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.

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