OKPILAK CAMP – The Seasons are Changing

Our camp is blessed, although at times it seems otherwise, by five or more major channels and many minor branches of the combined Okpilak and Hula Hula rivers. These braided river systems fan out into 7 km+ of sand, mud and shallow waters as their distributaries carry nutrients to the coast.

During my two week stay here, the brilliant colors of the tundra flowers (yellow Arctic Poppy, red and purple lousewort and creamy-white Dryas) have faded to brown and silver seed heads. The Arctic Sulfur butterflies and the bumblebees are making the most of the waning season of abundance.

Our local breeding birds are now fledging their young, or are close to it. On the freshwater tundra lagoons, clamorous Pacific and Red-throated Loons, Cackling Geese, Tundra Swans and Long-tailed Ducks all have downy chicks. Except for a tardy family of Semipalmated Plovers, most of the locally hatched Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalaropes are at the coast; or already in the first stages of the long migration south.

Here is where Stephen Brown of Manomet, Roy Churchwell of the University of Alaska and Steve Kendall of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have combined to lead a hardy crew of field biologists in a study of the significant of the coast for migrant shorebirds, and the seasonal differences in timing and breeding success from year to year.

We count the species, numbers and distribution of shorebirds on the mudflats and we sample invertebrate food. We also mist net Semipalmated Sandpipers which are banded, weighed, measured (and some blood-sampled) to assess length of stay and accumulated triglyceride fat levels.

Then there are the predators; also regularly surveyed. At Okpilak we have ravens, Glaucous Gulls, Parasitic Jaegers, Peregrine Falcons and Snowy Owls from the air. Also Red Foxes, Polar Bears (4) and the fresh tracks of Arctic Wolf and Grizzly Bear in the mud as the big predators follow the abundant Caribou. The carnivorous mammals have also taken their share of nesting shorebird adults, eggs and chicks this summer.

As the seasons are changing, more migrant shorebirds pass through the Okpilak/Hula Hula delta. Whimbrel call their seven-note whistles; Black-bellied and American Golden-Plover, Western, Stilt and Baird’s Sandpipers are frequently seen. None stay long now – even the Semipalmated Sandpipers show rapid population turnover; we seldom resight our banded individuals after two days. As always, the unforgiving arctic winter looms on the horizon and the migrants are all headed south.

Leaving the Jago: Photos

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A recently fledged American Golden-Plover is curious about the photographer. Soon this young plover will leave the dry tundra along the river bluffs and make one of the longest journeys of any shorebird, flying thousands of miles to the Argentine Pampas in South America. Photo by Heather Craig.

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An Arctic fritillary in a field of wildflowers along the Jago River. Photo by Heather Craig.

Eddie and Vitek

Eddie Corp (left) and Vitek Jirinec (right) returning victorious from the hunt. Mushroom hunt that is. Nothing better than fresh sauteed wild puffballs, especially when one is starved for fresh food! Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

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A blonde grizzly catches the scent of a caribou and calf. The bear jumped down the bluff, swam the river, and chased the caribou downstream for about a kilometer, crossing the river twice more. The caribou had a good head start and the bear eventually gave up, but it was impressive to see how fast they can move. Photos by Shiloh Schulte (left) and Eddie Corp (right).

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Eddie Corp contemplates by a campfire backlit by the midnight sun. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

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Midnight rainbow over an abandoned freighter at the edge of the town of Kaktovik in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Podcast: Leaving the Jago

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Shiloh Schulte reflects on his time at the Jago River Delta. Shiloh is working with Roy Churchwell from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to study shorebirds getting ready for their southward migration. As the first waves of Semipalmated Sandpipers head south, Shiloh prepares to follow and shares some of his impressions from his time on the coast with a great crew of Manomet, US Fish and Wildlife, and University of Alaska employees, complete with an extremely memorable Grizzly Bear sighting.