Intro to the 2018 Field Season

Welcome to another exciting field season with the Shorebird Recovery Program!

This year we are again posting from two different field sites in Alaska as we work to understand what limits Shorebird populations, and which sites are most important for their long migrations.

Shiloh Schulte is working with the crew going back to the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He and the team there put geolocators on several species last year and will be holding their breath to see which birds came back to nest again this year, and then using all their tundra stealth to recapture them so we can collect their geolocators and learn vital secrets about where they have spent the past year. They will also be putting out new tags that can report their specific location by satellite. This collaborative project is led by Rick Lanctot from USFWS, together with Chris Latty of the Arctic Refuge, and continues our work started as the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network. Shiloh will post soon to introduce this year’s team working at the Arctic Refuge and share the beginning of their story. So far it has been so cold and snowy on the distant north slope that the team has been waiting in Fairbanks for the weather to improve and the birds to arrive!

Meanwhile, another new project is just getting started in several National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in northwest Alaska. The National Park Service wanted to know if any Spoon-billed sandpipers, one of the world’s most endangered shorebirds normally only found across the Bering Strait in Russia, might be using similar habitats in Alaska. We will be doing surveys as part of the ongoing international collaboration called the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring to both search for this rare species, and also document what other shorebirds are using these areas. We are again working with Rick Lanctot as well as colleagues at the National Park Service on this project and will be based in Kotzebue Alaska. Brad Winn and Metta McGarvey are returning to work on this new project, and all three of us will be updating you on how the project is unfolding, and the interesting encounters we have in this region.

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Flying over the Alaska Range while heading north through rugged mountains laced with glaciers.

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Once north of the mountains, the vast wetlands of the coastal tundra stretch beyond view.

 

PRISM Surveys of Arctic Nesting Shorebirds

The purpose of our work in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is to collect data for PRISM (the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring). PRISM is a large-scale international collaboration of researchers throughout the Western Hemisphere who are using a standardized protocol for collecting data with three main goals:  1) estimating the breeding populations of arctic, temperate, and neotropical shorebirds; 2) monitoring trends in shorebird population size, especially large population declines over 20 year periods; and 3) setting conservation priorities and assisting local wildlife managers in meeting their shorebird conservation goals.

 

Kuzilvak Wetlands Aerial

This aerial view approaching our campsite near Kuzilvak Mountain in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge gives a glimpse of the tremendous wetland resources in this vast region that shorebirds rely on for nesting. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

 

Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program has been a partner in collecting data for PRISM in the arctic since its inception in 2001.  While PRISM has many government agencies participating, funding has always been hard to come by and our partnership as an NGO raising private donor resources has been essential for the program.  Our generous donors are essential for ensuring that we have good data on shorebird populations on which to plan their recovery.

As I described in the last podcast, we collect PRISM data using a double sampling method. First, we conduct rapid surveys of a large number of randomly selected plots to estimate the number of breeding shorebirds in important regions like the Yukon Delta, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Teshekpuk Lake region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This year, as in past years, PRISM rapid surveys in the arctic require the use of helicopters during a short two-week window when the birds are at their most active setting up territories, attracting mates, and establishing their nests. Because the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the size of Maine, we have three helicopter crews conducting rapid surveys this year so that we can cover the vast landscape.

We carefully train our observers to hone their skills in rapidly detecting shorebirds by sight and sound because you often get only a small glimpse of a bird as it hurries by or hear its breeding song from a distance and obscured by the constant wind.  This year we had the privilege of having Brian McCaffery, who worked at the Yukon Delta over many years as a biologist and the head of the biology program, partner with me to assemble a set of exemplary shorebird songs from both his personal collection and from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s McCaulay Library of Natural Sounds.  Brian’s deep expertise in sorting out the many complex vocalizations of breeding shorebirds was extremely helpful to the crew, and we were very grateful for his support with the training and also with planning the surveys.

 

Brian McCaffery, one of the foremost experts on shorebirds of the Yukon Delta, teaching a class on sound identification of breeding shorebirds during our training in Anchorage before the start of the surveys.  He was assisted by Bob Gill and Brad Winn.  Photo by Metta McGarvey.

Brian McCaffery, one of the foremost experts on shorebirds of the Yukon Delta, teaching a class on sound identification of breeding shorebirds during our training in Anchorage before the start of the surveys. He was assisted by Bob Gill and Brad Winn. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

 

We have also set up two longer-term camps where surveyors conduct intensive surveys on plots that are visited daily throughout the breeding period of four to six weeks, with the goal of finding every nest over the entire period. These intensively surveyed plots will also have a rapid survey conducted on them by the helicopter crews who don’t know anything about what is nesting there when they start. By comparing the rapid estimate of how many breeding shorebirds are on the plots with the data gathered over the entire breeding season by the intensive surveyors, we adjust the detection rates of the rapid surveyors. Because a rapid survey only lasts one hour and thirty-six minutes, we know each rapid survey misses a percentage of the shorebirds breeding on each rapid plot; this comparison allows us to better estimate the likely number of breeding shorebirds on each rapid plot and thereby better estimate population sizes across the huge landscape being surveyed.

As always, finding shorebird nests in the vast tundra is a challenge.  The photos below show the incredible camouflage chosen by a pair of Black-bellied Plovers nesting near camp.

 

Photo3A BBPL Nest 2016

This Black-bellied Plover nest is situated on bare ground, but it is perfectly camouflaged; Metta’s hand gives perspective on the size of the eggs, which are unusually large compared to most smaller shorebirds. Photos by Metta McGarvey

This Black-bellied Plover nest is situated on bare ground, but it is perfectly camouflaged; Metta’s hand gives perspective on the size of the eggs, which are unusually large compared to most smaller shorebirds. Photos by Metta McGarvey

Stepping back just a few feet shows how camouflaged the nest is among the background of lichens and tundra on which it was laid. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Stepping back just a few feet shows how camouflaged the nest is among the background of lichens and tundra on which it was laid. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

Dunlin nests, like this one I found on a rapid survey plot, are equally camouflaged.  Up close the nest is easy to see, but if you step back just a bit it is superbly concealed, and from a few yards away it blends seamlessly into the landscape.  You can see from this why we survey during the brief period when the birds are setting up nests and advertising their territories with songs and displays!

 

Photo4A DUNLNestPhoto4B DUNLNest

This Dunlin nest is visible from up close, but disappears when you step back just a bit, which helps them avoid predators looking for a tasty meal, and also makes surveying shorebirds a real challenge. Photos by Stephen Brown.

This Dunlin nest is visible from up close, but disappears when you step back just a bit, which helps them avoid predators looking for a tasty meal, and also makes surveying shorebirds a real challenge. Photos by Stephen Brown.

 

We will write more soon about the incredible diversity of wildlife we see on the tundra during our surveys and will also have updates from the other crews surveying in other parts of the Refuge.

Podcast: A Glimpse into the Science Behind the Shorebird Surveys

Stephen Brown, Vice President of Shorebird Conservation, delivers his second podcast from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The shorebird surveys are underway and Brown explains why his team is conducting a set of intensive surveys in addition to the numerous rapid surveys this year.

 

 

Transcript

Hello this is Stephen Brown reporting live from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, where we’re deep into the surveys that we are conducting across the entire refuge to understand shorebird abundance and distribution.

We are back to the typical arctic weather you could expect this time of year, after that brief spell of very warm and sunny weather. It is now averaging around 32 degrees at night and a balmy 40 degrees during the day. We have had winds between 25 and 30 miles an hour, so we are back to having wind chills that are below freezing. I am crouched in a small ditch right now to get out of the wind, which is blowing at 30.

If I stand up …**howling wind**…

I will try to keep the wind down and hopefully you can hear me alright.

It has been very busy at camp year, more than usual. We have a longer term stay and that’s because we are doing intensive work at the camp. The same camp, the same lake that we camped on last year, in a slightly different area. And we will have a camp there for a little more than a month. It will be for intensive plot work. And I wanted to explain why we are doing that this year.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is larger than the State of Maine and there is only about a two week window in which we can conduct the shorebird surveys. So we have to go very quickly and cover a lot of ground. We spend a little over an hour and a half on a plot that is about 40 acres, or 16 hectares, and searching for shorebirds over that large an area and that short of time, we know that we will miss some birds.

So you are not surprised to hear that some birds aren’t just laying when we are near their nests or they’re away foraging or it may be early in the laying period when they spend more time away.  Some birds sit very tight and you don’t happen to flush them as you cover the plot. But other birds haven’t even started to nest yet and will nest little later in the season and for others they have tried to nest, but their nests have been eaten by some predator.

For all of those reasons we don’t see all of the birds when we do our rapid surveys and that’s where they intensive survey plots come in.

We have set up four similarly sized 40-acre plots near camp, within about a mile of camp. And on those plots, our crew is searching fully, to find all the nests, not just now, but over the next few weeks, and then we have a measure of all the nests that will be on those plots over the season.

While we are here, each of the rapid surveyors, the four of us, will individually survey those plots, not knowing anything about what’s nesting there. And that will give us what we call a detection rate. So there may be nests there that we don’t see on our survey, but we know how many we see and over time we calculate the proportion of nests we are likely to encounter.

So all of that requires a much more intensive planning process, more staff and more equipment and we have been working hard and moving quickly, getting everything set up and now that we have the intensive plots underway, we will be having a little more time, hopefully, to send some pictures back for the blog and show you some of what’s been going at camp.

Later in the season, we will have a post from Lindall and Andy, who are the intensive survey crew, conducting those intensive surveys on those plots and will post on their experiences there.

So the clock is ticking and the shorebird season is short so I am going to get back to conducting a rapid survey on a plot very close to the edge of the Yukon Delta.

Thank you very much to all of you who support our work and help make it possible for us to do this survey, be in this amazing place, doing this work for the shorebirds. Thanks again, reporting live, this is Stephen Brown from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.