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.


Collaborative Fieldwork Makes for a Busy Camp

We have already described the work we are doing with the GPS-tagged birds, but this year at the Canning River camp we have several additional, but related projects going on. In addition to deploying GPS tags on shorebirds, we are also color-banding for long-term survival and movement studies and taking blood and swab samples for USGS biologists to track the occurrence of avian influenza. Chris Latty, wildlife biologist-ornithologist for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Will Wiese, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), are running a study using nest cameras to examine waterfowl nesting behavior, predator type and effects, and looking at any effect of the cameras themselves on nest survival rates. We are also deploying these cameras at half of the shorebird nests which helps us determine what the nest predators are and if this is a good technique to use in the future. Spoiler alert! Arctic foxes eat shorebird eggs. What is a bit more unusual are the red foxes in the study area. Red foxes are a rare sight on the Arctic coastal plain and have only recently been sighted this far North. This change is likely related to our changing climate and spells trouble for Arctic Foxes, which are often killed or driven out by their larger cousins. In another unusual occurrence, we may have had one shorebird nest that was destroyed by greater white-fronted geese.

IMG_3299Will Wiese and Jessica Herzog return victorious after a long day of waterfowl stalking.

In an attempt to understand how many arctic foxes are using the study area and how many of those are preying on shorebird nests, the USFWS launched a pilot study to try to capture and mark arctic foxes in the study area. Unfortunately, the foxes were already eating too well and none of them felt the need to take the bait and go into the live traps so we could mark them. We will have to get craftier next year if we want to catch the little guys.


IMG_9335Elyssa Watford demonstrates how to inflate and use a pack raft.

With all of the projects going on the camp has been very busy and crowded at times. We started off with 7 people in camp. From Manomet, Shiloh Schulte, Metta McGarvey, Alan Kneidel, and Alex Lamoreaux. From UAF, Will Wiese, Jessica Herzog, and Elyssa Watford. The UAF crew was in camp from May 31 to June 20 and was focused primarily on waterfowl. Despite the consistently terrible weather during this period, they managed to get out in the field and cover an impressive amount of ground to find goose nests and trap waterfowl for banding and sampling. Despite the long days, they all managed to infuse a huge amount of energy and fun into camp. Will in particular never seems to run out of energy and was generally game for anything from dishwashing, to games, to an epic hike, no matter how long he had spent in the field that day. Jessica is an undergraduate student at UAF and this was one of her first field jobs. Somehow she managed to keep up with Will in the field (no easy task) and remain constantly enthused about the work. Elyssa is starting her master’s work at UAF and will be working primarily with Common Eider on the barrier islands in the Refuge.

IMG_4076A pair of tagged Dunlin in flight. Dunlin molt their primary feathers while nesting, so their wings look a little ragged at this time.

IMG_3724A male King Eider cruising his small lake with the Brooks Range behind.

IMG_9412Polar bear tracks under the midnight sun just Northwest of Camp.

On the 15th of June we were joined in camp by Patricia Del Vecchio and Steve Berendzen, the acting refuge manager, bringing in the total in camp to nine. Patricia and Steve were setting up the fox tagging project and were out in the field for long hours deploying and checking traps. Both Patty and Steve have a wealth of knowledge and experience from working in Alaska for many years and dinner conversation was always fascinating. For instance, I did not know that Golden Eagles would hunt Caribou calves! Steve was only able to be in camp for a few days and had to leave on the 20th with the UAF crew. Chris Latty and Patches Flores joined us on the 20th to carry on the waterfowl work. Chris could only stay a few days as well, but Patches remained with Alan and Alex to close out the season.

IMG_4632Our ride home arrives in camp on June 30th.

Metta and I left on June 30th, heading for Fairbanks and back to the “real” world. Lifting off from camp is always a humbling experience. The scope of the study area, which feels huge when you are trudging through it for miles every day, suddenly looks tiny against the sweeping panorama of the landscape from 5000 feet.

IMG_4653Canning River Delta bird camp on the bluffs above the Staines Slough.

After all the coming and going in camp throughout June, the remaining crew is down to Alan, Alex, and Patches for the month of July. I imagine camp will feel empty but peaceful for the remaining weeks. We wish them well and good luck with the mosquitos!

IMG_4681Abrupt transition between rolling foothills and the North edge of the Brooks Range.

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.

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




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.