Launching the 2019 field season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Our most important field season to date

Evening light after a rainstorm north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Shiloh Schulte

Evening light after a rainstorm north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shiloh Schulte

Each spring since 2002 Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program has run research expeditions in the Arctic, but rarely have our plans been as ambitious as this year with 3 projects underway in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Our first project is to conduct a population survey of shorebirds in the entire 1002 Area by helicopter. This is the long-disputed area along the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge that was opened to oil and gas exploration and potential development this past year. Passage of the legislation that opened this area means that environmental reviews of potential impacts are beginning. When we started our work in the Arctic Refuge in 2002 we knew good data would be essential to an environmental review process that we thought would likely come some day. With that day now here, we’ll be working closely with our partners to gather important updated baseline data on shorebirds and be able to compare it with our earlier data to document trends and designate the most important sites for breeding shorebirds before any oil and gas exploration occurs.

We will be setting up a camp in a new location as the base for our operations for the PRISM surveys, at the Katakturik River.  Later in the season, Shiloh will rejoin the USFWS camp at the Canning River, where he has been collaborating on tracking studies for the past several years. The large river on the west is the Canning, which is the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge.  At the eastern side of the image, Demarcation Bay marks the other end of the Arctic Refuge, at the border with Canada.  Our PRISM study will cover the entire area north of the Brooks Range between these two borders of the Refuge.

We will be setting up a camp in a new location as the base for our operations for the PRISM surveys, at the Katakturik River. Later in the season, Shiloh will rejoin the USFWS camp at the Canning River, where he has been collaborating on tracking studies for the past several years.
The large river on the west is the Canning, which is the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge. At the eastern side of the image, Demarcation Bay marks the other end of the Arctic Refuge, at the border with Canada. Our PRISM study will cover the entire area north of the Brooks Range between these two borders of the Refuge.

Our surveys in the Arctic Refuge are part of a project we helped initiate in 2000 called PRISM (the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring). The goal of PRISM is to systematically survey shorebird habitats across the entire North American Arctic every 20 years to measure population status and trend.  Our upcoming expedition will measure shorebird population change, determine population trends, and enable us to better understand the current status of shorebirds in this important area. Shorebirds are the most populous and among the most threatened groups of birds in this part of Alaska. Data from high-quality habitat surveys prior to development will aid our efforts to ensure that any impacts from impending development include mitigation to replace lost habitat functions that may result from future industrial development.

This year we will be adding Red Phalaropes like this one, and American Golden Plovers, to the group of species we are tracking following the nesting season. Photo by Ian Davies.

This year we will be adding Red Phalaropes like this one, and American Golden Plovers, to the group of species we are tracking following the nesting season. Photo by Ian Davies.

Having even one project in the Arctic is a huge job, but given the urgency of impending oil and gas development, we added a new project this season as well, expanding our work to measure nest success across the entire 1002 Area, which has never been attempted on this scale before.  Past measurements of nest success have been done by finding nests within walking distance of a camp, and the results have been extrapolated over large areas because the logistics of gathering more data have been too expensive. However, faced with the need to document potential impacts of oil development, we have worked hard with our partners and supporters to raise the funds for additional helicopter time this year to gather more precise data for nesting success.

Our data on migrator paths for species like this American Golden-Plover will help so identify critical sites they use to prepare for southbound migration.  Photo by Ian Davies.

Our data on migratory paths for species like this American Golden-Plover will help to identify critical sites they use to prepare for southbound migration. Photo by Ian Davies.

We know that predator populations often increase with development because of human impacts like additional food sources and increased denning areas for foxes, and we know from our previous research that increased predator populations will reduce nesting success. We will be using cutting edge nest temperature trackers—tiny devices that measure the temperature in a nest and can tell if it is destroyed by a predator—along with cameras to identify predators, to monitor nests across a large section of the most important shorebird breeding habitat in the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge. Our work will establish baselines for nest success prior to any future industrial development, and document current natural conditions for nest success so that potential impacts can be mitigated.

Shorebirds have a very short window to raise their young during the brief arctic summer, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper keeping track of its chicks.  Photo by Ian Davies.

Shorebirds have a very short window to raise their young during the brief arctic summer, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper keeping track of its chicks. Photo by Ian Davies.

Arctic foxes are also raising their young during the shorebird nesting season, and foxes often prey on shorebird eggs and chicks.  Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Arctic foxes are also raising their young during the shorebird nesting season, and foxes often prey on shorebird eggs and chicks. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Our third project continues our work using cutting edge tracking technology to learn more about habitats that are critical for shorebirds after the nesting season, as they prepare for their long southbound migrations. In past years we have focused on deploying trackers on Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers; this year we will be adding American Golden-Plovers and Red Phalaropes.

We are very grateful to our partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and our supporters including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and individual donors to Manomet’s shorebird program, who make this work possible.

Stay tuned to http://shorebirdscience.org/, or subscribe here if you are not already to learn more and hear first-hand accounts of our work in the Arctic Refuge as our season progresses.

Prioritizing Shorebirds in the Prairies: Conservation Action in Kansas

In front of us, a few hundred shorebirds were focused intently on foraging for food. We were in the center of Kansas, for Manomet’s Shorebird Conservation Action Symposium at Cheyenne Bottoms. Some of us were practicing estimating flock size on a large group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwits. Some were learning to tell the difference between a Baird’s and a Semipalmated Sandpiper for the first time.

Handmaker_BASABaird’s Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

But the sky behind us had turned a thick, hazy gray – and the air was eerily calm after a barrage of 30-40 mph winds. Anyone from Kansas would tell you – this was the “calm before the storm.” Most of the species before us were making their way back to their high-arctic breeding grounds after a winter in South America. And this large basin in the prairies of the United States is one of their crucial rest-stops along the Central Flyway. To budge the 33 Symposium participants busy counting and identifying the birds – not to mention to move the birds concentrated on eating, that storm was going to have to get a lot closer. Luckily it skirted to the east, and we closed day one without having to brave the tornado we’d seen brewing in the distance.

Handmaker_LBDOflockTakesFlightFlock takes flight. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the largest interior marshes in the United States. It has been a Site of Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) for 30 years, and the symposium celebrated this milestone by presenting certificates to the site partners. Migratory shorebirds passing through the mid-continent are subject to unpredictable weather patterns and a landscape of ephemeral wetlands in which to find their food. Water levels at Cheyenne Bottoms still vary on a regular basis, but the basin provides some of the most reliable food resources for shorebirds migrating through the center of the continent.

Handmaker_STSA1Foraging Stilt Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Of the 52 shorebird species that occur in North America, 37 are found in the Great Plains – and half of these species are considered of high conservation concern or worse.

Manomet’s Habitat Management Division and Robert Penner of The Nature Conservancy of Kansas organized and led the symposium that brought together managers of public and private wetlands, employees of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, representatives of Ducks Unlimited and other non-profit organizations as well as National Wildlife Refuges from the surrounding states of Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Kevin Teneycke, Director of Conservation for Nature Conservancy Canada, traveled from southwest Manitoba to share their shorebird conservation efforts in the Canadian Prairies. Manitoba was next on the docket for a Manomet Habitat Management workshop; a few weeks later Robert Penner would travel to Canada and he would share a presentation about Cheyenne Bottoms, thus beginning a learning exchange between these two Central Flyway regions.

Iglecia_Robert Penner presentsRobert Penner presents. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

Handmaker_GroupDiscussion1Group discussion. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

The three-day workshop focused on techniques for “managing with multiple priorities.” Cheyenne Bottoms provided an ideal case study: a diverse matrix of habitat management techniques are needed to weave shorebirds into management plans.  At a site where shallow-water dependent shorebirds overlap with shorebirds that rely on drier grasslands, a management plan needs to provide habitats that suit them all. When The Nature Conservancy rotates between mowing, haying, grazing, and prescribed burns it helps to maintain short and sparse vegetation preferred by upland shorebirds like Upland Sandpipers – and it helps to reset the prairie landscape, much as the large herds of American Bison and natural fires used to do. In other areas of Cheyenne Bottoms that are principally managed for waterfowl, water levels can be brought to levels that satisfy the habitat needs of shorebirds that arrive before most ducks.

Handmaker_GroupEstimatesPhalaropesatQuiviraGroup estimates phalarope flock size at Quivira. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Day two’s field trip was to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a WHSRN site of Regional Importance. Quivira combines a unique array of sand prairie, freshwater wetlands, inland salt marsh, and playa habitats – and it is one of the four most important nesting sites for Snowy Plovers in the Great Plains. It was here that workshop participants witnessed shorebirds at work with waterfowl. We watched hundreds of tiny Wilson’s Phalaropes – a member of the only group of shorebirds that can swim – forage behind the much taller shorebird the American Avocet, and the much bigger duck, the Northern Shoveler. Phalaropes are known for their behavior of swimming in circles to stir up invertebrates in the water column. Shovelers stir things up too, using their shovel-shaped bill to forage head-first in shallow wetlands. Were these phalaropes swimming in the wake of the shovelers to eat the invertebrates they brought to the surface?

Iglecia_Sea of NSHO and WIPHA “sea” of Northern Shovelers and Wilson’s Phalaropes. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

SESA Peru Flagged Quivira May 2018_Jason OlszakFlagged Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Jason Olszak.

Looking out at the mudflats of Quivira, a subtle flash of yellow struck someone’s spotting scope. In a blur of small brown and grey shorebirds – Dunlin, Baird’s Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Stilt Sandpipers, and Sanderling, to name just some – a Semipalmated Sandpiper was spotted with a yellow flag on its leg. Its red letters read “8AC,” making it possible to trace this bird to Peru. It was tagged as an adult in 2011, meaning it had made this tremendous journey twice a year for at least seven years. Gathered around scopes to catch a glimpse at the sandpiper from Peru, many participants commented that the connection between the wetlands of Kansas and the coasts of South America had really hit home.

Winn_CheyenneBottomsGroupPhotoGroup photo at Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo by Brad Winn.

Arctic Podcast

In this podcast, Alan Kneidel updates us on this year’s Shorebird Science project in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including ongoing nest monitoring as chicks hatch and retrieval of geolocators placed on Dunlin in 2016. For a refresher on this year’s project, check out Shiloh’s first blog post this year which described the GPS tags the crew placed on Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin to help us understand which coastal sites they use for feeding prior to migration and if these include areas where oil from oil spills may concentrate, areas proposed for oil and gas development, and areas currently being used by native communities and industry, as well as how changes caused by climate change and coastal development are affecting shorebirds on the Arctic Coast.

caribou2July began with a large herd of roughly 3,000 Caribou passing through the study area. They are making their way to the windswept coast to seek refuge from biting flies. Photo by Alan Kneidel

cariibousCaribou crossing the slough. Photo by Alan Kneidel

arctic flowersArctic Dryad and Arctic Poppies bloom on the frostboil tundra. Photo by Alan Kneidel

bye metta and shilohShiloh and Metta load up the Cessna 185 on June 30th as they prepare leave camp. Photo by Alan Kneidel

vocal sesaThe tundra in July is full of chattering shorebird parents. Here a Semipalmated Sandpiper communicates with its young to lay low as I pass through the area. Photo by Alan Kneidel

vocal snbuA male Snow Bunting has taken up shop in camp. Here it sings lustily from the top of one of our solar panels. It also likes to sing from the tops of our tents and forages among the rocks on the shore of the slough. Photo by Alan Kneidel

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.