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!

Boat surveys of the Yukon Delta NWR Coast – Alan Kneidel

For this blog post we have a guest author, Alan Kneidel, who worked on the Yukon Delta surveys earlier this summer with the boat crew on the coast of the Refuge.  Because helicopters are not used in this area, our partnership needed to work with the Refuge staff to design and carry out surveys from boats rather than helicopters.  While Shiloh was heading to Coats Island, Alan was just finishing up his work on the Yukon Delta.  Alan worked with Manomet on our shorebird surveys during the oil spill in the Gulf, and also on several previous arctic expeditions, so it was great to have him back with our team, and helping out the Refuge staff with this part of the survey in the Yukon Delta. – Stephen Brown

 

Our field crew, from left to right: Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and me.

Our field crew, from left to right: Mark Agimuk, Kristine Sowl, Jessica Stocking, Brian Robinson, and me (Alan Kneidel).

 

From May 25th to June 9th I joined a team of shorebird researchers to perform PRISM rapid shorebird surveys in the Yukon Delta NWR of western Alaska.  The area of the refuge that our team covered was between the Askinuk Mountains and Nelson Island, an area that falls within a helicopter exclusion zone. Therefore we operated by boat and our start date was partially dependent on the break-up of ice on the rivers, after the helicopter surveys were completed. The surveys are done while shorebirds are displaying on nesting territories, which happens somewhat later along the coast, so we were able to do the work after the rivers broke up and allowed boat access.

 

Kristine, Brian, Mark, and I traveled from plot to plot in this USFWS aluminum skiff. We were packed tight! Strong winds shut us down for one day, but other than that weather was manageable. The survey period was split between clear days with soaring temperatures and cooler, drizzly weather. Regardless of the temperature, boat riding is chilly business.

Kristine, Brian, Mark, and I traveled from plot to plot in this USFWS aluminum skiff. We were packed tight! Strong winds shut us down for one day, but other than that weather was manageable. The survey period was split between clear days with soaring temperatures and cooler, drizzly weather. Regardless of the temperature, boat riding is chilly business.

 

We spent the first day at the refuge headquarters in Bethel where crews for a variety of projects were all scrambling to prepare for imminent deployment into the field. After collecting our nearly 1,000 pounds of gear, we loaded it into totes and hefted it all onto a flatbed refuge vehicle. We then took it over to the RAVN Air hub where we would be flown to Chevak on a Cessna 208 the following morning.

 

One of the main roads of Chevak. The residents were exceptionally friendly. A single box of Cheez-its cost almost $10.

One of the main roads of Chevak. The residents were exceptionally friendly. A single box of Cheez-its cost almost $10.

 

Chevak is a town of under one thousand people and showed many characteristics of a frontier town. The roads were dirt, the buildings were minimalistic, and yards were filled with snow machines, ATVs, and the rusted hulls of old equipment. Moose racks adorned the crowns of houses and fish hung to dry in yards. Perched on a dry knoll in a vast wetland matrix, the view from town was vast. Channels big and small snaked away across the tundra, the clouds stretching into the distance. On clear days you can see the peaks of Nelson Island 100 kilometers away.

The view from the cemetery in Chevak.

The view from the cemetery in Chevak.

 

After assimilating our gear we met up with our boat captain Mark Agimuk, a Chevak native. Mark’s lifetime of experience on the Yukon Delta is a critical asset to refuge operation. His life, like many people in the region, depends heavily on the land’s natural resources. It was a pleasure to get to hear his stories about life on the delta and to learn a few works of Cup’ik.  The spring salmon run begins in earnest in mid-June, and families all around town were preparing for the move out to their fish camps.

 

Yukon Delta NWR is nearly the size of Maine and supports significant portions of many range-restricted species, including the Emperor Goose. The rusty hue on the cream-colored neck is caused by naturally occurring iron in the water.

Yukon Delta NWR is nearly the size of Maine and supports significant portions of many range-restricted species, including the Emperor Goose. The rusty hue on the cream-colored neck is caused by naturally occurring iron in the water.

I was fortunate enough to come across a tame pair of Red Phalaropes. A staring contest with this male ended in a tie.

I was fortunate enough to come across a tame pair of Red Phalaropes. A staring contest with this male ended in a tie.

 

As Mark steered our boat away from Chevak, we soon become the only people in sight. The wooden frames of fish camps on the banks became sparser as we penetrated deeper into the delta. The first thing I noticed was the incredible number of waterfowl. The sky was filled in all directions by flocks of ducks, geese, and swans. The strident calls of Sandhill Cranes carried over the tundra while Parasitic Jaegers chased Arctic Terns across the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon, I saw the outlines of stumps from distant forests, carried over the banks of the rivers during flooding storms.

The low tundra closest to the ocean featured many sinuous sloughs and small ponds. The most common shorebirds in this habitat were Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Black Turnstone.

The low tundra closest to the ocean featured many sinuous sloughs and small ponds. The most common shorebirds in this habitat were Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Black Turnstone.

The tundra quickly changed personality on higher ground. This heath-like tundra had an amazing array of subtle colors, comprised of crunchy lichens, mosses and low-lying plants. This is where we found all of our Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Rock Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

The tundra quickly changed personality on higher ground. This heath-like tundra had an amazing array of subtle colors, comprised of crunchy lichens, mosses and low-lying plants. This is where we found all of our Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Rock Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Kristine whips up some dinner in our communal cook tent. Changing camps five times over the two-week period, it was great opportunity to see a lot of the refuge.

Kristine whips up some dinner in our communal cook tent. Changing camps five times over the two-week period, it was great opportunity to see a lot of the refuge.

 

Surveying the plots was a challenging, enjoyable task, combining skills of navigation and detailed observation. Assigned a 400-meter x 400-meter plot, the goal of each survey was to cover the plot as thoroughly as possible in 96 minutes. The primary objective of the surveys was to estimate the number of breeding pairs of shorebirds within the plots, whether by direct discovery of nests or behavioral inference. Breeding cues vary among species, whether it’s the incessant song of the Dunlin, the wary eyes of the distant plover, or the aerial assault of godwits and turnstones.

 

The bulk of the world population of Black Turnstones breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Full of personality, the turnstones lead a highly vocal aerial assault on any predators invading their territory.

The bulk of the world population of Black Turnstones breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Full of personality, the turnstones lead a highly vocal aerial assault on any predators invading their territory.

This is one of the data sheets I recorded on during a survey. Following a satellite image of the 400 m. x 400 m. plot, I recorded exact locations of all shorebirds seen during the survey period. On average each of us covered two plots a day.

This is one of the data sheets I recorded on during a survey. Following a satellite image of the 400 m. x 400 m. plot, I recorded exact locations of all shorebirds seen during the survey period. On average each of us covered two plots a day.

Red-necked Phalaropes were abundant breeders in most wetlands we surveyed. Their polyandrous mating system added a wrinkle to our assessments.

Red-necked Phalaropes were abundant breeders in most wetlands we surveyed. Their polyandrous mating system added a wrinkle to our assessments.

 

Since many of these areas have no biological data, we also made it a priority to record all bird and mammal species seen. In general mammal diversity was low, with a few sightings of Arctic Fox and seals comprising all of our mammal observations for the study period.

 

Dunlin were definitely the most abundant shorebird encountered on our surveys. In the densest locations, I estimated up to 25 pairs in a single a 400 m. x 400 m. plot.

Dunlin were definitely the most abundant shorebird encountered on our surveys. In the densest locations, I estimated up to 25 pairs in a single a 400 m. x 400 m. plot.

 

The survey period wound up being an exhilarating, successful two weeks. Life on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta seemed to change from moment to moment – rain turned to sun, sloughs filled and emptied, and flocks of birds moved across the landscape. It was exciting to be a part of such a collaboration and to help in the collection of data from the frontier of shorebird science

Wilderness Camp

It’s always a challenge to manage the hectic pace of field work while in a remote camp, but invariably, being in the wilderness brings deep joy as well.

The most obvious source of joy is the beauty of this camp–located six miles northwest of Kuzilvak Mountain, a massive volcanic uplift towering 2300 feet over the tundra and covering approximately 28 square miles. Most of the time, clouds rest on Kuzilvak’s shoulders, though periodically her head peaks out above a fog bank, and we admire her brilliant snowy slopes when the clouds lift higher and a gap permits the evening or morning sun to cast long light across her ridges.

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The evening sun sets the tundra aglow as clouds rest atop Kuzilvak’s shoulders. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The ridge itself is a mile wide before it hits higher, shrub covered ground, and longer than we can estimate by eye, laced with exactly the right mix of habitats for shorebirds and waterfowl to nest (in high spots with grasses dry enough to keep eggs warm) and forage (in wet grasses, ponds, and bogs that support the staggering volume of insect life that makes it worthwhile for the birds to migrate vast distances to breed). Though most of my time is spent with camp chores, I usually have two or three hours free each day to explore the ridge. I’ve found many nests, mostly Western Sandpiper, but today a Northern Shoveler nest with only 1 egg thus far, and I flushed a female Lapland Longspur from a perfectly formed but still empty nest cup.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

The musical song and flight display of the male Lapland Longspur is one of the most familiar sightings on the tundra, but the female (shown here) is not often seen unless flushed from a nest. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

The Western Sandpiper full clutch nests (4 eggs) indicate that they are newly laid. The larger shorebirds seem to still be laying. I’ve watched pairs of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel copulate and move widely around the ridge foraging—clearly not yet incubating, but hanging close enough to one area to have hope of finding their nests if we were staying longer.

 

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta.  They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

We see Whimbrel along the East Coast during migration, and also nesting here in the Yukon Delta. They are incredibly stealthy when it comes to hiding their nest, so we are fortunate to be here while they are still laying and therefore displaying and setting up territories. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

We know we are in the sub-arctic by the diversity of plants and cushiness of the mosses. The fragrance is glorious, making the occasional moments to sit and watch the clouds a sensual feast. Our boots sink into what feels like heavenly softness thanks to the sphagnum that is so common here. Water wets the rim of our soles in the drier mossy patches, and makes for an extremely comfortable bed so long as the ground tarps beneath our tents function properly. In wetter patches, when we pause to watch birds or do a chore, we sink imperceptibly into the sphagnum, which creates one of the more amusing aspects of camp life this year—the “tundra swim.” Not realizing that my feet have sunk while stationary, turning to go all of my body momentum swings—while the feet stay completely immobile. Down I go, sometimes breaking my fall with only a soaked glove and sleeve, other times grateful for the rain pants and parka that repel most of the moisture as I land flat on my butt. While on surveys in wetter plots, the guys have sometimes had water fill their waders to their knees or higher.

 

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Most of the snow was gone by the time we arrived, but patches remain in the ravines and I pack snow into plastic bags twice daily to keep our fresh foods cold. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

The weather has been dishearteningly raw and rainy, with temperatures from freezing to upper 40s and what must be 100 variations on grey. We’ve had rain every day, sometimes a light mist with periods of broken clouds and sun, other times downpours coupled with winds blowing steady around 30 and gusting over 40, yet our spirits have paradoxically lifted since arriving in camp.

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Brad and Stephen set up a tent against a backdrop of thick fog while Bob Gill secures a guy line to keep his standing in high winds. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

Why does time in the wilderness bring such a deep sense of renewal? We avoid being outdoors in the kind of cold, wet, raw weather that has dominated these surveys, yet once we are out, spirits lift. Why is that?

Each of us finds our own sources of deep communion outdoors, yet I suspect there are many common elements, and many of those take their meaning at least in part by juxtaposition. Being so remote that there literally are no other human sounds or activity causes something in me to release. We spend so much time in the world of human things and social striving that the simplicity of living close to the elements feels deeply nourishing. That for at least a few short weeks of the year my work is to be fully present and attend to the basics—food, water, shelter—and I get to let everything else go—feels renewing. This is possible in part, of course, because of all the comforts and conveniences we bring. I remain aware that if I actually had to survive (hunt food, build a cabin, clear 5 acres of forest, prepare for winter), it would be a far different experience.

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

The beauty of our wilderness camp lifts all of our spirits. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

We think we can’t live without hot showers, cars and toaster ovens, TV, internet, and phone. We can. I love my “chef’s kitchen” but there is a balance problem. To the extent that I show up with the vibrant foods and tools that life at home in Vermont makes available, cooking can be just as much of a renewal, a meditation, a communion with the simple elements of life that I experience here in the Alaskan wilderness. But these wonderful conveniences and gadgets tend to take up too much of our life, or we use them while our minds are on other things, and then we find ourselves feeling cranky, dissatisfied, not realizing that the problem is too much, not that our email is loading too slowly (mea culpa). We take in too much food, stimulation, and human interaction, making it hard to appreciate all manner of slow things. We control our indoor weather too tightly, making it difficult to enjoy real weather with its glorious balance and diversity. And we devote too little time to physical exertion, too little time just watching, listening, and sensing, too little time for just being in the world as it is, being with each other with full attention.

 

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

Sandhill Crane forage daily in the wetlands along Boot Lake, and make a rasping squawk of a call while flying over at all hours of the day. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

I find that when I show up fully it’s easier to see and admire the goodness in others, whatever our differences of lifestyle, upbringing, politics, and preferences. Being in camp supports the possibility of seeing each other more deeply, and relating more directly and simply as well, though this does not come automatically with being in the wilderness. Attitude is key, and a life or death factor in survival situations, as early polar expeditions have documented. When we are too competitive, or complaining, or controlling, we make life exponentially more miserable than wretched weather and winds, and this is true in the office and home. Having shown up mentally as well as physically, the challenges of the weather and work temper my spirit, deepen my capacity for renewal, appreciation of beauty, and joy, and help me remember to be more fully the kind of person I aspire to be.