Early Geolocator Success at Coats Island

With a few days of clear skies and warmer temperatures (up to 45 degrees F), the snow is in full retreat. Each day, new tundra hummocks and ponds appear from beneath the winter snow pack. The birds are taking full advantage of the emerging habitat, frantically feeding and displaying to make up for lost time. So far only the American Golden Plovers have started nesting.

Snow covered the landscape when we first arrived. Many low-lying nesting areas are still covered in deep snow on June 18.

Snow covered the landscape when we first arrived. Many low-lying nesting areas are still covered in deep snow on June 18.

 

Their habitat, gravel ridges, has been snow-free for several days longer than the lower sedge tundra. The Semipalmated Sandpipers are back in good numbers this year. In 2014, only two of our tagged birds returned to the study area. This year we have seen nine tagged Sandpipers and have already recaptured four of them! Normally we capture the birds on the nest using a soft bow net. With the delayed start to the season and the number of Jaegers and Peregrines around, I decided to try for some early recaptures.

 

The late snow and cold mornings create a difficult environment for early arriving shorebirds. This Semipalmated Sandpiper searches for food in the frozen landscape.

The late snow and cold mornings create a difficult environment for early arriving shorebirds. This Semipalmated Sandpiper searches for food in the frozen landscape.

 

Taking advantage of the aggressive territoriality of the male Semipalmated Sandpipers, I set up the bow net on a high mound inside a tagged bird’s territory and play a display call from a speaker under the net. This method does not work every time, but when it does work it usually happens quickly.

 

A Semipalmated Sandpiper with a geolocator tag displays over his territory.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper with a geolocator tag displays over his territory.

 

Once I have the bird in hand, I remove the geolocator flag and old color bands and replace them with the standard color band combination for Coats Island (white flag band over orange band).  Each bird gets a set of measurements to assess health and then is quickly released. Several tagged female sandpipers have returned as well, but I will likely have to wait to recapture them until they are on nests because they do not respond to the playback call.

 

Shiloh Schulte holds a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. We have already recaptured four tagged birds. The flight paths recovered from these tags should help fill in the picture of the migration routes, wintering areas, and stopover sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers nesting in Eastern Canada.

Shiloh Schulte holds a Semipalmated Sandpiper tagged with a geolocator. We have already recaptured four tagged birds. The flight paths recovered from these tags should help fill in the picture of the migration routes, wintering areas, and stopover sites for Semipalmated Sandpipers nesting in Eastern Canada.

 

Despite the extensive snow cover on the island, the ice pack in Hudson Bay is lower than ever this year. In fact, it is possible that the increased snow on the island is a result of the warmer weather and additional open water this past winter. Normally this area is frozen in and does not get very much snow or rain during the year. As a result of the reduced ice, we expected more Polar Bear encounters. Typically, the bears remain on the ice pack hunting seals as long as possible, usually until late July or August. When the ice breaks up they are forced to come on land in search of food.

 

A Polar Bear following the river across the island notices our camp.

A Polar Bear following the river across the island notices our camp.

 

We had our first bear encounter on June 14 this year. This bear was crossing the island from the South, heading toward the remaining ice on the North end of the island. Lindy Spirak, a new field tech working on the Environment Canada/Trent University project, spotted the Polar Bear when it was still well up the river. The bear worked its way down the river until it smelled our camp and decided to investigate. Curious but not aggressive, the bear turned and ran as soon as we fired a couple of warning cracker shells. We are keeping a sharp eye out, but have not spotted any more bears this week.

This Polar Bear was very interested in our camp. Seconds after this photo was taken we scared the bear off with a few cracker shells (loud firecrackers fired into the air from a shotgun). The bear continued on toward the remaining sea ice on the North end of the island.

This Polar Bear was very interested in our camp. Seconds after this photo was taken, we scared the bear off with a few cracker shells (loud firecrackers fired into the air from a shotgun). The bear continued on toward the remaining sea ice on the North end of the island.

Scott Flemming checking out the Polar Bear tracks after the bear continued on down the river.

Scott Flemming checking out the Polar Bear tracks after the bear continued on down the river.

 

Now that the ponds are opening up, the waterfowl have started moving in. A small flotilla of King Eider are back on the ponds near camp, along with Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Ducks. Pairs of Cackling Geese dot the landscape, occasionally dwarfed by flocks of their larger cousins, Canada Geese. Flocks of Snow Geese pass overhead, though we do not have any nesting near our camp.

 

A male King Eider in full pursuit of a female. King Eider males stick close to their mates until egg laying is complete. At which point they return to the open ocean, leaving the camouflaged females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

A male King Eider in full pursuit of a female. King Eider males stick close to their mates until egg laying is complete. At that point they return to the open ocean, leaving the camouflaged females to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

 

Lindy Spirak reads up on shorebird identification and ecology on a sunny evening in camp.

Lindy Spirak reads up on shorebird identification and ecology on a sunny evening in camp.

 

Willow Ptarmigan are abundant on the study plots this year, a difference from previous years. Our local bird (named Ptodd) thinks the cabin makes a great display platform and loves calling loudly from the roof as the sun rises around 2 am. Parasitic Jaegers are sweeping the tundra again, searching for waterfowl and shorebird nests. We have only had one Arctic Fox sighting so far, but it coincided with finding our first shorebird nest. We will likely see more foxes as nests start to dot the landscape.

 

Ptodd the Ptarmigan strutting on the cabin roof. Ptodd likes to call loudly from the rooftop at sunrise (2 am in the arctic).

Ptodd the Ptarmigan strutting on the cabin roof. Ptodd likes to call loudly from the rooftop at sunrise (2 am in the arctic).

 

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

Heading into Coats Island

Merely getting to an Arctic field camp can be the most challenging part of a field season. 2016 is the fourth year we have partnered with Environment Canada to conduct fieldwork on Coats Island, located in Nunavut province of Canada.

The crew from Environment Canada and Trent University arrived in the city of Iqaluit on Baffin Island on May 30 to stage the food and field equipment needed for the season. They were supposed to fly out to the field site on June 3 and begin setting up camp. Unfortunately, the weather closed in over Coats Island and the crew was grounded for over a week.

The landscape around Iqaluit is steep and rocky, with beautiful views of Frobisher Bay and the mountains of Baffin Island in the distance.

The landscape around Iqaluit is steep and rocky, with beautiful views of Frobisher Bay and the mountains of Baffin Island in the distance.

 

Coats Island is a three-hour flight from Iqaluit and conditions need to be close to ideal on the island and at one of the landing sites for each flight to be allowed to leave Iqaluit. By the time I arrived in Iqaluit on June 10, the rest of the crew was going stir-crazy and was more than ready to head to the island.

I am returning this year to recapture the Semipalmated Sandpipers we tagged last year with geolocators. Geolocators are small tags that combine day-length with date and time to record a location each day.

After a geolocator is on a bird for a full year, we receive a complete track of their annual migration—but only if we can retrieve the device. Recovering the geolocators from Coats Island is particularly important now because we only have two recovered from all of Eastern Canada, which is where we believe the largest population decline is occurring. Recovering more of these tags will help us complete the picture of where these birds are migrating, stopping over, and wintering, which, in turn, will guide conservation efforts for the species.

With all of the advance work complete, I took advantage of the next day in Iqaluit to explore the area around the town and take a short run out on the “Road to Nowhere,” which runs out of town for a few kilometers before ending in a shooting range. There are no other communities on Baffin Island that are accessible by road, so there is little reason to build roads out from town. The landscape on Baffin is very different from our field site. The steep terrain with exposed bedrock is not great for shorebirds, but perfect for Snow Buntings, Northern Wheatear, and American Pipits, all of which nest in the rocky hillsides around town.

 

American Pipits were calling and displaying in the hills around Iqaluit

American Pipits were calling and displaying in the hills around Iqaluit

Snow Buntings, like this stunning male, nest in the cracks and crevices of Baffin Island’s formidable landscape.

Snow Buntings, like this stunning male, nest in the cracks and crevices of Baffin Island’s formidable landscape.

 

A Northern Wheatear in display flight in the hills above Iqaluit.

A Northern Wheatear in display flight in the hills above Iqaluit.

Ravens are the most abundant bird in Iqaluit. Hundreds inhabit the town and can be heard chattering and playing at all hours of the day and night.

Ravens are the most abundant birds in Iqaluit. Hundreds inhabit the town and can be heard chattering and playing at all hours of the day and night.

 

My flight was originally scheduled for June 12 and, as luck would have it, the weather finally cleared out that morning, and we got the call to head to the airport and load up. We loaded 1200 pounds of gear plus five passengers in about 20 minutes and were quickly in the air. The flight to Coats was long and uneventful until we reached the island and found it fogged in along the coast. We continued inland and started to see some breaks in the clouds only to see an unbroken sheet of white snow covering the landscape.

The snow in Iqaluit was mostly melted away, and we had similar reports from other field sites, so the extensive snow cover was a surprise. Reaching our camp, we saw that the gravel ridge we use as a runway was mostly clear, but with one large drift across the center. After a couple of passes, the pilots made the call to attempt a landing anyway. The Twin Otter is a very rugged plane and able to conduct very short field take-offs and landings. We used every bit of that ability on this landing and still plowed through the drift with an impressive blast of snow. There were no injuries, damages, or other problems, so we all considered it a success and were very pleased to finally make it to our camp. We did have to shovel the runway clear before the plane could take off though!

 

The crew arrives on Coats Island and starts to set up as the pilots survey the runway before takeoff.

The crew arrives on Coats Island and starts to set up as the pilots survey the runway before take-off.

 

Shiloh Schulte and Scott Flemming clear a footprint for the food tent. The crew had to dig through snowdrifts to set up camp and gain access to the river for drinking water.

Shiloh Schulte and Scott Flemming clear a footprint for the food tent. The crew had to dig through snowdrifts to set up camp and gain access to the river for drinking water.

 

With deep snow covering the tundra, we turned our attention to shoveling out the cabin and setting up our camp. We have already noticed a few shorebirds calling and flying up and down the river, but the tundra is very quiet right now. Normally shorebirds would already be displaying and setting up territories. Hopefully, the snow will melt quickly and the birds will still have a successful season. Arctic summers are short and there is little margin for error.

 

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 Sightings from the Central Yukon Delta Coast

We welcomed two special Manomet friends back to our field crew this year in the Arctic: Alan Kneidel and Sam Roberts. They both worked on the crew surveying the central part of the Yukon Delta coast.  Below, Alan describes the crew’s experience, and they both share some photos from the field. We want to thank them for their hard work in the field and dedication to shorebird conservation science! – Stephen Brown

Alan Kneidel and Sam Roberts

Alan Kneidel (left) and Sam Roberts at the Kanaryarmiut Field Station on the Yukon Delta NWR. Photo by Brad Winn

 

From May 16 – May 26, I joined a team of researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Manomet to perform PRISM rapid shorebird surveys in the Yukon Delta NWR of western Alaska.

I was part of the central survey crew and there was also a northern and southern crew. The other members of my team included Kristine Sowl of USFWS, Terry Doyle, and Sam Roberts. Each day, each survey member covered four 400 x 400 meter survey plots. At each plot, the surveyor spent a predetermined ninety-six minutes to estimate the number of breeding pairs of shorebird species within the plot. The cumulative data set from all three survey crews will be used to help estimate breeding shorebird numbers within the refuge.

The surveys cover a variety of dominant habitat strata and are designed to occur when shorebirds are establishing territories and initiating their nests. During this period, the males of many shorebird species such as Dunlin; Bar-tailed Godwit; Wilson’s Snipe; and Rock, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers are performing their territorial display flights, accompanied by distinctive songs. Other species, such as Red and Red-necked Phalaropes are often seen in pairs, while Black and Ruddy Turnstones are conspicuous as they fiercely protect their territories against intruders.

As we arrived in Bethel to organize our gear and go over final logistics, the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, as the other crews reported earlier in the blog.  But, by the time the central crew began on our plots on May 18, we also experienced the same change in weather, which had returned to more typical spring fare—the skies had turned gray, the wind had picked up, and rain squalls had materialized on the horizon.

These photos below show some of the central crew’s experiences, including some taken by fellow crew member Sam Roberts.

-Alan Kneidel

 

Alan Kneidel’s Photos and Captions:

 

flying helicopter

The use of helicopters to access our plots allowed for increased daily efficiency compared to last year when we had to hike from our boat to each plot. The helicopter also provided a thrilling bird’s eye view of the delta. Here, Brad Winn, Ben Lagasse, and Rick Lanctot of the south survey crew return to the Kanaryarmuit Field Station in the heart of the Yukon Delta.

 

Robert Kozakiewicz

Robert Kozakiewicz of Pollux Aviation was the excellent pilot for our central crew. In addition to being responsible for our daily aerial commute, it was Robert’s job to drop each survey crew member off at the northwest corner of their plot and pick them up after the survey was completed.

 

Dunlin are abundant breeders in the grassy, wet meadows of the Yukon Delta. In these habitats they reach some of the greatest estimated densities of any shorebird we surveyed, with up to 15 breeding pairs being estimated in a single 400 meter x 400 meter plot.

Dunlin are abundant breeders in the grassy, wet meadows of the Yukon Delta. In these habitats they reach some of the greatest estimated densities of any shorebird we surveyed, with up to 15 breeding pairs being estimated in a single 400 x 400 meter plot.

 

Rock Sandpipers are one of the most charismatic (and camouflaged) breeding shorebirds on the Yukon Delta. During the breeding season they favor dry, lichen-dominated tundra, and are most easily detected by the distinctive whirring song of the male. One day, I was fortunate enough to have a courting pair come within a few meters of me as I lay still on the ground. After observing the female for a while, the male flew in and landed in front of her, promptly flashing the white underside of his wing in display. During the winter, Rock Sandpipers are the northernmost wintering shorebird, occupying the windswept, rocky coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.

Rock Sandpipers are one of the most charismatic (and camouflaged) breeding shorebirds on the Yukon Delta. During the breeding season, they favor dry, lichen-dominated tundra and are most easily detected by the distinctive whirring song of the male. One day, I was fortunate enough to have a courting pair come within a few meters of me as I lay still on the ground. After observing the female for a while, the male flew in and landed in front of her, promptly flashing the white underside of his wing in display. During the winter, Rock Sandpipers are the northernmost wintering shorebird, occupying the windswept, rocky coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.

displaying Rock Sandpiper

 

It is a common sight to see flocks of transient shorebirds headed farther north on the delta breeding grounds in mid-May. On a survey near the coast, I spotted a large flock of Red Knots moving fast across the tundra. Throughout the survey season, we also saw large numbers of migrant Long-billed Dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers.

It is a common sight to see flocks of transient shorebirds headed farther north on the delta breeding grounds in mid-May. On a survey near the coast, I spotted a large flock of Red Knots moving fast across the tundra. Throughout the survey season, we also saw large numbers of migrant Long-billed Dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers.

 

The act of stumbling across a Willow Ptarmigan is sure to startle you at least once a day, no matter how vigilant you are. Once flushed, the male (pictured) often flies up and does a fluttering display flight, accompanied by their bizarre, guttural calls.

The act of stumbling across a Willow Ptarmigan is sure to startle you at least once a day, no matter how vigilant you are. Once flushed, the male (pictured) often flies up and does a fluttering display flight, accompanied by their bizarre, guttural calls.

 

You always have to keep your ears and eyes open while out surveying. After hearing an unfamiliar call note, I looked up and spotted an Aleutian Tern flying overhead. This species is one of the specialties of western Alaska and is uncommonly sighted within the refuge. During the non-breeding season, Aleutian Terns winter off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

You always have to keep your ears and eyes open while out surveying. After hearing an unfamiliar call note, I looked up and spotted an Aleutian Tern flying overhead. This species is one of the specialties of western Alaska and is uncommonly sighted within the refuge. During the non-breeding season, Aleutian Terns winter off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

 

Sam Roberts’ Photos and Captions:

While it is still unclear whether Pectoral Sandpipers actually breed within the refuge or are just displaying on their way farther north, everyone on the central crew encountered a number of pairs and displaying males throughout our survey period.

While it is still unclear whether Pectoral Sandpipers actually breed within the refuge or are just displaying on their way farther north, everyone on the central crew encountered a number of pairs and displaying males throughout our survey period.

 

Because Western Sandpipers are one of the most commonly encountered breeding shorebird species on the refuge, I was exposed to a variety of breeding behaviors, ranging from distraction displays when a nest was found, to singing males hovering high in the air, to courtship displays, such as the one photographed here.

Because Western Sandpipers are one of the most commonly encountered breeding shorebird species on the refuge, I was exposed to a variety of breeding behaviors ranging from distraction displays when a nest was found, to singing males hovering high in the air, to courtship displays, such as the one photographed here.

 

Vocal and curious, Bar-tailed Godwits make their presence known if they discover you in the vicinity of their territory.

Vocal and curious, Bar-tailed Godwits make their presence known if they discover you in the vicinity of their territory.