Early season challenges at the Canning River shorebird camp

09Glacier Avens. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

While our Spoon-billed Sandpiper crew was starting their surveys out of Kotzebue, our Canning River shorebird crew was preparing to get into the field on the North Slope of Alaska.

Half the challenge of our field season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just getting to our study site. Located three miles from the Beaufort Sea on the Canning River Delta, the site is accessible only by bush plane on skis or tundra tires, depending on the conditions. After a week of prep in Fairbanks, we headed north on June 5th on a 10-hour drive on the Dalton Highway to a US Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse at Galbraith Lake. From there, we would be close enough to shuttle ourselves and our 3500lbs of food and research gear on hour-long flights to our study site.

The drive was stunningly beautiful as we crossed the White Mountains and the Brooks Range before descending down to the lake in the foothills of the mountains. The plan was to fly in our people and gear from Galbraith to the Canning River camp the next day, weather permitting. Unfortunately, the persistent north wind kept a layer of fog over the coastal plain and, though the weather in Galbraith was perfect, we could not fly into camp.

13Shiloh hiking up a ridge at Galbraith Lake

Over the next eight days we repeated the pattern of gearing up, waiting for the weather to clear, and standing down as the flight was called off again. Our consolation was spending over a week in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Galbraith Lake is nestled in among the mountains on the North side of the Brooks Range. The tundra is dryer and features easier walking than our field site and we took advantage of our delay to explore the foothills and landscape around the cabin.

05Returning from a hike in the hills at Galbraith Lake (Shiloh Schulte, Shilo Felton, Lisa Kennedy, Sarah Hoephner, Patches Flores)

Finally, on June 13, we got a brief window of good weather and were able to make a series of flights into camp to bring in some of the crew and supplies. The snow was unusually deep and persistent on the coastal plain this year so, despite the fact that we arrived two weeks later than last year, the snowpack was much more extensive and birds were still arriving.

04Canning River from 1,200 feet. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

The flight into camp is always stunning. As the mountains fall away to the South, the entire coastal plain and vast river deltas open up ahead, with the endless ice sheet over the Beaufort Sea visible to the North. Our early season landing strip is on a frozen lake about a half a mile from camp. Unfortunately, with the extensive snow cover, it was hard to tell which lake was the right one, and the first two crews and gear were dropped off on a lake about two miles away.

10Landing the crew and gear on the frozen lake. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Even after finding the correct landing site, we still had to haul all of the remaining gear via sled up to the campsite through ice, slush, and tussock tundra. The weather closed back in the following morning, and the full crew was not united in camp for another two days.

11Hauling gear back to camp (Patches Flores, Elyssa Watford, and Shilo Felton)

The Canning River camp is larger than it has been in past seasons and features several concurrent studies. The team from Manomet is working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife to search for Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin that had been tagged with GPS trackers last year. We are also deploying new tracking tags on Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

03Canning River field camp. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

08Canada Lynx out on the tundra. Quite an unusual sight north of the treeline. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

These trackers, which sit on the birds like backpacks, record precise locations of the birds after the breeding season and should allow us to identify important staging and feeding sites for conservation along the Alaskan coastlines.

01Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

14Smith’s Longspur. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

In addition to the tracking study, we are working as US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers and assisting the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with multiple projects on the coastal plain. One of these projects assesses the efficacy of monitoring nests with cameras and temperature loggers in an effort to reduce the number of nest visits needed to monitor nest survival. At the same time, a team is conducting a study of the Arctic Fox population in the area by collecting DNA from hair snares and scat.

06Crew training for Arctic Fox sampling. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

We are also catching waterfowl to assess health indicators and prevalence of disease in the population. Finally, we are collecting information on insect diversity and abundance and the presence of herbivores in the study area.

My next post will describe what we found over the following weeks through long days searching for nests and tagged birds. Despite the weather challenges it is an incredible privilege to be able to work in this beautiful and pristine landscape.

 02A flagged Semipalmated Sandpiper takes off on a display flight. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.


The Search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Kotzebue 2018

1 Baz_Scampion_UK SBSA 2A Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds in S. Chukotka in the Russian arctic. Photo credit: Baz Scampion.

This year we have two teams in the arctic, one returning to the Arctic Refuge led by Shiloh Schulte, and our team doing helicopter surveys in NW Alaska to search for the rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

With a population estimated at only 120-200 breeding pairs remaining in the Russian arctic, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one of the most highly endangered species on the planet. Habitat modeling and a few rare sightings from the 1980s suggest it could possibly breed in NW Alaska too, so we are working with an international team of colleagues from Birds Russia, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Park Service, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to begin the search in coastal areas north and south of Kotzebue, Alaska.

2 Kotz Map Survey AreaThis year we are based out of the native village of Kotzebue, Alaska in the NW Arctic Borough, with survey sites stretching several hundred miles north and south along the coast. Kotzebue is the blue dot in the center at the end of the long peninsula. Photo credit: Sara Saafield / ARC GIS image

Our project is a small part of a large international network of organizations working to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper that we will tell you about in our next post.

After meeting up in Kotzebue we finalized our survey plans and reviewed safety procedures with our helicopter pilot. Our 8-member crew did a trial run to collect data and test equipment by documenting avian species along the 9-mile road that circles Kotzebue. The photos below show some of the birds we’ve seen this first day, and we look forward to letting you know what we find as we begin the coastal surveys this week!

3 Pomarine JS

4 Pomarine black JSWe’ve seen many species of birds from the boardwalk and 9-mile ring road around Kotzebue. These photos show an adult Pomarine Jaeger and the unusual black morph Pomarine Jaeger circling near the boardwalk. Photos credit: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society.

5 RNPH Copu JSWe have seen hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes around Kotzebue, mostly in the water-treatment sewage ponds. Here a second female Red-necked Phalarope appears to react to this copulating pair. With phalaropes, the males incubate the eggs while the females sometimes lay a second clutch with a second mate. Photo credit: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society

6 Pacific BWThe breeding range of the Pacific Golden Plover (adult male shown in the cotton grass) overlaps with the American Golden Plover in this region. It has been an extremely early and unusually warm spring in Kotzebue this year. Photo credit: Brad Winn, Manomet

7 Semi JS

8 Semi BWWestern and Semi-palmated Sandpiper also overlap in NW Alaska, though around Kotzebue thus far we have only seen Semis. Top: Jonathan Slaght, Wildlife Conservation Society. Bottom: Brad Winn, Manomet



10 Yell Wagtail BWA number of passerines also come to the far north to breed. The American Tree Sparrow (top) and Yellow Wagtail sing to attract their mates and defend their territories. Photos credit: Brad Winn, Manomet

Intro to the 2018 Field Season

Welcome to another exciting field season with the Shorebird Recovery Program!

This year we are again posting from two different field sites in Alaska as we work to understand what limits Shorebird populations, and which sites are most important for their long migrations.

Shiloh Schulte is working with the crew going back to the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He and the team there put geolocators on several species last year and will be holding their breath to see which birds came back to nest again this year, and then using all their tundra stealth to recapture them so we can collect their geolocators and learn vital secrets about where they have spent the past year. They will also be putting out new tags that can report their specific location by satellite. This collaborative project is led by Rick Lanctot from USFWS, together with Chris Latty of the Arctic Refuge, and continues our work started as the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network. Shiloh will post soon to introduce this year’s team working at the Arctic Refuge and share the beginning of their story. So far it has been so cold and snowy on the distant north slope that the team has been waiting in Fairbanks for the weather to improve and the birds to arrive!

Meanwhile, another new project is just getting started in several National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in northwest Alaska. The National Park Service wanted to know if any Spoon-billed sandpipers, one of the world’s most endangered shorebirds normally only found across the Bering Strait in Russia, might be using similar habitats in Alaska. We will be doing surveys as part of the ongoing international collaboration called the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring to both search for this rare species, and also document what other shorebirds are using these areas. We are again working with Rick Lanctot as well as colleagues at the National Park Service on this project and will be based in Kotzebue Alaska. Brad Winn and Metta McGarvey are returning to work on this new project, and all three of us will be updating you on how the project is unfolding, and the interesting encounters we have in this region.

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Flying over the Alaska Range while heading north through rugged mountains laced with glaciers.

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Once north of the mountains, the vast wetlands of the coastal tundra stretch beyond view.