The Last Days

The breeding bird scene on the Canning River Delta begins to wind down in earnest by the second week of July. Active shorebirds nests dwindle into the single digits, and soon only loons and a few waterfowl nests are all that remain active. Flocks of sandpipers and plovers are seen flying overhead and in the distance skeins of sea ducks can be seen following the coast westward. The Beaufort Sea ice has devolved into bergy bits and rumors of Polar Bears on the barrier islands trickle through the satellite communication waves.

Just like the shifting seasons, life in the Canning camp begins to change as well. Our nest-checking circuits through the study area shorten and the pile of completed nest cards grows. Hours spent nest-searching become hours spent entering data and contemplating the future. Fresh bread and vegetables become a distant memory, replaced by pilot bread and peanut butter. The time has come for the literal scraping of the bottom of the barrel and the redefinition of delicacy. Yes. It is time to throw stuffing mix into a bowl of ramen noodles and eat handfuls of Hall’s throat lozenges for dessert.

What are the last few days of camp really like? Here is a series of photos that help encapsulate what Patches, Alex, and I were up to.

1

Ever wonder what permafrost looks like? The bluffs along the Beaufort Sea slump in the mid-summer heat, revealing their icy core. The tundra wetlands that Arctic wildlife rely upon sit atop this frozen layer, creating habitats typical of much wetter environments.

2

One of the fixtures of mid-July at the Canning is waterfowl migration. It all starts with the exodus of males from the breeding grounds, like this flock of White-winged Scoters flying high directly over camp.

One of our final nights through camp, we spotted a medium-sized Caribou herd in the distance headed our way. Alex and I laid low in the tundra mounds and the herd continued in our direction. Turn up the volume and listen to those grunts!

3

Before anything could get packed up, we had to do a complete inventory of camp, covering everything from the number of tuna cans (60) and rolls of toilet paper (1) to the number of binder clips (75) and tent stakes (200). While doing this, we had to decide which items could stay in camp and which would need to return to Fairbanks for the winter. Then, we assigned each item staying in camp to a bear-proof metal drum that we lined with a thick plastic contractor bag and sealed up with a desiccant. Here Alex takes a break to scan for mammals while getting photobombed by just a few midnight mosquitos.

4

Spearheaded by the enthusiasm of Patches, we set out to bury two barrels to be used as refrigerators for the 2018 field crew. This is a task that can only be done during mid-summer, when the permafrost has receded enough to allow excavation. Come next spring, the barrels will be locked into the frozen soil. What does that translate to? More cheese!

5

The final task was to assemble all gear that was remaining in camp into a fortified pile to withstand the Arctic winter blitzkrieg of -50°F temperatures, hurricane force winds, and darkness. How to prepare for such an onslaught? In addition to sealing everything in metal drums, we used wooden planks to elevate everything we could and used two large weather resistant canvas tarps as protection, driving large nails through each grommet. We then used all the rope we had to tie the beast down in every direction.

6

On the morning of July 17th, I called refuge pilot Dan Shelden in Fairbanks to report a 1,000 ft. cloud ceiling and improving visibility of the Brooks Range. He reported that the weather was suitable for flying on his end. Showtime!  After the four-day scramble to pack up camp, all there was left to do was to drag everything headed back to Fairbanks down to the runway and wait for the sounds of the Cessna 185. This photo shows my personal belongings after I broke down my tent and before I descended to the riverbank landing strip. Dan arrived around 1:00 pm and made two flights to Galbraith Lake ferrying Alex and gear before heading from camp back to Fairbanks with Patches and me on the 3rd and final flight.

Our flight back to Fairbanks took us from our camp on the Arctic coastal plain back south over the Brooks Range and into the boreal forest. To be able to observe this unspoiled wilderness from this perspective is something that will stay with me forever. The rainbow wasn’t bad either!

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc.  Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

Arctic Podcast

In this podcast, Alan Kneidel updates us on this year’s Shorebird Science project in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including ongoing nest monitoring as chicks hatch and retrieval of geolocators placed on Dunlin in 2016. For a refresher on this year’s project, check out Shiloh’s first blog post this year which described the GPS tags the crew placed on Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin to help us understand which coastal sites they use for feeding prior to migration and if these include areas where oil from oil spills may concentrate, areas proposed for oil and gas development, and areas currently being used by native communities and industry, as well as how changes caused by climate change and coastal development are affecting shorebirds on the Arctic Coast.

caribou2July began with a large herd of roughly 3,000 Caribou passing through the study area. They are making their way to the windswept coast to seek refuge from biting flies. Photo by Alan Kneidel

cariibousCaribou crossing the slough. Photo by Alan Kneidel

arctic flowersArctic Dryad and Arctic Poppies bloom on the frostboil tundra. Photo by Alan Kneidel

bye metta and shilohShiloh and Metta load up the Cessna 185 on June 30th as they prepare leave camp. Photo by Alan Kneidel

vocal sesaThe tundra in July is full of chattering shorebird parents. Here a Semipalmated Sandpiper communicates with its young to lay low as I pass through the area. Photo by Alan Kneidel

vocal snbuA male Snow Bunting has taken up shop in camp. Here it sings lustily from the top of one of our solar panels. It also likes to sing from the tops of our tents and forages among the rocks on the shore of the slough. Photo by Alan Kneidel

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc.  Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

Collaborative Fieldwork Makes for a Busy Camp

We have already described the work we are doing with the GPS-tagged birds, but this year at the Canning River camp we have several additional, but related projects going on. In addition to deploying GPS tags on shorebirds, we are also color-banding for long-term survival and movement studies and taking blood and swab samples for USGS biologists to track the occurrence of avian influenza. Chris Latty, wildlife biologist-ornithologist for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Will Wiese, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), are running a study using nest cameras to examine waterfowl nesting behavior, predator type and effects, and looking at any effect of the cameras themselves on nest survival rates. We are also deploying these cameras at half of the shorebird nests which helps us determine what the nest predators are and if this is a good technique to use in the future. Spoiler alert! Arctic foxes eat shorebird eggs. What is a bit more unusual are the red foxes in the study area. Red foxes are a rare sight on the Arctic coastal plain and have only recently been sighted this far North. This change is likely related to our changing climate and spells trouble for Arctic Foxes, which are often killed or driven out by their larger cousins. In another unusual occurrence, we may have had one shorebird nest that was destroyed by greater white-fronted geese.

IMG_3299Will Wiese and Jessica Herzog return victorious after a long day of waterfowl stalking.

In an attempt to understand how many arctic foxes are using the study area and how many of those are preying on shorebird nests, the USFWS launched a pilot study to try to capture and mark arctic foxes in the study area. Unfortunately, the foxes were already eating too well and none of them felt the need to take the bait and go into the live traps so we could mark them. We will have to get craftier next year if we want to catch the little guys.

IMG_9332

IMG_9335Elyssa Watford demonstrates how to inflate and use a pack raft.

With all of the projects going on the camp has been very busy and crowded at times. We started off with 7 people in camp. From Manomet, Shiloh Schulte, Metta McGarvey, Alan Kneidel, and Alex Lamoreaux. From UAF, Will Wiese, Jessica Herzog, and Elyssa Watford. The UAF crew was in camp from May 31 to June 20 and was focused primarily on waterfowl. Despite the consistently terrible weather during this period, they managed to get out in the field and cover an impressive amount of ground to find goose nests and trap waterfowl for banding and sampling. Despite the long days, they all managed to infuse a huge amount of energy and fun into camp. Will in particular never seems to run out of energy and was generally game for anything from dishwashing, to games, to an epic hike, no matter how long he had spent in the field that day. Jessica is an undergraduate student at UAF and this was one of her first field jobs. Somehow she managed to keep up with Will in the field (no easy task) and remain constantly enthused about the work. Elyssa is starting her master’s work at UAF and will be working primarily with Common Eider on the barrier islands in the Refuge.

IMG_4076A pair of tagged Dunlin in flight. Dunlin molt their primary feathers while nesting, so their wings look a little ragged at this time.

IMG_3724A male King Eider cruising his small lake with the Brooks Range behind.

IMG_9412Polar bear tracks under the midnight sun just Northwest of Camp.

On the 15th of June we were joined in camp by Patricia Del Vecchio and Steve Berendzen, the acting refuge manager, bringing in the total in camp to nine. Patricia and Steve were setting up the fox tagging project and were out in the field for long hours deploying and checking traps. Both Patty and Steve have a wealth of knowledge and experience from working in Alaska for many years and dinner conversation was always fascinating. For instance, I did not know that Golden Eagles would hunt Caribou calves! Steve was only able to be in camp for a few days and had to leave on the 20th with the UAF crew. Chris Latty and Patches Flores joined us on the 20th to carry on the waterfowl work. Chris could only stay a few days as well, but Patches remained with Alan and Alex to close out the season.

IMG_4632Our ride home arrives in camp on June 30th.

Metta and I left on June 30th, heading for Fairbanks and back to the “real” world. Lifting off from camp is always a humbling experience. The scope of the study area, which feels huge when you are trudging through it for miles every day, suddenly looks tiny against the sweeping panorama of the landscape from 5000 feet.

IMG_4653Canning River Delta bird camp on the bluffs above the Staines Slough.

After all the coming and going in camp throughout June, the remaining crew is down to Alan, Alex, and Patches for the month of July. I imagine camp will feel empty but peaceful for the remaining weeks. We wish them well and good luck with the mosquitos!

IMG_4681Abrupt transition between rolling foothills and the North edge of the Brooks Range.

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc.  Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.