Podcast: A Glimpse into the Science Behind the Shorebird Surveys

Stephen Brown, Vice President of Shorebird Conservation, delivers his second podcast from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The shorebird surveys are underway and Brown explains why his team is conducting a set of intensive surveys in addition to the numerous rapid surveys this year.




Hello this is Stephen Brown reporting live from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, where we’re deep into the surveys that we are conducting across the entire refuge to understand shorebird abundance and distribution.

We are back to the typical arctic weather you could expect this time of year, after that brief spell of very warm and sunny weather. It is now averaging around 32 degrees at night and a balmy 40 degrees during the day. We have had winds between 25 and 30 miles an hour, so we are back to having wind chills that are below freezing. I am crouched in a small ditch right now to get out of the wind, which is blowing at 30.

If I stand up …**howling wind**…

I will try to keep the wind down and hopefully you can hear me alright.

It has been very busy at camp year, more than usual. We have a longer term stay and that’s because we are doing intensive work at the camp. The same camp, the same lake that we camped on last year, in a slightly different area. And we will have a camp there for a little more than a month. It will be for intensive plot work. And I wanted to explain why we are doing that this year.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is larger than the State of Maine and there is only about a two week window in which we can conduct the shorebird surveys. So we have to go very quickly and cover a lot of ground. We spend a little over an hour and a half on a plot that is about 40 acres, or 16 hectares, and searching for shorebirds over that large an area and that short of time, we know that we will miss some birds.

So you are not surprised to hear that some birds aren’t just laying when we are near their nests or they’re away foraging or it may be early in the laying period when they spend more time away.  Some birds sit very tight and you don’t happen to flush them as you cover the plot. But other birds haven’t even started to nest yet and will nest little later in the season and for others they have tried to nest, but their nests have been eaten by some predator.

For all of those reasons we don’t see all of the birds when we do our rapid surveys and that’s where they intensive survey plots come in.

We have set up four similarly sized 40-acre plots near camp, within about a mile of camp. And on those plots, our crew is searching fully, to find all the nests, not just now, but over the next few weeks, and then we have a measure of all the nests that will be on those plots over the season.

While we are here, each of the rapid surveyors, the four of us, will individually survey those plots, not knowing anything about what’s nesting there. And that will give us what we call a detection rate. So there may be nests there that we don’t see on our survey, but we know how many we see and over time we calculate the proportion of nests we are likely to encounter.

So all of that requires a much more intensive planning process, more staff and more equipment and we have been working hard and moving quickly, getting everything set up and now that we have the intensive plots underway, we will be having a little more time, hopefully, to send some pictures back for the blog and show you some of what’s been going at camp.

Later in the season, we will have a post from Lindall and Andy, who are the intensive survey crew, conducting those intensive surveys on those plots and will post on their experiences there.

So the clock is ticking and the shorebird season is short so I am going to get back to conducting a rapid survey on a plot very close to the edge of the Yukon Delta.

Thank you very much to all of you who support our work and help make it possible for us to do this survey, be in this amazing place, doing this work for the shorebirds. Thanks again, reporting live, this is Stephen Brown from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

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.





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.