Reflections from the 2015 Field Season

As we wrap up and reflect on our season of shorebird science in the arctic, we want to thank all of the extraordinary people who helped make this another successful field season.  We had two major expeditions this year, so we have two sets of people to thank, including the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge survey team and the Coats Island Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project team.  We especially want to thank Liza LePage, who manages the blog posting and brought you all of our stories all season!

(If you haven’t read every post from this season, you can access all of the Yukon posts here and the Coats Island posts here.  Once you reach the bottom of each page, you can select to see older posts of each expedition.)

 

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An Arctic Tern hovering in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

 

It took a large team of partners to plan and implement one of the largest surveys of its kind in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  We are very grateful to the excellent staff at the Refuge, including Brian McCaffery and Kristine Sowl, who advised us all along the way and worked with us both in the office and in the field.  The design team, including Jim Lyons, Brad Andres, and Jim Johnson, sorted out the complex habitats of the Refuge and planned the survey plots to be visited.

 

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One of the field data sheets from the Yukon Delta. The sheets show all of the birds seen in a 400 by 400 meter plot. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

 

Sarah Saalfeld and Jim Johnson put in countless hours sorting out  preparations and logistics, especially the plot maps that guided all our work.  Metta McGarvey worked on everything from budgeting to field logistics to every manner of field support. We couldn’t have done this without her.  Our two survey teams worked tirelessly in the field, including Rick Lanctot, Susan Savage, Jim Lyons, and Diane Granfors in the south working out of Bethel, and Brad Winn, Bob Gill, Metta McGarvey, and me working in the north out of St. Mary’s.

 

Western Sandpiper

A male Western Sandpiper calling. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

Our excellent helicopter pilots from Pollux Aviation (Shannon Glenn) and Hermens Helicopters (Stan Hermens) took us safely across the huge survey area in all weather conditions, and were critical team members.  Isaac Bedingfield of God’s Country Aviation delivered fuel to remote locations enabling the Bethel helicopter crew to access far-flung survey sites. River Gates worked with us both on logistics for the trip beforehand, and on data entry when we returned.

 

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An aerial view of the Yukon River edge. See that small brown dot in the upper left? That’s a moose. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

The coastal survey boat crew, including Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and Alan Kneidel, worked extremely hard to access some of the most remote plots that had to be visited by boat and fixed-wing aircraft, and made it possible to survey the entire Refuge by adding these inaccessible areas.

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper

A Semipalmated Sandpiper calling from the ground. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

Our Coats Island Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project  was led by  Shiloh Schulte. Despite dismal weather, Shiloh and his team were able to tag 29 Semipalmated Sandpipers. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the following people.

 

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Shiloh Schulte stands at the edge of the sea ice on Coats Island, Nunavut, Canada. In recent years the sea ice is thinner and has moved out earlier than ever before.

 

Paul Smith of Environment Canada provided invaluable guidance during the project.  Working with Paul in the field is an outstanding experience – he is extraordinarily capable, always optimistic, and willing to share useful information and advice on any topic, from camp food prep to the practical implications of large scale changes in Arctic weather patterns (more bears in camp!).  He made it possible for Shiloh to get into camp easily and focus on the work at hand, instead of the massive amount of logistics and preparation that goes into any Arctic field season.

 

An Arctic Fox kit explores the world just outside its den. Arctic Foxes are the main predator of shorebird nests. They survive the harsh arctic winters by finding and caching eggs and other food during the brief but productive summer months

An Arctic Fox kit explores the world just outside its den. Arctic Foxes are the main predator of shorebird nests. They survive the harsh arctic winters by finding and caching eggs and other food during the brief but productive summer months. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

 

Shiloh also wants to thank Scott Flemming from Trent University – even though Scott is in the middle of his own PhD research, he did not miss a beat when asked to extend his crew to help with the Semipalmated Sandpiper tagging project.  The crew also included Rianne Mariash, Malkolm Boothroyd, and Shawna-Lee Masson, who were a fantastic group of people and a joy to work alongside, with unfailing good humor and rock solid work ethic and nerves.  Finally, Ron Porter was extremely helpful in getting the geolocators mounted, calibrated, and ready for the field, and his advice on how to deploy the tags was hugely appreciated.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd, a technician for Trent University, releases a tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Malkolm Boothroyd, a technician for Trent University, releases a tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

 

We will be working through the fall and winter, sorting out all the data from our arctic expeditions and, along with all our partners, working to learn as much as we can about what limits shorebird populations, and how they can be conserved.  None of this would have been possible without the generous support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, and the generous donors to Manomet.  One key donor supported most of the matching requirement for our grant from NFWF, and the project simply couldn’t have been done without this key support.  Thank you to all our partners and supporters, and we will look forward to everything we can learn together, and to planning next year’s work in the arctic!

Boat surveys of the Yukon Delta NWR Coast – Alan Kneidel

For this blog post we have a guest author, Alan Kneidel, who worked on the Yukon Delta surveys earlier this summer with the boat crew on the coast of the Refuge.  Because helicopters are not used in this area, our partnership needed to work with the Refuge staff to design and carry out surveys from boats rather than helicopters.  While Shiloh was heading to Coats Island, Alan was just finishing up his work on the Yukon Delta.  Alan worked with Manomet on our shorebird surveys during the oil spill in the Gulf, and also on several previous arctic expeditions, so it was great to have him back with our team, and helping out the Refuge staff with this part of the survey in the Yukon Delta. – Stephen Brown

 

Our field crew, from left to right: Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and me.

Our field crew, from left to right: Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and me (Alan Kneidel).

 

From May 25th to June 9th I joined a team of shorebird researchers to perform PRISM rapid shorebird surveys in the Yukon Delta NWR of western Alaska.  The area of the refuge that our team covered was between the Askinuk Mountains and Nelson Island, an area that falls within a helicopter exclusion zone. Therefore we operated by boat and our start date was partially dependent on the break-up of ice on the rivers, after the helicopter surveys were completed. The surveys are done while shorebirds are displaying on nesting territories, which happens somewhat later along the coast, so we were able to do the work after the rivers broke up and allowed boat access.

 

Kristine, Brian, Mark, and I traveled from plot to plot in this USFWS aluminum skiff. We were packed tight! Strong winds shut us down for one day, but other than that weather was manageable. The survey period was split between clear days with soaring temperatures and cooler, drizzly weather. Regardless of the temperature, boat riding is chilly business.

Kristine, Brian, Mark, and I traveled from plot to plot in this USFWS aluminum skiff. We were packed tight! Strong winds shut us down for one day, but other than that weather was manageable. The survey period was split between clear days with soaring temperatures and cooler, drizzly weather. Regardless of the temperature, boat riding is chilly business.

 

We spent the first day at the refuge headquarters in Bethel where crews for a variety of projects were all scrambling to prepare for imminent deployment into the field. After collecting our nearly 1,000 pounds of gear, we loaded it into totes and hefted it all onto a flatbed refuge vehicle. We then took it over to the RAVN Air hub where we would be flown to Chevak on a Cessna 208 the following morning.

 

One of the main roads of Chevak. The residents were exceptionally friendly. A single box of Cheez-its cost almost $10.

One of the main roads of Chevak. The residents were exceptionally friendly. A single box of Cheez-its cost almost $10.

 

Chevak is a town of under one thousand people and showed many characteristics of a frontier town. The roads were dirt, the buildings were minimalistic, and yards were filled with snow machines, ATVs, and the rusted hulls of old equipment. Moose racks adorned the crowns of houses and fish hung to dry in yards. Perched on a dry knoll in a vast wetland matrix, the view from town was vast. Channels big and small snaked away across the tundra, the clouds stretching into the distance. On clear days you can see the peaks of Nelson Island 100 kilometers away.

The view from the cemetery in Chevak.

The view from the cemetery in Chevak.

 

After assimilating our gear we met up with our boat captain Mark Agimuk, a Chevak native. Mark’s lifetime of experience on the Yukon Delta is a critical asset to refuge operation. His life, like many people in the region, depends heavily on the land’s natural resources. It was a pleasure to get to hear his stories about life on the delta and to learn a few works of Cup’ik.  The spring salmon run begins in earnest in mid-June, and families all around town were preparing for the move out to their fish camps.

 

Yukon Delta NWR is nearly the size of Maine and supports significant portions of many range-restricted species, including the Emperor Goose. The rusty hue on the cream-colored neck is caused by naturally occurring iron in the water.

Yukon Delta NWR is nearly the size of Maine and supports significant portions of many range-restricted species, including the Emperor Goose. The rusty hue on the cream-colored neck is caused by naturally occurring iron in the water.

I was fortunate enough to come across a tame pair of Red Phalaropes. A staring contest with this male ended in a tie.

I was fortunate enough to come across a tame pair of Red Phalaropes. A staring contest with this male ended in a tie.

 

As Mark steered our boat away from Chevak, we soon become the only people in sight. The wooden frames of fish camps on the banks became sparser as we penetrated deeper into the delta. The first thing I noticed was the incredible number of waterfowl. The sky was filled in all directions by flocks of ducks, geese, and swans. The strident calls of Sandhill Cranes carried over the tundra while Parasitic Jaegers chased Arctic Terns across the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon, I saw the outlines of stumps from distant forests, carried over the banks of the rivers during flooding storms.

The low tundra closest to the ocean featured many sinuous sloughs and small ponds. The most common shorebirds in this habitat were Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Black Turnstone.

The low tundra closest to the ocean featured many sinuous sloughs and small ponds. The most common shorebirds in this habitat were Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Black Turnstone.

The tundra quickly changed personality on higher ground. This heath-like tundra had an amazing array of subtle colors, comprised of crunchy lichens, mosses and low-lying plants. This is where we found all of our Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Rock Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

The tundra quickly changed personality on higher ground. This heath-like tundra had an amazing array of subtle colors, comprised of crunchy lichens, mosses and low-lying plants. This is where we found all of our Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Rock Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Kristine whips up some dinner in our communal cook tent. Changing camps five times over the two-week period, it was great opportunity to see a lot of the refuge.

Kristine whips up some dinner in our communal cook tent. Changing camps five times over the two-week period, it was great opportunity to see a lot of the refuge.

 

Surveying the plots was a challenging, enjoyable task, combining skills of navigation and detailed observation. Assigned a 400-meter x 400-meter plot, the goal of each survey was to cover the plot as thoroughly as possible in 96 minutes. The primary objective of the surveys was to estimate the number of breeding pairs of shorebirds within the plots, whether by direct discovery of nests or behavioral inference. Breeding cues vary among species, whether it’s the incessant song of the Dunlin, the wary eyes of the distant plover, or the aerial assault of godwits and turnstones.

 

The bulk of the world population of Black Turnstones breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Full of personality, the turnstones lead a highly vocal aerial assault on any predators invading their territory.

The bulk of the world population of Black Turnstones breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Full of personality, the turnstones lead a highly vocal aerial assault on any predators invading their territory.

This is one of the data sheets I recorded on during a survey. Following a satellite image of the 400 m. x 400 m. plot, I recorded exact locations of all shorebirds seen during the survey period. On average each of us covered two plots a day.

This is one of the data sheets I recorded on during a survey. Following a satellite image of the 400 m. x 400 m. plot, I recorded exact locations of all shorebirds seen during the survey period. On average each of us covered two plots a day.

Red-necked Phalaropes were abundant breeders in most wetlands we surveyed. Their polyandrous mating system added a wrinkle to our assessments.

Red-necked Phalaropes were abundant breeders in most wetlands we surveyed. Their polyandrous mating system added a wrinkle to our assessments.

 

Since many of these areas have no biological data, we also made it a priority to record all bird and mammal species seen. In general mammal diversity was low, with a few sightings of Arctic Fox and seals comprising all of our mammal observations for the study period.

 

Dunlin were definitely the most abundant shorebird encountered on our surveys. In the densest locations, I estimated up to 25 pairs in a single a 400 m. x 400 m. plot.

Dunlin were definitely the most abundant shorebird encountered on our surveys. In the densest locations, I estimated up to 25 pairs in a single a 400 m. x 400 m. plot.

 

The survey period wound up being an exhilarating, successful two weeks. Life on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta seemed to change from moment to moment – rain turned to sun, sloughs filled and emptied, and flocks of birds moved across the landscape. It was exciting to be a part of such a collaboration and to help in the collection of data from the frontier of shorebird science

Birds Abound

With several days of surveys completed, we are seeing first-hand the diversity and abundance of shorebirds and the range of habitats in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Bob saw this very cute mink while standing near its home during one of his surveys. Photo by Bob Gill.

Bob saw this very cute mink during one of his surveys. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

By far the highest densities of shorebirds are along the coast, which is consistent with previous smaller studies conducted by our colleagues Brian McCaffrey, Bob Gill, and others. Where our crew is working, the coastal area in the far north near the tiny native village of Kotlik and along the coast between the villages of Emmonak and Scammon Bay, has been literally hopping with shorebirds and waterfowl. We expect that the coastal crew will observe the highest densities of shorebirds when they start working later this week by boat and float plane in the central coastal region that comprises the delta between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

 

Emperor Geese are a Beringian endemic species that only occurs in Alaska and Chukotka in Russia, so it’s a special treat to see them on our plots near the coast.  Photo by Bob Gill.

Emperor Geese are a Beringian endemic species that only occurs in Alaska and Chukotka in Russia, so it’s a special treat to see them on our plots near the coast. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

What does a rapid surveyor see in a high density region? Thus far, on a 40 acre plot in an hour and a half, our data shows as many as 77 individuals, of which as many as 22 nesting pairs appear to be using that plot. From PRISM surveys over the past couple of decades, we know that on a species rich plot the surveyor will, on average, observe about 80% of the birds that are actually nesting on that plot. So we know that these regions are probably even more productive for shorebirds than they appear from our raw counts.

 

Our camp site is also surrounded by nesting birds. Here is a Western Sandpiper nest nearby. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Our camp site is also surrounded by nesting birds. Here is a Western Sandpiper nest nearby. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

On one plot that was primarily foraging rather than nesting habitat, Brad Winn observed 95 birds feeding—61 Pectoral Sandpipers, 21 Long-billed Dowitchers, 11 Red-necked Phalaropes, and two Dunlin.  On another plot, Bob observed 14 pairs of Dunlins!

 

There is a Western Sandpiper nesting between Bob and Stan’s tents, so we marked the location to avoid disturbing its nest.  Here the bird checks us out during our daily routine of getting ready to depart for surveys.

There is a Western Sandpiper nesting between Bob and Stan’s tents, so we marked the location to avoid disturbing its nest. Here the bird checks us out during our daily routine of getting ready to depart for surveys. Photo by Stephen Brown

 

One of the greatest joys of being on the tundra is the opportunity to observe the breeding behaviors of these species. Male Western Sandpipers, like their cousins Semipalmated Sandpipers, fly incredibly tight aerial displays side by side as they establish the boundaries of their territories. This behavior is one of the best clues we can use to determine if there are pairs of Westerns nesting on that plot, along with the characteristic buzzy calls made over the territories. Another clue is when we flush a bird off a nest and she does a “mouse crawl” where she squeaks and fluffs up her feathers while hunkering close to the ground and trying to lure us away from the nest. On one occasion, we saw a Black-bellied Plover defend its territory by mobbing a Glaucous Gull—she hastily departed under the barrage.

 

We had a lovely view of Kuzilvak mountain under the midnight sun just before bed one evening. Photo by Metta McGarvey

We had a lovely view of Kuzilvak mountain under the midnight sun just before bed one evening. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

For those of you who enjoy lists, here are the 21 species of shorebirds that our crew has documented on their plots so far: Black and Ruddy Turnstone; Rock Sandpiper; Western, Least, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpiper; Hudsonian and Bar-tailed Godwit; Whimbrel; Pacific Golden, American Golden, and Black-bellied Plover; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Wilson’s Snipe; Red and Red-necked Phalarope; Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher; and Dunlin. In addition, we’ve seen a couple of Bristle-thighed Curlew from the helicopter in the upland regions of the refuge where Bob Gill and Brad Winn have both done surveys in the past.

We have seen several species of shorebirds eating windblown insects off the ice, like these Red and Red-necked Phalaropes.  Photo by Brad Winn.

We have seen several species of shorebirds eating windblown insects off the ice, like these Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

We have more surveys to do yet, so check back to hear how they turn out, along with an update on what life is like in camp.

 

One morning, during a brief interlude between the almost constant windy and rainy weather, we could see the next storm fast approaching. Photo by Metta McGarvey

One morning, during a brief interlude between the almost constant windy and rainy weather, we could see the next storm fast approaching.
Photo by Metta McGarvey