Podcast: The American Serengeti

Brad Winn shares the experiences of his team as they continue with their work in the Arctic. It has been an eventful week, with the team encountering a wide range of Arctic inhabitants. From Blondie the grizzly bear, to the herds of caribou that surround the camp daily, it is clear why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is referred to as the American Serengeti.

Arctic Aerialists: Photos

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The courtship displays of male Buff-breasted Sandpipers rival those of any North American bird. One wing lifted into the air from an established patch of un-patterned tundra is the initial signal to a passing female. If she ignores the subtle invitation, he will build into short runs with tail high and head low, still holding his wing up. This gives the appearance that he is almost falling over with excitement. If she flies by, he goes into wild leaps; feathers, wings and legs flopping around like he was shot out of a small cannon. If she is drawn into his area of the much larger arena shared by many males (a lek), he is more controlled and will woo her with both wings held high and slightly cupped, with head back and chest puffed as in this photo. We have a Buff-breasted Sandpiper lek on the edge of the river next to camp. Buff-breasted Sandpipers fly to the grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay for the winter.

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KAP is a female Dunlin that was originally banded on the Canning River study site in June 2011. She was photographed in March on the coast of South Korea, then again this June back on Manomet’s study site in Alaska where she was banded.

3  Female Long-billed Dowitcher

Although this is a female, Dowitcher males have a high twittering call that they repeat from altitudes much higher than the other shorebirds nesting in the Canning study area. Hearing them is easier than seeing them as specs above your head. Nests of these birds tend to be dispersed on dry slopes and are usually very hard to find. The incubating adult will hold tight to the nest and blend in well with the thick sedges where they prefer to nest.

4  Female Red Phal Female

One of the most beautiful birds of the Arctic, this female Red Phalarope hides next to a small pond in the lee of 40 mile-per-hour winds. Red and Red-necked Phalarope females are more brightly colored than the males and do not share in egg incubation or brood rearing. Red Phalarope spend most of the year well away from shore on open-water in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Both phalarope are focal species for the Arctic shorebird work we are doing here.

5  Female Red-necked Phalarope

Smaller than a Robin, Red-necked Phalarope nest in small clumps of grass next to shallow pools on the tundra. The nests can be very hard to find, with males concealing the nest cup and eggs with domes of grass and sedge stems. When you find a nest or get close to one, some phalarope will face you while sitting on the water like a diminutive duck, making high pitched “pit, pit, pit” calls. Most Red-necked Phalarope spend the winter in ocean waters off of the Pacific coast of South America including Peru, Ecuador, and Chile.

6  Semipalm Sandpiper on nest

We find more Semipalmated Sandpiper nests at this study site than any other species. Males and females nesting together one year will frequently return to nest together again in the same area on the following year. Because we have had many (most) of our Semipalmated Sandpiper nests destroyed by Arctic Foxes this year, several of the pairs are now re-nesting, which is unusual for shorebirds that nest above the Arctic Circle.

7  Semipalmated Sandpiper on beach (2)

Semipalmated Sandpiper feeding on the beach.

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A Stilt Sandpiper makes an uncharacteristic call from the ground. Stilt Sandpipers can seem unconcerned with humans as they feed or return to a nest just feet away from an observer. Stilt Sandpipers are not a focal species for our work, but some of the biologists here consider them their “favorite” shorebird.

SESA KKL from Brazil

A Semipalmated Sandpiper discovered and photographed by Ian Davies on June 11 had a distinct blue flag-band on its leg with the letters KKL. Blue is the international color code for Brazil. With a quick bit of investigation, Manomet staff tracked down the story of KKL by calling Dave Mizrahi of the New Jersey Audubon Society. Dave had indeed banded this sandpiper in January on a beach south of the mouth of the Amazon River on the Brazilian Coast. This is the first documentation of Semipalmated Sandpipers wintering in Brazil, flying all of the way to Alaska to breed. KKL has been doing flight displays less than a quarter mile from our camp, but we have not been able to find his nest yet.

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An Arctic Fox shows off the changing of its summer and winter coats.

The First Signs of Life

We left the south slope of the Brooks Range behind as our crew of eight descended onto the Coastal Plain by truck and small airplanes in early June.  Even our staging sites of the Kavik airstrip and Galbraith Lake were quite spring-like and warm.  But the Canning River Delta, including the area of our camp just inland from Flaxman Island on the coast held to its reputation and was covered almost entirely with snow and ice.  We relied on the considerable flying skill of our USFWS pilots and Dirk Nickisch of Coyote Air to deliver us to a small frozen lake, about a quarter of a mile from camp.

Our shorebird study crew includes 5 biologists and volunteers being supported by Manomet, and three being supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service partners.  Ian Davies, Laura Koloski, Alan Kneidel, Mark Lafaver, and Brad Winn are representing Manomet, while Scott Freeman, Elin Pierce, and Alfredo Soto have federal support through the refuge.

Since our arrival, the frozen crust has melted off quite rapidly, while the ground itself just under the surface remains frozen.  Life on the ground has slowly become evident with the bases of most plants showing a bit of green, and flowers too have started to open in south-facing pockets.  The tundra is a micro world of mosses, sedges, lichens, and a surprising variety of flowering plants.  Vivid yellows, whites, pinks, and blues are beginning to dot the landscape, especially along the crown of the bluff next to camp.

The ground-squirrels and lemmings seem to recognize and value this new growth.  The lemmings in particular that have been living in their snow tunnels all winter can be seen grazing on the ground-hugging saxifrage and lichens.  Insect life has begun to take shape as well.  Spiders are out, apparently waiting for the big bug hatches to begin.  We have seen the spiders being eaten by almost every shorebird, including a pair of Baird’s Sandpipers that is resident on the river in front of camp.  Yesterday we watched a Long-tailed Jaeger, a bird that spends most of the year sailing over open-ocean, stalk and eat spiders on foot for almost an hour.

Bird nesting in general appears to be late here compared to previous years.  Species like Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, and Dunlin that show strong site fidelity are back on territories that are either identical to last year or at least close to the same location.  Finding a male Red-necked Phalarope on a nest just yards from where it nested last year is astounding when one considers the magnitude of this landscape, and the idea that this little bird might have spent the winter riding the ocean currents hundreds of miles off of coast of Ecuador.

We are now into our pattern of walking searches for nests, identifying and photographing returning birds that were banded as long ago as 2006, and banding more adults on their nests as we find them.

Thank you for your interest in and support for the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network project, and please stay tuned for the next blog post on Mighty Mites, Semipamated Sandpipers, which will be posted soon.   We also have three podcasts you can listen to for additional stories and perspectives, just click on the links below.  We will continue to update you as the season progresses!