Shorebirds in the Prairies and the Value of Being in the Same Place Twice

In late May 2016, Brad Winn, Brian Harrington, and I hosted a Shorebird Ecology, Conservation, and Habitat Management workshop in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, in collaboration with Nature Saskatchewan, the Chaplin Nature Centre, and the University of Saskatchewan.  While we were there, the flock of Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers were restless—it felt as though the slightest change in wind direction would send them aloft on the next breeze up to the arctic breeding grounds.

ed Knot and Black-bellied Plover

A flock of Red Knot and Black-bellied Plover roost at Reed Lake, Saskatchewan

 

As each day passed, the number of arctic-breeding shorebirds in Saskatchewan dwindled as the tundra continued to beckon them on their journey northward. Among the 450 Red Knots we encountered, we sighted two birds with colored flags on their upper legs. Both birds had been flagged by David Newstead of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program in coastal Texas, highlighting the connectivity between the central coast of the United States and inland lakes and wetlands in the prairie pothole region of the northern United States and Canada.

For some species, Saskatchewan is the breeding area. Some of the locally breeding shorebirds include Wilson’s Snipe, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, American Avocet, and Marbled Godwit. They reminded us each day of their intent with their courtship flights, alarm calls, and by feigning broken wings to deter us away from their nests.

 

A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.

 

Our shorebird workshops featured field excursions and discussions that were focused on the Chaplin, Old Wives, and Reed Lake Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, but also included discussions about conservation across the Canadian prairie. The 35 workshop participants came from all three Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan) and included University professors and students as well as biologists and land managers from non-profits, provincial and federal agencies, and private consultants.

 

The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.

The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.

 

Among the group were seven individuals that Brian Harrington had met before. In May of 1999, they had attended a first-of-its-kind shorebird workshop in the Canadian prairies that Brian had collaborated with local partners to hold at the recently designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Today, each of the returning workshop participants plays a significant role in bird conservation. It was a pleasure to meet them and to talk with a few about their experiences since the last workshop and their motivation to attend another workshop years later.

 

From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.

From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.

 

Michael Barr attended the 1999 shorebird workshop as an avid bird enthusiast and Ducks Unlimited Canada biologist after working with Environment Canada to lead the charge on the nomination of Beaverhill Lake as a WHSRN site, the first and only in Alberta. Michael says he came to the 2016 workshop to reinvigorate and “up his shorebird game.” In his current capacity as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator in Alberta, Michael says he is in a position to elevate shorebird conservation and to help move people to action. Michael stated that the workshop had made him re-inspired by shorebirds and that “Manomet brings the needed energy and gravity of the status of shorebirds to managers and biologists through their workshops.”

Barbara Hanbidge had never seen a Red Knot before her attendance at the 1999 workshop. She said the workshop gave her the skills to identify shorebirds and recognize their habitats. Since then, Barbara has influenced wetland management in ways that benefit shorebirds in Saskatchewan throughout her career with Ducks Unlimited Canada—an important contribution given that the province is losing 10,000 acres of wetlands each year. Barbara says she returned for a second workshop in 2016 to learn more and to stay connected with the latest in shorebird conservation efforts. Today, Barbara is a Provincial Policy Specialist in Saskatchewan and a longtime resident near Chaplin Lake. After the workshop in 1999, Barbara introduced her family to shorebirds through the Chaplin Nature Centre, including her 96 year-old mother-in-law who had lived her entire life in the region, but had never known that these international travelers (shorebirds) were right in her own backyard.

The workshop participants that we met this spring in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, included conservation professionals of a variety of ages and stages in their careers. It was a pleasure to meet them all, from the students to the seasoned professionals. We all have much to learn from each other as we work to conserve our shared shorebirds across international boundaries. It was quite the experience to reconnect with the individuals that have committed themselves to the conservation of the wetlands and lakes of Saskatchewan and to meet some of the next generation ready to learn and to make a difference.

 

Wrapping up on Coats Island

Another whirlwind Arctic field season on Coats Island is complete.  After two days of bad weather and high winds, the skies cleared and calmed on the day my flight was supposed to leave the island. I spent the morning doing a final check of the birds near camp, searching for new nests, and packing up. During my 23 days on the island, I estimate that I spent approximately 200 hours in the field, walked about 350 kilometers (about 217 miles), and checked at least 250 individual Semipalmated Sandpipers for leg bands and geolocators.

 

SESA Selfie

Shiloh Schulte holds the 10th tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper just before it is released.

 

The satellite phone does not work inside, so I set up this workstation to transmit the blogs and photos.

The satellite phone does not work inside, so I set up this workstation to transmit the blogs and photos.

 

The Trent University/Environment Canada crew was constantly looking as well, so we feel confident that we covered the study area very effectively. In the end, we confirmed sightings for ten Semipalmated Sandpipers tagged with geolocators and retrieved the tags from all ten birds. Both the return and retrieval rate for these birds is exceptionally high for the eastern Arctic, but on par with what we found in Alaska.

We do not know why the return rates are so variable in the East, but it could have to do with shifting food resources on the breeding grounds, or possibly greater risks on the migration routes or wintering areas. For example, if eastern birds are making long ocean crossings, they may be more susceptible to hurricanes or other major weather systems. Once the analysis of the recovered tags is complete later this summer, we will have a much better idea of the timing of migration, important stopover points, and the distribution of wintering sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers that nest on Coats Island.

SESA

A cooperative Semipalmated Sandpiper poses for a portrait shot. Many of the Arctic nesting shorebirds have little fear of humans, treating us no differently than Caribou.

 

Spotting the plane over the hills to the east, I had the same mixed reaction as I had the past couple of years. Very excited to be going home to see my family again, but reluctant to leave the Arctic and particularly such a diverse and compelling place as Coats Island. With no snow on the runway and light winds, the pilots had no trouble picking us up. I flew out with Dr. Erica Nol, a prominent shorebird biologist who has inspired years of Arctic shorebird work and conducted foundational research with American Oystercatchers, my primary study species. Dr. Nol is Scott Flemming’s academic advisor and spent a week with us in camp getting to know the study site and the crew.

 

 

Most of the Coats Island crew see the plane off as we leave the island. From left to right, Shawna-Lee Masson, Scott Flemming, and Lindy Spirak.

Most of the Coats Island crew see the plane off as we leave the island. From left to right, Shawna-Lee Masson, Scott Flemming, and Lindy Spirak.

 

Scott Flemming, Shawna-Lee Masson, Lindy Spirak, and Malkolm Boothroyd are still on Coats and will not fly out until the 25th of July. Though busy with their own research, they are all still looking for our tagged birds and it is possible they will find a late arrival or one that we overlooked somehow. We will certainly keep you posted if we hear of any additional recaptures and will update you later on when we know more about the results from the recovered geolocators.

 

Scott and Shawna compare notes at the end of a long field day.

Scott and Shawna compare notes at the end of a long field day.

 

None of this work would be possible without the close collaboration of Dr. Paul Smith of Environment and Climate Change Canada and the crew from Trent University. This entire project is a great example of the productivity and results that come from collaboration across agencies, country boundaries, and diverse backgrounds. I feel very lucky to be a part of this team and to have the opportunity to participate in this research and adventure.

 

longspur chicks

The Lapland Longspur chicks were just hatching when I left the Island.

King Eider male

Male King Eiders keep close watch on nesting females until all the eggs are laid. At that point they return to the sea and flock up for another year, leaving the females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

 

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC

Shorebird Summer on Coats Island

On Coats Island, a stretch of warm weather at the end of June means one thing: Mosquitoes! Sightings of the little bloodsuckers have increased sharply over the past few days and we anticipate the hatching explosion any day now. At their peak, the mosquitoes are so numerous that they can clog the intake on the generator and even jam up the spark plug on the ATV.

 

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

 

After the cold and windy start to the season, the weather improved dramatically and it is even warm enough to work in short sleeves during the middle of the day sometimes. Shorebird nesting has picked up rapidly in response to the better weather and we have now found over 100 nests and will probably match last year’s total by the end of the season. Semipalmated Sandpipers are by far the most abundant nesting shorebird, but we also have nests for Dunlin, Red Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semipalmated Plover. A few White-rumped Sandpipers are also around, but we haven’t seen any nests so far. While searching for shorebird nests, we also find nests for Pacific and Red-throated Loons, King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Northern Pintail, Parasitic Jaegers, and Arctic Terns.

 

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

 

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

 

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

 

I continue to search for and capture tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers. So far I have found 10 tagged birds and managed to recover the geolocators from all of them. This represents a substantial improvement over the 2014 season when only two of our tagged birds returned. We are not sure if 2014 was a particularly bad year, or if site fidelity (the tendency for a bird to return to the same place) was different between years. We are searching a large study area, but if the tagged birds returned to nest in a different part of the island, we would be unlikely to find them. In addition to intensively searching the study plots, I am also looking well outside of the usual study area, but so far have not seen any tagged birds away from their capture sites.

 

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests.

 

With the delayed start to nesting this year, I was only able to capture two birds on the nest (our usual trapping method). I used playback calls and bow nets, noose mats, and other techniques to capture the rest.  The migration tracks recovered from the geolocators should be invaluable in comparing Semipalmated Sandpiper migration, stopover, and wintering patterns from the Eastern Arctic to sandpipers migrating from Western Arctic nesting areas.

 

The crew in camp is taking full advantage of the good weather lately. Scott Flemming is leading his third field season of research for his Ph.D. on the effects of overabundant snow geese on tundra-nesting shorebirds. Scott is looking at differences in invertebrates (shorebird food) and vegetation between Coats Island and a companion study site on Southampton Island run by Lisa Kennedy, another Ph.D. student at Trent University. Scott and the crew are also setting out artificial nests to compare predation rates between the sites.

 

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

 

Dr. Erica Nol has joined us in camp for a week and is working with the crew to find nests and capture nesting shorebirds to outfit them with radio tags that can be picked up by a network of receiving towers along the Atlantic Coast. This will help us understand the timing of migration and habitat use for a broader set of shorebird species.

 

Working with Scott are Malkolm Boothroyd,  Shawna-lee Masson, and Lindy Spirak.  Malkolm and Shawna are now two-year veterans of Coats Island. Malkolm is working on an honors project looking at Arctic Fox foraging patterns and how nest placement relative to ponds and lakes affects the probability of survival to hatching. Malkolm is also our most prolific nest searcher and typically walks 20 to 30 kilometers per day mapping ponds and finding shorebird nests.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

 

Lindy Spirak is an undergraduate student at Trent University and is conducting her honors project on the behavioral response of nesting shorebirds to the presence of Snow Geese and Parasitic Jaegers. Shawna is about to head into a masters project working with boreal songbirds, but is currently collecting more data on fox foraging patterns to supplement another project she is currently working on.

 

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

 

The crew is putting in long hours, both in the field and managing the flood of data, but still finds the energy to have fun and cook up great meals each night. Our work space is limitless, but our cabin is tiny, so good communication and mutual tolerance and respect are the key attributes needed.

 

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

 

 

Expanding the search area for tagged sandpipers has given me the opportunity to see more of the island.  Along the coast, east of our study area, the ground rises quickly and becomes rocky with high headlands and cliffs jutting out into the sea. The ice along the coast is much thinner and has disappeared entirely in some areas. No more Polar Bears have come by our camp, but we see them on almost every visit to the coast.

 

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

 

 

On a recent trip, I watched a mother and two yearling cubs working along the edge of the remaining ice. I was also lucky enough to see a walrus and witness a large pod of Beluga feeding in close to shore. The baby whales are grayish and swim perfectly in tandem with their mothers. I only have a few more days on the island, but my time here has been incredible. I feel very lucky for the opportunity to work in this special place with an outstanding crew. I wish them all the best as they finish out the last few weeks of the short Arctic summer.

 

 A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

 

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC