Sleep is optional in the land of the Midnight Sun

All photos by Shiloh Schulte unless otherwise noted.

Late night fog and sun at camp.

Late-night fog and sun at camp.

I am writing this post on the flight home. It’s been a crazy day so far. After staying in camp a couple of days longer than planned because of weather challenges, Nick was able to come in from Kavik this morning with the R44 helicopter and bring me to the Prudhoe Bay Airport. From there, I was able to get on a flight to Anchorage via Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Fairbanks. From Anchorage, I am heading to Seattle and then Boston and then home! Should be about 24 hours from my tent to my front door if all goes well.

The view from my front door in the Katakturuk camp.

The view from my front door in the Katakturuk camp.

Lindall Kidd and Jordan Muir ready to take on the day.

Lindall Kidd and Jordan Muir ready to take on the day.

The last two weeks have been intense. After concluding the PRISM shorebird surveys, we switched immediately to working on a study of shorebird nest survival in the Western coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We are trying to map variation in nest survival from the foothills to the coast and identify highly productive areas. To do this we first had to find the nests which, as Stephen described in an earlier post, are incredibly well camouflaged in this environment. Each morning, teams of two head out via helicopter to pre-selected random points on the coastal plain and spend up to four hours searching that area for nesting shorebirds and waterfowl. We then move to another point and do it again, trying to find as many nests as possible each day. With three teams in the field, the logistics get challenging, even with a helicopter and a great pilot. Fog can roll in off the ocean at any time and foil our plans in a hurry.

A male Red Phalarope broods his chicks. Male phalaropes are responsible for incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. Female Red Phalaropes sometimes lay multiple clutches with different males and do not raise the young.

A male Red Phalarope broods his chicks. Male phalaropes are responsible for incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks. Female Red Phalaropes sometimes lay multiple clutches with different males and do not raise the young.

A baby Red Phalarope hiding in the sedge.

A baby Red Phalarope hiding in the sedge.

We lucked out on the weather for the most part during this project, but as a result, we ran into some other difficulties. The exceptionally warm weather and early spring in the Alaskan Arctic meant the birds all started nesting early. By the time we started searching some nests were already hatching when normally they would just be starting incubation. As soon as we began it was a race against time to find as many nests as possible before they hatched. Shorebird nest searching requires a combination of endurance and patience. Sometimes the best strategy is just to hike systematically for hours and eventually you will flush a bird off a nest. At other times you need to carefully read a bird’s behavior to determine if it has a nest and then where to wait to observe the bird so you can find the nest. Too close and the bird will become agitated and refuse to go back to the nest. Too far away and you will lose sight of it in the grass and sedge. If you are wrong about the behavior you can spend a long time watching a bird that does not have a nest, which wastes valuable time. Each species has a different strategy for hiding their nest and foiling nest predators. When we find a nest we record the species and the age of the nest, then add a tiny sensor that will record the temperature of the nest every few minutes. After the nesting season is over we can go back and collect all these sensors and use the temperature data to identify whether each nest hatched or failed. At some nests, we are also placing game cameras to identify nest predators.

Shiloh Schulte deploys a nest camera. Photo by Jordan Muir.

Shiloh Schulte deploys a nest camera. Photo by Jordan Muir.

In addition to the nest survival study, we are deploying GPS tags on several shorebird species to continue a project tracking post-breeding movement, habitat use, and migration patterns. To catch a shorebird we first need to find the nest and then set up a net trap. All of the nesting birds in the tagging study have to be separate from the nest survival study, so this means another round of nest searching and then banding in the evening after 8-10 hours in the field earlier in the day. With 24 hour daylight, we can keep working as long as we need to, so this makes for some long but deeply rewarding days.

With a bird in the hand, we first attach a leg band, then take a series of standard measurements to assess health, age, and sex of the bird. Finally, we slip on a harness with a GPS tag attached. The total weight of the tag and bands has to be less than 3% of the bird’s body weight to avoid impacting the flight ability or behavior of the bird. The tags are programmed to start recording in late June, and we should start getting weekly updates on their locations in July. At the Katakturuk camp, we tagged six Pectoral Sandpipers, five American Golden-Plovers, and one Whimbrel.

Lindall Kidd and Rick Lanctot finish banding and tagging an American Golden-Plover.

Lindall Kidd and Rick Lanctot finish banding and tagging an American Golden-Plover.

Shiloh Schulte releases a tagged American Golden-Plover. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

Shiloh Schulte releases a tagged American Golden-Plover. Photo by Metta McGarvey.

A GPS-tagged Red Phalarope coming in for landing. These birds spend the winter on the open Pacific Ocean, but their migration routes and exact wintering areas remain a mystery. Hopefully this study will help resolve that.

A GPS-tagged Red Phalarope coming in for landing. These birds spend the winter on the open Pacific Ocean, but their migration routes and exact wintering areas remain a mystery. Hopefully this study will help resolve that.

All too soon, the work at the Katakturuk Camp was over and the rest of the crew dispersed back to their lives outside of the Arctic. I moved over to the Canning River camp where I worked last year and spent the next week helping the Fish and Wildlife Service crew with their work and deploying GPS tags on Red Phalaropes. Red Phalaropes nest in large wetlands and are not found in the uplands near the Katakturuk camp. At the Canning, I also had the opportunity to help a little on a study of Arctic Foxes. On my last night in camp, I hiked down to a fox den a few miles away to swap out camera cards on the game cameras at the den. It was a perfect Arctic night with stunning golden light and still air so I could see and hear for miles. I only saw the kits from a distance but both parents were there and watched me closely when I was near the den but settled down quickly as soon as I moved off.

Arctic Fox lounging near his den.

Arctic Fox lounging near his den.

I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with a top-notch team in one of the last wild places in the country. The Arctic Refuge is stunning and intimidating and absolutely essential to a whole range of species from lichen and flowers to migratory shorebirds to seals and whales and bears. I am very excited to be almost home to see my family, but already looking forward to my next trip North.

Golden light of midnight over the Canning River.

Golden light of midnight over the Canning River.

 

 

 

The Camp at the Katakturuk River

Our field camp this year is nestled in a small valley in the foothills of the Brooks Range alongside the Katakturuk River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Katakturuk is a small river running about 30 miles from its headwaters in the Brooks to the Arctic Ocean. This area is much drier than the coastal wetlands where I normally work, with hills on both sides of the river and dry upland lichen tundra all around. This field site is a strong contender for the most beautiful site I have ever worked in. Herds of caribou wander through the valley every day against the backdrop of stunning mountains. The valley floor is carpeted with Dryas, Arctic Poppies, Cottongrass, Wooly Lousewort, and many other small flowers. Along the river, the dwarf willows are finally leafing out.

The Manomet/USFWS field camp on the Katakturuk River in the foothills of the Brooks Range

The Manomet/USFWS field camp on the Katakturuk River in the foothills of the Brooks Range

Dryas and Oxytropis in bloom along the Katakturuk River flats

Dryas and Oxytropis in bloom along the Katakturuk River flats

Caribou use the lingering snow and ice fields to escape the hordes of mosquitos.

Caribou use the lingering snow and ice fields to escape the hordes of mosquitos.

Caribou moving through the valley on their way to the coast.

Caribou moving through the valley on their way to the coast.

 

The bird life here is remarkable. Peregrine Falcons nest on the bluff upriver, and Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls hunt for lemmings and shorebirds along the valley floor. I spotted a Gyrfalcon overhead one day, but have not seen it again. The willows are full of Eastern Yellow Wagtails flitting constantly among the shrubs along with Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Tree Sparrows, Lapland Longspurs and a few White-crowned Sparrows. About a mile upriver Smith’s Longspurs are nesting, which are at the northern limit of their range. Metta found a Smith’s Longspur nest, which I had never seen before. Two members of the crew saw a single Bluethroat, a bird high on the list of birds I want to see, but so far just the one sighting. I still have another week in this camp before moving to the Canning River, so I have not given up hope!

 

A Peregrine Falcon uses speed and stealth to hunt shorebirds and waterfowl over open tundra.

A Peregrine Falcon uses speed and stealth to hunt shorebirds and waterfowl over open tundra.

Yellow Wagtails were abundant in the willow thickets along the rivers, but always in motion and difficult to photograph!

Yellow Wagtails were abundant in the willow thickets along the rivers, but always in motion and difficult to photograph!

A male Lapland Longspur with a load of food for hungry babies

A male Lapland Longspur with a load of food for hungry babies

A male Smith’s Longspur balances on a willow shrub on a windy day

A male Smith’s Longspur balances on a willow shrub on a windy day

 

The dry upland along the river is perfect nesting habitat for American Golden-Plovers, one of my favorite Arctic shorebirds. We will be tagging six of these birds with satellite transmitters over the next week in order to understand more about their movements within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as their migration pathways and timing. Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers are nesting along the river and I found my first Baird’s Sandpiper nest only about 250 yards from camp.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nest on the gravel flats in braided river channels. Golden-plovers do not care for the competition and will chase the smaller plovers if they venture into their feeding and nesting territories

Semipalmated Sandpipers nest on the gravel flats in braided river channels. Golden-plovers do not care for the competition and will chase the smaller plovers if they venture into their feeding and nesting territories

Baird’s Sandpipers nest in short vegetation and rely on cryptic coloration and the ability to remain perfectly motionless while on the nest.

Baird’s Sandpipers nest in short vegetation and rely on cryptic coloration and the ability to remain perfectly motionless while on the nest.

American Golden-Plovers always seem to choose scenic nesting locations. This pair nested in a field of Arctic Lupine.

American Golden-Plovers always seem to choose scenic nesting locations. This pair nested in a field of Arctic Lupine.

 

Just to the North of camp, there is a long swath of wetter tundra, which is good for Pectoral Sandpipers, another species we are studying. In an exciting find, we also have nesting Whimbrel in the valley. We heard the Whimbrel on our first night in camp, but when I went to look for their nest a couple of days later I discovered not only their nest but three others within two miles of camp. In total, I think there are between 8 and 12 nesting pair in the area. This is significant because Whimbrel are another species of concern due to population declines and this site may end up being useful for studying nesting and migration.

Female Pectoral Sandpipers are responsible for all of the incubation and chick-rearing duties and are quite protective of their offspring.

Female Pectoral Sandpipers are responsible for all of the incubation and chick-rearing duties and are quite protective of their offspring.

Both male and female Whimbrel share nesting and chick rearing responsibilities. Neighboring Whimbrel will team up to chase off predators like jaegers and falcons.

Both male and female Whimbrel share nesting and chick rearing responsibilities. Neighboring Whimbrel will team up to chase off predators like jaegers and falcons.

Though this Whimbrel pair lost two eggs to jaegers, the remaining eggs hatched and hopefully the chicks will survive to migrate to South America this fall.

Though this Whimbrel pair lost two eggs to jaegers, the remaining eggs hatched and hopefully, the chicks will survive to migrate to South America this fall.

 

We are hopeful that the birds nesting here will do well this year. It was a very early spring on the North Slope and some of the shorebird nests are almost ready to hatch. We have only seen one red fox in the valley, so the main predators they have to worry about are the Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers. We have been lucky with the weather for the most part, but naturally, we are grounded by fog this morning as we are trying to fly people in and out for a crew change. Weather changes fast though, so you never know.

Sub-optimal survey conditions are common on the North Slope. We lucked out with the weather for the most part though and Nick Myers was a great pilot and member of the crew. Photo by Lindall Kidd.

Sub-optimal survey conditions are common on the North Slope. We lucked out with the weather for the most part though and Nick Myers was a great pilot and member of the crew. Photo by Lindall Kidd.

Long-tailed Jaegers were very common in the uplands this year. The smallest of the three Jaeger species nesting in Alaska, they eat everything from insects to lemmings to shorebird eggs.

Long-tailed Jaegers were very common in the uplands this year. The smallest of the three Jaeger species nesting in Alaska, they eat everything from insects to lemmings to shorebird eggs.

All-star shorebird survey crew. From left: Metta McGarvey, Stephen Brown, Nick Myers (pilot), Lindall Kidd, Rick Lanctot, Shiloh Schulte, R44 helicopter.

All-star shorebird survey crew. From left: Metta McGarvey, Stephen Brown, Nick Myers (pilot), Lindall Kidd, Rick Lanctot, Shiloh Schulte, R44 helicopter.

 

 

 

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. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte.

…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. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte.

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. Photo credit: Shiloh Schulte.

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.