Coats Island Crew Captures First Geolocator
Posted on: June 23, 2014
Author: Shiloh Schulte
On Saturday afternoon, June 14, we finally touched down on the gravel esker that serves as the Coats Island airstrip. Impatient to find our birds, we quickly settled into camp and went out in the field with Scott, Sarah, and Karissa — the Canadian Wildlife Service crew already on site. The first Semipalmated Sandpiper we saw was a returning bird from last year’s research expedition, and he was carrying a geolocator. So was the second one we saw moments later. This was a really good sign.
However, our initial burst of good fortune did not continue. Our difficulty finding the remaining tagged birds incentivized us to recapture the birds known to be carrying geolocators. We initially tried using a mist net, but the persistent strong north wind made the net too obvious to the keen-eyed shorebirds. With our standard capture method out of play, we started to watch the behavior of each of our banded birds.
Without trees to perch in, Semipalmated Sandpipers and many other tundra-nesting birds engage in long aerial displays to declare their territory and search for a mate. We noticed that one of our birds kept returning to the same mound after his display flights. Taking stock of our available resources, we decided to wait until he was up displaying and then hide a small bow net and smartphone on his favorite mossy hummock. We played the aerial call of a Semipalmated Sandpiper on the smartphone and let the “rrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrr” call drift up to the ears of the flying male. His response was immediate, and he circled in over our trap within seconds.
The confused male circled his display mound several times looking for the invisible opponent. He could hear a display call but could not see the rival sandpiper calling. The mud boils, the sedge and grass hummocks, the interlaced patches of tiny willows and open shallow water, created what might be considered a perfect foraging habitat for future broods of sandpiper chicks and the male sandpiper was highly agitated at the idea of an intruder. He landed almost on top of the phone in his attempt to defend his territory.
The sandpiper stared at the bright blue phone, turning his head trying to understand the source, then turned and ran to the top of the mound. As his head came up over the rise we tripped the trap and seconds later our first geolocator was in hand!
In a few weeks we will process this tag and any other geolocators we recover. This single recovered tag will give a valuable clue to the migration path and wintering area for Semipalmated Sandpipers that come from Coats Island. Hopefully more tags will follow and we can build a more complete picture. Recent counts during the fall and winter indicate a troubling decline in the eastern population of this species. Our collective effort to understand if this apparent decline is real and launch strategic conservation actions will become much more effective if we can discover the species’ specific migration pathways and important wintering sites.
Canadian Associates at the Coats Island Camp:
Sarah Neima was raised in Charlottetown, PEI, on the east coast of Canada. While attending Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Sarah was introduced to birds by Professor Diana Hamilton during a field season working with Semipalmated Sandpipers at the bird’s major fall staging site on the Bay of Fundy. Now pursuing her Master’s Degree, Sarah is on Coats Island with us this year looking at Semipalmated Sandpiper migration ecology as the birds disperse from their arctic nesting grounds. Sarah’s major excitement early in this field season was finding one of the birds she banded in August last year at the Bay of Fundy.
Karissa Reischke is on Coats Island as part of her Master’s degree studies to measure the impact of Snow and Ross’s Geese on tundra vegetation and to see how local degredations might influence shorebird nesting success. Her work is under the guidance of her advisor Mark Mallory at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. This is Karissa’s first time in the Arctic, and she is fascinated with the landscape and the survival strategies of the arctic wildlife she has encountered.
Scott Flemming was born in Brisbane, Australia, but was raised primarily in Edmonton, Canada. As an undergraduate Scott attended the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, where he developed his already keen interest in ornithology. For his Master’s he studied the diet of penguins in New Zealand. He is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Trent University, where he is supervised by Dr. Erica Nol and Dr. Paul Smith. His project is looking at the effects of overabundant goose populations on arctic nesting shorebird species on Coats and Southampton Islands. Scott is looking forward to seeing footage from his nest cameras, which we think have already captured Caribou, Arctic Foxes, and field biologists.