International Shorebird Survey training in Suriname – a December Adventure

I had the opportunity to travel from my home in Paraguay to Suriname in order to establish monitoring sites for Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey. Suriname is on the northern edge of South America. With Guyana and French Guiana, Suriname is sandwiched between Venezuela to the west and Brazil out to the east. It was along this remote coast that the Canadian biologists Guy Morrison and Ken Ross encountered huge flocks of small sandpipers during their epic flight in small planes, circumnavigating the entire South American continent during the nineteen eighties.1 Ground surveys carried out by the ornithologist, Arie Spaans confirmed millions of Nearctic shorebirds using the extensive mudflats in this tropical paradise. These surveys led to the designation of the first WHSRN sites in South America, including Bigi Pan, Wia Wia and Coppenamemonding, all joining the network in March of 1989 as sites of Hemispheric importance.

To understand both local and range-wide population trends, regular monitoring at many locations can help conservation biologists estimate shorebird numbers and determine where conservation efforts might have the greatest impact. Suriname, as important to shorebirds as it is, has not had a regular and widespread monitoring effort. To address this regional gap in shorebird data, the Shorebird Recovery Program of Manomet planned an International Shorebird Survey (ISS) and Shorebird identification workshop on the Suriname Coast in early December. I conducted that effort, working to get more shorebird enthusiasts and professional biologists engaged in gathering data for Manomet.

Unfortunately, numbers of many Nearctic shorebird populations have declined since those surveys in the ‘80s. The decline in wintering shorebirds along the coast of Suriname has been reported in several published papers.2,3 Semipalmated Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs populations have plummeted significantly, and it is believed that unregulated hunting along the migration routes through the Lesser Antilles and on their winter grounds of South America is the primary cause of these declines.

The workshop was organized and hosted by the Forest Management Division of the Ministry of Physical Planning, Land- and Forestry Management, with help from Marie Djosetro. Marie attended a shorebird workshop in Icapui Brazil last spring and hosted a WHSRN site assessment tool workshop in 2014. The agenda was prepared by Assistant Director of Forest Management Mr. O. Saeroon and his team and the whole event was of the most adventurous kind. I did not know what to expect when I landed, but anticipated spending most of my time lecturing indoors. However, instead of sitting for two days in a classroom talking about shorebirds, I quickly found himself on one of two small heavily loaded boats, zipping along intertidal mangrove creeks and rivers on the way to a small town on the rugged coast. I was in the company of all 20 workshop participants, including tour guides, students, gamekeepers, former hunters, and staff of the Forestry Management Division.

Workshop provisions were carried to the boat by Forest Management staff

Workshop provisions were carried to the boat by Forest Management staff

The Warappa Creek

The Warappa Creek

We had all of the provisions with us for what was becoming quite an expedition in to the wildlife-rich Surinamese wilderness. After some time on the water, we landed in a small coastal village where we spent the first night. The town is called Alliance, and not long after arriving, evening presentations were given on nature policy (M. Djosetro), environmental laws in Suriname (R. Ho Tsoi), shorebirds in Suriname (M. Lingaard) and Manomet´s shorebird work (me).

Alliance – Suriname

Alliance – Suriname

Assistant Director Mr. O. Saeroon opening the workshop in Alliance

Assistant Director Mr. O. Saeroon opening the workshop in Alliance

Arne Lesterhuis, presenting a lecture on shorebird migration Ecology at Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey Workshop in Alliance, Suriname.

Arne Lesterhuis, presenting a lecture on shorebird migration
Ecology at Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey Workshop in Alliance, Suriname.

Mr. A. Pherai (Chief Education and Awareness of the National Forest Service) educating schoolchildren about shorebirds at the local school in Alliance.

Mr. A. Pherai (Chief Education and Awareness of the National Forest Service) educating schoolchildren about shorebirds at the local school in Alliance.

During the morning of day 2, I presented on Shorebird Identification, the need for shorebird data from Suriname and on how to become an International Shorebird Survey volunteer. Also, the local school was visited where schoolchildren were educated about Nearctic shorebirds and how the birds are threatened by hunting. Consequently, the whole group had to prepare quickly as the next stop would be the Warappa Creek mouth, an important shorebird site along the Suriname Coast. The site can only be reached by water and only within a short timeframe between low and high tide. This narrow timeframe is because during high tide the water level in the Warappa Creek is too high and boats can’t get through because of overhanging vegetation, and the passage is impossible during low tide because the creek is too shallow for the boats to get through. The one hour trip to the creek mouth was a great experience, navigating through a wall of forest on both sides of us, and with remnants of Suriname´s Colonial past in evidence. The area was used for sugarcane plantations during the years of Dutch occupation, which ended in 1975 with Suriname’s independence. Flocks of very brightly colored Scarlet Ibis, sharply contrasting with the green vegetation, were frequently flushed from their roosts in the trees. It was an impressive and memorable sight each time we flushed them.

Scarlet Ibis flocks along the Warappa Creek.

Scarlet Ibis flocks along the Warappa Creek.

Warappa Creek mouth and basecamp for remainder of the workshop in Suriname.

Warappa Creek mouth and basecamp for remainder of the workshop in Suriname.

After an hour both boats arrived at the Warappa Creek mouth, where basecamp was already prepared by Forest Management staff that traveled ahead the day before. The workshop fieldtrip turned out to be more than just a morning or day trip to the field. The night was spent here with the whole group, sleeping in hammocks and stretchers on the beach under the stars. During the afternoon and the morning of day 3, shorebirds were observed and identified with the group. A total of 13 species were found, including many Semipalmated Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Spotted Sandpipers. Also some Semipalmated Plovers, Willets, Whimbrels, Red Knots, Least Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers were seen. Overall, a great variety of shorebirds to show to the workshop participants, who were quickly able to start recognizing the subtle differences between some of the most difficult species to identify.

Warappa Creek mouth mudflats, full of the invertebrate prey of thousands of shorebirds.

Warappa Creek mouth mudflats, full of the invertebrate prey of thousands of shorebirds.

A nice flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the incoming tide.  The silts that form these flats are the product of the mighty Amazon River flowing into the Atlantic from Brazil, far to our east.

A nice flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the incoming tide. The silts that form these flats are the product of the mighty Amazon River flowing into the Atlantic from Brazil, far to our east.

Feeding Semipalmated Sandpipers on Warappa Creek mouth mudflats.  Some of these birds might have been seen by Manomet Staff working on Coats Island all the way up in Hudson Bay, Nunavut Canada.

Feeding Semipalmated Sandpipers on Warappa Creek mouth mudflats. Some of these birds might have been seen by Manomet Staff working on Coats Island all the way up in Hudson Bay, Nunavut Canada.

Here we are practicing shorebird identification, and estimating the flock-size of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. (Photo M. Djosetro).

Here we are practicing shorebird identification, and estimating the flock-size of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. (Photo M. Djosetro).

Workshop participants (Photo M. Djosetro).

Workshop participants (Photo M. Djosetro).

The workshop ended with an evaluation on the beach during which all participants could have their say. All enjoyed the experience and a number of the participants showed a lot of interest in becoming an ISS volunteer, including some of the park rangers. After the evaluation session, we had to pack quickly and be ready for the trip back to Paramaribo before the tide was too high and we would be stuck on the River mouth for another day.

To me, the workshop was a great experience and, above all, a great success. Participants got excited about observing shorebirds and the challenge of identifying the species by picking out the little but clear difference between them. The Assistant Director of Forest Management Mr. O. Saeroon acknowledged the importance of the Suriname coast for staging and wintering shorebirds. It was agreed to stay in contact and assist wherever necessary so that ISS is implemented again in Suriname. We would like to thank Mr. O. Saeroon, all his staff of the Forest Management Division, Marie Djosetro, and all participants for making this workshop happen, especially keeping in mind it was all on short notice. The logistics of the workshop went flawlessly and we hope we can come back someday for a follow up effort on behalf of the shorebirds, their habitat, and the people of Suriname.

When leaving Suriname, I had a ten-hour layover at the airport of Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. This could have been long and exhaustingly boring, but fortunately, I was picked up by Graham White and Martyn Kennefick, two board members of the Asa Wright Nature Centre and die-hard birders. Graham and Martyn took me to the Asa Wright Nature Centre to spend the day. So instead of biding my time in an airport, the day turned out to be a rewarding one, making new friends, seeing several “lifers” for my global bird list and sharing ideas for future Manomet work in the region. During our conversations, Graham and Martyn informed me that Trinidad has an important stopover site for shorebirds called the Westcoast Mudflats, but unfortunately only few people master the skills to monitor and identify shorebirds. In other words, an ISS workshop could be of great use for the country and the shorebirds of the Caribbean.

To be continued…

 

[1] Morrison, R. I. G. and R. K. Ross. 1989. Atlas of Nearctic shorebirds on the coast of South America. Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication, Ottawa, Ontario.

[2]Morrison, G. D.S. Mizrahi, R.K. Ross, O.H. Ottem, N. dePracontal, A. Narine. 2012. Dramatic Declines of Semipalmated Sandpipers on their Major Wintering Areas in the Guianas, Northern South America. Waterbirds 35(1): 120-134.

[3] Ottema, O. H.; Ramcharan, S. 2009. Dramatic decline of Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes in Suriname. Wader Study Group Bulletin 116: 87-88

Shorebird Conservation in French Guiana

French Guiana is a beautiful overseas département of France located on the northern coast of South America, nestled between Suriname to the West and Brazil to the East. This part of South America has a highly dynamic coastal system. The coastline is influenced by the Amazon River via a multi-year cycle of sediments migrating along the coast from East to West. Mudflats accumulate as currents bring sediment from the Amazon River to a shifting series of locations along the coast of Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana (the latter three often referred to as the Guianas). Next, the rapid colonization of mangroves leads to the establishment of mangrove forests. And then, significant erosion begins again as currents shift away from a particular location, causing the die off-of the mangrove forest, and the erosion of land that can extend inland multiple kilometers. At any one time many large mudflats exist along the coast, each one containing a year’s volume of mud from the Amazon River and can be up to 5 meters thick1!

Mud from the Amazon River is deposited on the beaches and accumulates rapidly in French Guiana. This mudflat developed in just a couple of years.

Mud from the Amazon River is deposited on the beaches and accumulates rapidly in French Guiana. This mudflat developed in just a couple of years.

A flock of semipalmated sandpipers cruise across the sediment-rich waters on the coast of French Guiana.

A flock of semipalmated sandpipers cruise across the sediment-rich waters on the coast of French Guiana.

At low tide, the exposed mudflats near the Amana Nature Reserve are used by a variety of waterbirds including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Little Blue Herons, and the conspicuous Scarlet Ibis.

At low tide, the exposed mudflats near the Amana Nature Reserve are used by a variety of waterbirds including Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Little Blue Herons, and the conspicuous Scarlet Ibis.

This ever-changing coastline provides important habitat for a variety of shorebird species including but not limited to Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Aerial surveys in the 1980s led by the Canadian Wildlife Service shed major light on the importance of the north coast of South America to shorebirds. Of all the small shorebirds recorded around the coast of South America, 84% were found in the Guianas, plus 42% of all medium-sized shorebirds. While Suriname was found to be particularly important, 19% of all the small shorebirds surveyed, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, were seen in French Guiana2. Confirming observations of Semipalmated Sandpiper population declines elsewhere in the Atlantic Flyway, surveys conducted in the 2000s found less than one third (30.6%) of the number of birds observed in the 1980s3.

In early October 2016, Manomet’s Rob Clay (WHSRN Executive Office) and Monica Iglecia (Shorebird Habitat Management Division) were invited to a management workshop to address the “Conservation and Management of the West Atlantic Flyway’s Shorebirds”. The workshop was hosted by the Group for the Study and Protection of the Birds of French Guiana (Groupe d’Etude et de Protection des Oiseaux en Guyane, GEPOG) and the goals were to discuss opportunities for habitat management and conservation in northern South America and the Lesser Antilles. The workshop was attended by representatives of Manomet, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, New Jersey Audubon Society, University of La Rochelle, Nature Reserves of France, Amazona (Guadeloupe), Coastal Protection Agency (Conservatoire du Littoral), The National Hunting and Wildlife Agency (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage- La Délégation Inter-Régionale Outre-mer), and Tulane University.

During our time in the region, we visited the Amana Nature Reserve and the nearby Mana rice fields. The Mana rice fields are located near the town of Mana in western French Guiana. The fields include both cultivated land and areas that are no longer farmable due to the dynamics of the coastal system. Over the last decade, nearly 2 km of coastline have eroded, taking with it a large section of the northern part of the rice fields- flooding them with ocean water and rendering them no longer suitable for farming.

A flock of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, rises up above the young mangrove forest.

A flock of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, rises up above the young mangrove forest.

deadmangrove

A pile of dead mangrove trees in the capital city of Cayenne, French Guiana.

Forum attendants at the Amana Nature Preserve in French Guiana.

Forum attendants at the Amana Nature Preserve in French Guiana.

A Sanderling with a light green flag was one of the first shorebirds seen on field excursions in coastal French Guiana. This bird was flagged on the East Coast of the United States, underscoring the linkages between North and South American and the need to work collaboratively to conserve highly mobile species.

A Sanderling with a light green flag was one of the first shorebirds seen on field excursions in coastal French Guiana. This bird was flagged on the East Coast of the United States, underscoring the linkages between North and South American and the need to work collaboratively to conserve highly mobile species.

The Mana rice fields in 2000 and 2012.

The Mana rice fields in 2000 and 2012.

Despite the loss of arable land, this area continues to provide habitat for shorebirds and other waterbirds. Foraging and roosting areas are available along the coastline on the mudflats and beaches in and near the Reserve, and the rice fields provide a mix of seasonally flooded areas and drier upland habitats.

A major question is, how will this place be managed in the future? To help answer this question and to help conserve this very important piece of the Atlantic Flyway, GEPOG and the Conservatoire du Littoral are working to purchase this important area and develop a management plan to benefit foraging and roosting shorebirds and other waterbirds. During a field visit to the area, Monica was able to provide advice regarding a variety of different management options, while Rob led discussions regarding how these important local efforts fit within broader shorebird conservation initiatives, such as the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, and the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative.

We are grateful to the workshop hosts and local leaders for the invitation and warm welcome to French Guiana including Nyls de Pracontal, Vincent Pelletier, and Stanley Pinas with GEPOG, Johan Chevalier with Réserve Naturelle de l’Amana, and Elodie Raye with Conservatoire du Littoral. We are thankful for their graciousness in hosting the meeting almost entirely in English. We left inspired by the commitments to conservation efforts in such an important region for migratory shorebirds.

  1. Anthony, E.J. A. Gardel, N. Gratiot, C. Proisy, M.A. Allison, F. Dolique, F. Fromard. 2010. The Amazon-influenced muddy coast of South America: A review of mud-bank-shoreline interactions. Earth-Science Reviews, vol 103.
  2. Morrison, R. I. G. and R. K. Ross. 1989. Atlas of Nearctic shorebirds on the coast of South America. Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication, Ottawa, Ontario.
  3. Morrison, G. D.S. Mizrahi, R.K. Ross, O.H. Ottem, N. dePracontal, A. Narine. 2012. Dramatic Declines of Semipalmated Sandpipers on their Major Wintering Areas in the Guianas, Northern South America. Waterbirds 35(1): 120-134.
Standing on the sand dune between the now-flooded rice fields and the Atlantic Ocean, forum participants survey the area.

Standing on the sand dune between the now-flooded rice fields and the Atlantic Ocean, forum participants survey the area.

A Whimbrel flies overhead on its way from the young mangroves and mudflat to a roosting area in an abandoned section of rice fields.

A Whimbrel flies overhead on its way from the young mangroves and mudflat to a roosting area in an abandoned section of rice fields.

 

A large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers assemble in Kourou, French Guiana.

A large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers assemble in Kourou, French Guiana.

 

A Summer in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

June 29th - 10:00 PM

For the past few days, a brown, whirring cloud of mosquitoes has filled our camp. Liberated by the calm weather and amped up by the heat, they have reached their hostile zenith. Their pervasiveness has driven camp life into a state of near delirium, with moments of peace lying few and far between. After running to my tent and diving headlong through the doorway, I have spent the evening deriving great satisfaction in killing the hundred mosquitoes that followed me in and chiseling out the desiccated carcasses that cake my walls and fill my tent pockets. Even as I do so, the mosquito drone is deafening in the vestibules of my tent, and the constant patter of them between the fly and the interior walls sounds just like light rainfall. Staunchly refusing to exit my tent, I have carried out all of my pre-sleep rituals from within the confines of my precious nylon bubble, the only barrier between me and thousands of acres of unforgiving wilderness.

 

June 30th – 8:00 AM – the following morning


Last night at 12:38 AM, I snapped awake to a shuddering roar ripping through the avenues of my tent.  As I eagerly unzipped my door and peered out, a strong cold wind hit my face and sent instant chills across my suddenly underdressed body. I could literally feel the temperature dropping. The midnight sun still illuminated the gray, angular peaks of the Brooks Range to my south, but scanning to the north I spotted the first tendrils of low clouds starting to drift inland from a fog bank over the Beaufort Sea five kilometers away. I slinked back into my tent and started to round up my warmer clothing before grabbing my second sleeping bag and throwing it on top of me. Before long, instead of the tapping of mosquitos, periodic squalls of mixed precipitation started to batter the roof of my tent. Instead of attending to the heaps of mosquito carcasses, my eyes were now drawn to the piles of ice pellets that had begun piling up against the door of tent. Ahh! Peace at last.

—–

Summer life at the joint Manomet and USFWS bird research camp on the Canning River Delta in the Arctic NWR is a fickle one. If there’s a deity to pay homage to out there, think Zeus, Thor and Jupiter. It’s all about the weather. If you’re hot, you’ll soon be cold. If you’re sunburned and sweaty, you’ll soon be dripping with fog. And as soon as you’re used to that, the emergence of mosquitoes flips the script entirely—a warm, calm day changes from being glorious to hellacious. A cold, wet, windstorm changes from being loathsome to a godsend. Scanning through my journal from this season, it’s clear the dictatorial role that weather took. Almost every entry involves it:

 

June 26th – “awesome NE tailwind”

July 11th – “fog has lifted, prospects of warm weather have me fearful”

July 15th – “big winds broke tent pole, 40-50° drop in tent”

 

But the gritty truth about being in the Arctic is that regardless of the weather, we have a job to do. This season, our team of four researchers (Scott Freeman, Emily Bush, and Dallas Jordan) set out to rekindle the Canning camp after a one-year hiatus. In addition to collecting data on breeding demographics of all nesting bird species at the site, this year we also deployed geolocators on Dunlin and banded and collected samples for avian influenza studies from Semipalmated Sandpiper and Red Phalarope.

 

The season started on June 5 under unusual circumstances. After being delayed a few days in Fairbanks and the Galbraith Lake due to weather, at last we were able to arrive at camp and begin setting up shop. Upon arrival, we immediately noticed signs of an abnormal warmth. Usually, arrival at camp involves landing by floatplane on the frozen Peace Lake to unload our gear—from there we would haul our supplies by sled (usually over snow) all the way to our camp site 0.75 kilometers away. This year, however, Peace Lake had already begun to thaw and we were unable to land on it. Luckily, the gravel shoreline of the river that we use as a landing strip had already become snow free and was dry enough for landing. In fact, the only snow left on our study site clung to the base of the bluff along the slough below camp. In addition to these bizarre circumstances, the soil in camp was alarmingly thawed. Typically, when setting up tents, the ground is frozen solid and you need a heavy hammer to drive in the nails. This year, we simply pushed in our tent stakes with our bare hands. Of course, despite these many signs of unusual warmth, our first few days were filled with frigid cold and horizontal bands of wet, driving snow.

 

After an arduous few days getting things in order, we were back in the groove of data collection. We spent our days covering up to 20 kilometers by foot, marking bird nests, estimating hatch dates, and formulating game plans for catching Dunlin.

 
Here are a series of photographs I took, that highlight the season as a whole:

In addition to personal sleeping tents, we use this large tent for cooking and work-related activities. All food items are stored in bear proof containers, and the camp is surrounded by an electric fence to ward off any curious bears. In early July, a spectacular array of wildflowers electrifies the landscape.

In addition to personal sleeping tents, we use this large tent for cooking and work-related activities. All food items are stored in bear proof containers, and the camp is surrounded by an electric fence to ward off any curious bears. In early July, a spectacular array of wildflowers electrifies the landscape.

On clear days, the Brooks Range provides an epic backdrop to our daily routine. The slough in the foreground is a popular feeding area for many shorebirds, and has breeding Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover.

On clear days, the Brooks Range provides an epic backdrop to our daily routine. The slough in the foreground is a popular feeding area for many shorebirds and has breeding Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover.

In addition to dry tundra and alluvial habitats, there are several large wetland complexes within the Canning River Delta. These wetlands provide nesting habitat for Cackling Goose, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Glaucous Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Red-throated and Pacific Loon, and Red and Red-necked Phalarope. Here, a rare summer thunderstorm builds along the Brooks Range refuge biologist as Christopher Latty returns from banding a female King Eider.

In addition to dry tundra and alluvial habitats, there are several large wetland complexes within the Canning River Delta. These wetlands provide nesting habitat for Cackling Goose, King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Glaucous Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Red-throated and Pacific Loon, and Red and Red-necked Phalarope. Here, a rare summer thunderstorm builds along the Brooks Range refuge biologist as Christopher Latty returns from banding a female King Eider.

The Beaufort Sea ice had already significantly thawed by the time of our arrival in early June. An early ice breakup often results in earlier sightings of Polar Bears on the mainland, and members of our crew saw fresh foot prints along the beach on our visit on the 4th of July.

The Beaufort Sea ice had already significantly thawed by the time of our arrival in early June. An early ice breakup often results in earlier sightings of Polar Bears on the mainland, and members of our crew saw fresh foot prints along the beach on our visit on the 4th of July.

One of the principal objectives of the 2016 season was to deploy 14 light level geolocators on breeding Dunlin. These loggers are attached to a plastic band that is attached to the upper leg of the bird. The device records light level over time and is used to calculate latitude and longitude readings.  Part of a broad-scale project funded through the USFWS and other partners, the study hopes to document the general migratory strategy for all 10 subspecies of Dunlin found through the circumpolar Arctic. There are a total of 12 sites deploying geolocators, including our site at the Canning River Delta. The geolocator must be retrieved to obtain the recorded data, therefore one of the main goals of the 2017 season will be to identify the Dunlin returning with geolocators and capture those birds to retrieve the device. Once recovered, the geolocator data will help answer questions involving migratory routes, stopover locations, wintering locations, and migration speed. The tactical execution of finding Dunlin nests and deploying the geolocators was one of the most satisfying aspects of the season.

One of the principal objectives of the 2016 season was to deploy 14 light level geolocators on breeding Dunlin. These loggers are attached to a plastic band that is attached to the upper leg of the bird. The device records light level over time and is used to calculate latitude and longitude readings. Part of a broad-scale project funded through the USFWS and other partners, the study hopes to document the general migratory strategy for all 10 subspecies of Dunlin found through the circumpolar Arctic. There are a total of 12 sites deploying geolocators, including our site at the Canning River Delta. The geolocator must be retrieved to obtain the recorded data; therefore one of the main goals of the 2017 season will be to identify the Dunlin returning with geolocators and capture those birds to retrieve the device. Once recovered, the geolocator data will help answer questions involving migratory routes, stopover locations, wintering locations, and migration speed. The tactical execution of finding Dunlin nests and deploying the geolocators was one of the most satisfying aspects of the season.

Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the more abundant breeding shorebirds on the tundra of the Canning River Delta. The number of breeding pairs within the study site can vary greatly from year to year (from 200 nests in 2014 to less than 20 in 2012, for example). On the breeding grounds male Pectoral Sandpipers (pictured) perform a spectacular flight display over their territory, emitting a far-carrying booming call from an inflated air sac in their breast. Significantly smaller than the males, female Pectoral Sandpipers perform all of the incubation and brooding duties, so any nest searching endeavor involving a Pectoral must first begin with determining the sex of the bird you are observing.

Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the more abundant breeding shorebirds on the tundra of the Canning River Delta. The number of breeding pairs within the study site can vary greatly from year to year (from less than 20 nests in 2012 to 200 in 2014, for example). On the breeding grounds male Pectoral Sandpipers (pictured) perform a spectacular flight display over their territory, emitting a far-carrying booming call from an inflated air sac in their breast. Significantly smaller than the males, female Pectoral Sandpipers perform all of the incubation and brooding duties, so any nest searching endeavor involving a Pectoral must first begin with determining the sex of the bird you are observing.

Red Phalaropes are a fairly common breeder at the Canning, though the number of pairs can vary greatly from year to year. Phalaropes have a polyandrous mating system, where females mate with multiple males while the males mate with only one female and perform all parenting duties. While searching for their nests, the dull-plumaged males (pictured) can be very sneaky. Occasionally they will conspicuously flush off the nest, but other times they will simply walk off the nest and begin scurrying mouse-like through the grass to the nearest body of water.

Red Phalaropes are a fairly common breeder at the Canning, though the number of pairs can vary greatly from year to year. Phalaropes have a polyandrous mating system, where females mate with multiple males while the males mate with only one female and perform all parenting duties. While searching for their nests, the dull-plumaged males (pictured) can be very sneaky. Occasionally they will conspicuously flush off the nest, but other times they will simply walk off the nest and begin scurrying mouse-like through the grass to the nearest body of water.

Stilt Sandpipers prefer to nest on dry patches of tundra in wet polygon centers and lake margins. They often sit extremely tight while incubating, and will sometimes stay motionless until you are in danger of stepping on the nest. This parent in the photograph was tending to its foraging brood, and kept in constant contact with them through a variety of distinctive vocalizations.

Stilt Sandpipers prefer to nest on dry patches of tundra in wet polygon centers and lake margins. They often sit extremely tight while incubating and will sometimes stay motionless until you are in danger of stepping on the nest. This parent in the photograph was tending to its foraging brood and kept in constant contact with them through a variety of distinctive vocalizations.

By the beginning of July, shorebird chicks begin to materialize on the tundra. The precocial chicks are capable of foraging on their own merely hours after hatching. This fledgling Semipalmated Sandpiper chick was one of four being supervised by their parents.

By the beginning of July, shorebird chicks begin to materialize on the tundra. The precocial chicks are capable of foraging on their own merely hours after hatching. This fledgling Semipalmated Sandpiper chick was one of four being supervised by their parents.

Refuge biologist Christopher Latty joined us in camp for a week, during which we captured and collected blood samples from ducks for an avian influenza study. As I approached this King Eider nest for the first time, she refused to flush off the nest even as I stood directly above her. The method for trapping an incubating female capitalizes on this tight-sitting behavior, and simply involves gently lowering a net onto the bird and walking up and retrieving the bird.

Refuge biologist Christopher Latty joined us in camp for a week, during which we captured and collected blood samples from ducks for an avian influenza study. As I approached this King Eider nest for the first time, she refused to flush off the nest even as I stood directly above her. The method for trapping an incubating female capitalizes on this tight-sitting behavior and simply involves gently lowering a net onto the bird and walking up and retrieving the bird.

Parasitic Jaegers are a conspicuous, omnipresent part of the tundra community. At any given moment, a 360° scan is sure to yield at least one marauding individual. A common nest depredator, I came across Parasitic Jaegers consuming eggs of Long-billed Dowitchers and King Eiders, and late in the season I frequently saw them chasing after recently fledged young of Lapland Longspurs. We had one successfully-nesting pair of jaegers on site that featured one dark-plumaged morph (pictured) and one intermediate morph adult.

Parasitic Jaegers are a conspicuous, omnipresent part of the tundra community. At any given moment, a 360° scan is sure to yield at least one marauding individual. A common nest depredator, I came across Parasitic Jaegers consuming eggs of Long-billed Dowitchers and King Eiders, and late in the season I frequently saw them chasing after recently fledged young of Lapland Longspurs. We had one successfully-nesting pair of jaegers on site that featured one dark-plumaged morph (pictured) and one intermediate morph adult.

Similar to the Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine’s Gulls spend most of the year out over the open ocean. During the breeding season, Sabine’s Gulls nest in large wetlands on tundra, where they aggressively defend their nests against all intruders. By mid-July, small flocks started to materialize in the wetland complexes of our study site. The photographed individual was a member of a group that was foraging actively in a shallow pool and seemed wholly unconcerned as I crept on my belly towards them.

Similar to the Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine’s Gulls spend most of the year out over the open ocean. During the breeding season, Sabine’s Gulls nest in large wetlands on tundra, where they aggressively defend their nests against all intruders. By mid-July, small flocks started to materialize in the wetland complexes of our study site. The photographed individual was a member of a group that was foraging actively in a shallow pool and seemed wholly unconcerned as I crept on my belly towards them.

The inconspicuous Rock Ptarmigan breeds in low density on upland tundra. I discovered this female after startling a pair feeding just a few meters in front of me. In summer, the female is spectacularly camouflaged, although she still retains white wings. Come winter, the birds will be completely white, adapted for the harsh Arctic winter. Note their feathered feet, which help act as snowshoes.

The inconspicuous Rock Ptarmigan breeds in low density on upland tundra. I discovered this female after startling a pair feeding just a few meters in front of me. In summer, the female is spectacularly camouflaged, although she still retains white wings. Come winter, the birds will be completely white, adapted for the harsh Arctic winter. Note their feathered feet, which help act as snowshoes.

As the season progressed, large herds of Caribou became a regular sight. It is during this period that herds move towards the coast, where stronger winds and colder temperatures help combat the harassment of Oestrid flies and mosquitos. This photograph features part of a herd of roughly 500 individuals that crossed the river below our camp, featuring a mix of mothers and calves as well as a few bulls with large racks.

As the season progressed, large herds of Caribou became a regular sight. It is during this period that herds move towards the coast, where stronger winds and colder temperatures help combat the harassment of Oestrid flies and mosquitos. This photograph features part of a herd of roughly 500 individuals that crossed the river below our camp, featuring a mix of mothers and calves as well as a few bulls with large racks.

 

 

Before I knew it, I was sitting alone at midnight in front of our cook tent, watching as the river bluff faded into the drifting mist. The season was almost over—male Pectoral Sandpipers and female phalaropes had long disappeared, leaving behind their mates to finish the rearing. Migrating flocks of shorebirds were flying overhead all day long—American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Below me, the yellow poppies trembled on their leafless stalks and fresh caribou trails cut through bobs of cotton grass. There, in utter isolation, my co-workers long asleep, my thoughts traveled through the highlights of the season—the gray Gyrfalcon barreling low across the tundra, the curious Wolverine standing on its haunches to check me out, the thrill of discovering a Buff-breasted Sandpiper nest. I thought back to the pure exhilaration of submerging myself in frigid river water and to the satisfaction of a warm meal and hunk of chocolate at the end of the day.

 

I thought about how I had intimately watched and recorded the trials and tribulations of the breeding season. A season where the chances of a nest’s success constantly hang in the balance, always susceptible to a shift in the weather, the passing of a predator, or the death of a parent. Being able to observe in great detail all of these variables allowed me to feel a real sense of understanding of the system. It reminded me once again of what a great privilege it was to get to immerse myself in such a vibrant, vital place.