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.

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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.

Arctic Spring!

SESA Baby SSThis day old chick is already able to run around in the grass and will be independent of its parents within a couple of weeks.  Photo: Shiloh Schulte

It’s finally spring in the Arctic, and baby birds are hatching! The shorebird and eider crews combined have discovered more than 300 nests this year, and so we have been very busy because the nests that are close to hatch need to be checked every day (instead of every 3-8 days during incubation)!

In the sequence below, you can see how difficult it is to find nests on the tundra—in this case a newly hatching Semipalmated Sandpiper nest.

SESA 1 MMStanding just 1 meter away this hatching Semipalmated Sandpiper nest is virtually invisible. It is the dark crescent shape in the center of the screen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

SESA 2 MMWith the camera about 18” above the nest it is still barely visible. Photo: Metta McGarvey

SESA 3 MMWith the camera on the macro setting you can now discern 3 chicks facing right; the fourth unhatched egg is underneath the chicks. Photo: Metta McGarvey

Our earliest nests to hatch are Lapland Longspur with an incubation of just 12 days, then shorebirds with an average incubation of 22 days. Waterfowl including most ducks and geese average 24 days as do loon, and longest are Tundra Swan with a 32-day incubation.

PALO SSPacific Loons nest on most of the larger ponds and lakes in the study area. This loon was taking a break from fishing to preen and bask in the late evening sun. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

TUSW SSThis Tundra Swan holds a commanding view from her nest perched high on a pingo. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

GWFG Nest SSFor such a large and noisy bird, this nesting Greater White-fronted Goose has an amazing ability to vanish into the grass to avoid potential nest predators. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

We are also delighted to report that we finished deploying all of the GPS trackers several days ago! We attached harnessed with trackers to 15 Semipalmated Sandpiper and 9 Dunlin. Retrieving these trackers from these birds will be the primary goal of our work at this camp in 2018.

DUNL 1 MMShiloh Schulte positions the GPS tracker while Alan Kneidel holds the Dunlin. Photo: Metta McGarvey

DUNL 2 MMShiloh navigates the challenge of getting the harness loops around the legs of the Dunlin and properly positioned so it does not interfere with the bird’s movement while walking and in flight. Photo: Metta McGarvey

DUNL 3 MMA successfully attached harness! Photo: Metta McGarvey

We’ve had a great deal of cold, windy, and foggy weather this field season with only two nice days at the start and about four nice days recently – though it is wintry again with temps in the 30s and 40s as we write this in late June.

Brooding Sky SSMost of our days thus far have been cold, windy, and foggy or overcast. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Rainbow SSSouthwest winds bring occasional warm days including rain that ended with this lovely rainbow over golden tundra grasses. Twice we’ve heard thunder here, north of the Brooks Range—another sign of a warming climate. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

A few additional people have come and gone from camp, including a pilot fox monitoring project this year that we will update you on when we have time for a longer post. In the meantime, here are a few more lovely photos from this very special time in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

AGPL Nest SSAmerican Golden-plovers are scarce in the area. This bird nests close to camp and is used to our comings and goings. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

PESA Chicks Far SSTucked safely into the tall grass this nest of baby Pectoral Sandpipers is virtually invisible until you are right on top of it. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

PESA Chicks Close SSNewly hatched shorebird chicks like these baby Pectoral Sandpipers only remain in the nest for 24 hours or less before venturing off through the grass in search of insects. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

RNPH ALLiving on the ocean except when breeding, this male Red-necked Phalarope takes a break from incubating to catch a newly hatched mosquito. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

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.

Rugged Weather

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

We always expect some wintry weather in early June in the Arctic. This year has been exceptional. After two glorious sunny days when we flew in and set up camp (though with temps in the 30s), we have had 12 days of mostly sub-freezing temperatures, howling winds gusting over 30 MPH at times, and many overcast days with bouts of freezing fog, pelting snow, and freezing rain. This is the longest consistent stretch of bad weather any of us can remember.

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean icepack during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean ice pack  during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

When the weather is this cold and windy shorebirds hunker down and often interrupt or wait to initiate laying their eggs. This makes it very difficult to find shorebird nests, or to do much banding. But in the rare patches of sunshine, the birds are in full glorious display.

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

As a result of the weather, we have only 3 newly banded Dunlin equipped with a GPS tracker to date, but our crews have found 35 shorebird nests including Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. We also have 71 waterfowl nests of which 50 are Cackling Goose, as well as Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Black Brant, King Eider, Canada Goose, and Long-tailed Duck. The remaining 28 nests include Lapland Longspur, Glaucous Gull, and Parasitic Jaeger.

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Weather forecasts predict less wind but temperatures remaining in the 30s, so it’s not clear when we will have weather good enough to deploy trackers on tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers. Our colleagues in Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) report a similarly late spring, and have not been able to deploy any GPS trackers yet.

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

We have had a few breaks in the clouds and a couple of mostly sunny days that reveal inspiring views of the Brooks Range that lift our spirits.

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

 Even with fierce weather we have had some spectacular bird sightings as you’ll see in the photos below.

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

One side benefit to the rugged weather has been some extra time in camp to get the banding and lab gear organized and work out routines for managing samples and data. The consistent cold has also provided great refrigeration, and we’ve had time to cook hearty meals including homemade stews, chilis, curries, and pizza using a backpacker’s oven on top of the camp stove.

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

So far we’ve seen very few mammals. There have been occasional Caribou and Red Fox, including this one diligently hunting for eggs and lemmings. Although we’ve seen only one lemming so far, we have observed fox pounce on them through the snow so we know they are still in their burrows due to the late spring. Fortunately we’ve seen no grizzly or polar bear yet, though there is clear evidence of grizzly digging ground squirrels out of the river bank next to our tents in the form of big holes and big scats!

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

In the next post, Shiloh will introduce you to the crew and give you an update on nest searching and deploying trackers.

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.