The Remarkable Odyssey of a Semipalmated Sandpiper

Just a few days ago, Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte returned from Coats Island with the first two geolocators from the Semipalmated Sandpiper migration study. We were waiting breathlessly to see what mysteries would be revealed! Ron Porter, who is working on analyzing the geolocator data, downloaded and analyzed the data from the first geolocator over the weekend. He produced the map below, which reveals a remarkable odyssey for a tiny bird, the first glimpse ever into the entire migratory pathway of this species.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project was designed to solve one of the most pressing mysteries in shorebird conservation. Surveys conducted by the New Jersey Audubon Society have shown an 80% decline over the past 20 years in numbers within the core wintering range in northern South America. At the same time, data from the Arctic show that breeding populations are apparently stable at some sites, especially in the western part of the arctic breeding range in Alaska. We need to understand the migratory pathways of the species in order to know where the decline is occurring, and what can be done to reverse it. Light-level geolocators are a cutting edge technology and their use has helped revolutionize our understanding of shorebird migration, but they have never been used on Semipalmated Sandpipers before this project.

Semipalmated Sandpiper number 254, just before it was recaptured.  After sharing its journey with us by carrying the geolocator, it is now getting ready to head out on its next journey back to its wintering area in Brazil.

Semipalmated Sandpiper number 254, just before it was recaptured. After sharing its journey with us by carrying the geolocator, it is now getting ready to head out on its next journey back to its wintering area in Brazil.

 

Manomet has partnered with biologists from many organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Jersey Audubon, Kansas State University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Simon Fraser University, the Government of Nunavut, and Université de Moncton to coordinate the first effort to use geolocators to understand the migratory pathways of this species.

Analysis of the data from the geolocators is key to understanding what the tiny units have recorded during the past year. The map below shows the first ever track of an entire year in the life of a Semipalmated Sandpiper from the eastern Arctic, the group for which the decline may be particularly severe. This particular bird, a male, flew a total distance of over 10,000 miles in the past year. He also made a remarkable six day, 3,300-mile nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from James Bay to South America, before moving on to his wintering area in Brazil.

Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte exuberant about recapturing this tiny Semipalmated Sandpiper after its year-long odyssey.

Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte exuberant about recapturing this tiny Semipalmated Sandpiper after its year-long odyssey.

 

The second geolocator that was recovered at Coats Island had lost battery power, a common occurrence, so it had to be sent back to the company that manufactured it in England to download the data. It should still have recorded much of the journey of the bird it was attached to, and we are excited to learn how its journey may have been similar or different from this one. At the same time, at least 35 other units have been recovered in Alaska. These units are on their way back to Anchorage and will be sent on to Ron for analysis. We will learn an enormous amount from those as well, in particular whether the western arctic birds also winter in the same areas in South America where the aerial surveys have shown the dramatic decline. We will share results here as soon as they become available.

We are very grateful to our partners from Environment Canada, who supported our travel back to Coats Island and who have worked with us closely on the fieldwork for this project. We are also very grateful to the supporters who helped make this project happen. Without their commitment to shorebird science, none of this would be possible. We hope you all enjoy this glimpse into a previously unknown world, the timing and flight path of an entire year in the life of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

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Here are the highlights from its journey:

23 June, 2013.  The geolocator is placed on the bird by Brad Winn, a member of a Manomet shorebird science research team, at Coats Island, Nunavut, Canada.

21 July, 2013.  Arrives in James Bay, where it fattens up for its upcoming long flight to South America.

22 August, 2013.  Leaves James Bay for a six day nonstop flight to South America.

28 August, 2013.  Arrives at the Orinoco Delta, on the border of Venezuela and Guyana.

10 September, 2013.  Leaves for a relatively leisurely 11 day flight along the coast to Brazil.

21 September, 2013.  Arrives in Brazil for the winter (northern winter, but summer in Brazil).

3 May, 2014.  Leaves Brazil for a series of flights north, including stops in Cuba (May 6), Florida (May 10), Georgia (May 11), North Carolina (May 14), and Delaware Bay (May 21).

2 June, 2014.  Arrives back in James Bay for the last stopover on its return journey.

10 June, 2014.  Leaves James Bay for the final leg of its return journey.

11 June, 2014.  Arrives back at its Coats Island breeding site.

18 June, 2014.  The bird was re-captured by Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte, its geolocator was removed, and it was released to begin its next odyssey!

Heading Home

After two weeks of clear skies and mild temperatures, the weather was suddenly questionable as we awoke on departure day, with clouds moving in and wind gusting to 50 kilometers per hour from the east. However our plane, the Twin Otter, is extremely rugged and we spotted the small red aircraft right on schedule flying above the horizon to the northwest. The pilots on this flight were very experienced and made two passes down our small airstrip before successfully landing with room to spare.

For the past two weeks our companions in camp, Scott, Sarah, and Karissa, have assisted us with the search effort for the rest of our tagged birds. We have been working closely with the crew to get their respective graduate projects off the ground and collect species diversity and nest survival data for the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network (ASDN), coordinated by Manomet’s Stephen Brown. This cooperative approach with our camp companions has greatly expanded our search area and coverage, while giving us the opportunity to teach methods for nest searching, shorebird capture, banding, and data collection.

Scott and a fellow graduate student working on Southampton Island will use the data we collected from American Golden Plovers, Red Phalaropes, and Ruddy Turnstones to compare health and stress levels between shorebirds on the undisturbed nesting grounds of Coats Island and those nesting near a large Snow Goose colony on Southampton.

Scott Flemming and Sarah Neima measure an American Golden Plover.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Scott Flemming and Sarah Neima measure an American Golden Plover. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

We also assisted Sarah with her project, which involves fixing miniature temporary radio nano tags on 30 Semipalmated Sandpipers. When these tagged birds leave Coats Island in a few weeks to migrate south the signals on their tags should be picked up by a series of specialized radio towers in James Bay and along the Atlantic Coast. These birds will provide information on the timing and length of stay at important stopover sites, and also help to better understand the migratory pathways of the different Semipalmated Sandpiper populations. These digital radio tags are designed to last about three months before falling off.  They differ from our geolocators in that they will not aid in understanding wintering locations and potential threats to the birds that are south of New England.

Sarah Neima releases a banded American Golden Plover. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Sarah Neima releases a banded American Golden Plover. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

Our crew found over 60 shorebird nests by the time we left, including American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstone. While searching for shorebird nests, we also found nests for King Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Parasitic Jaeger, the Hutchinson’s race of the Cackling Goose, Tundra Swan, Pacific Loon, and what we consider a billion nests of Lapland Longspurs. A few of the nests had eggs that were just beginning to hatch as we left, and the crew remaining in camp through July will get to see the baby shorebird broods growing at an astounding rate off of the abundant tundra insect life.

Karissa Reischke holding her first shorebird! Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Karissa Reischke holding her first shorebird! Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

We boarded the Twin Otter with mixed emotions. We are very excited to be heading home to see friends and family again, but it is not easy to leave the incredible landscape of Coats Island, especially when working with a fun and dedicated group of people. Hopefully we will have many more chances to cross paths with Scott, Sarah, and Karissa as they make their mark on the shorebird world.  Shorebird research circles are very small, and we are sure we will see them again somewhere.  The emergence of the mosquito hoards a few days earlier did make the departure a bit easier.

The black and white facial pattern of a Ruddy Turnstone is striking when seen on an open beach, but on the nesting grounds they camouflage perfectly with rocks and coastal vegetation.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte

The black and white facial pattern of a Ruddy Turnstone is striking when seen on an open beach, but on the nesting grounds they camouflage perfectly with rocks and coastal vegetation. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

Lifting off from camp, the immensity of the landscape became apparent. Our study area seemed huge when hiking through kilometer after kilometer of marshy tundra, but when viewed from the air it quickly diminished into a mosaic of wet tundra, rocky upland, and gravel esker that make up the landscape of Coats Island. Our plane banked left and followed the newly named Sigjuriak River toward the coast, then headed East.  We named the river after the Nupiat word for shorebird.  Until now, this and other rivers on Coats have been nameless.

Paul Smith from the Canadian Wildlife Service was on the flight with us and needed to stop off at the former seabird camp on the east end of Coats Island. Paul oversees much of the shorebird and seabird work in this part of the Arctic, and is our key partner on this project.

The stop, which is home to a colony of 80,000 Thick-billed Murres, was an unexpected treat for us. The landing strip at the seabird colony is on a small beach between two massive rock outcroppings. Amazingly, all the conditions were perfect, so we were able to make the tricky descent and land at this spectacular location. Stepping out of the plane, we looked back along the small rocky beach to an ocean full of icebergs. Above the beach were the remains of the rock homes and food caches of the last endemic Inuit people that met western explorers sometime in the 1800′s. Moving on, we made the steep ascent up the rocky bluff to the site of the former seabird camp.

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The small beach between two massive rock outcroppings at the seabird colony on Coats Island.

 

Polar Bears used to be rare on Coats in June, but in the last five to ten years they have become more common as the ice retreats earlier and the bears come ashore looking for food. Some have taken a liking to seabird eggs which has made work at the colony much more dangerous in recent years. Keeping a sharp eye out, we moved down the steep cliff path to the top of the colony, aided by ropes anchored into the rock face. It is difficult to describe the stunning experience of hanging on the side of a 300 meter cliff staring down into an ice-filled bay, full of thousands of seabirds sweeping up to land at their ledges, then bursting into flight again, their black forms appearing stark against the expanse of frozen ocean.

A flock of Thick-billed Murres sweeps back up to the nesting ledges on Coats Island.

A flock of Thick-billed Murres sweeps back up to the nesting ledges on Coats Island.

 

A colony of thousands of Thick-billed Murres nest on narrow ledges high above the ice of the Hudson Bay.

A colony of thousands of Thick-billed Murres nest on narrow ledges high above the ice of the Hudson Bay.

 

Our takeoff from the colony site was smooth but slightly unnerving. The plane gathered speed down the beach directly toward the cliff face. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the pilots pulled the aircraft into a hard left bank and swept past the cliffs, gaining altitude over the ice. After a quick stop in Coral Harbour to refuel we were joined by the legendary Grant Gilchrist, a colleague of Paul Smith’s at Environment Canada and an expert on regional sea ducks.  We made the three hour flight to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut on Baffin Island. From here we will continue on to Ottawa and then home.

Though we did not find as many geolocator-tagged sandpipers as we had hoped, their very absence may tell us something about the fate of the eastern population of Semipalmated Sandpipers. The crews in Alaska appear to have seen many more of their tagged birds, which could indicate that mortality in the eastern population is quite high. The data from our recovered tags, combined with the tags recovered in Alaska, should provide new and interesting insights into what is happening with this species.

Our field season in the Canadian Arctic would not have been possible without our ongoing and solid relationship with our colleagues at Environment Canada, specifically the Canadian Wildlife Service.  We hope to continue our conservation-driven research with them in the future as we seek to answer questions related to declining shorebird populations.

Being in the Arctic was an incredible experience and we feel very grateful for the opportunity and pleased with what we accomplished in just a few short weeks. We could not do any of this work without the individuals who support our work.  Thank you for following our adventure, and hopefully we will have more updates about this project and others in the seasons to come.

 

The entire human population of Coats Island in 2014. Clockwise from top left: Brad Winn, Scott Flemming, Sarah Neima, Shiloh Schulte, Karissa Reischke.

The entire human population of Coats Island in 2014. Clockwise from top left: Brad Winn, Scott Flemming, Sarah Neima, Shiloh Schulte, Karissa Reischke.

 

- Shiloh and Brad

Coats Island Team Recovers Second Geolocator

Success! Another geolocator in hand. Our second tagged bird proved more elusive than the first. Though initially interested in the playback from the phone, he would not come close to the bow net. The constant wind whipping over the tundra also made a stationary mist net impractical. We settled in to observe the behavior patterns and routine of the bird banded with the colors Orange-White-Orange, our geo-tagged sandpiper.

Semipalmated Sandpipers are generally not very wary of humans on the nesting grounds, and Orange-White-Orange was no exception. Very quickly he allowed us to approach to within a few meters when foraging around his favorite ponds. Our winning solution to capturing him was a slow and patient stalk while holding a mist net between us. Our strategy was complicated by the lumpy tussocks and mounds that cover the wet tundra. The first time we dropped the net on Orange-White-Orange, he was able to sneak out the side between two tussocks. Fortunately he did not seem to realize that we were responsible for his near-capture, and he allowed us to approach closely again. This time we chose a relatively open area near the edge of a pond and waited for him to forage his way into the catch zone. Working in close coordination, we flipped the net over the little sandpiper and seconds later had him in hand!

After the second capture and geotag removal, we turned to searching the vast landscape for the rest of our tagged birds. The first two birds were right back on their territories from last year. This faithful return to the same territory each year is a characteristic of many shorebirds, but the rest of our tagged birds have not arrived. We don’t know if this means they did not survive the winter, or if they have gone elsewhere in the nesting range, or possibly stopped somewhere on their way north this year. Hopefully the data from our two recovered tags will give us clues about the location and nature of the risks facing this population. In the meantime, our search area has expanded from last year’s territories to the entire tundra for kilometers around. This vast search area gives us ample opportunity to encounter and appreciate the other wild residents of Coats Island.

Male King Eider Head.  Head feathers ruffled while preening.  Male eiders are moving off of the tundra and back to the sea now where they will stay until next year for another breeding season.  The female eiders who successfully incubate and hatch their eggs will remain with the chicks on the tundra ponds until the chicks can fly in late August or September.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte after a 20 minute crawl through a tundra wetland to get close to this glamorous bird.

The head feathers of a male King Eider become ruffled while the bird is preening. Male eiders are moving off of the tundra and back to sea now, where they will stay until next year.  The female eiders who successfully incubate and hatch their eggs will remain with the chicks on the tundra ponds until the chicks can fly in late August or September. Photo by Shiloh Schulte after a 20 minute crawl through a tundra wetland to get close to this glamorous bird.

 

King Eiders are improbable inhabitants of the tundra landscape. Their well-rounded bodies, large heads, and heavy belabored lift-offs make them a poor fit for this Coats Island terrain. We are surrounded by tundra that is a mix of small shallow ponds (most of them less than knee deep), dry linear gravel ridges that we generously call eskers since they appear to be a form of glacial deposits, creamy brown oozing mud boils from breaks underground in the permafrost, and patterned ground of hummocks, dwarfed willows, and wetland tussocks of grass and sedge.

This landscape hardly fits the world of a sea duck, yet King Eiders are quite abundant around here. Male King Eiders in particular, with heads so ornate they rival any Toucan, stand out against the browns and grays of the mid-June tundra vegetation. We can spot male eiders at considerable distances on the edge of the small ponds in our study area. The females are richly mottled brown, and if it were not for their closely guarding male companions, would be nearly invisible to us. These large ducks spend most of the year in icy, wind-whipped northern ocean waters and come inland only to nest.

Other open ocean wanderers shift seasonally from the horizontal plain of the sea to the treeless world of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. Red Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope both nest here. These small, brightly-colored shorebirds spend most of their time swimming and foraging in ponds, a rare ability for a shorebird. We have many Red Phalarope nesting in our study site, and we did see a pair of the diminutive but beautiful Red-necked Phalarope bobbing around in a shallow pool several days ago. The larger and more vibrant female phalaropes hand off all incubation and chick rearing duties to the duller males. In the fall the phalaropes head back out to the open ocean and spend the rest of the year at sea.

Male Red-necked Phalarope do all of the incubating and chick rearing while the females either repair or start heading south after the clutch of four eggs is laid. Photo by Brad Winn

Male Red-necked Phalarope do all of the incubating and chick rearing while the females either repair or start heading south after the clutch of four eggs is laid. Photo by Brad Winn

 

Lobed foot of a male Red Phalarope.  These “shorebirds” spend most of their lives sitting on water, either way out in the open ocean or on small quiet tundra pools where they breed.  The flattened toes on these neat little birds act as paddles to move the bird and stir up the water to bring tiny copipods and shrimp up to the bird.  Photo by Brad Winn

Lobed foot of a male Red Phalarope. These “shorebirds” spend most of their lives sitting on water, either way out in the open ocean or on small quiet tundra pools where they breed. Their flattened toes act as paddles and stir up the water to bring up tiny copepods and shrimp. Photo by Brad Winn

 

Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed Jaegers all spend most of the year stealing fish from other seabirds or picking off warblers on migration over both the Atlantic and Pacific pelagic waters. When inland, jaegers cruise the tundra with the same undulating flights that they do over the waves out at sea. This rhythmic dance on the wind can identify the bird as a jaeger even at great distances. Jaegers too must come to the tundra to breed, laying one or two dark olive eggs in shallow nests on the ground. They are the supreme predators of eggs, chicks, and even adult shorebirds on these northern nesting grounds. When two are hunting in synchrony they can successfully steal eggs from birds as large as geese.

Parasitic Jaeger in sweeping flight passes by a female caribou as it hunts for nesting female eiders and shorebirds like phalarope.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Parasitic Jaeger in sweeping flight passes by a female caribou as it hunts for nesting female eiders and shorebirds like phalarope. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

Shiloh watched yesterday as a Parasitic Jaeger harassed an eider until she gave up her nest to the aerially astute predator. The scene Shiloh was witnessing quickly turned into a “Planet Earth moment,” when the jaeger also caught the attention of a white Arctic Fox. The fox read the jaeger’s harassing behavior and streaked like a tiny tundra hyena almost half of a mile to claim the eider eggs for itself before the jaeger could crack them open. Shiloh was impressed with the fox and thought he could almost hear Sir David Attenborough’s voice narrating the scene.

Panorama of last of the melting ice on a pond on the north end of Coats Island. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Panorama of last of the melting ice on a pond on the north end of Coats Island. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

Flock of Ross’s Geese flying inland over Coats Island.  Photo by Brad Winn

Flock of Ross’s Geese flying inland over Coats Island. Photo by Brad Winn