Wacky Weather

Welcome to Manomet’s 2016 Arctic Field Season from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska!

As we begin our 16th year of arctic field work, the months of discussion, planning and fundraising, followed by the month of long days working on logistics in the warehouse and then the intense pace of helicopters, field work, and remote camps feels familiar to us—and no doubt to readers of this blog.

What strikes us most right off this year is the weather—stunningly warm and sunny thus far.

Ice breakup on the Kuskokwim River in Bethel happened almost four weeks ago—a month earlier than usual. It was also greener in St. Mary’s when we arrived on May 13 this year than when we left on May 27 last year.

1.1 Yukon River 2016

(credit: S. Brown)

The Yukon River flows ice-free through a greening landscape 14 May this year, while the second photo shows the river ice when surveys started on 15 May last year.

The Yukon River flows ice-free through a greening landscape May 14 this year, while the second photo (credit: R. Gill) shows the river ice when surveys started on May 15 last year.

 

Weather in much of Alaska has been warmer than it has been in Boston so far! Normally in May, this part of the Yukon Delta is wet and raw with daily highs in the 40s and nights in the low 30s or upper 20s, so none of us were prepared for 68 degrees with full sun, nor drenching sweat under our flight suits and waders.

We’ve had glorious views, including the back side of Kuzilvak Mountain, 45 miles due west from St. Mary’s—obscured by rain and fog all but one day last year. Our camp has already been set up by Stephen and our two crew members, Lindall Kidd & Andy Bankert, who will conduct intensive surveys for nesting shorebirds around camp for the next month.

1.3 Kuzilvak Aerial View

(credit: S. Brown)

1.4 Bankert and Kidd

Kuzilvak Mountain (aerial view) provides a stunning backdrop to our camp where Andy Bankert and Lindall Kidd (suited up and excited for their helicopter ride to camp) will survey intensive plots from May 15 to June 15  (credit M. McGarvey).

 

Our camp is nestled between a lovely tundra pond and the shore of Boot Lake, 6 miles NW of Kuzilvak Mountain. (credit: S. Brown)

Our camp is nestled between a lovely tundra pond and the shore of Boot Lake, 6 miles NW of Kuzilvak Mountain (credit: S. Brown) .

 

Alder and willow are leafing out, cotton grass has begun blooming, and some spring flowers have already gone by.

 

1.6 Wolly Lousewort

Wooly Lousewort in full bloom several weeks early (credit: M. McGarvey).

 

With spring arriving three to four weeks early we have been wondering whether the birds will have initiated their nests early, too. Our surveys are timed to catch the period when the birds are mating—and therefore they are vigorously displaying and vocalizing to establish their territories—which enables us to see and count them more easily during the rapid surveys.

Fortunately, the birds are still displaying. On his first night walking around Bethel, Brad Winn took these beautiful photos of a Pacific Golden Plover, a Whimbrel, and an American Tree Sparrow.

 

1.7 PGPL

Pacific Golden Plover (credit: B. Winn)

1.8 WHIM Winn

Whimbrel (credit: B. Winn)

1.9 ATSP Winn

American Tree Sparrow (credit: B. Winn)

 

In a few days we’ll introduce you to our field crew this year—the largest to date with three helicopter crews and two intensive camps—altogether a total of 23 field crew working out of two villages and two remote camps, and more than a dozen others helping behind the scenes on the study design, protocol, and logistics. We’ll send regular updates on the wildlife and conditions in this vast wilderness, so stay tuned!

Podcast: Stephen Brown Reports Live from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

The 2016 arctic field season is officially underway! In the podcast below, Stephen Brown, Vice President of Shorebird Conservation, speaks from his camp in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Brown and his crew are conducting a two-year survey of the refuge—the largest survey of breeding shorebirds ever attempted.

PODCAST:

 

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, this is Stephen Brown, reporting from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Welcome to the 2016 season of the shorebird recovery program science program.

We are delighted to have you with us and we are delighted to be here—back in the arctic conducting the work to support the shorebirds.

It’s the evening of May 15, late at night. So it is already tomorrow back home where I live in Vermont and where many of you are on the East Coast. We have many different crews surveying this year, so the science blog is going to be a very exciting website. There are now three helicopter crews underway, surveying part of the vast Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

None of that would have been possible without the amazing support from our Manomet donors, along with our grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We are grateful for your support.

And a quick overview of what you can expect this season:

We are just starting out, a very busy start getting ready. You probably read a post from Brad who is just back from Georgia and his work on Red Knots. So it was a full court press to get everyone ready and trained and geared and here.

Very soon there will be a post from Metta, who has been conducting the camp organization and planning and logistics—all of the things it takes to get us here, some of the pictures of us in transit and what it was like as we arrived.

Later on this summer, you will be hearing from Alan Kneidel from one of the crews in the central part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. And he will also be recording later on in the summer from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where he is participating in a new project with geolocators this summer.

You will also hear later on from Lindall and Andy, who are our crew here at Boot Lake in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. They are conducting our intensive surveys which we will explain later on in a post.

So it will be a busy season and we hope you look forward to hearing all of these posts and updates and seeing our pictures.

The birds arrived early with a warm spring and the weather couldn’t be more different than what we had last year. Last year, we surveyed almost every day in driving rain, mostly sideways.

And this time we were greeted with a beautiful clear sky and a beautiful sunny day. And, because there is always a new wrinkle in the arctic, very high winds.

We set up camp yesterday with sustained winds in the 25-28 range and gusts at 30. So if you imagine putting up a tent that’s seven feet high and 12 by 12, in gusts of 30 miles an hour, you can get an idea of the challenges we had.

But we are delighted that we are getting a break from the rain this year and maybe a slightly easier survey. It’s always more helpful when the wind is quiet and today is it down to a normal 15 or so, which is very calm for here and much easier to hear what the birds are doing.

So stay tuned for all these updates and we hope you enjoy hearing our live updates from the field. This is Stephen Brown reporting live from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Chasing the Tides and Running from Storms: the Quest for Red Knots in Georgia

Red knots from the “northern” wintering population have spent the last eight months in the southeastern US and the Caribbean.  In early May, this overwintering group is joined by the long-distance migrants coming from southern South America, known as the Patagonian wintering group.  The coast of Georgia is host to both populations of this Atlantic Flyway subspecies, known as “rufa” knots.

 

Red knots and other shorebirds line up in the fading evening sun, waiting for the crabs to finish spawning as the tide drops, exposing the eggs that will feed and fatten the migrating birds.

Red knots and other shorebirds line up in the fading evening sun, waiting for the crabs to finish spawning as the tide drops, exposing the eggs that will feed and fatten the migrating birds.

 

How many knots, from which wintering population, depend on the Georgia barrier islands during northbound migration?  How long do they stay? And how do they use the southeastern resources to gain the weight they need to migrate to nesting areas in eastern Canada?  Nobody knows the answers to these questions yet, but a small group of dedicated biologists is trying to learn all they can from the knots by studying them on the remote barrier sands of the Georgia Coast.

Since early April, Fletcher Smith and Beth McDonald, from the Center for Conservation Biology, have been working with Manomet and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to document the timing of Red Knot migration at specific high-use sites along Georgia’s 100-mile coast.

 

Beth McDonald and Fletcher Smith, from the Center for Conservation Biology, are studying the northbound migration ecology of Red Knots on the Georgia Coast.

Beth McDonald and Fletcher Smith, from the Center for Conservation Biology, are studying the northbound migration ecology of Red Knots on the Georgia Coast.

 

The objective of this study is to estimate the numbers of knots coming through Georgia on their way to nesting grounds in eastern Arctic Canada. The field methods follow a research design developed by Manomet’s partner Jim Lyons, a quantitative biologist with the United States Geological Survey.  I had the opportunity join the effort last week, the first week that the long-distance migrant knots reached the Georgia coast.  The first knot seen this year, with an orange flag-band (below), was originally banded in Argentina in 2015.

 

A Red Knot finds a horseshoe crab egg mass and plunges in. Orange UH1 was banded in Samborombon National Park in Argentina (a WHSRN site) and was the first Patagonian bird we saw this year in Georgia.

A Red Knot finds a horseshoe crab egg mass and plunges in. Orange UH1 was banded  in Argentina and was the first Patagonian bird we saw this year in Georgia.

 

There is something very special about spring shorebird migration.  The birds are at the height of their annual colors and their stunning appearance is matched by the intensity of their behavior.   The dull gray and brown winter feathers have been replaced by highly patterned, buff, orange, red, black, white, and blue.  The colors of individual birds are reflected in the entire flock, especially when grouped tightly together feeding on an abundant food source, like the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs or dense patches of small clams.

A Ruddy Turnstone looking very gaudy as it reaches peak plumage.  The spade-like bill of these birds allows them to dig into crab nests, even when the sand is dry, giving them an advantage over the softer billed shorebirds they migrate with.  Ever wonder why this bird is so ornate?  See Shiloh Schulte’s photo below of a nesting turnstone on Coats Island in Canada.  It’s all about nesting.

A Ruddy Turnstone looking very gaudy as it reaches peak plumage. The spade-like bill of these birds allows them to dig into crab nests, even when the sand is dry, giving them an advantage over the softer billed shorebirds they migrate with. Ever wonder why this bird is so ornate? See Shiloh Schulte’s photo below of a nesting turnstone on Coats Island in Canada. It’s all about nesting.

Ruddy Turnstones  stand out on the beach, but blend in to their rocky tundra nesting habitat very nicely.  Try squinting when looking at this photo and bird almost disappears.  Photo from June 2014 in Coats Island by Shiloh Schulte.

Ruddy Turnstones stand out on the beach, but blend into their rocky tundra nesting habitat very nicely. Try squinting when looking at this photo and bird almost disappears. Photo from June 2014 on Coats Island by Shiloh Schulte.

 

This time of year, the calm, rather placid, winter attitudes of shorebirds dramatically transform to food-focused, fast paced, sometimes grumpy, and usually aggressive.  The birds are on a singular, energy demanding, mission to migrate north and reproduce.  The birds move locally,  sampling food at every opportunity, looking for abundance, which maximizes food intake and builds the energy reserves they will need in the weeks ahead.

 

The effort to find the knots becomes a dance with the tides, the weather, the boat, and the constantly moving birds themselves. The knots seek the best foods available, in the narrow window of opportunity during outgoing and incoming tides, when the birds can reach there hidden prey beneath the saturated sand.  The birds’ bills need the sand to be wet in order to probe in to find the buried food, like small clams or hidden crab eggs. This means time is of the utmost essence and birds are superb at knowing when they need to be and where.  Knots are totally dependent on the shallow pools and saturated sand of the pulsing tide.

 

redknot, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, dunlin

Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Dunlins, and Semipalmated Sandpipers wait for the tide to drop. Nearshore intertidal bars and shoals are critical for these birds and the marine animals that they feed upon. All of the prominent species in this photograph will migrate far, to remote treeless tundra landscapes on islands like Baffin, Southampton, Coats, and King William.

 

Shorebirds and their ability to migrate on the Atlantic Coast are totally dependent on the birds’ access to marine foods hidden in the sands, silts, and muds that are flooded by tides twice per day.   This highly dynamic, thin ribbon of habitat has largely been overlooked for decades by state and federal coastal management authorities.  As a result, we have lost the integrity of hundreds, if not thousands of miles of intertidal biological wealth.  As a stark example, virtually all of the inlets on the east coast of Florida have been hardened by rock structures to stabilize them, impoverishing the once rich shorebird habitat.  We want our coastal sands to stay still, so we create rock and cement armoring to attempt to control our beaches and inlets.  We also want wide beaches for recreation, so we pump the sand sediments from the intertidal shoals and bars to recreate eroded beaches.  The cumulative result of this activity over the last six decades has eliminated the habitat of for prey species of our migrant shorebirds.

 

An underwater feast: a Red Knot, a Short-billed Dowitcher, and a Dunlin go deep to find a cluster of horseshoe crab eggs underwater.

An underwater feast: a Red Knot, a Short-billed Dowitcher, and a Dunlin go deep to find a cluster of horseshoe crab eggs underwater.

 

As long as we start to understand and the public begins to appreciate how important the intertidal areas of our coast are to wildlife, we can  work together to ensure that there will be enough of this beleaguered habitat to support the foods that shorebirds need, so these incredible feathered migrants will continue to persist on our coasts.