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.

 

 

Tundra Tunes

When I was a youngster, my grandfather would periodically tell me that, “children are to be seen but not heard.” Unfortunately for my grandfather, the concept never took root, and being heard was practiced with gusto.  Similarly, shorebirds are all about being heard on the tundra, but only seen on their terms. Many species prefer a strategy of short-term exposure, just enough to make themselves known to competitors for territory, but not enough to draw the attention of would-be predators.  While we have been out on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, we have heard shorebirds singing from high and low while we survey for them in this vast land.

 

A male Rock Sandpiper in full ground display on lichen tundra. Yukon National Wildlife Refuge.

A male Rock Sandpiper in full ground display on lichen tundra. Yukon National Wildlife Refuge.

 

For most of the birds, there is a fine line between the need to advertise their locations to secure a territory and the potential for showing too much of themselves.  Shorebirds use a variety of tactics to advertise robustly, then quickly vanish into their surroundings.  They use superb colors and patterns of their plumage to meld with the tundra vegetation, but can also alter their calls and songs for the appropriate situations: subtle low calls for cautious moments or full-on raucous song when needed.  Rock Sandpipers are a good example of this “be heard, but only seen when needed” approach.  The species prefers to nest in lichen dominated tundra and their plumage has all of the colors and smudgy patterns of a mixed lichen landscape, allowing for intensely effective camouflage.  When the advertising is needed and the airways are clear of predators, the show is on for male Rock Sandpipers bent on maintaining territorial boundaries. The stocky little sandpipers stand high, sing from the gut, and really let the world know who is boss of lichen-land by raising a wing so the bright white feathers can be seen for…well, hundreds of yards anyway.  These impressive shows help ensure that the eggs being laid by a mate only have one father.

 

A male Rock Sandpiper singing from the air.  With no trees, tundra-nesting shorebirds need to use flight displays to advertise their presence.

A male Rock Sandpiper singing from the air. With no trees, tundra-nesting shorebirds need to use flight displays to advertise their presence.

Lichen tundra is the preferred nesting habitat for Rock Sandpipers. Other shorebirds do well here too, including Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden Plover.

Lichen tundra is the preferred nesting habitat for Rock Sandpipers. Other shorebirds do well here too, including Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden Plover.

 

For the wider audience, aerial displays are needed and Rock Sandpipers get airborne, patrolling the space above their nesting areas with short rapid wingbeats, rolling out their song, using the wind to help them stay aloft.  The display goes on for many minutes, and when done, the birds drop rapidly to the ground and nearly vanish back into the patterned tundra.

A Whimbrel on lichen tundra on the outskirts of Bethel, Alaska. These birds can emit low flute-like calls that float out on the tundra without giving the bird’s location away.  In essence, a pair can hide in plain sight while communicating with this shorebird form of ventriloquism.

A Whimbrel on lichen tundra on the outskirts of Bethel, Alaska. These birds can emit low flute-like calls that float out on the tundra without giving the bird’s location away. In essence, a pair can hide in plain sight while communicating with this shorebird form of ventriloquism.

 

As we have travelled across the Yukon Delta rapidly surveying plots of tundra, one side assignment has been to help define the distribution of Short-billed Dowitchers and to determine if any of the multitudes of Long-billed Dowitchers might be nesting on the refuge.  The Pacific subspecies of the Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus caurinus) looks very similar to its Long-billed cousin.  Without a very close encounter or good photographs to study, confusing the two is very easy to do.  Luckily for us, the calls and songs of the two species are distinct, and we have relied on voice to help understand their distribution across the refuge.  The Long-billed Dowitchers have been encountered along the coast, while the breeding Short-billed have been found at more inland areas of the refuge.

 

We found the Long-billed Dowitchers in good numbers along the coast, sometimes in flocks of more than one-hundred, most-likely migrating to points north like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We found the Long-billed Dowitchers in good numbers along the coast, sometimes in flocks of more than one hundred, most likely migrating to points north like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Subtle plumage differences between long and short-billed include the angle of the black line extending from the bill to the eye, the extent of white on the belly, the orange vs salmon hues of the breast, the shape of the pattern on wing coverts, and exceptional bill length for female Long-billed Dowitchers. These differences can all help lead to visual identification of the birds.

 

This Short-billed Dowitcher uses its superb camouflage to hide, but calls to alert all in hearing range that “this turf is taken.” We found the Short-billed variety mostly in pairs, exhibiting high flying flight displays on interior plots well away from the coast.

This Short-billed Dowitcher uses its superb camouflage to hide, but calls to alert all in hearing range that “this turf is taken.” We found the Short-billed variety mostly in pairs, exhibiting high flying flight displays on interior plots well away from the coast.

 

Another strategy we have seen practiced by shorebirds to protect nests and eggs from the eyes of predators, is to be outwardly visible and overtly aggressive to any would-be egg eaters. One species, the Black Turnstone, has impressed us at being bold and brash in defense of nest and territory.  Anything but subtle, the male’s deep black plumage can be seen from a long way off, belying the take-no-prisoners attitude of these tough little birds.

 

A male Black Turnstone near his nest on high alert for any gull or jaeger who might enter the no-fly zone wrapped like an invisible halo around its nest.

A male Black Turnstone near his nest on high alert for any gull or jaeger who might enter the no-fly zone wrapped like an invisible halo around its nest.

A Black Turnstone nest shaped from coastal grasses of the Yukon Delta.

A Black Turnstone nest shaped from coastal grasses of the Yukon Delta.

 

When a predatory bird crosses the line of tolerance established by a pair, the male Black Turnstone begins a staccato, rapid-fire call that sounds a bit like a miniature machinegun.  The small compact bird then launches into the air, continuing the call while zeroing in on the threat.  The uniquely wedge-shaped bill that has been flipping stones all winter is now a honed lance, perfect for jabbing into the soft parts of passing gulls.

 

A Glaucous Gull, one of the larger gulls in the world, is looking back in fear and taking evasive action as a turnstone rockets in to make a point.

A Glaucous Gull, one of the larger gulls in the world, is looking back in fear and taking evasive action as a Black Turnstone rockets in to make a point.

And ouch! The Turnstone makes contact.  His eggs will be safe from this gull.

And ouch! The Black Turnstone makes contact. His eggs will be safe from this gull.

 

So as we wrap up our brief but productive time here in southwestern Alaska, we are grateful to have experienced the wide variety of calls and magnificent displays of the shorebirds we have been studying.  Our three rapid assessment crews have surveyed more than three hundred locations in the last two weeks.  The data we have generated have, in part, been attributed to the songs and calls that the shorebirds have been making, allowing us to understand how many of each species are out there and what sorts of habitats they need for nesting.  This biologist will do all that he can to make sure that the amazing stories of these birds will be seen and also heard, so that more people can appreciate them and help protect and manage the habitats the birds depend upon throughout migration.

 

Middle and South Delta shorebird crews.

Middle and South Delta shorebird crews.

PRISM Surveys of Arctic Nesting Shorebirds

The purpose of our work in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is to collect data for PRISM (the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring). PRISM is a large-scale international collaboration of researchers throughout the Western Hemisphere who are using a standardized protocol for collecting data with three main goals:  1) estimating the breeding populations of arctic, temperate, and neotropical shorebirds; 2) monitoring trends in shorebird population size, especially large population declines over 20 year periods; and 3) setting conservation priorities and assisting local wildlife managers in meeting their shorebird conservation goals.

 

Kuzilvak Wetlands Aerial

This aerial view approaching our campsite near Kuzilvak Mountain in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge gives a glimpse of the tremendous wetland resources in this vast region that shorebirds rely on for nesting. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

 

Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program has been a partner in collecting data for PRISM in the arctic since its inception in 2001.  While PRISM has many government agencies participating, funding has always been hard to come by and our partnership as an NGO raising private donor resources has been essential for the program.  Our generous donors are essential for ensuring that we have good data on shorebird populations on which to plan their recovery.

As I described in the last podcast, we collect PRISM data using a double sampling method. First, we conduct rapid surveys of a large number of randomly selected plots to estimate the number of breeding shorebirds in important regions like the Yukon Delta, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Teshekpuk Lake region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This year, as in past years, PRISM rapid surveys in the arctic require the use of helicopters during a short two-week window when the birds are at their most active setting up territories, attracting mates, and establishing their nests. Because the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the size of Maine, we have three helicopter crews conducting rapid surveys this year so that we can cover the vast landscape.

We carefully train our observers to hone their skills in rapidly detecting shorebirds by sight and sound because you often get only a small glimpse of a bird as it hurries by or hear its breeding song from a distance and obscured by the constant wind.  This year we had the privilege of having Brian McCaffery, who worked at the Yukon Delta over many years as a biologist and the head of the biology program, partner with me to assemble a set of exemplary shorebird songs from both his personal collection and from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s McCaulay Library of Natural Sounds.  Brian’s deep expertise in sorting out the many complex vocalizations of breeding shorebirds was extremely helpful to the crew, and we were very grateful for his support with the training and also with planning the surveys.

 

Brian McCaffery, one of the foremost experts on shorebirds of the Yukon Delta, teaching a class on sound identification of breeding shorebirds during our training in Anchorage before the start of the surveys.  He was assisted by Bob Gill and Brad Winn.  Photo by Metta McGarvey.

Brian McCaffery, one of the foremost experts on shorebirds of the Yukon Delta, teaching a class on sound identification of breeding shorebirds during our training in Anchorage before the start of the surveys. He was assisted by Bob Gill and Brad Winn. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

 

We have also set up two longer-term camps where surveyors conduct intensive surveys on plots that are visited daily throughout the breeding period of four to six weeks, with the goal of finding every nest over the entire period. These intensively surveyed plots will also have a rapid survey conducted on them by the helicopter crews who don’t know anything about what is nesting there when they start. By comparing the rapid estimate of how many breeding shorebirds are on the plots with the data gathered over the entire breeding season by the intensive surveyors, we adjust the detection rates of the rapid surveyors. Because a rapid survey only lasts one hour and thirty-six minutes, we know each rapid survey misses a percentage of the shorebirds breeding on each rapid plot; this comparison allows us to better estimate the likely number of breeding shorebirds on each rapid plot and thereby better estimate population sizes across the huge landscape being surveyed.

As always, finding shorebird nests in the vast tundra is a challenge.  The photos below show the incredible camouflage chosen by a pair of Black-bellied Plovers nesting near camp.

 

Photo3A BBPL Nest 2016

This Black-bellied Plover nest is situated on bare ground, but it is perfectly camouflaged; Metta’s hand gives perspective on the size of the eggs, which are unusually large compared to most smaller shorebirds. Photos by Metta McGarvey

This Black-bellied Plover nest is situated on bare ground, but it is perfectly camouflaged; Metta’s hand gives perspective on the size of the eggs, which are unusually large compared to most smaller shorebirds. Photos by Metta McGarvey

Stepping back just a few feet shows how camouflaged the nest is among the background of lichens and tundra on which it was laid. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Stepping back just a few feet shows how camouflaged the nest is among the background of lichens and tundra on which it was laid. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

Dunlin nests, like this one I found on a rapid survey plot, are equally camouflaged.  Up close the nest is easy to see, but if you step back just a bit it is superbly concealed, and from a few yards away it blends seamlessly into the landscape.  You can see from this why we survey during the brief period when the birds are setting up nests and advertising their territories with songs and displays!

 

Photo4A DUNLNestPhoto4B DUNLNest

This Dunlin nest is visible from up close, but disappears when you step back just a bit, which helps them avoid predators looking for a tasty meal, and also makes surveying shorebirds a real challenge. Photos by Stephen Brown.

This Dunlin nest is visible from up close, but disappears when you step back just a bit, which helps them avoid predators looking for a tasty meal, and also makes surveying shorebirds a real challenge. Photos by Stephen Brown.

 

We will write more soon about the incredible diversity of wildlife we see on the tundra during our surveys and will also have updates from the other crews surveying in other parts of the Refuge.