All photos by Shiloh Schulte unless otherwise noted.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.