Shorebird Summer on Coats Island

On Coats Island, a stretch of warm weather at the end of June means one thing: Mosquitoes! Sightings of the little bloodsuckers have increased sharply over the past few days and we anticipate the hatching explosion any day now. At their peak, the mosquitoes are so numerous that they can clog the intake on the generator and even jam up the spark plug on the ATV.

 

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

The evening sun drops behind a small stone hut, probably built by the Sadlermuit people, the original human inhabitants of Coats Island.

 

After the cold and windy start to the season, the weather improved dramatically and it is even warm enough to work in short sleeves during the middle of the day sometimes. Shorebird nesting has picked up rapidly in response to the better weather and we have now found over 100 nests and will probably match last year’s total by the end of the season. Semipalmated Sandpipers are by far the most abundant nesting shorebird, but we also have nests for Dunlin, Red Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semipalmated Plover. A few White-rumped Sandpipers are also around, but we haven’t seen any nests so far. While searching for shorebird nests, we also find nests for Pacific and Red-throated Loons, King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Northern Pintail, Parasitic Jaegers, and Arctic Terns.

 

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

A Dunlin stares back at me from her nest on a small mound.

 

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

Peregrine Falcons are the primary predator for adult shorebirds on the island, though we have observed Parasitic Jaegers successfully hunting shorebirds as well.

 

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

Snow Buntings nest along the coast and in the rocky uplands. They are a rare visitor to our camp in the low wet tundra.

 

I continue to search for and capture tagged Semipalmated Sandpipers. So far I have found 10 tagged birds and managed to recover the geolocators from all of them. This represents a substantial improvement over the 2014 season when only two of our tagged birds returned. We are not sure if 2014 was a particularly bad year, or if site fidelity (the tendency for a bird to return to the same place) was different between years. We are searching a large study area, but if the tagged birds returned to nest in a different part of the island, we would be unlikely to find them. In addition to intensively searching the study plots, I am also looking well outside of the usual study area, but so far have not seen any tagged birds away from their capture sites.

 

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests

An Arctic Fox lopes along a gravel ridge in search of waterfowl and shorebird nests.

 

With the delayed start to nesting this year, I was only able to capture two birds on the nest (our usual trapping method). I used playback calls and bow nets, noose mats, and other techniques to capture the rest.  The migration tracks recovered from the geolocators should be invaluable in comparing Semipalmated Sandpiper migration, stopover, and wintering patterns from the Eastern Arctic to sandpipers migrating from Western Arctic nesting areas.

 

The crew in camp is taking full advantage of the good weather lately. Scott Flemming is leading his third field season of research for his Ph.D. on the effects of overabundant snow geese on tundra-nesting shorebirds. Scott is looking at differences in invertebrates (shorebird food) and vegetation between Coats Island and a companion study site on Southampton Island run by Lisa Kennedy, another Ph.D. student at Trent University. Scott and the crew are also setting out artificial nests to compare predation rates between the sites.

 

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

: Scott Flemming inspects a Bowhead Whale vertebrae found near the ruins of a Sadlermuit village.

 

Dr. Erica Nol has joined us in camp for a week and is working with the crew to find nests and capture nesting shorebirds to outfit them with radio tags that can be picked up by a network of receiving towers along the Atlantic Coast. This will help us understand the timing of migration and habitat use for a broader set of shorebird species.

 

Working with Scott are Malkolm Boothroyd,  Shawna-lee Masson, and Lindy Spirak.  Malkolm and Shawna are now two-year veterans of Coats Island. Malkolm is working on an honors project looking at Arctic Fox foraging patterns and how nest placement relative to ponds and lakes affects the probability of survival to hatching. Malkolm is also our most prolific nest searcher and typically walks 20 to 30 kilometers per day mapping ponds and finding shorebird nests.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

Malkolm Boothroyd and Shiloh Schulte test the waters of the swimming hole on the first calm evening.

 

Lindy Spirak is an undergraduate student at Trent University and is conducting her honors project on the behavioral response of nesting shorebirds to the presence of Snow Geese and Parasitic Jaegers. Shawna is about to head into a masters project working with boreal songbirds, but is currently collecting more data on fox foraging patterns to supplement another project she is currently working on.

 

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

After a long day in the field, Shawna-Lee Masson and Lindy Spirak sit down to a dinner of gourmet pizza prepared by Malkolm Boothroyd.

 

The crew is putting in long hours, both in the field and managing the flood of data, but still finds the energy to have fun and cook up great meals each night. Our work space is limitless, but our cabin is tiny, so good communication and mutual tolerance and respect are the key attributes needed.

 

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

Shiloh tests out the “washing machine” that Scott made. The design involves two buckets and a plunger and works remarkably well. The rinse cycle is a bit tough on the arms though.

 

 

Expanding the search area for tagged sandpipers has given me the opportunity to see more of the island.  Along the coast, east of our study area, the ground rises quickly and becomes rocky with high headlands and cliffs jutting out into the sea. The ice along the coast is much thinner and has disappeared entirely in some areas. No more Polar Bears have come by our camp, but we see them on almost every visit to the coast.

 

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A female Polar Bear crosses an ice floe driven up against the shore.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

A mother Polar Bear and her yearling cubs travel the shoreline of Coats Island looking for food and safety. In addition to hunting for herself and her cubs, the mother also has to constantly avoid large male bears that could injure or kill her young.

 

 

On a recent trip, I watched a mother and two yearling cubs working along the edge of the remaining ice. I was also lucky enough to see a walrus and witness a large pod of Beluga feeding in close to shore. The baby whales are grayish and swim perfectly in tandem with their mothers. I only have a few more days on the island, but my time here has been incredible. I feel very lucky for the opportunity to work in this special place with an outstanding crew. I wish them all the best as they finish out the last few weeks of the short Arctic summer.

 

 A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

A mother Beluga whale and her baby surface while feeding along the shoreline of Coats Island.

 

 

This study is a cooperative project with Environment and Climate Change Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/). In addition to collaborating on study design and analysis, Environment and Climate Change Canada managed many of the logistics, including transport, and lodging.

Enviro Canada

 

 

Funding and support for Manomet’s 2016 field season on Coats Island was provided by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (http://www.cec.org/). The CEC is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to addressing environmental issues of concern across North America.

CEC

 

Welcome to the 2016 Shorebird Field Season!

Greetings to all of you who follow our shorebird science adventures!  We are very excited about the upcoming field season, which will have even more expeditions than ever before—and some exciting new projects to feature!

We will be posting soon from our first expedition to Brazil.  Brad Winn and Monica Iglecia are leading a trip to teach two shorebird management workshops with new partners in Brazil.  They are already there preparing and will be reporting back soon on their experiences meeting new partners and teaching field identification techniques and applied shorebird habitat management.  Rob Clay is there as well, working with Brad and Monica and helping build partnerships to implement the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, a new effort to support shorebird conservation along the entire flyway with partnerships spanning the hemisphere.

In mid-May we will be returning to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to finish the second year of our two-year effort there to survey the entire Refuge, which has never been done before.  The Refuge is the size of Maine, so this is a big undertaking!  In addition to the rapid surveys by helicopter across the entire area, we are also putting out two field camps to monitor numerous plots intensively, and we will use those to measure how many of the birds nesting in a given area our rapid surveys detect.

 

Yukon Delta Landscape

An aerial view of the vast wetlands on the Yukon Delta, where shorebirds nest in high densities. This important ecosystem have never been systematically surveyed for breeding shorebird populations.

 

In early June, Shiloh Schulte will be returning to Coats Island in Hudson Bay, along with partners from Environment Canada.  Last year the team put out 30 new geolocators to try to get a better understanding of what sites and migration routes are important for Semipalmated Sandpipers that nest in the eastern arctic.  This population is in steep decline, so gathering information to guide conservation efforts is critical.

Finally, in September, Rob Clay will be launching a new project to survey shorebird habitats in the Paraguay River.  Although informal observations and anecdotal reports have long suggested that the wetlands associated with the Paraguay River provide important habitat for North American breeding shorebirds, primarily during their southbound migration, no systematic survey has ever been conducted.  Recent telemetry studies of species such as Hudsonian Godwit, Red Knot, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper have begun to highlight just how important these interior wetlands might be.  We will be conducting field surveys by air, by boat, and from the ground to identify the most critical habitats along the southern Paraguay River.

None of this work would be possible without the support of our loyal donors who help us in so many ways.  Thank you to all of you who help support our work, and follow us on this blog!  It will be an exciting season!

 

-Stephen Brown, Vice President of Shorebird Conservation

Reflections from the 2015 Field Season

As we wrap up and reflect on our season of shorebird science in the arctic, we want to thank all of the extraordinary people who helped make this another successful field season.  We had two major expeditions this year, so we have two sets of people to thank, including the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge survey team and the Coats Island Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project team.  We especially want to thank Liza LePage, who manages the blog posting and brought you all of our stories all season!

(If you haven’t read every post from this season, you can access all of the Yukon posts here and the Coats Island posts here.  Once you reach the bottom of each page, you can select to see older posts of each expedition.)

 

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An Arctic Tern hovering in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

 

It took a large team of partners to plan and implement one of the largest surveys of its kind in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  We are very grateful to the excellent staff at the Refuge, including Brian McCaffery and Kristine Sowl, who advised us all along the way and worked with us both in the office and in the field.  The design team, including Jim Lyons, Brad Andres, and Jim Johnson, sorted out the complex habitats of the Refuge and planned the survey plots to be visited.

 

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One of the field data sheets from the Yukon Delta. The sheets show all of the birds seen in a 400 by 400 meter plot. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

 

Sarah Saalfeld and Jim Johnson put in countless hours sorting out  preparations and logistics, especially the plot maps that guided all our work.  Metta McGarvey worked on everything from budgeting to field logistics to every manner of field support. We couldn’t have done this without her.  Our two survey teams worked tirelessly in the field, including Rick Lanctot, Susan Savage, Jim Lyons, and Diane Granfors in the south working out of Bethel, and Brad Winn, Bob Gill, Metta McGarvey, and me working in the north out of St. Mary’s.

 

Western Sandpiper

A male Western Sandpiper calling. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

Our excellent helicopter pilots from Pollux Aviation (Shannon Glenn) and Hermens Helicopters (Stan Hermens) took us safely across the huge survey area in all weather conditions, and were critical team members.  Isaac Bedingfield of God’s Country Aviation delivered fuel to remote locations enabling the Bethel helicopter crew to access far-flung survey sites. River Gates worked with us both on logistics for the trip beforehand, and on data entry when we returned.

 

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An aerial view of the Yukon River edge. See that small brown dot in the upper left? That’s a moose. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

The coastal survey boat crew, including Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and Alan Kneidel, worked extremely hard to access some of the most remote plots that had to be visited by boat and fixed-wing aircraft, and made it possible to survey the entire Refuge by adding these inaccessible areas.

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper

A Semipalmated Sandpiper calling from the ground. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

Our Coats Island Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project  was led by  Shiloh Schulte. Despite dismal weather, Shiloh and his team were able to tag 29 Semipalmated Sandpipers. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the following people.

 

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Shiloh Schulte stands at the edge of the sea ice on Coats Island, Nunavut, Canada. In recent years the sea ice is thinner and has moved out earlier than ever before.

 

Paul Smith of Environment Canada provided invaluable guidance during the project.  Working with Paul in the field is an outstanding experience – he is extraordinarily capable, always optimistic, and willing to share useful information and advice on any topic, from camp food prep to the practical implications of large scale changes in Arctic weather patterns (more bears in camp!).  He made it possible for Shiloh to get into camp easily and focus on the work at hand, instead of the massive amount of logistics and preparation that goes into any Arctic field season.

 

An Arctic Fox kit explores the world just outside its den. Arctic Foxes are the main predator of shorebird nests. They survive the harsh arctic winters by finding and caching eggs and other food during the brief but productive summer months

An Arctic Fox kit explores the world just outside its den. Arctic Foxes are the main predator of shorebird nests. They survive the harsh arctic winters by finding and caching eggs and other food during the brief but productive summer months. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

 

Shiloh also wants to thank Scott Flemming from Trent University – even though Scott is in the middle of his own PhD research, he did not miss a beat when asked to extend his crew to help with the Semipalmated Sandpiper tagging project.  The crew also included Rianne Mariash, Malkolm Boothroyd, and Shawna-Lee Masson, who were a fantastic group of people and a joy to work alongside, with unfailing good humor and rock solid work ethic and nerves.  Finally, Ron Porter was extremely helpful in getting the geolocators mounted, calibrated, and ready for the field, and his advice on how to deploy the tags was hugely appreciated.

 

Malkolm Boothroyd, a technician for Trent University, releases a tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Malkolm Boothroyd, a technician for Trent University, releases a tagged Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

 

We will be working through the fall and winter, sorting out all the data from our arctic expeditions and, along with all our partners, working to learn as much as we can about what limits shorebird populations, and how they can be conserved.  None of this would have been possible without the generous support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, and the generous donors to Manomet.  One key donor supported most of the matching requirement for our grant from NFWF, and the project simply couldn’t have been done without this key support.  Thank you to all our partners and supporters, and we will look forward to everything we can learn together, and to planning next year’s work in the arctic!