First Geolocators Are Out!

A good snowstorm can be a beautiful thing. Somewhat less so when it happens in mid-June and shuts down your field work.

A female Red Phalarope stoically waits out a late snowstorm.

A female Red Phalarope stoically waits out a late snowstorm.

 

Three days of snow and icy rain also delayed the nesting shorebirds, but over the past few days our total nest count jumped from 5 to 48—so the season is well underway. We have only seen eleven Semipalmated Sandpiper nests so far, but they seem to be a little behind the other species this year and we expect to find many more nests over the next few days.

Shiloh Schulte with a newly tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper

Shiloh Schulte with a newly tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper

 

Despite the slow start, our geolocator project is going well. We have deployed four tags already and will get the rest out on birds as quickly as possible. We are racing the Arctic Foxes who are also out there diligently searching for shorebird nests.

 

A male King Eider closely guarding his mate. The pair will stay together for only a few days. Once the female is on her nest, the male will return to the ocean and join large groups of other male eider ducks.

A male King Eider closely guarding his mate. The pair will stay together for only a few days. Once the female is on her nest, the male will return to the ocean and join large groups of other male eider ducks.

 

The Coats Island camp is one of several in the eastern Canadian Arctic managed by Dr. Paul Smith of Environment Canada. Paul has been working in the Arctic for many years and is a highly regarded shorebird biologist. Paul was supposed to be here for a few days to build the cabin addition and help get the project going, but he has been stuck here for an additional four days and counting thanks to bad weather at the alternate landing sites. In the meantime he has continued to improve the camp, cook breakfast almost every day, and find shorebird nests at a ridiculous rate. The 2015 Coats Island crew is hard working—keeping the drama low and the humor high. It’s hard to beat that combination, particularly when you are all living in a small cabin for the entire summer.

Semipalmated Sandpiper with a new geolocator tag

Semipalmated Sandpiper with a new geolocator tag

 

I am the sole American in camp and I am slowly learning to blend in with the Canadians. My inappropriate use of the metric system is apparently a dead giveaway. As far as I can tell, one measures distance in meters, height in feet/inches (except on official documents which use cm), snow height in cm (unless you are estimating, then use feet). Construction materials are measured in feet/inches. Longer distances are in kilometers. I’m taking notes.

 

 American : Canadian Dictionary

Outhouse : Biffy

Wheat bread : Brown bread

Fried Dough : Beavertails

Mac and Cheese : Kraft Dinner

The stark landscape of the tundra hides hundreds of shorebird nests. We typically walk 8-15 miles (13-25 kilometers) per day over wet uneven ground in search of nests.

The stark landscape of the tundra hides hundreds of shorebird nests. We typically walk 8-15 miles (13-25 kilometers) per day over wet uneven ground in search of nests.

 

Bios of the Coats Camp Crew:

 

Scott Flemming

Scott Flemming measures an American Golden Plover at Coats Island last year

Scott Flemming measures an American Golden Plover at Coats Island last year

As an undergraduate, Scott studied Animal Biology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta where he developed his already keen interest in ornithology. For his Master’s he studied in New Zealand looking at the diet of penguins. He is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Trent University where he is supervised by Dr. Erica Nol and Dr. Paul Smith.  His project is looking at the effects of overabundant goose populations on Arctic nesting shorebird species on Coats and Southampton Island.  This is Scott’s second year of fieldwork on Coats Island and he has hit his stride both as a crew leader and with his research goals.

 

Rianne Mariash

Rianne Mariash releases a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. Hopefully this bird will have a successful nesting season and return next year so we can retrieve the tag and learn more about their migration patterns.

Rianne Mariash releases a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator.
Hopefully this bird will have a successful nesting season and return next year so we can retrieve the tag and learn more about their migration patterns.

 

Rianne is from Revelstoke, BC. An accomplished back-country skier, Rianne is also an aspiring birder and is rapidly picking up the nuances of shorebird identification and behavior. After completing her undergraduate degree in environmental studies and geography at the University of Victoria, Rianne worked as a park ranger on Vancouver Island, a biodiversity monitor for the Alberta government, and a volunteer bird bander. In addition to daily nest searching, Rianne is helping capture and tag Semipalmated Sandpipers for the geolocator study. Rianne is not the only Mariash working on shorebirds in the Arctic this summer. Her sister Heather is a mere 120km north on Southampton Island working at the East Bay research camp.

 

Shawna-lee Mason

Shawna-lee wearing the latest in tundra fashion during firearms practice.

Shawna-lee wearing the latest in tundra fashion during firearms practice.

Shawna is going into her senior year at Trent University, majoring in Biology. In high school Shawna had the opportunity to tag and band ducks at a wildlife ecology center near her home in Cornwall Ontario. This fostered her interest in wildlife and conservation, a direction she has carried on at Trent University. Shawna enjoys birding and recently assisted on an Owl banding project. Shawna has just started her Honor’s project looking at the effects of environment on arctic fox predation. This is Shawna’s first time in the far North. She is taking the freezing wind and rain in stride and is really enjoying the experience of living in an Arctic field camp.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd

Malkolm Boothroyd prepared an epic cooked sushi feast during a stretch of bad weather. He brought in the key ingredients in his personal luggage to make it a surprise.

Malkolm Boothroyd prepared an epic cooked sushi feast during a stretch of bad weather. He brought in the key ingredients in his personal luggage to make it a surprise.

 

Malkolm is taking full advantage of the Arctic summer to capture very impressive images of the wildlife and landscape around us. At 23, Malcolm is already an accomplished wildlife photographer (malkolmboothroyd.com). The rest of the crew also appreciates Malkolm’s cooking skills. Not every field camp cook can manage a high-quality sushi dinner made from scratch! In high school Malkolm’s family went on an epic cross-continental bicycle/birding trip from their home in the Yukon to the Southeast United States. Malkolm took several years between high school and college, and is now a sophomore at the University of Victoria majoring in environmental studies and geography.

 

 

Arrival on Coats Island

The weather is miserable today with rain and ice blowing past the windows and winds gusting well over 35mph. Four days ago, I joined Dr. Paul Smith from Environment Canada in Iqaluit, Nunavut. We picked up a number of items that were still needed out at the field camps on Coats and Southampton Islands. On June 12th, we loaded up the Twin Otter aircraft with field gear and a full load of building materials. The cabin at Coats Island is 8 X 12 ft with space to sleep four people.

Twin Otters are the work planes of the Arctic. The carry a large payload and are capable of landing almost anywhere

Twin Otters are the work planes of the Arctic. The carry a large payload and are capable of landing almost anywhere.

 

 

The crew is larger this year, with a total of six people in camp while Paul and I are here, so we are building an 8 X 10 ft addition and adding two more bunks. The weather was mild and clear across the eastern Arctic and our flight took off as planned—something of a rarity in Arctic work. We had spectacular views of Baffin Island and the Islands of the Foxe Basin as we crossed the Hudson Straits on our way to Coats Island.

 

IMG_9429_Baffin (2)

Baffin Island covered in snow and ice in early June.

 

 

Touching down on the gravel river bank at Coats Island camp, we quickly unloaded our gear and building materials and the pilots took off for the East Bay camp on Southampton to deliver the rest of the payload. The shorebirds were just arriving as well, so we caught the leading edge of the nesting period as planned.

 

Coats Island field camp

Coats Island field camp.

 

 

Our first order of business was to build the new addition to the cabin. Our camp was a hive of construction activity while the six of us worked furiously to take advantage of the good weather. Thirty-six hours later, the walls and roof were up and we got the door and windows installed just in time for bed.

 

Paul Smith and Scott Flemming raising the cabin walls

Paul Smith and Scott Flemming raising the cabin walls.

 

 

Yesterday the good weather continued, so we got out to survey for returning birds. The shorebirds are arriving in numbers now and starting to display and court. Last year we recaptured two geo-tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers and removed the geolocators. The tracks retrieved from those tags showed incredible non-stop flights on fall migration from Northern Canada to South America.

 

A Dunlin we color-banded in 2014 is back on territory.

A Dunlin we color-banded in 2014 is back on territory.

 

 

This year, both of these birds have returned and are displaying furiously for new potential mates. It’s wonderful to see that these birds have again survived their annual journey and returned to exactly the same tiny patches of tundra.

 

This Semipalmated Sandpiper is back on territory and displaying for a female. This bird tagged with a geolocator in 2013 and last year we learned that it migrated non-stop from James Bay in Canada to the north coast of South America.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper is back on territory and displaying for a female. This bird tagged with a geolocator in 2013 and last year we learned that it migrated non-stop from James Bay in Canada to the north coast of South America.

 

 

Unfortunately our run of good weather ended last night before we got the roofing paper and tar on the new addition. This morning the wind was driving rain through all the seams and around the door, so Paul, Scott and I made some temporary weatherproofing with a tarp and it’s much cozier now. The bad weather is supposed to continue through Friday, so we are glad we have the additional space, but are hoping that the forecast is wrong.

 

Coats Island sunset - taken June 13 2015 at 11:30pm

Coats Island sunset – taken June 13 2015 at 11:30pm.

The 2015 Coats Island Journey Begins

It is a beautiful early summer day in coastal New England, with the temperature just reaching 80 degrees (27 Celsius). The trees are at that perfect shade of green and it looks like beach weather is finally here. Naturally, that means it’s time to go to the Arctic!

 

Coats Island

The location of Shiloh’s field site: Coats Island

 

For the past few weeks I have been following the adventures and successes of the Yukon expedition via the field reports from Stephen, Metta, and Brad. Finally, it’s my turn again and I am heading North to Coats Island in the Canadian Arctic to resume our study of Semipalmated Sandpiper migration. Coats Island lies at the northern end of Hudson Bay in the province of Nunavut. In 2013, Manomet teamed up with Environment Canada to send a team to Coats to capture nesting Semipalmated Sandpipers and place tiny geolocator tags on these birds. The geolocators use daylength and timing of sunrise/sunset to fix an approximate position each day. In 2014 we returned to Coats to recapture our tagged birds and retrieve the tags.

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper displaying on a tundra mound. The warm low-angle light is one of the benefits of Arctic work.

Semipalmated Sandpiper displaying on a tundra mound. The warm low-angle light is one of the benefits of Arctic work.

 

Although we were successful at other sites across the Arctic, we only found two returning tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers on Coats Island. This year we are hoping to find more of the tagged birds from 2013 and to place an additional 30 geolocators out to learn more about sandpipers from the eastern Arctic. Our limited returns from last year gave a tantalizing glimpse of an extraordinary pattern of long distance non-stop migration from Canada to South America. When you consider that these birds weigh about 1oz (28 grams) or less it really is a remarkable feat. A difference in the migration strategy for birds in the Eastern and Western Arctic regions may hold the key to understanding why some populations of Semipalmated Sandpipers are apparently stable, while others are declining.

 

This year I am the only representative from Manomet heading to Coats, but in camp I will join Dr. Paul Smith from Environment Canada, and Scott Flemming, a Ph.D student at Trent University, as well as Scott’s crew of field techs. I am excited to be heading back to Coats for the start of another Arctic field season.

 

Shiloh collapsed on a pile of Arctic gear. Surprisingly comfortable at 12:30 in the morning

Shiloh collapsed on a pile of Arctic gear. Surprisingly comfortable at 12:30 in the morning