trapping at the nest is the quickest and most reliable way to do that. We use mesh bow nets that pop over the nesting bird and are easy to use, safe for the bird and eggs, and very reliable. But first, we have to find the nests.

SESA_nestLook carefully to see the little Semipalmated Sandpiper nest in this photo. This photo was taken from 3 feet directly above the nest. You can see why extreme care and good eyesight is needed when searching for these eggs.

In addition to deploying satellite transmitters to track post-breeding and migration movements, we are working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on a large, long-term study of nesting shorebirds and waterbirds on the Arctic coastal plain. By thoroughly searching our study area for nesting birds we can track changes in which species are using the Refuge, monitor bird abundance, and estimate nest survival rates.

LISALisa Kennedy tries to pick up a signal so she can mark the location and information on a new Dunlin nest in our database. The signal works about 70% of the time so the system is still a work in progress. 

This year the late snowstorms and deep snow base have significantly delayed the start of the nesting season. When we arrived two weeks ago we were already very late getting into camp due to weather. Normally the 13th would be the peak of egg-laying, but when we arrived the snow cover was still almost 100% and we saw very little evidence of nesting behavior, let alone nests on the ground. Nesting ramped up quickly as soon as the snow started to melt, but for some species, it may be too late. We have already noticed flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers gathering up as they do before migration.

LBDOLong-billed Dowitchers are regular nesters on the study area, but we have found no nests this year and many are already flocking up and preparing to leave. The late storms and heavy snow may mean a failed nesting season for this species.

 

Other species such as Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpipers are nesting but much later than normal. This likely will mean that they only get one shot at nesting this year because if anything happens to the nest they will probably not have time to try again before the short Arctic summer is over.

As a result of the weather delays getting into camp and the strange nesting season, our work is considerably more challenging this year. We have only seen a couple of the birds we tagged last year and so far have not been able to find their nests and retrieve transmitters. It is possible that this is a result of the poor nesting conditions on the Canning this year, but it makes the rest of our work more critical. Unlike the transmitters we put out last year, the new devices upload directly to the satellites and do not need to be retrieved the following year to download data. They will degrade and fall off the birds after the batteries run out. This year we are attempting to catch Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

PESAA male Pectoral Sandpiper inflates his air pouch as part of a mating display to a nearby female. Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the more abundant nesting species and their deep hoots form part of the background sound of the Arctic summer.

BBPL_nestPlover nests are more exposed than sandpiper nests, but these Black-bellied Plover eggs are still perfectly camouflaged with the surrounding moss and lichen.

While the Pectoral Sandpiper trapping has been a success, we have a shortage of Golden-Plovers on the study area this year. The one nest we found was eaten by a fox within 24 hours and we have few new prospects at the moment. It is possible that the abundant Snowy Owls on the study area this year are keeping the plovers off their normal nesting areas as the two species seem to prefer similar habitat for nesting. In our next post, Shilo Felton, a recent Ph.D. graduate from North Carolina State will describe our search for Plover nests and her experience as a new researcher in the Arctic.

SNOW1The lemming population has exploded and Snowy Owls are everywhere this year, taking advantage of the food bonanza to feed their young.