Counting phalaropes in Argentina: overcoming challenges and learning about dispersal

Marcela Castellino, Conservation Specialist, WHSRN Executive Office

Versión en español a continuación

Visiting wetlands, salt lagoons, and salt flats in Argentina in search of phalaropes was, for many years, a dream of mine, fed by a curiosity for learning about how they are distributed and the sites upon which they depend. I have worked with phalaropes for more than eight years; however; I must confess that our relationship has had its highs and lows as, at least on their wintering grounds, working with phalaropes can be quite challenging. For years these birds have put our plans, resources, methodologies, strategies, and budgets to the test. But, we have been lucky enough to have supporting friends and family, who often have found themselves coerced into being field volunteers, and have experienced for themselves the challenges of working with these birds, too.

In 2019, I had been going through a tough couple of months and I was beginning to think that the possibilities of continuing to work with the species were steadily diminishing. I participated in a meeting of phalarope specialists, conservationists, and managers of key important sites for the species, with the aim of sharing what I had learned from my work with Wilson’s Phalaropes in Argentina. I didn’t think that this meeting would represent a significant change in my work with the species. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

During this meeting, I spent two days with people who work in sites where the species is abundant. We exchanged ideas, opinions, experiences and we identified a series of priority actions that would guide the group’s next steps—this was the birthplace of the International Phalarope Working Group. Surrounding oneself with colleagues who share the same passion and commitment for shorebird conservation is the best gift of optimism and energy that anybody can receive. Just like that, the doubts that I was having about continuing to work with phalaropes disappeared.

After that meeting, I had the opportunity to join the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) to work towards the connection and conservation of inland saline wetlands and the shorebird species that depend on them, with my focus being on phalaropes. The priority actions that had been identified during the meeting were important in defining how and on what we would work. Remedying the lack of recent data on global population size and population trends was a priority; without reliable data in these fields, it would be impossible to direct effective conservation actions for the species.

We began to think about how we could conduct censuses in non-breeding areas, visiting the maximum number of possible sites and, ideally, doing so simultaneously. At this time of year, the majority of individuals concentrate in two main areas; High-Andean salt lagoons of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, and lowland saline lagoons in central and southern Argentina.

A group of Wilson’s phalaropes in a small wetland in southern Santa Fe province, Argentina. ©Marcelo Romano

A group of Wilson’s phalaropes in a small wetland in southern Santa Fe province, Argentina. ©Marcelo Romano

Covering these two areas was going to be a considerable challenge. However, an opportunity arose out of another initiative being coordinated by colleagues in the WHSRN Executive Office along with the Alto-Andean Flamingo Conservation Group (Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos – GCFA). The GCFA performs periodic monitoring of the High-Andean wetlands that are of importance to the species of flamingos that occur in South America; the Andean Flamingo, the Chilean Flamingo, and the Puna Flamingo. This involves simultaneous monitoring in more than 200 key sites every five years.

The Sixth Simultaneous Census of Alto-Andean Flamingos was scheduled for February 2020 and this year WHSRN would also participate, carrying out the First International Simultaneous Census of Shorebirds. It was now going to be possible to gather data on the importance of these sites for shorebirds in areas that had never been monitored previously. If we were able to coordinate a census in the lowland saline wetlands of Argentina during the same period of time, this would give us the kind of coverage that we had never before achieved for Wilson’s Phalarope. We immediately began to work on making it a reality.

Argentina is a country of considerable size, the fourth biggest in the Americas, so covering the maximum amount of possible sites would require a large-scale effort. The selection of census sites was based on previously established criteria related to this species’ habits. To ensure the maximum possible coverage of more than 300 potential sites, we coordinated with Aves Argentinas, a national NGO, to reach out to volunteers through their network of birdwatchers clubs to help conduct surveys. We contacted volunteers, assigned them to sites, and encouraged them to census all of the wetlands they could to make the area of coverage as comprehensive as possible.

The counting methodology was based on the protocol of the International Shorebird Survey (ISS). This is a simple method that many of the volunteers were already familiar with, but it was also chosen because it was the method that had been used in the previous High-Andean censuses, thereby allowing us to later combine the results into a single database.

Surveying phalaropes in saline wetlands in Tierra del Fuego, in the southern tip of Argentina. ©Tabaré Barreto

Surveying phalaropes in saline wetlands in Tierra del Fuego, in the southern tip of Argentina. ©Tabaré Barreto

After several weeks of coordination, we were finally ready to start. During the ten days of the census, more than 110 volunteers participated from 17 provinces across the country – from Formosa to Tierra del Fuego – donating their time and collecting the data to address the proposed objectives.

As the days went by, information began to arrive from the different points across the country about the obstacles that volunteers were facing. For example, simply accessing many of the sites was a challenge in itself because of blocked roads or lagoons being located on private properties. Other challenges included traveling long distances and poor road conditions. Patagonia, with its tablelands and extensive and inhospitable steppes, proved to be the most difficult region to survey. Luckily, we were able to count on committed and adventurous volunteers, some of whom traveled more than 2000 km across the steppes in their own vehicles to reach the designated sites.

Volunteers try to free the vehicle that got bogged down during their field trip in Rio Negro, Patagonia Argentina. ©COA Tintica

Volunteers try to free the vehicle that got bogged down during their field trip in Rio Negro, Patagonia, Argentina. ©COA Tintica

Inaccessibility of several sites meant volunteers needed to get creative to count phalaropes. ©Marcelo Romano

Many sites were found to be dry, including some that had previously hosted considerable numbers of phalaropes. The drought season had a visible effect on these kinds of environments, reducing habitat availability and potentially resulting in concentrations of greater numbers at fewer sites.

Only a couple of site locations—Laguna Mar Chiquita and Lago Epecuén—showed high abundances of phalaropes. The less fortunate volunteers returned from their journeys without recording a single individual. But all of these observations are important; the datum ‘zero’ is equally valuable information that helps us to better understand the distribution of the species within the study area.

One of the thousands phalaropes that were swimming and feeding at Epecuen Lake, in Buenos Aires Province. ©Carlos Servín

One of the thousands of phalaropes that were swimming and feeding at Epecuen Lake in the Buenos Aires Province. ©Carlos Servín

In the list of sites to census, there was one that stood out from the rest: Laguna Mar Chiquita. This is an extensive saline wetland located in Córdoba province in Argentina that covers more than 600,000 hectares. On average, half a million Wilson’s Phalaropes use this site during the austral summer, where they concentrate in the northwestern part of the lagoon. The shallow waters and the high salinity at this site contribute to a high density of their invertebrate prey, and the area is practically unreachable both by land and by boat. As a result, the phalarope numbers for Mar Chiquita during the 2020 census were obtained from one aerial survey of the entire lagoon. The counts were performed by an observer with more than 20 years of experience in population estimates at this site, accompanied by two photographers who captured images of the flocks to support the estimates. The crew also estimated flamingo numbers during the aerial survey, as Mar Chiquita is also an important site for flamingoes, particularly Chilean Flamingos. For this reason, the lagoon is also included as a regular survey site for the GCFA.

A flock of thousands of phalaropes seen from the airplane during the aerial survey at Mar Chiquita Lake, Argentina. ©Matias Michelutti

The ten days of censuses flew by, and before we knew it the project that we had put so much effort into making a reality was complete. The next step was to collate and analyze the field data. Right now, we are working on an updated phalarope estimate based on the data obtained in all of the surveyed sites, including both the High-Andean lakes and the lowland wetlands. We are also researching historical information for some of the key sites in order to evaluate population trends. All of this information will contribute to updating the Wilson’s Phalarope Conservation Plan and will be useful in guiding effective conservation action for Wilson’s Phalarope on their wintering grounds.

This census would not have been possible without the participation of volunteers. Attempting to monitor the entire population of a species with such a large geographic range is a task that can only be achieved with an “army” of volunteers. Besides generating databases that would be impossible to obtain by any other means, the participation of volunteers in initiatives such as this helps to involve communities in nature conservation, to increase the perception of the value of their natural heritage, and to bring more people into contact with the species so that they may learn about it and, directly or indirectly, help to conserve it.

The quantity of information generated was very important and we are pleased with the results. Thanks to these data, we have more and better information than ever before, with which to orient our future actions. Coordinating this census was highly enjoyable, with plenty of challenges and lots of lessons learned. We hope to do it again in the future; perhaps in five years, when we will again be joining efforts to count phalaropes of the altiplano and lowlands of Argentina, with the hope of confirming that the conservation actions that we are now implementing for the species have been effective.

Contando Falaropos en Argentina: el desafío de conocer más acerca de esta especie

Visitar humedales y lagunas saladas y salobres de Argentina en búsqueda de falaropos fue durante muchos años un gran deseo personal, alimentado por la curiosidad de saber cómo se dispersan en el país y de qué sitios dependen. Hace más de ocho años que trabajo con la especie, por lo que los falaropos ya son parte de mi vida. Aunque debo reconocer que nuestra relación ha pasado por altos y bajos, ya que al menos en sus sitios de invernada trabajar con falaropos representa todo un desafío. Durante años pusieron a prueba planes, recursos, metodologías, estrategias, presupuestos…y mucha paciencia, principalmente por parte de familia y amigos, que muchas veces han sido mis voluntarios de campo forzados y han experimentado en carne propia los desafíos de trabajar con estas pequeñas aves.

En junio de 2019 participé en una reunión que convocaba a especialistas, conservacionistas y manejadores de sitios importantes para falaropos en Mono Lake, California. Yo había atravesado un par de meses complejos, en los que sentía que las posibilidades de seguir trabajando con la especie eran cada vez menos. Fui a la reunión con el objetivo de compartir todo lo que había aprendido durante mi trabajo con el Falaropo Común (Phalaropus tricolor) en Argentina, pero debo reconocer que tenía pocas expectativas. No pensaba que participar en esta reunión representaría un cambio significativo en cuanto a mi trabajo con la especie. No podría haber estado más equivocada.

Durante ese encuentro compartí dos días con personas que trabajan con la especie o en sitios en los que es abundante. Intercambiamos ideas, opiniones, experiencias y definimos una serie de acciones prioritarias que guiarían los próximos pasos como grupo. Así nació el Grupo Internacional de Trabajo de Falaropos. Rodearse con colegas que sienten la misma pasión y compromiso por la conservación de las aves playeras es la mejor inyección de optimismo y energía que cualquiera pueda recibir. Así, las dudas sobre la posibilidad de seguir trabajando con los falaropos fueron desapareciendo.

Un tiempo después de esta reunión tuve la oportunidad de unirme a la Red Hemisférica de Reservas para Aves Playeras (RHRAP – WHSRN por sus siglas en inglés) para trabajar por la vinculación y la conservación de humedales salados interiores y de las especies que de ellos dependen, enfocándome en los falaropos. Las acciones identificadas como prioritarias durante la reunión fueron importantes a la hora de definir cómo y sobre qué trabajar. La falta de datos actualizados sobre el tamaño de la población global y su tendencia poblacional eran prioritarios; sin datos concretos sobre estos puntos es imposible dirigir acciones de conservación efectivas para la especie.

Comenzamos a pensar en un censo en áreas no reproductivas, visitando la mayor cantidad de sitios posibles e idealmente, en simultáneo. Durante esta etapa, la mayoría de los individuos se concentran en dos áreas principales: lagunas saladas altoandinas de Argentina, Chile, Bolivia y Perú, y lagunas saladas en tierras bajas del centro y sur de Argentina.

A group of Wilson’s phalaropes in a small wetland in southern Santa Fe province, Argentina. ©Marcelo Romano

A group of Wilson’s phalaropes in a small wetland in southern Santa Fe province, Argentina. ©Marcelo Romano

Cubrir estas dos áreas era un enorme desafío. Sin embargo, la oportunidad llegó de la mano de otra iniciativa que estaban coordinando colegas de la Oficina Ejecutiva de la RHRAP junto al Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos (GCFA). El GCFA realiza periódicamente monitoreos en humedales altoandinos de importancia para las especies de flamencos presentes en América del Sur: el Flamenco Andino, el Flamenco Chileno y el Flamenco de James. Esto incluye monitoreos simultáneos en más de 200 sitios claves, cada cinco años. En febrero de 2020 se llevaría adelante el Sexto Censo Simultáneo Internacional de Flamencos Altoandinos.Este año, la RHRAP participaría llevando adelante el Primer Censo Simultáneo Internacional de Aves Playeras.Gracias a este proyecto se recopilaría información sobre la importancia de estos lugares para las aves playeras, en una zona que por su complejidad no es monitoreada frecuentemente. Si lográbamos coordinar un censo en humedales salados de las tierras bajas de Argentina durante la misma ventana temporal, eso nos daría una cobertura nunca antes obtenida para el Falaropo Común. Nos pusimos a trabajar para hacerlo posible.

Argentina es un país con una extensión territorial considerable, quedando en el cuarto lugar dentro de los países americanos, por lo que cubrir la mayor cantidad de sitios posibles requería un importante esfuerzo a gran escala. La selección de sitios a censar fue a partir de una serie de criterios previamente establecidos con base en los hábitos de la especie. Con una lista de más de 300 sitios en la mano recurrimos al apoyo de Aves Argentinas y su red de clubes de observadores de aves para asegurar la mayor cobertura posible. Contactamos voluntarios, les asignamos sitios para ser visitados y los alentamos a que censaran todos los humedales que encontraran en su camino, para aumentar el área cubierta.

La metodología de conteo se basó en el protocolo de Censo Internacional de Aves Playeras (ISS por sus siglas en inglés), por ser una metodología simple y ya conocida por muchos de los voluntarios, pero también por ser la metodología que se iba a aplicar en los censos altoandinos mencionado anteriormente, lo que permitiría luego unificar todos los conteos en una única base de datos.

Surveying phalaropes in saline wetlands in Tierra del Fuego, in the southern tip of Argentina. ©Tabaré Barreto

Surveying phalaropes in saline wetlands in Tierra del Fuego, in the southern tip of Argentina. ©Tabaré Barreto

Luego de varias semanas de coordinación, finalmente estábamos listos para comenzar. Durante los diez días que duró el censo, se movilizaron más de 110 voluntarios de 17 provincias de todo el país, desde Formosa a Tierra del Fuego, aportando su tiempo y recolectando datos para responder a los objetivos propuestos.

A medida que pasaban los días comenzaban a llegar novedades desde diferentes puntos del país. Por ejemplo, llegar a muchos de los sitios fue todo un desafío. En algunos casos, por la presencia de candados y la ubicación de las lagunas dentro de propiedades privadas. En otros casos, por las distancias y la ausencia de caminos en buen estado. La región patagónica, con sus mesetas y estepas tan extensas e inhóspitas fue las más difícil de cubrir. Por suerte tuvimos equipos de voluntarios comprometidos y aventureros, algunos de los cuales recorrieron más de 2000 km. atravesando a la estepa en vehículos propios para llegar a los sitios asignados.

Volunteers try to free the vehicle that got bogged down during their field trip in Rio Negro, Patagonia Argentina. ©COA Tintica

Volunteers try to free the vehicle that got bogged down during their field trip in Rio Negro, Patagonia, Argentina. ©COA Tintica

Inaccessibility of several sites meant volunteers needed to get creative to count phalaropes. ©Marcelo Romano

Muchos sitios se encontraban secos, incluso algunos que en el pasado habían tenido registros considerables de falaropos. La temporada de sequía tuvo un efecto evidente en este tipo de ambientes, disminuyendo la disponibilidad de hábitat para la especie y posiblemente favoreciendo su concentración en unos pocos sitios.

Sólo desde un par de puntos del país, Laguna Mar Chiquita y Lago Epecuén, llegaron datos de abundancias muy grandes de falaropos. Los voluntarios menos afortunados regresaron de sus viajes sin registrar ningún individuo. Pero todas estas observaciones son importantes; el dato cero es información valiosa que nos ayuda a entender mejor la distribución de la especie dentro del área de estudio.

One of the thousands phalaropes that were swimming and feeding at Epecuen Lake, in Buenos Aires Province. ©Carlos Servín

One of the thousands of phalaropes that were swimming and feeding at Epecuen Lake in the Buenos Aires Province. ©Carlos Servín

En la lista de sitios a censar había uno que se diferenciaba de los demás: la Laguna Mar Chiquita. Se trata de un extenso humedal salado que cubre más de 600.000 ha y está ubicado en la provincia de Córdoba, Argentina. Medio millón de falaropos en promedio utilizan este sitio durante el verano austral, en donde se concentran en la región noroeste de la laguna. Las aguas poco profundas y la salinidad más alta favorecen la presencia de invertebrados presa en esta zona que es prácticamente inaccesible tanto por tierra como por agua. Los números de falaropos para Mar Chiquita durante el censo simultáneo 2020 se obtuvieron a partir de un sobrevuelo durante el cual un observador con más de 20 años de experiencia en estimaciones en el sitio realizó los conteos, acompañado de dos fotógrafos que registraron las bandadas para respaldar esas estimaciones. Durante este sobrevuelo también se estimaron abundancias de flamencos, ya que Mar Chiquita también es importante para ellos (principalmente para los Flamencos Australes). Por esta razón, la laguna también está incluida dentro de los sitios censados regularmente por el GCFA.

A flock of thousands of phalaropes seen from the airplane during the aerial survey at Mar Chiquita Lake, Argentina. ©Matias Michelutti

Los diez días de censo pasaron rápidamente, y antes que pudiéramos darnos cuenta el esto por lo que tanto habíamos trabajado había terminado. El paso siguiente fue la recolección de datos tomados en campo y su análisis. En este momento, nos encontramos trabajando en una estimación actualizada de la población de la especie con base en los datos obtenidos en todos los sitios censados, tanto lagos altoandinos como de tierras bajas. También estamos recopilando información histórica de algunos sitios para poder evaluar tendencias. Toda esta información alimentará al Plan de Conservación de la especie y será útil para guiar acciones de conservación efectivas para el Falaropo Común en su área de invernada.

El censo no hubiera sido posible sin la participación de voluntarios. Intentar monitorear la población completa de una especie que se extiende en un territorio tan amplio requiere trabajar a una escala que solo es posible cubrir con la movilización de un «ejército» de personas. Además de generar bases de datos que serían imposibles de obtener de otra manera, la participación de voluntarios en iniciativas de este tipo ayuda a involucrar a las comunidades en la conservación de la naturaleza, a aumentar la valoración del patrimonio natural y facilita que más personas aprendan sobre la especie, aumentando el interés por la misma y favoreciendo, de manera directa o indirecta, su conservación.

La cantidad de información generada fue muy importante, y estamos muy conformes con el resultado. Gracias a estos resultados tendremos más y mejores datos para orientar nuestras acciones a futuro. Coordinar este censo fue para mí una experiencia de disfrute, de desafíos y de mucho aprendizaje. Sin lugar a duda espero que podamos repetirla en el futuro. Quizás en cinco años, uniendo nuevamente esfuerzos para contar Falaropos en el altiplano y las tierras bajas de Argentina, con la esperanza de encontrar que las acciones de conservación implementadas para la especie están siendo efectivas.

 

Engaging Caribbean Conservationists in a Shorebird Training Workshop in Puerto Rico

“The workshop was one of the best I ever attended. I was very impressed with the vast knowledge that Manomet and BirdsCaribbean has accumulated and also the way you transfer this knowledge to workshop participants. It was very valuable for me and allowed me to deal with some conservation hurdles I am facing especially regarding how important water level management is for the birds.” – Binkie van Es with the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation shares his impression of the Conserving Caribbean Shorebirds and Their Habitats International Training Workshop hosted by Manomet and BirdsCaribbean in partnership with local NGO Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI).

 Group Photo

The workshop took place at the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico from February 11 – 15, 2019. This area was a perfect backdrop for the workshop; the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats are a site of Regional Importance within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The salt flats, nearby beaches, and freshwater wetlands provided a perfect place to review and emphasize the lessons developed and shared by BirdsCaribbean and Manomet’s Habitats for Shorebirds Project to help local leaders protect shorebirds in the Caribbean.

 

Great Egrets (Ardea alba) alight in the freshwater wetlands of Laguna Cartagena (Lisa Sorenson)

Great Egrets (Ardea alba) alight in the freshwater wetlands of Laguna Cartagena (Lisa Sorenson)

Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)make their way through the shallow waters of Salina Fortuna  (Brad Winn)

Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)make their way through the shallow waters of Salina Fortuna (Brad Winn)

 

The group of 33 Caribbean conservationists in attendance learned about how different threats affect not only shorebirds and waterbirds, but also the places where they live and work. Participants also learned how to monitor birds which collects important information that helps track species populations regionally and internationally. They also learned strategies for conducting conservation activities and improving habitat management. All of this led to a deeper understanding of the birds’ ecology and conservation needs.

“We were thrilled to work with this enthusiastic group of conservationists this week,” said Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “They have all have pledged to use what they learned to help study and protect threatened shorebirds in their home countries.”

The group of students, wildlife managers, and educators from both the government and the non-profit sectors came from 14 island nations: Antigua, the Bahamas, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands. Over five days, they shared ideas, compared experiences, visited wetland and coastal habitats, and learned about two critical monitoring programs, the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) and Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC).

Ajhermae White, Machel Sulton, and Natalya Lawrence work on bird identification at Combate Beach (Monica Iglecia)

Ajhermae White, Machel Sulton, and Natalya Lawrence work on bird identification at Combate Beach (Monica Iglecia)

Brad invertebrate sieve_MI

Nahira Arocho shares the invertebrates collected from the wetland at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)

Nahira Arocho shares the invertebrates collected from the wetland at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)

 

Through 30 hours of classroom time, six field trips to local wetlands and beaches, and group dinners, participants were fully immersed in the course content while also strengthening existing friendships and identifying new potential collaborations. The field trips around Cabo Rojo offered students the opportunity to identify birds and to practice estimating the number of birds in a flock. “The workshop was amazing!” said Zoya Buckmire of the Grenada Fund for Conservation. “We went to a variety of wetland habitats from salt ponds to lakes. We got to see many different birds and learned some fantastic techniques for identifying and counting them.”

 

A Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus )surfs a cattail at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)

A Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus )surfs a cattail at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)

A Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) validates its name on the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge (Brad Winn);

A Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) validates its name on the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge (Brad Winn);

A Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) keeps an eye on approaching onlookers at Combate Beach (Brad Winn)

A Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) keeps an eye on approaching onlookers at Combate Beach (Brad Winn)

A significant threat to shorebirds across the hemisphere and especially in the Caribbean is plastic pollution. The theme of World Migratory Bird Day 2019, Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution, reflects this. With a growing awareness of the harmful impact of plastic across the region on both public health and the environment, the workshop group was soon busy with a cleanup at one of the field trip sites, collecting 50 pounds of trash. The exercise was led by Sheylda Diaz Mendez of Environment for the Americas (EFTA) and representatives from the Scuba Dogs Society. This was an excellent hands-on exercise for participants to learn about the management and organization of a cleanup Plus, the beach benefitted from the removal of a large amount of plastic waste.

Adrianne Nahira Luis Jeanette_MI

Adrianne Tossas, Nahira Arocho, Luis Ramos, Sheylda Diaz-Mendez, and Jeanette Victor conduct a beach clean-up at Bahia Sucia (Monica Iglecia)

Bottle caps are one of the top ten plastic items found on beaches (Monica Iglecia)

Bottle caps are one of the top ten plastic items found on beaches (Monica Iglecia)

The workshop group in the field with their collected trash after the beach-clean up exercise.

The workshop group in the field with their collected trash after the beach-clean up exercise.

“There are many threats to shorebirds throughout the year, but by working locally at sites in the Caribbean and beyond, we can support the conservation of their great migrations. This workshop is the start of great things ahead,” commented Monica Iglecia, Assistant Director of Shorebird Habitat Management, Manomet.

A group works on bird identification in the field (Monica Iglecia)

A group works on bird identification in the field (Monica Iglecia)

Natalya Lawrence, Machel Sulton, Shanna Challenger, and Lisa Sorenson in the field (Monica Iglecia)

Natalya Lawrence, Machel Sulton, Shanna Challenger, and Lisa Sorenson in the field (Monica Iglecia)

While the first three days focused on bird identification, ecology, and collecting and exploring data, the final two days turned to conservation solutions. After sharing the challenges they face in their countries, many of which are similar, trainees and their facilitators shared ideas and strategies for reducing threats. In the coming days, participants will have the opportunity to apply for funding from BirdsCaribbean to carry out conservation activities. They will receive support for their efforts from both Manomet and BirdsCaribbean.

KILL

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) (Brad Winn)

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)(Brad Winn)

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)(Brad Winn)

Most Caribbean people live on or near the coast, but many do not know about the resident and migratory birds that inhabit their seashores and wetlands. One of these was participant Reneive Rhoden, from Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency. “I grew up on the seaside and I didn’t know anything about shorebirds – and now I know a lot! I can now teach my kids, children in school, and Jamaicans that I work with in my job.” said Reneive.

The participants came away with plans to share their newfound knowledge with colleagues and new tools to help them in their efforts. “Thank you so much for always providing opportunities for conservationists in the Caribbean like myself,” wrote Laura Baboolal from Trinidad. She aims to start a shorebird monitoring program for Trinidadian wetlands. All participants also received new Vortex binoculars and ten organizations received a new Vortex spotting scope and tripod – “must-have” equipment for monitoring programs and ensuring proper identification. The group also received field guides and other resources for bird identification and data collection.

We are very grateful to the following generous sponsors and partners for contributing to this workshop including Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña; US Fish and Wildlife Service (Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund); US Forest Service International Programs; Environment Canada; The BAND Foundation, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, Para La Naturaleza; Optics for the Tropics, Inc.; Environment for the Americas; Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, and Vortex Optics.

Heading back from the field after a long, educational day (Monica Iglecia)

Heading back from the field after a long, educational day (Monica Iglecia)

 

 

 

A Beach Bum’s Virgin Voyage to Alaska’s Wilderness

Written by Shilo Felton, Ph.D.

July 18, 2018

When I was in college in San Diego, a professor stated during lecture that “the wild no longer exists as we think of it”. For the most part, he was right. What we think of as wild places are indeed heavily touched by humans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—conservation of vulnerable plant and animal communities relies on the influence of natural resource managers. But I think a lot of us dedicated to conservation pursued this path, not just for the love of the animals, but to preserve wild places. It was more than a little disheartening to hear that this could be a myth.

Two weeks before I defended my Ph.D. Dissertation (many years later), Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Coordinator, Shiloh Schulte, invited me to take a break from the warmth of North Carolina to help with shorebird research in the Arctic. His text read, “I might have a job for you for a couple months, depending on how much you like the cold…Also, I should warn you about the mosquitos…” I am not a huge fan of cold (or mosquitos, but who is?). “I’m in!” I said. Tell him I hate cold and miss my chance to see shorebirds breeding in Alaska??? I don’t think so. Perhaps this was where the myth of real wilderness lived on.

1The Canning River delta and Brooks Range in mid-June, 2018. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

He wasn’t joking about the cold. I slept in two sleeping bags – one graded for -40°F and another for +15°F, and my toes were still cold. The first few days hiking out from bird camp, sloshing through snow and wet tundra marsh in my hip waders, my toes hurt from the wet cold surrounding my neoprene covered feet. I managed to get mild frostbite in places I didn’t realize one could suffer from frostbite. But I was finding Pectoral Sandpiper nests and searching for tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers. The cold was worth it.

On what started out as a clear, relatively warm day (i.e. just above 36°F), Schulte and I decided to make a trek up the Canning River in search of American Golden-Plovers. Only one pair had nested within our study area and it had already been depredated – likely by a jaeger. From his experience the year before, Schulte knew of another potential hotspot about six miles away. This was a break in the wet cold we had been experiencing, and the snow that had been hanging on four weeks past its due had finally melted away. We were going to use this opportune weather to leave the safety of camp and tag Golden-Plovers with GPS satellite backpacks. We carried bear spray and shotguns for safety and radios in case we wandered a little too far away from one another (we wouldn’t be able to contact camp from the distance we were going). Schulte packed up two lunches for each of us – we were planning for a long day.

It was an easy morning to cross the river – about knee-deep and the current mild. As we passed over a shallow river island, I flushed a nesting King Eider female – six eggs. We marked it and kept moving across the river. On the opposite bank, we checked on a few Ruddy Turnstone nests that we had discovered on the river beach the week before. Schulte pointed back toward the river at a small peep that landed on the shoreline. “Look!” he said. “A White-rumped Sandpiper!” I was lucky I was walking with someone who could distinguish this bird from Semipalmated Sandpipers by its white eyebrow and thick white patch on its rump.

2White-rumped Sandpiper in breeding plumage. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

We eventually made our way to higher, dryer ground. We separated from each other by about 50 meters, walking in zigzag patterns to maximize our chances of flushing any shorebirds sitting tight to their nests. This was less important for our target species Golden-Plovers, however, as the parents would alert us of their presence from 20 meters away, with their slow melancholy piping.

Schulte and I were not walking together, but we checked on each other frequently for safety and communication. At one point I looked over to see him marching slowly toward me holding a set of giant caribou antlers to his head – a bit of comedic relief made possible when he found two perfect antlers that a caribou had managed to shed simultaneously. I chuckled, shook my head at him, and kept hiking.

I stopped to scan the horizon – a grizzly bear slowly ambled North. He was a beautiful golden-colored male with a dark belly, and his small ears relative to his head gave away his very large size. He was far enough away that we were in no danger, but Schulte and I decided to walk together for the remainder of our trek. We carry deterrents, but the best way to prevent using it is to walk with other people.

This was a reminder to me of our remoteness. We carry protection for bears, but other dangers are more likely: a sprained ankle from hiking the uneven tundra lumps, a mild cut from the ice that won’t heal, hypothermia. In this wilderness, there is no one to call for immediate help. We rely on ourselves and the equipment we carry with us. It is incredibly heavy, but worth the effort. In an emergency, we could call for an airlift, but the weather must be amenable to landing a small bush plane or helicopter. This year, good weather days had been few and far between.

Schulte spotted an Arctic fox staring at us from its mound, and a couple small faces peeking out indicated that she had cubs. A Snowy Owl gave an alarm call from another tundra mound. As we reached our destination, where the Canning met the Steese River we noticed another Snowy Owl standing watchfully atop another mound. Then another and another. Altogether we counted nine Snowy Owls within a square kilometer. It was incredible to see so many individuals of a species I had never seen before coming to Alaska’s North Slope. They were angelic.

3A male Snowy Owl roosts on a river bluff. Lemmings and Snowy Owls were both super-abundant this year on the Canning River. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

While predators were abundant, Golden-Plovers were not. We found no plover nests as we marched around the high ground where they would normally choose to lay their eggs. Then, looking out over the braided river, we saw one – a Golden-Plover foraging along the sandy river islands. But then we saw another next to it, and another. Breeding plovers are territorial and wouldn’t have been tolerating each other this way, even to forage. It seemed that the plethora of Snowy Owls, while incredible for us, may have been hindering the plovers from nesting successfully, or nesting at all, along the Canning River. While we were reluctant to give up hope, we still had a six-mile hike ahead of us. Daylight is never a limiting factor in the middle of summer in the Arctic, but weather changes frequently on the North Slope and the temperature was beginning drop as the fog rolled in.

4American Golden-Plovers moved through in small flocks after the nesting season was over, but only a couple of pairs nested on our study area this year. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Before we began our hike back to camp, I pulled the extra layers of clothing I had packed from my bag and systematically put them on: some ski mittens over my glove liners, a puffy jacket over my fleece, and a rain shell to deflect the wind as it picked up. As I had gotten in the habit of doing whenever the temp dropped below freezing, I pulled the back of my neck gator up over the back of my wool hat and the front of the gator over my cheeks and nose. This kept my ears, neck, and face completely covered, except for my eyes. For some reason my fellow campers found this getting odd. I’m not sure why I was the only one doing this. I guess everyone else was accustomed to colder climates (or didn’t want to suffocate in their own neck gators). Either way, it worked for me and made the cold temperatures tolerable. Schulte, who is used to winters in Maine and a veteran to Arctic field work, put on a thin fleece jacket. A person watching us would think we were preparing for completely different climates.

5Shilo Felton searches for elusive American Golden-Plovers in warmer weather. Good field gear is essential for success in the arctic environment. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 As we walked back, Schulte and I sighted another bear, this time only a few hundred meters away. He was scampering – not a speed I had seen in a grizzly yet. Through our binoculars, we determined the reason he was running. An arctic fox, not much bigger than the bear’s foot, was nipping at the bear’s heels! She was clearly trying to keep him away from the kits we had seen earlier. The bear treated her as one might treat mosquitos – growling and swatting at her on occasion but mostly just trying to avoid getting bitten. Eventually, he moved away enough that the fox left him alone.

6An Arctic Fox harasses a Grizzly Bear in an attempt to drive it away from the fox’s den site – Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Closer to camp we encountered an unpleasant surprise. In the relative warmth of the morning (e.g. approaching 40°F), the snow had begun melting from the Brooks mountain range, raising the river to a level we did not recognize. Even the island where the eider nest had been was no longer visible. Camp was on the other side. We were wearing chest waders, but with the river raised it was difficult to find a crossing that was shallow enough for wading and calm enough to not knock us over. Having your chest waders fill with ice cold water is unpleasant (trust me), and we naturally wanted to avoid it.

7River channels on the Canning River floodplain can rise quickly without warning. Photo by Shilo Felton

Eventually, we decided on a crossing point. (Actually, Schulte decided. I was ready to set up camp and wait for the river to subside). We worked together to cross the river. I insisted on trying a strategy that I learned from a backpacking video. Schulte faced the current and I held on to his pack to help stabilize him. Schulte quickly realized I was mostly pushing him over (unintentionally, I promise). Instead, we tried his way and linked elbows, walking side-by-side and facing our destination on the far river bank. We made it safely to the other side without flooding our waders, though we were grateful the ice at the bottom of the river had mostly melted. I got stuck a couple times in the still-feet-deep snow bank on the other side of the river, but we soon made it back to camp to warm up with some delicious tuna mac another crew member had whipped up.

Following this trip, Schulte soon returned to the lower 48 to fulfill perhaps less exciting (though certainly no less important) obligations to shorebird conservation. While I envy his getting to take a shower and sleep above ground level, I am grateful to be in the Arctic as summer arrives (finally). We completed our goal of tagging five Pectoral Sandpipers and sent our American Golden-Plover tags to Barrow, where breeding pairs are plentiful this year.

8Shilo Felton releases a Pectoral Sandpiper outfitted with a satellite transmitter. We will be able to follow these birds during fall migration this year. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

I remain in the Canning River Bird Camp to assist the Fish and Wildlife Service in monitoring shorebird nest success, keep an eye out for any missed birds tagged the year before, and chase a Dunlin with a GPS backpack (no luck yet finding his nest, though I am convinced it exists). On a daily basis, I visit Semipalmated, Pectoral, and Stilt Sandpipers nests to find them in the middle of hatching. Tiny tundra-colored balls of fluff with long toes sit quietly in their nest cups. Dunlin peep as I approach, their chicks tiny wings outstretched as they stumble awkwardly over the tundra lumps toward the safety of their parents.

9 and 10Stilt Sandpiper nests are uncommon at the Canning River site. This nest beat the odds and hatched in early July. Photos by Shilo Felton

As I walk north from camp along the Canning River to check on a one-egg Buff-breasted Sandpiper nest, I notice that the wildflowers are in full bloom. They seem to me to be miniature versions of our flowers in the lower 48. Purple mountain saxifrage, fuscia-colored wooly lousewart, yellow Arctic poppy, and white mountain aven, none more than a few inches tall, are sprinkled around the tundra floor. The mosquitos are so abundant I can’t walk more than a few meters without inhaling one, but I don’t mind them much. They accompany warmth and humidity that remind me of spring in North Carolina and they are the main source of nutrition that draws shorebirds to migrate here to raise their chicks. I hear a chirp and look up to see an Arctic ground squirrel standing erect on a nearby mound. A rumble sounds from the west – a thunderstorm making its way along the coast. In front of it, just a mile or so away from me on the opposite side of the river, I see a herd of nearly 1,000 caribou making their way for the coast to escape the mosquitos. If we are lucky, the wolves will follow them.

Even as I am here, this experience doesn’t seem real. But I remind myself that it is, however wild. I think to myself, “Wild places live on, and I am in one”.

11Arctic Poppies and other wildflowers brighten the landscape during the brief Arctic summer. Photo by Shilo Felton