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.

Early season challenges at the Canning River shorebird camp

09Glacier Avens. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

While our Spoon-billed Sandpiper crew was starting their surveys out of Kotzebue, our Canning River shorebird crew was preparing to get into the field on the North Slope of Alaska.

Half the challenge of our field season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just getting to our study site. Located three miles from the Beaufort Sea on the Canning River Delta, the site is accessible only by bush plane on skis or tundra tires, depending on the conditions. After a week of prep in Fairbanks, we headed north on June 5th on a 10-hour drive on the Dalton Highway to a US Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse at Galbraith Lake. From there, we would be close enough to shuttle ourselves and our 3500lbs of food and research gear on hour-long flights to our study site.

The drive was stunningly beautiful as we crossed the White Mountains and the Brooks Range before descending down to the lake in the foothills of the mountains. The plan was to fly in our people and gear from Galbraith to the Canning River camp the next day, weather permitting. Unfortunately, the persistent north wind kept a layer of fog over the coastal plain and, though the weather in Galbraith was perfect, we could not fly into camp.

13Shiloh hiking up a ridge at Galbraith Lake

Over the next eight days we repeated the pattern of gearing up, waiting for the weather to clear, and standing down as the flight was called off again. Our consolation was spending over a week in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Galbraith Lake is nestled in among the mountains on the North side of the Brooks Range. The tundra is dryer and features easier walking than our field site and we took advantage of our delay to explore the foothills and landscape around the cabin.

05Returning from a hike in the hills at Galbraith Lake (Shiloh Schulte, Shilo Felton, Lisa Kennedy, Sarah Hoephner, Patches Flores)

Finally, on June 13, we got a brief window of good weather and were able to make a series of flights into camp to bring in some of the crew and supplies. The snow was unusually deep and persistent on the coastal plain this year so, despite the fact that we arrived two weeks later than last year, the snowpack was much more extensive and birds were still arriving.

04Canning River from 1,200 feet. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

The flight into camp is always stunning. As the mountains fall away to the South, the entire coastal plain and vast river deltas open up ahead, with the endless ice sheet over the Beaufort Sea visible to the North. Our early season landing strip is on a frozen lake about a half a mile from camp. Unfortunately, with the extensive snow cover, it was hard to tell which lake was the right one, and the first two crews and gear were dropped off on a lake about two miles away.

10Landing the crew and gear on the frozen lake. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Even after finding the correct landing site, we still had to haul all of the remaining gear via sled up to the campsite through ice, slush, and tussock tundra. The weather closed back in the following morning, and the full crew was not united in camp for another two days.

11Hauling gear back to camp (Patches Flores, Elyssa Watford, and Shilo Felton)

The Canning River camp is larger than it has been in past seasons and features several concurrent studies. The team from Manomet is working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife to search for Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin that had been tagged with GPS trackers last year. We are also deploying new tracking tags on Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

03Canning River field camp. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

08Canada Lynx out on the tundra. Quite an unusual sight north of the treeline. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

These trackers, which sit on the birds like backpacks, record precise locations of the birds after the breeding season and should allow us to identify important staging and feeding sites for conservation along the Alaskan coastlines.

01Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

14Smith’s Longspur. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

In addition to the tracking study, we are working as US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers and assisting the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with multiple projects on the coastal plain. One of these projects assesses the efficacy of monitoring nests with cameras and temperature loggers in an effort to reduce the number of nest visits needed to monitor nest survival. At the same time, a team is conducting a study of the Arctic Fox population in the area by collecting DNA from hair snares and scat.

06Crew training for Arctic Fox sampling. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

We are also catching waterfowl to assess health indicators and prevalence of disease in the population. Finally, we are collecting information on insect diversity and abundance and the presence of herbivores in the study area.

My next post will describe what we found over the following weeks through long days searching for nests and tagged birds. Despite the weather challenges it is an incredible privilege to be able to work in this beautiful and pristine landscape.

 02A flagged Semipalmated Sandpiper takes off on a display flight. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.