Preparing to deploy a camp for field research is a big job in any location; working in the Arctic by helicopter makes the logistics especially challenging. On the one hand, conditions in the Arctic and working by helicopter require more gear to handle the weather conditions and prepare for emergencies. On the other, the cost of getting everything needed to such remote locations is daunting so we try to keep it to a minimum.
Metta just loaded up the helicopter with the pilot for the first flight into camp.
Every year we go through all our gear and supplies in the warehouse to determine what is good to go, what needs repair, and what needs replacing or to be purchased new for the specific projects each year. Fortunately, after nearly 20 years of running field camps in the Arctic, we have our prep down to a science as well. My gear spreadsheet has 5 tabs with 464 lines covering camp and crew gear, and banding and office supplies. That doesn’t include the food and the other shopping list, which is 274 lines. In addition, we have to pack carefully, labeling contents so we can find essential items for putting up camp when we arrive, as well as designating hazmat items that have to be separated in different ways for commercial truck and air, bush plane, and helicopter transport.
Metta oversees the loading of packed gear from the warehouse. Thanks to Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, the importance of checklists is better understood than when we started nearly 20 years ago!
This year Ethan Beal-Brown (Stephen’s son) and I devoted most of May to working out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service warehouse in Anchorage preparing for our camp on the Kataturik River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After a couple of weeks of testing gear, staging what is needed, and shopping, the packing begins.
Shelves of gear in the warehouse.
We spend weeks among the dusty shelves of the Anchorage warehouse, seen from high on a ladder in this cavernous, unheated space.
Ethan wraps breakable items in bubble wrap prior to packing.
Food items then get packed in bear-proof barrels.
Once everything is packed, we load pallets for shipping by truck to the north slope. This year we had 3 pallets including an Arctic Oven work tent, a large cook tent, 5 bear barrels with food, camp kitchen gear, helicopter helmets, flight suits and emergency gear, and other essentials.
Packed gear gets carefully loaded onto pallets then shrink wrapped.
A trucking company loads our pallets for shipment to Prudhoe Bay.
Days are always long working on these projects, with early mornings often spent at the computer, days in the warehouse, and evenings catching up on emails, revising lists, and preparing meals. With people working long hard days under tough conditions in camp, I plan a good dinner every night and tuck away special treats to pull out later in the project. This year with 6 in camp (5 of us and our helicopter pilot) for most of June we planned 144 breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners in camp, plus several days of travel and transit for a smaller group.
This year I also prepared two homemade meals to freeze and bring to camp while staying at the home of our colleague River Gates who many of you may remember as the ornithologist who coordinated Manomet’s Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network from 2010-2014, and who ran the camp at Cape Krusenstern in the NW Alaskan Arctic. River and her husband Bert Lewis, together with their sons Simon (5) and Logan (1) have provided us with the most wonderful lodging and hospitality for the past several years at their home in the hills of south Anchorage.
Metta prepares a curry for camp while River introduces her son Logan to our shared love of culinary pleasures.
The final days of preparation are dominated by tracking down hard to find items, and packing gear we bring by a FWS truck, including most of the fresh food items, propane tanks, a generator and gas cans, 3-30 gallon AV gas containers for the helicopter, as well as our personal gear. All told this year our shipment was 1400 lbs., with another almost 1000 lbs. in the truck, not including the 630 lbs. of AV gas when we fill those containers at an airstrip close to camp. Not so great with respect to keeping it minimal!
Ethan ties off the AV gas and propane containers for the long drive up the haul road.
Ethan and Metta celebrate the end of the warehouse work with a selfie in front of some other program’s fleet of ATVs. Do you think they’d miss one?
Ethan and Metta in the truck ready to leave River’s house for the epic 866-mile, 20-hour road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks then up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.
In addition to all the work, we try to find a little time to enjoy the incredible opportunities for outdoor adventure that Alaska provides. This year Ethan and I managed two-day trips, first a boat trip from Seward for a Kenai Fjords wildlife tour, the other a spectacular day hike in Chugach State Park right from Anchorage. A big part of what motivates my work in this project is our deep understanding of the importance of wild places and protecting the needs of all the other beings with whom we share this planet. We hope you get a moment of respite and renewal from these photos that capture some of the ineffable and essential soul-nourishing qualities that being in the wilderness provides.
Metta hiking with River’s dog Ruby in a high bowl between peaks of the Chugach mountains on a 10-mile hike with Ethan.
Having hiked up into that high bowl, we faced this daunting extremely steep scree slope on the other side.
Navigating scree is always tricky; here Metta carefully and slowly makes her way down.
Ethan and Metta enjoy the spectacular scenery of Kenai Fjords National Park.
This Black-legged Kittiwake colony was one of many spectacular wildlife sightings. Others included humpback whale, Stellar’s sea lions, sea otter, puffin, murre, and a Black Oystercatcher.
Evening light after a rainstorm north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shiloh Schulte
Each spring since 2002 Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program has run research expeditions in the Arctic, but rarely have our plans been as ambitious as this year with 3 projects underway in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Our first project is to conduct a population survey of shorebirds in the entire 1002 Area by helicopter. This is the long-disputed area along the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge that was opened to oil and gas exploration and potential development this past year. Passage of the legislation that opened this area means that environmental reviews of potential impacts are beginning. When we started our work in the Arctic Refuge in 2002 we knew good data would be essential to an environmental review process that we thought would likely come some day. With that day now here, we’ll be working closely with our partners to gather important updated baseline data on shorebirds and be able to compare it with our earlier data to document trends and designate the most important sites for breeding shorebirds before any oil and gas exploration occurs.
We will be setting up a camp in a new location as the base for our operations for the PRISM surveys, at the Katakturik River. Later in the season, Shiloh will rejoin the USFWS camp at the Canning River, where he has been collaborating on tracking studies for the past several years. The large river on the west is the Canning, which is the western boundary of the Arctic Refuge. At the eastern side of the image, Demarcation Bay marks the other end of the Arctic Refuge, at the border with Canada. Our PRISM study will cover the entire area north of the Brooks Range between these two borders of the Refuge.
Our surveys in the Arctic Refuge are part of a project we helped initiate in 2000 called PRISM (the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring). The goal of PRISM is to systematically survey shorebird habitats across the entire North American Arctic every 20 years to measure population status and trend. Our upcoming expedition will measure shorebird population change, determine population trends, and enable us to better understand the current status of shorebirds in this important area. Shorebirds are the most populous and among the most threatened groups of birds in this part of Alaska. Data from high-quality habitat surveys prior to development will aid our efforts to ensure that any impacts from impending development include mitigation to replace lost habitat functions that may result from future industrial development.
This year we will be adding Red Phalaropes like this one, and American Golden Plovers, to the group of species we are tracking following the nesting season. Photo by Ian Davies.
Having even one project in the Arctic is a huge job, but given the urgency of impending oil and gas development, we added a new project this season as well, expanding our work to measure nest success across the entire 1002 Area, which has never been attempted on this scale before. Past measurements of nest success have been done by finding nests within walking distance of a camp, and the results have been extrapolated over large areas because the logistics of gathering more data have been too expensive. However, faced with the need to document potential impacts of oil development, we have worked hard with our partners and supporters to raise the funds for additional helicopter time this year to gather more precise data for nesting success.
Our data on migratory paths for species like this American Golden-Plover will help to identify critical sites they use to prepare for southbound migration. Photo by Ian Davies.
We know that predator populations often increase with development because of human impacts like additional food sources and increased denning areas for foxes, and we know from our previous research that increased predator populations will reduce nesting success. We will be using cutting edge nest temperature trackers—tiny devices that measure the temperature in a nest and can tell if it is destroyed by a predator—along with cameras to identify predators, to monitor nests across a large section of the most important shorebird breeding habitat in the 1002 Area of the Arctic Refuge. Our work will establish baselines for nest success prior to any future industrial development, and document current natural conditions for nest success so that potential impacts can be mitigated.
Shorebirds have a very short window to raise their young during the brief arctic summer, like this Buff-breasted Sandpiper keeping track of its chicks. Photo by Ian Davies.
Arctic foxes are also raising their young during the shorebird nesting season, and foxes often prey on shorebird eggs and chicks. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.
Our third project continues our work using cutting edge tracking technology to learn more about habitats that are critical for shorebirds after the nesting season, as they prepare for their long southbound migrations. In past years we have focused on deploying trackers on Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers; this year we will be adding American Golden-Plovers and Red Phalaropes.
We are very grateful to our partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and our supporters including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and individual donors to Manomet’s shorebird program, who make this work possible.
“The workshop was one of the best I ever attended. I was very impressed with the vast knowledge that Manomet and BirdsCaribbean has accumulated and also the way you transfer this knowledge to workshop participants. It was very valuable for me and allowed me to deal with some conservation hurdles I am facing especially regarding how important water level management is for the birds.” – Binkie van Es with the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation shares his impression of the Conserving Caribbean Shorebirds and Their Habitats International Training Workshop hosted by Manomet and BirdsCaribbean in partnership with local NGO Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI).
The workshop took place at the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico from February 11 – 15, 2019. This area was a perfect backdrop for the workshop; the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats are a site of Regional Importance within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The salt flats, nearby beaches, and freshwater wetlands provided a perfect place to review and emphasize the lessons developed and shared by BirdsCaribbean and Manomet’s Habitats for Shorebirds Project to help local leaders protect shorebirds in the Caribbean.
Great Egrets (Ardea alba) alight in the freshwater wetlands of Laguna Cartagena (Lisa Sorenson)
Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)make their way through the shallow waters of Salina Fortuna (Brad Winn)
The group of 33 Caribbean conservationists in attendance learned about how different threats affect not only shorebirds and waterbirds, but also the places where they live and work. Participants also learned how to monitor birds which collects important information that helps track species populations regionally and internationally. They also learned strategies for conducting conservation activities and improving habitat management. All of this led to a deeper understanding of the birds’ ecology and conservation needs.
“We were thrilled to work with this enthusiastic group of conservationists this week,” said Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “They have all have pledged to use what they learned to help study and protect threatened shorebirds in their home countries.”
The group of students, wildlife managers, and educators from both the government and the non-profit sectors came from 14 island nations: Antigua, the Bahamas, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands. Over five days, they shared ideas, compared experiences, visited wetland and coastal habitats, and learned about two critical monitoring programs, the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) and Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC).
Ajhermae White, Machel Sulton, and Natalya Lawrence work on bird identification at Combate Beach (Monica Iglecia)
Nahira Arocho shares the invertebrates collected from the wetland at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)
Through 30 hours of classroom time, six field trips to local wetlands and beaches, and group dinners, participants were fully immersed in the course content while also strengthening existing friendships and identifying new potential collaborations. The field trips around Cabo Rojo offered students the opportunity to identify birds and to practice estimating the number of birds in a flock. “The workshop was amazing!” said Zoya Buckmire of the Grenada Fund for Conservation. “We went to a variety of wetland habitats from salt ponds to lakes. We got to see many different birds and learned some fantastic techniques for identifying and counting them.”
A Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus )surfs a cattail at Laguna Cartagena (Monica Iglecia)
A Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) validates its name on the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge (Brad Winn);
A Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) keeps an eye on approaching onlookers at Combate Beach (Brad Winn)
A significant threat to shorebirds across the hemisphere and especially in the Caribbean is plastic pollution. The theme of World Migratory Bird Day 2019, Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution, reflects this. With a growing awareness of the harmful impact of plastic across the region on both public health and the environment, the workshop group was soon busy with a cleanup at one of the field trip sites, collecting 50 pounds of trash. The exercise was led by Sheylda Diaz Mendez of Environment for the Americas (EFTA) and representatives from the Scuba Dogs Society. This was an excellent hands-on exercise for participants to learn about the management and organization of a cleanup Plus, the beach benefitted from the removal of a large amount of plastic waste.
Adrianne Tossas, Nahira Arocho, Luis Ramos, Sheylda Diaz-Mendez, and Jeanette Victor conduct a beach clean-up at Bahia Sucia (Monica Iglecia)
Bottle caps are one of the top ten plastic items found on beaches (Monica Iglecia)
The workshop group in the field with their collected trash after the beach-clean up exercise.
“There are many threats to shorebirds throughout the year, but by working locally at sites in the Caribbean and beyond, we can support the conservation of their great migrations. This workshop is the start of great things ahead,” commented Monica Iglecia, Assistant Director of Shorebird Habitat Management, Manomet.
A group works on bird identification in the field (Monica Iglecia)
Natalya Lawrence, Machel Sulton, Shanna Challenger, and Lisa Sorenson in the field (Monica Iglecia)
While the first three days focused on bird identification, ecology, and collecting and exploring data, the final two days turned to conservation solutions. After sharing the challenges they face in their countries, many of which are similar, trainees and their facilitators shared ideas and strategies for reducing threats. In the coming days, participants will have the opportunity to apply for funding from BirdsCaribbean to carry out conservation activities. They will receive support for their efforts from both Manomet and BirdsCaribbean.
Most Caribbean people live on or near the coast, but many do not know about the resident and migratory birds that inhabit their seashores and wetlands. One of these was participant Reneive Rhoden, from Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency. “I grew up on the seaside and I didn’t know anything about shorebirds – and now I know a lot! I can now teach my kids, children in school, and Jamaicans that I work with in my job.” said Reneive.
The participants came away with plans to share their newfound knowledge with colleagues and new tools to help them in their efforts. “Thank you so much for always providing opportunities for conservationists in the Caribbean like myself,” wrote Laura Baboolal from Trinidad. She aims to start a shorebird monitoring program for Trinidadian wetlands. All participants also received new Vortex binoculars and ten organizations received a new Vortex spotting scope and tripod – “must-have” equipment for monitoring programs and ensuring proper identification. The group also received field guides and other resources for bird identification and data collection.
We are very grateful to the following generous sponsors and partners for contributing to this workshop including Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña; US Fish and Wildlife Service (Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund); US Forest Service International Programs; Environment Canada; The BAND Foundation, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, Para La Naturaleza; Optics for the Tropics, Inc.; Environment for the Americas; Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, and Vortex Optics.
Heading back from the field after a long, educational day (Monica Iglecia)