Flight Feathers

When we arrived on the Yukon River Delta in mid-May, some of the shorebirds were just arriving too.  We would find areas on our survey plots that had small flocks of feeding shorebirds instead of one or two defending pairs.  We saw flocks of Pectoral Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Red-necked Phalarope at particularly good feeding sites.  Many of these birds would be moving on to other Alaskan breeding sites, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or Seward Peninsula, while others seemed to be establishing themselves as residents, and were testing vocal capacity and partial flight displays as growing signs of territorial aggression.

 

A Red-necked Phalarope male makes a delicate fluttering but failing attempt to copulate with a very grumpy mate.  These diminutive shorebirds spend the majority of the year out in the Pacific Ocean, floating on the high seas eating tiny marine life brought to the surface in upwelling currents.

A Red-necked Phalarope male makes a delicate fluttering but failing attempt to copulate with a very grumpy mate. These diminutive shorebirds spend the majority of the year out in the Pacific Ocean, floating on the high seas eating tiny marine life brought to the surface in upwelling currents.

 

These new arrivals had come from winter sites on both sides of the Pacific, the western Atlantic, Caribbean, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.  As an example, Red-necked Phalarope likely spent the winter at sea in tropical ocean waters off of the Pacific coast of South America.  As the days have passed, we have the sense that migrants have moved on and the residents are now getting down to business.

 

This male Pectoral Sandpiper, newly arrived in crisp plumage from the grasslands of Argentina, is making himself visible by perching above the grass on a piece of driftwood. His black chest feathers are covering a large air sac he inflates to make one of the most distinct sounds on the tundra, the wooooom wooooom woooooom booming of his courtship flight.

This male Pectoral Sandpiper, newly arrived in crisp plumage from the grasslands of Argentina, is making himself visible by perching above the grass on a piece of driftwood. His black chest feathers are covering a large air sac he inflates to make one of the most distinct sounds on the tundra, the “wooooom wooooom woooooom” booming of his courtship flight.

 

The shorebirds we are counting are no longer using their wings to propel them on hemispheric journeys, but are using them to secure a territory, a mate, and to produce a four-egg nest.  The strong outer flight feathers on their wings that cut through the air on night-and-day flights, flapping millions of strokes during migration to get them here, now come into play during a very intense period of courtship, territorial battles, defense, and fleeing.  This is the period of great activity. The shorebirds are in motion in somewhat of a tundra dance—all in the very serious game of reproduction.  This is the brief period when we, as observers, can try to understand how many of each species we have on our randomly selected 40 acre plots.  Once the birds have a full clutch of eggs, the tundra starts to get quiet again, as incubation begins and embryos develop.

 

The buzzy flight display of a Semipalmated Sandpiper establishing his area of grass and wetland on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Primary flight feathers seem to glow in the morning sun.

The buzzy flight display of a Semipalmated Sandpiper establishing his area of grass and wetland on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Primary flight feathers seem to glow in the morning sun.

 

Ironically, the outermost ten feathers known as “primary flight” feathers that are so important during migration and now the breeding season, were grown on migration stopover periods the preceding year.  The nutrients of these feathers came from foods that these birds ate on the mudflats thousands of miles from the breeding grounds.  To grow these strong feathers takes a tremendous amount of food, usually in the form of invertebrate animals, pulled from soft mud or intertidal sands of a low tide beach.

 

Bar-tailed Godwit males, locked in a territorial chase on wings built for speed, have come from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.  The outer ten “flight” feathers are well defined on the birds in this photograph. Bob Gill, a member of our survey team, was instrumental in discovering that Bar-tails leave Alaska in late summer after breeding and what seems like an impossibility, fly non-stop for nine days to New Zealand.  Bob observed a bird last week on the Yukon Delta that had been banded in Queensland.

Bar-tailed Godwit males, locked in a territorial chase on wings built for speed, have come from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. The outer ten “flight” feathers are well defined on the birds in this photograph. Bob Gill, a member of our survey team, was instrumental in discovering that Bar-tails leave Alaska in late summer after breeding and what seems like an impossibility, fly non-stop for nine days to New Zealand. Bob observed a bird last week on the Yukon Delta that had been banded in Queensland.

 

The fact that the flight capability of these shorebirds is dependent upon finding available, reliable, high quality and abundant food sources in distant places emphasizes the need for cooperative international conservation efforts.  The Yukon Delta shorebirds are carrying proteins in their feathers from coastal beaches, freshwater wetlands, and interior grasslands in places as diverse and distant as South Carolina, Hawaii, Australia, China, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina.

 

These Long-billed Dowitchers will soon be on eggs, their ornate plumage blending with grass to make them almost completely invisible to predators.  This pair could have spent the winter in the coastal lagoons of Texas or Louisiana.

These Long-billed Dowitchers will soon be on eggs, their ornate plumage blending with grass to make them almost completely invisible to predators. This pair could have spent the winter in the coastal lagoons of Texas or Louisiana.

 

These wing feathers, grown from nutrients in distant wetlands, have not only transported the shorebird thousands of miles and been critical in securing a nesting site and territory, but they will also aid in incubating the eggs and forming a hard outer surface to protect the soft downy feathering under the incubating adult birds from rain.  Once the eggs hatch, the young chicks rely on the adults for periodic warmth as they begin to forage on the abundant insects hatching from the tundra pools.  The adult’s wing feathers act as shelter and containment for the chicks as they regain lost heat and ready themselves for another bout of insect hunting.

 

The hardy Rock Sandpiper is one of the shorebirds on our plots with the shortest migrations, spending the winter on the southern coast of Alaska down through the Canadian coast to Washington and Oregon. These tough little birds frequently flash the white underside of their wings to announce themselves to neighbors and potential mates.

The hardy Rock Sandpiper is one of the shorebirds on our plots with the shortest migrations, spending the winter on the southern coast of Alaska down through the Canadian coast to Washington and Oregon. These tough little birds frequently flash the white underside of their wings to announce themselves to neighbors and potential mates.

 

Almost constantly in motion and exposed to strong sunlight radiation during this period of intense activity, flight feathers will wear down during the breeding season, becoming visibly frayed and pale in color as the weeks go by.  When the shorebirds depart again in late July and August to begin their southbound journey, the feather cycle will begin again at strategic staging sites where the birds will seek and find the nutrients they need to molt the old, and grow new flight feathers that will last a year.

 

A male Whimbrel, still fat from pre-migration feasting, patrols his prime territory near St. Mary’s on the Yukon River.

A male Whimbrel, still fat from pre-migration feasting, patrols his prime territory near St. Mary’s on the Yukon River.

 

Our survey team is privileged to witness this shorebird scene on the immense wetlands of the Yukon, one of North America’s largest rivers, and the complex delta system between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.  We will continue to work at full capacity to ensure the conservation mechanisms are in place to provide the habitats these birds need throughout their migration cycles.

Birds Abound

With several days of surveys completed, we are seeing first-hand the diversity and abundance of shorebirds and the range of habitats in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Bob saw this very cute mink while standing near its home during one of his surveys. Photo by Bob Gill.

Bob saw this very cute mink during one of his surveys. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

By far the highest densities of shorebirds are along the coast, which is consistent with previous smaller studies conducted by our colleagues Brian McCaffrey, Bob Gill, and others. Where our crew is working, the coastal area in the far north near the tiny native village of Kotlik and along the coast between the villages of Emmonak and Scammon Bay, has been literally hopping with shorebirds and waterfowl. We expect that the coastal crew will observe the highest densities of shorebirds when they start working later this week by boat and float plane in the central coastal region that comprises the delta between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

 

Emperor Geese are a Beringian endemic species that only occurs in Alaska and Chukotka in Russia, so it’s a special treat to see them on our plots near the coast.  Photo by Bob Gill.

Emperor Geese are a Beringian endemic species that only occurs in Alaska and Chukotka in Russia, so it’s a special treat to see them on our plots near the coast. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

What does a rapid surveyor see in a high density region? Thus far, on a 40 acre plot in an hour and a half, our data shows as many as 77 individuals, of which as many as 22 nesting pairs appear to be using that plot. From PRISM surveys over the past couple of decades, we know that on a species rich plot the surveyor will, on average, observe about 80% of the birds that are actually nesting on that plot. So we know that these regions are probably even more productive for shorebirds than they appear from our raw counts.

 

Our camp site is also surrounded by nesting birds. Here is a Western Sandpiper nest nearby. Photo by Metta McGarvey

Our camp site is also surrounded by nesting birds. Here is a Western Sandpiper nest nearby. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

On one plot that was primarily foraging rather than nesting habitat, Brad Winn observed 95 birds feeding—61 Pectoral Sandpipers, 21 Long-billed Dowitchers, 11 Red-necked Phalaropes, and two Dunlin.  On another plot, Bob observed 14 pairs of Dunlins!

 

There is a Western Sandpiper nesting between Bob and Stan’s tents, so we marked the location to avoid disturbing its nest.  Here the bird checks us out during our daily routine of getting ready to depart for surveys.

There is a Western Sandpiper nesting between Bob and Stan’s tents, so we marked the location to avoid disturbing its nest. Here the bird checks us out during our daily routine of getting ready to depart for surveys. Photo by Stephen Brown

 

One of the greatest joys of being on the tundra is the opportunity to observe the breeding behaviors of these species. Male Western Sandpipers, like their cousins Semipalmated Sandpipers, fly incredibly tight aerial displays side by side as they establish the boundaries of their territories. This behavior is one of the best clues we can use to determine if there are pairs of Westerns nesting on that plot, along with the characteristic buzzy calls made over the territories. Another clue is when we flush a bird off a nest and she does a “mouse crawl” where she squeaks and fluffs up her feathers while hunkering close to the ground and trying to lure us away from the nest. On one occasion, we saw a Black-bellied Plover defend its territory by mobbing a Glaucous Gull—she hastily departed under the barrage.

 

We had a lovely view of Kuzilvak mountain under the midnight sun just before bed one evening. Photo by Metta McGarvey

We had a lovely view of Kuzilvak mountain under the midnight sun just before bed one evening. Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

For those of you who enjoy lists, here are the 21 species of shorebirds that our crew has documented on their plots so far: Black and Ruddy Turnstone; Rock Sandpiper; Western, Least, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpiper; Hudsonian and Bar-tailed Godwit; Whimbrel; Pacific Golden, American Golden, and Black-bellied Plover; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Wilson’s Snipe; Red and Red-necked Phalarope; Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher; and Dunlin. In addition, we’ve seen a couple of Bristle-thighed Curlew from the helicopter in the upland regions of the refuge where Bob Gill and Brad Winn have both done surveys in the past.

We have seen several species of shorebirds eating windblown insects off the ice, like these Red and Red-necked Phalaropes.  Photo by Brad Winn.

We have seen several species of shorebirds eating windblown insects off the ice, like these Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. Photo by Brad Winn.

 

We have more surveys to do yet, so check back to hear how they turn out, along with an update on what life is like in camp.

 

One morning, during a brief interlude between the almost constant windy and rainy weather, we could see the next storm fast approaching. Photo by Metta McGarvey

One morning, during a brief interlude between the almost constant windy and rainy weather, we could see the next storm fast approaching.
Photo by Metta McGarvey

 

A Day in the Life of a Rapid Surveyor

It’s 11 p.m. and I’m sitting in my tent six miles northwest of the base of Kuzilvak Mountain, which rises up like a spire over the tundra.

Our camp has a lovely view of Kuzilvak Mountain, which rises dramatically out of the tundra.

Our camp has a lovely view of Kuzilvak Mountain, which rises dramatically out of the tundra.

 

Camp is all set up, and we are preparing for the second half of our surveys on the western coast of the Yukon Delta, north of Scammon Bay. We are deeply moved by the beauty of this site and the privilege of working in so many otherwise inaccessible areas of this vast wildlife refuge. Most of our plots are only accessible by helicopter, but the birds have no trouble crossing huge distances over rough ground. It hardly seems taxing for them after their arduous journeys from their southern wintering grounds, but it’s difficult for us and all the more glorious for that reason. The vast distances, stunning beauty, and the joy of seeing such an abundance of our favorite birds more than compensates for the physical exhaustion of our relentless work pace.

 

The team getting ready to jump into the helicopter to start another day of surveying.  Left to right are: Stan Hermens our pilot, Brad Winn, Bob Gill, and Stephen Brown.

The team getting ready to jump into the helicopter to start another day of surveying. Left to right are: Stan Hermens our pilot, Brad Winn, Bob Gill, and Stephen Brown.

 

Each day starts around 6 a.m. Our morning routine includes provisioning ourselves with a normal lunch and a second lunch along with numerous snacks to fuel us through the long, cold, wet days in the field. We assemble all of the gear we need daily—if you forget something, there is no way to run back to the house to get it. We load into the helicopter, a space about the size of two kitchen chairs,  squeezing two of us in front and two of us behind them, with barely enough room for our knees. We carry maps of the three survey plots in each of the day’s four clusters.  Our design team spent months planning where to go and when and it sometimes seems surreal that it is finally happening. The plot maps are carefully sorted and prepared to match the flight plan so we can jump out of the helicopter, carrying all our gear and holding onto our hats, as Stan takes off again for the next location.

 

The helicopter is small, so we share close quarters.  Here is Brad preparing his data sheets just before getting deployed at a survey plot.

The helicopter is small, so we share close quarters. Here is Brad preparing his data sheets just before getting deployed at a survey plot.

 

We spend an hour and a half surveying each 40 acre plot, with the goal of documenting all of the shorebirds that are using each plot. A few plots are on fairly level wet ground, but most are very tough to traverse in a devious variety of ways. Some plots are extremely wet, so you sink over your knees as you struggle to walk through the deeper spots. Some have very sticky sphagnum that tugs your boots part-way off, keeping your feet stuck in place when your torso tries to move forward. Some plots are entirely new to us because they are covered with tall shrubs, mostly alder and willow, in thickets so dense that you have to spread several shrubs apart to make a spot for each step. Other plots have very uneven surfaces, called tussocks, which are mounds the size of softballs, making it hard to step on them or between them without lurching in a drunken fashion.

 

We have a new record.  We saw 269 moose in one day!  Here three moose watch with remarkably little interest as our helicopter passes overhead.

We have a new record. We saw 269 moose in one day! Here three moose watch with remarkably little interest as our helicopter passes overhead.

 

The true delight, as well as the real challenge, is sorting out what the birds are doing, but that is also the sole purpose of our adventure. We have a short time to try to ascertain how many shorebirds are on each plot and whether they are nesting or only foraging or flying over. We call this design “rapid surveys” because we get a glimpse into what is happening at each plot in a very short time. We struggle to cover the rough terrain, knowing that time is short by design and that the helicopter will be back soon to take us to the next plot. Even with a lot of time, figuring out what the birds are doing can be difficult, so doing it so fast is quite challenging.

 

 

The Yukon Delta is a dramatic landscape of rivers, tundra, and hills, and we are seeing striking panoramas like this every day as we travel from plot to plot.

The Yukon Delta is a dramatic landscape of rivers, tundra, and hills, and we are seeing striking panoramas like this every day as we travel from plot to plot.

 

Some birds, like Western Sandpipers, display over their territories, making it a little easier to sort out which birds are nesting on the plot. Others, like Pectoral Sandpipers, have appeared to be mostly moving through on their way farther north, and birds that are doing this are noted as present, but not nesting.  We do our best to document the behaviors displayed by each species, including distraction displays that indicate a nest is nearby, territorial displays or songs that indicate the bird is likely to nest in the area, and foraging or passing through which likely means the bird is nesting elsewhere. We record every bird we see, including species other than shorebirds, so that we have a record of all birds using each plot. We take notes on the habitat as well—water levels, types of vegetation, and other indicators relevant to the nesting and foraging value of each plot.  All of this requires quick thinking and writing, while trying not to stumble too often!

 

We had a lovely moment of sun after we got camp set up, but the next shower came soon thereafter.

We had a lovely moment of sun after we got camp set up, but the next shower came soon thereafter.

 

After a long 12 hours, we return to camp and get ready to do it all again. We carefully review and file our plot maps and data sheets, reorganize our gear for the next day, handle camp chores, and attend to planning many logistical details for the next few days. This fills the evening on into the night, and we feel half comatose by the time we finally crawl into our sleeping bags. After what always feels like too few hours of exhausted sleep, we are up to do it all again. It’s called a rapid survey for a reason!

 

In our next post, we will fill you in on some of the delightful species we have seen around camp and the extraordinarily lush fauna of the Yukon Delta.