How To Count Arctic Shorebirds

One of our three projects this season is conducting surveys across the Arctic Refuge coastal plan to find out how many shorebirds are there. We do this for many reasons, primarily as part of a large and coordinated arctic-wide survey that is part of the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring or PRISM. This program developed out of the U.S. and Canadian Shorebird Plans and aims to track populations of all the shorebirds that breed in North America. We use the data to track the health of shorebird species, and also to measure increases from conservation action or decreases from threats they face. We also use the data to identify critical sites based on what percentage of the population uses them, and we need the entire population count to find out what sites have a large proportion of the population. For arctic nesting shorebirds, the best time to count them is while they are breeding, because individuals spread themselves out across the landscape and set up nesting territories where they sing and display.

Shorebird nests are incredibly well hidden, they have to be to survive the many arctic predators, especially foxes and Jaegers. That means it’s very hard to find them, so we can’t count shorebirds by counting nests. While normally quiet when we see them on migration, arctic shorebirds sing energetically and display aggressively on their nesting grounds, adding a delightful side to their otherwise demure behaviors, and also making them possible to count.

Can you see the Semipalmated Sandpiper nest in this photo?  I can’t either, and I know where it is, in a small mound in the center of the foreground.  And that’s camp in the background. Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS

Can you see the Semipalmated Sandpiper nest in this photo? I can’t either, and I know where it is, in a small mound in the center of the foreground. And that’s camp in the background. Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS

If you step a little closer, you can just make out the small opening above the eggs in the small mound in the center of the photo.

If you step a little closer, you can just make out the small opening above the eggs in the small mound in the center of the photo.

Here’s the nest, well camouflaged in the tundra.  It’s very difficult to find shorebird nests without cues from the adults.  That’s why we count the adults and not the nests. Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS

Here’s the nest, well camouflaged in the tundra. It’s very difficult to find shorebird nests without cues from the adults. That’s why we count the adults and not the nests. Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS

To find out how many shorebirds use habitats of different types across the tundra, we first categorize the many different types of tundra into classes, mostly related to how wet or dry they are. Habitats that are wetter are generally better for both shorebirds and waterfowl, but we have to visit all types to figure out how many birds are using the entire landscape. So we randomly select plots that are representative of different habitat types and visit them all during the course of our survey.

Drier upland tundra like this tussock tundra generally has fewer birds, but sometimes has some, and there are lovely views of the upper parts of the coastal plain to distract you from the ankle and knee busting terrain.

Drier upland tundra like this tussock tundra generally has fewer birds, but sometimes has some, and there are lovely views of the upper parts of the coastal plain to distract you from the ankle and knee busting terrain.

The lower parts of the coastal plain are full of wetlands like this one, and the abundant water makes for a high density and diversity of shorebirds and waterfowl.  As long as there are small higher places to nest!

The lower parts of the coastal plain are full of wetlands like this one, and the abundant water makes for a high density and diversity of shorebirds and waterfowl. As long as there are small higher places to nest!

We also survey habitats along the rivers and streams, where gravel bars are common, and where you find birds adapted to nest on gravel. Semipalmated Sandpipers are one of my personal favorites.

We saw more birds that use riverine habitats on the survey this year, like this Semipalmated Plover…

We saw more birds that use riverine habitats on the survey this year, like this Semipalmated Plover…

…and this Ruddy Turnstone, because we created a habitat strata in riverine areas to better capture this rich but relatively rare habitat type and the birds that depend on it.

…and this Ruddy Turnstone, because we created a habitat stratum in riverine areas to better capture this rich but relatively rare habitat type and the birds that depend on it.

For all these nesting shorebirds, the period when they are singing and displaying is short, usually confined to the time when they are finding mates, setting up territories, and defending their territories from others. That means the window for doing this work is very short, usually around 10 days in the early spring. It is very difficult to time the survey precisely because the onset of spring varies from year to year, and we need to plan our travel and reserve dates with a helicopter company many months in advance. This year spring came early on the tundra, so we were rushing to get our crew in place in time to see and count the birds while they were still displaying.

Because we have to cover a very large area during our survey (the coastal plain is the size of the state of Delaware), we depend on a small helicopter to access the remote plots. This year we flew with Pollux Aviation, who does an amazing job working with us and our partners at USFWS. Our pilot Nick was just great and worked with us to safely access all of our plots during the times in between the foggy weather when we could make it to our widely scattered survey areas. The helicopter is quite small, and just barely has room for the pilot and three surveyors with their gear for the day.

Ready to head out for surveys, the crew is packed in like sardines in the tiny Robinson R-44.  Good thing we all get along so well!  Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS.

Ready to head out for surveys, the crew is packed in like sardines in the tiny Robinson R-44. Good thing we all get along so well! Photo credit Stephen Brown/USFWS.

But even with the birds singing up a storm and doing all their displays, they aren’t always visible at any given time, so we miss some during our brief visits to each plot that last only about an hour and a half. So we need a way to correct for birds we missed, which is called a detection rate. Over the many years we have been doing PRISM surveys, we have studied some plots the same size as our survey plots very intensively, and we very cleverly call these Intensive Plots. On these plots, shorebird scientists spend the whole season carefully finding and tracking each nest, and then the rapid surveys are carried out as usual by other scientists who have no idea what birds are there, just like at our regular survey locations. From those intensive plots, we can calculate how many of each species we miss, and on average it turns out that we see and count about 80 percent of the birds on a plot. We use those data, updated each year, to calculate the total populations, including the birds we likely missed.

This female Pectoral Sandpiper is taking a break from incubation, and has a nest nearby.  You would never find the nest unless the bird shows you where it is when it returns to start incubating again, so sometimes we miss birds on our survey, and have to estimate how many we didn’t ever see.

This female Pectoral Sandpiper is taking a break from incubation and has a nest nearby. You would never find the nest unless the bird shows you where it is when it returns to start incubating again, so sometimes we miss birds on our survey and have to estimate how many we didn’t ever see.

We have now finished our PRISM surveys, and are starting the process of entering all the data. Soon we will have new population estimates, both for the Arctic Refuge coastal plain itself and also as a part of the overall population estimate for each species for the entire Arctic. As we wrap up this first project, we are very grateful to all our supporters, especially the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the many private donors who provided matching gifts, for making the work possible. Next up, the crew is shifting to the second and third major projects of the season, tracking how long nests of various species survive on the tundra, and tracking their movements and habitat use after the nesting season with satellite tags. We will be reporting on those efforts soon.

 

 

Hurry Up and Wait

Once the gear is shipped and the truck is packed, the 866-mile drive north begins. Starting from Anchorage, we spent the night of May 31st in Fairbanks followed by the spectacular drive up the Dalton Highway over the Brooks Range to Galbraith Lake on June 1st.

Photo credit: Lindall Kidd

Photo credit: Lindall Kidd

Photo credit: Metta McGarvey

Photo credit: Metta McGarvey. Ethan & Metta at the start of the Dalton Highway which begins about 70 miles north of Fairbanks and runs 416 miles north to Prudhoe Bay. It was built in a two-year period in the 1970s to service the Prudhoe Bay pipeline.

3.3 Yukon

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Crossing the Yukon River, we take a much needed stretch break. Except where it goes underground, the pipeline is visible along most of the Dalton Highway.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Crossing the Yukon River, we take a much-needed stretch break. Except where it goes underground, the pipeline is visible along most of the Dalton Highway.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. In addition to spectacular views, the pressures of 24/7 connectivity begin to fall away and a slower, more contemplative pace begins to unfold as we head further into the wilderness.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. In addition to spectacular views, the pressures of 24/7 connectivity begin to fall away and a slower, more contemplative pace begins to unfold as we head further into the wilderness.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Crossing the Arctic Circle is a major milestone of the drive.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Crossing the Arctic Circle is a major milestone of the drive.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Nearing Coldfoot and the Brooks Range, Ethan and Metta enjoy the beautiful long light of the midnight sun.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Nearing Coldfoot and the Brooks Range, Ethan and Metta enjoy the beautiful long light of the midnight sun.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. About 40 miles north of Coldfoot, Lindall and Ethan are awed by the foothills of the Brooks Range. It’s another 70 miles or so up and over Atigun Pass to the US Fish and Wildlife cabin. We stage out on a gravel airstrip maintained by the oil companies at Galbraith Lake.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. About 40 miles north of Coldfoot, Lindall and Ethan are awed by the foothills of the Brooks Range. It’s another 70 miles or so up and over Atigun Pass to the US Fish and Wildlife cabin. We stage out on a gravel airstrip maintained by the oil companies at Galbraith Lake.

Having arrived at Galbraith late on June 1st, we shift into ‘tundra mode’ summarized in the catchphrase “Hurry up and wait!” We rush to get everything ready and transported to be in place on the date we set for the pilots to meet us, then we have to wait for favorable weather conditions before we can fly into camp. Our helicopter pilot from Pollux Aviation, Nick Myers, arrived before us and we had a half day hike on June 2nd. Galbraith Lake lies on the west side of the Dalton Highway in Gates of the Arctic National Park, with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the east side.

3.9 Galb Hike

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Our group takes a lunch break after hiking to this unusual waterfall in Atigun Gorge on the Arctic Refuge side of the highway. Along the way, we encountered this impressive bear scat full of caribou fur, most likely from the previous fall.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Our group takes a lunch break after hiking to this unusual waterfall in Atigun Gorge on the Arctic Refuge side of the highway. Along the way, we encountered this impressive bear scat full of caribou fur, most likely from the previous fall.

That evening, we prepared a load of large and hazmat items for Nick to transport from Galbraith to camp with the helicopter via sling load the next day, June 3rd. Nick is a master of helicopter slinging (we will post a video of him slinging AV gas into camp in a future post), but unfortunately, the hook malfunctioned and our load dropped to the tundra from 500 feet, damaging or destroying most of the load. That created a great deal of last-minute scrambling for Stephen and Shiloh (who were still in Anchorage) and Ethan in Prudhoe, to replace all of the contents of the sling, including all of our propane for the cook stove for camp!

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Nick and Ethan carefully arrange a load of large items such as our AV gas containers and Yeti coolers, along with most of our hazmat items, to be transported to camp with the helicopter sling.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Nick and Ethan carefully arrange a load of large items such as our AV gas containers and Yeti coolers, along with most of our hazmat items, to be transported to camp with the helicopter sling.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Our propane tanks survived but became untrustworthy from damage. We had a special hose made in Prudhoe to transfer the propane to larger tanks in the camp at Kavik while Ethan tracked down how to purchase and fill new tanks for camp in Prudhoe.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Our propane tanks survived but became untrustworthy from damage. We had a special hose made in Prudhoe to transfer the propane to larger tanks in the camp at Kavik while Ethan tracked down how to purchase and fill new tanks for camp in Prudhoe.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. One of our Yeti coolers was damaged beyond use, and the food inside looked like it had been through a Cuisinart!

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. One of our Yeti coolers was damaged beyond use, and the food inside looked like it had been through a Cuisinart!

This year, the logistics of getting everyone and all the gear to camp was especially complicated. Our camp is on the Katakturuk River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with seven people for 21 days. But we coordinated with the Canning River camp which had nine people at initial put-in and eight weeks of supplies! The drive from Galbraith to Prudhoe was spectacular though, with the highlight being two small herds of musk ox.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Driving north from Galbraith in gorgeous full sun, we could see the fog bank from the Arctic Ocean in the distance toward Prudhoe.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Driving north from Galbraith in gorgeous full sun, we could see the fog bank from the Arctic Ocean in the distance toward Prudhoe.

3.15 Musk Ox

3.16 EBB Musk Ox

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. We saw two small herds of musk ox en route to Prudhoe, including this handsome beast right next to the highway where we took photos from inside the truck.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. One group of musk ox was sleeping when we came past them; upon waking, this one had a good stretch and roll on the tundra.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. One group of musk ox was sleeping when we came past them; upon waking, this one had a good stretch and roll on the tundra.

For our camp, Ethan, Metta, and Lindall first had to claim our gear from Anchorage from the Carlisle warehouse at the airport in Prudhoe and repack for transport in a Caravan to an airstrip at Kavik. After a full load of gear for both camps, a second Caravan load took the rest of the gear and the last three crew to Kavik on June 3rd.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Arrival in Prudhoe Bay is a stark contract with fog, 32-degree weather, and massive industrial infrastructure for the oil industry.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. Arrival in Prudhoe Bay is a stark contract with fog, 32-degree weather, and massive industrial infrastructure for the oil industry.

3.19 Shipment

3.20 Caravan Load

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Ethan and Metta prepare items for transfer to the small plane. The guys at Carlisle were super helpful and professional. A big shout out to Carlisle for their help and expertise. At last, with everything loaded, Lindall and Metta climbed in and took a selfie to mark the moment.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd. Ethan and Metta prepare items for transfer to the small plane. The guys at Carlisle were super helpful and professional. A big shout out to Carlisle for their help and expertise. At last, with everything loaded, Lindall and Metta climbed in and took a selfie to mark the moment.

After arrival at the camp at Kavik, Lindall and Metta were grounded by fog until June 5th. Meanwhile, Rick Lanctot, Stephen Brown, and Shiloh Schulte flew from Anchorage to Prudhoe one June 4th, where Ethan picked them up and took them to Galbraith for a night as Prudhoe was also fogged in. After 36 hours in wait mode, the fog cleared late morning on June 5th at which point everyone was in “hurry up” mode again!

3.22 Kavik 1

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. The camp at Kavik is rustic by our normal standards, but greatly luxurious and appreciated in 32-degree fog with pesky bears about!

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey. The camp at Kavik is rustic by our normal standards, but greatly luxurious and appreciated in 32-degree fog with pesky bears about!

With Ethan as chauffeur, Rick Lanctot was met by Dan Shelden, a pilot for the Arctic Refuge for FWS at a small airstrip between Galbraith and Prudhoe called Happy Valley with a Cessna 185. He then took Stephen and Shiloh to Prudhoe to meet Nick where the hook for the sling was being serviced.

3.24 Happy Valley

Photo Credit: Ethan Beal-Brown / USFWS. The Fish & Wildlife pilot picks up Rick Lanctot and more gear from Happy Valley while Nick brings Stephen and Shiloh from Prudhoe on June 5th.

Photo Credit: Ethan Beal-Brown / USFWS. The Fish & Wildlife pilot picks up Rick Lanctot and more gear from Happy Valley while Nick brings Stephen and Shiloh from Prudhoe on June 5th.

After refueling in Kavik, Dan flew Rick and Lindall with a load of gear into camp, at last, followed by Stephen and Shiloh, and Metta with the last load of gear from Kavik. It was a long night getting camp set up but enthusiasm was high and we were thrilled to be safely together in such a beautiful, remote wilderness setting to begin our work.

3.26 Camp Arrive

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd / USFWS. Lindall and Rick arrive with a load of gear in a Cessna 185 while Metta comes last in the helicopter from Kavik with Nick.

Photo Credit: Lindall Kidd / USFWS. Lindall and Rick arrive with a load of gear in a Cessna 185 while Metta comes last in the helicopter from Kavik with Nick.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey / USFWS. Our camp on the Kataturuk River, in a beautiful wide valley between bluffs.

Photo Credit: Metta McGarvey / USFWS. Our camp on the Kataturuk River, in a beautiful wide valley between bluffs.

 

 

 

List Mania

Preparing to deploy a camp for field research is a big job in any location; working in the Arctic by helicopter makes the logistics especially challenging. On the one hand, conditions in the Arctic and working by helicopter require more gear to handle the weather conditions and prepare for emergencies. On the other, the cost of getting everything needed to such remote locations is daunting so we try to keep it to a minimum.

Metta just loaded up the helicopter with the pilot for the first flight into camp.

Metta just loaded up the helicopter with the pilot for the first flight into camp.

 

Every year we go through all our gear and supplies in the warehouse to determine what is good to go, what needs repair, and what needs replacing or to be purchased new for the specific projects each year. Fortunately, after nearly 20 years of running field camps in the Arctic, we have our prep down to a science as well. My gear spreadsheet has 5 tabs with 464 lines covering camp and crew gear, and banding and office supplies. That doesn’t include the food and the other shopping list, which is 274 lines. In addition, we have to pack carefully, labeling contents so we can find essential items for putting up camp when we arrive, as well as designating hazmat items that have to be separated in different ways for commercial truck and air, bush plane, and helicopter transport.

Metta oversees the loading of packed gear from the warehouse. Thanks to Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, the importance of checklists is better understood than when we started nearly 20 years ago!

Metta oversees the loading of packed gear from the warehouse. Thanks to Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, the importance of checklists is better understood than when we started nearly 20 years ago!

 

This year Ethan Beal-Brown (Stephen’s son) and I devoted most of May to working out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service warehouse in Anchorage preparing for our camp on the Kataturik River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After a couple of weeks of testing gear, staging what is needed, and shopping, the packing begins.

Shelves of gear in the warehouse.

Shelves of gear in the warehouse.

 

We spend weeks among the dusty shelves of the Anchorage warehouse, seen from high on a ladder in this cavernous, unheated space.

We spend weeks among the dusty shelves of the Anchorage warehouse, seen from high on a ladder in this cavernous, unheated space.

 

Ethan wraps breakable items in bubble wrap prior to packing.

Ethan wraps breakable items in bubble wrap prior to packing.

 

Food items then get packed in bear-proof barrels.

Food items then get packed in bear-proof barrels.

 

Once everything is packed, we load pallets for shipping by truck to the north slope. This year we had 3 pallets including an Arctic Oven work tent, a large cook tent, 5 bear barrels with food, camp kitchen gear, helicopter helmets, flight suits and emergency gear, and other essentials.

Packed gear gets carefully loaded onto pallets then shrink wrapped.

Packed gear gets carefully loaded onto pallets then shrink wrapped.

 

A trucking company loads our pallets for shipment to Prudhoe Bay.

A trucking company loads our pallets for shipment to Prudhoe Bay.

 

Days are always long working on these projects, with early mornings often spent at the computer, days in the warehouse, and evenings catching up on emails, revising lists, and preparing meals. With people working long hard days under tough conditions in camp, I plan a good dinner every night and tuck away special treats to pull out later in the project. This year with 6 in camp (5 of us and our helicopter pilot) for most of June we planned 144 breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners in camp, plus several days of travel and transit for a smaller group.

This year I also prepared two homemade meals to freeze and bring to camp while staying at the home of our colleague River Gates who many of you may remember as the ornithologist who coordinated Manomet’s Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network from 2010-2014, and who ran the camp at Cape Krusenstern in the NW Alaskan Arctic. River and her husband Bert Lewis, together with their sons Simon (5) and Logan (1) have provided us with the most wonderful lodging and hospitality for the past several years at their home in the hills of south Anchorage.

Metta prepares a curry for camp while River introduces her son Logan to our shared love of culinary pleasures.

Metta prepares a curry for camp while River introduces her son Logan to our shared love of culinary pleasures.

 

The final days of preparation are dominated by tracking down hard to find items, and packing gear we bring by a FWS truck, including most of the fresh food items, propane tanks, a generator and gas cans, 3-30 gallon AV gas containers for the helicopter, as well as our personal gear. All told this year our shipment was 1400 lbs., with another almost 1000 lbs. in the truck, not including the 630 lbs. of AV gas when we fill those containers at an airstrip close to camp. Not so great with respect to keeping it minimal!

Ethan ties off the AV gas and propane containers for the long drive up the haul road.

Ethan ties off the AV gas and propane containers for the long drive up the haul road.

 

Ethan and Metta celebrate the end of the warehouse work with a selfie in front of some other program’s fleet of ATVs. Do you think they’d miss one?

Ethan and Metta celebrate the end of the warehouse work with a selfie in front of some other program’s fleet of ATVs. Do you think they’d miss one?

 

Ethan and Metta in the truck ready to leave River’s house for the epic 866 mile, 20 hour road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks then up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.

Ethan and Metta in the truck ready to leave River’s house for the epic 866-mile, 20-hour road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks then up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.

 

In addition to all the work, we try to find a little time to enjoy the incredible opportunities for outdoor adventure that Alaska provides. This year Ethan and I managed two-day trips, first a boat trip from Seward for a Kenai Fjords wildlife tour, the other a spectacular day hike in Chugach State Park right from Anchorage. A big part of what motivates my work in this project is our deep understanding of the importance of wild places and protecting the needs of all the other beings with whom we share this planet. We hope you get a moment of respite and renewal from these photos that capture some of the ineffable and essential soul-nourishing qualities that being in the wilderness provides.

Metta hiking with River’s dog Ruby in a high bowl between peaks of the Chugach mountains on a 10-mile hike with Ethan.

Metta hiking with River’s dog Ruby in a high bowl between peaks of the Chugach mountains on a 10-mile hike with Ethan.

 

Having hiked up into that high bowl, we faced this daunting extremely steep scree slope on the other side.

Having hiked up into that high bowl, we faced this daunting extremely steep scree slope on the other side.

 

Navigating scree is always tricky; here Metta carefully and slowly makes her way down.

Navigating scree is always tricky; here Metta carefully and slowly makes her way down.

 

Ethan and Metta enjoy the spectacular scenery of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Ethan and Metta enjoy the spectacular scenery of Kenai Fjords National Park.

 

This Black-legged Kittiwake colony was one of many spectacular wildlife sightings. Others included humpback whale, Stellar’s sea lions, sea otter, puffin, murre, and a Black Oystercatcher.

This Black-legged Kittiwake colony was one of many spectacular wildlife sightings. Others included humpback whale, Stellar’s sea lions, sea otter, puffin, murre, and a Black Oystercatcher.